(An article I first wrote about 1994)
Introduction: Revelation 12:1-6
We begin with a strange, yet powerful image. We see a woman, ripe with child–a symbol of new life and of hope. And as the moment draws near, we see her writhing in pain, her legs spread in anticipation; and crouching before her, gnashing its teeth and flexing its claws, the dragon, the incarnation of evil and chaos and darkness, ready to pounce on her child the moment it is born. Ready to extinguish this light the moment it begins to shine, so that darkness might reign forever.
That’s how it was at the birth of our Lord. And have things changed all that much? The dragon is still trying to destroy our hope–through persecution of the church, through the temptation of her leaders, through scandal and gossip and slander and unbelief–and through subtle ways, too, like indifference and preoccupation with the things of the world.
Mary was chosen to bear the Word in the face of the dragon’s threats, and so are we. But we do so in faith, believing that we, too, shall be nourished in the wilderness by God; believing that he shall sustain us, and protect us, and comfort us.
The Annunciation: Luke 1:26-38
Bernard of Clairvaux said that this story tells of three miracles, not one. First, that God and man could be united in this promised Child. Second, that a virgin could be a Mother. And the third and greatest miracle–that Mary should believe it.
Imagine yourself in her shoes. Maybe 14 years old. Not quite sure even of what transpires between a husband and wife. And now told that she would be a mother.
And she believes. Did she doubt, even for a moment? The Church has always said no. But Joseph certainly did. It took a vision to convince him that she hadn’t been out behind the barn with some young man–or Roman soldier. Not Mary. She heard, and she believed.
Martin Luther said of this, “Had she not believed, she could not have conceived.” But “she held fast to the word of the angel because she had become a new creature.” God’s word–from the moment of her conception–had made her this. And so must we, too, be transformed by the Word, day by day, that we might believe, and that we might cling in faith to God’s Word, in spite of what our experience and our feelings might say.
And believe what? Believe what Isaiah prophesied: “Unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given.” It’s easy enough, Luther says, to believe that Jesus is the son of the Virgin and the Son of God. It’s much harder “to believe that this Son of God is ours.” To put ourselves in the position of Mary, and to hear and to believe the promise that Christ is come to us. His body, broken for you. His blood, shed for you. That is the incredible news promised to Mary and to us alike–that Christ comes for you, for me; to be, truly, God with us.
The Visitation: Luke 1:39-45
Mary visits her cousin, and when Elizabeth greets her with blessing, Mary sings out with joy, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.” She sings in praise of God. A God who has done great things: He has shown his strength. He has scattered the proud. He has filled the hungry. He has helped his servant. He has helped this particular servant. This nobody. This unknown.
Recall that image with which we began. Chaos, distress, persecution and darkness. Conditions in which it seems God is absent. But he is present–here, in the virgin’s womb. Ready to act; ready to turn the world upside down. Present, even now, though hidden from our eyes, bringing that moment ever closer.
Again, to quote Luther:
God allows the godly to be powerless and oppressed so that everyone thinks they are done for; yet even in that very moment God is most powerfully present, though hidden and concealed. When the power of man fails, the power of God begins, provided faith is present and expectant.
Mary praises God for his greatness because she has known poverty and darkness and loneliness, and she knows, therefore, that she can do nothing great or powerful; she knows she could never play a role in God’s plan, or in human history, a young nobody in a backwater province of the Roman empire. And because she knows this, because she has a true sense of who she is, she can truly appreciate the pure graciousness of God’s promise.
You have got to feel the pinch of hunger in the midst of scarcity and experience what hunger and scarcity are, when you do not know where to turn, to yourself, or to anyone else but only to God, that the work may be God’s alone and of none other. You must not only think and speak of lowliness, but come into it, sink in it, utterly helpless, that God alone may save you. . . . For this reason we are Christians and have the Gospel, that we may fall into distress and lowliness and that God thereby may have his work in us.
The Nativity: Luke 2:1-20
Today there is much talk of “spirituality,” mostly associated with the New Age movement, in which spirituality means turning your back on the material world, on things that can be seen or touched or spoken about, to enter into pure spirit, meditating upon emptiness, darkness, the infinite. A search for something completely different from what we experience in everyday life.
The excesses of the charismatic movement aren’t much different. A search for the spectacular, for supreme heights of emotion, miracles, healing, riches, power–all that’s associated with the “name it and claim it” school of televangelists. It’s more materialistic than what the New Agers claim to be after, but it, too, looks for meaning in something out of our ordinary experience.
But here, in this lesson, we see God, not in the infinity of nothingness, not in the riches and power of an emperor’s court, but naked, cold, flecked with blood, dust and straw, lying in a manger, surrounded by the smell of animals.
That’s what Francis of Assisi wanted the world to see when he reenacted the Nativity at Greccio–not the star in the sky, not the angels praising God, not the mystery of the preexistent Word, not the glory of the resurrection–but the humility of our God, who stooped this low, for us. Stooped to a point where only animals and a handful of scruffy shepherds bothered to pay any attention. Stooped to a point where he needed a mother to nurse him and to change his diapers.
Perhaps it would take a remade manger to get the point across to us, too. We’ve seen too many plastic and carved wood and elegant ceramic Nativity scenes, so that the scandal of the incarnation perhaps does not affect us as it should. Perhaps if we could smell the barnyard odors–and the baby’s diaper.
But even then, something would be missing. For we know who this baby is, and we can’t by any stretch of the imagination put ourselves into the position of Herod, who would destroy him, or the innkeepers, who would turn him away, or the multitudes of the world’s population that went on their way ignorant of the miracle.
