A Church's New Year's Resolution (1 Corinthians 2:1-5)

Today's the day that some of us think about New Year's resolutions for the coming year. According to studies, though, not all of us are into resolutions. A study came out a year ago saying that only 45% of people now make New Year's resolutions, which is half of the number who did so in the past.

Why the dramatic drop in the number of people making resolutions? Stephen Shapiro, who wrote a book called Goal-Free Living, says:

New Year's Resolutions just don't work. According to our study, only 8% of Americans say they always achieve their New Year's resolutions. The way it seems to work now, setting a New Year's Resolution is a recipe for defeat. It has come to be one of the nation's most masochistic traditions...At some point, people just decide to stop hurting themselves, and they call the whole thing off.

If you're someone who makes resolutions, you shouldn't let what Shapiro says discourage you. People who explicitly make resolutions are 10 times more likely to attain their goals than people who don't explicitly make resolutions.

Whether you're a resolution maker or not, I'm going to ask you to make a New Year's resolution together as a church. I've never heard of a church making a New Year's resolution before. It's not to lose weight or exercise or to quit smoking or to pay off the credit cards. It's going to be a different kind of resolution altogether, and a little bit of a dangerous one as well.

The resolution is found in 1 Corinthians 2. Let's read it together and then let's see if it's something that we can resolve for the coming year. Paul is writing to the Corinthians and addressing some of the problems that the church in Corinth was facing. Listen to what Paul writes as he talks about the focus of his ministry when Paul was among them. Read with me the first five verses of 1 Corinthians 2:

And so it was with me, brothers and sisters. When I came to you, I did not come with eloquence or human wisdom as I proclaimed to you the testimony about God. For I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God's power.

Corinth was a sophisticated city that prided itself on its wisdom and oratory. It was said that on every street in Corinth you would meet a wise man who had his own solution to all the world's problems. The Corinthian church had adopted some of the views of the culture of that time with a love for human wisdom and eloquence. They expected a certain level of excellence in a speaker's presentation, and a certain level of sophistication in the message.

When people addressed a crowd in that day, it was customary to begin to heaping praise on the city and its achievements. You would try to present a very positive message and win people over to yourself so that they would trust you.

The apostle Paul was more than capable of fitting these expectations. He had been trained in rhetoric and was accustomed to winning people over when he spoke publicly. But Paul says two things about his approach in Corinth: one about the subject of his message, and one about his way of speaking. His subject, Paul says, is "Jesus Christ and him crucified." And his way of speaking is not with rhetorical flourish but with a reliance on the Spirit's power rather than on eloquence. Paul says,

I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. I came to you in weakness with great fear and trembling. My message and my preaching were not with wise and persuasive words, but with a demonstration of the Spirit's power, so that your faith might not rest on human wisdom, but on God's power.

So here's my question: what if we, like Paul, resolved to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified? What if we resolved over the coming year to be all about Jesus? Before I ask you to make this commitment with me, I had better tell you what I think it means. Then I'm going to ask you if you are ready to make this resolution with me.

What It Doesn't Mean

First, here's what Paul doesn't mean. Paul isn't arguing against making a message as compelling as possible. I've heard of some preachers who take pride in not preparing a message very well. I heard of one a few years back who would never prepare before sitting in the service during the morning. Sometimes he would do all his preparation on the stairs on the way up to the platform. I'm guessing that the people in that church may have thought of adding more stairs at some point. Paul is saying something important about an over-reliance on communication skills, but he's not saying it's wrong. Poorly prepared messages are not more spiritual than well-prepared ones.

Paul also isn't saying that Christ's crucifixion is the only thing that he talks about. If you read Paul's books you know that he addresses many other topics and doctrines besides the death of Christ. So Paul isn't saying that it's wrong to talk about the birth of Christ or the resurrection of Christ or many of the other things we read about in Scripture. Some people press Paul's words here a little harder than they should and end up misinterpreting what he's saying.

So if Paul isn't arguing against speaking well or talking about other issues besides Christ and his death, what exactly does he mean when he says, "I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified"?

What Paul Meant

Here's what I believe Paul meant. Paul was saying that the heart of the Christian message, the person who is at the center of life and of all our questions, the beginning, middle, and the end of all of life, is Jesus. We never grow beyond Jesus. And the decisive act of history, the center of all things, is what Jesus accomplished at the cross. We can never outgrow or move beyond the central message of our faith: Jesus and him crucified. That is enough. We don't need anything more. We must make that message central and never lose sight of Jesus and the cross.

This is what Paul meant, but it goes against everything that we want to believe. We're in the same position as the Corinthians. If you go into Chapters you can find books on almost every topic. You can find people on every corner who think that they have the answers to the problems of all of life. I went on Amazon the other day and searched for "self-help" and came up with almost 83,000 books. Self-help books, seminars, video, audio and digital make up a multibillion-dollar industry. Paul says to forget all that and come back to the only person and message that matter: Jesus and him crucified.

Imagine standing up in front of a sophisticated audience who were looking for the secret to life, the universe, God, beauty, love, and death. Imagine standing up in front of this audience with nothing to say except for some stumbling words about a man who was executed outside a rebellious city in the middle east some years ago. This goes against everything that sophisticated people like us expect, but it's exactly what Paul says is needed. The answers to our deepest questions and longings are not found in sophisticated theories or programs. They are found in Jesus Christ and what he accomplished at the cross.

