Thursday, 25 December 2014

The Scandal of Christmas

We look at Christmas cards and the picture we usually see depicting the birth of Jesus is very sentimental. A soft warm glow rests on a warm stable full of fluffy hay. A cute lamb and other very clean creatures quietly lay near the holy child.  Mary looks like she just came from the spa rather than having just given birth. That is the image that usually hangs on the walls of our lives. But, that image really doesn’t give us a sense of what Christmas is about. That image really doesn’t give us a sense of the scandal of the Christmas story.  
          The Bible teaches that the “Logos” (logoV) or “Word” came to be personified as a child on Christmas. To the Greeks the Logos was the organizing principle of the universe. The Logos is what keeps the planets in their courses and held matter together so we all didn’t fall apart into a puddle of goo. God’s Word (or Logos) caused the universe to spring into existence. His Word results in the Big Bang, and also sustains the universe. The Word causes the law of gravity, and regulates the speed of light, and causes the forces that holds atoms together, and causes all the intricacies that govern the universe and hold it together like a living tapestry. God’s Word (Logos) holds together everything in existence.  

          We read about God’s Word in the Gospel according to John,
“In the beginning was the Word [logoV], and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being” (John 1:1-3).

          Christianity makes the shocking claim that we have experienced God’s Word as a human being.        In the letter written to the Hebrews we read,
“Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things [how many things does that exclude?], through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word” (Hebrews 1:1-3).

          And in the letter to the Colossians we read,
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.  For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Colossians 1:15-17, 19).

          And in the letter to the Philippians we read that Jesus,
“though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited” (Phil 2:6).

          That is what we are talking about when we talk about “the Word”, or rather “who” we are talking about. God’s Word will never cast away the human flesh he has taken to himself. The Word has unified himself with humanity and will forever be experienced as Jesus Christ of Nazareth. After Christmas, there is no way to encounter the Word of God without also encountering a human being, and therefore a physical human body.
It is an absolutely outrageous claim that the creator of the universe came to us as a human child. It would be outrageous even if he became the child of a Roman Emperor (who was the most powerful person in the world at the time). But, Christmas piles scandal upon scandal because God’s Word comes to us not as the child of an Emperor, but as a baby born to Jewish parents in occupied Palestine- People like us that history wouldn’t even recognize in a footnote.  It is a shocking claim that a God who is so universal as to create the universe itself, would become a particular Jewish man living in a particular place, and will speak a particular language. The Word of God would learn to speak. This is the scandal of particularity.  

          In coming to show himself to humanity the Creator of the universe became a particular kind of human. There is a political message tied up in his birth. Caesar Augustus and his Roman Empire ruled most of what they knew of the world. It was a massive empire that encompassed the territories around the Mediterranean and beyond- England to Iraq. Caesar’s “gospel” message, his “good news”, was one of “salvation” for all people. (He used these kinds of words.) The Caesar claimed to bring peace, but it was at the point of a sword. Caesar considered himself divine and claimed to bring immeasurable blessings to the world. He claimed to be the greatest savior that ever was, or ever would be.
          By contrast, the “Good News” of the angels to the shepherds is “to you is born this day … the Savior” (Luke 2:10-11). They announce the arrival of the true Saviour, not born in a Roman palace, but identifying with the poor and laid in an animal’s feeding trough- a manger. News of his birth came to social outcasts, which is what shepherds were. He was born to a woman under threat of stoning for being an unwed mother. He was born among an oppressed people in a land occupied by a foreign army.
He does have royal blood though. He belongs to the family of the great King David, but like David he would be an unexpected king. He will be a threat to royalty. King Herod is be willing to kill children to eliminate threats to his rule. Caesar is willing to crucify threats to his rule. Jesus would not rule by the point of a sword, but through self-sacrificial love.
          This is the same story we are told by present day Caesars. Where does salvation come from in our world? Those with the biggest army, the greatest technology, the most devastating bomb? Isn’t that who has the power to create peace? Isn’t that the story we’re told? That was the same story Caesar was telling.  
          It is an amazing story. The Creator of the universe came to us as a human being, but not just any human being. He came into a life of poverty, to an occupied country. But for many of us it remains a sentimental picture that hangs on the wall of our home. It is familiar and mildly comforting, but not often challenging or shocking.

