Modern Christians and the Government
Compared to many countries in the world, we have a fairly good relationship with our government.
Don’t worry, I’m not about to go all political.
I simply mean that the government is basically on our side. I know it’s not perfect. Indeed, for some people, it’s far from perfect. People fall between the cracks. The government may not have the money to do all it would like to do. But by and large, we do have a government that’s on the same side as its citizens. Even when people complain about a lack of welfare, it’s a sign that we look up to those who govern. We have grown to expect to have our interests looked after.
It’s very different in some other countries, especially for Christians. Last week, Prince Charles recorded a Christmas message at St James’ Palace.
Here’s how he started: “As Christians all around the world prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ, it is of vital importance that we remember all those who suffer persecution for their Christian faith.
I recently had the great privilege of meeting a priest who had ministered to those in Sri Lanka who were so dreadfully injured in the barbaric attacks this year, on churches on Easter Day. With nearly 260 killed and more than 500 injured in that appalling atrocity, Sunday, 21st April was the single, worst day of violence targeting Christians in the modern era. But tragically, it was not an isolated example.”
Ancient Christians and the Roman Government
Those same two attitudes towards those in government existed in Roman times.
Many looked up to Rome. Indeed, looking back, we still do. It’s thanks to them that Britain has its road system. They even designed the modern drainage system. If you were a Roman citizen, the Roman state was your provider and protector. Your security and identity came from them.
But once it became clear that Christianity was not just a Jewish sect, the Roman state also persecuted Christians. After the first few decades, Christians did not feel secure. They could not trust their Roman overlords.
The Roman Census
Luke tells the story of the birth of Jesus with a very particular angle. We’re so used to nativity plays and crib services focussing on the scene around the manger, “no room at the inn” and all that, that we don’t notice the way Luke tells the story.
Here’s how the story starts:
“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David.”
In fact, all of that is over half our reading.
Ask the question who’s in the driving seat of our story, and the answer you get is not in fact Joseph and Mary. It’s the might of Rome.
Octavian, now Caesar Augustus, is the emperor. Rome wanted to keep track of how many lived in their empire, so they could tax everyone, and press people into military service. So all across the empire, province by province, censuses were ordered, usually on a regular basis. The Jews were exempt from military service, but they still had to be taxed, so they still had to be counted.
The Romans were sensitive to the different cultures that made up their empire, and they knew that ancestral land was really important to the Jews. So it seems that in Judea they ran the census that people went back to their home town for registration.
So it was that Joseph and Mary had to return to Bethlehem. Joseph was descended from King David, and this was David’s hometown. For one reason or another, Mary went too.
But Joseph and Mary are not in the driving seat of this story. Rome is. Joseph and Mary simply do what they have to do to avoid trouble with the authorities.
The Throne of David
But is Rome in the driving seat?
Actually, they are also simply puppets.
It so happens that the census ensures that Joseph and Mary end up in David’s town.
Now if you look back into Luke chapter 1, you find out why this is so important.
Chapter 1, verses 31 to 33, the angel says to Mary: “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called Son of the Most Hight. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
Chapter 1, verses 68 and 69, Zechariah says: “Praise be to the Lord, the God of Israel, because he has come to his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a horn of salvation for us in the house of his servant David.”
God promised David that he would have a descendant who would rule forever. This was the great hope the Israelites were waiting for, King David the Second, the Messiah, the Christ. The one who would fix everything broken in the world. Bring in worldwide peace and harmony.
God tells Mary and Zechariah that the baby Jesus is going to be that king.
And to make sure the plan comes true, Jesus is born in Bethlehem
And to make sure Jesus is born in Bethlehem, the Romans decree a census.
Of course they had no idea that’s why they ordered the census. They just think they’re counting people up to tax them.
It wasn’t Joseph and Mary’s idea either. If they’d been trying to orchestrate things, they’ve have left a little earlier to travel down there, and not waited until Mary was almost due and they had to drive with blue lights on.
Rome thinks they’re in control. But they’re not. While they build their empire and issue their decrees, God is moving. God is moving to fulfil the plan he’d announced a thousand years earlier.
And that plan is to install his chosen king. To install Jesus as king of this world. The invisible God behind the scenes is at work to install the tiny baby in the manger as the world’s true king.
Rome is not in control
Luke is showing that Rome is not as big as you think it is.
For persecuted Christians in the ancient world, the mighty Roman emperor actually does God’s bidding. So, yes, Rome can do a lot of damage. They can lock Christians up and kill them. They did. But actually, as Rome does what it wants, God’s purposes get done.
This is a great comfort today to our brothers and sisters around the world who live under terrifying regimes. Those governments and their armies can arrest, confiscate, kill and terrorise. But for all of that, God is the one who is truly in control. Ultimately, Jesus Christ is king. And nobody can stop that.
And this is a great comfort to us as we look, like Princes Charles did, at parts of the world where Christian men, women and children suffer terribly. Those who persecute them may think they are in control. But they really are not.
Rome is not as big as you think it is.
For Roman citizens in the ancient world, this means Rome is not the great comfort blanket, the great security blanked, the great benefactor people thought it was.
God is the true sovereign. He get his true king installed. The Lord Jesus is born exactly where God wants. And Jesus, who started out as that little baby, is where the action is. Not Rome.
And so for us. If you want security, stability, identity, don’t look to the state, to your pension, to your steady job, to your family, whatever it might be for you.
Look to the God who works behind the scenes.
Look to the God who’s purposes are coming true in the birth of a tiny baby boy.
Look to the Jesus around whom God moved heaven and earth to make everything centre on him.
Build your security, your identity, your comfort, your strength, in him.