This Advent we’re exploring the contrasts in the nativity stories. (Last week’s post will give you a short introduction) Many churches focus on four traditional Advent themes. Peace, Joy, Love, Hope. But we seldom wonder why those themes are important. Why do we lift these up as a focal point? I think it is because so often the world is filled with the opposite condition. Discord rather than peace. Sorrow rather then joy. Hate rather than love. Despair rather the hope. All these condition are present, all though mostly in the context, in the nativity stories if we take the time to read carefully.
This week we’re looking at the angels in Luke 2:8-14. It is such a familiar passage that often we don’t read it carefully.
In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’ And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying,
‘Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors!’
The angel was, in a sense, bilingual. The words the angel used to describe Jesus were also words used in the Roman Emperor cult to talk about Caesar. “Savior” was used in the Hebrew Bible to describe God. But it was also used to describe Caesar. For example:
Since the providence that has divinely ordered our existence has applied her energy and zeal and has brought to life the most perfect good in Augustus, whom she filled with virtues for the benefit of mankind, bestowing him upon us and our descendants as a savior – he who put an end to war and will order peace, Caesar, who by his epiphany exceeded the hopes of those who prophesied good tidings [euaggelia], not only outdoing benefactors of the past, but also allowing no hope of greater benefactions in the future; and since the birthday of the god first brought to the world the good tidings [euaggelia] residing in him…For that reason, with good fortune and safety, the Greeks of Asia have decided that the New Year in all the cities should begin on 23rd September, the birthday of Augustus… from The First Christmas, Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan, HarperOne, 2007, page 160 quoting the League of Asian Cities in 9 BCE.
With time the Roman emperor ceased being a mere human. After an emperor died, the Senate would declare them to be a divine being. Then the successor was a son of a god. Eventually emperors claimed divine status before death. Temples were built for and sacrifices were made to the emperor.
“Lord” is also bilingual language. In the Hebrew Bible “Lord” referred to God. But the Romans also used that word to describe Caesar.
“Messiah” is, of course, a Jewish word for God’s anointed. By Jesus’ time the Messiah was expected, one way or another, to rescue Israel from Roman oppression and rule. Particularly the poor people were looking for a Messiah to deliver them.
So re read, with a little commentary, what the angel says to the shepherds: “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you [shepherds, poor, marginalized people and not to the Roman elite] is born this day in the city of David [ Bethlehem, small town only important to Israel and not born in Rome the center of power] a Savior, who is the Messiah [the Savior of the world is NOT Caesar, it is God’s anointed one the Messiah], the Lord [ again NOT Caesar].
Roman emperors like to think of themselves as rulers of the entire world and they had the military might to enforce their rule. But the angels appear and they deliver God’s message to humans and God’s message is Caesar ( or any other human) is not Savior and Lord- I AM.
Things are not as they seem. God is at work in the world in unusual ways, so unusual we can miss or dismiss it.
But when an angels or the heavenly host show up, it is hard to miss or dismiss. And that heavenly host? That’s “bible talk” for angel army. God’s army shows up and the shepherds and the early followers of Jesus reading this knew all too well what armies do. They had plenty of experience with armies. Armies kill, burn your home and crops, rape and enslave and crucify. So yes the shepherd were “sore afraid” (that’s King James Bible talk for terrified”). Everybody knew what armies do. Jewish history is full of encounters with armies that didn’t end well. Rome, Assyria, Babylon, etc, etc,…
This army doesn’t kill.
This army sings.
And this army doesn’t sing about itself and its power and glory. This army sings about God.
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”
Dear reader, this is a glimpse of the kingdom of God. This is a glimpse of the reign of God, not the reign of Caesar, not the reign of fill in the blank dictator, emperor, great leader. This is the way the world is supposed to be.
Swords into plowshares
Armies into choirs
Imagine if the armies of the world, the armies now and every army that ever was, imagine them all singing together,
Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace among those whom he favors.
That’s part ( and only just part) of what we wait for.
O come O come Emanuel and ransom captive Israel…. and the rest of us who are held captive – in a violent world.
Come Prince of Peace, come.