Did you get what you wanted for Christmas? About a month ago, Brenda’s parents encouraged our daughters to write down their “wish lists” for Christmas. Guess what? Our girls actually got some of those things for Christmas! Surprise, surprise!
There’s really very little about this season that can surprise us anymore, is there? In fact, there are entire stores at the mall devoted to helping find something for the man who has everything! We can’t even surprise ourselves!
My folks managed to surprise me at Christmas exactly twice. The first time was when they gathered us kids together in early December, and said to us, “Now, we hate to say this, but don’t expect anything much for Christmas this year. You see, we don’t really have any money!”
That kind of shocked my little heart awake! I’m not sure what bothered me more, the fact that they didn’t have any money, or the fact that I wasn’t going to get a Christmas present.
The other time my folks managed to surprise me at Christmas was the year that they gave me a present that seemed so stupid! I mean, here I am, 13 years old, and they get me this dumb toy that just runs around this way and that! It was a locomotive, the kind you might get for a twelve year old — but not for a teenager! No teenager would dare admit he got a present like that! From his parents, yet!
But, there’s something of that flavor to the story of Christmas we read this morning. In some ways, God’s gift to us at Christmas seems all wrong.
I. It’s the Wrong Gift (… in the days of Caesar Augustus …)
For one thing, it’s the wrong gift to send.
I know we get so used to hearing about God’s great gift at Christmas, that we can hardly think in those terms. I remember the story they told years ago at a church in Grand Rapids. The minister was giving a children’s message and he wanted to show the little ones how God cares for even the smallest animals. He squatted down in front of them, and he said to them: “I want you to tell me who I’m pretending to be. I have a long furry tail, and I live in the forest.” No hands raised. No nodding heads. So he went on.
“Well,” he said, “I have soft, furry skin, and I collect nuts, and I hide them in the trees. Finally there’s a little response in the gathering. A young girl raises her hand. The minister nods to her expectantly, and she says, “Well, I know the answer is supposed to be Jesus, but it sounds like a squirrel to me!”
The answer is supposed to be Jesus. We know that. We’re programmed to believe that. But think, for a minute, about the world that Jesus entered.
… in the days of Caesar Augustus … we’re told…. in the days of Caesar Augustus …
What were those days? What was the world like in the days of Caesar Augustus?
Well, those were days of the most marvelous peace the ancient world had ever known! The peace had come about all because of a great savior, miraculously born, and unusually gifted. You see, forty years before this, Julius Caesar had died. And he died so tragically! Remember the story?
Julius Caesar had welded together an empire even greater than Alexander’s. His troops had conquered Gaul and the British Isles. The Germanic peoples bowed to the great Roman eagle. Julius Caesar had forcibly put down civil rebellions once he returned to Rome. Now he was about to consolidate his rule, and take control for governing away from the Senate. Of course, many resented that. Spurinna, the soothsayer, wagged her finger at him, and told him plainly, “Beware the ides of March!”
On the night of March 14, Caesar threw a party at his palace. The entertainment of the evening was to discuss the topic, “What is the best death?”
Caesar himself said that the best death would be a sudden one. That night his wife had a dream of him covered with blood. In the morning she begged him not to go to the Senate. But Brutus encouraged him to go. On the way, they met Spurinna. Caesar said to her, with a smile, “Look! The ides of March have come!”
Once again she wagged her finger at him. “Yes,” she said, “they have come! But they have not yet gone!”
A few moments later, Julius Caesar lay dead, stabbed mercilessly by his friends, including Brutus. The Mediterranean world was plunged into ruin. For 20 years, civil war raged. Farms were neglected. Towns were sacked and wasted. Any wealth was carried off by the latest armed desperados. Administration had broken down. Every street was unsafe at night. Highwaymen roamed, kidnaping travelers, and selling them off as slaves. Trade diminished, investment stood still, interest rates soared, property values fell. Says historian Will Durant:
Rome was full of men who lost their economic footing and then their moral stability: soldiers who had tasted adventure and had learned to kill; citizens who had seen their savings consumed in the taxes and inflation of war… women dizzy with freedom, multiplying divorces, abortions, and adulteries….1
The world was coming apart at the seams. Julius Caesar was killed in March of 44 B.C. And that was the year that they opened the doors of the Temple of Janus in Rome, and didn’t shut them again for 20 years! Janus was the god of war, and whenever any armed conflict was happening, they kept the doors of his temple open. Julius Caesar died, and for two whole decades, peace took a vacation from the earth!