There was a painting that had been in the family of a man named Martin Kober for a long time. It is a picture of Jesus in the arms of his mother after having been removed from the cross. It was an old painting that had always been a part of the background of the family. It hung on the wall for many years until one day the painting was knocked off the wall when the children were playing with a tennis ball. The family left the painting behind the couch, perhaps to keep it from being knocked to the ground again. There the painting sat for nearly 30 years, unseen, gathering dust.
            One day Martin decided to have the painting appraised to see if it had any value. He blew the dust off and took it to an art expert. To his surprise the expert confirmed the family legend. The expert believed that the painting was the work of the Renaissance painter, Michelangelo, and was painted around 1545. It could be worth as much as 300 million dollars.

          I think this is what the Christmas story is sometimes like for us. For some of us the story about Mary, Joseph, and the baby laying in the manger in Bethlehem can be part of the background of our lives. It is like a painting that hangs on the wall of the family home. It is always there, and because it is always there it rarely draws our eyes. It is familiar. So, we don't really pay much attention to it. It's just part of the background of our lives.  
          For some of us the painting has fallen behind the couch and is gathering dust. We haven't gotten rid of it, but it is out of sight and out of mind. Once in a while when we vacuum under the couch we come across it. But, for the most part we're not quite sure what to do with it. We don't really want to get rid of it, but we don't really place much value on it either.
What if we learned that that painting had more value than we thought it did? What if that story about Mary, and Joseph, and the baby laying in the manger in Bethlehem was more valuable than we could imagine?
          When Martin Kober found out that his family's painting was worth 300 million dollars it was no longer part of the background of his life. It was no longer sitting behind the couch gathering dust. And it was certainly placed out of range of flying tennis balls. Suddenly the painting moved closer to the center of his vision.  He gave it a place of great importance and protected it. He treated it as if it was precious. The painting that was just part of the family's background became the family's treasure.
          What if we found out that the Christmas story had incredible value? I imagine it would move into the center of our vision. We would treat it like a treasure. We would contemplate it more. We would learn more about it. It would no longer gather dust behind the couch. It would no longer be a part of the background of our family homes. It would be front and center. If we discovered that that story had unfathomable value, our lives would be centered on that story, and on that person at the center of it.
If what John is saying is true, then Jesus is the force that keeps both our hearts beating and the stars shining in the sky. He is behind the force that keeps the planets in their orbits and causes atoms to bind to other atoms to make molecules. He is that ancient force that brought everything into being, and he offers new fresh life every minute to the universe. Jesus' story is the story of the universe-maker.
          The tragedy of Christmas, John says, is that "He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. 11 He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him." He came and was rejected. He was given no value. His painting was thrown to the curb with the rest of the garbage. Ironically, he was rejected by the world he made and the people he loved.
          The joy of Christmas, John says, is that "to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God". To those who recognized his mysterious and incredible value he invited them to become his family.
Tonight he invites you to receive his life from the manger- His body given for you. To those who take his story from the background and place it in the center of their lives he invites them to become, mysteriously, children of God. He invites us into his story and it is there we find who we were created to be.
          So this Christmas I invite us all to consider where His story is in our life. Is it back ground- Always there but never really considered? Is it behind the couch gathering dust- out of sight and out of mind? Is his story out by the curb next to the trash? Or is his story on a stand in front of the sofa in the middle of the living room? Or maybe it is folded up and placed in your shirt pocket next to your heart and you take it out throughout the day? If it is true that "The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us" then Jesus' story has infinite value.

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