This even goes against what we expect in church. Crucifixion back then was not a palatable message. It was the one message that people didn't want to hear. Paul said that it didn't really matter to him. He wasn't interested in presenting a palatable message. Today, you can go into Christian bookstores and look at all the books that are presented on different topics, and be hard pressed to find a large section on Christ and him crucified. Perhaps we come to church expecting to hear positive messages that will help us live better lives. It isn't our natural inclination to return to this message, but Paul says, "I resolved to know nothing while I was with you except Jesus Christ and him crucified."

Maybe part of the problem is that we like to complicate things. Preachers are sometimes known for making simple things complex. There's enough in the Bible to get lost unless we keep our eye on the big picture. Jesus himself tells us what the central message of Scripture is. Luke 24:27 says of Jesus, "And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself." That is something I would have liked to have heard. Jesus opened up all the Bible and told these two people he met how the Scriptures spoke of himself. Somebody's said, "All the strands of the witness of Scripture to the identity and purpose of God converge in Jesus Christ" (Daniel L. Migliore). Every part of Scripture must be understood in relation to the person and work of Jesus Christ.

Here's what I know: if we resolve to make this our focus, then there is one person who won't like it. Satan would be happy if we picked any other topic, any other focus, than the person and work of Jesus. He would like for us to focus our attention anywhere else. He will do everything he can to shift our focus anywhere else. But this is precisely where we need to go: to know nothing except for Jesus Christ and him crucified, in our lives individually, and together as a church.

So we must make Jesus central. We must never lose sight of who he is and what he did for us. We must resolve, as Paul did, to make this our main concern, believing that this simple message is at the heart of everything that we need to know for life. We will never outgrow this message. Christ is alone and enough.

What It Means for Us

I want to take a few minutes this morning and ask what this might mean for us. To do so, I want to give you a quote from Tim Keller, a pastor in New York, and then unpack it a little as he describes what this could mean for us today.

Tim Keller says,

We never "get beyond the gospel" in our Christian life to something more "advanced." The gospel is not the first "step" in a "stairway" of truths, rather, it is more like the "hub" in a "wheel" of truth. The gospel is not just the A-B-C's of Christianity, but it is the A to Z of Christianity. The gospel is not just the minimum required doctrine necessary to enter the kingdom, but the way we make all progress in the kingdom.

We are not justified by the gospel and then sanctified by obedience but the gospel is the way we grow (Gal. 3:1-3) and are renewed (Col 1:6). It is the solution to each problem, the key to each closed door, the power through every barrier (Rom 1:16-17).

The main problem, then, in the Christian life is that we have not thought out the deep implication of the gospel, we have not "used" the gospel in and on all parts of our life. Richard Lovelace says that most people's problems are just a failure to be oriented to the gospel - a failure to grasp and believe it through and through...So the key to continual and deeper spiritual renewal and revival is the continual re-discovery of the gospel. A stage of renewal is always the discovery of a new implication or application of the gospel - seeing more of its truth. This is true for either an individual or a church.

I hope that you have come to Christ and the cross in your lives. I hope you understand that the gospel is key to beginning our lives of faith. The world and our lives has been broken by sin. It's brought pain and death and alienation into the world and into our lives. We are powerless to fix what sin has damaged. God, who made us in his image, sent his Son in human likeness to live a perfect life and to undo what sin had done. He died in our place, and rose again so that we could live. He is making all things new. I hope that if you have never experienced the reality of what I'm talking about that you will come to Jesus and him crucified. He alone can do what we couldn't do for ourselves.

But some of us know that message very well and think that it's time to move on to other things. One board asked its pastor, "When are we going to get past Jesus to the real meat of Scripture?" Paul reminds us that we never get past Jesus or the gospel. We are saved by the gospel and we also live by the gospel. If we have problems, individually or as a church, it is usually because we haven't grasped or believed or applied part of the gospel to our lives. Like Paul we must keep coming back again and again to Jesus Christ and him crucified until it permeates every area of our lives.

This means that we need to keep coming back to the gospel again and again, unfolding the gospel and all its implications for our lives. Ravi Zacharias says, "The depths of mystery and love found in the cross can never fully be plumbed. But it must be the lifelong pursuit of the Christian to marvel at its costliness and celebrate its meaning." We'll never be done understanding what Jesus Christ and him crucified means for every area of our lives. This will be our ongoing pursuit and passion.

It also means something for us as a church. The Corinthian church had all kinds of problems. Paul writes to them and in essence says that all of your problems as a church can be traced back to a failure to keep Jesus Christ and him crucified central. You are relying too much on human values and wisdom instead of the divine message and power. Our church, like every church, faces all kinds of challenges. Perhaps Paul is saying that the answers to our challenges will not be found in reading the latest book or trying the newest program or method. The answers are found in coming to Jesus Christ and him crucified, and in truly believing and living the gospel.

So how about it? I don't know what New Year's resolutions you are planning for yourself: losing weight, exercising more, paying off some debt. Would you commit with me to this resolution: that in 2007, we will concern ourselves primarily with Jesus Christ and him crucified?

Father, we stand at the threshold of a new year. Thank you for 2006 and all of its blessings and challenges. We stand now not knowing what lies ahead, and we pray for your help as we enter this new year.

Today we resolve that in the coming year we will concern ourselves with nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified. This doesn't mean, Father, that we won't deal with other things. We have families and jobs and tasks and other issues to which we must attend. But we want to keep Jesus, the cross, and the gospel central in our lives and in the church.

We resolve to know nothing except Jesus Christ and him crucified. Our message and our preaching are not with wise and persuasive words, but we pray for a demonstration of the Spirit's power. And may our faith not rest on human wisdom, but on God's power. We pray this, heavenly Father, in Jesus' name. Amen.