Now the story changes! A child is born! At the age of four his father dies, so he is raised by his mother and a stepfather. At the age of 12, he has his first public appearance. He makes a speech at his grandmother’s funeral, and people talk about it for years. At 18, he goes off to battle in Spain with Julius Caesar. Caesar is so impressed by the young man, that when Caesar is killed on the ides of March, his will declares the young Gaius Octavius to be his successor. Caesar was god to the Roman people. So Gaius Octavius is designated the Son of God! He’s born to be king! The throne of the world belongs to him!
But peace won’t come easily. Octavius will march around the countryside for several years, before people understand the kingdom he talks about. In fact, get this! It won’t happen till he’s 33 years old! That year his preaching finally brings results. The world responds to his message, and peace is declared!
In 29 B.C., the doors on the Temple of Janus are officially closed for the first time in two decades, and Rome is at rest! The Roman Senate celebrates.
It officially confers upon Gaius Octavius the titles Savior and God! He is declared to be Caesar Augustus, the ultimate ruler in the world. In fact, the Senate orders the building of an altar inscribed with this bold statement Pax Augusta!
The Peace of Caesar Augustus is declared! His birthday becomes a world holiday. Every city builds a shrine in his honor, and lifts up this banner to his name — the Savior of the Whole World!
One ancient inscription puts it right in the open: the birthday of the god has marked the beginning of the good news [gospel] through him for the world!2
What more did the world need?
What more could God, any god, give?
In the days of Caesar Augustus the world had everything it wanted; everything it needed! What a foolish thing for some other God to send a gift into the world of Caesar Augustus, and then to declare that this is what that gift is all about: Peace on earth!
Ha! That’s a gift that’s not needed in this world, this world of Caesar Augustus! And yet … Listen to what Epictetus wrote, who also lived in these times, these days of Caesar Augustus.
… while the emperor may give peace from war on land and sea, he is unable to give peace from passion, grief and envy. He cannot give peace of heart, for which humanity yearns more than even for outward peace!
So it is that Edward Gibbon begins his great seven-volume work on The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire precisely at this point! Because, in the days of Caesar Augustus, the Pax Augusta ruled the nations but it couldn’t conquer the human heart!
So God comes with his “wrong gift.”
Charles Williams puts it so powerfully in his little novel, The Greater Trumps.
He pictures another world at peace, the staid, respectful and peaceful world of England. People with the funds to buy the usual Christmas presents and more. People who talk loudly about the Peace of Christmas. And here are the Coningsby’s, going to a picture-perfect country church on Christmas morning.
Along the way they carry on such a delightful argument about all those fussy doctrines…
Here sits Nancy, mindlessly turning to hymn 61 on cue. The organ begins to play and they fumble with their books …
And at the proper time they all rise to sing …
And then the words begin to come out:
Christians, awake! Salute the happy morn,
Whereon the Savior of the world was born:
Rise to adore the mystery of love
Which hosts of angels chanted from above!
Suddenly Nancy’s mind whirls …
Suddenly her heart warms …
Suddenly she knows she’s in the presence of God Himself to receive a gift she didn’t need! To know a peace she thought she’d never experience! To find a mystery of love beyond the trappings and the formality of the season!
And there it is: the gift of God … the mystery of love … the unexpected … the unwanted … But the ever-so-much needed!
In the days of Caesar Augustus, while all the world basks in its peace of prosperity, its peace of power, its peace of commercial success, here comes silly old God, throwing in a surprise gift! Some might even call it a “gag gift”! Nobody thinks they need it! That’s just the point! “We’ve got god Caesar!” they boast.
And yet … Says the poet:
And girls in slacks remember Dad,
And oafish louts remember Mum,
And sleepless children’s heart are glad,
And Christmas morning bells say ‘Come’
And is it true? And is it true,
This most tremendous tale of all,
Seen in a stained-glass window’s hue:
A Baby in an ox’s stall?3
II. In the Wrong Package (…she gave birth to a baby…)
And this brings us to the second thing, this morning. God’s gift at Christmas seems to be the wrong gift, as we said, but it also seems to come in the wrong package! If God were to send us a gift … (Of course, we don’t really need one, thank you! We’ve got Caesar Augustus!) But if God were to send us a gift, surely it wouldn’t be one packaged like this!
Remember how Isaiah put it? Remember what he said was the cry of the ages? He said it like this:
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down! That the mountains would tremble before you! (Isaiah 64:1)
If you’re going to send us a gift during the days of Caesar Augustus, then at least make it greater, and more powerful than Caesar’s armies! If the Pax Augusta isn’t big enough, send a bigger one!
