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Christmas Warfare

December 19th, 2013 No comments

Christmas Warfare
Every year, I just have to chuckle a little bit about the pundits and pastors weeping and wailing over the so-called “War on Christmas.” Apparently businesses frantically trying to respect their clientele by saying “Happy Holidays” and government sensitivity to religious freedom and the separation of church and state are ruining Christmas for us all. Of course, not even Herod’s bloody War on Christmas was able to destroy Christmas, and the Powers that Be would later kill the Christ but still lose the War on Christmas. I don’t think today’s religious hyper-sensitivity will destroy Christmas, either.

But as I was reading through the Christmas stories in Matthew and Luke this year, I was struck that Christmas really has much to do with warfare.

“Fear not, the Lord is with you”
In the Christmas stories, unlikely people are repeatedly given the promise, “Fear not. . . the Lord is with you.”1 In fact, the entire Gospel of Matthew is framed by this promise.2 This is more than mere pious platitude; it is, among other things, traditional holy war language. It is the ancient battle cry of the children of Israel.3 This is the cry with which Moses rallies the people of Israel in the quintessential Old Testament Holy War at the Exodus (Ex. 14:13-14).

Political Intrigue and Subversion
Curiously, both Matthew and Luke make mention of significant political authorities in their birth narratives. What could a baby born into rags have to do with kings and emperors? Matthew’s narrative revolves around the sinister machinations of Herod, Rome’s client “King of the Jews.” Herod became king when, with the backing of Rome, he besieged and captured Jerusalem and ordered the execution of the ruling “King of the Jews,” Antigonus II. The Magi from the east come searching specifically for the child born “King of the Jews.” Herod perceived the child as a rival king and therefore a military, political, and mortal threat. Thus Herod launched the horrific War on Christmas (Mt. 2:16).

Political themes whispered in Matthew are shouted in Luke. It is Caesar Augustus’s census decree that lands Jesus in a manger in Bethlehem. Augustus’s birth was hailed as “the beginning of the good tidings [“gospel”] of the world.” Because he established the Roman Peace (Pax Romana/Augusti), he was revered as a shining light, a Savior sent by Providence. Augustus was all too happy to oblige, eagerly claiming the title of “Son of the Divine.”4 Later Caesars would require their subjects to confess them as Lord and God.5 Strikingly, Luke refers to Jesus as Son of God (1:35), Savior, and Lord (2:11).6 His birth is hailed as “good tidings [“gospel”]. . . for all people” (2:10), which marks the “shining” of an age of peace (1:78-79; 2:13).

Mary’s prophetic song (1:46-55) makes all these undertones explicit: proud hearts are scattered; the powerful are dethroned; the lowly are lifted up; the hungry are filled; and the rich leave empty-handed. It is the subversive language of revolution. The true Lord has arrived in the frailty of a tiny newborn, wrapped not in royal robes, but rag cloths; laid not in a bassinet fit for a king’s palace, but in a feed trough because this baby was apparently not considered important enough for more refined accommodations. This, we are told, is the true King.

Angels
Often the Christian imagination conjures up images of Precious Moments angel children singing sweetly through the night. But the heavenly host of the Christmas stories are more like God’s battle-hardened soldiers (lit. “army”) who combat the spiritual forces that oppose the purposes of God.7 Their message is not a pious table grace, but a triumphant battle cry. No wonder the shepherds were quaking in their sandals.

Gabriel in particular, whose name means roughly “God is my strength,” is mentioned only in Daniel and Luke. He is of some slightly lower or similar rank to his comrade, the illustrious archangel Michael, “one of the chief princes.” Both Gabriel and Michael join battle with the forces opposed to the purposes of God, identified with worldly kingdoms.8 In Daniel, he is “the man Gabriel” (9:21), “having the appearance of a man” (9:15). The presence of this battle-hardened messenger evokes fear (9:17). When the priest Zechariah dares to question Gabriel, Gabriel thunders indignantly, “I am Gabriel! I stand in the presence of God!” (Luke 1:19). Zechariah was scared speechless! The angels come announcing the very invasion of God into human life. A Savior is at hand, the Christ, the Lord, the Son of God, and Gabriel is the chief recruitment officer of heaven’s armies.

To War!
It would seem to be an incredibly bizarre way to frame the coming of a child born into rags. What could be more commonplace, more frail, more human? What does a baby have to do with battles and bloodshed? Yet this child’s advent is surrounded by a terrible war of cosmic proportion!

Depending on your view of holy war in the trajectory of biblical revelation, the New Testament completely replaces, rejects, redeems, upends, transposes, subverts, and/or fulfills OT holy war traditions. Following the lead lamb-of-godof Zech. 9:9-10, Jesus and his disciples make a pure mockery of military-royal pomposity in the (Anti-)Triumphal Entry. The Pauline writings spiritualize warfare (2 Cor. 10:3-4; Eph 6:12) and explicitly describe the “gospel of peace” as battle gear (Eph. 6:15)! In Revelation, Jesus’ weapon is his word of truth (19:15), and his robe is dipped in blood prior to battle. As John watches, suddenly the mighty pride fighter Lion shimmers into the Lamb Who Was Slain (5:5ff), the subversively true image of divine power and victory in battle. The faithful conquer by this Lamb’s blood, which they themselves also shed; by the courageous word of their testimony (martyria, 12:11); and by “following the Lamb wherever he goes” (14:4).

The pathos of battle is retained in the mission and identity of God’s people, but its assault is redirected against the “spiritual forces of evil,” “principalities,” and “powers.” Its weaponry is remade into gear forged not of steel, but of truth, justice, gospel-peace, faith, salvation, and God’s Word. Its tactics and strategies are prayer in the Spirit, service, sacrifice, martyrdom, peacemaking, patience, testimony, and obedience.

