Tag Archives: Nativity

If 2020 Gave A Christmas Gift . . .

Image used by permission.

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 him
    that there was no justice.

Isaiah 59:14-15

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”

For us and For our Salvation: Why God Became Human

A few kids in a youth group asked their United Methodist pastor: “Do we (i.e. United Methodists) believe people need to be saved? Our Baptist friends always talk about being saved. Do we believe that too?”

The short answer is yes, of course! Of course we United Methodists believe in the need for salvation (even if some unofficially find the traditional notion distasteful). But there is more to salvation than just getting a free ticket to go to heaven rather than hell when we die.

Genesis tells us that God created humanity in his image and after his likeness to be his royal representatives on earth. God intended to exercise his loving and righteous rule over creation through humanity. We were created not only to be blessed by a holy loving relationship with God, but also to be mediators through which the blessing of God would flow to the rest of creation. We were also created to lead the rest of creation in praise of God for the glory of God.

There are small, seemingly insignificant pipes that allow water to flow into and out of our homes. With the water we quench our thirst, prepare our food, and clean ourselves, our clothes and dishes and more. Large cables and thin and imperceptible wires also allow electricity to flow into and through our homes providing lighting, heating, cooling, and powering our electronics. Has the flow of water or electricity ever been disrupted at your house?

Recently a car ran off the road and hit a power pole in our neighborhood. It snapped a cable, which cut off all the electricity to our home and many others on a Saturday night. We ended up eating takeout by candle light. Fortunately my lap top was charged enough for us to be able to watch a family movie on DVD. But we all realize how much better things are with flowing water and electricity when they get disrupted.

When the first humans, Adam and Eve, gave into the temptation of Satan in the Garden of Eden and sinned against God it disrupted the flow of God’s blessing not only to them, but also the flow of God’s blessing to the rest of creation that came through them. Their hearts were corrupted and their minds were darkened; and the whole creation suffered as a result. Sin not only hurt their relationship with God and each other, it also brought a curse on the created world. Because the image of God in humanity was distorted, disharmony in the rest of the world followed. Like a disease, the corrupting power of sin spread to all humans who were born after Adam and Eve and the whole world suffered.

God called the nation of Israel to restore God’s blessing to the world, to be a light among all the other nations. He gave them commandments, summed up in the Ten Commandments. He promised that they would be blessed to be a blessing to the rest of the nations of the world if they would keep them; he warned them that they would be cursed if they rebelled. Although they had some shining moments, they were few and fleeting. After hundreds and hundreds of years of repeated rebellion, the nation of Israel was destroyed and expelled from the promised land. Like Adam and Eve were exiled from Eden, Israel was exiled from the land that God had given them.

Israel failed to restore the blessing of God to creation. The power of sin that had been passed from Adam and Eve to the rest of the human race proved to be too strong for humanity to overcome on its own. The promised blessings of God depended on human obedience, but humanity, even Israel with a special relationship with God, proved to be utterly unwilling and therefore incapable of fulfilling its part of the covenant. God had made these promises that depended on human obedience for their fulfillment, now what would God do? . . .

 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. ~ Galatians 4:4 NRSV

Madonna and ChildGod’s blessing to the world depends on humans being obedient to God’s design for them. Humans are meant to live in peace and harmony with God so peace and harmony can flow through them to each other and the rest of creation. When fallen humanity proved incapable, God himself in the person of the one and only eternal Son of God became human and was born of the Virgin Mary. Evoking Isaiah 7:14, Matthew tells us he was Immanuel, which means “God with us.” Joseph, Mary’s husband, at the behest of the angel named him Jesus, which means “the Lord Saves” (Matt 1:21). As a full-fledged human, Jesus fulfilled humanity’s obligation of obedience to God. God in Christ Jesus did for us what we could not do for ourselves, and by grace through faith allows us to share fully in the blessing that he himself restored. Saint Paul put it this way:

If, because of the one man’s trespass, death exercised dominion through that one, much more surely will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness exercise dominion in life through the one man, Jesus Christ.
Therefore just as one man’s trespass led to condemnation for all, so one man’s act of righteousness leads to justification and life for all. For just as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.  ~ Romans 5:17-19 NRSV

Saint John put it this way:

 “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. John 3:16 NRSV

Jesus’ obedience to God cost him his life at the hands of sinful men (Philippians 2:8). But although evil people can kill, God can raise the dead. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus God offers us forgiveness of sins and new life as a free gift.

