In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world… 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. (Luke 2:1, 3-4)
If the Advent story were a book plot then everything is now in place. Prophecies have been given, John has been born, Jesus has been conceived miraculously and Joseph has agreed to adopt the child into the kingly line of David. All is ready. Well, almost.
There is just one issue: Joseph and Mary are in totally the wrong place. The Old Testament prophecies say that David’s heir must be born in Bethlehem. So for this prophecy to be fulfilled, Mary and Joseph must somehow leave Nazareth and end up in Bethlehem, just south of Jerusalem. Luke tells us that they ended up in the right place because, far away in Rome, the emperor had decided to count heads and had put a senior bureaucrat, Publius Quirinius, in charge. The result is that Joseph has to travel southwards, taking his pregnant wife with him.
There are several things here.
First, a reminder that in the Advent story we deal with history. It is rooted in the world of Emperor Augustus and Governor Quirinius. The Bible bases itself on provable facts because it is truth.
Second, we see God nudging the most important person in the known world at the time so that he sets in motion a complex international bureaucratic procedure resulting in a peasant girl giving birth in just the right place. Here, God uses the mighty to serve his purposes. Sometimes, as we watch the world news and see the actions of some world leaders their actions don’t make sense to us. We need to look up and remember that God is in control, and even without them knowing, God can use them for His purposes.
Third, where the focus in the Advent accounts has been small-scale and local, now Rome, the emperor and the Empire’s administration make an appearance. This is no coincidence: the Gospel writers tell us that what is about to happen in Bethlehem will have a vast significance for the emperor and the Empire. Caesar Augustus will never hear the name ‘Jesus of Nazareth’ but, within thirty years, his successors will. Luke is hinting that this is going to be part of a global story.
Finally, there is comfort here. There are still many empire-like organisations and companies in this world. They are ruthless in the way they deal with people. It is easy to feel vulnerable and helpless before such powers yet this census reminds us that standing above these earthly powers is the heavenly power of God. Caesars, and those like them, may think they control the world, but the reality is otherwise.
Christ rules the nations.