A Tale of Two KingdomsPosted on: December 12, 2018, by : David
The world into which Jesus was born had scarcely been better. That statement may come as a surprise, because we tend to assume that things were not good in the Roman Empire around 4 BC, but in reality, things had rarely been better.
Octavian was the Emperor and had brought peace and prosperity to the Empire. The rule of Octavian initiated an era of peace known as the Pax Romana which, despite a few frontier skirmishes, would be maintained in the Mediterranean world for more than two centuries. Augustus expanded the Roman Empire, secured its boundaries with client states, and made peace with Parthia through diplomacy. He reformed the taxation system, developed networks of roads with an official courier system, established the Praetorian Guard, and created official police and fire-fighting forces for Rome. Much of the city of Rome was rebuilt under Octavian. Upon his death in 14 AD, he was given the title Augustus (Revered One) by the Senate and declared a god. His names Augustus and Caesar were adopted by every subsequent emperor,and the month of Sextilis was officially renamed August in his honour. The world into which Jesus was born had rarely been better.
Which means there is a certain irony in the angels’ proclamation at Jesus birth that he would bring ‘Peace on earth, goodwill to all people.’ Because the world was already ‘at peace.’ The massive Roman Empire was not – at that stage of its history – the ‘evil’ Empire that we imagine.
BUT! the seeds of its destruction were already planted deep within its walls. For the‘peace and goodwill’ which was the hallmark of Octavian’s reign was established on the basis of power and coercion and it was maintained by brutality and fear. And therein lies the contrast between the Kingdom of Rome and the Kingdom of God.
Christmas is a tale of two kingdoms: the Kingdom of Rome and the Kingdom of God, and they both declare ‘peace and goodwill’. But where Rome is characterised by power and might (armies), God’s Kingdom is characterised by vulnerability and humility (a baby). And where Rome is characterised by grandeur and wealth (the palace), God’s Kingdom is characterised by simplicity and poverty (the stable). You can probably identify many other contrasts in these two stories.
The Christmas story, the gospel story, is like a counter story, challenging the presuppositions and deceptions of the prevailing culture. It is still so. Like Rome, we tend to build our society on foundations of power and violence. We seek to bring peace to places like Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria and North Korea by sending armies. We attempt to quell the violence on our streets by the use of force. We try to encourage responsible attitudes to alcohol and drugs by imposition of ever-harsher penalties. All good motives, and all in the hope of‘peace and goodwill.’ But, despite so many appearances to the contrary, a kingdom built on power, force and fear is not sustainable: the Roman Empire fell on its own sword.
The way to lasting peace and goodwill, says the gospel story, is seen in the vulnerability of a baby in a stable, who forsakes power and eschews force, and establishes a kingdom on the basis of love, compassion, sacrifice and humility. This kingdom, despite all appearances to the contrary, has stood the test of time, and its founder is celebrated and worshipped still.
So which Kingdom shall we adopt?