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Living in the Days of Caesar

December 24, 2016, More from this speaker 更多关于此讲员: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee (Luke 2:1-12) For more of this sermon series 更多关于此讲道系列: Luke
Preached at a Combined Service service

Tags: LUKE 路加福音

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Title: Living in the Days of Caesar
Date: 24th Dec 2016
Preacher: Rev. Wong Siow Hwee

Luke 2: In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. 2 (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) 3 And everyone went to their own town to register.
4 So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. 5 He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.
8 And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people.11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

Peace be with you brothers and sisters. I wish you Merry Christmas. This is the final night of Advent before we celebrate Christmas Sunday tomorrow morning. December in Singapore is a time of vacations and Christmas gift shopping. For city-dwellers like us, the seasonal change of pace from work and school to times of fun and sharing is important. Yet as a Christian, I feel Advent adds another dimension to this time of the year. Quite a number of you came up to me to say that you found our Advent devotions on Luke very meaningful. That made me very happy. I know that these people will be well prepared for the Gospel of Luke in the coming year. For those of you who gave up halfway or didn’t even get started, it is still not too late. Spend some quiet time tonight to read through Luke chapter 1, and then the devotional booklet lovingly prepared for you. I want to thank the team of writers, translators, editors, and admin staff who were involved in this preparation process. You are preparing the people to come before God. Your work is like John the Baptist, who prepared the way of the Lord. I was at Children ministry last Sunday, and the worship team said it well, “Christmas isn’t Christmas, till it happens in your heart.” So to all of you, take some time, especially tonight, to prepare your hearts.

In this year’s advent, through the sermons, we also reflected on God’s promises to his people using the prophecies of Jeremiah. Those prophecies were spoken in the days of the Babylonian supremacy. God’s people faced the horror of divine judgment, yet through the Prophet, they were also given the hope of restoration: restoration of the land, restoration of the people, and most importantly, restoration of relationship with God. They faced dark times, yet they could truly hope and wait, for they were counting on the promises of God. And that’s the reason why we need to retell these stories during this Advent. For us, Christmas comes yearly and comfortably. It’s easy to take it for granted. But I hope the stories in Jeremiah remind us of the long and painful wait on the promises of God. I hope for us to know what it means to yearn for restoration. I want us to feel the longing. And very often, it feels like a wait in vain. Since those days of Jeremiah, they had waited. After the days of the Babylonians were over, they experienced the days of the Persians. Then came the days of the Greeks. Then came the days of the Romans. The waiting time stretched on and on. The empire from one era to the next continued to expand. The world as they knew became bigger and bigger. But it was never their world. After more than 500 years, it became a Roman world. And that’s the context of the Christmas story. Luke reminded us. These were the days of Caesar Augustus. The long wait for restoration continues.

And nothing states this fact of foreign control as blatantly as a census. When I was younger, the Christmas story was a cozy heartwarming tale of sweet baby Jesus placed in a manger. But now that I’m older, I began to notice the significant details. Caesar Augustus was taking a census of his world! Yes, make no mistake; Caesar Augustus was taking a measure of his world. He wanted to count his people. These were the days where a census was something with immense political overtones. A census was done either for the purpose of taxation or military service. For Augustus however, it could even mean “securing from the populace oaths of allegiance to the Roman leadership” .<1> Let me give you a little example. There was a guy mentioned in Acts 5:37 called Judas of Galilee. He “was a Jewish leader who led resistance to the census around 6 AD. He encouraged Jews not to register and those that did had their houses burnt and their cattle stolen by his followers.”<2> It was a rebellion that eventually fomented into a war. That’s how contentious a census was. When you registered, it meant that you belonged to the Roman Empire. You had to pay your taxes to build for Rome. And you might even be drafted to fight for Rome. So if you want to carry out a census, then you had better be ready for a revolt.

If a census was so contentious, then why did Augustus do it? Very simple, he did it because he could. He did it because he knew he ruled the world. Julius Caesar might have been the one who conquered the world. But Augustus, his grandnephew and adopted son, was the one who consolidated it. He was originally called Octavian. “On 27 BC the Senate gave Octavian the new title of Augustus. Augustus is from the Latin word Augere (meaning to increase) and can be translated as "the illustrious one". It was a title of religious authority rather than political authority. According to Roman religious beliefs, the title symbolized a stamp of authority over humanity—and in fact nature. The reign of Augustus initiated an era of relative peace known as the Pax Romana (The Roman Peace).”<3> After 3 decades without large scale wars or political opponents, his empire was secure. He could afford to do the census, and was confident of withstanding any rebellion. He could count his people, and that was the reality: no matter how unwilling they were, he owned them. They had to pledge their allegiance, pay their taxes and fight his wars.

