Paul wrote ‘that when the timing was right.’ God sent his son into the world. When the timing was right. Last year as I prepared for Christmas services I pondered how God’s choice of time for the birth of the Christ was deeply ironic. ‘In those days’ says Luke, ‘Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.’ Caesar Augustus - he’s the boss man. He issues a decree, the rest of the world obeys.
Born in 63BC thrust into the limelight at 19 Augustus combined political acumen, to become sole emperor aged 33. His name means ‘the exalted one’ but he was also known as the ‘father of the country.’ He held the title ‘chief priest.’ He was said to be the ‘son of a God.’ In death he was named the ‘divine’ Augustus. His really great achievement was stability and growth for the empire, or the pax Romana – the Roman peace. He was a prince of peace. He even developed what he termed his ‘gospel’ for the people – the Good news according to Caesar: ‘Divine Augustus Caesar, son of God, imperator of land and sea, the benefactor and Saviour of the whole world, has brought you peace.’
To all the world the question of just who was in control here was a bit of a no-brainer. Even with Mary heavily pregnant, even with the danger that this child might be born on the road or might not even survive the journey, Caesar Augustus had the right to force them to make that journey.
Yet Joseph too came from a long royal line. He had no political power. But he carried the promises of God that a Saviour would be born of his line and that promise was currently gestating in the womb of the woman he protected throughout that journey.
Yet the plans he put in place were for the good of an altogether different empire. For Augustus’ empire created the perfect setting for the seeds of a new faith to germinate. He built honest government and a sound currency, increased trade and eased communication. He cleared seas and highways of pirates. He smoothed the pathway to take the Gospel into the farthest parts of their known world and provided safe passage for Paul and other missionary journeys. He developed a postal service - which meant that even from a prison cell in Rome, Paul could spread the Gospel.
But the Gospel Paul spread was not that of Caesar Augustus, but of the child, in the womb of a heavily pregnant teenager that Augustus thought he could herd into a stable. Even Augustus’s census merely relocated the family of promise to Bethlehem, where it was believed God had promised the Messiah would be born. When it seemed Caesar Augustus was boss, God was creating the circumstances in which Christ could be born and doing it amongst those people Caesar Augustus thought he could force to do his bidding.
As plans go the Christmas story seems utterly chaotic. Sabotage the wedding plans of a young couple, to the point were a wedding doesn’t seem possible. Wait until they are ready to give birth then force them to make a long journey. When they get to the end of the road there’s not even a decent place to give birth. But yet all along God is not caught short.
That Christmas message brings hope to a world where leaders think they are in control, where they stake great claims for themselves, or seek to ensure a legacy for themselves. At times the church seems a little more like Mary and Joseph. Constantly being sabotaged, constantly under threat.
Yet within us we carry something beyond the grasp of this world. Yet we too carry the promise. God’s kingdom gestates in the body of Christ’s church. Creation itself waits in expectation for that fulfilment. And even when it looks black, and the church is tossed about by the powers of this world, God is not caught short. God will bring his plans to fruition. Now, as then, his promises will not fail.
Christ entered the world of a man called the Father of a Country, a chief priest, divine, a Son of God, a prince of peace, the exalted one, Saviour of the world. The Roman Peace lasted until AD 180. Jesus was born in an outhouse of a small village on the edge of empire, simply because Caesar Augustus wanted taxes. But that birth brought about a new kingdom whose peace will last forever. Even as Luke was writing, the empire which Caesar Augustus built was crumbling, in serious need of reform. Yet the increase of the government of that child in the womb would never end. And that child was the Everlasting Father, our great high priest, the Son of The Most High, the Prince of Peace and Saviour of the World. Augustus may have called himself a God. His successors may have crucified Jesus Christ. But neither Augustus nor his successors were any match for one who today sits exalted over all the earth. God had no rivals then. He still doesn’t.