Summary: The Christmas story juxtaposes the powerlessness of the human actors with the great saving power of God revealed in the birth of his only Son Jesus Christ.
It’s a terrible thing to feel like your life’s out of your control. Like you’re no longer the master of our own fate. To feel powerless. As I was reading this Christmas story again this week, it struck me that that’s how most of the people in the Christmas story must have been feeling. Joseph has just discovered his fiancee is pregnant and it’s not his child! Then he’s told by a Roman official that he has to pack up his things and move from Nazareth to Bethlehem so the Emperor can do a census of his empire.
Mary’s even worse off. She’s the one whose stomach is swelling, who’s been suffering from morning sickness and now has a constant back ache. She too has to travel all the way to Bethlehem despite the fact that the baby’s due any day now.
And who are the first people to find out about the birth of Jesus, the Messiah? They’re a bunch of shepherds, the lowliest group in the society of their day, as powerless a group as you could imagine. It’s almost as if God wanted to make a point isn’t it? He sends his own Son to earth, to take on human form and the context into which he comes is one of powerlessness; of people who’ve lost control of their own destiny. In fact even Jesus Christ himself enters the world as a helpless baby, totally dependent upon his parents. He gives up the glory and power he had at his father’s right hand and takes the form of a servant.
Yet juxtaposed against this powerlessness is the power of God. The angel, Gabriel, appears to Mary and tells her of her forthcoming pregnancy. He then appears to Joseph to reassure him that this pregnancy is from God’s Holy Spirit; that Mary hasn’t done anything wrong. In fact the opposite is the case. Mary is the handmaiden of the Lord. She’s found favour with God and God’s power is about to descend upon her in a miraculous and mind-bending way.
Then, when the baby is born, again we see the power of God manifest, out on the hills, as a great company of angels appear to the shepherds singing praises to God.
But we see the power of God most strongly in the message that they announce: "On earth peace among those whom God favors!" If ever there was a contrast between God’s power and our powerlessness it’s here. In the words of Rom 8, "God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could never do: by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, to deal with sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, 4so that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit." (Rom 8:3-4 NRSV).
The great search by humankind throughout history has been to find a way to be at peace with God. The ancient pagan religious systems revolved around rituals to placate or please the gods. Later more sophisticated religious systems either do the same or, if they have no concept of a god figure, at least try to find ways to make themselves better people until they attain a state of divine being for themselves. They propound systems of self discipline aimed at making them better people. And of course the Old Testament religious laws hinged around a system of acknowledging one’s failure to please God and seeking his forgiveness though a range of temple rituals.
But whatever the religious system, people find themselves powerless to actually achieve what they’re looking for. That is, a sense of peace with God.
Of course these days most people don’t acknowledge that it’s peace with God that they’re seeking. Instead our modern day priests are the psychologists and psychiatrists who are paid a fortune to help people find the peace of mind they’re missing. Or perhaps the new age gurus who teach various methods of relaxation or meditation to help people gain a sense of peace and tranquility in their overly busy lives.
But the reality is that it’s peace with God that’s most missing from the lives of everyday human beings. And there’s nothing we can do about it! We’re powerless to bridge the gap between us and God.
That’s why the Christmas story is such an amazing thing. It’s not that a little baby was born to a young virgin. It’s not that he teaches us to be kind to others or to love others more. No, it’s that he brings the possibility of us having peace with God; that he saves us despite our powerlessness, despite our inability by ourselves to live lives of righteousness.
Listen to what we just read from Titus 3: "We ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, despicable, hating one another. 4But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared, 5he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit."