Are You Ready for Christmas?
Monday, 5 December 2011
| Mark Hurst
This has been a question I’ve heard over the past few weeks. People meet and greet each other and then say, “Are you ready for Christmas?” Have you heard it or asked it yourself? What do you think most people mean by asking the question? (Have you done your Christmas shopping? Are you finished with work/school? Have you stocked up on food and drink?)
These past weeks for Christians have been the Advent season – we’ve been waiting for something to be revealed. Traditionally it is the time in the Church Year to focus on Jesus’ first and second coming. It is a time of waiting for God’s apocalyptic outbreak in our world. The passages for worship and devotional reading revolve around the themes of waiting and being ready.
One of our favourite Advent songs is called “Get Ready”:
Get ready, Advent is here, Get ready, Christmas is near
Get ready, we’ve got so much to do to get ready for the birthing day!
At Advent we remember how long years ago,
The people of Israel waited for a Saviour to be born.
An angel spoke to Mary, she’d have a baby son.
Emmanuel, Jesus, is his name, he’s God’s anointed one.
Then came John the Baptist. He said “Prepare the way!
Repent and change the way you live. He’s coming any day!”
Today we all remember how Jesus used to say:
“There is a new day being born, when we all live God’s way.”
Another one of our favourites is “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” The music comes from a 15th Century processional of French Franciscan nuns. The lyrics echo a number of prophetic themes. The title comes from the well known Isaiah 7:14 “Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.” Immanuel is Hebrew for “God with us.” The “Rod of Jesse” refers to Isaiah 11:1: “There shall come forth a rod out of the stem of Jesse”; Jesse was the father of David, second king of Israel. “Day-Spring” comes from Zacharias, father of John the Baptist, in Luke 1:78: “The dayspring from on high has visited us.” “Thou Key of David” is in Isaiah 22:22: “The key of the house of David will I lay upon his shoulder,” which in turn refers to Isaiah 9:6 “The government shall be upon His shoulder.”
O come, O come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel,
That mourns in lonely exile here until the Son of God appear.
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel.
O come, Thou Rod of Jesse, free thine own from Satan’s tyranny;
From depths of hell Thy people save, and give them victory over the grave.
O come, Thou Day-spring, come and cheer our spirits by Thine advent here;
Disperse the gloomy clouds of night, and death’s dark shadows put to flight.
O come, Thou Key of David, come, and open wide our heavenly home;
Make safe the way that leads on high, and close the path to misery.
O come, Thou Wisdom from on high, and order all things far and nigh,
To us the path of knowledge show, and cause us in thy ways to go.
O come, Desire of nations, bind all peoples in one heart and mind;
Bid envy, strife and quarrels cease, fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
This song captures the longing of Israel to be free from oppression. They want a King to make things safe. They want to know the way ahead. They plead for God to come. They want God to break into the present in an apocalyptic way. Isaiah captures this longing in these words:
“O that you would tear open the heavens and come down, so that the mountains would quake at your presence-- as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil -- to make your name known to your adversaries, so that the nations might tremble at your presence!” (Isaiah 64:1-2)
Mary captures this longing of Israel in her response to Elizabeth in Luke chapter one. Her song is often called the Magnificat:
And Mary said, "My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour, for he has looked with favour on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever." (Luke 1:46-55)
Finally God is going to come down and do something! God is going to turn things upside-down – the poor will be on top and the powerful will be brought down. The proud will eat humble pie and the rich will have empty pockets (or maybe go to jail for defrauding others). God is coming good on the promise of old!
We’re pretty used to the idea that Mary’s pregnancy was a scandal. But we’re less mindful of how scandalous this song is. For what Mary proclaims in the Magnificat is nothing less than a turning-upside-down of conventional norms, of all social and economic propriety, of the very powers and principalities that govern the world. E. Stanley Jones, the early twentieth century missionary once said that the Magnificat is "the most revolutionary document in the world." It is revolutionary in the way that all political critique is revolutionary: it unmasks the pretences of false power; it exposes corruption and injustice; it sides unequivocally with the poor and marginalized.
