By Cliff Wall
It’s time once again for the Christmas story. Most are familiar with the imagery of the nativity, the stable filled with animals along with Joseph, Mary and the baby Jesus in a manger. Familiarity and the airbrushed imagery fit for a Christmas card, however, may cause us to forget how unusual this setting is for a story about the birth of a king. Let’s put it this way, someone in the midst of a functioning stable would smell more than merely hay. After all, sheep do more than just eat and bleat. In any time it’s hard to imagine such a setting being fit for a king.
Luke tells us of an impoverished couple bringing this king into the world under less then ideal– far less than ideal– circumstances. Moreover, his birth was announced and worshipfully proclaimed by angels to poor shepherds in the field, not to dignitaries in palaces, Herod’s or Caesar’s. Familiarity and sentimental modern imagery can blind us to the lowly and humble beginnings of this Jesus, who was destined to be king of Israel and Savior of the world. It may also blind us to the fact that this setting for the birth of this particular king was not accidental or incidental. The angel of the Lord claimed to bring “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10 ESV). The lone angel was then accompanied by a multitude of angels that exclaimed, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:14).
The angels proclaimed good news of great joy for all the people that would not be received as such by every person. With the phrase “unto you is born” the angel evokes Isaiah 9:6-7.
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Of the increase of his government and of peace
there will be no end,
on the throne of David and over his kingdom,
to establish it and to uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time forth and forevermore.
The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
The son of Mary was the promised Prince of Peace whose reign will establish everlasting peace built on the foundation of perfect justice. Peace is more but not less than the absence of conflict. It will include swords being beaten into plowshares and no more war (Isaiah 2:1-5). It will also include perfect well-being in body, soul, and spirit that comes with the restored blessing of the full presence of God. It’s the peace of heaven to come and to be enjoyed by God’s people on earth. But it is a peace that will ultimately only be received by “those with whom he [God] is pleased!” (Luke 2:14 ESV). Or as the NRSV renders it, “peace among those whom he favors!”
Who are those that God favors? While some minds will immediately go to abstract and ethereal debates about predestination (abstract and ethereal albeit inevitable and necessary), what Luke 2:14 likely has in mind is more concrete and “down to earth.” Fitting with the lowly circumstances of the King of Glory’s birth in a stable and into a poor family, those with whom God favors are the meek and humble. And this is in contrast to the arrogant and proud like the Israelites in the second half of Isaiah 9 who defiantly resist God’s attempts to humble them and trust in their own strength and ingenuity (Isaiah 9:8-21). This is the truth clearly expressed in Mary’s song of praise after she conceived Jesus as a virgin by the power of the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:46-55). The everlasting peace to be ushered in by the reign of the Prince of Peace is for the humble, more likely to be found among the poor. “Blessed are the poor, for yours is the kingdom of God” (Luke 6:20). Indeed, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble” (1 Peter 5:5; James 4:6; cf. Prov 3:34).
God sent his Son to restore peace by establishing a kingdom of pure justice and righteousness. The words justice and righteousness are used more or less synonymously throughout the Bible. In addition to general faithfulness to God’s covenant commandments, biblical justice includes impartiality and fairness, that judgments not favor the rich over the poor or the poor over the rich in the settlement of disputes. It also includes personal responsibility on the part of those who have the ability and opportunity to work. But those with the ability and opportunity not only have a responsibility to take care of themselves but also to take care of the poor who for whatever set of unfortunate circumstances lack the ability and the opportunity to take care of themselves. This central part of biblical justice is expressed in Paul’s admonition to the Thessalonians about idleness for those who were able to work. “If anyone is not willing to work, let him not eat” (2 Thess 3:10b). Biblical justice demands that neighbors love one another by holding each other accountable to the covenant with the Lord, which includes care for those genuinely in need. Additionally, among many other things, justice does include punishment for wrongdoing, but mercy and forgiveness are also an inherent part of it.
