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Last night, in the Christmas Eve sermon, I talked about the fact that Christmas celebrates Jesus’ birthday, and that in our society, lots of folks celebrate Christmas who really have no religious connection to Jesus or Christianity.
After all, whether we’re Christians or not, the decorations, the food and the parties are great! And in our broader, secular world, Christmas commemorates them most seemingly non-controversial aspect of Christianity: Jesus was born.
Today, that’s the most non-controversial and non-offensive claim of the Christian faith. It’s Jesus’ birthday, and even people who reject any claims that Jesus was divine or special generally accept the historical fact that a guy named Jesus of Nazareth lived 2000 years ago, and that he had a big impact on history. And even if people think the stories of angels and stars in the sky sound about as likely as Santa and flying reindeer, they’re cool stories! And in any event, the days are dark right now – both literally and figuratively – and Christmas is always a great excuse for a party.
Jesus was born. That might not be such a huge controversy today, but in the early church, it was a big deal and a big fight. And here’s why: people in general were fine with the idea that there was an immortal, invisible, all-powerful spiritual being “out there” somewhere. And perhaps you could connect with that all-powerful spiritual being if you could transcend time and space and your earthly body.
But that all-powerful, transcendent spiritual being was NOT to be found in a body. Not in the mess and muck of everyday life.
In the latter part of the first century when the Gospel of John was being written, there was a prevalent philosophy called “Gnosticism”, and it affected lots of different religions. It basically taught that the “spiritual” could only be attained by transcending or escaping the “physical”.
And so gnostics would have been totally fine with the introduction to John’s Gospel: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God …” But then, John ruined it for them: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…”
That is, the immortal, transcendent power which is God has actually become one with God’s created universe. And Jesus being “born” means that God is found not “out there” but among us.
And that was an idea that generated a fight that went on for a long time… (when the creeds say we believe that Jesus was “born of the virgin Mary” it intends to emphasize “BORN”…)
So as Christians, when we celebrate Jesus being born, we ought to recognize what that really means. We’re not just celebrating an historical event to which we attach more significance than others. Instead, we’re proclaiming that God is a real and living part of his created world right here and right now, not just a spiritual being in the sky that we hope to experience one day after we’ve transcended our mortal bodies.
That’s really the point of Christmas. And that’s why John’s Gospel has always been the primary Gospel reading for Christmas. Our faith, finally, isn’t about angels, shepherds, stars or even virgin births. It’s about experiencing God as a living reality in our real, everyday lives.
And that idea should shake us up as much as it shook up people in the first century. “Jesus was born” means that we’re called to be people who:
- Look for God in the regular people and events of our lives … (not just silent nights or experiences of spiritual ecstasy…)
- Have the courage to expect God to act even in the midst of difficult and painful times and situations … (the Gospel of Matthew presents the genealogy of Jesus as including incest, adultery and socially unacceptable relationships; the Gospel of Luke positions Jesus’ birth in the midst of a terrible uprising…) That’s important to remember in a world filled with wars, terror attacks, instability and uncertainty…
- Live as people who, like Jesus, are involved in the real world around us… (Luther pointed out at Christmas that if people said they would have brought in the mother and child at the first Christmas, they had plenty of opportunity now since Christ is in their neighbor…)
And so for us, Christmas isn’t just a birthday. It’s not just a season. It’s the proclamation that God really is present, even in a messy and chaotic world. It’s the promise that God is never far from us. And it’s the call to experience and lift up the living presence of God in our real, everyday lives.