That’s the way we would do it, if we were God! A God with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm! as the prophets said.
A God with his dukes up, and his arms bared for a good fight! Send us a turbo-charged engine, in our competitive bantering!
You know: The Force be with you!
But what does this God of strange surprises do? He sends a baby! A helpless little baby! It can’t even take care of itself! It would die without the tender caress of a mother! We look for the big gifts in the big boxes! We look for power and might. We look for something that would turn the world upside down! And then God goes and does something like this! Says George Herbert:
They all were looking for a king,
to slay their foes and lift them high.
Thou earnest, a little baby-thing
that made a woman cry!
Remember Psalms 2?
Remember this picture: “Why do the nations rage,” asks the Psalmist, “and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against his Anointed One.”
The nations and kingdoms and powers of earth gear up for battle, says the Psalmist. Then, when the high and mighty Lord of Heaven and Earth throws in His forces, it’s only a tiny, helpless baby in a cradle!
That’s why the Prophet Isaiah could write: Who has believed our report? Who could believe our report? “A root out of dry ground,” he called it. A tender plant. A helpless tiny child.
We want God to storm into our world, to take our side in the battles of life, to destroy our enemies, and transform our existences! We want God to play Santa Claus: And what would you like this Christmas?
But somehow He goes on being God: giving us what we most need — Someone Who knows us as we are, Someone Who shares what it means to be human.
But here’s the tough thing about Christianity, isn’t it? — If God is so big and so powerful, why does he allow this to happen to us? Why did my child have to die? Why, with all the advances in medicine, does this strange disease happen in our family? Why do God’s gifts come in the wrong sized packages?
C. S. Lewis thought about that when some friends came to him, begging him to play cards with them. And they always played for money. Lewis hated to play cards, for one thing, but he hated, even more, playing for money, so he’d say to his friends, “Okay! How much money do you want to win from me?” Then he’d pull out his wallet, and stuff some bills into their hands. It took the fun out of the game!
But Lewis made the analogy — In our human games of wheeling and dealing, we want to be the winners, and we want someone else to be the loser. And in the strangeness of Christmas, God enters our bloody world of winners and losers, and he asks us how much we really want to win and what is it that we really want to win? I mean, when all the betting’s over, and all the smoke has cleared from the battlefield … What is it that we really want to win? And here it comes. We want to be fully human, fully alive, but how are we going to know what that is, when all we’ve ever seen are winners and losers?
Except … Except for this: God comes round one Christmas night, and he puts on our clothes, and he walks a mile in our shoes, and he learns our ways …
And for what? So that he can teach us a little more of what it means to be fully human. So He can nurture something larger within us that is fully alive.
Asks the poet:
Where did you come from, baby dear? And the answer?
And the answer?
Out of the everywhere and into here.4
And the Word of the Father became Mary’s little son, And his love reached all the way to where we were …
III. For the Wrong People (…announced to shepherds …)
God seems to be sending the wrong gift in the wrong package. But then, get this! He even sends that to the wrong people!
To whom do you give Christmas gifts? To nice people, right? To friends, and to business people who helped you out this past year. Sure, you may feel obligated to pass off a gift to a relative you don’t really like, but even relatives aren’t usually all that bad!
When God gives his Christmas gift, he sends it to the shepherds in the fields around Bethlehem. Nice people, aren’t they, these shepherds? After all, David was a shepherd boy! Couldn’t get much better than that! So it seems, in our Christmas pageants. The shepherds are the cute ones, the ones dressed up in their Dads’ bathrobes, Grandpas’ canes in their hands. Shepherds are the good guys, the simple folk who are genuine and down to earth. Literally!
But get this! In that world, faithful Jews were warned by rabbis against entering six professions. One of those forbidden occupations was shepherding! Why?
Or again, conscientious Pharisees would never consider doing business with a shepherd! They would buy wool and milk, but never from a shepherd himself! Why not?
Or, get this! Shepherds weren’t allowed to give testimony in a court! In fact, shepherds weren’t permitted to enter places of worship! They couldn’t go to the temple or the synagogue! Why not?
There were pretty good reasons. Shepherds were constantly walking among the droppings of the sheep, and this made them religiously unclean.
Secondly, shepherds ranged their sheep throughout the countryside, without paying attention to property lines. In other words, they were constantly trespassing. And what’s more, they were in the right position to pick up things along the way! Shepherds were considered to be thieves. They ran the local black market!