A recent Advent devotional I read online said this:
“But how we’ve domesticated Mary and Jesus—reduced their powerful words of critique and radical promise to pious platitudes and shallow slogans, void of the cost and the risk, the demands and dangers that genuine discipleship consists of. In the seasons of Advent and Christmas, especially, it is so tempting to prefer Mary "meek and mild," demure and compliant—kneeling reverently and gracefully in our manger scenes—a posture I’ve always believed impossible for someone who’s just given birth!
The sweet, gentle Mary is safe; this singing Mary is something else . . .
And yet for all the talk of revolution, for all the reversal of fortunes at the heart of Mary’s Song, we know that we are not talking about a revolution involving political power or military might. The revolution that Mary sings about and that Jesus brings about is one achieved not through the love of power but through the power of love. It is the cross—God’s own act of self-giving, of radical love—that revolutionizes the world.
The unwed pregnant teenager, singing to her older cousin, already knows this. So much that God’s future intentions are proclaimed as already accomplished: He has scattered . . . He has brought down . . . He has lifted up . . . He has filled the hungry . . . God’s word is as good as done.”
The author’s question is:
“Do we believe Mary? We still haven’t learned her song. If we really did believe, then preachers wouldn’t have to keep ranting at Christians about consumerism; we wouldn’t give in to the culture’s push for excess; we wouldn’t just pay lip service to Advent. We would be, like Mary, preoccupied by other things—by singing for joy and by working for justice; by praising God and by lifting up the poor.”
This is what Advent and Christmas is all about.
The angel said to her, "Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favour with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." (Luke 1: 30-33)
If we were reading these passages for the first time and didn’t have this modern Christian filtre about a baby being born to be our “personal saviour”, something would jump out at us in these verses and these songs. This is political language. Revolutionary language. Seditious language. This is about oppressed people crying out for freedom from their oppression. Listen to Zechariah when he finds out about John being born:
"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favourably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty saviour for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace." (Luke 1:67-79)
We have domesticated the gospel and the Christmas story to the point that when we read “peace”, many of us think only about personal peace - a peace within. But that is not what Mary and Zechariah were talking about. That is not what the angels meant when they confronted the terrified shepherds:
Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, "Do not be afraid; for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favours!" - Luke 2:9-14
An author I was reading this week (Disciplines, 366-368), said:
“Praising God is too familiar. Cutting-edge Protestants have grown bored with it, and hip evangelicals dress it up in amplified commercial music. Praising God becomes a euphemism for thanking God for fulfilling my wish list, a projection of my desire, and a monument to the idolatrous sources of my satisfaction.”
But praise in the Bible, particularly in the Psalms, and here with the angels speaking to shepherds, is something different:
“…(they) praised God out of their poverty and their precariousness. Praise is a strategy of resistance against suffering and meaninglessness, shouted out with joy against the darkness in which we walk…(The angels and Zechariah) proclaim a revolution of praise, declaring against darkness and suffering that a light is beginning to dawn and praising its divine source before we see its effects.”
The author of these reflections goes on to say:
“Praise is pointless, and that is the point. Praise differs from thanksgiving because it has little to do with what God has done for us. The point of praise is to turn us completely outside of ourselves, a response of love and wonder to our lover, simply for who God is, not for what God does.”
We have tamed these words from the angels to the point that we miss the political significance of titles like “Saviour” and “Messiah”. These are political terms. This one being born was going to get involved in the nitty gritty of life. He was to be King in a different kind of kingdom but a kingdom nonetheless. King Herod understood this. The following story doesn’t often get read at Christmas but I think it is significant:
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, "Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage." When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.
… Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, "Out of Egypt I have called my son." When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: "A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more." (Matthew 2:1-3; 13-18)
The political images in this story include a wicked king being threatened by a rival. He orders a mass killing to protect his power. Jesus becomes a political refugee and ends up in exile in Egypt. Suffering is increased for the people because of Jesus’ birth. This is more than just a song text for “We Three Kings”. Jesus, even as a baby, was a political threat to the powers that be.
