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Hope is born this day

Dr. Jim Denison is a cultural apologist who helps people respond biblically and redemptively to the vital issues of our day. He is also the co-founder and Chief Vision Officer of the Denison Forum, a Dallas-based nonprofit that comments on current issues through a biblical lens.

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Topic Scripture: Luke 2:1-7

This week I’ve been saving a few headlines from various newspapers. Here are some I’ve collected:

“Debt woes nearing record: filings for bankruptcy protection on the rise” (USA Today 11-26-02 B1).

“‘Draconian’ budget cuts loom, governors group says” (USA Today 11-26-02 A1).

“Female HIV cases on rise” (Dallas Morning News, 11-26-02 1A).

“Identity theft case called a sign of crimes to come” (Dallas Morning News, 11-26-02 1A).

We’re talking about hope today. Some people have lost it.

Woody Allen’s speech to graduates begins, “More than any other time in history, mankind faces a crossroads. One path leads to despair and utter hopelessness. The other, to total extinction. Let us pray we have the wisdom to choose correctly.”

Robert Ingersoll was America’s best-known atheist in the 19th century. At his funeral, his brother said: “Life is a narrow vale between the cold and barren peaks of two eternities. We strive in vain to look beyond the heights. We cry aloud, and the only answer is the echo of a wailing cry.”

Others know how much we need it.

Gabriel Marcel: “Hope is for the soul what breathing is for the living organism.”

G. K. Chesterton: “There is one thing which gives radiance to everything. It is the idea of something around the corner.”

Samuel Johnson: “The natural flights of the human mind are not from pleasure to pleasure, but from hope to hope.”

Langston Hughes:

Hold fast to dreams

For if dreams die

Life is a broken-winged bird

That cannot fly.

Hold fast to dreams

For when dreams go

Life is a barren field

Frozen with snow.

How are your dreams today? Do you have hope for your future? Do you believe that tomorrow will be good, even better than today? That our world is going somewhere that matters? That your life is accomplishing something significant? Do you have hope? In whom do you have hope?

Misplaced hope

Our text is among the most familiar in all the Scriptures. I’ve preached eight sermons from it over the years, and read it every Christmas season. But this week, as I studied it again, I was drawn to names I’ve never considered before. “Caesar Augustus,” who “issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world.” “Quirinius,” the “governor of Syria.” And Herod the Great, the “King Herod” included in Matthew’s version of the Christmas story. I wanted to know more about them. And I was fascinated by what I discovered.

Caesar Augustus was born Gaius Octavius on September 23, 63 B.C. His mother, Atia, was the daughter of Julia, the younger sister of Julius Caesar. And so Caesar was his great-uncle. Octavius was 19 when Caesar was assassinated on March 15, 44 B.C.

Caesar named him his chief heir. And so the next year he was named Caesar’s adopted son, under the name Gaius Julius Caesar Octavianus. On January 1, 43 B.C., Rome recognized Caesar as a god, and Octavian became known as divi filius, the “son of god.”

On November 27, 43 B.C., Octavian became ruler of the Roman world with Mark Anthony and M. Lepidus. By 29 B.C. Octavian had become the sole ruler of the Roman Empire, and was given the title Imperator. He declined the title “king” or “dictator,” considering them too insignificant for his greatness. So in 27 B.C., the Roman Senate bestowed on him the title of Augustus. The name means “one consecrated and honored by religion.” Our month “August” is named for him.

Caesar Augustus ruled the Roman Empire to his death on August 19, A.D. 14. It has been said of him that he found Rome brick and left it marble. He built roads which would cross the world, and a universal peace known as the Pax Augusta. The Senate built an altar to Pax Augusta which still stands in Rome today.

He was the single most powerful human being the world had ever seen; some consider him the most powerful person in all of human history. Across the empire he was hailed as “savior” and “god.” His birthday was celebrated as the birthday of god. His is the story of power—extreme, ultimate, unrivalled power.

“Quirinius” is not nearly as famous a figure, but he was no less important to the first Christmas.

Publius Sulpicius Quirinius was born in 51 B.C. in the Roman municipality of Lanuvium. He became a soldier, and fought especially well in the war in North Africa. In 12 B.C. he became a consul in Rome and very ambitious politician.

In 7 B.C. he came to Syria, the Roman area which included Galilee and Nazareth. While Varus was governor, Quirinius controlled the armies and directed all foreign policy. Thus he supervised the enrollment which moved Joseph and Mary from Nazareth to Bethlehem.

This was a periodic census for later purposes of taxation. The Jews kept their family records in the family’s hometown. Thus Joseph had to go to Bethlehem to register, much as we go to our home district to vote in elections.

From Syria, Quirinius moved to Asia as proconsul in 3 B.C. and continue his political ambitions. Six years later he divorced his first wife so he could marry Lepida, the woman who would have married the heir-apparent to the Roman throne had her fiancé not died suddenly. In 6 A.D. he returned to Syria as governor; in 9 A.D. he returned to Rome, where he remained to his death in A.D. 21.

