Christmas presents us with a familiar but odd cast of characters. At first glance the presence of God seems oddly out of place among the general rudeness of the manger scene. What is the Living God doing en-fleshed in a tiny child among animals, crusty, uncouth shepherds, and star-chasing wise men out in the middle of nowhere?
The answer the New Testament gives us is clear. The coming of Jesus was the in-breaking of the rule, the reign of God. Christmas signifies the divine invasion of a realm that had been usurped by the powers of evil and the forces of human willfulness. It’s important to state it this way because when the Church gathers for worship at Christmas, or any other time, what we are proclaiming to ourselves and to the world is our intent to desert the human army of self-promoters and join the resistance of grace for the sake of the rule, the reign of God in Jesus Christ.
With their gifts and worship, the wise men were acknowledging the One to whom their life’s obligations, energies and resources now belonged. The picture of kings kneeling is a picture of the transfer of allegiance, loyalty, duty, power. It was to Whom they knelt that matters. Trust, faith, is always defined by it’s object.
When you and I were baptized, we were given a name; God’s name. Your baptism testifies to you the fact that you now belong to the God who we know as the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Our baptism was a statement about who we belong to, who has the last word in our lives. For whoever has the last word is our God.
Baptism rearranges our loyalties, transfers our citizenship in such a way that we become the protagonists, representatives, advocates of the kingdom of God. We proclaim “good news of great joy”, the reign of life in the midst of the reign of death. This means the shadow of Good Friday always falls over the Christmas manger. For we are not only the beneficiaries of God’s reign, we participate in God’s reign, which means we are proclaimers of the cross.
You are not your own. In baptism he claimed you and gave you the Holy Spirit. The last Word belongs to God. At Christmas, the Christ mass, the Christ worship, we kneel before this God, this same God that tangled Himself up in an unwed mother, surrounded by animal dung, smelly shepherds, radically altering their allegiance. If this is the God who has taken hold of you in baptism, who has the last word in your life, you just know that whatever life he has in store for you is not going to be business as usual! But will it be overflowing with goodness, progress, abundance?
It does not take much imagination to see that this is not how life works. Life is full of tensions. The relevancy of the annual candlelight service held in many churches is located precisely in the tensions that are heightened by the darkness and the illumination of the flames. This service mirrors the time of year when the days are shorter, darkness sets in sooner and daylight is diminished. At the height of this growing darkness we light our homes, trees and communities.
But there is deeper water here, theologically and liturgically. The entire image, symbolism if you will, is of the light pushing back against the dark and overcoming it. This is a mid-winter service of protest against the powers of darkness and the coldness of death. The light represents hope in the midst of fear, seeing in the face of spiritual blindness, being together in the warmth of community whose only authentic source of light and life and hope is Jesus Christ the Light of the world.
Pastor Mark Anderson