At any rate, if you want to know what holy warfare truly looks like, Christmas is the place to start. God was invading the world not with the power of coercion, but with the power of grace. Heaven’s army was singing its battle hymn, not of yet more war-making, but of unprecedented peace-making. Its general is a helpless baby clothed in rags squirming in a feed trough in a backwater town. Its heralds are lowly shepherds. Its crushing defeat is its moment of greatest triumph, sealing forever the victory of the Kingdom of God.

God is invading every corner of human life with grace and peace!

And the Infant King wants you! Join now the Child of Rags, the Lamb Who Was Slain, in the battle of the age against domination, violence, hatred, oppression, lust, deceit, bondage, Satan, Sin, and Death! Join now the Infant’s piercing cry of defiant hope! Join now invasion of justice, mercy, grace, and love! Join this Christmastide the whole host of the Kingdom of God in Bethlehem’s onslaught of peace and salvation! By the Lamb’s blood flowing in and from our veins will we conquer. By God’s word of truth will we overcome. By the gentle word of our testimony will we gain victory in the Spirit. By following the Lamb wherever he goes will we share his triumph. Do not be afraid! The child is named Immanuel, God with Us!

Notes:
1 Mt. 1:20, 23; Luke 1:13, 28, 30; 2:10-11
2 Mt. 1:20, 23; 28:5, 10, 20.
3 See, e.g. Deut. 20:1; Joshua 1:5, 9; Judges 6:12; Isa. 7:4, 14; 41:10-13; cf. Gen. 21:22; Num. 14:42-43; Ps. 23:4-5; 27:1; 27; 46; 118:6.
4 Also in reference to his popular posthumous adoptive father, Julius Caesar, who had been divinized by the Senate.
5 Cf. John 20:28; Rom. 10:9.
6 Here Jesus is also called Christ, the title by which the Romans believed the Jews called their rulers.
7 See also Joshua 5:13-15.
8 Dan. 10:13, 21; cf Jude 1:9; Rev. 12:7.

Categories: Bible, Essays Tags: , ,

A Crying Babe

December 25th, 2012 No comments

“A Crying Babe” (Luke 2:1-20)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
December 23, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

A picture of tranquility?
Luke’s Christmas story may just be the most famous story in the Bible. It’s hard to travel anywhere this season without driving by at least one depiction of Luke’s nativity. In the 11 miles between North Newton and Goessel, I counted 3. And I mean, really, who hasn’t seen the Charlie Brown Christmas Special, with its memorable recitation of Luke 2?

Well, by the time I was six years old, I had heard this joyous story from Luke enough times and I had seen enough nativity displays or paintings or pageants to know exactly how the story went. Mary gave birth to the baby Jesus, wrapped him up, laid him in a soft, warm bed of straw, and she and Joseph, together with a gathering of shepherds, magi, and even barnyard animals, smiled warmly down as the baby slept and cooed softly all through the night.

The very picture of tranquility, filled with warm golden halos that somehow made even the animals holy, idyllic, perfectly reverent.

But when I was six years old, my idea of Jesus’ birth was completely shattered.

When I was six years old, my younger brother came home from the hospital, and I discovered that babies actually do more than just sleep and coo softly. Babies, I discovered, can actually be quite noisy. And having a baby around the house is often anything but tranquil. I was forced to reckon with the fact that little Jesus probably did not sleep “all through night,” and that first night, though no doubt “holy,” was most definitely not “silent”!

It’s like one of those family photos taken around the holidays, where everyone’s packed in close together with their festive Christmas sweaters, smiling perfectly. But it turns out that in real life, behind those smiling faces, behind the smiles, grandpa just got diagnosed with cancer but doesn’t want to ruin anyone’s Christmas and is keeping it to himself. And Aunt Ruth and Uncle Harvey aren’t sure if their marriage is going to last until next Christmas. And Aunt Karen and Aunt Elizabeth haven’t spoken since the late ’80s. And cousin Frank, he’s grinning from ear-to-ear, but he’s hurting so bad inside it takes all his energy just to get up in the morning, and the worst part is, if you asked him, he probably couldn’t even say why.

There is a reality of untold tears, I’m convinced, behind just about every picture of tranquility, and there were cries that night in Bethlehem. Not just the baby. As if the exhaustion and pain of childbirth weren’t enough, Mary had to worry about what people would say when they got back home. People could do basic math and count to nine 2000 years ago as well as we can today. And Joseph had just added his name to Caesar’s latest registry of subjects whose taxes would finance his next war to end all wars, and who knew if his simple skills would be enough to pay off the empire and support his new family?

God-With-Us: Jesus Cried
For many, this week will be a little bittersweet, because grandpa isn’t going to be there. Christmas may come and go in an empty home. A spouse’s presence will be sorely missed at the table yet again, and even though all the family may come home, the season will be thick with melancholy loneliness. Reunions will cause old hurts and rivalries to resurface from decades past.

The shepherds may have looked to the heavens and heard the angels singing, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace,” but tonight in Pakistan, children are going to be looking to the heavens and crying with fear as an unmanned aircraft appears on the horizon, wondering if their address is in its targeting computer, and there’s so much in our lives of acquisition, endless competition, half-truths, cover-ups, and secrecy that does just about anything but give “glory to God in the highest”.

The angel may have come with tidings of “good news of great joy for all people,” but tomorrow night, there will be parents in tears in Newtown, Connecticut, and our obsession with Christmas shopping will be anything but good news for the single mom next door who’s struggling enough as it is just to give her children a decent meal, to say nothing of the latest and greatest on their wish list.

There is, in fact, not peace on this earth, and too many days, the carols of great joy have a hollow ring to them.

There will be some tears shed this week, this month, this year, just as there were centuries ago in Bethlehem.

That Christmas hymn “Away in a Manger” that we all learned in preschool is an all-time classic, but whoever wrote, “The little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes,” could not have been there that night. Oh, dear friends, he most definitely cried. He wept for us. He wept with us. He died for us.