A Subversive Christmas (Luke 1:46-55)

Part One: A Time of Waiting

I don't know what kind of year 2006 has been for you. For some it's been a year of blessing. You may have had a child, or moved to a new house, or started a new job. For whatever reason, things may have gone especially well for you this past year, and as you celebrate Christmas tomorrow you can look back and say, "This has been a good year. God has been good."

But I know that for some of us, 2006 has been a year that we will not soon miss. I talked to someone recently who has been through difficulty. They observed that as others became aware of some of their circumstances, they've been surprised how many have said, "I know, I've been through that too." As we sit here together, you and I have no idea what others around us have been through with our health, our families, our jobs, our friendships. It's hard for some of us to come to Christmas and New Year's without feeling a little bit of pain, a little bit of regret, for what might have happened over the past year.

Some of us have experienced the feeling that no matter how good or bad it's been, the circumstances of our lives have been out of our control. Have you ever been through a difficult time, and it's felt that anything you do to try to make things better ends up backfiring on you? You get to the point at which you just lift up your hands and say, "All right. I can't do anything to make this better. All I can try to do is hold on until it's over and hope that I make it through to the other side."

The reason that I bring all of this up is because I want us to look at the Christmas story in a different way with you. Many of us know the story quite well: shepherds and angels, Magi and gold, frankincense, and myrrh. We know the songs and the events quite well. Today, though, I don't want to just look at the Christmas story. I'd like us to find our place in the Christmas story, to make the story our story in a way that's never happened before.

The past couple of weeks, we've been looking at what the world was like when Jesus was born. For some in Jesus' day it was the best of times. The world was ruled in that time by Caesar Augustus. The entire world was united under one ruler and was enjoying an unprecedented period of peace and prosperity. Augustus celebrated his only life by calling himself the son of a god who brings peace and salvation to the world. He called himself a savior. The economy flourished under his rule, and you could travel and communicate like never before. Caesar Augustus promised the world, and for many people who were alive that day, he delivered.

We've also looked at Herod, Caesar's puppet king in Judea, the land where Jesus was born. Herod's day was the golden age for many of the ancient buildings people go to see in Israel today. He built massive buildings. It was said that you had never seen a beautiful building until you had seen the Temple that Herod had built. Herod was perhaps the richest man who has ever lived, acquiring massive wealth and power. For those who were connected with Herod and who were spared his paranoia, life could be very good.

But maybe some of us today don't find our stories in the Christmas story as we read about the accomplishments, power, and wealth of people like Caesar and Herod. Because for some who were part of the Christmas story, it was not the best of times. It was the worst. It was a time of longing and pain and even of despair and doubt.

People of faith who lived in Israel at that time knew God's promises. They knew that God had given them the land where they lived, and had promised to bless those who blessed them, and curse those who cursed them. But as they looked around, they found it hard to imagine how things had gone so wrong.

The Roman rule, despite the era of peace, was bad news for these people who were not experiencing what God had promised. When Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world for tax purposes, that was not a good thing. It wasn't what God had promised, but Caesar's kingdom looked all powerful. There was nothing you could do.

Taxation rates were 70 percent and up. Some guess that people were being taxed up to 90 percent. People in that day were struggling to make enough to pay their taxes and provide for their families. They were going into debt to try to make it by. Some were losing their properties that had been in the family for generations, that had been part of what God had given them when they entered the land he had promised to them. The rich kept on getting richer, but there was little hope for the common man or woman.

Injustice was a way of life. The tax collector had to take Caesar and Herod's share, but he could take whatever he wanted for himself. Those who had the misfortune of coming to Herod's attention could be slaughtered for no good reason at all. You could be one of the thousands of people who were killed by Herod. Or you could be one of the tens of thousands who worked for Herod directly - brutal work for next to nothing. Or one of the hundreds of thousands who gave almost everything they made to a paranoid and egotistical king.

The people of that day were hungry, downtrodden, and discouraged, and there was little they could do. There was no way for them to fight the system. A group called the Zealots tried to do something about it by taking matters into their own hands and rebelling by force, but they just made things worse.

You can sense the despair and fatalism. Will Caesar and Herod always be on the throne? The rich keep getting richer, the paranoid more paranoid. There would have been a profound sense of doubt. People would ask, "God, if you're so powerful, why is Herod still on the throne? God, if your Word is so reliable, why is Caesar in charge?" A whole nation of people is waiting.

You may find yourself in this story today asking similar questions, expressing similar doubts. God, have you forgotten us? God, if you're in charge, why the cancer? Why the divorce? God, how long? Why am I going through all of this? Why does it seem like you're not in charge?

So I want to ask you to find yourself in the Christmas story this morning, in the longing and the waiting and the questions and even in the doubt. Where in your life are you struggling with despair, longing to provide what God has promised? Where do you have questions, and you're longing for God to come through? I'll invite you to take a few minutes and find yourself in the Christmas story, in the sense of longing and waiting and questioning and wanting more, wanting what God has promised.

Part Two: A Time of Revolution

It's in a time of waiting and injustice and discouragement and despair that an angel appears to a young peasant girl, just 13 or 14 years old, and says:

You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end. (Luke 1:31-33)

The young girl's name is Mary. In a time when Caesars and kings and generals have all the power, the angel does not appear to Caesar or to Herod or to a general or a noble. The angel appears to a young girl and says that a king is being born, that Caesar and Herod is going down, and that a baby will be born who will reign forever and ever, not just over Israel but over the entire world.

