Unaware in Rome
Unaware in Rome
‘Twas the Night Before Christmas – Part 1
Well, Thanksgiving is over, and the month of December is just a few short days away. Like always it kind of sneaks up on us. But while December sneaks up on us, it’s very tough to honestly say that Christmas sneaks up on us. I mean, you’ve heard news reporters back in September say, “Shoppers, you only have one hundred shopping days left.” So it’s tough to say that Christmas could sneak up on us. I mean, it happens every year. This year prior to Halloween I saw Christmas decorations and Christmas items for sale. That’s crazy. A month before Thanksgiving! I mean, Christmas is everywhere. You couldn’t miss Christmas if you wanted to.
Yet this year, like every year, many people still will. And while they may not miss the day or the event, they might miss the meaning and the magnitude of what it’s all about. It would probably be safe to say that most people probably miss the truth and the experience and the wonder of Christmas. I don’t want you to be in that number. So, in this sermon series we are going to imagine “’twas the night before Christmas” back in Jesus’ day—the very first Christmas Eve. What was it like in Rome on that first Christmas Eve? What was going through the minds of the people in Jerusalem? Did anyone even notice in Bethlehem that there was this baby that was about to be born? Or did they all miss it? We’ll look at several different locales the night before Jesus was born.
For us the night before Christmas is different. It’s often a night of joy. It’s a night of expectation and of excitement. For children it’s a night of sleeplessness. For parents it’s a night of sleeplessness as well. And whether it’s because of presents and family or because we’re excited about the true meaning of Christmas and what it is we’re celebrating, for the Christian the day before Christmas should be a time of great anticipation.
But the night before the first Christmas wasn’t really like that. I ’m going to ask you to stand right now, and I’m going to have you read a portion of the Christmas Story. So go ahead and stand with me. In Luke chapter 2—you know this story. There’s one word that’s kind of tough to say and that’s the name of the governor. His name is Quirinius. Let me hear you say that. Quirinius. Other than that, I think it’s smooth sailing for all of us. So just read along with me this familiar story from Luke chapter 2:
“In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register. So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn” (vv. 1-7).
Today I want us to think about “’Twas the night before Christmas in Rome.” It was the most important, it was the most powerful, it was the largest city of the day. Today we would compare it to Washington D.C., a place where decisions are made, and laws are enacted over lunch conversations and afternoon votes. In Rome…2021 years ago, Rome was quite significant. Now, you see, if God was going to leave heaven and move into the neighborhood you would think that the City of Rome would be a very natural choice. I mean, what a great location for the Gospel message to actually take root and to flourish. It had big buildings, population density, cultural influence. It’s all here in Rome. You would think that a marketing expert or a PR firm might say to God, “Hey, that’s the place to make certain that Jesus should be born.” But He doesn’t listen to their advice. So what did the people of Rome think on the night before Jesus was born? In all honesty, probably nothing. It wasn’t on their radar screen. I mean, Bethlehem was not influential and powerful. Maybe the best word to describe the City of Rome on the first Christmas was “unaware.” I mean, they had no idea. Now that’s not a bad thing. It’s no one’s fault. They just weren’t aware of what was about to happen and who was leaving heaven to take up residency on earth.
There are three major principles that the Romans embraced which defined them and kept them unaware of the way the world changed on that first Christmas Day. And sometimes we believe the same things that they did. But if we change our core values and beliefs in these areas, we’re ready to see Christmas for everything God intended it to be.
I. Rome believed in looking inward rather than outward.
So here’s the first belief that they embraced: Rome believed in looking inward rather than outward.
So what happened in Bethlehem stayed in Bethlehem. Not because it was like Vegas but because…no one really cared what happened there. And why should they? Sure, maybe a few people had heard about the Jewish idea of a Messiah, but in Rome they didn’t believe stuff like that. They already had a strong leader. In fact, Augustus was at the height of his power. The Roman Empire was subject to him. The senate was loyal to him. And with supreme power over the entire Roman world, he ruled the world.
But in Micah 5:2 a prophet said this: “But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.”
But why would Rome be thinking about some prophet’s prediction hundreds of years before? Why would they care about some old wives’ tale promise about a coming king of the Jews? Besides, what could this ruler possibly have to offer them? I mean, they had everything. They had money. They had culture. They had recreation. They had choice foods. They had power. They had everything. They didn’t even know a new king was coming and they had no idea how much they needed Him. They were just unaware.
