Caesar Augustus issued a decree and set the whole world moving. What power there is in Imperial decree. Caesar speaks and everyone is uprooted. They all return to their native homes. Caesar’s word calls people back to their roots.
Caesar has a purpose. He wants the whole world to be numbered. He is counting his people. He needs their money. These people are not named, they are numbered. Their stories are not important. Who they are does not matter. What they can provide does. They represent an economic resource. A decree from Caesar. Word comes from Rome. An order comes from the center of power to the margins, and the whole world moves. Caesar sees himself as the immoveable center of a moveable world.
Mary and Joseph move as well. They return to the city of David because that is where Joseph’s family began. King David was a shepherd, just like those in tonight’s gospel. The Lord took him from the obscurity of minding sheep and placed him at the center of his people. David built a new city for his God, Jerusalem. It was the center of every pious Jew’s life, for it was there that God dwelt in the midst of his people. David, the marginal character, became the cornerstone.
But, David also had an interest in numbering his people. In the 24th chapter of the 2nd Book of Samuel, we read that he decided to count the people of Israel. His generals and advisers warned him against this. The people belonged to God, the land belonged to God, neither belonged to David. The people were instruments of God’s purpose, they were neither economic units, nor chattel to be sent hither and yon by an earthly king.
David learned his lesson when a plague fell on Israel as a result of his presumption. David, much like Caesar, thought that he was the center, the still point of a world upon which his policies turned.
Luke is telling us that Caesar, secure in his palace, does not realize that he is now replaced as center of the world. With the Incarnation, the world spins off its axis, as He through whom all things are made is born in the City of David and laid in a manger. The feast of Christmas calls us all back to our origins.
The first to see this wonder are the shepherds. Mary, Joseph and the child have nowhere to lay their heads. There was no room for them in the inn. The Son of Man can find no lodging. He came to his own and his own received him not. The shepherds too have no permanent place to lay their heads. They were literally ‘passing the night in the open’. They were outsiders. Central to their lives was their job. There was nowhere else to go for failed shepherds. Yet the shepherds, those who keep their eyes peeled, who live out in the open, who are outsiders, see the angel and the glory of the Lord before all others. Their masters are sound asleep in their beds, having turned the Lord of Glory from their doors. The shepherds see, and in seeing understand. The outsiders are brought within.
They do a strange thing. They say, “Let us go and see this wonder.” They went in haste. They forgot their flocks. They forgot their jobs. The fragile security of their profession was left behind them. The center of their lives changed. It was no longer focused on vulnerable flocks of sheep on a wind-swept hillside in the dark of night, depending on the patronage of wealthier men. The new center of their lives was not their job, it was not Jerusalem, it was not Rome, it was a manger at which beasts were fed, which was transformed into the throne of the Lord. And they went back praising and glorifying God for all that they had seen. The marginal had become the center.
To live in faith seems difficult in a world, which no longer resonates to the songs and symbols of heavenly glory. Christians, as they make their way to church Sunday by Sunday, festival by festival, when their neighbors are sleeping, doing their shopping or heading to the game, can feel that they are on the margin, the odd ones out.
The Christmas gospel shows us that it was ever thus.
For the shepherds, it was easier to recognize what had happened, they were unencumbered by membership in society, they had no earthly king, they were not to be counted. We, here, now are almost continually counted … and tracked and polled, our society holds-up many kings for us to worship. Can we, like the shepherds, see through those who pretend to power to the real King of Glory.
The shepherds went back glorifying God for all that they had heard and seen. For the Angel had said to them “…Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy… For today in the city of David a savior has been born for you who is Messiah and Lord.”