He was a newborn baby. Certainly he cried. That’s the incredible message of Christmas that you won’t find on any greeting card, or in any frontyard nativity, or in just about any Christmas pageant, and definitely not in any shopping mall, but it’s the very, very heart of the message. That’s the awe-inspiring, life-changing, world-saving, earth-shattering message of the birth of the Savior. Emmanuel. God-With-Us. God-With-Us in a child’s birth, in a newborn’s cries. God with us in a man who dwelled and healed and taught and brought God’s kingdom among us. God-With-Us, showing us what God intended for our life. God-With-Us enduring the full brunt of human sin, rebellion, rejection, and hate, and exposing the bankruptcy of our violent ways, and opening the path of salvation to the many. God-With-Us undoing death’s grip on human life.

He most definitely cried. He cried like you did and like I did. He cries like you do, and like I do. There are always cries at Christmastime, and the cries of Christ have been among them since that very first night.

The Savior’s sign
You know, it was the shepherds who got the news first that first Christmas night (after Mary and Joseph, that is!). We often have an idealized, tranquil picture of shepherds: simple, gentle folk, reclining on the Judean hills and tenderly caring for their flocks. But shepherds of the day had lost a good deal of the esteem they had enjoyed in previous centuries. These were rough, calloused folk, with course beards and courser vocabulary, and a less-than-honorable reputation. Theirs was a dangerous job, protecting their charges from marauders, thieves, lions, wolves, and the elements. Little surprise that a shepherd could get a little rough around the edges. Let’s just say no one would have considered them angels, and they weren’t particularly given to visions of angels either. Their concern was with protecting their sheep; not stargazing the night away.

Well, it’s not hard to imagine the terror of these rugged wilderness men as the angel appeared in a blaze of glory before them. This wasn’t your fair-faced, ecclesial-looking heavenly being offering bedside comfort to those in need. The angels weren’t your Precious Moments children’s choirs, but God’s battle-hardened soldiers (lit. “heavenly army”) combating the spiritual forces opposed to the purposes of God, and this one had come to announce the very invasion of God into human life. A Savior was at hand, the Christ, the Lord.

Why, if these shepherds were anything like my namesake Peter in the New Testament, they were saying his words, which I so often find on my own lips. “Keep away from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” (Luke 5:8).

But then the angel says to fear not, for this is good news for all people – even scruffy shepherds, even you, even me – and there’s to be a sign that this has indeed taken place. That’s the way things worked back then. The Caesars declared themselves to be christened with the titles savior and lord, and whenever there was a new heir born, the heralds were dispatched with the good news. And as a sign, there were military parades, feasts.

You might think that the forthcoming choir of heaven’s armies would be a pretty good sign of the birth of this Savior and Lord. It certainly got these shepherds’ attention. But no, that was not the sign. The angel’s words are so well-known we often forget them. Remember what the angel said:
“This will be a sign for you: You will find a child wrapped in strips of cloth and lying in a manger.”

Now who gives a sign like that? The sign that the savior of humankind has come is a child of poor parents lying in feed trough? Where’s the glory in that? The hope of the world caught up in a tiny, frail, vulnerable newborn tightly wrapped in his very human trappings? Not even a halo? I doubt these shepherds would have thought anything of it if it weren’t for the heavenly messengers. Would they have seen the sign?

Imagine the angels have packed up and marched off. Imagine all those halos have been painted out of the nativity scene. Just imagine two exhausted parents wrapping their baby not in royal robes, but rag cloths, and laying their little bundle not in a bassinet fit for a king’s palace, but in a feed trough because apparently that baby wasn’t considered important enough for more refined accommodations. A bunch of wide-eyed squally-looking shepherds come in. The baby wakes and begins to cry.

And there you have it. That’s the sign. That’s how you know that the Savior’s come. Ask yourself this: Would you have seen the sign? Be honest with yourself.

Step quietly up to the manger, and look upon the crying babe. Would you have guessed that those tiny hands would reach out and touch blind eyes to restore their sight? Would you have ever thought that this vulnerable little body would one day carry within it the power to heal the sick? Would you have ever foreseen that this babe wrapped up in the rags of hardship was really the King of Kings and Lord of Lords?

Would you have ever even imagined that this shrill little voice would one day speak, and the dead would rise; that it would preach and the crowds would follow; that it would bless, and the troubled would be comforted, that it would command, and demons would flee before him and storms would be still; that it would invite, and the wayward would repent; that it would forgive, and the shackles of Sin would be forever broken of their power?

Would you have guessed this sign’s meaning? I’m afraid I have to doubt that I would have. Only one thing I could have guessed: that this baby had more crying yet to do, more weeping, that one day, this babe might even cry out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mark 15:34).

The sign of a King born into rags is about as obvious as a Savior who finds himself suffering the scandal and shame of cruel and public execution on a cross. Only those who are paying very, very special attention would ever even dare to imagine it.

An invasion of human life
But that, I believe, is the very truth of the good news proclaimed by heaven’s armies that night. God was invading the world not with the power of coercion, but with the power of grace. Heaven’s army was singing its battle hymn, not of yet more war-making, but of unprecedented peace-making. Its general is a helpless baby clothed in rags squirming in a feed trough in a backwater town. Its heralds are lowly shepherds. Its crushing defeat is its moment of greatest triumph, sealing for all time the victory of the Kingdom of God.

The crying baby in the feed trough that night in Bethlehem, that wasn’t “God-Up-There-Somewhere,” but “God-With-Us-Right-Here.” That was God invading every corner of human life, no matter what a far cry our tears fall from any veneer of perfection; no matter how little our lives and our world reflect God’s glory. God is with us always. Behind the veneer of perfection are untold tears, and behind the tears is the very face of God.

God is with your neighbor watching TV all alone in his room. God is with the child who is crying tonight. God is with old friends laughing together. God is with a mom nursing her infant. God is with us in prayer, in every moment of sickness or strength, in every season of joy or sorrow. God is with us right here this morning, and forever more, everlasting light in our deepest darkness, invading our lives with grace and peace.