But those in Rome aren’t the only ones who are unaware of the message of the Christmas Story, and if we’re not careful you and I can be the same way. We are consumed with ourselves rather than others. In this age of social media, I like the way Pastor Craig Groeschel sums it up by saying, “So many people are living for likes while longing for love.”
So it’s not that we’re bad people; it’s just that we’re distracted people—people who, at times, can be looking in the wrong direction. You know, distracted driving is now responsible for nearly one-third of the automobile accidents. Distracted driving is a serious problem, but can I tell you something else? Distracted living is just as bad. The people of Rome were distracted. Like us, they got caught up in their own little world. They looked inward more than outward or upward.
Earlier this week I was listening to a message online by Bob Goff, author of the New York Times Best-Selling book Love Does. Bob is also a diplomat and is known as an Honorary Consul for the Republic of Uganda. He’s such a dynamic and motivational communicator. But in this message, he was talking about how to truly flesh out the love of Christ to the peoples of the world. But I walked away after listening to that message by Bob Goff with a greater desire to be more aware of those who are around me: to be bold, to be involved, to be patient. You know that there are hurting people in the work area beside you. You know that there are lonely kids in your school. You know that there are discouraged people in your neighborhood. We can be unaware of the needs of those around us—especially amidst the distractions that come our way in December—and so we have to make certain that we are trying to love where we are.
You see, Rome was so self-centered and preoccupied with their important lives in the powerful kingdom and their all-sufficient natural resources that they didn’t know or care about the predictions and prophecies of a Messiah being born. They already had their leader, Caesar Augustus. But this one who would be born in a matter of hours would be very different. “He rules the world with truth and grace.” When you think you already have what you need the most, when you think you already have a ruler worth following, when you think you are already happy—it’s really easy to miss the coming of Jesus.
You know, as you read aloud a few minutes ago from Luke chapter 2, I don’t know if you picked up on how detailed-oriented Luke is. He’s a physician. He goes to meticulous care to make certain that we know every detail. It’s almost as if he is begging for people hundreds of years later just to check out the veracity of what he’s saying and to make certain that it’s true. So he gives us all these specific details because he wants to make certain that we realize this is truth that he’s sharing. So he carefully defines it and he notes that Caesar Augustus’ authority actually stretches over the entire Roman world. This is a man with power and influence, and Luke is setting the scene that even though the King is about to be born there is another leader who currently holds power, and a large portion of the world is subservient to him: Caesar Augustus. Caesar Augustus was the nephew of Julius Caesar. But in just a few verses the heavenly hosts are going to announce the birth of the Son of God.
Now I realize that most of us know the story of Christmas. We know the true meaning of it, and we want to get upset at anyone who dares to say “Holidays” instead of “Christmas.” But do we really know what’s going on when Jesus comes? I mean, are we really aware of what it means to have a new King, to look to Him instead of to ourselves? Are we ready to receive Him or are we so caught up in having everything that we need and want that we don’t really have a place for Him in our lives?
II. Rome believed it had everything it needed.
Well, here’s a second belief that the Romans embraced and that is: Rome believed it had everything that it needed.
It’s hard for us to imagine what the power and the self-sufficiency of the Roman Empire was like. I mean, they had the most advanced culture of their day. They had the best military, the most money, the most enjoyable and structured society. They were up to date with their trends and with their advancements. What else did they need? I mean, they already had an emperor.
Let me give you some insight into what Caesar Augustus was like. Historians have said that when Caesar Augustus was on his deathbed, he reportedly said, “I found Rome brick, but I leave it marble.” That gives you some idea of his ego and the similar sentiments embraced by all Romans. I think they were big believers in this concept that “I’m a self-made man” or “I’m a self-made woman.” They would brag about their work and their accomplishment and all the things that had taken place.
Now don’t get me wrong. I appreciate and respect hard work, and I love it when I see a person who has a unique talent that they use for the Lord. But God wants to point out that there’s still another ingredient that can bring about success, and that’s what we find in James 1:16 and 17. He says, “Don’t be deceived, my dear brothers and sisters. Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”
There’s no such thing as a self-made woman. There’s no such thing as a self-made man. God plays a role in anything good that happens in your life. You say, “Well, I did it my way.” Well, maybe you did, but God had a part in that as well. He had a big part in it.
Frank Sinatra’s daughter, Tina Sinatra, in her book, Chairman of the Board, wrote this about her father: “He spent his whole life looking on the outside for what he was missing on the inside.”