Mary has some questions about how this will happen, but she accepts the angel's answers. She says to the angel, "I am the Lord's servant. May it be to me according to your word" (Luke 1:28). As soon as the angel left Mary, she hurried down to the home of her older relative, Elizabeth, to share the good news. Elizabeth, too, was going to have a baby. The moment that Elizabeth hears Mary's voice, she bursts into poetic blessing over Mary. Elizabeth confirms that Mary is pregnant with the Son of David, the Messiah, the king that all Israel has longed for. And Mary echoes back with a song of her own:

My soul glorifies the Lord
and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
for he has been mindful
of the humble state of his servant.
From now on all generations will call me blessed,
for the Mighty One has done great thingse for me—
holy is his name.
His mercy extends to those who fear him,
from generation to generation.
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm;
he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones
but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things
but has sent the rich away empty.
He has helped his servant Israel,
remembering to be merciful
to Abraham and his descendants forever,
just as he promised our ancestors." (Luke 1:46-55)

It's an amazing song. It's amazing first because it's chock-full of Scripture. Every word is full of meaning. Mary has immersed herself in the stream of Scripture and understands what God is doing in the world.

What's really amazing about this song is that it is revolutionary. Mary sings a song of triumph that at a time when Caesar and Herod and injustice and despair were on the throne, a king has been born and this king will establish justice and reign forever. A baby is being born, and Caesar is going down and Herod is going down. It's a subversive and a revolutionary song.

When Mary announces, "He has brought down rulers from their thrones" she's saying something about Caesar. "He has sent the rick away empty" sends a message about Herod. But God through Jesus is lifting up the humble, filing the hungry with good things. Mary was more than a sweet, humble, quiet girl. She is a rebel, a revolutionary, a social protester. God was using her to set loose the power of God and the good news of his kingdom and to bring down injustice and oppression. One historian has called this the most muscular poem in all of ancient literature, and it was sung by a young peasant girl.

This song tells us that God is not divorced from history. God does not just live in the spiritual aisle of the grocery store. God has power over the powerful over our world. "The Most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms on earth" (Daniel 5:21). He's not only concerned with getting people to heaven. He's also launching a political and economic revolution. For those of us who long for forgiveness of sins and reconciliation with God and also an end to injustice and for things to be set right, Jesus is the king. And he will reign forever and ever.

So Caesar and Herod don't have the last word. Cancer and divorce and injustice and suffering don't have the last word. God has the last word. And God did not send his Son to just reign over the religious part of life, the church part. God sent his Son to set all things right. And his reign has begun, but one day it will be fully here. God himself will be with us and be our God. He will wipe every tear from our eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

If you're longing for that, Mary has good news for us. A baby has been born. Caesar and Herod don't have the last word. God has the last word. That's what Mary celebrated, and that's what we celebrate at Christmas.

Part Three: A Time for us to Ponder

You and I have the privilege of knowing what God is doing in the world. We, like Mary, have been let in on the secret. Mary physically carried the good news within her body for nine months, and after that we read that Mary "treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart" (Luke 2:19).

Mary is doing more than remembering, like a mother might do as she thinks about the birth of her child. She is trying to put things together here. She is treasuring up all these words, pondering in her heart what they might mean.

My prayer for you is that you would take these revolutionary and subversive words about the reign of Jesus Christ and that you would likewise treasure up all these words, and ponder in your heart what they might mean for your life.

I pray that those of you who are longing for a fresh start would come to Jesus, who was born to "save his people from their sins" (Matthew 1:21).

May those of who who are crushed under a weight of oppression and injustice and suffering ponder the one who came to topple unjust rulers from their thrones, and to lift up the humble and to fill the hungry with good things.

And may we remember that a baby has been born, not just to occupy the religious department of our lives. A baby has been born who is king over all the world, and "he will reign over the house of Jacob forever; his kingdom will never end" (Luke 1:33).

May you treasure and ponder these words, and may they change not only your life, but the lives of everyone around you. May you, like Mary, carry the subversive message of Jesus.

(inspired by the series "A Revolutionary Christmas" by Rob Bell)

Two Kings (Matthew 2)

A couple of weeks ago we looked at the birth of Jesus from the Gospel of Luke. The reason we did this was to remind ourselves that Luke wasn't just writing a nice story about the birth of the baby. He was subverting the rulers of his day. Luke was writing a dangerous story.

Caesar Augustus, the emperor of that day, inaugurated a twelve-day Advent celebration in 17 BC to mark the beginning of a new age. He called himself a son of god, a savior who brought peace to the world. Luke comes along and says that it is Jesus, not Caesar, who is the real Son of God, the Savior who brings Good News of peace to the world. Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord.

Today, I'd like to enter the world into which Jesus was born once again. To really understand the birth of Jesus in the Bible, we need to understand a little about that world. Next week we're going to put all of this together by looking at Mary's song, the Magnificat, and its radical message for the world.

Matthew 2:1 says that "Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod." The question is, who is King Herod?

Back in that time, the whole world was united under one man, Caesar Augustus. He ruled a vast area, all the way from Britain in the west to India in the east and down into Africa. It's impossible to rule that big an area on your own. It would take months to travel from one part of the kingdom to the other. So Caesar appointed kings to rule over portions of his kingdom. The king over Israel was a man named Herod. He started out as military governor over Galilee in 47 BC and became king of Judea in 40 BC.

So what was he like? Well, he was called Herod the Great, and for a good reason. As someone has said, "He was 'great' in everything he did, whether it was good or bad." As I researched his life, I came back to three words: accomplishments, power, and legacy. So let's talk for a few minutes about each of these as the backdrop for the birth of Jesus.

Accomplishments

To start out with, Herod the Great was a man who accomplished much. His greatest accomplishments were his rise to power, which we'll look at in a minute, and his building projects, and his wealth. It's been said that people go to Israel today searching for Jesus, but there is significantly more physical evidence of Herod than of Jesus even today.

