Hope Is Born This Day

Hope Is Born This Day

Luke 2:1-7

Dr. Jim Denison

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.”