In Christmas Eve services in every church around the world, we will be reading the Christmas story from Luke 2. It is a beautiful story, and most of us can nearly recite the story or at least its basic elements: the census, Joseph and Mary going to Bethlehem for the census, no room at the inn, the birth in the stable, the baby Jesus placed lovingly in a manger surrounded by animals and adored by parents and also shepherds, and the songs of angels, "Good News!"
The story is set in the context of a great king, and yet the story is also the story of two kings and two very different kingdoms.
Caesar Augustus is the king whose reign demands a census for taxation which causes the trip of Joseph and his very pregnant wife. Caesar Augustus was a king by anyone's standard. He came to power in a typical battle for leadership, and his cunning, his military savvy, and his ruthlessness earned him a kingdom. At its height (during the time of Christ) his kingdom was without rival, and it covered the known world of the Mediterranean. His power was so complete that he moved from being a leader chosen by the Senate to being an emperor and finally to being regarded as a god by his people. His power was so complete that a simple gesture of his hand (a thumb up or down) made the decision of life or death for his own citizens. Caesar Augustus (Caesar the Great) was a king by anyone's standard and by anyone's definition.
And yet, Caesar Augustus is only in the Christmas story as an historical marker for the birth of the other king, the little baby king, whom we Christians regard as the King of Kings. Baby Jesus, contrary to all human standards, is the other king, the real King in the story. Imagine that! He was born to poor parents, considered an illegitimate child of an unmarried mother, taunted into his adulthood (according to the Gospel of John) by religious leaders who said, "We know that Abraham is our father, but who is your father?" He was born in a third-rate town of an end-of-the-world province of the Roman Empire, born in a place which was likely unknown to Caesar Augustus. He was born to a people who had been conquered, carried off into exile, returned home, and conquered again and again. No wonder that the Gospel writers saw truth in Isaiah's prophecy that he was born "to a people living in darkness."
This other king, this little baby king, was born to a homeless or at least a transient couple, who were only able to give birth inside from the elements and the curiosity seekers due to the generosity of an innkeeper who always gets a bad rap in our retelling the story. If not for his generosity, Mary would have endured a delivery among the others living on the streets of impoverished and overcrowded Bethlehem. His parents were so poor that later, when they took him to be "named" in the Temple, they could not afford the normal offering of a lamb, but had to purchase two turtle doves – the offering allowed to the poor who wanted to celebrate and name their newborns. Amazing, isn't it? The one we declare to be the Lamb of God was born to parents too poor to afford one lamb as a gift for him.
Not a very auspicious beginning for the second king in the story.
But we know the rest of the story. We know that baby Jesus grew up, declared the good news of the Kingdom of God, was executed by the powers of the Roman Empire, and yet was raised by God as a sign/witness to the power of another Kingdom. We know that Jesus was confronted by Pontius Pilate, an inept and cruel governor working as a puppet leader for the Empire of the Caesars, who asked him, "Are you a king?" (Imagine the incredulity in Pilate's voice, saying "Are YOU a king?") And we know the response of Jesus, "My kingdom is not of this world." Indeed, in the Kingdom proclaimed by Jesus, we are taught to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us, to give without regard to receiving, and to have faith that God's Kingdom is at work even in the small, mysterious ways of seeds growing in the earth.
Oh yes, there are two kings in the Christmas story, but which One do we remember and celebrate? Which is the One whose very birth has become the starting date for a whole new epoch in human history? Which is the One whose truth, whose love, and whose power is with us still today?
I wonder ... when we read that lovely Christmas story and sing those beautiful Christmas carols, do we know what we are declaring? Do we remember that we are declaring our allegiance to the other king, the true King, the King of Kings, and his kingdom?
There are two kings and two kingdoms in the Christmas story. Be careful which kingdom you make the center of your Christmas celebration.
Have a joyous Christmas.