The Story of Jesus’ Birth is a Subversive Parable

Some have said that the birth of Jesus is the most amazing birth story ever told. Jesus birth narrative heralded the arrival of a child who was praised as the Son of God, the Saviour of the World who was said to be the personification of peace on earth; God incarnate; fully divine and fully human. Not everyone agrees that this is the most amazing birth story ever told. Indeed, the story of Jesus birth can’t even claim to be unique. Some claim that Jesus’ birth story is just one of a long line of birth stories. Jesus’ birth story, some claim, is only considered to be unique because it’s our story; our story that we tell over and over at the expense of other birth stories from other communities that are just as great.

Well it’s really not all that difficult to Google, “greatest birth story ever told”, select one or two of the greats and put them together to expose Jesus’ birth story as simply one birth story in a long line of ancient birth stories. Allow me to demonstrate.

Among the ancients, some insisted that the story of Alexander the Great’s birth was the greatest story ever told. Alexander the Great’s birth story is truly one of the greats. He was, after all the, son of a Queen and a god and a king. His mother, Olympias was a Queen, betrothed to King Philip of Macedonia. The night before they were married, Queen Olympias dreamed that a thunderbolt fell upon her body, which kindled a great fire, whose divided flames dispersed themselves all around her, and then as if by magic they were extinguished.

King Philip dreamed that he sealed up his Queen’s lady parts with a seal, which bore the impression of a lion. The high priests who interpreted the dream warned Philip not to even entertain the idea of consummating the marriage because one wouldn’t go to the trouble of sealing up something that was empty.  So, Queen Olympias must already be with child, who would undoubtedly be a boy with the courage of a lion. If that wasn’t enough to put Philip off, he found a serpent lying beside Queen Olympias as she slept, which was said to have abated his passion. Later the oracle of Apollo at Delphi went on to explain that this was no ordinary serpent; NO, this was the incarnation of the God Zeus. The day that Alexander the Great was born, one of the Seven Wonders of the World burnt to the ground. The temple of the goddess Artemis in Ephesus was the home of the Goddess Artemis who was said to have been attending to the birth of Alexander at the time.  

Alexander the Great was heralded as the Son of God and Saviour of the World and as one of the greatest warriors the world has ever known, he went on to conquer a good portion of the planet. By the time our hero Jesus was born, the glory days of the Greeks had long since passed. The Empire of Rome had replaced the Greeks as the rulers of the world. Julius Caesar had established an Empire the likes of which the world had never seen before.  Gaius Julius’ prowess on the battlefield was matched only by his cunning in the senate and together had won him the title of “Caesar.” But as great and marvelous a leader as Julius Caesar may have been, history tells us that he and his wife were not blessed with children.  Alas, Caesar did have a son by virtue of his dalliance with Cleopatra but that’s another story all together; suffice it to say, that that little fellow didn’t stand a chance against the one Julius would appoint as his heir. Born to Julius Caesar’s niece, little Octavian was eventually adopted as his great-uncle’s heir apparent.

Octavian went on to amass powers that far outshone his illustrious uncle’s. It is Octavian’s birth that the Ancient Romans claimed was the most amazing birth story ever told. This birth narrative heralded the arrival of a child who was praised as the Son of God, the Saviour of the World who was said to be the personification of peace on earth; God incarnate; fully divine and fully human. Octavian went down in history by his nick-name, or should I say by his imperial name, for as the first Emperor of Rome, Octavian became known as Augustus Caesar and it is his birth narrative that was the greatest birth story ever told. Not since Alexander the Great had any birth story even come close to Augustus Caesar. Augustus is Latin, for “one who should be praised or worshiped.” Caesar means Emperor.

The legends surrounding this praiseworthy emperor are truly astounding. Born just 60 odd years before the birth of Jesus, it is said that Augustus was a son of god twice over. For not only was he the adopted son of Julius Caesar, who was by virtue of being the ruler of Rome his upon his death was deified by his people; legend has it that his mother had a dalliance with some god or other.  It seems that on the day Octavian was born his mother had a dream that she was raised up to the sky and her intestines were spread all over the earth. His father also had a dream that the sun rose and set on his dear wife’s womb. Well when the priests were consulted it was decreed that little Octavian must be the progeny of a god.  But which god you may ask, well ancient sources are blurry on the subject, some say it was Jupiter himself, others suggest his father was the god Mars.  

