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Author:Rev. Reuben Bredenhof
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Congregation:Free Reformed Church of Mt. Nasura
 Mt. Nasura, Western Australia
Preached At:Pilgrim Canadian Reformed Church
 London, Ontario
Title:The Emperor, and the King of kings
Text:Luke 2:1-5 (View)
Occasion:Christmas Day
Topic:God The Son

Order Of Worship (Liturgy)

Ps 146:1,2,3                                                                           

Reading – Micah 5:1-5; Luke 2:1-40

Ps 2:1,2,3,4

Sermon – Luke 2:1-5

Hy 20:1,2,3,4

Hy 1

Hy 16:1,3,5
* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.

Beloved in the Lord, think of what a small event it seemed to be! There was a man, and there was a woman. The woman was but a teenager, pregnant, and ready any day to give birth. This man and woman found themselves far from home, down in the province of Judea, in the town of Bethlehem.

While they were there, they couldn’t get a room at the local inn, so they had to settle for less than four star accommodation. Whether it was actually a barn, or a stable, or a cave is anyone’s guess. But as they settled into the humble place given them for their lodging, the time came for the baby to be delivered. And the baby was born.

Again, think of what a small event it seemed to be. To be sure, the arrival of a new child is an incredible experience—few things compare. Certainly Joseph and Mary were very excited at the birth of their first-born, a son. But so what? Nowadays, they say a baby’s born into this world every few seconds. The birth-rate was slower in that time, but even so, in the grand scheme of things, what was the birth of a child? Hardly a momentous occasion.

For after the birth of this child, the world just keeps on turning. Everyone else carries on with their lives as before. Yes, by every appearance, it was a small, even a tiny event: a baby is born—what has a baby ever accomplished? Born in some quiet corner of Palestine—hardly a centre of world power! To anyone, the birth of a Jewish boy in Bethlehem would’ve seemed miles away from relevance or importance. That’s how it might’ve seemed then, and that’s how it could seem still today.

Bethlehem was, after all, just a tiny town within a little province; a little province within an insignificant region; an insignificant region within a vast world empire. If it was only an Israelite moment, this birth truly was a trivial event: He was only a small Jewish Saviour, for a small Jewish people.

But what happened in Bethlehem was a moment of great consequence and meaning. The world didn’t stop turning that day, but the world would never be the same. And we can see this, even on that day when the child is born. For to bring about this moment, God moves the nations, even moving the greatest empire the world has ever seen. I preach to you from Luke 2:1-5,    

Caesar Augustus sends the parents of Jesus to Bethlehem:

                        1) a decree issued in the power of the emperor

                        2) a decree issued in the power of the LORD
1) it is a decree issued in the power of the emperor: In the ears of many people today, “empire” is a bad word. Typically, the “empires” and “emperors” of world history aren’t viewed very favourably. For emperors rule without accountability, and wage war without mercy. Empires extend their tentacles to every corner, reaching for more power and more wealth.

At the time of the birth of Jesus, there was an empire, and a great one at that. Roman imperialism was just now reaching the height of its power and control. In recent times, the empire had expanded dramatically. No longer restricted to the “boot” of Italy, the empire had marched all the way around the Mediterranean Sea: Greece, Turkey and into Mesopotamia; down into Palestine, Egypt; across North Africa; up into Spain and France; and north into the hinterlands of Europe, even as far as Britain.

Everywhere they went, the legions of the Roman army did battle with the assorted nations and barbarian tribes who dared to oppose them. And the Romans vanquished many with their strict discipline, their superior weapons, and their fine-tuned warfare strategy.

When Jesus was born, this great empire hadn’t even been in existence very long—at least, not as an empire. Rome and her territories had previously been a republic, ruled by a body of senators and officials. But as the Roman state had grown larger and larger, it’d become very difficult for a group of rulers to maintain control. As a result, Rome was divided for years by civil wars and in-fighting among the generals.

This situation couldn’t last—and so gradually the republic of Rome became the empire of Rome. No longer ruled by the top class of citizens or a combination of generals, but ruled by one man who came to have supreme power: an emperor.

And the very first emperor of Rome was none other than the one we encounter in our text: Caesar Augustus. He convinced the Roman people to give up their right to govern themselves; they granted him all power to make decisions on their behalf. In return, he’d end the civil wars, and he’d provide stability and wealth. So it was that in a few short years, Augustus had gathered to himself an absolute authority.