You know, when a person says, “I don’t need Jesus,” what they are really meaning is, “I don’t want Jesus.” “I don’t want Jesus in my life. Jesus is going to cramp my style. Jesus will cramp my style at the party at work. Jesus will cramp my style in the way that I approach my finances. Jesus will cramp my style in the way I view relationships and the way I view my marriage.” It’s important for us to realize that Jesus will influence all of those different areas if you are a Christ-follower and that’s what we are signing up for when we say, “Lord, I want to be one of Your followers.” Jesus doesn’t want just a slice of your life; He wants to be your Master and your Lord.
When I was growing up, we had a lot of people who came to my parent’s home to spend the night. Usually they were missionaries who were visiting our church, or believers from other groups who might be traveling through the area and looking for a place to stay. My mom had the gift of hospitality and she enjoyed using that. She would make sure that their bedroom was just right. She would let them know where the snack foods were located in the kitchen and where they could find the soft drinks or tea, etc. Sometimes it might be a college student passing through town, a friend of a relative of ours—whoever it might be. But when things started winding down at night, she would always say the same thing to them—and maybe you say this as well. I want you just to finish this statement for me. She would look at them and she would say, “Our home…” [Audience replies, “is your home.”]
But you know what, when I say that to people who stay over in our home, I don’t really mean it. And you don’t mean it either, you know? But we say it. We’ve got that big smile on our face. “Hey, our home is your home.” Oh, okay. But we don’t want to hear, while we’re trying to fall asleep at midnight, someone in our pantry going through stuff and cooking something for a midnight snack. Angela and I don’t want to wake up in the morning and all of a sudden see a guy going through my underwear drawer, okay? I don’t want to walk out into the kitchen and see a lady looking through my checkbook, saying, “Oh, I’m just seeing where you spend your money.” No. We say, “Our home is your home,” but we don’t mean it.
And we say to Jesus Christ, “Come in, Lord. Come and be the Master of my life. Be the Lord of my life.” But many times, down deep we don’t really mean it. We say, “You know what? There are certain areas of my life, Lord, that are kind of hands-off to You. You can’t take charge of my checkbook. You can’t have the remote control. I don’t want you seeing what it is that I DVR in my home. You can’t be in charge of my dating life. You can’t stick your nose in my business ethics that I struggle with in the workplace. You don’t know what my boss is like.” But when you chose Jesus as the Lord of your life, He became the Master and you gave up all rights, and you said, “Lord, I will follow You.” “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior. He is Christ the Lord.” “And the government will be upon his shoulders, and his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” Here’s the paradox: If you feel you need more than Jesus, then you’ll never be satisfied; but if Jesus is all you need, then He will become all that you want.
So Rome believed in looking inward instead of outward. It believed it had everything that it needed.
III. Rome believed that power was stronger than love.
But finally, Rome also mistakenly believed that power was stronger than love.
From Rome’s perspective they thought, “What could be more powerful than an army? What could be weaker than a defenseless, helpless baby?” But God’s ways are not our ways, and His thoughts are higher than our thoughts. In the upside-down economy of God, He uses the foolish things of this world to shame the wise and the powerful. And Rome believed that power was stronger than love. Maybe that’s why several decades later the Apostle Paul wrote a letter to Rome, and he hammered home the theme that God’s love is stronger than any power. He flipped it. Remember what he told the Romans in Romans 8:38 and 39? “For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
It was about two or three decades before the birth of Christ that Rome was dubbed with the title “The Eternal City.” I guess there were two leading poets that both mentioned the term “The Eternal City” in some of their poetry, and everyone just kind of latched onto that. But it actually mirrored how they felt as Romans. I mean, back then Rome was so powerful that they believed no matter what happened to the world, no matter what happened to other empires—they might rise and fall—Rome would go on forever. That’s how they felt.
Are you ever defined by one or two or three of these different beliefs that the Romans embraced? Do they ever define how it is that you approach life? You know, for them power was their currency, and if you told them that a baby was about to be born in a barn that would defeat sin, they would’ve thought, “That’s the most foolish thing I’ve ever heard.” They were just unaware, and they didn’t know how great their need was for a spiritual Messiah rather than for a military king. They were unaware. They were oblivious to the obvious. But be certain of this: God is never late and He’s never early, and it was no accident that the Roman world needed what only this baby would be able to bring.
