The People Beyond the Creche:  Kings and Powers

Luke 1:46-55
November 29, 2015
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott

As we begin this season of Advent, our country is embroiled in an ugly debate about whether to welcome Syrian refugees to our shores.  We are grieving once again from the victims of a mass shooting after a gunman took the lives of three people (and wounded nine others) at a Planned Parenthood Clinic in Colorado.  On Friday, demonstrators in Chicago disrupted shopping in the wake of a police video that showed a white police officer fatally shooting a black teenager 16 times.  Yesterday, a mass grave containing the bodies of at least 110 people was found in northern Iraq, all members of a minority group killed by ISIS.  I don’t know about you, but I am reluctant to read the headlines every morning.  There is so much violence and suffering in the world today.

We are weary of war — war between nations, war between races, war between police and the communities they are hired to protect, war between politicians, war between religious ideologies, war, war, war.  What we could really use is a Savior who can save us from all of this war.

It may feel like a very modern day condition, but our weariness with war is as ancient as our scriptures.  In first century Rome, people were also tired of war.  For years, they too, had heard the thunder of soldiers’ boots as the centurions marched off to fight in foreign countries.  They had been battered by political turmoil and factional bloodshed.  They were as disheartened as we are, and so it was with as much hope and joy that they greeted a Savior, hailing him as the Prince of Peace.  In later years, they would celebrate his birth saying, “[We have been granted ] a Savior who has made war to cease and who shall put everything [in peaceful] order; … The birthday of our God signaled the beginning of Good News for the world because of him.” (From the inscription on the Priene Calendar, c. 9 BCE)

Savior of the World; Prince of Peace; Supreme God; the beginning of the Good News:  these were the titles bestowed by the people on the man they saw as the one who would save them:  Emperor Octavian, known also as Caesar Augustus.

It is not a coincidence that Luke begins his story of the birth of Jesus with the words, “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” Luke wants his readers to think of all of those accolades that had been showered on Octavian.  He had been called the Prince of Peace because under his rule, Rome was at peace with all of its neighboring countries for the first time in its history.  People were able to travel safely and efficiently on the new system of roads he inaugurated.  Peace allowed the arts to flourish, and new buildings were springing up throughout the Empire — 82 new Temples, the Triumphal Arch in the Forum, theaters and altars.  Octavian’s rule began a 200 year period of stability known as the Pax Romana — the great Roman peace — and it was during this period of peace that the Christian church was born.

“In those days, a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled.”  Luke wanted his readers to think about the imperial peace into which Christ was born because Luke wanted them to think also of how that peace was maintained.  For the young church, the Pax Romana was a peace bought at great cost.  Jesus was born under the local rule of Herod the Great who protected his political peace by assassinating anyone who opposed him, including his own wife and several sons.  A surviving son, Herod Antipas, ordered the head of John the Baptist brought to him on a platter.  During the Pax Romana, Peter and Paul were executed, Stephen was stoned, and James, Jesus’ brother, was beheaded, all tried and convicted by the Romans for the crime of being a minority sect, Christian.  And only a decade before Luke wrote his gospel, Roman soldiers destroyed the Temple of Jerusalem and massacred as many as a million Jews because their demands for justice had threatened that famous Roman peace.

And, of course, the young Christian church could never forget that it was during the Pax Romana that Pilate ordered a man named Jesus nailed to a cross to die on Calvary.

I suspect that the early church didn’t think much of the Great Roman Peace.  Yes, the Roman borders were secure but the peace that the government touted came at a great cost to many of the people within those borders.  As Christians thought about Rome’s version of peace and compared it to the peace that God had promised through the prophets, they took all of those titles awarded to Caesar Augustus and applied them to Christ in a deliberate reversal.  Sure, Caesar Augustus had carved out an empire-wide peace but the peace that he offered came from the top down.  It was imposed by a military force that maintained its peace through intimidation and fear.  The peace that Christ promises, however, the church said, grows from the bottom up and is maintained by compassion and justice and sacrifice.  Rome’s peace benefits the powerful, but Christ’s peace favors the peasant.  Rome’s peace locks tight the doors, but Christ’s peace opens the door and welcomes everyone to enter.  Rome’s peace cultivates suspicion and is sustained by bigotry; but Christ’s peace is willing to risk for the sake of creating community.

