Christmas is good news
These last few years has seen the rise and fascination with “fake news.” Google “fake news 2022” for a sample. #fakenews
Fake news is the spread of misleading information in order to gain financial or political advantage, often by exaggeration or spreading false headlines that grab attention. Fake news is putting a spin on something for your own benefit.
We might think fake news is a modern invention, but it’s actually as old as the hills. The reading from the gospel of Luke for Christmas Day counters the spread of fake news doing the rounds in the ancient Roman Empire. This fake news was about Caesar Augustus, the Roman Emperor at the time of Jesus’ birth.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (Luke 2:1)
We might need a little history lesson, so bear with me! This fake news started with the assassination of Julius Caesar. Julius had adopted Augustus as his son and heir to the Empire. (Augustus was known as Octavius at that time). After the assassination, Octavius took control and had his adoptive father Julius declared a god. This had the convenient side benefit of Octavius being declared “the son of god.”
As a god, Octavius set about creating an outward façade of free government, but in reality he was their military dictator. Octavius had his puppet senate officially change his name to “Augustus” (which literally means “worthy of praise”). He fashioned himself as a god worthy of praise, building statues and temples in his own honour. Coins from that era bear his face with the words “Divine Caesar.”
Augustus made sure he was publicly praised as the heroic leader of the Roman army, a rescuer who had ushered in peace after decades of civil war. He would send messengers to cities to proclaim the “good news” or “gospel” that his reign had brought “freedom,” “peace,” and “salvation.”
The following inscription was found in a Roman city. Does it sound familiar? (Hint: compare it with what the angels say to the shepherds in Luke 2:9–14).
‘Providence [gave us] Augustus for the benefaction of mankind, sending us … a saviour who put an end to war and established all things; and … when [Augustus] appeared he exceeded the hopes of all who had anticipated good news…; and [his] birthday … marked for the world the beginning of good news through his coming.’
Augustus fashioned himself as a god, a “saviour” of the world, he spread the “good news” that he was a divine “Lord” who had brought peace and prosperity to the Roman Empire.
Yet this was not the reality for most people. This was fake news.
In reality masses of people were brutally oppressed. More than 90% lived in abject poverty. Their taxes were unbearable, many of them barely making ends meet.
Against this fake news about Augustus we have Luke’s Christmas story — the real good news.
9 An angel of the Lord appeared to [a group of shepherds in the fields nearby], and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today, in the town of David, a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” 13 Suddenly a … heavenly [army] appeared with the angel, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.” (Luke 2:9–14)
Luke’s Christmas story counters the fake news doing the rounds at the time. The real good news, proclaimed by an army of angels, is that Jesus, not Emperor Augustus, is the real and true saviour.
And what type of saviour is Jesus? Jesus is not a fake saviour, just for the rich and powerful, but a saviour for all people, ordinary people. It’s no accident the angels appeared to shepherds. Shepherds were ordinary, everyday people. Most of them probably held down at least two jobs, working a day job and shepherding at night. Stinky and dirty, they would not have been welcome in a marble palace, but were very comfortable visiting the real saviour as he lay in an ordinary feed box in an ordinary house in Bethlehem.
We are constantly bombarded with the world’s fake news and propaganda. We hear it incessantly. I wonder what lies the Christmas story exposes for us today?
Here’s three fake news stories the real good news of Christmas sets straight.
Lie #1. “If God does exist, he must be distant and far away.” The Christmas story tells us the real good news that, although God is the mighty Creator in the highest heaven, he’s not distant and far away, but also down here with us. He’s down in the dirt, in the muck. He’s the God of the everyday and the ordinary. As we gather around the Lord’s table in Holy Communion, we experience his presence: Jesus’ body and blood, through ordinary bread and wine. The birth of Jesus reveals that God is here with us in the ordinary things, today.
Lie #2. “Life is just a bunch of meaningless, random stuff happening.” The Christmas story tells us the real good news that God is an author, in fact he is the Author (with a capital ‘A’). He has been writing his story since the creation of the world. This story has been told from generation to generation, with important parts written down along the way. Just as an author creates and knows their characters, God creates and knows you and all people. The story of life is not a meaningless jumble of random events assembled by accident, but has a carefully and lovingly crafted plot. The story of life has a beginning, middle, and end. It has a genre — it is a rescue mission. And the climax — the great jailbreak — is the person of Jesus. The angels in Luke’s gospel specifically use the title of “Saviour” when announcing Jesus’ birth (though the gospels of Matthew and Mark do not use this specific title). Through his birth, death, and resurrection, Jesus rescues all the other characters in God’s story from death. The amazing story of the birth of Jesus reveals that God lovingly authors and intervenes in our world, today.
Lie #3. “God, Jesus & that stuff is only for some people, not me.” The Christmas story tells us the real good news that God has come to bring joy to all people, especially you. “I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today, in the town of David, a Saviour has been born to you.” The qualifier “all” is pretty big, and the words “to you” means exactly that. Although Jesus is the main character of this rescue story, you too have an important role — not only does Jesus rescue you, but like the shepherds you are called to rescue others by telling them the real good news. The birth of Jesus reveals that you — yes, you! — are an important character in God’s continuing rescue story, today.
So this Christmas you are invited to listen to the real good news. Find a church near you and attend a Christmas service (google “lutheran church [your city/suburb]”). Listen with the shepherds. Run to Bethlehem with them and see this thing that has happened. Find the extraordinary baby lying in an ordinary manger. Jesus, the real son of God, has come to earth as part of God’s rescue story for you.
And as you hear the story, as you see and find Jesus, may you be renewed in your zeal to spread the word. May you race all over town like the shepherds, proclaiming the real good news that Jesus is Messiah and Lord. Jesus is the climax of the real good news story that God is with you, today and forever. This is true. Amen.