All quotations are taken from Luke 2:1-20.
“In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.”
Caesar Augustus was the ruler of the most powerful empire history had ever seen. His opinion of himself and the power he possessed was so great that he styled himself Divi Filius — Son of a God. Just in case anyone might miss the point, he had the title inscribed on every coin he issued for use throughout the empire.
But it wasn’t enough. Lust for power is never satisfied. He wanted more, and so made a decree that “all the world” should be registered. Some translations have “taxed” instead of “registered”. Both are accurate. What he commanded was a registration or census throughout all of his dominions, which would then be used as the basis to exact more taxation from the subjects within those lands.
Why more tax? Because more tax equals more power equals more dominion. The sheer raw power and audacity on display is breathtaking. With a click of his fingers the decree goes forth from the man of power, and “all the world” must dance to his tune — even if that means a poor man and heavily pregnant woman being uprooted and having to travel a long distance to the man’s home town. The decree is issued, and before long, yet more money will be extracted from the people under the threat of brute force. All so Caesar can consolidate his power and fight his wars. Sound familiar?
So much for the decree of Caesar and all who extract their pound of flesh from their subjects as a gift for themselves.
But there is another decree. This one comes from one who has been characterised by militant atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens as a tyrant and a despot. Oh yeah? So what decree does this apparent “tyrant and despot” send out?
His decree is also intended for “all the world”:
“… behold, I bring you good news of a great joy that will be for all the people.”
Unlike Caesar’s, his decree is not a demonstration of power, backed by fear. In fact, quite the opposite:
“And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with fear. And the angel said to them, ‘Fear not.'”
His decree is not uttered by one who scorns the poor, the needy, the lowly. Rather, it is given by one who despite inhabiting eternity, made himself poor, needy and the lowest of the lows as a sign to the people:
“And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
And his decree is not the extracting of payment from all the world. Instead, it is a gift to all the world. His decree does not rob from the needy. Instead, it gives to the needy. His decree does not take from the hungry and thirsty. Instead, it fills the hungry and thirsty:
“For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”
It is hard to imagine that there was any rejoicing at the decree of Caesar. Of course there would have been the simpering flatterers around him, telling him how great and glorious he was to be able to issue such a decree and have “all the world” at his beck and call. But rejoicing throughout his dominions? No. Lots of groaning and sighing under the burden, but no joy.
The contrast with the other decree for “all the world” could hardly be different. There is rejoicing in Heaven:
“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.'”
And there is rejoicing on Earth, even amongst those who would probably have been hardest pushed to comply with the decree of Caesar:
“And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them”.
And why not? Caesar demands from all the people a gift from them to him. God proclaims to all the people a gift from him to them. Not money, but something infinitely better. The greatest gift of all. The gift of His Son, so that we might be saved and inherit eternal life.
The gift is freely given. Take it freely and rejoice.