Christ’s peace arises from a great reversal.  It “scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, brings down the powerful from their thrones, lifts up the lowly; fills the hungry with good things, and sends the rich away empty.”  And it had its fullest expression on the cross, where Christ gave everything so that others might live.

It is a very different kind of peace that Christ envisioned, one that the Romans in their military mindset dismissed as a dangerous dream, but it is a dream that has not died and that we return to again and again every year at Advent when we read the words of the Magnificat.  Is it a dream that can really make a difference?

In the last few decades, many church based organizations have begun to try to apply Christ’s words in a real way to conflicts around the globe, developing what are known as bottom-up peacemaking strategies.  These organizations work with communities at a local level to find ways for warring groups to find reconciliation.  One writer says that bottom-up peace-building can be more efficient than top-down efforts because “by virtue of their high public profile…. leaders are under a tremendous pressure to maintain a position of strength [against] their adversaries and [in] their own constituencies.”  (Lederach, 1997) Don’t we see this in our own politicians today?  Presidential candidates are suddenly spouting hateful rhetoric to prove their strength; to flex their muscles before their constituencies because they have everything to lose if people think they are weak.  People on the bottom of the ladder, however, have nothing to lose and so are often more willing to talk with one another and work to nurture new ways of interacting.  And people at the bottom of the ladder — women, children, the poor, and disenfranchised — are the ones who are often most impacted by the violence of the powerful and so are more motivated to try to find ways of real peace.

In 2003, it was a women’s peace group that ended a bloody civil war in Liberia. Thousands of women across Christian and Muslim divides engaged in nonviolent demonstrations against the war.  They pressured Liberian President Charles Taylor to attend peace talks, and their leader Mary Thornell pushed her way into the peace negotiations and declared, “there will be no guns at this table.”  The women then blocked all the doors until a peace agreement between the conflicting parties was realized.  This was a peace that “scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, brings down the powerful from their thrones, and lifts up the lowly.”

The gospel tells us that real peace cannot be imposed from the top down but must be grown from the bottom up.  Top down peace breeds fear and divides community and traffics in injustice.  Top down peace allows the strong to swell with their own self-importance by trampling on the weak.  Top down peace perpetuates violence and teaches us nothing about how to live with one another as fellow human beings.

Bottom up peace opens doors to strangers, cares for the innocent, listens to those who disagree, and is willing to do the slow work of patching together thousands upon thousands of small moments of understanding between each other to weave a society grounded in reconciliation and justice.

And the best thing about Christ’s peace — the peace that grows from the bottom up instead of being imposed from the top down — is that it is a peace that we can do something about.  Bottom up peace depends on people in communities across the globe to do the work of building networks of understanding and acceptance wherever they are, whether they are in war torn Syria or in a rural town in Western NY.  When you refuse to listen to the fear-inspired rhetoric of those who want to close our nation’s doors to homeless refugees, and when you work for reform of our judicial system to make it truly colorblind, when you insist on the care of our impoverished neighbors, and teach your children to respect people of different religions and backgrounds, you are building peace from the bottom up.  Maybe it doesn’t feel very important but bottom-up peacebuilding isn’t about feeling important; it’s not about us at all.  It’s about our neighbor and the stranger and communities that need healing.  It’s about Christ.

A.W. Tozer said, “We can be in our day what the heroes of faith were in their day — but remember at the time, they didn’t know they were heroes.”  All they knew was that they had become part of the great reversal inaugurated by the Prince of Peace.