I remember that in the first few months after our daughter was born, even through all the exhaustion of getting up every few hours, there was always a comfort in hearing her cry at night because it was a sign that this small, vulnerable life entrusted to our care and love was still okay, still strong, still full of the life and the breath God had breathed into her tiny, fragile body.

That cry, that very, very human cry that cut the crisp night so many centuries ago in Bethlehem, that sound of vulnerability, of weakness, of utter dependence, wrapped up so tight in human frailty, that is the sound of life and strength and hope for a wayward and weeping world. That is the sign that the Savior is among us, come for the righteous and the sinner alike.

Well, guess what, friends, wrapped up so tight in your human frailty, this Christmas, God doesn’t want any veneer of perfection covering a knotty and troubled life. God doesn’t need perfect smiles or perfect houses or perfect meals or perfect presents or perfect lives or halos on our heads. All God wants is an open heart, open to receive the Christ child, open to kneel before the feed trough of peace and goodwill.

“Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace; goodwill toward people!”

“O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray; cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today! We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell. O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel!”

Categories: Sermons Tags: ,

The Guiding Light

December 18th, 2012 No comments

“The Guiding Light” (Matthew 2:1-12; Isaiah 60:1-5)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
December 9, 2012, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

A Season of Light
We are right in the thick of the many traditions of the Advent and Christmas season. Trees have come out. Holiday letters and cards are filling our mailboxes. Kitchens are filled with the smells of delicious if not nutritious goodies. Radio stations play the old favorite carols. And we read again the cherished Christmas stories.

Well, every year when I was growing up, we had a tradition that took place on Thanksgiving weekend or thereabouts. My dad would bring out several old boxes and buckets and bags, and inside there was tangled bundle after tangled bundle after tangled bundle of Christmas lights. And we would untangle strand after strand after strand, and test each string and check each bulb to be sure that the grand display of light was ready.

And then, my dad would get out the extension ladders – yes plural ladders – and climb at great peril clear up the house to outline the steep colonial Williamsburg roof edges and ridges and dormers of our house with light after light, while I steadied the ladder below.

And then that night, if we had done our due diligence, the house would light the night sky with several hundred Watts of warm, white, pure Christmas joy.

Years later, when I was in high school, and then college, those lights would welcome me home to Christmas season, a beacon of warmth heralding the message of hope and joy along the horizon of the cold night sky, saying, “Come home; come home.”

Advent and Christmas are a grand celebration of light: the glorious radiance of angelic choirs; the dawn from on high breaking upon us, a great light for those who walked in darkness; a guiding star pointing the way to a child-King; the True Light coming into the world, becoming flesh, and dwelling among us. It is a season of preparation to welcome that light into our hearts, and into our lives.

Now actually, the celebration of light at this time of year is a very ancient tradition, going back even before the birth of Jesus. And in fact, ever year, about this time of year, every household and synagogue and stable and cave in Jerusalem would be lit, and the Temple courts would blaze with the joyful light of the many wonders of God. Jerusalem: the City of Lights.

Disappointment in the City of Lights
Well, as the well-known story for this morning goes, our famous mystery men of the East – the Magi, as Matthew calls them – have caught sight of a rising light declaring a message of hope and joy across the dark night sky. A new king is born! A long-awaited heir to the promise that hold the hope of the world has come! The star of a Judean king has arisen, beckoning, “Come home, come home.”

And where would one expect such a star for a Judean king to lead? Why, to the Judean capital, of course! In the royal palace, in Jerusalem, the holy City of Lights.

Of course, the Magi find a king in Jerusalem, the City of Lights, alright, but, to say the least, he is somewhat lackluster compared to the radiant expectations of the guiding star. After following a dazzling light in the night sky for miles and miles, after crossing through many a foreign land, after braving the desert’s unrelenting heat and the bitter cold of the mountains, following after the majestic light in the night sky for month after month, they have arrived at the City of Lights, coming to the royal palace with their kingly gifts at last only to find this Herod, a sniveling, sputtering king who always kept one hand behind his back, his countenance shadowed by years of treachery born of the fear that darkens the human heart.

Forget a star, this guy doesn’t even deserve the hazy neon sign glaring in the nearest dilapidated nighttime tavern!

Light Pollution
You know, any amateur or professional stargazer can tell you that light pollution is a major problem for anyone who is staring upwards to catch a glimpse of the nighttime heavenly lights. Now I like artificial lighting quite a bit. If I need to find a nice snack in the middle of the night, all I have to do is flip on a light switch. If I want to find my way around outside when I wake up at 2am wondering if I remembered to turn the hydrant off, all I have to do is grab my trusty Mag-Lite and follow the lighted path it provides. In fact, I hardly need the sun, the moon, or any star at all in the sky to find my way around.

The problem is that artificial lighting generated on the surface impedes the observer’s ability to see the stars above, sort of like how in a crowded restaurant it’s hard to hear the person sitting next to you because all the other noise crowds out your own voice. Well, all that artificial surface lighting crowds out the heavenly lights above. Even the brightest star can get lost in a washed out night sky because of light pollution.

You know what I think Herod and his cabinet of advisers and all those mighty religious leaders in Jerusalem were afraid of? I don’t think they were afraid of some star in the sky or any helpless baby. But I think the most terrifying thing for them was the thought that if this new star was going to shine in all its splendor, all their lights were gonna have to be laid down. If this new king was going to ascend his throne, all their knees were going to have to learn how to bend for the first time.

It’s scary to think of turning off the lights. I think everyone’s at least a little afraid of the dark. You could smack your face into something or fall down the stairs or trip over your cat or step in something icky, and who knows what or who is lurking in the shadows!

Trading our puny little lights for the dazzling light of Christ can be terrifying! Giving up our way of life for God’s ways and handing control over to God is absolutely nerve wracking! Giving up our well-laid plans and paths for God’s plans and paths is downright scary oftentimes, as scary as living in the dark.