In one of my favorite passages, Luther says of the scene before us,
They were, of all, the lowest and the most despised, and must make way for everyone until they were shoved into a stable to make a common lodging and table with the cattle, while many cutthroats lounged like lords in the inn. They did not recognize what God was doing in the stable. With all their eating, drinking, and finery, God left them empty, and this comfort and treasure was hidden from them. Oh, what a dark night it was in Bethlehem that this light should not have been seen. Thus God shows that he has no regard for what the world is and has and does. And the world shows that it does not know or consider what God is and has and does.
Joseph had to do his best, and it may well be that he asked some maid to fetch water or something else, but we do not read that anyone came to help. They heard that a young wife was lying in a cow stall and no one gave heed. Shame on you, wretched Bethlehem! The inn ought to have been burned with brimstone, for even though Mary had been a beggar maid or unwed, anybody at such a time should have been glad to give her a hand.
There are many of you in this congregation who think to yourselves: “If only I had been there! How quick I would have been to help the Baby! I would have washed h is linen. How happy I would have been to go with the shepherds to see the Lord lying in the manger!” Yes, you would! You say that because you know how great Christ is, but if you had been there at that time you would have done no better than the people of Bethlehem! Childish and silly thoughts are these! Why don’t you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbor. You ought to serve him, for what you do to your neighbor in need you do to the Lord Christ himself.
Only the eye of faith can discern where God is truly present. Mystics may seek him in the sublime, others may seek him in miracles, the materialistic may seek him in wealth. We must seek him where he has revealed himself to be–in this baby lying in a cattle stall–and in the poor, the hungry, the diseased, the outcast, the alien, in the world around us.
The Presentation: Luke 2:22-32
Luke does not tell of a star in the sky–we read that in Matthew’s Gospel. Luke does not tell of wise men from the east searching for the child–that, too, is Matthew. Luke does not tell of jealous king Herod, who would kill all the children of Bethlehem, rather than let one threatening baby live. That, too, is Matthew.
In Luke’s gospel, the wondrous events go largely unnoticed. If the angels had not visited the shepherds, and sang to them their song of joy, there would have been no visitors to the manger. Until Jesus returns to the temple at age twelve, the only other people who seem to notice him at all, according to Luke, are two prophets, Simeon and Anna, who noticed something unusual when Mary and Joseph brought Jesus to the temple to offer the required sacrifice for her purification 33 days after his birth.
The priests take their two birds and go about their work. The other worshippers busy themselves with their prayers and their sacrifices. But Simeon, “guided by the Spirit,” comes and takes the child in his arms, saying with delight, “My eyes have seen your salvation.” No one else seemed to notice–none of the people of Israel–not even the priests. But he saw. “A light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” They may not see now; even people of faith may be blinded. But others will see, and will come, and will acknowledge him, even Gentiles.
And then, as the passage continues, he says other words–to Mary–and what cheery words to say to a new mother:
This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed–and a sword will pierce your own soul too.
Visionaries and prophets have spoken of judgment for ages–usually associating it with death, or the last day, and visions of a great white throne, or, at least, St. Peter at the gate. But Simeon says, the judgment is now. How will you greet this babe? That is the question. He is the deciding factor. He is both judge, and the criterion of the judgment. This infant, lying in his arms. He will decide the fate of all. “A good prophet,” some say. “An example of selfless love,” others say. “A myth,” “a crackpot,” say others.
Only one response will do, as we gaze on the baby: “My eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples.”
The finding in the temple: Luke 2:41-50
Mark’s gospel begins with the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist. John’s gospel begins with a poetic prologue, but then follows Mark to the Jordan river. Matthew and Luke both have stories of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem–but Luke tells of shepherds and Matthew of wise men. Matthew adds a story about the flight to Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath. But here, in this tale, is the only story about Jesus from his return from Egypt at a very early age until his baptism, when he was in his late twenties or early thirties.
We know nothing of how he played as a child, or how he learned the carpenter’s trade from Joseph. We know nothing of friendships, temptations, desires or joys. We know only what the book of Hebrews says, that “he had to become like his brothers in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest.”
But here we see him, at age twelve, in what might be interpreted as a mini adolescent rebellion. He abandons his parents for three days, and we see them frantically searching for him, finding him, at last, at the temple, discussing scripture. “Why do you treat us like this?” The parents scream. And I can just imagine Joseph taking off his belt, ready to grab him by the ear and head to a private corner.
And Jesus thoroughly befuddles them by saying, “Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house?” Or, according to other manuscripts, “Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s interests?”
I’d draw two things from this. First, having seen Christ as the salvation of the world, and having believed in him, we are called to stay with him. To be about our Father’s business. To rejoice in him, learn of him, to learn the pleasures of prayer, of worship, of study of his word. The Christian life is not a one-time, one-event thing. It doesn’t stop at baptism or confirmation. That’s just the beginning of a lifetime journey. We need to go on. “Further up and further in,” as C. S. Lewis put it. Called to follow him on his journeys through the dusty villages of Palestine, healing the sick, proclaiming the word, serving the poor. Called to the cross, and suffering.
Secondly, having seen Christ as the salvation of the world, everything else in the world will dim in comparison. We must follow him no matter what. If a choice must be made, Christ must be our choice. That may lead to pain and alienation, even from those we love, who may come searching for us–“How can you do this to us?” their jealous voices will cry. Our mother, our father, our spouse, our children, our friends. “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me; and whoever does not take up the cross and follow me is not worthy of me.”
Discipleship requires hard choices. And the choices we will be called upon to make are not apparent when we first set out on the journey. There comes a time when we long to go back to the easy days, when we long for reunion, no matter the price, with those we are separated from.
There were many who left Jesus when he began to say hard things. And he said to the twelve, “Will you leave, too?” And Peter said, in words that we must come to as well, “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.”
- Citations from Luther are from Roland H. Baintain, trans., The Martin Luther Christmas Book (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1948).