Tuesday, December 24, 2013
The third verse of the well-known carol, 'O Little Town of Bethlehem', begins with these profound words, "How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given." As an historical event, this one was relatively quiet and silent. It did not attract the attention of the rich or the powerful or even of the masses. There were no journalists present that night in Bethlehem; no representatives from the heads of states. Consider the public attention demanded by the birth of Prince William's and Princess Catherine's baby. The birth of Jesus, by contrast, was in relative obscurity. We all know the story of the nativity in Bethlehem, with the stable and the manger, and Mary and Joseph and some poor shepherds looking on. This story is found, however, in only one of the four Gospels—Luke. Neither can any of these details be found any where else in the New Testament. But for thousands of years, Christians have gathered on this day to remember this birth. Let's face it, it was a birth in total obscurity whose meaning only became clear with succeeding events. At the family service earlier, I spoke to our children about who was missing from the nativity scene. We noticed that there were no kings, merchants, or priests.
Now of course there was at least one king there that night in Bethlehem, king Jesus. When the angel Gabriel visited the young Mary and announced to her that she would bear the Son of God, Mary was told that "his kingdom shall have no end." Still there were no earthly kings present. No Caesar, no governor or politician. King Herod, the ruler of Judaea, wanted to be there but only because he felt threatened and wanted to kill the baby Jesus. Despite the carol, "We three kings", the wise men were probably astrologers from Babylon not kings in the proper sense. Notice the similarity between the term magi and magician which show the common origin of the words. This child is a king, but he is a different kind of king and he comes to establish a different kind of kingdom. His kingdom is a spiritual kingdom. Earthly kingdoms are established and sustained by war and conquest. His kingdom also has war and conquest to undertake. Only this war is not against individuals, communities, or nations. As St. Paul puts in his letter to the Ephesians, "For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places." In other words, the war is against evil within ourselves and against evil and injustice in the world. There is a conquest to be made as well, but the purpose of this conquest is not to gain more power and control more people. This conquest, rather, is that of truth over error and ignorance, and it can only truly be done when it comes as a message of freedom, freedom from the bondage and slavery of sin and self. Again, all of this is the case because his kingdom is a spiritual kingdom.
There were also no merchants or men of business there at the nativity. Part of the skill in business is anticipating the latest fads and fashions. It is having the sense and timing for when wool coats will be more popular than Gore-Tex. In Bethlehem there would have been the perfect opportunity to be ahead of that trending curve: in a few decades, Christianity would be a flourishing religion; in a few centuries, Christianity would be adopted as the religion of the Roman Empire. Here was a chance to get in at the ground floor of commercializing Christianity. However, the baby Jesus did not come to peddle goods and sell merchandise. He came to say that riches are a distraction and hurdle to true faith. He said that if anyone wants to be his disciple, he has to forsake all that he has. This was our Lord's way of saying not that we cannot have money, but that we have to see ourselves as stewards of that which we do have and further, we have to love God above every earthly thing. In him are the true riches of peace, spiritual joy and love, but we can only possess these riches when we do not covet and seek after the riches of this world.
Finally, in the nativity there was not a priest or prophet. It interesting that nearly all religions have a place of respect for Jesus of Nazareth, but yet none of them were present that cold night, not even the Jewish religious leaders themselves who apparently sought and prayed for the coming of the messiah. This shows that fundamentally the Christian story is account of God's initiative and intervention on our behalf. Martin Luther famously said that religion is man's pursuit of God while the Christian account of salvation is God's pursuit of man in the man Christ Jesus. In Jesus, God has searched and sought us out, drawing us to himself. We do not need to take any journeys or pilgrimages to go to God, because he is already here and has become one of us.
The message of Bethlehem is for us today as well, but we will need to travel to that city to hear it. In doing so, we will need to know that we are not kings: power and control belong to him who is Lord and Christ, the new-born king. We will need to know that we are not merchants and people of commerce, because all that we have comes from God and we cannot take any of our possessions with us into the greater life. Finally, we will need to know that we are not priests or spiritual people. The message of our redemption is announced to us: "Today is born in the city of David, a Saviour which is Christ the Lord." This redemption and this salvation is not our hard road to God, but what God has freely given us in our Lord Jesus, the greatest gift that we and the world will ever receive.