The poet Virgil gives us a pretty clear indication of just who Octavian, known as Augustus, was in the eyes of his people. For it seems that on the very night that Augustus Caesar was made Emperor a strange star appeared in the sky.   When Romans described the appearance of the star in the sky they said, “We saw the son of God, aka Julius Caesar, ascending to the right hand of God the father Zeus.”

The people believed that this was a sign that Julius Caesar’s spirit was finally able to leave Rome and head off into the heavens, blessing the reign of his great-nephew Octavian, aka Augustus, as he went by displaying a magnificent star in the sky. Writing of Augustus’ actual birth, Virgil’s poem insists that, “Augustus would be a divine king, the one the world had been waiting for, the one who would bring salvation to all the earth, freeing the people from fear and establishing a universal empire of peace.”  

If the truth be told, Augustus Caesar did live up to his birth legend. After all, as Emperor he did establish the Pax Romana and peace was upheld in his empire. He did it by conquering and terrorizing the conquered. Pax Romana was known as “peace through victory.”

Once you were conquered by the Romans, you had better behave peacefully or they’d publicly execute you so as to set an example to your country folk. It was just as Virgil said, and I quote:

“Caesar is the Son of God. Salvation is to be found in none other save Augustus. Augustus is reigning in the fullness of his glory; the entire empire resounds with the sound of the advent proclamation.”  Sound familiar? Such an august man/god as this requires a birth narrative that heralds the arrival of the Saviour of the world.

Imagine what it must have been like for the early followers of the man Jesus of Nazareth; a peasant, rabbi, radical, and disturber of the peace, executed as a political threat to the Pax Romana. The followers of the Way knew that their beloved leader was the embodiment the antithesis of Caesar; for everything that Caesar was Jesus was not! Jesus of Nazareth went to his death insisting that peace through victory was no peace at all. Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed the radical notion that peace, true peace can only be established and maintained through justice. Peace, true peace, is the result of everyone having enough. Jesus called for a kind of distributive justice, which ensures that the poor and the powerless, the marginalized and the despised have all they need to live in peace. It was such a radically dangerous notion that the powers that be could not let it live. So, the Romans did what the Romans always did when the Pax Romana came under threat, the nailed the radical peace disturbing rabbi to a tree and let him hang there until he was dead. The only problem with that plan was that the dream just wouldn’t die. The dream of this new kind of peace, this peace through justice that Jesus had called the Reign of God, simply would not die in the hearts and minds of this itinerate preachers’ followers, the dream of the Reign of God lived on.

Years later; decades later, in fact a whole generation later, when one of this Jesus fella’s followers sat down to write the account of Jesus life, he did his best to find a way to ensure that the dream would never die. And so, to this day, the dream lives on thanks in part to the writing of an unknown scribe who wrote down what the people were saying and teaching about the dream, long after this Jesus of Nazareth was gone.   We don’t know who wrote it, tradition has called him Luke, but no one really knows who it was. We do know that this persuasive writer employed a style of storytelling that Jesus was particularly fond of himself. Jesus of Nazareth persuaded people to change their way of being using a type of story called parable.  A parable is a story that uses elements that are very familiar to the listeners. A parable takes familiar elements and uses them in ways that turn the listener’s perceptions upside down. One minute the listener is on familiar territory and in the next minute all that the listener thought they knew is turned  upside down and a new way of imagining the world is revealed.

The anonymous-gospel-storyteller that we call Luke was clever, clever enough to know that any great person worthy of belief or praise must have a birth story the likes of which the world had never heard.  So, if a birth story is what it takes for listeners to know the truth and to believe then let me give you a birth story that is worthy of the one who proclaimed a different kind of peace.  You may have your peace through victory, but the Prince of Peace of whom I speak; now there is a Saviour worthy of praise.  

Son of God, you bet, but were as your Alexanders and Octavians might have been born of noble birth, the kind of Saviour I’m talking about was of the people, born as the apostle Paul declared, “born of a woman”.  Not anyone special, her name was Miriam, lord knows there are Miriams everywhere just like her. This Miriam was just a slip of a girl, now more than about 12 or 13 years old. We don’t know how she became pregnant; people talked about her and about Jesus as if there was something dubious about the way in which it happened.  But then in the Pax Romana, young girls fell pregnant all the time and Miriam wasn’t from a noble family.  They were righteous enough to find a good man to take her on, even though he knew she was pregnant. It was as if he’d seen it in a dream and so this man, this man let’s call him after that dreamer of old, let’s call him Joseph, it was like he had a dream or something of how things should be. Anyway, no matter what the powers that be through at them, they coped, even if it meant travelling down to Bethlehem the city of the great King David to be registered. So far from the halls of power, so far that it might have been an outbuilding on the edge of the city, amongst the poorest of the poor a child was born.