With the armies united under him, and the people of Rome united behind him, Augustus brought the Roman Empire into its Golden Age. That vast collection of territories and provinces finally enjoyed a time of peace. Wars were finished in almost every part of the empire, as the nations of the earth begrudgingly accepted the rule of Rome.

And in its peace, it must be said, the empire richly flourished. Trade routes were established to every corner of the dominion. Roads and bridges and theatres and aqueducts and towns were built everywhere. The seas were cleared of pirates to allow for safe shipping. In that environment of peace and security, there was a thriving of business and commerce. Cities became centres for finance, but also centres for the exchange of ideas on philosophy, literature, art, religion, architecture, and law. The whole empire was tied closer together with the wide spread of the Greek language. Finally, the rule of Roman law was enforced, which lent even further stability to society. 

This most glorious time is sometimes called the Pax Romana, the “Roman peace.” Sure, it was a peace enforced by the muscle and iron of the Roman legions, but it was a peace nonetheless—a peace that settled over the nations of the world.

Over this empire Caesar Augustus ruled supreme for forty-four years. And not surprisingly, he was very highly revered. His name, Augustus, is actually a title that was given him. For “Augustus” describes someone worthy of deep respect and veneration. In the eyes of many Romans, as they surveyed all that he’d done, the exalted Caesar Augustus was no longer a man, but almost a god. In some circles, he was called “the prince of peace.” Surely he was the greatest king who ever lived!

            And so it was that one fine day, from this man of supreme power a simple decree was issued: “Let the whole world be counted in a census.” Because the empire was now finally enjoying a period of peace, the Romans sought to consolidate their control.

Already before this time, Rome had set up various governors and kings throughout the empire. These officials would take care of things on a local level; they’d look after matters like the law courts, public works, and—of course!—taxes. Because it’s one thing to have a huge empire under your sway; it’s quite another to maintain control and reap its benefits. Thus it was decreed by Caesar that a census be taken. 

            Here in Canada we have a census every four years or so. It’s not usually a big deal: a form or two to fill out, and someone might come to your door to ask you questions. But in the Roman empire, this census meant that each person had to return to his ancestral home. During the years of the Roman invasions, there’d been many refugees, and much movement of the populations. It was decided then that this would be the most accurate way of tallying who, and how many, actually came from where.

            This was no simple census, and surely turned the lives of many upside-down. Imagine we all had to return to our ancestral homes the next time a census was to be taken. The trans-Atlantic airlines, European hotels and restaurants would do a brisk business!

Also for Joseph and Mary, this census was very inconvenient. They had to travel from Nazareth down to Bethlehem, at least a three days’ journey. The pregnant Mary was in no condition to travel—picture her, heavy with child, either walking for miles or bouncing around on a beast of burden. Joseph too, certainly had work to do back home. What’s more, the roads were probably crowded with many others unhappily making their way here and there. Then, once they arrived in Bethlehem, finding a decent place to stay was almost impossible. All this headache, so that they could pay their taxes to a Gentile ruler!          

            It’s likely that on the dusty, crowded roads of Palestine, many unkind words about Caesar would’ve been muttered. This was one more humiliation that went with being an occupied country. But, as everyone had to accept, this was the prerogative of the emperor. Caesar wants a census, Caesar gets a census.

And really, this census would only increase his personal glory and pride: “What an empire I have!” he could say, “Look how many people lie in submission under the Roman sceptre! And what wealth I’m going to collect from all these tax-payers: these Britons, these Gauls, these Saxons, these Greeks, these Egyptians, these Jews.” By this census, Augustus the Exalted One would become even more exalted!

So why does Luke tell us about it? He’s the only gospel-writer to mention the census—is it really necessary that we hear about the vanity of a long-dead Roman emperor? Well, Luke told us in chapter 1 that he wanted to write his own account, that he wanted to put it together most carefully. He’s always concerned to tell us: At what time does this happen? Who is involved? Why exactly is this taking place?

Luke the historian wants to show us that the birth of Jesus is no legend or fable. It’s not something that may have happened, once upon a time. No, the birth of this little child is fact. We know it happened, because even the time of it can be pinpointed on the timeline of world history. It was a decree from the great emperor Augustus that uprooted the parents of Jesus and sent them to Bethlehem!