In the world belonging to Caesar Augustus, you have the character Joseph. He was summoned back to his hometown to be registered just like everyone else. And he did as he was ordered, just like everyone else. There is a Chinese saying, when you are under the roof, you have to lower your head (人在屋檐下,不得不低头). He did as he was told, a long journey from Nazareth of Galilee to Bethlehem of Judea. He did as he was told, because like it or not, he was a part of the Roman Empire. And Mary had to follow him because she was pledged to be married to him. And Jesus had to be a part of this journey because he was in her womb. And because they were from out of town, they had to make do with whatever was available. A manger is typically for putting food for animals to eat and drink. A manger became a makeshift crib when Jesus was born. The manger-crib was the epitome of accommodation. It was far from ideal. It’s not something new parents go looking for in Kiddy Palace. We have quite a few babies in Jubilee these couple of years. Are there any young parents thinking “I want to look for a used manger as a crib for my newborn, so my child will be like Jesus”? You have to look for one at the Turf club. The manger-crib would not have happened if Joseph were at home in Nazareth. He was a carpenter! It would be a custom-made crib. But they were forced to go to Bethlehem. And Joseph and Mary accommodated, placing Jesus in a manger-crib. When you are under the roof, you have to lower your head. This accommodation is of great theological significance.

Since November last month, the pastoral team has begun to prepare for the Lent devotions next year. This is how serious we are about its importance. The devotions would be based on Isaiah 56-66. In the passages I was preparing, I was struck by how passionately the Prophet Isaiah was appealing to God. He asked God to really tear apart the heavens to just look at his people (Isaiah 64:1,7). In their suffering, he felt God was deliberately not showing his face. It was like he was hiding from them. In our Sunday morning prayer last week, we read Psalm 80. The psalmist was crying to God: Awaken your might; come and save us. Restore us, O God; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved (Ps 80:2,3). So when we are talking about the longing of the people, this is what it means. All they want is for God to remember them, and to just look at them. They know that the merciful and compassionate God will forgive and restore them, if only he would look at them.

Brothers and sisters, this is the good news, the Gospel. God remembered his people. In Mary’s song, she said “for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. (Luke 1:48) God also looked at his people. In Zechariah’s song, he said, “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them.” (Luke 1:68) But far beyond that, in the humanity of Jesus, he had accommodated himself for his people. He immersed himself into our world. Living in the world of Caesar Augustus, and laying in a manger. That’s the theological significance. If you want proof that God is love, that’s the proof right there. How is this possible? Can the God Almighty come under our roof? Can God of the highest lower his head? Even Solomon wondered as he built his temple: “But will God really dwell on earth? The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain you. How much less this temple I have built!” (1 Kings 8:27) But the Gospel proclaims, there’s your proof: a baby in a manger with parents registered in the Roman world. In the Census, Jesus became a member of Caesar Augustus’ world.

If that is the case, that even God accommodated for his people, how will his salvation unfold? That’s a story we will continue to tell until the end of Acts. But for now we have the declaration of the angel to the shepherds: Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. (Luke 2:11) This baby Jesus has 3 titles: Savior, Messiah (which means anointed), and Lord. These 3 royal titles were all given to Caesar Augustus. He had brought peace to the Roman empire. As the name Augustus suggested, he was honoured above all. He rightly presumed that everything belonged to him. At the registration of the Census, baby Jesus belonged to Mary, who belonged to Joseph, who belonged to the Roman Empire. But in our passage tonight, Luke subtly hinted to us, that besides the human dimension, there is also the divine dimension. He said, “So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. (v.4)” That was Joseph’s true belonging. Joseph belonged to the house and line of David, and David belonged to God. In the declaration of the Angel, we are reminded again: Jesus is born in the town of David. That is a timely reminder of his true divine belonging. Caesar Augustus may have had all the honor bestowed to him by Man, but the titles of Jesus were bestowed to him by God. Jesus is the true Savior, the true Messiah, the true Lord. The peace of Rome shall dissipate with time. But the peace from God will last till eternity. Based on human reality, Jesus belonged to Caesar Augustus. But in divine reality, he belonged to God. And that’s how the story unfolds: In verse 21: On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise the child, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he was conceived. The naming and the circumcision tell us: this child is the Savior that comes from God and belongs to God.

As we come to the end of 2016, I’m mindful of the struggles we faced this year. It feels like we are living in the times of powerful men, just like it was in the ancient biblical days. Take Aleppo for example, a city of millions flattened into ruins by the Russian bombs. I can barely look at the pictures or videos, faces of women and children full of ashes. They live in the times of Putin. Or the millions of marginalized people in America, such as the immigrants or those who need medical insurance. They are fearful of the impending days of Trump. We are counted as fortunate in Singapore, but we know we cannot shelter ourselves from the ripples and waves that come from the superpowers. I guess my point is this: we may feel powerless living in the world of the powerful. We are forced to pledge allegiance to whoever is in charge. Just like the people of God living in the world of Caesar Augustus.

But in the Gospel, I take comfort in the God who loves us so much, he bent over backwards to come into our lives of struggles. I do not know when the day of deliverance will come for each person with their own difficulties. Very often it is a long and painful wait on the Lord. But it is comforting to know that this world does not belong to the powerful. This is my heavenly Father’s world. In his due time, he saves his people. You belong to God. And that’s what really matters.

<1>Joel Green, The Gospel of Luke (NICNT), p 123
<2> https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Judas_of_Galilee
<3> https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Augustus

Luke 2:1–12 (Listen)

2:1 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration when Quirinius was governor of Syria. And all went to be registered, each to his own town. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the town of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David, to be registered with Mary, his betrothed, who was with child. And while they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.

And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. 10 And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. 11 For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. 12 And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”

(ESV)