The Christmas Miracle (Isaiah 9:2-7; Luke 2:1-20)
It’s Christmas Day, the culmination of all the hope, all the peace, all the joy, and all the love of Advent. Of course, we don’t actually know when Jesus was born, but Christians have been celebrating it about now for many centuries. It really doesn’t matter much at what time of year it was. What is important is that, in this event, “The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.” One of my friends often says that at Christmas God stepped onto our planet with eternal consequence. As a convinced Christian, I, of course, think that he is right. It will not surprise you that I want to go on to say, that when God did step onto our planet that Christmas Eve, it was neither the first nor only time God had done so. We have both the witness of what we call the Old Testament to God’s presence among the people of Israel, and also the presence of the created order itself. The psalmist said, “The heavens are telling the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims God’s handiwork.” And Paul the Apostle wrote that “God has not let the world go without a witness.” On that long-ago night in Bethlehem God did step onto planet earth (again), in a surprising new way, in the flesh and blood of a human person. That is common Christian testimony, and is the Christmas miracle, if you want the stripped down version. In reality, however, it is much more nuanced and complicated. It’s my view that sometimes because we can summarize things, we insist that they aren’t any deeper than the summary we make. Over the years, many publications have come across my desk in which a longer, complicated document (sometimes 100 pages) is preceded by what is called “An Executive Summary” of two pages. Each document is for a different purposes and audience. Just so, to say that in Bethlehem God stepped onto planet earth in Jesus is the executive summary. To develop any kind of life commitment , however, we must eventually learn more.
Our lessons from the Old and New Testaments are both very well known, read most years at this time, and both fill out the executive summary. Isaiah 9 is a hopeful promise that God’s power will rescue those trapped in dark and joyless places. God will grant freedom from burdens and oppression through the birth of a new king to sit upon the throne of David’s kingdom. The titles given to this ruler (Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace) are very like some of the throne names that we know were given to kings on their accession to the throne in the ancient world (especially in Egypt, as it happens). The new king of Isaiah’s poem will have a wonderful aptitude for wise planning, the very strength of God to carry the plans out, a care, concern, and generativity that continues into the distant future, and the embodiment of wholeness not just personally, but for all. The poem ends with the assurance that all this is not the product of mere human power, but will be wrought by the deep care and unbounded power of God solely for the divine glory, but in interest of human good. The word that the Hebrew text uses to express this is usually translated as “zeal” (“the zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this,” 9:7).
Most scholars are confident that, whenever they were first written, these words resonated deeply within the imaginations of the poor, distraught, alienated, depressed people who lived in and around Jerusalem in the years after their return from Babylonian exile. Nothing about being “back at home” seemed to be working out as gloriously as they had imagined it. The promise was that God says that one day it will! While there is a hint of God’s gentleness in this passage, it has been mostly understood to speak of the divine might to do what God sets out to do (God’s “zeal” again). And that is how people thought (and tend to think) of God: powerful beyond measure, able to crush any opposition, and win at any game. There is no doubt that great power is part of the biblical word about God.
Through the centuries, in an attempt to be faithful to this word, people have co-opted their own cultural language to express and explain that power. We still do it today, and it is right to do so. It is no good simply to repeat ancient words by rote without explanation and clarification for our day. As we engage in such clarification it is also important that we be careful to understand the ancient words so that our contemporary explanations are faithful to the nub of their ancient meaning. In this case, God is powerful, and will, by that power, work the divine will for the good and well-being of God’s people.
The New Testament Lesson is, of course, Luke’s lyrical reflection on the birth of Jesus. Here, although there is a hint of great power (the census the whole world by the emperor and Quirinius, the song of the mighty host of heaven), Luke’s text mostly emphasizes the commonness and smallness of it all: Jesus – the one about whom angels sang – came into the world as a baby. This baby was born to a poor Jewish teenager who was taken as a wife by a Jewish carpenter even after coarse stories circulated about her being pregnant. This baby was born in a borrowed place in a backwater of the empire because the importance of the big events of Quirinius’ census had crowded his parents out even there. The first witnesses to the birth were ordinary, religiously unacceptable, peasants. I make the comment about “religiously unacceptable,” because shepherds were usually “unclean” according to Jewish law because their work kept them from doing what good, clean, religious people did. In that day, one dominant explanation of God’s great power was that God was the perfect legislator whose main job was giving a perfect, flawless revelation in rules that humans were to keep to differentiate them from those who were “impure.” This explanation of God’s power has not passed away from the confession of many Christians today, though it is far from what the ancient words mean. So the shepherds were religiously unacceptable. One wonders what these religiously unacceptable folks made of God, the perfect legislator, making this good news of great joy for all people known to them?