But there’s something else Luke wants his readers to see. He wants us to see that, ultimately, it wasn’t the mighty Augustus in Rome determining the when and the where of Jesus’ birth. It wasn’t Augustus, but it was the LORD God in heaven.    


2) it is a decree issued in the power of the LORD: People all over the Roman empire were uprooted by the decree of Caesar. Once again, how small Joseph and Mary and that as-yet unborn child would’ve seemed.

Yet what does it say? “Joseph also went up…to the city of David, which is called Bethlehem, because he was of the house and lineage of David(v 4). “Look carefully,” Luke is telling us. Despite outward appearances, this Joseph was no ordinary fellow—he was a descendant of the righteous king David. And Mary, his soon-to-be-wife, was also of David’s line. Look carefully, and you’ll see that this was nothing less than a royal couple. And they’re on the way to the “city of David,” to that place where their legendary ancestor once was born!

Now, as a first reaction to that bit of information, we might feel even more sympathy for Joseph and Mary. They had to return to a town that reminded them of a time long since gone, the Golden Age of Israel. “This was a painful trip down memory lane,” we think: going back to David’s Bethlehem, not as a prince and princess to receive honour from adoring crowds, but going as Roman subjects.

But there’s no reason to think that Joseph and Mary make this trip with heavy hearts. They go in faith, with a sure knowledge and a firm confidence—because God had given his word! Months before, it’d been announced to Joseph, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take to you Mary your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit” (Matt 1:20-21). Right away he was reminded of who he was: a son of David!

And about the coming child it’d also been announced to Mary, “He will be great and will be called the Son of the Highest; and the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David. And he will reign over the house of Jacob forever” (Lk 1:32-33).

A child, a royal son—a new king in the line of David—would soon be born to these descendants of David! And where? King Herod asked the chief priests and teachers of the law the same thing. “He inquired of them where the Christ was to be born. So they said to him, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea,’ they replied, ‘for thus it is written by the prophet’” (Matt 2:4-5). All the Jews knew it well: the Saviour, the Son of David, was going to be appear in David’s royal city!

They knew it, for it stood written in the prophet Micah, “But you Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of you will come forth… the one to be Ruler in Israel” (5:2). He’d be a ruler—and just like the great David once did, the Messiah would come from Bethlehem.

            To be sure, this setting was hardly fitting for a king. He should’ve been born in Jerusalem, born in a palace, surrounded by servants instead of by livestock. But one’s surroundings or outward appearance aren’t so important. What’s far more important is your place in God’s plan! And God had chosen this lowly Christ to be the Saviour of sinners.

God had ordained it by the mouth of the prophet Micah: From Bethlehem, the Messiah-King would come. And God carried it out by the hand of Caesar Augustus: To Bethlehem the parents of the Messiah-King would go!  

The whole world trembled when the great Caesar Augustus issued his decrees. He told his powerful legions to march, and they marched. He told his generals to attack, and they attacked. He told his entire empire to get in line to pay taxes, and they did so. Underneath such an emperor anyone would look small! 

But though he was exalted as more than human, and revered as almost divine, Caesar could do no more than God in heaven allowed him to do. One fine day Augustus issued his decree that the world be enrolled, but God had already issued his decree long before. God had even prophesied this, 700 years earlier: this is where the Messiah would be born! In this event the great Augustus had a role to play—but only a small role.  

            For it was actually the LORD God, directing these events, directing everything according to his goals and his plan. Just as God had promised, the Saviour was a Son of David. Just as God had promised, the Saviour was born in David’s Bethlehem. God had given his Word, and God would see it fulfilled, no matter what it took—even if He had to move the greatest empire of the earth, and bend the heart of its illustrious emperor. Just as we can read in Proverbs 21:1, “The king’s heart is in the hand of the LORD; like the rivers of water, he turns it wherever he wishes.” Wherever He wishes!

            Here is the providence of our God in fine display! Providence isn’t just about how the little things in our life “fit together” and “work out” by God’s guidance. For God governs all things—even the mighty governments of this world, even the powerful presidents and kings and rulers—governs all for his own glory, and for our salvation. Without his will there’s nothing that can so much as move!