It’s very common for us to be unaware of our need for a Savior. The world is always trying to improve our image, to increase our followers, to enhance our opinion and even enhance our appearance. But Jesus came to transform us from the inside-out, to eradicate our sins. People ask, “But…I mean…why can’t God just forgive all of us? I mean, it says God loves us. Why can’t God just forgive us? I mean, humans can forgive. Why can’t God just say, ‘I forgive everyone regardless of what you believe?’?”
Well, for God to just forgive everyone in sweeping fashion would be like a weak judge turning loose the most evil of criminals, because justice demands payment. And so you have to accept God’s free gift that He made possible at Calvary by putting your trust in Him. We see this played out on the cross, as thousands of angels are poised and they’re ready to come at the whisper from the mouth of Jesus so that they can intervene on His behalf. And as one of the criminals is beside Jesus, hanging there being crucified as well, he shouts out and says, “Aren’t you the Christ? Then save yourself and us.” One of my favorite quotes comes from Ken Gire. He says, “If only Jesus would save Himself, and us. But Jesus knows something that the man hanging next to Him doesn’t. He knows He can choose one or the other. He can save Himself or He can save us. He can’t do both.”
You see, this is why Christ’s death is an atoning sacrifice for us. He realized what was taking place, what our need would be. Our need was to have a Savior come and take away our sins. All throughout the Old Testament and the New Testament it talks about “without the shedding of blood there can be no forgiveness of sin.” And Jesus knows that. He’s got to be a perfect sacrifice to pay for all the crud that I’ve ever done and ever will do—and all the mistakes that you’ve ever done and that you ever will do.
And God’s timing is perfect. Galatians 4:3-5 says, “…before Christ came. We were like children; we were slaves to the basic spiritual principles of this world. But when the right time came, God sent his Son, born of a woman, subject to the law. God sent him to buy freedom for us who were slaves to the law, so that he could adopt us as his very own children” (NLT).
It says, “But when the right time came.” Some translations say, “At just the right moment.” You see, God’s ways and plans don’t make sense to us, but this is no accident. And while Rome is unaware, God is very much aware of their needs, and He is unfolding and orchestrating His plan.
Years ago, after a worship service at the church where I ministered in Cookeville, Tennessee, I was out in the church foyer and a lady came up to me and she said, “Hey, I had your son, Joshua, in my class this morning.” And you know, whenever you hear that you always are like, “Okay, well, what’s next?” And she said, “Oh, no. Everything went fine.” At the time Josh was three years old. And she said, “But I’ve got to tell you a story of what happened.” I said, “Well, what…? What happened?” She said, “Well, he was dutifully working. He was building some project, and he was stacking all these blocks and different things and had them all stacked up really high. And all of a sudden, this little girl in the class came over when he got them stacked up real high, and she just walked over to it, and she took her hip and just went…like that…and knocked it all over.” She said, “Well, he was a little frustrated over this, but he started building again. He built the whole thing all up again, got it to that exact same height, and here she came all the way from the other side of the room…little human demolition crew, right? She came over and just kind of nonchalantly just kind of knocked the whole thing over.” I said, “Well, what did Joshua do?” She said, “Joshua looked up at me and said, ‘You know what? I think she did it on purpose.’” Good deduction, right?! He’s very wise and discerning just like his father.
But the crucifixion of Christ must’ve appeared to be the end. I mean, to the disciples it appeared that they were back to square one. No Messiah. Start the search all over again. The miracles, the sermons, all the other building blocks just seemed to crumble to the ground at the foot of the cross when Jesus said, “It is finished.” But what seemed on the surface to be a demolition project, upon closer observation, was really a construction project carefully engineered by the God of the Universe in order to save the world. And God specializes in taking those things that Satan intends for bad and turning them into things that are good.
So, when a Roman governor gives the order, “Crucify him!” and on his authority over all of Rome they carry that out, it seems like it’s the end. When Jesus hung on a cross and He could’ve come down, but He didn’t, you think it’s all over. And while the Roman government was convinced that power was stronger than love, Jesus knew it was the other way around and love is what kept Him on the cross. It’s that difference that illuminates our understanding when it comes to the death and the burial and the resurrection of Jesus Christ to the point where we say, “You know what? I think God did it on purpose.” Good deduction.
God the Father and God the Son knew what they were doing when Jesus came into a Roman world as a baby and was laid into a wooden manger. God the Father and God the Son knew what they were doing when Jesus stayed on a wooden cross when He could’ve come down. And with every drop of blood, He was buying your freedom and He was paying for the forgiveness of your sins and mine if we will only swallow our pride and put our trust in Him.
First Church of Christ
November 28, 2021