The year was 4 BC, and much of Galilee was in turmoil.
Caesar Augustus, the son of god, had ordered a census for tax purposes, and some in Israel had to go to their home communities to comply. So it was that an unknown couple, Joseph and Mary, from an obscure town called Nazareth of Galilee had to go to a small village named Bethlehem nearly 100 miles away. To complicate things even more, Mary was pregnant and about to deliver her firstborn son, Jesus.
Caesar Augustus, Gaius Julius Octavius, was one of the greatest leaders in history. A brilliant administrator, a talented team builder, aware of his limitations, ruthlessly patient in his power moves, he was ruler of Rome for 41 years as he unified and extended the Empire while creating his greatest achievement, the Pax Romana. No Roman ruler before or after accomplished as much. It was the Roman Senate who declared him the August One, but it was Augustus who called himself the son of god.
In his will Julius Caesar, his great uncle, adopted Augustus according to the Roman custom of adopting adults as natural born children, making him his son and his heir. After his death the Roman Senate declared Julius Caesar a god, so Augustus began to call himself the son of god. Ironic, isn’t it, that the Son of God was born in Bethlehem in fulfillment of prophecy because of a decree declared by the son of god?
How typical of the ways of God. He loves to demonstrate His power in what men think to be weakness, His glory in obscurity, His wisdom in what men label foolishness, and His purpose in the midst of hopelessness. Consider where God is moving most in the world today: in places like the Middle and Far East where Christians have the least leverage and face the greatest persecution. Even we who know of God’s ways often turn from them to the more alluring ways of the world, calling on power rather than weakness, on anger more than love. Henri Nouwen, in his short work, In the Name of Jesus, observes that the church consistently turns to power and raises a penetrating question while giving an even more penetrating answer.
What makes the temptation of power so seemingly irresistible? Maybe it is that power offers an easy substitute for the hard task of love. It seems easier to be God than to love God, easier to control people than to love people, . . . Jesus asks, 'Do you love me?' We ask, 'Can we sit at your right hand and your left hand in your Kingdom?'
Can this be true of us in our day? Can we have missed the birth of Christmas so greatly that we fail to realize how futile the way of power is? Consider Caesar Augustus caught up in the affairs of Rome, moving armies and peoples at will, thinking he is the one who is bringing all this about, not understanding that he was merely a pawn in the hand of the sovereign God who used him to bring forth the true Son of God. The son of god, full of the glory of Rome, now dead, a ripple in the river of history, while the Son of God born in the obscurity of Bethlehem, full of the masked glory of God, now rules over the affairs of men. Why do we respond with fear and despair when He is Lord?
The birth of Christmas came because of a decree by the all-powerful Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, the son of god and a great man. Yet, in his greatness, Augustus was no more than an instrument in the hand of the sovereign God who used him to bring forth the greatest man, Jesus, the Son of the Living God. If God can move the Roman Empire to accomplish His purposes and fulfill His prophecy by giving birth to Christmas on His terms, why can He not accomplish His purposes in our day through His ways of love and His kind of powerful weakness? Remember this lesson from the birth of Christmas:
Where men can do nothing God can do everything.