A star, you bet your life there was a star. Right up there in the sky above the place where he was born, and the star was so big and so bright that the powerful came and bowed down before the baby who would become the hope of the poor.  Finally, good news for the poor and the oppressed, the marginalized and the despised, good news for unto you is born in the City of David a Saviour who will be the Prince of Peace, who will bring peace on earth and good will to all.

Yeah, here’s a birth story like no other. Here’s a birth story about humble origins, about margins, about poverty, about struggle and oppression, about simple people living their lives as best they can and accomplishing great things. The anonymous-gospel-storyteller that we call Luke has created a subversive birth parable. A parable in which Jesus and not Caesar is born of a virgin and is the Son of God. The trouble is after 20 centuries, you and I hear “born of a virgin” and “Son of God” as unbelievable church doctrines. But in the parable, these are not doctrines but subversive political statements. These are the declarations that Jesus embodied a different kind of god. In Jesus an oppressed and marginalized people experienced a radically different vision of the Divine, a vision that turned the whole idea of the Divine upside down. Caesar offered a vision of a God who is born in a mansion, but this new vision of the Divine was born in a manger. Caesar is a god who enslaves. Christ is a god who sets free. Caesar is a god who lives with the oppressors. Christ is a god who lives among and with the oppressed. The stories of Jesus birth are subversive parables designed to say a big NO to the powers of Empire; to turn the world we thought we knew upside down and point to a new way of being in the world.  

The stories of Jesus birth represent a politically subversive call for us to enlist in a cause where we care for our neighbour, look out for the stranger and embrace the flesh and blood of those who are suffering, oppressed, persecuted, starving, homeless, those who have no voice.

Christmas itself is a call to embrace the parables of Jesus birth as our call to turn the world as we know it upside down and usher in a new way of being in the world; a way of being that rejects the horrors of Empire and embraces the kind of justice that gives birth to peace. Forget your grand and glorious birth stories. You won’t find the divinity you seek in the halls of power. The divinity you seek, is out there in the muck and mire of the world; in the stuff of life.  The peace you hunger for won’t come from the rich and powerful. They are too busy defending their power and holding on to their wealth.

The peace you hunger for will only come at the expense of the powerful.  And for those of us who are rich and powerful, that’s pretty much most of us here today, for us the peace we long for requires that we sacrifice our wealth and power and our privilege. The peace we long for will only come when our love inspires us to share. The peace we hunger for will only come when everyone has enough.

Peace through justice is the only kind of peace that has any power to satisfy or to last. If you are looking for a god worthy of your worship, look not to the powerful.Look to the power of god that lives and breathes in you; the divine power that drives your hunger for justice and peace. It was born in you and it lives in you.

Who is this one heralded as the Prince of Peace? Yes it’s Jesus of Nazareth, who had a dream of peace he proclaimed as the Reign of God; a reign that would see the rich are sent away empty because they already have enough and the hungry are filled with good things; a reign where justice and not victory was the way to peace. Jesus was also, in addition to being a Prince of Peace, a poor peasant, a radical rabbi, who the powers that be could not abide, so they killed him hoping to put an end to his dream. But this dream will not die. This dream is born again and again, and again. This dream is born  in you. The dream lives in you. Let it be said of you that you lived this dream; the dream of the Reign of God a dream where justice leads to peace, a dream where LOVE conquers all.  Let it be said of you that you, that you too are a Child of God, a Princess of Peace or Prince of Peace, that you are a Mighty Councillor, that you embody Emmanuel, God with us, through us, and around us, and beyond us. Let it be said of you that your birth story is the most miraculous birth story ever told. Amen!

This sermon, is a distillation of the work of Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan in their excellent book “The First Christmas”

I am indebted to Peter Rollins for his approach to the Christmas story.

Our Readings included the Parables of the Annunciation from the gospels of Matthew and Luke and the Qur’an – you can read them here

You can watch this sermon here

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