“(In the Census) Only One Mattered” – Luke 2:1
Introduction: 2020 numbers
We have heard a lot about numbers in 2020, and I have enjoyed that to some extent, because numbers and dates stick in my brain. But most of the 2020 numbers have not been ones to truly enjoy and revel in… because they have been COVID numbers that we heard on the nightly news: number of new cases, new deaths, new hospitalizations, active cases, etc. Besides that there were the numbers that represented the maximum that could gather at a public event, and the numbers that represented how much money had been spent by the federal government, and the numbers that represented how many businesses closed because of COVID, and how many people were unemployed, and what percentage of the population was working from home. Finally, as the year comes to a close, some good numbers – the number of vaccine doses being distributed. (Oh, and all those numbers… without mentioning numbers that trickled in from elections – in the U.S. and in B.C.) Numbers, numbers, numbers!!
And let me tell you that the numbers won’t quit coming in 2021. It’s not just the COVID numbers. You can be sure they will continue for several months into the new year. But 2021 is also the year of the Canadian Census, so there will be LOTS of counting taking place. The Census of Population provides high-quality information on key socioeconomic trends and analysis that helps Canadians make important decisions that affect our families, our neighbourhoods and our businesses. Information from the census will be used by governments, businesses, associations, Indigenous leadership, community organizations and many others to make important decisions for our community, our province, and the entire country.
1. Bible censuses
Speaking of a census, that word, that concept finds its way subtly into the Christmas story. But before we get to that, I’ve got a multiple choice trivia question for you: How many censuses are mentioned in the Bible? Was it: 2, 3, 4, or 5? I’ll give you just 10 seconds to think… sorry, that’s a number, too!!
The correct answer is… 5! There were 5 censuses in the Bible. There was a census in the time of Moses – that’s recorded in… where else, but the Book of Numbers. David took a census of his fighting men, and that’s recorded both in 2 Samuel 24 and 1 Chronicles 21. (We’ll come back to that one briefly in a minute.) When the Israelite exiles returned from Babylon, they were counted by family name both in Ezra 2 and Nehemiah 7 – another census. There is, of course, the census of Caesar Augustus in the Christmas story in Luke 2, and that will be our focus today. Finally, a 6 A.D. census was taken and mentioned in Acts 5:37. It is mentioned in the context of the uprising of Judas the Galilean. So, that’s 5 censuses: Moses, David, exiles, Caesar, and 6 A.D.
(Oh, and then there’s the un-census-able number of people – a great number that no one could count – in the Revelation 7 picture of heaven. So, maybe the answer is 6.)
Let’s take a moment to talk about the census that David took, partly because he was an ancestor of Jesus, partly because there is something to learn from that census. David was the King of Israel, and after many battles with people groups that hadn’t fully been expelled from the Promised Land, the Israelites were at the place where they could enjoy a time of peace, with no immediate external threat. David asked the military captain, Joab, to count the fighting men. He wanted to know how many there were. Joab disagreed with David’s command, saying that Israel had enough fighting men, and that they were faithful subjects, and he suggests that David’s actions were motivated either by pride in the size of his kingdom or by reliance for his security on the number of fighting men, or maybe both. Taking a census wasn’t sinful, but in this instance it represents dependence on human power rather than the Lord. Only trust in the Lord wins battles.
As that story progresses, David realizes his sin, and prays for God to take away his guilt. God does not leave David’s actions without consequences – a choice between 3 years of famine, 3 months of being beaten by enemies, or 3 days of plague… maybe COVID, who knows. David chooses the plague, saying, “Let me fall into the hands of the Lord, for His mercy is very great!” What a wise choice!
2. Caesar’s census
OK, so let’s move to the numbers and the census in the Christmas story. Caesar Augustus was not a God-follower. In fact, the term ‘Augustus’ means ‘exalted one’ and points to the fact that Caesar was considered to be divine, a god. That coulda / shoulda been enough for him to merit some consequences from God, too. This census of the ENTIRE Roman world was not necessarily a military pride thing. The Roman empire was large, and there were few military rivals against the Romans. The census would be used to proportionately require taxes of all the subject countries so that the Romans could build roads, provide for military service, and protect their citizens. So, the decree went out, and everyone had to obey the “essential travel” order from the government. That’s what set in motion the journey of Mary and Joseph from Nazareth to Bethlehem.
At that time, right about when the B.C. years changed over to A.D., the population of the Roman Empire numbered in the low millions – 4 or 5 million. That’s how many would have been enrolled in the census, but really only one of those 5 million mattered. The way the Bible’s story reads, we can assume that Joseph and Mary got to Bethlehem in time for this little one – this Jesus – to be counted in that 1st century B.C. census. So, maybe he was number 5 million and one!!