But you know, the headlights on our cars only light up a few dozen feet in front of us. They only light up the path we’re already on; they can’t show the way or lead us home. Even the lights we string about our houses and yards are fragile, easily cut off by ice or winter storm. Even in all their radiance and glory, they disappear behind a hill or a hedge, and get packed away after a little over a month. As beautiful as the Christmas lights shining into the night sky are, they are but a representation, a facsimile, a comparatively crude imitation of the rising star of the newborn king.

I was a student at Bethel College during the great Ice Storm of Aught Five. And after that storm, we were without power for almost a week. And I remember stubbing my toe and tripping over my roommate, and trying to shower in total darkness, and it was miserable.

But one of my nightly routines that I had stumbled upon was to go outside and walk around campus to pray. And during the last portion of my path, I would always look upward to stare at the stars, to ponder the vastness of the universe and the creator’s love even for a tiny little speck of dust like me.

And I looked up to see a sky filled with stars in a way I’d never before seen it, from horizon to horizon. The stars were twinkling down through the icicles and gently gracing the ice and snow below. Thousands and thousands of majestic orbs filling the night sky dancing in my eyes. When the lights are on, we spend so much time looking down, planning our paths, busying ourselves with our own self-importance and security, dodging obstacles. When all those other lights are off, then we can do nothing, but stop, look up, and behold the glory of God.

It’s just so easy to get so caught up, so distracted, so comfortable and dependent upon all the lights that lure us with their shining, that offer to light our paths with their promises of success, of fulfillment, of purpose, of power, prestige, of happiness and wash out the splendor of the heavenly guiding light.

“Your Word is a light to my path”
As the Magi crossed the Jordan River and climbed the Judean hills and came upon Jerusalem shining in all its splendor and bustle and majesty and importance, how could they have even thought to have noticed the star moving just nine miles south in the washed-out sky to Bethlehem?

Sometimes with all the headlights glaring in our eyes, vying for our attention, blinding our sight, the right path is so very hard to find. Into this cacophony comes the word of God, like the first break of dawn scattering the darkness of the night: “You, Bethlehem, little Bethlehem, from you shall come a shepherd for my people.”

It’s like the Psalmist once said, “Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.” The little child-king, the one these mysterious magi have traveled so far to see, is the one who came to fulfill God’s word. When we come to the little child, we come to a faith not washed by the sea or tossed by the wind or blinded by any mere imitation of the true light coming into the world, but firmly defined and anchored in the Word of God.

That’s why we read this word, why we tell this story every year, is it not – to draw our eyes away from all the blinding glint and glare around us, to the splendor, the brilliance of the True Light of God’s Word, and to go and bend our knee before the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us in a little town called Bethlehem.

True Wise Men
Herod couldn’t go. None in all Jerusalem could go. Too afraid were they to yield whatever light, whatever life, whatever power and control they thought they had to this rising star of the child king. But these men of mystery have seen the light; they have beheld its glory; they have caught a glimpse of its promise of a new and glorious day, and all other light is mere faint and flicker compared to it.

And they go, leaving behind the grand City of Lights for a small village in the hills. And as the last light of Jerusalem’s highest tower vanishes behind a hill, there, shining clearly in the night sky, is the star they had seen at its rising.

And off goes this band of Magi with their caravan of their whole entourage of camels and wagons and supplies and household staff, to a small rural town. A delegation of foreign dignitaries visiting your nearest small Kansas town. Imagine heads of state and scholars from around the world walking down Main Street Elbing!

The caravan stops at a humble dwelling – perhaps built of mud and rock, perhaps partly sheltered by one of Bethlehem’s caves, such a far cry from the grand limestone palaces and towers of Jerusalem, the City of Lights.

Sometimes we give these mysterious travelers, these magi from the east, the nickname “Wise Men.” And this is why they have earned that title: These mysterious magi, these men of complex learning, of training, of nuance and refinement and means, who have brought gifts not for a dirty peasant child, but a refined king in his splendor, have come to what must be to them the very picture of simplicity, of vulnerability, of poverty.

No doubt these philosophers from a distant land cannot fully understand, but in their wisdom, they can see the light, the glory shining in the child-king, and they, even they, are prepared to kneel in worship, offering – perhaps a little sheepishly – their now ironic and obviously flawed and inadequate gifts because those are the gifts they have, and they are absolutely overcome with joy, because they have, at long last, after months of following the guiding light in the dark night, found their way home.

Following the Guiding Light
Unlike even all the beautiful lights we use to fill the night sky with the message of hope and joy, a star can be seen from just about anywhere on earth, filling the heavens with its message of pure hope and pure joy: “Come. Come home.” It doesn’t matter who you are, where you are, how lost you may be, how long you’ve been gone, or what you are, absolutely anyone can lay down all those other lights, stare into the heavens from anywhere on earth and see that good message, “Come home. The king is come!”

The invitation is the same, whether you’re in a dark and distant land, or whether you live in the City of Lights itself; no matter what gifts you have to offer or how inadequate you feel; or even if you’re just downright terrified of giving up the life you have, the invitation is the same: “Follow the light. Come home.”

It will guide you through every storm and desert, through every valley and over every mountain and across every distant land. And it leads to a humble family in a humble village. There you’ll find a little child with the light of the world sparkling in his eye, whose home is in every heart that bends before him and welcomes his light, the wonder of wonders, God among us.

May we all turn to follow the radiant guiding light of our king with overwhelming joy in our hearts, as we prepare to welcome the light this Advent season.

Categories: Sermons Tags: , ,

The Word Dwelt among Us

February 2nd, 2012 No comments

“The Word Dwelt among Us” (Gospel Stories)
by Pastor Peter Goerzen
December 25, 2011, Grace Hill Mennonite Church

The following were interspersed with musical pieces for Christmas morning worship.

Kingdom and Calling
“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14). The Word of God, who was God, took on human form, becoming like us, to bring us back to God in reconciling love, to show us what it means to be who God created us to be. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who puts their trust in him may not perish but may have eternal life” (John 3:16).