Herod was a visionary builder. All of his buildings were strategic, part of his effort to win support and to stay in power. The last Temple that ever stood, the one that Jesus would have known, was called Herod's Temple. Here's a picture of what they think it might have looked like.

The Temple that had stood for the past few hundred years was small and humble, nothing like the original Temple that Solomon had built. In 20 BC, Herod announced that the Temple would be torn down and replaced with something truly magnificent. Few people believed him, but Herod went to work.

The problem that he had was that the Temple Mount wasn't large enough for what Herod wanted to build. So, Herod essentially built huge retaining walls and underground vaults to create a bigger surface upon which to build. He turned a normal mountain with steep declines into a giant rectangular platform. The Western Wall or Wailing Wall is part of that project and it still stands today.

Herod's Temple was one of the biggest construction projects of that time, and some have compared it to one of the seven wonders of the world. The Temple itself was made of marble, not local stone, and would have gleamed in the daylight.

When the original Temple had been built, the Bible reports that "no hammer, chisel or any other iron tool was heard at the temple site while it was being built" (1 Kings 6:7). Some think that this was the case when Herod rebuilt the Temple as well, which means that the stones would have been moved from elsewhere.

Now this is amazing. The stones that Herod used to build the walls around the Temple are called Herodian Stones. They are all different sizes, but most of these stones are about five feet tall. The largest stone they've found so far is 44 feet by 11 feet and weighs 628 tons. That's the weight of 465 cars. What is truly amazing is that today's best cranes can only lift 250 tons. They still haven't figured out exactly how they were able to move stones this huge in place.

You'll remember when Jesus and the disciples saw the Temple. One of the disciples said to Jesus, "Look, Teacher! What massive stones! What magnificent buildings!" (Mark 13:1). The rabbis of the day stated, "He who has not seen the temple of Herod has never seen a beautiful building."

But the Temple wasn't the only building that Herod built. In the middle of the wilderness he built a fortress called Masada. He built a wall with thirty-seven high turrets around the summit of the mountain and a casemate wall around the entire summit. This was a huge undertaking, since the summit was 600 meters long and 300 meters across at its center.

Herod didn't design Masada merely as a fortress, but as a royal stronghold with spacious palaces, a bathhouse with the all conveniences available at the time, and a number of smaller palaces, apparently for housing the monarch's relatives. The most amazing is the northern palace, which appears to dangle over the precipice.

Now, you see what the area is like. It's one of the most arid places in the land. You get thirsty just looking at the terrain. But Herod built what was then considered to be a state-of-the-art bathhouse. How did he get water? He also built twelve enormous cisterns, which collected the floodwater that flowed toward Masada. Together the cisterns could hold 40 thousand cubic meters of water, enough not only for drinking but also for the swimming pools, the bathhouses, and agriculture. Beasts of burden carried the water from the cisterns to the top of the mountain on special trails. He also had huge storerooms for food.

I could go on about other places, but I'll just mention one more. Herod needed contact with the Roman world for military support and for trade, so he built Caesarea as one of the most spectacular seaports of the ancient world. The harbor was built using materials that would allow the concrete to harden underwater, and was built to accommodate 300 ships. Caesarea had a large theater, an amphitheater, a hippodrome, and a massive temple to Augustus. The city was almost completely covered with imported marble. It had an elaborate sewer system designed to be cleansed by the sea. He built an aqueduct to precise specifications to bring in fresh water from over ten miles away. The place is an engineering marvel.

The Roman historian Josephus writes, "The king triumphed over nature and constructed a harbor larger than the Piraeus [the port in Athens]...Notwithstanding the totally recalcitrant nature of the site, he grappled with the difficulties so successfully, that the solidity of his masonry defied the sea, while its beauty was such as if no obstacle had existed."

So you get an idea of why Herod was called great. We haven't even talked about Herod's riches. Herod financed all of this through exorbitant taxes that made life unbearable for the average worker. He had tremendous wealth and he controlled major trade routes. Some have suggested that he may have been the richest person who ever lived. Those are just some of Herod's accomplishments.

Power

So what about Herod's and his hold on power? I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that Herod would stop at nothing to maintain his grip on power. When he became king, he executed 45 of the 70 Sanhedrin members who had resisted him. (The Sanhedrin was the body of leaders who ruled over the nation of Israel.) He appointed the high priest, but when the high priest got a little too popular, Herod invited him over, filled him with wine, suggested that he go for a little swim, and then drowned the man.

Hundreds of friends and family members, along with supporters of his adversaries, were slaughtered on the slightest of accusations. Augustus joked that it was preferable to be Herod's pig than Herod's son, because as a nominal Jew Herod had at least some scruples about killing pigs.

Herod eventually came down with a debilitating illness. Before he died in his palace in Jericho, he feared that nobody would mourn his passing, so he came up with a plan. Josephus writes, "He got together the most illustrious men of the whole Jewish nation, out of every village, into a place called the Hippodrome, and there shut them in." He then gave orders that upon his death, all the Jewish leaders be killed, so that there would be mourning upon his death instead of rejoicing. Herod was a tyrant, so much so that the Biblical story of Herod killing all the boys under two years of age in Bethlehem wouldn't have hardly been noteworthy compared to his other actions to hold on to power. Injustice was just part of life under Herod.

Herod didn't have to fear an uprising from the west, because that was where Rome was. Herod was afraid, however, of an invasion from the east. It's in this context that Matthew writes, "Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, 'Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him'" (Matthew 2:1-2). And it's probably a bit of an understatement when Matthew continues, "When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him" (Matthew 2:3). Disturbed was only the start. He would have been alarmed at the prospect of the new-born king usurping his rule and killed the babies in Bethlehem. It was a savage act, even though the numbers are probably less than we normally think - perhaps as few as 5 or 6. Herod wouldn't put up with any rivals.