Nobody loved a shepherd! Shepherds were liars — you couldn’t trust their word in court. Shepherds were thieves–they’d steal you blind. Shepherds were dirty and disgusting–rumor had it that they even, sometimes, did the unspeakable, and took sexual comfort with their dumb animals on those long, lonely nights under the stars.
Shepherds were hopeless. Shepherds were despised. Shepherds had one foot in hell.
And the Willie Nelsons of that day sang:
Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be shepherds!
And then God … Silly God!
Doesn’t He know what’s right and what’s wrong? Can’t He see things the way we do? But God sends His best choir out into the skies that night, to sing the Hallelujah chorus to people who can’t even read music!
And here’s the greatest wonder of God’s Christmas giving! He sends His Present to the wrong people! Do you see the strangeness about what we’re doing here this morning? All of us “nice” people?
Does it make you a little nervous to think that God might be somewhere else today? Somewhere with people who aren’t so “nice”? In the AIDS hospice, perhaps? Or in the red-light district? Or in another corner that doesn’t look quite as pretty as this?
In the second century, one of the greatest critics of Christianity was named Celsus. He had very little good to say about the Christian Church. He said, “All other religions invite those who have clean hands and a clear conscience. But whom do these Christians invite? Everyone who is sinful, weak, and wretched — as if they were assembling a gang of thieves!”
Funny how sometimes people can cut right to the heart of the matter! But there it is … God’s Christmas present … Plopped down right in the middle of all our tinsel. The wrong gift! In the wrong package! For the wrong people!
And the announcement comes: Peace on Earth!
Whatever could that mean? Whatever could that mean during the days of Caesar Augustus? Whatever could that mean during the great Pax Augustus? Whatever could the Pax Christi, the Peace of Christ, mean during those days?
We talked of that this past Wednesday morning. Sitting around the breakfast table at Russ’s. The Wednesday morning “Men’s Life” group. What is peace? What is peace? The absence of war? Then the great Pax Augusta is all we need. Then life in our part of the world is pretty good! But the peace of the Bible is always something different than quietness. You know the word.
Shalom! And what is that shalom, that peace?
In April of 1963, Martin Luther King, Jr. was sitting in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama. He had been arrested for leading another demonstration, seeking a place in society for his people. While he was in jail, twenty Christian leaders in Birmingham, pastors and teachers and doctors, wrote him a letter.
They said, in their letter, that he was wrong! He was unkind! He was unchristian!
Why? Because he was disrupting the “peace” in their nice community! They told him, in the name of Christ, to cease his demonstrations, and to allow peace to return to their polite world. Martin Luther King thought long and hard about that letter. Here were all these Christian colleagues, begging him, in the name of Christ, to change his ways, to shut up, to give up his cause.
He laid the letter on the table in front of him. And he poured over it in prayer all that night. And in the morning, he wrote back a letter which has become a classic in the Christian church. It’s called, Letter from a Birmingham Jail. And in it King says:
He says, you want me to be quiet, and in that way to bring you peace. But, he says, in the Bible, peace is not the absence of warfare … peace is, instead, the presence of justice! Peace is the presence of justice!
And there’s the contrast between the Pax Augusta and the Pax Christi.
The Peace of Caesar Augustus forced the nations to lay down their weapons. But the Peace of Christ opened the hearts of the lost, and the last, and the least to a place in society that they could not find themselves.
One hospital was having problems on its maternity ward. The walls were painted plaster, and the ceiling was the same. Every noise in the nursery echoed and reverberated, till the crying of one baby woke all the others, and the place was a constant din of wailing. Someone suggested that they fix speakers in the ceiling, and play music to soothe the little savages.
So they did. But what recording made the biggest difference? What music quieted the tiny minds and ticklish tongues?
The greatest quiet happened when they played in that nursery the sound of a heartbeat. A human heartbeat. A heartbeat that said to these little ones: Somebody’s standing watch! Somebody’s in control? Somebody’s heart beats over us in love!
Peace is not merely the absence of warfare. Any old Caesar Augustus can do that! But true peace is the presence of justice. Where someone cares enough to make things right for all those folks who otherwise get overlooked.
So comes the heartbeat of eternity into the baby’s chest on Christmas. Says the poet:
Thou shalt know Him when He comes,
Not by any din of drums,
Nor by anything He wears,
Neither by His crown,
Nor by His gown…
But His presence known shall be
By the holy harmony
Which His coming makes in thee.
1Will Durant, Christ and Caesar, p. 211
2Priene Inscription, 40-42, Ditt. Syl. 458.
3John Betjeman, Christmas.
4George McDonald, At the Back of the North Wind, ch. 33, song.

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