Christmas isn’t just about celebrating Jesus’ birthday. It’s about celebrating the incarnation – God’s Word, who was God (John 1:1), taking on human form, dwelling among us, teaching among us, healing among us, forgiving among us, loving among us, suffering for us and dying among us, and rising to new life among us.

Today, this Christmas Day, that’s the story we celebrate. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” Today we tell again that story of God’s Word dwelling among us in Jesus Christ – not all of it, but in part, as we remember and celebrate the Christmas story.

We have heard the story of Jesus’ birth from Luke already. Herod, the empire’s king of the region, heard about the birth of Jesus, and was frightened by the advent of a rival king. In a twisted fit of frenzied rage, he massacred millions trying to exterminate the Christ Child.

But the infant king lived, and grew in wisdom and in years, and in the favor of God and people. Except that he was no ordinary king. Near the time of his death, he would tell one of the rulers of the world, “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36). God’s Spirit descended into Jesus, and he went into the desert to fast and pray (Mt. 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13), and he was tempted by the ways and whimsies of worldly kings: to serve just himself, to narrow his mind to one thing; to be expedient instead of faithful; to grab for devilish power instead of suffering servanthood; to control people instead of loving them; to seek after worldly glory.

But this was no king born in fine linens; no, he was laid to rest in a feed trough in a cold cave, and he knew his kingdom was different, and that kingdom was to become the focus of his mission and ministry. He taught about the life of the kingdom; he proclaimed that it was coming and mysteriously here already; he healed and fed thousands as a sign of the kingdom. He lived the values of the kingdom, and finally suffered and died for it, but was then raised again as the first fruits of its final victory. The birth of the Christ Child is the birth of a king, but no ordinary king.

Jesus came, and began his ministry by proclaiming, “The kingdom of God is at hand; repent, and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15). And he got up in the synagogue and took the scroll of Isaiah and read from it of God’s reign: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor!” (Luke 4:16-19). “I must proclaim the kingdom of God,” he said, “for I was sent for this purpose” (Luke 4:43). So he went around the whole region proclaiming the message of the kingdom of God, and demonstrated the kingdom by healing many, and he taught his followers to seek first that kingdom (Mt. 6:33; Luke 12:31), and to proclaim that it is at hand as they demonstrate its presence by healing the sick (Mt. 10:5-8; Luke 10:8-9).

“The kingdom of God,” Jesus said, “is like a mustard seed, the smallest of seeds; yet it grows to become the greatest of shrubs, so birds can make their nest” (Mt. 13:31-32; Mark 4:30-32; Luke 4:18-13). The kingdom starts small, but grows slowly, persistently, subtly, surprisingly, undaunted. It’s like yeast, Jesus said, that a woman took and hid in three measures of flour until all was leavened (Mt. 13:33; Luke 13:20-21).

Jesus’ disciples once began arguing about who would have the seats of honor in the Kingdom, and Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the nations lord it over them, and their ‘great ones’ are tyrants over them. It will not be so among you; but whoever wishes to be great among you must be your servant, and whoever wishes to be first among you must be your slave; just as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life a ransom for many” (Mt. 20:25-28; Mark 10:42-45; cf. Luke 22:24-27).

“Let the little children come to me,” Jesus said, “for it is to such as these that the kingdom of God belongs. Truly I tell you, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God as a little child will never enter it” (Mark 10:14-15; Luke 18:16-17; cf. Mt. 18:3; 19:14).

And he taught his disciples to pray, “Your kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven” (Mt. 6:10; Luke 11:2). This king had come from heaven to earth as one of us, to bring God’s reign near at hand. And we continue to pray, “your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth, as it is in heaven,” that the king of kings and lord of lords and prince of peace born in Bethlehem may come again and again to bring God’s kingdom near at hand and among us.

Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella

Born again, Bearing Fruit
There was once a Pharisee named Nicodemus who “took his torch” and came to Jesus by night to find out more about him and his mission. And Jesus said to him, “no one can enter the Kingdom of God without being born again from above” (John 3:3). Jesus, the Word of God, dwelt among us and showed us what the new, regenerated life of the kingdom looks like, what life the way God desires it to be looks like.

There was a time when Jesus went up on the hillside and sat down and began to preach, and he said, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Mt. 5:3), and another time he said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). . . “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted” (Mt. 5:4). And another time, he said, “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh” (Luke 6:21). . . “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth. . . Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Mt. 5:5-6) and another time, he said, “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled” (Luke 6:21). . . “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. . . Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. . . Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. . . Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. . . Blessed are you when people revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven” (Mt. 5:7-12; cf. Luke 6:22-23).

“You are the salt of the earth,” Jesus said (Mt. 5:13). “You are the light of the world. . . You are a city on a hill that cannot be hidden. . . Let your light shine before others!” (Mt. 5:14-16). And Jesus talked about the old ways, about the ways of the world in which people get trapped by anger and lust and lies and hatred and vengeance and self-righteousness, and worry and wealth, and judgmentalism and conformity, and he showed his followers the kingdom way, the way of reconciliation and forgiveness, the way of fidelity and plain, honest speech, the way of loving enemies and refusing retaliation, the way of humble righteousness, of simplicity and content trust in God, of humble love and distinct living, of doing unto others (Mt. 5-7).

And he said to the crowds, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. . . Whoever hears these words of mine and acts on them will be like a wise man who built his house on rock. The rain fell, the floods came, and the winds blew and beat on that house, but it did not fall, because it had been founded on rock. And everyone who hears these words of mine and does not act on them will be like a foolish man who built his house on sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and beat against that house, and it fell—and great was its fall!” (Mt. 7:21-27).

There was once a scholar of the scriptures who came up to Jesus. And he asked Jesus, “Teacher, what must I do to inherit eternal life,” and Jesus said to him, “What do you read in the scriptures.” And the scholar replied, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength, and with all your mind; and love your neighbor as yourself.” And Jesus said, “You have given the right answer. Do this, and you will live” (Luke 10:25-28; cf. Mt. 22:34-40; Mark 12:28-31).