As you hear about Herod, you get a sense of why the people would have longed for deliverance. They lived in a time of powerlessness and injustice. They were being taxed far beyond what they could afford and could barely afford to make a living. Herod lived with unrivaled power and it looked like things would never change. It's in this context that a baby is born in the shadow of one of Herod's fortresses in a little place called Bethlehem.

This means the Christmas story is for people who, like those that live in Herod's day, are longing for deliverance. Herod is no longer around, but there are many today who know what it's like to be powerless, to long for freedom from injustice and deliverance from evil. The birth of Jesus is for people who long for Herod to be overthrown and for justice and freedom to reign.

There's one area in which I think we have a lot in common with the people of that day. It would have been incredibly hard for people back then to put their faith in Jesus because every appearance said otherwise, just like today. You know as well as I do that it sometimes takes a massive amount of faith to believe that Christ's kingdom is more powerful than the kingdoms of this world.

How can someone believe that the Messiah is in a manger while Herod sits in power in a fortress? How could they believe that, contrary to appearances, it's not Herod who is in power but the boy in a stable? It takes eyes of faith to see God's reality, contrary to appearances.

A ministry called Follow the Rabbi says this:

Today it may sometimes appear as if Jesus is not at the right hand of God, Lord of heaven and earth. Look around you and it may seem as if the evil descendants of Herod (the followers of the devil) are the dominant power. In times like these, just as in Jesus' day, God asks us to commit to and live by the reality that Jesus is Lord. Be encouraged. Evil may appear strong, but God is in control. Herod appeared all-powerful, but God was in the manger.

Legacy

The last area I want to look at is Herod's legacy. Herod was, well, great. He ascended to the peak of power and accumulated unimaginable wealth. He had tremendous influence. He controlled major trade routes and built cities and buildings to show his power. There are few people who have accomplished more than Herod.

But even the accomplishments of a man like Herod don't last. Despite all of his glory, the buildings and cities he built for himself now lie in ruins. He is remembered today as a violent and egocentric man. All that remains of his life are massive ruins and a bad reputation. He lived for no higher purpose than himself and his own glory, and everything that he lived for is, well, history.

But there was another builder in Jesus' day. He was born in the humble birthplace of Israel's greatest king. He was born among animals. He grew up in obscurity and was mocked as an adult for his humble background. He never built any buildings and never had any official power. He too was called King of the Jews, but only in jest. And long after all other kings and kingdoms fall, his Kingdom will never end.

The kingdom of this world
Is become the kingdom of our Lord,
And of His Christ, and of His Christ;
And He shall reign for ever and ever,

King of kings, and Lord of lords,
And Lord of lords,
And He shall reign forever and ever.

What Jesus built, and what his followers continue to build upon, will last forever.

So let me pray for you this morning.

Father, I pray for those of us who long for deliverance. We're tired of Herod's reign. We're tired of the injustice, the cruelty, the powerlessness, the pain. We need a new king. We long for the reign of Jesus. And so we pray, "Your Kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in heaven."

Father, give us eyes of faith so we can see your reality. Help us to see that despite appearances, Herod is not supreme. May we understand that "the Most High God is sovereign over the kingdoms on earth and sets over them anyone he wishes" (Daniel 5:21). As we live under the kingdoms of this earth and their apparent power, may we have eyes of faith to see the Kingdom of God and the King who sits on the throne. Herod eventually dies, but your Kingdom just keeps going.

And Father, may we understand that what Jesus built, and what his followers continue to build upon, will last forever. Thank you that a baby has been born, and that cancer and divorce and unemployment and death don't have the last word. God has the last word. It's in Jesus' name we pray, Amen.

(inspired by the series "A Revolutionary Christmas" by Rob Bell)

Two Empires (Luke 2:1-12)

At a church I used to pastor, we had a big sign that said: "Jesus is Lord" at the front of the auditorium. I liked the sign and I agreed with it, but I'm not sure that I ever really gave it much thought.

One day I was part of a community group that met at that church. A board member came upstairs and walked by the sanctuary and stopped dead in her tracks. She read the sign, "Jesus is Lord," and shook her head. She couldn't believe it.

"Lord" means someone having power, authority, or influence, such as a member of the House of Lords in the United Kingdom. It can mean master or ruler, and it brings back memories of the feudal system. It's hierarchical and patriarchal, and when you think about it it's a little offensive. It was the first time that I'd ever realized how offensive it is to say, "Jesus is Lord."

Saying "Jesus is Lord" is dangerous. It's even more dangerous to live like you believe that "Jesus is Lord". When the angels appeared to the shepherds when Jesus was born, this was at the heart of what they said. Luke 2:10-11 reports what the angels said: "Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord." What does this mean for us?

Well, it's subversive. Today I want to look beyond the Christmas story to the back story. If we understand what it means to say "Jesus is Lord" for our lives today, we need to understand a bit of history. I invite you to walk with me through a bit of a history lesson and what it means for us. Please open your Bible and look with me at Luke 2.

The Roman World

Luke 2:1 says, "In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world." Now stop there. We usually run ahead to verse 2 and to the story of the shepherds and angels. We could have done this back in Luke's day because everyone knew what Luke was talking about. Let's stop here for a minute, though, and ask: what is Luke saying in this verse? Who is Caesar Augustus? What's the census for? And what does he mean when he says "Roman world?" Luke is the only Gospel writer who relates his narrative to the dates of world history and he mentions Caesar and the Roman world for a reason. What is Luke saying?