3. Only ONE mattered
But in the grand scheme of things, that little child was more important to be counted than the priests and the pharisees, than King Herod of Israel or Quirinius the governor of Syria, than the Roman soldiers and centurions, than the Roman senators, or even than Caesar Augustus himself. The census of Augustus was merely a pawn in God’s divine plan to ensure that Joseph and Mary found their way to Bethlehem so that Jesus could fulfill that Old Testament prophecy that the Messiah would be born there. It didn’t matter who else was living at the time. The only one that mattered, the only one that counted was Jesus.
a. Not John, but JESUS
When an angel appeared to the priest Zechariah to tell him that he and his aged wife, Elizabeth, were going to have a baby – John the Baptizer – it wasn’t John that was the important one. His role was simply to make ready a people prepared for the Lord. Prepared for the Lord… because the Lord – Jesus – was the important one. John was just the best man. Jesus was the bridegroom. John was the second fiddle. Jesus was the first fiddle, the concert master. John was the best supporting actor. Jesus was the best actor. John was the sous-chef. Jesus was the executive chef.
b. Not Mary, but JESUS
When that same angel appeared to Mary in Nazareth to tell her that she was favoured by God, Mary wasn’t the important one. She recognized and accepted her role as the Lord’s servant. As a virgin, she would miraculously become pregnant by the Holy Spirit, and her son, Jesus, would be the Son of the Most High God, the one who would rule over God’s people forever, the one whose kingdom would never end.
c. Not Joseph, but JESUS
Before another angel appeared to Joseph in a dream, Joseph was prepared to divorce Mary and to end the relationship because obviously Mary had engaged in a little pre-marriage hanky-panky. But Joseph’s ego wasn’t at stake. Doing the right thing according to Jewish moral laws wasn’t of utmost importance. An earthly father and a stable family home was important for the one that Mary was carrying, the one who fulfilled the Old Testament prophecy, the one who would be known as Immanuel – God with us.
d. Not shepherds (or angels), but JESUS
The angel that appeared to the shepherds out in the fields around Bethlehem made absolutely clear what that night was all about, WHO that night was all about! Good news! Great joy! A Saviour born! A baby in a manger! Then a whole host of angels singing “Gloria in Excelsis Deo!” No one else in the entire Roman Empire, not even Caesar Augustus, had an angel choir perform at his birth!! That’s because only this one counted, only this one mattered.
e. The Child (JESUS)
Then, and I don’t know if you’ve noticed this before, the post-birth accounts leave Mary and Joseph to fade in importance (often with one or both parents not even named), while Jesus – also often referred to as “the child” – quickly rises to be the prominent one in the story.
In Luke 2, the shepherds went to Bethlehem, and found Mary and Joseph AND THE BABY – lying in the manger. Then they spread the word about the child – not the parents, nor the angels, but the CHILD!
Also in Luke 2, the parents brought the CHILD into the temple, where Simeon spoke about the child as God’s salvation for His people.
In Matthew 2, after the Magi had come to worship the Christ-child bringing their gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh, there is the story that we don’t even like to hear, the story that makes us shudder. Evil King Herod, when he finally realized that the Magi weren’t coming back to let him know about the identity and the whereabouts of this potential future rival king, hatched his wicked plan to snuff out that rival king by killing all the baby boys in and around Bethlehem. Tomorrow – December 28 – is the day we commemorate the Holy Innocents – those children of Bethlehem who died at the hands of evil King Herod. In the 8 or 10 verses of this episode, we hear the phrase “the child and his mother” several times, and that emphasizes the relative importance of the two – the mother was there, but the child REALLY mattered, the child must live, the child must escape Herod’s evil intentions. To be sure, all those baby boys of Bethlehem were grieved by their families in that terrible massacre. Only one survived – Jesus. But that one survived in order to eternally save all the rest, in order to eternally save us.
4. JESUS – the cause of our celebration
Over the 20 centuries since His birth, Jesus is still the one – the ONLY ONE – from that census that matters for us.
Jesus is the one who is the cause of our celebrations at this time of year. The celebration is called Christmas – Christ Mass – for we rejoice that Jesus, the Christ, is born! He obeyed and perfectly fulfilled the laws of God when we and every human being who ever lived miserably failed to keep those laws. He taught us and showed us how God wants us to live – loving Him and loving people. He brought the Kingdom of God very practically and obviously and personally into the lives of people, while at the same time disarming and destroying the forces of wickedness and evil. He accepted the role of a servant and a sacrifice, hanging on the cross with the whole world’s sins on His shoulders, dying so that we might live, and living again so that we will never die. He is the Lamb of God, the redeemer of the world, the Bread of life, the Gate who opens heaven to us, the Good Shepherd who leads us in the Way, and the Truth, to life. He is the coming King of kings and Lord of lords, and He had His humble beginnings in the little town of Bethlehem, being laid in a manger for His bed.
5. YOU matter to God!
Yes, in the census of Caesar Augustus, only one mattered. If that one hadn’t been born, or if that one had been a victim of Herod’s Bethlehem massacre, we would all still be lost and condemned in our sin – separated from God for all eternity. But because He was born, because He mattered, YOU matter, YOU have worth, YOU have value in God’s eyes.
Yes, in God’s eyes, out of all the people in the world, you are the one that matters to Him. Jesus made that clear in a parable about numbers. Out of 100 sheep, every lost ONE is important enough for the shepherd to go out, and find, and bring home. God loves you! That baby Jesus came for YOU! He came for ALL, He came to be the light of the WORLD… but today you can focus on and be filled with awe and wonder and thanksgiving for the fact that Jesus came for YOU!! If God took a census of His people today, you would be counted, you would be IN!!
I pray that that knowledge, that joy, would inspire you to pay attention to and to be a blessing to every ONE in your life, for they all matter… your spouse, your children, your grandchildren, your parents, your siblings, your friends, your co-workers, your neighbors, the people you socialize with and play with. They all matter, they all have value in God’s eyes. You and they are why He sent Jesus to be born in Bethlehem to be the Saviour of the world. Amen.