But the scholar wanted to know just how far it went, and he said, “And who is my neighbor?” Jesus replied, “A man was going down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell into the hands of robbers, who stripped him, beat him, and went away, leaving him half dead. Now by chance a priest was going down that road; and when he saw him, he passed by on the other side. So also a Levite, when he came to the place and saw him, passed by on the other side. But a journeying Samaritan came near him; and when he saw him, he was moved with compassion. He went to him and bandaged his wounds, pouring oil and wine on them. Then he put him on his own animal, brought him to an inn, and took care of him. The next day he took out two coins, gave them to the innkeeper, and said, ‘Take care of him; and when I come back, I will repay you whatever more you spend.’ Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” The scholar said, “The one who showed him mercy.” Jesus said to him, “Go and do likewise” (Luke 10:29-37)

Jesus dwelt among us as the example of a faithful life before God. His disciples were once amazed that he was to suffer and die and then be raised, and he said to them, If any want to become my followers, them them [also] deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake will save it.” (Mt. 16:25; Mark 8:34-35; Luke 9:23-24; cf. Mt. 10:38-39; Luke 14:27; 17:33; John 12:25).

One day in Jerusalem, Jesus and his disciples were watching rich people putting their gifts into the offering; then they also saw a poor widow put in two small copper coins. And Jesus said to his disciples, “Truly I tell you, this poor widow has put in more than all of them; for all of them have contributed out of their abundance, but she out of her poverty has put in all she had to live on” (Mark 12:41-44; Luke 21:1-4).

Near the end of his life, he said to his followers, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory. . .he will sit on the throne. . . All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, the ones blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’ Then he will say to those at his left hand, Go away from me, the ones cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life” (Matthew 25:31-46).

The true king of heaven and earth entered this world as a vulnerable baby, made his first bed in a cold cave in a feed trough, and soon became a refugee. How we treat “the least of these” will be the measure by which we welcome this humble Christ child, this king who had no place to lay his head, for that is the nature of the kingdom that this king brings.

Carol of the Drum

Compassion and Healing
The angelic host heralded the arrival of the Christ Child with tidings that his coming will mean “peace, goodwill among people” (Luke 2:14). His life was indeed one of tremendous acts of compassion, gracious forgiveness, healing, and love. He forgave generously, he healed many, he loved powerfully, he fed the hungry with food for body and spirit.

One day Jesus saw a large crowd – 5,000 men, not even counting women and children – looking like sheep without a shepherd, and he had compassion for them and began to teach. When it started getting late, his disciples suggested to dismiss the crowds to give everyone a chance to go and get something to eat. But he answered them, “You give them something to eat.” The disciples replied, “Are we to go and buy two hundred days’ wages worth of bread, and give it to them to eat?” Jesus said to them, “How many loaves have you? Go and see.” They found five loaves and two fish. Having taken the five loaves and the two fish, he looked up to heaven, and blessed and broke the loaves, and gave them to his disciples to set before the crowd; and he divided the two fish among them all. And all ate and were filled; and they took up twelve baskets full of bread and fish (Mt. 14:13-21; Mark 8:30-44; Luke 9:10-17; cf. Mt. 15:32-39; Mark 8:1-10). The next day, Jesus said to the crowds, “Do not work for the food that perishes, but for the food that endures for eternal life. . . I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty” (John 6:27, 35).

A synagogue leader name Jairus came and fell at Jesus’ feet, begging him because his daughter was near death. As they went, a woman who had suffered hemorrhages for 12 years and was impoverished by medical bills with a worsening condition came up and touched his cloak. Immediately, the hemorrhage stopped, and she was healed. Jesus, aware of the power that had been released, asked who did this? The woman, scared, fell down before him and told him everything. Jesus said to her, “Daughter, your faith has healed you; go in peace, and be healed of the disease.” As he said this, some came from Jairus’ house and said that his daughter had died. But Jesus entered the house and went to the girl and said, “Little girl, get up.” And she immediately got up (Mark 5:21-43; Luke 8:40-56; cf. Mt. 9:18-26).

Jesus was teaching in the Temple one day, and the scribes and the Pharisees brought a woman and stood her in the middle of everyone and to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the very act of committing adultery. And in the law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Therefore, what do you say?” Jesus bent down and wrote with his finger on the ground. As they kept on questioning him, he stood up and said to them, “Let the one among you without sin cast the first stone at her.” And once again he bent down and wrote on the ground. When they heard it, they went one, one by one, beginning with the elders; and Jesus was left alone with the woman standing in the middle. Jesus stood up and said to her, “Has no one condemned you?” “No one, Lord,” she replied. And Jesus said, “Neither do I condemn you. Go your way, and from now on sin no more.”

The empire’s king Herod had sought to snuff out Jesus’ life when he was young, and Jesus had a heart for those who were despised by others. He often ate with tax collectors and sinners, who loved to come and listen to his teaching. But the Pharisees and scribes were grumbling, saying to each other “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them” (Luke 15:2; cf. Mt. 9:11; Mark 2:16; Luke 5:30). So he told them a number of parables, including this one (Luke 15):

There was a man who had two sons. The younger asked his father for his share of the inheritance now already, as if to say, “You’re dead to me.” And so the father divided his property between them. The younger son took his money and left for a distant country, and there he squandered his property in wild living. He spent everything, and a famine struck the land, so he got a job feeding pigs. He was even jealous of the slop he gave the pigs, but no one gave him anything. So he planned to go back to his father and apologize, hoping to be one of his father’s hired hands. So he went to his father. But while he was still far off, his father saw him and was filled with compassion; he ran and put his arms around him and kissed him. Then the son said to him, “Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you; I am no longer worthy to be called your son.” But the father said to his servants, “Quickly, bring out a robe—the best one—and put it on him; put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet. And get the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate; for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!” And they began to celebrate.” Now his elder son heard of the celebration and became angry and refused to go in. His father came out again and began to plead with him. But he said to his father, “I’ve never disobeyed you all these years, but you never threw me a party. But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!” Then the father said to him, “Son, you are always with me, and all that is mine is yours. But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found.”