Why is this important? Because if we miss these political overtones in the Christmas story we end up with a domesticated, truncated, and harmless version of what the angels said was to be “good news of great joy for all the people”.
Listen again to Isaiah 9: 2-7 – listen for the political language in this Advent passage:
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness – on them light has shined. You have multiplied the nation, you have increased its joy; they rejoice before you as with joy at the harvest, as people exult when dividing plunder. For the yoke of their burden, and the bar across their shoulders, the rod of their oppressor, you have broken as on the day of Midian. For all the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire. For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. His authority shall grow continually, and there shall be endless peace for the throne of David and his kingdom. He will establish and uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.
The Hebrew term we translate “Messiah” and the Greek we translate “Christ” mean “God’s anointed”. Jesus was anointed to bring in the kingdom of God. Psalm 89:14 describes the foundations of God’s throne – and David’s and ultimately Jesus, the one who comes in David’s line.
Righteousness and justice are the foundation of your throne; steadfast love and faithfulness go before you.
God’s kingdom is based on right-living, justice, mercy and truth. And Psalm 85:10 adds “peace”. God’s anointed is to base any ministry on these foundational principles. Acts 10:38 tells us that God “anointed” Jesus and “he went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed…”
Luke 4:18-19 describes the ministry of God’s anointed:
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favour."
Hebrews 1:8-9 tells us:
But of the Son he says, "Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the righteous sceptre is the sceptre of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions."
God’s anointed loves right-living and hates wickedness.
Now the surprise in all of this is that this work is not just for Jesus. We too have been “anointed”. 2 Corinthians 1:21 says, "It is God who establishes us with you in Christ and has anointed us." We are called to a life of doing good based on right-living, mercy, justice, truth, and peace. We are to be working for people’s freedom from all that oppresses them. We are to be models of forgiveness and examples of what salvation is all about.
People today are looking for answers. They want to be free from oppression. They want someone to show them the way. Jesus came to set people free in multiple ways. He came to bring peace – between us and God and between us and each other. As Jesus’ followers today we are called to do the same. We are called to do much more than just pray for people.
We should be excited that God has come down and is breaking into our world and turning things upside-down and bringing good news about the power of forgiveness. God is freeing people from what binds them.
We can get excited about the wrong things and miss the message of Christmas. Too many Christians today are just going from one Christian “high” to another – always looking for the “next big religious thing”. In that consumerist search for the next religious buzz, they miss what the kingdom of God is all about. They are in danger of being asleep when the Master returns.
Do you know the story of Rip Van Winkle? I read it again recently and I think it has some good things to say to us. Rip sounds like some Aussies I know:
Near to the town, in a cottage small,
Lived Rip Van Winkle, known to all
As a harmless, drinking, shiftless lout,
Who never would work, but roamed about,
Always ready with jest and song,
Idling, tippling all day long.
The adults didn’t think much of him but the boys loved him. He spent his time with his dog and went fishing when he wasn’t drinking at the pub. He didn’t get along with his wife. The local parson looked down on him. He would take his dog and gun and go up in the hills to get away from it all.
One day he climbed so high and stayed so long that he got lost. He stumbled onto a group of little people. He drank with them and played nine-pins and then fell asleep. When he woke up it was twenty years later. When he went to sleep George was king in America and when he awoke another George was the first president. The poem says “The Revolution had come and passed”. Rip slept through a revolution.
God is bringing about a revolution in our world and some of us are in danger of sleeping through it. Like Rip Van Winkle, we don’t do our share of work. What is the work of Christmas? Howard Thurman says it is this:
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the Kings and Princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins.
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry
To release the prisoner,
To teach the nations,
To bring Christ to all,
To make music in the heart.
Are you ready for Christmas?
Mark Hurst is a pastoral worker with the Anabaptist Association of Australia and New Zealand and a pastor at Avalon Baptist Church