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December 2, 2018

Sermon Luke 2:1  . . .“Bible places:  Rome”

“Bible places:  Rome”

Luke 2:1

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus.

From Jericho, the oldest known city in the world, to Tokyo, the largest city in the world, cities have always served as centers of commerce, technology, education, and culture.

Take the ancient city of Mari, for example.  Four thousand years ago, it was the largest city in the world.  Today, archaeologists have discovered as many as twenty five thousand clay tablets, written in an ancient language called Akkadian.  In its day, the city of Mari moved stone, timber, grain, and goods throughout its region.

 Or think of Beijing, China.  Fifteen hundred years after Christ, it’s population was one million.  Today, it’s twenty-two million.  Early in its day, so many people lived there, they used up all their forests just to build homes and burn fuel.

Or think of London, England.  Thanks to the Industrial Revolution of the mid-1800s, for a time, it was the largest and most powerful city in the world.  Even today, people say that, with its impressive architecture, history, and culture, it beats New York City any day, hands down.  Every street has a story.  It’s where the world lives and watches.

But in all the history of the world, one of the best and brightest cities of all is the one called Rome, the city of the sacred, the eternal city.   At first, it was nothing more than a village resting on the edge of the Tyrrhenian Sea.  But by the time of Christ, it’s population swelled to over a million.  It was a center for democracy, trade, and parades, and was known for its theaters, gymnasiums, libraries and shops, not to mention fresh drinking water supplied by hundreds of miles of aqueducts.  It’s colosseum, with room enough to seat eighty thousand, still stands today!

And at the center of that rich and powerful city was one man, one ruler, one emperor.  While his given name was Gaius Octavius Thurinus, in time, he came to be known as “Pontifex Maximus,” “Imperator Caesar Divi filius,” “High Priest,” “Father of the Country, Son of the Divine.”

Today, we know him as Caesar Augustus.

Please turn in your Bible to page 1090, as I read the words of our text.  I’ll start where it says, “The Birth of Jesus Christ,” Luke chapter 2:  “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.”

Now if you don’t mind me saying, those first couple of verses sound dreadfully boring.  With names like Caesar Augustus and Quirinius, governor of Syria, it sounds like a high school history class gone wrong.

But when Luke wrote those words so long ago, he meant to teach us something very important.

Think of it like this--astronomers don’t create anything.  They simply discover what God has already made.  They aim their telescopes toward galaxies and stars light years away.

Or think of physicists.  They don’t create anything.  They simply aim their microscopes toward the infinitesimal, a world of atoms, electrons, protons, and neutrons.

And biologists don’t create anything either.  They simply observe what God does.  Behind every amoeba, protein, and cell, there’s the invisible hand of God.

And history is just like that.  As the word itself suggests, it’s not just “history,” it’s “His story.”  Behind it all lies the invisible hand of God.

So who is Caesar Augustus?  He’s Gaius Octavius, Imperator Caesar Divi Filius Augustus, “Son of God,” Supreme Military Commander, the first and greatest emperor of Rome, grand-nephew and adopted son of Julius Caesar, the First Citizen of the State.  His father died when he was only four, so he was raised by his grandmother, Julia, sister of Julius Caesar.

And thanks to him, Rome enjoyed two hundred years of Pax Romana—Roman peace.  He developed an efficient postal system, improved harbors, and established colonies.  His elaborate highway, three layers deep, was built during his reign.  And every time you write a check in the month of August, you can’t help but remember his name.

But a nice guy, he was not.  Historians tell us he was ambitious, ruthless, and cruel, devious, untrustworthy, and bloodthirsty.  Roman historian Tacitus said he had a “lust for power…There had certainly been peace, but it was a blood-stained peace of disasters and assassinations.”  And another wrote, “While fighting for dominance, he paid little attention to legality or to the normal facilities of political life…he suffered from no delusions of grandeur.”

