They say, there’s no place like home for the holidays.
But with the anticipation of family coming to stay and scrambling to pull it all together, or you having to stay with your family on that pullout coach with that uncomfortable bar right in the middle of your back or that blow up mattress that always deflates in the middle of the night, the endless list of gifts to shop for, and just wanting your kids or yourself to stay off the “naughty” list for once, it’s sometimes difficult to believe that there really is no place like home for the holidays.
So today, we are beginning a series entitled Home for Christmas and on this first Sunday of Advent, the Sunday of hope, I can’t help but think about those who don’t have a home for Christmas.
But that’s kind of how the Christmas story began, isn’t it?
Let’s listen to our text: Luke 2:1-7
Well, the circumstances were unusual. A young engaged woman who turns up pregnant claiming it was an act of God. Her fiancé decided to stay with her despite what must have seemed the obvious conclusion – that she had been unfaithful.
At the same time the Roman emperor, Caesar Augustus, decided to take a census. This was done for two reasons: to identify young men who could be drafted into the army and raise taxes. Jews were exempt from Roman military service because of their religion, but not from paying taxes.
So, this meant that Joseph had to return to his ancestral home to pay his due to the empire. This was the small village of Bethlehem, 80-90 miles south of Nazareth and only a short distance from Jerusalem.
The typical image portrays Mary riding a donkey led by Joseph. But we don’t know if that’s what happened. Perhaps, they both had to walk the whole way, or they took turns. In any case, it was a difficult journey that probably seemed like it would never end.
And when they finally arrived at their destination, there was no place to stay. Travelers from all over had come to this tiny town of Bethlehem to register for the census and had snapped up all available space. Even the Motel 6 was full. No vacancy, even for a woman about to deliver a child.
Then someone found some sympathy and offered their stable, probably a cave where animals were kept. And it was there, among the sheep and the cattle and the manure, Mary’s baby was born.
The story of Jesus’ humble birth is a familiar one. But did you notice, the way this story begins?
Verse one refers to “Caesar Augustus.” Why is he plunked down in the middle of this miraculous account of God’s Son coming to earth?
For one thing, Luke was a careful historian who wanted to make sure that his readers understood this was a real event that could be set against the backdrop of well-known facts.
The second reason was to draw the stark contrast between Caesar and Jesus.
His given name was Octavian and was the adopted son of Julius Caesar. After his father was murdered on the floor of the Roman Senate, you might think Octavian would fade into the pages of history.
Instead he flourished. He had a knack for diplomacy and fashioned himself into a successful leader.
Octavian had an ability to surround himself with the right people at the right time. He was a politician who could see where events were heading and got himself into the most advantageous positions. He consolidated power and defeated his chief rival, Marc Antony who had teamed up with Cleopatra, the Egyptian queen.
In 30 BC he took the title “Augustus”, which means majestic – so, it’s safe to say that he thought highly of himself, and he remained emperor for forty-four years. He brought peace and economic prosperity to his empire and there was widespread acceptance of his leadership.
On his birthday Augustus was praised as “savior” and “lord.” Caesar Augustus- the majestic one - had power, wealth, influence, title, and in the city of Rome he had a magnificent palace from which to rule.
By contrast, Mary’s little one was truly a nobody. He was born to a peasant woman whose husband was a common laborer. He had no title though some would have labeled him “illegitimate.” The family had no money to speak of, no influence, and probably no property. Mary and Joseph would not have been known outside the limits of their own village.
And when the time came for the baby to arrive there was no escort to whisk them to Bethlehem, and once there, Mary had to suffer the indignity of giving birth in a stable. There were no fawning servants to look after their every need. No nurses, to help in those crucial first moments of life.
Some shepherds did come in from the surrounding hillsides with a tale about a band of angels who spoke about a “savior” and “lord” who was born that night in Bethlehem. But no one would have listened to a story coming from a group of men who occupied a rung on the social ladder just above thieves and prostitutes.
Yet, we like to surround the Christmas story with a romantic aura. We see pictures of a pristine barn, well dressed shepherds, and Mary looking serene and calm, when in fact it reeked of commonplace, rejection and desperation. The Son of God was a homeless vagabond.
Paul in his letter to the church in Philippi was correct when he wrote, “He made himself nothing” . . . that’s how he came into this world and that’s how people regarded him.
Quite a contrast to Caesar Augustus at every step along the way.
Moments like this are humbling, and I suspect that we’ve all had humbling moments in our lives.
Maybe you’ve lost a job or been criticized in front of family or friends. Perhaps, you’ve been bullied or accused of something you didn’t do but no one believed you. Some have found themselves at a local food pantry, so their family would have something to eat or have had to ask friends to help on rent, so they’d have a place to stay for just another month. Others have been denied a job or even a common courtesy because of the color of their skin, their gender, or ethnic back ground.
None of us ever choose to be humiliated, and yet that’s exactly what Jesus did.
He volunteered to become one of us. He embraced the humble circumstances of his birth, the status of an outcast, and the humiliation of a criminal’s death in order to reveal his love for us in the clearest possible way.
A fourth century believer named Theodotus of Ancyra wrote that if Jesus had been born to a high rank and amid great luxury, people might have thought he transformed others through his wealth.
And if he’d been born in Rome, his accomplishments could have been attributed to civil power. If he was the son of an emperor or senator others might have concluded that he gained notoriety through positional power.
But because he chose poor and simple surroundings, because he seemed so ordinary, people would know what happened through him was by the power of God.
Augustus had power and glory and fame. Considered by some to be the greatest Caesar of them all, he was the architect of an empire that became the longest enduring super power the world has ever seen, lasting almost 500 years.
But Augustus died and eventually his kingdom crumbled.
Jesus had nothing the world deemed important, but he created a movement and formed a community of people that has lasted four times longer than Caesar’s realm because it was built on truth and love, humility and sacrifice.
So, what does this have to do with you and me? There are at least two implications.
The first is that Jesus came here and endured all he did not for his own sake, but for ours. He left heavenly glory to draw close to people like us. When we have trouble, when we are opposed, when suffering or calamity visits us, we can know that this Savior and Lord understands because he’s lived it.
He knows us at our best and our worst and loves us no matter what.
Most importantly he hoisted the weight of our sin and selfishness on his own back and took it to the cross. By his death he secured our forgiveness and allowed us to know our Creator and live in freedom.
The second is the invitation to imitate his example of humility and sacrifice for others. Once you know your life has been touched by the grace of God and that you had nothing to do with, didn’t deserve it, but received it as a gift from Jesus anyway, it opens your heart, so you can to give yourself to others.
And when you do, that’s when you realize that the pathway to real life is not discovered through chasing power or scampering after glory or wielding influence, but through humble service.
Augustus and Jesus were two very different men, both of whom changed the world. They present us with two distinct paths to take. One looks very appealing, while the other is not immediately attractive.
One is all about us, and the second is focused on others. Which will you choose?
As we wrap up, and as we consider those, like Mary and Joseph, who - by no choice of their own - do not have a home for Christmas, I want to introduce this year’s Christmas Offering.