Title: Christmas meditations
Date: Dec 27, 2009
Texts: Lk 2:1-20, 2 Cor 5:17-21
Author: Isaac Villegas
First Meditation (Lk 2:1-14): “News is power”
Knowledge is power. News is power. I think it was in the Economist that I read about how financial firms pay a lot for cutting edge communication technologies. The firm that gets the trading news first from Wall Street or Tokyo has the advantage over all the other firms. Every nanosecond matters. The firm that gets the news first wins.
This is also true for political power. The government in Iran has put a blockade on the communication of news. The government doesn’t want the world to know what is going on. It controls the video footage and written reports of what is going on in the streets of Tehran. Knowledge is power; news is power.
News is especially important for warrior nations, for nations whose identity is tied to war—a nation whose history can be told as a great chain of wars, like ours: the Great War, a war against organized crime, a World War, a Cold War, the Vietnam War, a war on drugs, a war on terror.
For warriors, knowledge is power—to anticipate your enemy’s next move, to know the enemy better then they know themselves. And news about the enemy is power—to decide what news the public should know about and what to hide and what to lie about. George W. Bush had the power to keep us in the dark about Iraq and to manipulate our knowledge about weapons of mass destruction. And now president Obama has to do the same thing to us with Afghanistan—to decide what news to tell us about, what facts to keep a secret, and what knowledge to manipulate. That’s just the way of the warrior. Truth is scarified on the altar of power.
So, how strange is it that the news of Jesus’ birth first comes to lowly shepherds? “[T]he 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 Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Lk. 2:10-11). Notice how the news is so personal: twice the angel addresses the shepherds as “you”—“I am bringing you good news,” and “to you is born this day.” Yes, this news will change the world, but it is also for the shepherds, maybe even primarily for the shepherds, because they get the news first.
The lowly get the news first, not Emperor Augustus. Everyone would expect that Augustus would get the news first. His reign extended throughout the known world. Many even thought he was more like a god than a human—all powerful, all knowing, a benevolent leader. Roman citizens hailed Augustus as a force of peace since he united the empire and efficiently put down insurrectionists and invaders. War in the name of peace is the oldest play in the warrior playbook. Our recent Nobel Peace Prize recipient shows that some things never change, when he said a few weeks ago: “the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace.”
But that’s not who first get’s the news. The good news comes to the shepherds, to the lowly, to the ones without any plans to change the world, to the outsiders. Maybe that’s why they get the news first. Unlike people with power, the shepherds have no reason to make the good news useful for their own plans. The shepherds don’t need to manipulate the news, the fact on the ground, because they don’t have any desires or dreams or responsibilities that can corrupt the news. They don’t need to manipulate the news for their own ends, for their security, for their economic prosperity, for their hold on power.
This good news comes to those without power. The news of Christ’s birth comes to lowly shepherds in the fields, tending their flocks, providing for their families, doing their jobs. And when they hear the angels, they follow. “I am bringing you good news… to you is born this day a Savior.”
This is a word for us as well. We are also included in that “you”—you means you and me, all of us, a humble congregation, gathered to receive the good news… and it’s not just for us, but for the world. As the angel says, “I am bringing good news of great joy for all the people” (v. 10). And all means all—people you may like, and those you who don’t; friends and enemies; neighbors and strangers. We don’t get to decide who deserves the good news; it’s just our job to share it with anyone.
Second Meditation (Lk. 2:15-20): “Pondered in her heart”
The shepherds make haste to Bethlehem. They find May and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger—just like the angels promised. This is the child spoken of: the Savior, the Messiah, the Lord. In their ecstasy, the shepherds share all that the angels told them in the fields. And their words were news even to Mary. That’s a surprising detail in the story. She didn’t know all the news about her own child. When she heard the good news from the shepherds, the text says “Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart” (Lk. 2:19).
She ponders the good news. She treasures the shepherds’ words. While the angel Gabriel told Mary about her future son earlier in Luke’s Gospel, not everything was revealed to her. The lowly shepherds receive more of the story; they get the news even before Mary does. What does she learn from the shepherds that the angel Gabriel did not tell her? She learns that her child is the Messiah of Israel, the Savior of the world. This certainly is news. This news is so new to her that she has nothing to say. She was amazed, stunned.
“Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” She holds the newborn child in her arms and knows not what will become of him. Will she be able to take care of him? How does one raise the Messiah? Maybe Mary’s arms tremble as she thinks about the weight of the future that she holds. Will she know what to do? The shepherds leave Mary, Joseph, and Jesus and return to the fields. And Mary sits in stunned silence—contemplating, meditating, imagining, waiting for the new chapter to unfold.
“Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” Maybe that’s what Christmas does to us as well. Our first response is wonder, maybe even stunned silence. The text says that “all who heard [the news] were amazed” (v. 18). This is news that takes time to process. With this child, nothing will be the same. It may take a lifetime of waiting to understand the meaning of this good news.
Mary doesn’t know what to make of it at first. All she can do is sit in stunned silence and wait with the child in her arms. And so we wait, maybe for a lifetime, and ponder in our hearts the meaning of this new life, this good news—that the savior of the world was born in an abandoned corner of Palestine, and lowly shepherds were the first enlightened ones. This news is a treasure, a precious gift, a reason to spend our lives pondering.
Third Meditation (2 Corinthians 5:17-21): “Christmas means incarnation”
With this child, nothing will be the same. Our lives will not be the same. Paul says as much in our passage from Second Corinthians: “there is a new creation; everything old has passed away” (2 Cor. 5:17). The advent of Christ has brought us into a new creation, into a new world of love and joy and peace. This is good news. It’s good news that we don’t have to obey the rules of the old world. It’s good news that we don’t have to live in sin. It’s good news that we don’t have to return evil of evil, that we don’t have to lust for power over others, that we don’t have to be controlled by envy.
The good news is that God has saved us from ourselves and given us time to ponder the advent of the Messiah. But that doesn’t mean we sit quietly in our rooms and think to ourselves about the mysteries of faith. No. We ponder the good news in our hearts and with our lives. We explore the power of the good news as we give our lives to “the ministry of reconciliation,” as Paul says (v. 18). “In Christ, God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us” (v. 19).
The wonder of Christmas is that God became flesh—that’s what incarnation means. But incarnation is not just something that happens on that first Christmas so long ago. Incarnation is something that happens to us as well. God continues to incarnate his good news in the world through us. “We are ambassadors for Christ,” Paul says (v. 20). And as Paul says at the end, we have “become the righteousness of God” (v. 21).
“The righteousness of God”—what does that mean? It means that God is at work, through us, making the world right. We incarnate the righteousness of God. God has made us ambassadors of the good news of Jesus Christ, who came to bring us peace—to make all things right. That’s what righteousness is all about.
The righteousness of God is the merciful justice revealed in the life of Christ. God’s justice, God’s righteousness, is nothing other than grace—the way God gives gifts to those who don’t deserve anything. It’s the way Jesus shows mercy to those who have not shown mercy. It’s the way God loves even his enemies. The righteousness of God is nothing other than the way Jesus forgives his murders from the cross.
And Christmas is an invitation for us to spend our lives pondering, exploring, this good news. We become ambassadors of Christ, witnesses of God’s way of peace, the incarnation of good news for the world. With this child, nothing will be the same.