Our Advent waiting ends on Sunday, though for most of you who are pastors and worship leaders, your preparation for Christmas celebrations have been underway for weeks. Christmas is the church’s liturgical celebration of the coming of Jesus into the world in the flesh of a baby, and the stories we share around this time of year speak of the gentle baby silently rocked by Mary in the stillness of a winter’s eve. Such storytelling provides a literary and emotional warmth to our hearts in the coldness that often accompanies this time of year. In its historical context, though, the nature of Jesus’ arrival is far more complicated and not nearly as pleasant.
As I go into this final weekend of Advent that also sees Christmas Eve as part of its liturgies, I have been reflecting on the realities surrounding Jesus’ arrival to the world. He was born in a part of Roman-occupied Judea that was largely scorned by the religious and cultural center in Jerusalem, to a mother whose virtue was questioned, in a village marked by poverty. Jesus himself would endure decades of ostracization not only at the hands of the religious leaders but also his family and village; after all, his paternal lineage was questioned. Even if Joseph was Jesus’ biological father, it would still have been a scandal since Mary would have conceived a child with a man from outside the tribe.
The time in which Jesus was born was marked by political and social unrest. In the first few years of Jesus life his family fled to Egypt for safety. Jesus, as a teenager, quickly became a student of the temple and found his way among the group led by John the Baptist calling for repentance and change. Jesus accepted those who were excluded by those who claimed to practice a true spirituality, and he had harsh and scathing words for those who deemed themselves as the already healed, the already perfected, the already godly. To them he spoke of hypocrisy, snake-like deception, and slithering behavior. In his ministry he went from town to town urging people to follow the ways of God’s kingdom, and he moved on from those who didn’t choose to drop everything. His own close band of followers were often rebuked by Jesus as he reminded them that they didn’t truly understand what he was about. In the end, he was arrested on trumped-up charges, tortured, humiliated, and executed in way meant to deter others from questioning the moral and political alliance of Herod and Rome. Jesus demanded so much behavioral change from the “spiritually pure” that they killed him for it.
The Jesus we follow was anything but meek and mild.
A few nights ago I listened to a sermon from a progressive Baptist church pastor in North Carolina. The preacher proclaimed that the gospel of peace is not a calming of the waves, but rather a stirring up of the waters to bring justice where only injustice exists. She urged her congregation to remember that the Jesus we so often believe is quietly living inside us, comforting us in the face of our trials, is actually an active, vibrant, and wild Jesus who demands the religious to change their behavior toward positive outcomes and who drives out of the temple those who are destroying what God had meant to be. Yes, Jesus comes and dwells among us. And yes, that is comfort to know that God is so intimately close. But it should also terrify us that our God, who brings down all who cause harm and division, is in our midst.
As you lead your Christmas liturgies this weekend, friends, you will be challenged by those in your contexts who would rather you speak of a gentle and meek Jesus who never challenges wrong, who never stands up to the bully, who never says that recklessness and bad behavior and injustice should be changed. You will be challenged to preach on a Jesus whose existence in love outweighs his proclamation and demanding of truth. You will be told to proclaim a message of personal satisfaction rather than social and communal standards of better behavior aligned with God’s way of shalom. As you lead your Christmas liturgies, though, remember the fullness of Jesus and the lies we tell ourselves about the Christmas narratives to sentimentalize a wildly subversive and remarkably blunt King who is overthrowing the powers of this world. And as you lead, remember that the powerful who sit on the thrones of this world may not always be the leaders or those in positions of authority, because almost always in our age the people who need the most admonition and correction sit in our very own pews.
Jesus always holds his followers accountable for their behavior, always has high expectations, always disciplines those who need discipline, always subverts what needs to be subverted. The Jesus in the manger is a message of hope that those who undermine the truth of God’s shalom will not find a pleasant end to their work. It is a message that Jesus is a great surprise.
So, when you imagine an infant Jesus this weekend, remember these words from the glorious song of Mary: “God has shown strength with God’s arm and scattered those with arrogant thoughts and proud inclinations. God has pulled the powerful down from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.”
Stand tall, pastors, worship leaders, and congregational leaders. You are doing the work that needs to be done to proclaim the gospel of Jesus. And follow his way: stir the waters and demand change.
My Friday posts are reflections on the week in ministry that will propel me into pastoral care through the liturgy on Sunday. While it is primarily oriented toward pastors and lay congregational leaders, there will likely be something for everyone in it. I do draw on my past experience and occasionally reference my current pastoral assignment for case studies and examples; however, no names are used for the sake of confidentiality and respect.