Sermon for Christmas 2012
“And the angel said unto them, ‘Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”
It could be that I have gotten one every year, though I don’t think so. I opened an envelope last week containing a beautiful card picturing three Persian wise men visiting and bringing gifts to Holy Mary for the birth of Jesus. “Congratulations on the birth of Jesus, the messiah and wishing you peace and blessing this New Year!” All of that, plus some Arabic script which I could not read, were on the front of the card. Inside, The Islamic Education Center had written that the Quran has only one chapter named after a woman, Chapter 19 entitled, “Mary,” or “Maryam” in Arabic. They continue, “While Muslims don’t partake in Christmas celebrations, we believe in the awesome and miraculous birth of Jesus, in the miracles he performed by God’s Grace, and in the message of love and peace Jesus brought to the world.”
None of this was news to me. Although I consider myself as knowing very little about Islam, despite my efforts to learn more in recent years, I am fully aware of everything that the card told me. Still I was impressed at this very laudable public relations effort on the part of the Islamic Education Center. In a day when many Christians seem to be nearly hysterical about a supposed War on Christmas, and very eager to make distinctions between true Christianity and other faiths that seem to be either in competition with or antagonistic to Jesus, here is a group of Muslims obviously articulating some common ground they share with us. Before you discount their card or deem me naïve for thinking that it was a lovely gesture (or think that I don’t realize that Muslim evangelism is just as self-serving as Christian evangelism, no more and no less so), take the message at face value. Jesus, it says, is not the property of Christians only. Jesus is for the world.
And that, I do believe, is in the Bible. “For behold I bring you good tidings of great joy which shall be to all people.” It’s a bit odd, don’t you think, that a popular distillation of the Good News of Jesus Christ is that he died on the cross to save you from your sins, and that all of the benefits of his precious death are yours provided that you accept him as your personal savior. I have nothing to say against any of that, except that like most distillations of the complex, it leaves a great deal to be desired. But the thing so odd about it is that the accent falls so clearly on what you and I as individuals do with Jesus. There is little notion that Jesus is the universal savior, let alone the cosmic Christ, reigning from before time and to the ages of ages. The “personal” Jesus crowds all that out. It is odd only because, for most of Christian history, up to and including the modern period, Jesus was seen to be the Savior of the world, not just the savior of a subset of individuals in the world. To the extent that it doesn’t seem odd to us, we bear witness to just how pervasive the “personal Jesus” is.
Rather than get on the defensive about Jesus and about how much I know he loves you and me because we adore him and follow him, I am in the mood tonight to celebrate. Maybe you are too, because I doubt that you came to church on Christmas Eve wanting to do high-test theology. What better a thing to celebrate than the truth that this birth, this messianic arrival, is something so unimaginably grand that we could not conceivably cheapen it by imagining that we somehow own it. It makes no more sense to try to own Jesus than it makes sense to claim that we own the sun or the moon or the stars. The salvation which was for all people, born that day in the City of David, was not then, is not now, nor ever shall be parochial event meant only for the initiated or the qualified. For, long before Jesus was born, God spoke through the prophet Isaiah, saying about the people of Israel, “It is too light a thing that you should be my servant to raise up the tribes of Jacob and to restore the survivors of Israel; I will give you as a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” [Isaiah 49:6] A light to the nations! That is what Israel was created for and re-created for! And that is what, through Jesus, Israel became: a means through which God’s salvation might reach to the ends of the earth.
No one would have supposed that night in Bethlehem that the birth of this child would be of cosmic significance, or even of much interest. In Luke’s story, Mary had known even before conception that the baby she would bear would be holy, Son of God Most High; that he would be great; that he would rule from the throne of his ancestor David a kingdom that would have no end. Well, Luke may have understood the meaning of those words, but you may be sure that his character, the little virgin of Nazareth, had no idea what the angel Gabriel meant when he spoke them to her. And certainly a bunch of shepherds in the middle of the night had no earthly idea of what the heavenly host meant by singing “Glory to God in the highest” or what these good tidings of great joy might mean to all people. But this is just the point, in a way. The way the salvation of Christ gets to be for the entire world—to all people, and even to all things animate and inanimate in the universe—is that little by little, beginning in Bethlehem, people tell each other about what has happened. Just like those shepherds who (some say) started broadcasting what they had seen and heard, people tell each other the news about this special birth, and about their own birth to a new life through him. A story begins to develop, and a community begins to tell it as its own. Jesus calls people—at first a few fisher folk, then a few more—and first news you know, he has a community gathered around him, including women. He dies and is raised from the dead and within a few years, not only women and Jews, but Gentiles and foreigners, Ethiopians and Greeks, slaves and freedmen, rich and poor, intellectuals and illiterate people, city dwellers and country folk, are a part something bigger even than a community, a movement in fact. So the good news first told to the shepherds gets to be truly good tidings of great joy for all people.
Imagine what would happen if instead of trying to possess Jesus in stained glass and on dashboards, Christians on a huge scale determined to look for Jesus in all the unlikely places and people. Imagine what might happen if we began to see Jesus not only in the Quran but also, as the Church Fathers did, in the Hebrew scriptures. Suppose we made the leap, if we haven’t already, from seeing Jesus as a particular baby lying in a particular manger in a particular story, and began to see his footprints all over creation, his spirit in stories of gods and heroes of other faiths and cultures, his beauty in the music and art that knows nothing of the historical Jesus as such, his truth in patterns of living that express his teachings even unawares. You will recognize, of course, that none of this is particularly radical, because Christian missionaries at their best have been doing all these things for centuries. They have been recognizing the reality of Jesus implicit in cultures and beliefs that have not known him. They have named Christ when they have seen him appear in places that have had no name for him, much as Paul did in the Book of Acts when encountering a shrine on the Athenian acropolis inscribed “To an Unknown God.” Suppose our job were simply to make Christ known by acknowledging that in many cases he is already known if not named, present if not worshiped and obeyed to the ends of the earth.
God is not about to lose the universe, not to evil, not to ignorance, and not to hate. God is Truth, and that Truth will outlast the most stubborn and virulent of its opponents. God does not need armies, either political or rhetorical, to defend God’s cause. But God does need Marys who will say, “Be it unto me according to your word.” God does need Josephs who will make the long trek from wherever they are to Bethlehem. God does need shepherds, apparently, who are minding their own business but who have time to behold the heavens opened and a stunning intrusion of glory into an ordinary night of watching. God seems to rejoice and applaud when people get up and go searching for the thing they have been told has happened that will bring unutterable joy to the world. And God, who by definition should need nothing, needs a community of people who will adopt as their own the ways of the Christ who continually sees enemies as those to be loved and who says of potential competitors, “if they are not against us, they are for us.”
So, Good Christian friends, rejoice, with heart and soul and voice. The Good News that Christ is for the world is better than anything we could have imagined. All people have tasted or can taste the Bread of his life and the Wine of his joy. And it won’t stop until all the ends of the earth have seen the salvation of our God.
© Frank Gasque Dunn, 2012