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Peggy Noonan’s lede in her Wall Street Journal column from October 15, 2020 read: “Everyone’s insane now. I mean everyone in Washington.”
It is not uncommon for people, even columnists for respected newspapers, to speak of government officials in this way. They are usually referring to the people on the other side of the aisle, but Ms. Noonan advocates for inclusivity: “Everyone’s insane now.”
Note the word, “now.” The implication is that there was a time when not everyone was crazy. Was there less insanity when Ms. Noonan’s boss, Ronald Reagan, was in the Oval Office? Perhaps. But I wouldn’t bet on it.
Craziness in government is nothing new. Had Ms. Noonan been writing in the time of Christ, she might have used the same lede, with this clarification: “I mean everyone in Rome.” The Gospel of Luke lists the names of officeholders at the time Jesus burst onto the scene. This was a standard method for dating events, but it was also St. Luke’s way of reminding his readers that God is at work in the real world.
The people the Evangelist mentions were not mythical. It would be like me bringing up Joe Biden, Chuck Schumer, and Mitch McConnell in reference to something that was going on in our church and community. The men on Luke’s list were real people, exercising influence (for good or bad) in the real world.
God is not working in some ethereal spiritual world while life goes on in the “real” world. The “real” world is itself spiritual, shot through with divine activity. That is as true now as it was when Tiberius was the Roman emperor.
Tiberius was the poster child for insanity in government, though his heir Caligula made him look almost normal. As he grew older, the Emperor became paranoid and cruel. Seneca says that he was positively rude and insulting. Toward the end of his reign, he was executing people for saying things he didn’t like. He started spending less time in the capitol, and more time on the Isle of Capri, which was a hotbed of sexual deviancy. When he died, protestors in the streets wanted his body dumped in the Tiber River, which was how the corpses of criminals were disposed.
Luke also mentions Pontius Pilate. He was the Roman governor of Judea who ordered Jesus’s execution. The Jews hated him, and asked Tiberius to recall him. Pilate used treasury money as if it were his personal account, and when people protested, he sent his troops into the streets in plain clothes with orders to infiltrate the protestors and kill as many as possible. It was a massacre. Tiberius reprimanded Pilate but stopped short of removing him from office.
Herod Antipas also made Luke’s list. He was the regional administrator who had founded the gleaming city of Tiberius on the shores of Lake Galilee. It was he who ordered the beheading of John the Baptist and later attempted to have his own nephew imprisoned. He was sly, power-hungry, and unfaithful to multiple spouses.
If we had lived in Palestine in the year 28 AD, which would have been the 15th year of Tiberius’s reign, we probably would have been saying, “Everyone’s insane now.” Nevertheless, God was at work, accomplishing his purpose. The insanity of Rome – or, for that matter, Washington – cannot stop him.
As we approach Christmas, we must keep this in mind. The God who was at work in the world then is at work in the world now. The God who sent his only begotten Son will send him again.
“The meaning of Christmas,” a New York Times op-ed piece once claimed, “is that love will triumph and that we will be able to put together a world of unity and peace.” Those are nice words, but that is not what Christmas means. Christmas is not about something we might do but about something God has already done: he has entered the insanity of our world through the person of Jesus so that he might redeem it, restore it, and make it beautiful.