The Roman world at that time was unprecedented in its size. It was not just a world power; it was the only world power at the time. It covered virtually all of the known world except for little-known kingdoms of the Far East. The Roman world stretched all the way from Britain to large sections of Europe and the Mediterranean and parts of Africa. Or, from the Atlantic Ocean to the Euphrates, all the way down to the Sahara. It was one huge empire, a virtual dictatorship under the reign of the emperor at the time, Caesar Augustus.

How did Rome get to control the whole world? Two ways: alliances and wars. Both the alliances that Rome made and the wars they won were due to two main reasons: Rome's overwhelming military might and financial power. They didn't just conquer cities; they destroyed them. The Roman Republic was a military machine. Before the emperor that Luke mentioned, enemies were not conquered; they would be slaughtered. The power of the Roman government was uncontested.

Around the time that Jesus was born, Roman rule was still on its upswing. It would reach its peak in another hundred years, so it was not only powerful but it was increasing in its power. The Roman rule was absolute and it was more powerful than anything than we have experienced.

So that's what the world was like at the time. The world had one global power that was uncontested and getting even more powerful. Jesus was born at a time when you couldn't even think of challenging the power of Roman rule.

Caesar Augustus

Luke mentions the emperor at the time: Caesar Augustus. Who was he? Augustus was the first and arguably the greatest Roman emperor. His accession to power marked a new era in world history. The Roman Republic was replaced with an imperial form of government. Caesar Augustus expanded the empire to include the entire Mediterranean world. He established a period of Roman peace called Pax Romana and brought in a golden age of Roman literature and architecture. The vast Roman world, populated by all different races and cultures and religions, for the first time came under the rule of one state and one man.

So how did Augustus become so powerful? Well, his real name was Octavius. He was only 19 when his grand-uncle Julius Caesar was murdered in the Ides of March in 44 BC. You know about this event: "Et tu, Brutus?" Octavius was smart. Like a statesman he ruthlessly steered himself through intrigue and danger and a bloody civil war. Eventually he had no rivals. The last one to be defeated was the famous Mark Anthony, who committed suicide after being defeated in battle. Octavius was the last one standing and he took charge.

At the time, they didn't really know what to name him. They wanted to come up with a name that would describe the position of a new ruler over a new worldwide power. Octavius turned down the title dictator, probably because he remembered what happened when his grand-uncle was dictator. They eventually decided on the name Augustus, which means "exalted one." He became commander-in-chief of the armed forces of the empire.

A few years later, he was given powers as the permanent representative of the people. Under his his 40 plus year reign, he brought order out of chaos. He discharged a large part of the army and ushered in an era of peace. He restored confidence in the government, replenished the territory, ran the public works with efficiency, and promoted peace and prosperity. When the economy tanked, Caesar Augustus would pay for free grain out of his own pocket and feed the empire. He erected public buildings at his own expense. He reformed taxes to make them more fair. It was said that Augustus found Rome brick and left it marble. What he left behind lasted hundreds of years. Caesar Augustus was a huge deal.

Augustus had learned a lot from Julius Caesar, who had been assassinated. He wanted to avoid his predecessor's mistakes. So he mostly discouraged emperor worship, but he did accept the title Pontifex Maximus which means highest priest, or head of all worship. He insisted that people see Julius Caesar as a god and didn't discourage the building of temples dedicated to himself. He wrote his own obituary which recounted the greatness of all of his achievements, and ordered that this obituary to be engraved on two pillars in front of his mausoleum in Rome.

Here's where it gets interesting. Augustus Caesar proclaimed that he had brought peace and justice into the whole world. He declared his dead adoptive father to be divine, and styled himself the "son of god." Poets wrote songs about the new era that had begun; people told stories about Rome's rise to greatness. Augustus, it was said, was "savior" of the world. He was king and lord. It was said that his birth had been announced by a star. His birth had been called good news or gospel. Increasingly, people worshiped him as god.

In later years, subjects were required to confess each year that "Caesar is Lord." If they made that claim, they could practice whatever religion they wanted, as long as they proclaimed that Caesar was the ultimate authority whom they obeyed. If they didn't make that confession, the penalty could be death.

Rome's gospel was all about Caesar Augustus for the world. After his death, Julius Caesar was officially declared to be a god. He was called a savior because he ended bitter civil wars and created the peace of Rome. The gospel of Rome was that Augustus, a "son of [a] god," saved Rome and brought peace to the world.

When Luke goes to write the account of the birth of Jesus, he begins by setting the events in the context of the reign of Caesar Augustus. It's not an accident. Why? What is Luke trying to do? There's a reason why Luke tells us that Jesus' birth occurred during the reign of Caesar Augustus. Luke is contrasting two gospels: the gospel of Caesar and the gospel of Jesus.

Scot McKnight says:

Luke counters and upstages each element in Rome's gospel—Good News, peace, the Son of God, and the Savior. The gospel that angels announced to Mary and the shepherds was the Good News that Jesus, the Son of God, was the Savior who would bring true peace to the world.

Don't forget that as Luke writes this, and the Gospel of Luke is distributed throughout the Roman empire, the Caesars are still reigning. The account of Jesus being born as a Savior, of Jesus as Lord, would have been subversive. This document was dangerous. Luke was risking his life by writing it. You would be risking your life by holding it. It's a dangerous thing to believe in the Gospel of Jesus when it subverts the gospel of this world.

Subversive Gospel

We can never forget the subversive nature of the Gospel announced by the birth of Jesus Christ. It was subversive back then and it is subversive now. Luke took on the false gospels of his day, and the Gospel of Jesus continues to take on the false gospels of our time too.