And when he died, after ruling for forty-one years, he said, “I found a Rome of bricks; I leave to you one of marble.”  And to his friends he said, “Have I played the part well?  Then applaud me as I exit.”  And just like Julius Caesar before him, the Roman Senate declared him to be a god.

And who’s Quirinius, governor of Syria?  He was a war hero, a senator, a proconsul, one of Augustus’ most capable and trusted friends.  And since he was such a close and personal friend, Augustus appointed him to govern Syria, one of the most important provinces of the empire.

And as Augustus reigned and Quirinius ruled, as Luke wrote in verse 3, “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.”

It’s funny if you think about it.  Caesar Augustus was so powerful that, if he lifted his finger, he could change the lives of millions.  He made a decree, and his subjects had no choice but to travel to their town of origin to register for the census.

But even though he seemed so powerful and in control, he had no idea that behind it all, through it all, was the powerful, invisible hand of God.

Think of a man named Henry Livingston.  He was nothing more than a poor farmer who sometimes wrote poetry and made drawings for his friends and family.

And one year, since he didn’t have much money to buy presents for his children, he wrote them a poem, and that was their Christmas.  Today, it’s been called the best-known poem ever written by an American.

You know how it goes:  “‘Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.”

Or think of Franz Gruber, a local teacher, and Joseph Mohr, a parish priest.  Mice had chewed through the organ’s bellows, so they composed a song the choir could sing while a guitar played along.  They called it, “Stille Nacht!  Heilige Nacht!”  We call it, “Silent Night.”

Behind it all, through it all, was the powerful, invisible hand of God.

And how good that is to know!  In spite of the changes and chances that this world so often brings, behind it all, through it all, is the powerful, invisible hand of God.

It’s been said that Martin Luther’s Christmas sermon is not just one sermon.  He preached on the Nativity for thirty years, often a dozen times a year, beginning with Advent, and carrying through to Epiphany.

Even more, for each sermon, sometimes there were three--on Saturday, he wrote what he intended to say, on Sunday, his students wrote down what he said, and on Monday, he wrote down what he meant to say.

And in his sermons, he stripped away all of the legends of the Middle Ages--like how at midnight, all of the stable’s animals knelt down to worship the Christ Child, or how palm trees bent over so Joseph and Mary could more easily pick their fruit, or how instead of one star in the Bethlehem’s night sky, there were three, in honor of the Holy Trinity.

Instead, this is what he said:  “Her time came as they were drawing near and Joseph sought room for them in the inn.  But there was no room in the inn.  Of course there was!  There was all the room in the inn!  But nobody would give up a room!  Shame on you, wretched Bethlehem.  You ought to be burned with brimstone.  And don’t let you people in this congregation think you’d have done any better if you were there.  I can just hear you saying, ‘Oh, we would love to take care of the baby Jesus.  We would wash His diapers.’  If you’d been there, you wouldn’t have done a bit better.  And if you think you would, why wouldn’t you do it for your neighbor in your midst who is Christ among you?  Joseph did the best he could.  But nobody came to give a hand.”

And he wrote:  “If I’d been God and wanted to save the world, I wouldn’t have done it that way.  I just would have called in the devil and twisted his nose and said, ‘Let My people go.’

“But God is amazing.  He sends a little baby as weak as an earthworm, lying in the feedbox of a donkey.  And that little baby crunches the devil’s back and overcomes the power of hell and sin and death...and to this end, He came into the world that He might lay down His life to save His people from their sins.”

Today, we can be sure that Caesar Augustus never met Mary or Joseph, nor did he ever know of that little baby boy born in Bethlehem.  Yet behind it all, through it all, was the powerful, invisible hand of God.

So Merry Christmas, Caesar Augustus.  You played a part you never knew, and paved the way for the birthday of our King.

In the words of a hymn:  “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is giv’n!  So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of His heav’n.  No ear may hear His coming; but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive Him, still the dear Christ enters in.”


Thank You, Father, for Advent.  Thank You for Christmas.  Thank You for Jesus.  We pray in His name.  Amen

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