As a child, I would wake on Christmas morning full of excitement and anticipation. I couldn’t wait to begin opening my presents. Now they were intermingled with my brothers’ and sister’s presents, and except for the presents on the outside, I couldn’t tell which one’s were theirs and which one’s were mine. I would sit their and try to estimate how many of those presents under the tree were mine. The waiting would go on forever. My parents would sometimes – mercilessly – make us wait 15, 20, sometimes even 30 minutes before getting up so we could open our presents. But eventually, they would come out and we would begin. My dad would hand out one present as a time and we would have to wait while our siblings opened each of their presents in turn, and it would take FOREVER! But eventually, the last of the presents would be opened and then I would stop and count my presents. I’d order all of my presents: putting the socks and underwear off to the side where I didn’t have to look at them (but counting them nonetheless), then the other clothes, then all the toys in the most important place. I would account for them all; I would survey all that was mine.
In our democratic republic, it is hard to understand what it is like to be a king in this world, but I’ve always thought it was kind of like that. When you become king, you look at all around you and you realize, all this is mine and realizing this, you stop and take account (this is mine and that is mine, those things over there are mine, all I survey, all of it is mine). In this world, to be a king means that all you rule is yours, they all exist for you.
In our Gospel text we read that “In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered.” It was a census. Was it a census of population distribution across the empire so Caesar might more efficiently distribute his legions? Was it a census calculating regional wealth across the empire for the levying of taxes? That’s over thinking it. Our Gospel text doesn’t say any of that. It just says that all he sent out a decree that all the world should be counted. Don’t worry about figuring out why, you don’t need to know why, he’s the king and he doesn’t have to tell you. He’s the emperor of the Roman Empire – the king of the world. It was his world and he wanted to count it. Really, think about it. If it was your world and you were king, wouldn’t you want to count it too? This it mine and that is mine, see Gaul over there, that’s mine (my Uncle Julius got it for me). And look at Judea, that’s mine, even little Bethlehem, that’s mine too. I’m Caesar after all, I’m the king of the world, and all of this is mine. It belongs to me. Its mine to do with as I see fit. It all exists for me. This is what the world expects from our kings, isn’t it?
But Caesar isn’t the only king in our Gospel text. The angels proclaim another king, not of this world but come to this world. The angel said to the shepherds, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.” So we’ve got another king, so what! They come and they go, what does that matter to us. We’re just shepherds after all, what does it matter. Yes, but this king is different. Every lord they see, every king they hear about just want to own them, control them, make them have to live for the good of these lords and kings alone. But these angels aren’t just proclaiming another tyrant to exploit them, these angels are proclaiming that this anointed king (that’s what Christ the Lord means), this king was a savior. Well we’ve heard that before. Isn’t that what they all say? Every king comes in claiming to be their savior, but then once their in power, it’s the old bait and switch and nothing ever changes.
Ah, the angels say, you don’t believe us, we’ll prove it. “And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” No royal palace, safely ensconced in wealth and comfort, no great armies to enforce His will. There He lay, in the grime and the muck just like you. He’s not here to take you to enrich Himself, He has come to bless you from Himself. This king is here for you. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
Here we see two kings one a king of this world and the other a king for this world. Caesar lived in power and comfort from the work and wealth of this world, his world. Jesus lived in humiliation and in poverty. He set aside all that He was and all that was His to be with us, down in the muck with us. You see the people of the world lived and died for Caesar, but Jesus lived and died for the people of the world. He was born for us, He lived for us, He died for us. And when He rose from the dead, He did not rise and depart from us. He raised us up with Him. Jesus our Lord and savior raised us up from the power of sin and death and through God’s gift of faith in Him that salvation and eternal life is ours. So, this Christmas, as you open your gifts from under the tree, remember the one who hung on the tree as a gift for you. This Christmas remember, in truth, there is only one gift that counts.