We are saved by grace (i.e. what God has done for us in Christ Jesus), through faith (trusting in Jesus), for good works, a new way of life in the world.

For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God—not the result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life. ~ Ephesians 2:8-10 NRSV

The incarnation of the Son of God, his life, death, and resurrection planted the seed of the new creation within the midst of our fallen world. It was a seed that sprang forth with Jesus from the heart of the earth when he arose from the dead. It continues to grow even now, and we can participate in its transforming power by grace through faith.

In the Methodist tradition we believe God’s grace leads us and empowers us to believe. When we believe we are justified and forgiven by God on account of the shed blood of Christ. At the same time we are also born anew from above by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the new birth we receive a new heart for a holy life that we must grow into. It is God’s grace that helps us grow. In this process called sanctification we are enabled to shed ourselves of the corruption of sin and to be renewed into the image and likeness of God as God intended when God first created humanity. It is a process where God heals our distorted desires and corrects our false beliefs. Sin makes us want to do things selfishly that are not right; in our darkened minds we seek to justify ourselves with falsehoods and lies. The grace of God renews us “in true righteousness and holiness” (see Eph 4:17-32).

To help us in this renewal of the image of God in holy love in us, God has given us certain practices of discipleship, spiritual disciplines, that we are called to practice together in the church. These are called means of grace. Means of grace are like channels that connect us to God so God’s grace in Christ can flow to us to renew us. If you want to receive the benefits of the internet, you have to get connected, right? You have to get access to the right signal. The means of grace and the practice of spiritual disciplines gets us connected to receive the grace of God that renews us into the image of God. But the reconnecting to God the Father through the Son is not merely restoring power, it is the restoration of a relationship that was lost. It is the restoration of friendship with God.

The means of grace include prayer, Bible study, worship (including the sacraments of baptism and Holy Communion), fasting, fellowship with believers, works of mercy and compassion in the Church and world. These practices put us in the best position to receive the signal of God’s grace so we can grow. But we must not forget that the means of grace all have an end, meaning a goal.

A basketball coach gives basketball players certain drills to practice so they can become good, hopefully even great, players. A band director gives students certain things to practice so they can become good musicians. But becoming a good basketball player is not just meant to benefit the individual, but also a team and a school or a city. A good musician is meant to benefit a band and those who will be enriched by the music.

God gives us certain practices to help renew us into the image and likeness of God, but not just for ourselves. God wants to not only bless us, but to bring blessing to the rest of the world through us. The goal of renewal in the image of God will be complete in the resurrection of the body when Christ comes again. This is called glorification. It’s the goal of the means of grace and the practice of spiritual disciplines, including all the gifts of the Spirit (Ephesians 4:7-16; 1 Corinthians 12-14). Completion of renewal in the image of God will not only restore blessing to humanity, it will also restore the fullness of God’s blessing to the rest of creation (Rom 8:18-30). But whenever we faithfully practice spiritual disciplines now, a measure of God’s blessing will not only flow to us, but also through us into our families, to our friends and even our enemies, to our communities, and to the rest of creation, which God is renewing as he renews us.

By practicing spiritual disciplines we work out our salvation as God works in us “to will and to work for his good pleasure”(Philippians 2:12-13). By participating in our own jesus-bridge-1transformation, we participate in God’s transformation of the whole world. In other words, the means of grace, made possible by the obedience of Jesus Christ, are a bridge to somewhere. That somewhere is the kingdom of God fully come in the new heaven and earth (Revelation 21-22).

Joy to the world!

No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground:
he comes to make his blessings flow
far as the curse is found.

The Nicene Creed

We believe in one God,
the Father, the Almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all that is, seen and unseen.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
eternally begotten of the Father,
God from God, Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made,
of one Being with the Father;
through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven,
was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
and became truly human.
For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered death and was buried.
On the third day he rose again
in accordance with the Scriptures;
he ascended into heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again in glory
to judge the living and the dead,
and his kingdom will have no end.

We believe in the Holy Spirit, the Lord, the giver of life,
who proceeds from the Father and the Son,
who with the Father and the Son
is worshiped and glorified,
who has spoken through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic* and apostolic church.
We acknowledge one baptism
for the forgiveness of sins.
We look for the resurrection of the dead,
and the life of the world to come. Amen.
The United Methodist Hymnal # 880.