“And it came to pass in those days that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. This census first took place while Quirinius was governing Syria. So all went to be registered, everyone to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into 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 wife, who was with child.” Luke 2:1-4
Oftentimes the President of the United States is called “the most powerful man in the world.” There is not much substance to that phrase, though, especially in light of the power Caesar held. There was no real legislative process in those days – the emperor ruled by decree. He said it and it was done. There was no jockeying with two houses and an electorate, no need to read the daily polls. Our current president, and indeed all presidents, rules by politics. Sign a START Treaty and the polls say you are strong on defense. Sign DADT and you have a forward-thinking social conscience. Sign a huge tax relief bill and you… want to get reelected. So that’s all it is about now. But Caesar wanted to know how many folks were in his empire, to make sure he was collecting all the taxes he could get. Because his picture was on the money. And that is what it is really all about.
So our Christmas story starts out with a decree meant to increase and gather taxes. Some things never change. And one thing that never does change is that while man thinks he is in charge, is convinced of his influence, certain he rules by power – God quietly maneuvers his providential hand among the events of the day to establish his plan. So God needed Joseph and Mary in Bethlehem for the birth of Jesus – and Caesar thought he needed more money to fund his expansion plans.
Caesar only though he was powerful.
With all the humble characters in our story – barren Elizabeth, speechless Zacharias, troubled Mary and just Joseph – Caesar Augustus stands out as the antithesis of the presiding character traits thus far. And I guess that to rule a far-flung empire you must have an ego at least as large as your borders. But while his picture was on the money, and his citizens even proclaimed him as a god, it is remarkable that he was just another pawn in eternal events. And the only way he is remembered by most folks today is because of this short historical insert in the story of Christmas. Because it turns out that throughout history, no matter the imagined power, no matter the influence, no matter the popularity, big egos and big figures have always had to take the back seat to Jesus.
At the height of Beatle-mania John Lennon proclaimed “we are more popular than Jesus now” as he predicted the decline of Christianity. But why not more popular than Buddha? Or Muhammad? Every President of the United States has to establish who Jesus was – W often spoke of his faith and claimed Jesus as the most important philosopher; Obama spoke of him even more. Fidel Castro admired him and claimed they were on the same page – as far as social justice and revolution, anyway. And on and on – every important leader in the last two thousand years, whether in politics or business or entertainment, has felt compelled to reconcile who Jesus was. Ironically even those who claim he wasn’t at all spend a bit too much time telling us why it’s all a fable. Bill Maher doth protest too much, methinks.
While Caesar may have imagined nearly divine power, the real divine power quietly and obediently rode a donkey to a stable in a little town in a tiny country. And now all of history is dated either Before Christ or Anno Domini. Talk about powerful.
So we can take a cue from our man Caesar. We don’t have his power – but we all imagine we have full power over our lives. And we certainly do have choices – it is up to us to make good life decisions, to make the best use of our resources, to grow our skills and gifts. But if we aren’t careful, we can take on that attitude of a Caesar – and think we rule our lives by decree, without consequence or regret. And all the while that hand of eternity is weaving behind the scene, and we can work with him or work against him, the choice is ours, but his work will be done.
Just ask Caesar. He thought he was powerful. All he got was a month named after him.