Truly, the miracle of the events reflected on by Luke really comes from a combination of the key themes of these two scripture lessons. The almighty sovereign of the universe was upending the great and mighty of the earth, and bringing light and joy to the small and common as well as the mighty (if they will see it and give place to the God who was doing this) by the seemingly insignificant and completely normal human act of birth. There is a hymn, written in the mid 1980’s by Graham Kendrick the title of which is “The Servant King,” that gets the combination of themes here. The first stanza reads:
From heaven you came, helpless babe,
Entered our world, your glory veiled,
Not to be served but to serve,
And give your life that we might live.
(G. Kendrick© Thankyou Music (1983)
From early days, the church has tried, if you like, to think through this Christmas Miracle in the combined witness of passages like Isaiah 9 and Luke 2. At one point, it came up with what is usually called the “two natures” of Christ, the executive summary of which is that Jesus is fully what God is, and fully what we are, at one and the same time. This proposition can get very difficult to comprehend in contemporary categories of thought and language. The Christmas Miracle is that God, with all that means, was pleased to become incarnate in a real, live, normal human being whose Hebrew name was Yeshua, Greek, Jesus. Christians, in better moments at least, still confess both realities in some way. What such confession means is that God fulfilled the dreams of prophets and sages (like Isaiah) as well as those of countless ordinary people, through the birth of one tiny human person.
I think most Christians spend more time affirming the “God” part of all this as far as Jesus goes. So, we often simply assume that Jesus knew everything, needed nothing, and was just play- acting at this living on earth business. Yet, the Bible itself really says far less about all this than we do.
We aren’t nearly as good about affirming what the Bible is so ready to affirm; that Jesus was truly and fully a human being. And that means he began life as helpless as we all did, squalling, having colic, needing to eat, drink, be held, having normal bodily functions (all over his so called swaddling clothes, which were the diapers of the day). Sometimes when we begin to think of these things we cannot seem to get it done, and so it’s easy simply to stop thinking and say that one thing or the other can’t be. And it can’t. Unless God (for whom all things are possible) actually did step into the world on that night in Bethlehem so many centuries ago; and God actually brought Isaiah’s vision to reality by a tiny baby. If that is true, then we begin to see what it means that this is the Christmas Miracle, and maybe the most miraculous thing that ever happened. How could God do this? Why should God do it this way? Why not just solve the problems in an instant? It’s worth thinking about, as long as you realize that the answer is we don’t really know. But we can think…One of the ways I think of it for myself (and I just suggest this to you) is that this miraculous act of God in Christ at Christmas inspires folk (like me) to faith in the true biblical sense of this word, which is betting our lives on a particular way of being together. Let me say a little more here.
Jesus’ life was as his birth: he embodied God in the flesh of a human (Immanuel, God with us). He redefined power as empowerment. He redefined greatness as servanthood. He saw that the way of the crown is the way of the cross. He washed the feet of fishermen, common folk, and a traitor.
It is my faith that God’s Christmas Miracle can become a model for our action in our world. We can understand that God’s power is planted in the world when Christ’s people are truly with other people, as Jesus was Immanuel, God with us. He is with us in our weakness, not to beat us into submission, or even to get us to believe something, but simply to be with us, to reconcile us to ourselves, to one another and to God, and so, in patient love, to make us whole. And Jesus intends us to be with others, and so be the conduit through which that happens in our communities.
The refrain of Kendrick’s hymn I cited earlier reads:
This is our God, the Servant King,
He calls us now to follow him,
To bring our lives as a daily offering
Of worship to the Servant King.
(G. Kendrick ©Thankyou Music (1983)
This is a hard road to walk because it is not only the road of Bethlehem, but also the road of Golgotha. Truly miraculous!
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer, AMEN.