“Joy to the world, the lord is come, let earth receive her king”. The opening lines of the carol encapsulate the wondrous joy of Christmas; the good news of God’s great invasion of his world. The New Testament describes creation as under the grip of a myriad (a bewildering multitude) of dark forces: principalities and powers, the cosmic power of Sin, earthly rulers, lords, dominions, systems of bondage and oppression; in the gospels these agents of unfreedom are encapsulated in the figures of Herod and Caiphas—the religious and political authorities—as well as the dark forces which Jesus continuously delivers people from. This host of cultural, political, economic, religious, cosmic, ‘demonic’ forces–agents of unfreedom–all demand allegiance from us, tyrannize over us, force us to obey, and demand that we bend to their will. The good news of Christmas is that the rightful king of all creation has returned to “free us all from Satan’s tyranny” and to open us all up to the abundant life of freedom in the kingdom of God.
The Old Testament prophets, themselves under the boot of empire and under constant threat of invasion and exile, strained forward in hopeful expectation of a coming deliverance. Towards a time when the mighty would be brought low, the whole order of things upended, righteousness and justice restored; towards the fearsome day of the Lord, when a new world would be born from the birth pangs of the old:
Multitudes, multitudes in the valley of decision! For the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision. The sun and moon will be darkened, and the stars no longer shine. The Lord will roar from Zion and thunder from Jerusalem; the earth and the heavens will tremble.
In that day the mountains will drip new wine, and the hills will flow with milk; all the ravines of Judah will run with water. A fountain will flow out of the Lord’s house and will water the valley of acacias. But Egypt will be desolate, Edom a desert waste, because of violence done to the people of Judah, in whose land they shed innocent blood. (Joel 3:14-16, 18-19)
We are all (perhaps too) familiar with this language of the sun and moon being darkened, or the stars no longer shining—from those who are too caught up in speculations of the end times. But what this language is really pointing to, is not so much the end of THE world, as the end of A world: a turning of the ages, a world shattering event, a flipping of the ordinary order of things. This is exactly what Christmas is all about. A world, an age, a time: the order of the powers of darkness has come to an end, and the reign of Christ is at hand: “Now the darkest of ages are done, for the Saviour of heaven has come”
The story of Christmas is this great day of the Lord, when heaven and earth are shaken, when the Lord shows the strength of his arm and begins his thunderous assault upon the lords of this age. In the gospel of Luke, we are told of the shocking beginnings of God’s great war. The mighty God bursts into the world through the womb of his mother Mary, and is laid helpless and destitute in the straw. God’s great frontal assult is the push out from the uterus; his first battle cry is the sound of a newborn. The creator and sustainer of heaven and earth, is sustained by the milk of his mother’s breast and the warmth of her body.
What kind of a king is this?
What kind of an invasion is this?
What kind of mighty show of power is this?
The Jerusalem status quo and king Herod immediately recognize the significance of what has happened in Bethlehem and we are told: “When King Herod heard this, he was troubled, and all Jerusalem with him” (Mat. 2:3)
In the midst of Herod’s tyrannical kingdom; God has planted his kingdom of peace—
“on earth peace and goodwill to men”—invading Caeser’s sphere of sovereignty with his own righteous rule. Those that enter into this kingdom are freed from the satan’s tyranny and opened up to the freedom of service to God and neighbour.
There, hidden in the straw, is God’s hidden kingdom. It is hidden from the eyes of the world—from those who worship power, money and status—but revealed to the lowly, the humble, the poor. The joy of Christmas is a hidden joy: inexplicable in the midst of a world of violence, illness, suffering and greed; yet sure and eternal, reaching into the inner life of God. God has come, God has invaded his world, God is with us: of this we can be certain, and neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all of creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. (Rom. 8:38-39)
The Joy of Christmas calls us forever to go out. We are called to go out from our self-enclosed existence, out from our comfort zones, out from our clans and tribes, out from our little circles and bubbles, out from our echo chambers, out from our warm communities, out, out, out into all the world.
As the shepherds went out in joy to proclaim the good news of Christ’s coming, so we are called to go out: “Go out and make disciples of all nations” (Mat. 28: 19). The Church is called to continue God’s invasion of this world, armed not with bombs and sticks and weapons of war; but going out like sheep to the slaughter, armed only with the seeds of the kingdom and the good news of the gospel. We are called into the lost, hidden places–the bethlehems of this world–with the hidden ways of the kingdom; planting seeds of new life, and waging God’s war of peace against the powers of this age.
I will leave you with the beautiful words of a contemporary writer:
Let us go forth, then, let us go forth to offer everyone the life of Jesus Christ… I prefer a Church which is bruised, hurting and dirty because it has been out on the streets, rather than a church which is unhealthy from being confined and from clinging to its own security… If something should rightly disturb us and trouble our conscience, it is the fact that so many of our brothers and sisters are living without the strength, light and consolation born of friendship with Jesus Christ, without a community of faith to support them, without meaning and a goal in life…My hope is that we will be moved by fear of remaining shut up within structures which give us a false sense of security, within rules which make us harsh judges, within habits which make us feel safe, while at our door people are starving and Jesus does not tire of saying to us: Give them something to eat.
The featured image is called “Mary Feeding the Christ” by Daniel Bonnell