Shortly before his death, Quirinius instituted legal proceedings against Lepida for attempted murder by poison and adultery, but she was acquitted. The Roman historian Tacitus spoke of “the combination of meanness with exorbitant power which had marked his later days.” His is a story of political ambitions unfulfilled.

Matthew 2:1 says, “Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod.” Herod was the third leading public figure of the first Christmas.

Herod was born in 72 B.C. At the age of 25 he was appointed by his father to be governor of Galilee. In 40 B.C. he was appointed King of Judea by Octavius; in 37 B.C. he captured Jerusalem. From 37 to 4 B.C., Herod was “king of the Jews.”

He immediately executed 45 of the Sadducees for opposing his rule. He drowned the high priest Aristobulus when his popularity threatened Herod’s position. He executed his uncle under suspicion of an affair with his wife Mariamne, and later executed Mariamne and his mother-in-law, Alexandra, also.

By his old age, domestic problems were rampant. Herod had ten wives, each of whom wanted her son to inherit the throne. He lost favor with Caesar Augustus. He strangled two sons when they rivaled his own power. Thus when the Magi came with news of a new “king of the Jews,” it was nothing to Herod to kill all the male children in Bethlehem who were two years old and younger (Matthew 2:1-16).

When he realized his own death was near, he executed his son Antipater, who displeased him. He ordered notable Jews from all parts of the nation to come to him in Jericho, where he locked them in the stadium and ordered that they be executed when he died. Thus he would ensure a national mourning rather than a festival. (At his death, they were freed.)

Herod’s lasting legacy was his building programs. He constructed theatres, amphitheaters, and hippodromes. He rebuilt many fortresses and temples. He built for himself a royal palace in Jerusalem, and a beautiful temple for Augustus, later called Caesarea Philippi. His greatest work was the Temple, which he began in 20 B.C. (it was completed in A.D. 63, long after his death). The rabbis said, “He who has not seen the temple of Herod has never seen a beautiful building.”

Herod the Great, history ironically calls him. His is the story of possessions—buildings with which he thought he would build his eternal legacy.

Find hope in Christ

Caesar Augustus, Quirinius, King Herod—the trinity of power, political position, and possessions in the world of the first Christmas. In them, and men like them, the world placed its hope, and places it still. If we can achieve enough power, win enough position, or own enough possession, our lives will have hope, meaning, and significance. Or so the world thought. But who of you knew much of what I have told you today? Who of us remembers Augustus, or Quirinius, or Herod? Who of us cares?

Meanwhile, a baby boy born under their authority, unnoticed by their regimes, has changed the world.

Unlike Augustus, this baby was and is the true “Son of God.” He brings true peace to the world. He is the true Savior and God of all mankind. One day Augustus will bow before his throne.

Unlike Quirinius, this baby was and is the true governor of humanity. His position is so high that one day, at the sound of his name “every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord” (Philippians 2:10-11). One day Quirinius will bow before his position.

Unlike Herod, this baby was and is the true possessor of the universe. The Temple he is building will stand for all of eternity. He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords. One day Herod will bow before his true King.

Would you find your hope in him, and in him alone?

After World War II, the Allied armies gathered up thousands of hungry, homeless children. They were sheltered and fed. But they were afraid to go to sleep. Then they were given a slice of bread, not to eat but to hold. And they slept well, for they knew they would have food for tomorrow.

Do you need such hope? Jesus said, “I am the bread of life. He who comes to me will never go hungry, and he who believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:35). Put your hope in him.

A writer asked the staff of the Menninger Clinic to pinpoint the single most important ingredient in emotional healing. Their answer: hope that you are not a prisoner of your track record, that you don’t have to be what you have always been, that you can be forgiven.

Do you need such hope? Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life” (John 14:6). When you trust in him, he forgives your sins and brings you to God. Put your hope in him.

Viktor Frankl, an Austrian psychologist who survived the death camps of the Holocaust, studied those who survived as he did. He concluded that the single most significant factor was a sense of future vision—the impelling conviction that they had a mission to perform, some important work left to do, a significant purpose for their lives.

Do you need such hope, such purpose? Jesus said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Find your hope in him.

Conclusion

Where do you most need hope today? You can look to the power, position, or possessions of this day and time. Or you can look to the baby whose birth we celebrate again in this Advent season. Christmas can be about Augustus, and Quirinius, and Herod. Or it can be about him. The choice is yours.

Abraham Lincoln was born near Hodgenville, Kentucky. On a plaque marking the spot, this conversation is recorded: “‘Any news down at the village, Ezzy?’ ‘Well, Squire McLain’s gone to Washington to see Madison swore in, and ol’ Spellman tells me this Bonaparte fella has captured most of Spain. What’s new out here, neighbor?’ ‘Nuthin’, nuthin’ a’tall, ‘cept for a new baby born to Tom Lincoln. Nothin’ ever happens out here.'”

Let us pray.