“…for to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.”
(Preached on Christmas Eve, 2016)
As the world usually counts significance, the birth of Jesus just didn’t have it. It wasn’t a “great” birth. The networks wouldn’t have bothered to send a film crew. It wasn’t important enough to have caught the attention of Andersen Cooper or Megan Kelly. Even the Bethlehem Post would have put it on the last page of section two with something like this: A woman of Nazareth, in town to register to pay the new Roman tax gives birth to baby in the stable behind the Bethlehem Holiday Inn. The late night event attracted the attention of local shepherds.”
The front page story might have read like this: While hundreds arrive daily to register to pay Caesar’s tax, many are reported to be fleeing to the countryside, refusing to register. Zealot spokespersons have denounced the tax, saying that to pay it is to support Roman domination and to violate their faith. They also suspect it is actually an attempt to create a registry of all Jews and do not trust that the Roman government doesn’t intend to use the information to even more tightly control the movement and freedom of the Jews. Since last month when the decree was received in Jerusalem, armed freedom fighters have attacked several small outlying registration centers and promise further attacks.
The front page story in the Rome Times might have read: Caesar plans campaign north of the Pyrenees to begin subjection of the barbarians threatening the northern border of the Empire. In order to secure adequate funding for the campaign, new tax revenues are being levied in the regions east of the Mediterranean, including the land of Palestine. Reports are being received of armed resistance by terrorist cells, with several attacks on Roman troops. Officials here are not concerned and say that local garrisons are trained for such actions and will be able to maintain order.
In 2,000 years it seems the world has not changed all that much. It is strange, though, that Jesus’ life and ministry was not deemed more newsworthy at the time. There is only passing reference to Jesus in the most detailed chronicle of the period, by the Jewish/Roman historian Josephus, and the authenticity of that reference is widely debated. Jesus wasn’t a revolutionary zealot, at least in first or twenty-first century terms. He proved to be a disappointment to the revolutionaries of his day. But neither was he a bona fide religious leader, in first or twenty-first century terms. He also proved a disappointment to his family and the others who expected this Rabbi to be something very different from what he was.
The fact that he did not meet society’s expectations of him, in either the political or religious realm, should not bother us, however. The way God works in the world is never likely to correspond to society’s expectations. Jesus undercut a lot of assumptions about the Messiah, the Anointed One of God. As his life and ministry revealed, it was difficult for those around him to see him as the hope for Israel. Those hopes were shaped by traditional understandings of how power would be wielded and by a certain kind of wistfulness for former days when Israel was a strong and independent nation with a legendary ruler. Jesus may have come in the line of King David, but his message was all about the new thing God was doing.
That new thing did not meet people’s expectations for how God worked in the world. After all, it is God’s nature to be praised. God is above. We’re below. God is perfect. We’re broken. God is enthroned upon the cherubim. We’re walking through the muck. God made us. We sing God’s praises. It’s the nature of things.
Until it isn’t. God exists to be worshiped, but at Christmas, God comes to serve us. God towers above, but at Christmas, God is born below. God is wholly other, but at Christmas God becomes one of us. God is perfect and powerful, but at Christmas God comes as an infant, inarticulate, unformed, weak, and dependent. At Christmas, heaven and earth embrace.
God is not limited by anything – including might, including strength, including God’s very nature. At Christmas Jesus proves God’s might by contradicting it. In the manger he establishes God’s majesty by shedding it. In the manger, Jesus shows God’s transcendent power by surrendering it.
Henri Nouwen tells us God wants to be identified through servanthood. He writes: God’s becoming a servant is not an exception to [God] being God. [God’s] self-emptying and humiliation are not a step away from [God’s] true nature. [God] becoming as we are and dying on a cross is not a temporary interruption of [God’s] divine existence. Rather, in the emptied and humbled Christ we encounter God, we see who God really is, we come to know [God’s] true divinity. In [God’s] servanthood God does not disfigure [God’s] self, [God] does not take on something alien to [God’s] self, [God] does not act against or in spite of [God’s] divine self. On the contrary, it is in [God’s] servanthood that God chooses to reveal [God’s] self as God to us. The downward pull as we see this in Jesus Christ is not a movement away from God, but a movement toward [God] as [God] really is: a God for us who came not to rule but to serve. God does not want to be known except through servanthood and, therefore, servanthood is God’s self-revelation.
God’s entry into the world in Jesus is an invitation to see a more profound story at work in history. In God’s story, marginal places can be the birthplace of saviors, and the hopes of downtrodden peoples can be restored through the birth of a child. This news – real good news – challenges all the other frames that would claim to be truth for us. It also invites us to see the world through the lens of the hope that’s within us because of our faith.
That hope exists because the word “God” has been expanded to include some familiar and common realities. This word “God” now includes a homeless child born in questionable circumstances in a town chosen by the decree of a faceless bureaucracy. This word “God” now includes the wailing of an infant; it includes a child growing into a teenager; it includes a person’s work and dreams; it includes a hideous death. In short, Christmas tells us that the word “God” has been expanded so that it now includes a human life.
Tonight the unexpected God does this unexpected thing by which the whole world is in a profound sense reborn through one more human baby. With that birth, the world is never the same again; never the same valley of broken hopes; never the same stony field of ultimate loneliness. Tonight we once more celebrate that heaven and earth embrace and True-love has broken loose on planet earth.