It's remarkable in many ways how similar our times are to the time in which Jesus was born. We live in an unprecedented period of prosperity. I know that we don't self-identify as rich, but by any objective standard we are loaded. We enjoy a standard of living that kings and queens of yesteryear could only dream of. We are richer than the vast majority of people who have lived throughout history, and here in Canada we are richer than most of the world. We are enjoying a period of prosperity much like that enjoyed in Jesus' time, although we'll see in a couple of weeks that not everyone back then got to enjoy the prosperity.

We also live in a period of common culture and globalization. Back then, Rome took over the world, except for the East. Today, you can go all over the world and order a Starbucks. You can vacation in Mexico and eat at Pizza Hut every night if you want. We trade and do business all over the world, just as happened in the days of Caesar Augustus.

Our world also has a gospel, or actually a number of competing gospels. I was thinking about how to summarize our gospels and I came up with three phrases: freedom, prosperity, and self-improvement.

We believe in freedom. Our foreign policy is built around defending freedom and even spreading freedom to other nations. We talk about defending our freedom. I'm old enough to remember when they passed the law that we had to wear seat belts. Remember the complaint? "They're taking away our freedom."

We also believe in prosperity. It's ironic. We have unprecedented prosperity. We face the problem of having too much stuff, all of it needing room in our crowded houses. Sometimes we look around at our house and think we can't possibly bring another thing home. We live in a bungalow. But then there's always another trip to Costco. We live in this resource-rich world with too much and limitless opportunities to upgrade not just the kitchen and the bathroom, but also the laundry room and the garage. But we also live lives that are stretched to the limit by this prosperity. We believe that with freedom and money, it will be possible to experience happiness.

Then we also believe in self-improvement. We believe that if we really apply ourselves, we can get ahead. And we do. Put all of this together and you have a lifestyle that promises good news, peace, and salvation. And there really is no alternative to this lifestyle of liberal capitalism and a free-market economy, is there? There are other options out there, but none of them that look any good. This is the only game going, and it looks like it leads to the better life.

So we have an gospel that promises peace and good news and salvation. And the Gospel of Jesus is just as subversive to our gospel as it was to the gospel of Caesar Augustus way back then.

Question: What is Luke doing by setting the story of the birth of Jesus as a story of two empires? What is Luke doing here?

Caesar Augustus was great, perhaps the greatest emperor who ever lived. There has rarely been a person with so much power and so many accomplishments. Yet, Luke seems to be saying, the greatest event of the age of Caesar Augustus was not any of his accomplishments. The greatest event of this age was the birth of Jesus in an obscure village of maybe 200 people a few miles south of Jerusalem. And maybe the most significant news today is not that a spy was poisoned with radiation in Europe or that Stephane Dion won the Liberal leadership. Maybe the most significant news today is that a baby has been born in the town of David, who is a Savior, the Messiah, the Lord.

Maybe Luke is contrasting the way that God works by contrasting these two empires. In the ancient world, if anyone asked if there was a more important person than Caesar, the emperor and ruler of the Roman empire, the answer surely would have been no. His kingdom was undisputed. But in the birth of Jesus, a new kingdom is revealed, a kingdom of seeming insignificance, weakness, and vulnerability. The confrontation between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of this world began, and it looked like no contest. But within a short time, Caesar's successors in Rome heard about Jesus and took steps to eliminate his followers. Within a few centuries, the Emperor himself became a Christian. N.T. Wright says, "When you see the manger on a card, or in a church, don't stop at the crib. See what it's pointing to. It's pointing to the explosive truth that the baby lying there is already being spoken of as the true king of the world." Jesus, and not Caesar, is Lord.

Maybe Luke is telling us that Caesar can never really offer what people are looking for. Caesar ushered in an unprecedented era of peace and prosperity. His reign was a huge success. But not even Caesar Augustus could be what he had promised: the son of a god, a savior. And maybe the empire today is equally great. There is no doubt that we live in a system that offers us unprecedented prosperity and opportunity. But the world can't offer us what it promises. It can not offer us what we really need. Luke knows this, and he recounts the words of the angel: "I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord" (Luke 2:10-11).

Some of us have been through experiences in which we realize we need more than the empire of this world can offer. You know what it's like to be at the end of your rope, and Caesar has nothing more to offer you. That's when you long for a different empire, a different Savior.

Long after Caesar Augustus has been all but forgotten, long after his buildings lie in ruins, long after he died and he remains dead, Jesus lives. "Of the increase of his government and peace," Isaiah says, "there will be no end."

So what's Luke saying? That there are two empires: the one that we see, that promises everything, and that looks unstoppable; and the one of Jesus, that shows up in small places and looks like nothing, but is the kingdom with the power that will change this whole world. One empire that looks like it's everything but now lies in ruins, and one empire that began in insignificance but is growing and increasing even today.

Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord.

Which empire do you serve? People couldn't imagine that what Caesar Augustus accomplished would one day be merely an article in the encyclopedia and some long-forgotten ruins. Caesar was successful beyond anyone's wildest dreams. You can't compare the accomplishments of anyone today to what Caesar accomplished.

Caesar is dead, but human empires remain, built with human hands. They tell us that they are in control, that they can provide us what we really need, that they are our savior.

But:

For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end. He will reign on David's throne and over his kingdom, establishing and upholding it with justice and righteousness from that time on and forever. The zeal of the Lord Almighty will accomplish this. (Isaiah 9:6-7)

Jesus, not Caesar, is Lord.

(inspired by the series "A Revolutionary Christmas" by Rob Bell)