Isaiah tells us that the messiah will be the perfectly impartial and righteous judge who will treat the poor and the meek fairly, but, in contrast, he will destroy the wicked (Isaiah 11:3-4). “Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (Matt 5:5). It’s not that only the literal poor can be meek and humble. While the poor are dependent upon the faithfulness of the rich, both rich and poor are ultimately completely dependent upon the faithfulness of God, which both may be tempted to forget (Deut 8).
The peace that Jesus came to bring is indeed built upon the foundation of justice and righteousness. It is true that there is no peace without justice, but justice, to be genuine, requires truth. Caesar and the Roman Empire promised peace, but it was a false peace because the justice it was built on was not grounded in truth. The Roman Empire, like all other kingdoms of this world, was built on the lie of idolatry. It’s peace was forged through propaganda to suit the desires of powerful elites. Facts were forced to fit the fiction. It’s false narrative was maintained through threat and fear. Rome’s version of justice came with no robust commitment to truth (John 18:38?). It’s “good news” of peace through its “lord’ and “savior,” Augustus Caesar, was pure propaganda designed to secure the power and glory of the empire and its emperor and other false gods. Jesus Christ, on the other hand, was born to bring glory to the one true God, the Creator of heaven and earth.
There is no peace without justice, but there is no justice without truth. Truth is not putty in our hands to shape as we see fit to suit our own desires; Truth is as firm as the character of God and his will for his creation. The prophet Isaiah reveals that times of evil and oppression are accompanied by injustice fueled by lies.
Justice is turned back,
and righteousness stands far away;
for truth has stumbled in the public squares,
and uprightness cannot enter.
Truth is lacking,
and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey.
The Lord saw it, and it displeased himIsaiah 59:14-15
that there was no justice.
So God sent his Son, with whom he was well pleased, into the world to bear witness to the truth, indeed he was and is the Truth in the flesh. In an unjust world under the power of sin, however, he was bound to become prey. Soon after his birth Herod, who was hell bound and determined to hang onto power and human glory no matter the cost, would seek to slay him. Throughout his life and ministry Jesus was pursued by the evil one and his minions (Rev 12). His witness to the truth got him convicted by a corrupt court and crucified on a Roman cross. But the poor Truth born in a stable could not be buried for long in a rich man’s tomb.
Jesus was born to bring peace built on genuine justice firmly anchored in the Truth. He was poor in the things so valued by this fallen world, but he was and is rich in justice and mercy. He has more than enough to share as a free gift for all those humble enough to know that they have fallen far short of the glory of God’s justice and to know that they, like poor beggars, desperately need him as Savior and Lord.
While I was writing this, I saw an article and social media discussion where some who call themselves progressive Christians were arguing that references to Jesus as Lord, Savior, and King should be replaced with more “inclusive” terms in Christmas carols even though the lyrics of the traditional carols merely express the language of the New Testament. They want to replace references to Jesus as “Lord” with “Love,” for example. In Silent Night this would be “Jesus, love at thy birth.” In Away in Manger: “the little love Jesus asleep on the hay.” They fail to realize that God is love (1 John 4:7-21), but love is not God. In other words, the character of the Creator and his revealed word define what genuine love is, not the sinful sensibilities of a fallen world (1 John 2:15-17). They are admitting that they really do not accept Jesus in the exclusive terms that he is presented in the Bible, which quite simply is in perfect harmony with something as basic as the very first of the Ten Commandments. Why? Pride.
Pride causes us to seek only the gifts within ourselves. Humility opens us to receive gifts from others outside ourselves, including the greatest gift of all, God’s one and only Son. It requires humility to believe in a king as Savior and Lord who was born in a stable and crowned with a crown of thorns and coronated on an old rugged cross. He is the Way–the only way– to everlasting peace.
This year has been a tough one for sure. Christmas this year will be less than ideal, but it was far less so the night Jesus was born. If 2020 was designed to do anything, maybe it was designed to humble us, and that just may be the best Christmas gift any of us could receive. Really.
He speaks and listening to his voice, new life the dead receive; the mournful broken hearts rejoice, the humble poor believe.Charles Wesley, “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing”