Caesar Augustus probably didn’t celebrate Christmas. He was around when it happened but he didn’t know about it. He was the boss of the greatest Empire the world had ever seen, so he had a lot on his plate. In fact, Luke tells us that at the very time Jesus was born Caesar Augustus was taking a census of the whole Roman world, to see just how far his rule extended. And his rule was truly great – unlike most of the emperors both before and after him (see Gladiator), he brought something the ancient world had never experienced… the Pax Romana or “Roman Peace”. It wasn’t perfect (see The Adventures of Asterix and Obelix) but under Augustus, for the first time in history, people didn’t have to go to bed fearing that some barbarian would be standing over them when they woke up. They could start to live normal lives. So they loved him. They called him the “Saviour of the world”, who had brought “peace to all men”.
That’s the background to the birth of Jesus, which really would’ve gone unnoticed by pretty much everyone but for the alien invasion. Shepherds, alone, in a field, at night. Bright light, aliens. You’ve heard the story. But unlike most alien stories, this one wasn’t made up. It actually happened. These aliens (more accurately, “angels” or “messengers”) weren’t from another planet, they were from another place entirely – the spiritual world where God is. The spiritual world that exists right now behind this physical one, that we all actually know is there. That night the shepherds get a glimpse behind the curtain, because the spiritual world has a very important message for the physical one: “Do not be afraid.” (you would be too with one of God’s flaming messengers standing in front of you), “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you… Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.” (Luke 2:10-14)
Notice the terms these angels use to describe Jesus – The “Saviour”, who would bring “peace” to people on earth. It’s no mistake that Luke paints this scene on the background of Caesar Augustus’ rule, the emperor that history praised as the “Saviour”. Luke wants us to see that what people were looking to Augustus to give them… this little baby actually would… in a way no other ruler could either before him or after.
And he did… this little baby grew up into a man who lived for one mission – to bring peace on earth. But not the kind of peace Augustus brought: not some temporary political peace. Jesus was going to bring peace in the full sense of the word. The true “Shalom” that every Israelite wished for, and that every human wishes for today. Peace from all the things that unsettle us, that cause conflict in our lives and our world. In other words, peace from the issues deep inside our hearts. But that peace is only available when we find peace with our Creator.“Peace to those on whom his favour rests” – an often mistranslated line, it tells us that the reason we don’t have peace deep down, the reason we’re so unsatisfied, the reason Christmas shopping is more like cage fighting than festive cheer, the reason that on Thursday while we’re gorging ourselves on lunch and trying to make polite conversation with family members we haven’t seen for the whole year, there are at the same time millions of people in our world on the brink of starvation; the reason, in fact, for every single problem in our world and in your heart, is that we don’t have favour with our God. We’ve fallen out of favour, and we know it. We’ve caused it, by taking the lives he’s given us and thinking they belong to us.
And so no matter how good our leaders on earth, they can never really bring true peace, because they can never bring us into favour with our God.
But Jesus can, and he did, by taking all the consequences of our rebellion against God on himself when he died on a Roman cross – an act that echoed throughout the spiritual world and made it possible for humans to have favour with God again.
So this Christmas, every time you feel you’re not at peace, remember why. And remember why Christmas is worth celebrating. Because now, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”