By R. Leigh Spruill

From the Gospel according to Luke: “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.”

The story of the birth of Jesus begins with the most powerful man in the known world: Caesar Augustus.

We are here this evening to contemplate and celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation, the incredible claim of the Church that God became a singular human being to demonstrate, once for all, his love for all human beings, the birth of Jesus, a confession of a miracle.

Think of the number of sermons that have been preached on this story down through the ages! The amount of preserved commentary we have on this event over almost 20 centuries of Church history is massive. And all the best of it circles back to the same reality: the Incarnation is a profound and unique mystery.

But this also has always been stressed about the birth of Jesus: the theological significance of the story, the spiritual interpretation of the birth of the Christ, is wrapped up in literal history. This person Jesus really was born and really lived in a particular place and time. No one with any sense debates this. And this historical context for Luke in his Gospel is important.

The story begins not in Bethlehem but many, many miles away in a very different place: the city of Rome. The story begins with the most powerful man in the world.

Born with the name Gaius Octavius in the year 63 B.C., the man who would become the Emperor Augustus was legally adopted by his uncle as a teenager. That uncle was Julius Caesar. Very shortly after that, Julius Caesar was assassinated and his young nephew, only 19, launched a long and bloody campaign to consolidate power in himself. He succeeded. He was honored as Rome’s first emperor and given the name Augustus. For 40 more years, Augustus would rule an expanding geographic empire such as the world had never seen, dying in the year A.D. 14.

Caesar Augustus is easily one of the most influential figures in all of world history, a man of remarkable drive and intelligence, of competence and organizational skill, of unsurpassed ambition, incredible achievement. He could be alternately gracious and ruthless, forgiving and merciless, modest and vain, morally upstanding and decadent. Augustus is the human person in all his complexity — on steroids. His influence on all subsequent world history is unquestioned. He solidified the dominance of the Roman Empire that lasted  for half a millennium. Without Augustus Caesar there is no Western Civilization as we know it.

And Luke chooses to begin his story of the birth of Jesus by setting it against the world of Augustus.

The immediate reference to the Roman Emperor in the beginning of the birth narrative is to remind us that the people of God are under foreign rule, an authority alien to the authority of God. Well, aren’t we all, whether it be the authority claimed by the principalities and powers of this world; the powers of darkness; or the unruly powers of our personal drives and desires? The coming of Jesus into the world is always a coming into a world where there are myriad powers contesting for control over us.

In the time of Augustus, social and political submission to Rome’s authority is harshly enforced throughout the Empire. Luke mentions a mandated census upon Judea and Syria around the time when Jesus was born. In fact, he mentions it four times in the first five verses of the birth story.

You now may be tempted to say, “Well, you are talking a lot about Caesar Augustus. Aren’t we supposed to be about the baby Jesus this night?”

Yes. And I think what Luke wants us to get in this most beautiful and beloved story from the Bible is that you don’t really get it without the juxtaposition of imperial city of Rome to the nondescript, rural village of Bethlehem in Judea; the juxtaposition of Caesar Augustus to a helpless baby; the juxtaposition of the seat of power on a royal throne to the seat of ultimate power lying in a manger, an animal feeding trough.

These juxtapositions could not be greater, the collision of images starker. Caesar’s reign is signaled by advancing army legions, a people’s submission to imperial power, the imposition of taxes. God’s reign is signaled by a singing host of angels, the joyful bewilderment of some blue-collar shepherds, and a poor Jewish couple’s vulnerable little baby.

All of this, of course, underscores what is so central about the Incarnation: the lowly, condescending, nature of God’s coming into our world in the first place. What kind of a God is this?

Yes, the swaddling clothes in which our newborn Savior is wrapped tonight prefigure the burial clothes in which he will be wrapped after his crucifixion. For, of course, the greatest juxtaposition in the entire Bible is between a Roman cross and our Lord’s sacrifice for the whole world. God’s power could look no more different from Caesar’s.

Yet I think this intentional juxtaposition between Caesar and Jesus that Luke intends for us is not simply about “the how” of God’s plan of salvation. It is also about “the where” — not simply where it happens in history or geographically but where in life it happens.

There is not one of us here tonight who does not have spaces in our lives where God might come in to be birthed anew, to bring light into the darkness; life into the lifelessness; healing into the brokenness; hope into the discouragement; joy into the despair.

Every one of us needs Jesus to come. We all yearn for the inbreaking of God’s kingdom that his birth inaugurates — sure, in some universal sense for our terribly broken world, but also for ourselves!

The writer and poet Wendell Berry suggests that at the heart of the religious impulse is “a certain solicitude for reality.” What a great phrase: “a solicitude for reality.” What Berry means is that the deeply religious person is attentive to all the false dimensions of life that reduce reality, the fear of having life shrunk down by things that really don’t ultimately matter, that don’t bring life. “Many of us,” he writes thankfully, “are still refusing to trust Caesar in the many of his modern incarnations, with the power to define reality.”

Caesar is alive and well in our day and age; many people and causes and temptations and pressures work in the world under his royal cloak. In fact, all of us like to project those parts of life that look like power and prestige, success and advancement, security and control — the very image of Augustus.

But tonight, we bend the knee and bow our heads before the full majesty of a reality that could be no more different, that no one in the imperial courts of Rome could have ever imagined … a tiny light shining in the darkness, those out of the way and perhaps hidden places of powerlessness in our lives like Bethlehem, those vulnerable spaces of our lives like the manger, where Jesus seeks to be born again. Would you let him?

I have a love of ancient history, and this week I went to a couple of biographies on Augustus I have read in my home library. One cannot help noticing a grand irony: this history of his life is framed according to B.C. and A.D., with reference to the birth of Christ, an event that Augustus in all his power in all his life knew nothing about. Amazing.

What power usurped his? We worship tonight remembering not only how it happened but where it happened and where it might be happening still.

The Rev. R. Leigh Spruill is rector of St. John the Divine, Houston.