The Christmas season provides us with the opportunity to step back from the harshness of our world and put things in perspective. Hearing about the suffering that Nelson Mandela went through as he opposed the system of apartheid and the tragic murder of Ronnie Smith in Benghazi, Libya last week starkly remind us about the harshness of our world. And so, it is good that we stop and be intentional as we think about and reflect on the Christmas story. This because the dark side of our world is an integral part of the Christmas story.
So, let’s read an excerpt of the Christmas story from Luke 2:
8 That night in the fields near Bethlehem some shepherds were guarding their sheep. 9 All at once an angel came down to them from the Lord, and the brightness of the Lord’s glory flashed around them. The shepherds were frightened. 10 But the angel said, “Don’t be afraid! I have good news for you, which will make everyone happy. 11 This very day in King David’s hometown a Savior was born for you. He is Christ the Lord. 12 You will know who he is, because you will find him dressed in baby clothes and lying on a bed of hay.”
13 Suddenly many other angels came down from heaven and joined in praising God. They said:
14 “Praise God in heaven!
Peace on earth to everyone,
the recipients of God’s affection.”
15 After the angels had left and gone back to heaven, the shepherds said to each other, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see what the Lord has told us about.” 16 They hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and they saw the baby lying on a bed of hay.
17When the shepherds saw Jesus, they told his parents what the angel had said about him. 18 Everyone listened and was surprised. 19 But Mary kept thinking about all this and wondering what it meant (Luke 2:8-19 – CEV).
This part of the story seems to stand in stark contrast to the harshness of our world. Does it really? Now, if we think that the Christmas story is primarily one of a virgin having a baby, wise men showed up giving gifts, and the angels singing ‘Glory to God’- well- we have missed a few key points in the story.
The first point that we would have missed is that it was a young unmarried woman who got pregnant (Luke 1:26-38). The effect of her getting pregnant while still unmarried meant she likely had to endure a lifetime of shame. Those of us who live (or have lived) in a small town know what the impact would have been for a young teenage girl to get pregnant before she was married. In a small town like Nazareth who wasn’t going to find out that Mary had gotten pregnant before her marriage to Joseph? When Joseph found out about Mary’s pregnancy he decided to quietly call off the wedding (Matthew 1:18-19). When the angel appeared to him and told him to go ahead and marry her, this put Joseph in a bit of a quandary (Matthew 1:20-24). If he married her, he was destining himself for shame as well because everyone in Nazareth could count the months. The marriage meant that he was admitting that he had slept with her. Women don’t just get pregnant. So, by welcoming God into their lives, Joseph and Mary opened themselves up to facing a lifetime of shame.
The second point we would have missed is that when the wise men showed up in Jerusalem looking for the child destined to become king of the Jews, Herod and the entire population in Jerusalem got worried (Matthew 2:3). Why was everyone worried? Well, everyone in Jerusalem knew what such news meant. It meant conflict. Herod had two of his sons executed to protect his throne. There was no question what Herod would do. And just as the people feared, Herod sent his soldiers to kill all the infants of Bethlehem in order to keep this one child from being a threat to his throne (Matthew 2:16-18). Human beings don’t easily give up their positions of power. Recent events in North Africa and the Middle East painfully reconfirm this.
Finally, even though the angels showed up on the scene and announced the birth of the Christ child to the shepherds, and the shepherds went to see the baby wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger, when they returned to their flocks they were still shepherds. The angelic visitation didn’t change their status in their community. They were still shepherds- still poor and socially marginalized.
So, the Christmas story doesn’t hide us from the harshness of our world. The harshness is an integral part of the story. And this is one of the reasons that this story is so powerful and enduring. It provides us with a completely different perspective on the harshness of our world. The story does not hide us from the existence of the harshness. The story integrates it, showing us that God entered into the harshness of our world in order to change it.
Many in the ancient world viewed the history of the earth as an endless series of repeating cycles. The earth begins through a conflict among the gods, and it progresses through its stages. In the end the earth implodes and then the cycle starts all over again. So, what we as individuals experience in this cycle is what we will experience in the next cycle, and the next, and the next, and the next. The circumstances of our lives will never change. I guess that if we had lived in the pastoral world of the ancients and we had watched the annual seasons repeat themselves over and over again we too might have come to the same conclusion.
However, God offered his people a different perspective. He asserted that the history of the earth was linear, not cyclical. It had a purposeful beginning. In addition, the earth, as well as the entire cosmos, was moving in a straight direction toward a goal- toward redemption, toward coming under the rule and reign of God’s chosen Messiah-King.
God also asserted that there was no such thing as fate. Our choices had significance and meaning. We humans have the power to shape the course of history by how we live out our lives. God teaches us that our choices can facilitate but not impair his ultimate plans.
But God also added one more significant detail in his perspective of the cosmos. And it was this: he loved us so much that he, in this little baby boy, intimately joined us in experiencing the harshness of our world.
I think one of the reasons he joined us as a human is that he wants us to know that even though we cannot see him and though he may appear distant- he walks through life with us and he suffers along with us.
We don’t seem to realize that as we move from one power struggle to another- at the micro and the macro levels- the pain that we inflict on one another we also inflict on God. But, since we can’t see God, we somehow think he is either oblivious of or immune to our pain. And even though he repeatedly told his people about how he suffers through his prophets, most of those who heard the prophets didn’t seem to catch his point. And many of us who read the words of the prophets today don’t seem to catch it either.
To drive home to us the reality of his suffering, God became one of us so that we could see how our power struggles impact him. As an infant he was compelled to flee from Herod’s jealous wrath. As an adult, when he was about to enter Jerusalem for the last time, he wept because even though he longed to care for and protect all those in the city they would not submit to him (Luke 19:49). So, instead, Jesus submitted to the religious authorities and let them crucify him.
But, the beauty and the power of the Christmas story is that even though we see the weakness of God in the face of human contests over power, the story teaches us not to despair. The story actually births within us hope, joy, and peace. This is why we decorate our houses as we do, and this is why we sing the carols that we sing. The carols and the decorations reflect the hope, the joy, and the peace we have. This is why the angels sang the song that they did:
14 “Praise God in heaven! Peace on earth to everyone, the recipients of God’s affection.”
Why is this? It is because the Messiah-King came as God had promised. Rather than enter into a series of contests over power, Jesus as the God-Man lived out a different approach to power. He had power and he used his power to bless others, to heal the sick, to care for the poor, to care for the oppressed, and even to care for the oppressors. He used his power to forgive those who abused and killed him. In his resurrection he showed us that he had defeated death itself. He ascended into heaven; and from heaven he pours out upon us the promised Holy Spirit so that we could be transformed, empowered to be like him, to bless others, to be those who could overcome evil with good in the midst of weakness and suffering.
So, the Christmas story and the story of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection, and ascension help us to put the harshness of our world in its proper perspective. The dark side of our world is real but it doesn’t have the final word. Therefore, we are encouraged to go out and face the harshness of our world with the same weakness and the same power that God himself demonstrated in Jesus Christ. Being encouraged we find that we can sing the same song with the same joy as the angels when they sang: “Praise God in heaven! Peace to everyone, the recipients of God’s affection.”
And it is because we see our world differently that we can be servants in the hard places, the places where the harshness of our world appears to get the upper hand. We go so everyone can know that the harshness doesn’t get the upper hand, Jesus got the upper hand a long time ago and he is ever present to transform us and our perspective of His world.
I hope you have a very blessed and meaningful Christmas season.