Posts Tagged ‘christmas’

I bet Isaiah 7.14 sounds like Christmas to you. At least it does to me. I can almost hear carols in the background while reading it. It makes me feel like I am opening a Christmas card. I feel a twinge of excitement. I think I can smell Christmas while listening to it. And then, after Isaiah sings it, Matthew sings it again – a remix.

But unlike Matthew, Isaiah was not thinking about Christmas. He was thinking about politics. He was thinking about a clash between prophet and king. He was thinking about how different the world of faith is from the world of fear.

During this time the world power was Assyria. They made the rules and made sure the rules were followed.  The neighbor kings are tired of this and try to get King Ahaz and Judah to join forces to overthrow Assyria. Isaiah goes to the king with a message and a sign. But the king knows how the world works. He knows where the power is. He ignores the request of the neighbors and tries to snuggle up with Assyria. His worst decision, he ignored the message of the prophet. He refused the sign.

The sign that Ahaz ignored becomes important. A woman will be with child. She will have a son. His name shall be Immanuel. Immanuel means literally “God is with us.” A significant part of the sign for Isaiah is timing. Before the child is old enough to know right from wrong the lands of the kings will be forsaken. It seems the child will be living without fear, enjoying meals of curds and honey. In other words, the original sign is to alert the king that God truly is with his people. When this happens – be on the lookout! Salvation is near. Unfortunately, Ahaz refused “God with us.”

Centuries later Matthew repeats the sign of the prophet and paints for us a picture. There is a woman with child. She will have a son. He shall be called Immanuel. Immanuel literally means “God is with us.” We are more familiar with this story. We know something about this child. We might feel a twinge of excitement. The sign is of great importance. When this sign occurs, when this child is born, when this happens – be on the lookout! Salvation is near. This child is the visible physical evidence that God is with us.


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Matthew chapter two opens with the birth of Jesus and a search for the one born King of the Jews. We have become familiar with this story and its characters; Joseph the husband of Mary, a dreamer born into a kingly bloodline. Magi from the east, willing to give time, effort and treasure in their desire to worship the rightful King. And King Herod, the ruler of a corrupted earthly kingdom who contrasts with the Kingdom of heaven that God has in mind.

Perhaps because of our artificial chapter breaks or perhaps it is due to the obvious years that have passed in between, but we sometimes fail to see how chapter two and three go together. However, it is unnecessary to ask whether Matthew sees a connection between the kingly discussion of chapter two and the announcement made immediately in chapter three that “The Kingdom is at hand.”

This part of the text carries with it romance and heartache, treasure and tragedy, a royal bloodline and an imposter, murder and narrow escape, secrets, espionage, dreams, angels. Just saying, if you open your door and find Magi standing outside, you may be in for a wild ride. But this story about the one born King does not stop there. It takes us into chapter three where we find John the Baptist announcing “the Kingdom of heaven is at hand.” He might as well have said it like this “Your King is at hand.”

It becomes important for us to remember that the story of this Kingdom does not stop with gift giving in Bethlehem. Christmas is not the end of the story. The Kingdom story continues and we are in on it. The Kingdom continues in the ways we choose to follow the rightful King.

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Luke is a careful investigator. He passes along details learned from eyewitnesses and is a student of history. This is important enough that it is the first thing he tells us in his gospel. He wants us to know that what follows is set in history.

That may be why he goes on to tell us that Caesar Augustus issued a decree and that Quirinius was governor and that a census was taking place. But Luke also wants us to be aware that other things were happening also. Luke wants us to know that the plan of God is in full effect. A new kingdom is on the horizon. The existing powers may continue to act as if they possess some ultimate authority. So Caesar decrees, Quirinius governs, Mary and Joseph try to follow the laws of the land.

Meanwhile a new king is near and with him a new kingdom. Perhaps in effort to emphasize this Luke points out that Mary and Joseph went to Bethlehem the town of David (home of Israel’s greatest king) and that Joseph was related to David (Israel’s greatest king). Perhaps that is why he records the angel’s announcement that the child is born in the town of David. Is Luke hinting that here lies Israel’s next king? Has kingdom come in a manger?

We sometimes read Luke 2 as instructions to set up our nativity scene. Luke wants us to know that something else is going on. God has invaded history. We sometimes try to spiritualize the work of God as if He only works in some spiritual arena. Luke wants us to know that God invades our real time history. God invades time while Caesar is decreeing, while wanna-be-Caesars debate on network television, while planning menus, while Quirinius governs, while balancing the checkbook, while shepherds watch their flocks, while worrying about fuel prices, while a census is taken, while unexpected weather occurs, while looking for room at the inn. Christmas is the message of kingdom come in a manger.

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There is a whole list of songs we associate with this time of year. I am surprised some of these lyrics are allowed to be sung in public. We sing “Glory to the newborn King.” “Let earth receive her King.” “Come adore on bended knee, Christ the Lord the newborn King.” We recognize these as songs of Christmas and cannot overlook how they insist that a King is born. When we sing the songs of Christmas we are singing about a change in the political landscape. We are singing about Kingdom Come. We are offering tribute to the rightful King.

It should not surprise us to find Mary singing such a world changing song in Luke 1. Mary’s song does not come out of nowhere. It is a response to the activity of God. She learns of God’s activity in two prior conversations. First, Mary speaks with an angel, Gabriel. This is one of the better known conversations of Advent. Actually, this is the best known conversation in Advent. Simply, it goes like this;

Gabriel – “Greetings… you will bear a son… He will be great and will become King… He will reign forever and His Kingdom will have no end.”