            God has it all in his hands. The empire of Augustus was actually God’s empire to command. And we see that again, some years after Christ’s birth—in that time when the apostles went out to spread the message of the cross. Consider how perfect it was that Christianity arose at the same time the Roman Empire was at its height. Sometimes the Roman Empire is thought to be one of the all-time worst enemies of the church. Yet God used the opportunities of that vast dominion for his own plans, and for the increase of his people. 

            For when the apostles went out with the message of crucified and risen Son of David, consider how they went into a world without borders. Under the Pax Romana the apostles could go anywhere, anytime, spreading the gospel of salvation quickly and freely. As heralds of the good news, they could travel long distances on the fine Roman roads and bridges, and across the safe seas. In no time at all, the gospel had reached places like India and Africa, had reached all the way to Rome, had even reached our pagan ancestors in northern Europe!

Remember, this was also an empire where new ideas were welcomed and discussed—so the apostles often found listening ears when they spoke of the Christ. Across the vast empire many people used the same language, which meant the gospel message could also be shared easily, both in speaking and in writing.

This huge, peaceful, and open empire was the world that Caesar Augustus ruled—but it was the world that God had prepared, for the good of his own people, and for the spread of the gospel of his Son!

            We often think of Christmas as being all about the love of God. To be sure, what love God has shown us, that He would send his own Son for our sake. But at Christmas we may also reflect on the great power of God. His power is almighty and ever-present: see how God so amazingly brought about the birth of our Saviour! In the perfect government of God, nothing is left to chance, nothing is left outside of his control.

            And can this truth really be any different today? Today we still see world empires and world powers jostling for influence and control. Today we still see mighty leaders, carrying out their political agendas, seemingly at will. Today we see hundreds of nations getting together and making sweeping plans about things like human rights and economics and climate change. They’re in charge, it seems—they’re running the show. In such a world as this, the Christian church can look very small. In such a world, we can feel very helpless and insignificant, like no one sees us or hears us or cares about us.

            But we remember, and we believe: This is our Father’s world! He rules over all. It’s his Word that carries the day. And our Lord can still humble the nations. He can still bring low the mighty rulers of the world—even as He brought the Roman Empire to her knees just a few hundred years after Christ. God does it, not because He’s mean-spirited. God does it because He is seeking glory for Himself, and blessing for his church. Despite our lowliness and our helplessness, our King always sees us, He always hears us, He is always with us.

As Paul once wrote, “Neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Rom 8:38-39).

            It was deeply humbling for our Saviour to come to the earth in the way He did. At birth, ordered around by an unseen Roman emperor. Later in his life, tried and sentenced by a Roman judge, beaten up by Roman soldiers, and killed on a Roman cross. But by God’s plan, and through God’s power, this “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” would become someone great. He’d establish an empire without end, where we may enjoy peace without fear, under an Emperor without comparison. Jesus alone is our Prince of Peace!

Let us praise God that Christ isn’t some king who’s out for his own glory. He’s not an ruler who delights in oppressing or exploiting his people. He’s not corrupted by his power, and He doesn’t put Himself first. On the contrary, our King laid his glories by. He came in all humility to serve, to suffer, and to die—and to do so for us, a sinful people.

Now that our risen King is enthroned in heaven above, we know He rules us with perfect power and love. Our King gathers us, He defends us, He preserves us—He’s busy bringing together a great multitude whom no one can count.

But let’s also realize this: our great King calls each one of us to serve in his Kingdom! He calls each one of us to bow before his glorious throne. And He doesn’t just ask for taxes and revenue, He asks for things of a far greater value. The King asks us for our love; He asks us for our faith; He asks for our humble obedience and our faithful service. So are these the things we’re gladly presenting to our King? Do we willingly fall on our knees and worship Him alone?

            One day, Christ’s Kingdom will come in all its fullness. Beloved, it’s a sure thing. God has planned it, God has promised it, therefore God will certainly bring it about. Only let’s make sure that we’re a part of it. Let’s make sure that we’re praying for it. Let’s make sure that we’re busy every day serving in Christ’s Kingdom. For if we are, our great King has promised that we shall receive the crown of life! Amen.






* As a matter of courtesy please advise Rev. Reuben Bredenhof, if you plan to use this sermon in a worship service.   Thank-you.
(c) Copyright 2009, Rev. Reuben Bredenhof

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