“A decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered….”
I have read and heard this story hundreds of times, yet I have never thought about what it was like for Mary and Joseph to give birth under Emperor Augustus’s decree until recently—living in a pandemic. Now we know what it is like to live under decrees—about masks, vaccines, whether to work or go to school at home or on zoom, and when to test, and quarantine. Whether or not we like or agree with them, these decrees are intended to keep us and others healthy, but this was not true of the emperor’s decrees at the time that Jesus’ was born.
Emperor Augustus agreed with Benjamin Franklin’s assessment that the “only certain things in life are death and taxes” and he wielded both with a fearsome might. The registration Augustus decreed ensured that everyone was being properly taxed for the Roman empire—an oppressive burden on already poor people, many of whom already had their land taken away. They could pay the money or pay with their life, bringing fear and hardship. But decrees by emperors demanded a response; so, regardless of being nine months pregnant, Mary got on a donkey and with Joseph’s assistance, they made their way to Bethlehem to have what livelihood they did earn, taxed for Rome.
But this was not the only decree happening at the time. There was a parallel and much more powerful decree being declared by God in a field outside of Bethlehem. The angels appeared to the shepherds with a message of joy for the whole world that comes for all people everywhere. The angels told them NOT to be afraid, for their decree was one of life and love and salvation. Your God is coming as new life—as a baby in a manger, who will be like you and show you the way, and lead you forward, and walk with you through the valley of the shadows, and bring you through to the other side.
God has come to be with you, and your Messiah and Savior reverses the power of “death and taxes” with the certain gift of eternal life and a promissory note that says, “your debt is paid and your sins are forgiven.”
• This decree of hope and new life has the power to go back into your past and erase everything you have done you wish you didn’t, all you did not do and you wish you did—and bring you peace.
• This decree of hope and new life has the power to fill your present with the presence of the Christ-child, born anew in your hearts with the love and strength to live with the challenges of today knowing that Jesus is always with you.
• This decree of hope and new life has the power to reach into your future beyond the grave and give you a heavenly home with the angels you see around now.
The shepherds were so overjoyed to hear God’s decree of life and salvation from the angels, they, like Mary and Joseph, also went to Bethlehem. But they did not make their way under the heavy weight of obligation. They ran to Bethlehem. They rushed there out of sheer elation that they could live under the decree of God’s all-encompassing love here and now. The shepherds brought their joy and wonder to Mary and Joseph, releasing them and all of us, to live under a liberating decree of joy and glory.
The birth of God’s immense love into our lives in Jesus gives us all the strength and wisdom, power and love we need to live with the rules that order our earthly life, while we give our hearts and minds, our strength and souls—truly and completely—to the decree of Christ our Lord. Amen.