Mary – “Impossible.”

Gabriel – “Nothing will be impossible with God.”

In the second conversation Mary speaks with a barren, elderly woman and we are again reminded “Nothing will be impossible with God.” No wonder Mary sings.

She never would have thought that she, a humble bondslave, would give birth to a King. Her song talks about a Kingdom where the proud will be scattered and rulers will be brought down from their thrones and humble will be exalted and hungry will be filled and rich will be empty handed. It should not be lost on us that Luke goes on to add that a decree went out from Caesar Augustus, perhaps because he thought himself king, just prior to the birth of Mary’s child King. We might read these chapters and listen to these songs and say “Impossible.” And Luke might reply that this is exactly the territory where God likes to work.

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In an effective marketing move Starbucks introduced a red cup with a statement that the company “wanted to usher in the holidays with a purity of design that welcomes all of our stories.” Apparently this has caused a backlash on social media with some stating that Starbucks stole Christmas and others claiming Christians are petty. If this does not make things obvious, please listen carefully; do not go to social media for theology or pastoral counsel.

Christmas is a story about a virgin who came to be with child during the reign of Caesar Augustus. It is about a man who chose to marry her and travel with her to Bethlehem where the child was born and laid in a manger. It is about shepherds who watched their flocks by night and celebrated this birth with angels. It is about Gentile astrologers who traveled afar offering gifts to this child they acknowledged as king. It is about an angry Herod who had children slaughtered in an effort to eliminate this child.

Christmas is a story of scandal and shame and danger and violence and uninvited guests.  It is a story of humility and sacrifice and love for neighbors and enemies. It is a story about God’s invasion of this planet to usher in a new kingdom. It is extremely unfortunate that some have been led to believe this story includes protest of a red cup. Christmas is a story of much greater significance. Seriously, do we need Linus to come onstage with his blanket and remind us what this is about?

It is not the job of Starbucks to tell others about Christmas. I doubt they could tell it well. We minimize the story when we act as if it is the job of marketers or retailers to tell. We minimize the story when we make it about the design of a cup. Christmas may be war on the way things are. It is not war against retailers. Retailers are not called to proclaim good news of great joy. If this is our expectation – we have lost the war. If we wish others “Merry Christmas” as a weapon against them, – we are the problem. These are actions we expect from agents of Caesar and Herod but certainly not from agents of Jesus.

Seriously, what would possess us to berate a barista or boycott a retailer because their employer is not sharing our story? The methods of Caesar and Herod are not our methods. Our methods reflect the characteristics of the one born and laid in a manger. Our methods reflect a kingdom that is under different rule than the kingdoms of Caesar and Herod.

Each year we are given opportunity to share the Christmas story. This year we find an opportunity in a red cup. We have already seen that red cups can become tools to distract us from what is really at stake. We could complain about it because others do not automatically think like we do. Or we could find an opportunity to demonstrate what this is really about.

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Christmas is around the corner. Well, not really but retailers and publishers would like you to think so. So, here is my reminder that Christmas is ten weeks away. If you are looking for a gift that exercises the part of someone that reads, then consider a copy of Participant: Field Notes from Here and Now. Here is an excerpt from what might be considered the Christmas portion of the book;

What a strange God this is who announces his plan to deliver with the birth of a child who is laid in a manger. Ever held a baby? Cradled him in your arms? Felt the heartbeat? Breathed in the newborn smell? Rubbed your lips over the top of his head? Tasted his cheek with a kiss? Listened to his cry? Watched while he slept? Certainly there are more efficient, effective ways. Certainly there are ways that may leave a greater impact. Who comes up with these plans? Does God need a public relations person? Nevertheless, God thinks this is a good way to bring good news into the world. And at this time of year, we celebrate God’s great plan to deliver by sending a baby and laying the baby in a manger.

You may order from the publisher through www.fieldnotesfromhereandnow.com

If you prefer to order directly from me, I have a limited number of copies available. Just e-mail me with an address and tell me that a check for $15.00 is in the mail and I will make sure you receive a copy. If you prefer to order from Amazon or Barnes and Noble or Christian Book Distributors or your favorite online book distributor, please feel free to do that also. Whether you choose to purchase a copy or not, a happy ten weeks til Christmas to you!

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Matthew and Luke are interested in specifics about this birth we celebrate this time of year.  They want us to know that this specific birth occurred at a specific time in history.  They want us to know that Caesar Augustus was ruling the world and a census was being taken.  They want us to know details like Joseph considering a divorce and that Mary was a virgin.  They want to be sure that we are aware of other details as well.  Shepherds were working in the fields and Magi were watching the skies.  The baby was wrapped in cloths and laid in a manger.  King Herod was worried and asked priests and teachers to reread the prophecies.

Mark does not talk about the birth or infancy of Jesus but he asks a number of questions about Jesus along the way.  I am certain that if he shared a birth story it would have included the question “what child is this?”  John wants us to be aware that the one we celebrate and was born in this way has been there all along.  We celebrate Christmas as the time He entered the world that he created.  He is the Word who became flesh.

This has implications for all of us whether we choose to celebrate or not.  As history moves along and details continue to fill up our days.  As Caesar continues to believe he is in control.  As a host of activity continues to take up our time.  As we reread the prophecies.  As we become consumed with giving and receiving, baking and decorating, working and worrying – there was one born and laid in a manger.  During the course of the activities of our lives, the Word moved in among the very people he created.  This is the story of one who entered the history of our world.  This is not unfamiliar territory for the Gospel.  You and I can be grateful.

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