The word who became flesh and dwelt among us became the focal point of the outpouring of God’s compassion and love. Indeed, he was sent because “God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever might put their trust in him may not perish but may have the life of the age to come” (John 3:16).

And Your Love

Cross and Glory
John said of Jesus, “In him was life, and the life was the light of humankind” (John 1:4). The priest Zechariah spoke of Jesus, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high has broken upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace” (Luke 1:78-79). “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (John 1:5)

One fall during the Jewish Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus went to the Temple. During the celebration of this feast, which longed for the time when there would be “continuous day” at the coming of the Lord, massive lamps were lit, and it was remembered that there was not a courtyard in all of Jerusalem that did not reflect the light from the Temple. Then Jesus got up, and said, “I am the light of the world; whoever follows me will never walk in darkness but will have the light of life” (John 8:12).

But many people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil (John 3:19). “For all who do evil hate the light,” Jesus said, “and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed” (John 3:20). He came proclaiming God’s kingdom, a kingdom of light (Isa. 9:2; 42:16; 60:1, 19-20; Rev. 21:22-24), but many found the life and light of the kingdom displeasing to their distortions of desire, and they opposed it. “From the days of John the Baptist until now,” Jesus said, “the kingdom of heaven has suffered violence, and the violent take it by force” (Mt. 11:12; cf. Luke 16:16).

Early in his ministry, opponents of the kingdom of light began plotting violence against Jesus (Mark 3:6). Finally, at the time of Passover, Jesus gathered with his disciples. While they were eating, he took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to them, saying, “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me.” And he did the same with the cup after supper, saying, “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood” (Luke 22:14-23; cf. Mt. 26:26-29; Mark 14:22-25; 1 Cor. 11:23-26).

He put a towel around his waist and began to wash his disciples’ feet. After he was done, he said to them, “You call me Teacher and Lord – and you are right, for that is what I am. So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another’s feet. . . I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. . . No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. . . If you love me, keep my commandments” (John 14:13-14, 34; 15:13; 14:15).

“Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. In my Father’s house there are many dwellings. . . I go to prepare a place for you, for I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also. . . Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid” (John 14:1-3; 27).

Jesus went out to the Mount of Olives, and prayed, “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me; yet not my will but yours be done” (Mark 14:36; Luke 22:42; Mt. 26:39). Suddenly a crowd came (Mt. 26:47; Mark 14:43; Luke 22:47; John 18:3), and Jesus the Messiah was betrayed by a kiss from one of his trusted friends (Mt. 26:49; Mark 14:45; cf. Luke 22:47-48; no kiss in John – see why!). He was taken into custody. His accusers subjected him to an illegal mockery of a trial (Mt. 26:57-68; Mark 14:53-65; Luke 22:66-71; John 18:19-24), and brought him before the local Roman governor, Pilate (Mt. 27:1-14; Mark 1:1-5; Luke 23:1-15; John 18:28-38), on trumped up charges of sedition against the empire (Luke 23:2; Mt. 27:11; Mark 15:2; John 18:30, 33). Pilate found the charges unconvincing and offered to release Jesus the Messiah, but the crowd requested to have the insurrectionist called Jesus Barabbas, released. They demanded Jesus the Christ’s crucifixion. Finally, Pilate washed his hands of the matter and handed Jesus over to be crucified (Mt. 27:15-26; Mark 15:6-15; Luke 23:18-25; John 18:38-19:16).

He was beaten, given a crown of thorns and paid mock homage as king of the Jews. And they led him away and crucified him (Mt. 27:27-31; Mark 15:16-20; Luke 23:11-12; John 19:1-3). Jesus said, “Father, forgive them; for they don’t know what they’re doing” (Luke 23:34). Two insurrectionists were crucified with him, one to his right and one to his left, who joined in the crowd’s mocking (Mt. 27:38, 44; Mark 15:27, 32; cf. Luke 23:32, 39-43). Darkness came over the whole land (Mt. 27:45; Mark 15:33; Luke 23:44). The temple’s curtain was rent in two (Mt. 27:51; Mark 15:38; Luke 23:45). On witness heard Jesus cry out, “My God, My God, why have your forsaken me?!” (Mt. 27:46; Mark 15:34) and another, “Into your hands I commend my spirit” (Luke 23:46). And he breathed his last.

Jesus’ body was laid in a tomb. The Roman Governor Pilate ordered the tomb sealed and posted a guard (Mt. 27:65-66), and darkness engulfed the earth. The last ray of hope in the light bravely flickering in the world’s darkness, it seemed, had finally been snuffed out.

But, on the first day of the week, at early dawn, women came to the tomb to find the stone rolled away and the tomb empty (Mt. 28:1-5; Mark 16:1-6; Luke 24:1-5; John 20:1-2). An angel of the Lord said to them, “He is not here; for he has been raised, as he said” (Mt. 28:5; Mark 16:6; cf. Luke 24:5; John 20:11-13). God had ordered the tomb unsealed, and yonder broke the new and glorious morn, as the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

And Jesus left his followers a commission. The disciples were afraid and huddled behind locked doors, but the risen Christ came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you. As the Father has sent me, so I send you” (John 20:20). When he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them, “Receive the Holy Spirit” (John 20:22). Later they gathered on a mountain, and Jesus said to them, “As you go, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you. And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Mt. 28:16-20).

And so it was that the infant king born in a lowly cave with livestock as his attendants, who was loved by many and despised by the powerful, who suffered a shameful and gruesome death, entered into his glory. Not by the might of scepter or sword, but by the mysterious power of serving and sewing seed; not by cunning self-preservation, violent retaliation, or resignation to the powers that be, but by steadfast love and obedience, even to death. The early church had a hymn like this:

Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.

Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father. (Philippians 2:5-11, NRSV)

May that Christ story come to birth in our lives this Christmas day as we celebrate the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. Amen.

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