“Faith is recognizing that if at Christmas Jesus became like us, it was so we might become more like him,” wrote the well-known preacher and activist William Sloan Coffin. He goes on to add, “We know what this means; watching Jesus heal the sick, empower the poor, and scorn the powerful, we see transparently the power of God at work.”*
Christmas really is about seeing the power of God at work, but far too often pastors and churches fail to tell this story. Oh sure, we preach about Mary and Joseph, Jesus being born in a Bethlehem manger, and the Magi following a star to find him and offer gold, frankincense, and myrrh. My fear is that the story has grown familiar and routine. We have forgotten its power and no longer see its challenge.
In Matthew’s Gospel, the Magi seek out Jesus after hearing of his birth. In order to find him they ask King Herod where they can find the new king. This, of course, is news to Herod who is surprised to learn that his title has been claimed by a baby. Herod consults his advisors and then reacts with the expected calmness of a leader anticipating a conflict, which is to say his response is not calm at all.
This story is an announcement that Jesus has arrived to challenge the powerful. The Messiah was not born meek and mild.
Here is the paradox of Advent. God has taken on human form to bring peace and justice into the world, but doing so requires confronting those who have power rooted in violence and injustice. This is good news of great joy for all people. Yet, some will have more trouble understanding and accepting this transformation because it will shake the foundations that uphold the status quo from which they benefit.
But, as my teaching pastor in graduate school used to ask me, does this preach?
The answer, of course, is yes, if we’re willing to take the risk. In the United States, Christmas has often become a sentimental holiday that embodies some of the worst aspects of our consumer culture.
Many Christians may be surprised to hear a sermon during Advent that focuses on challenging our cultural assumptions about the meaning of Christmas, but doing so may be the most faithful witness a pastor can offer.
Our culture has often understood Jesus in a way that reflects our own values, rather than being challenged by the radical nature of his call to discipleship. Christmas is a perfect opportunity to be reminded that the power of God is at work and we are called to become more like the One born in the manger.
*William Sloan Coffin, Credo, Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2004.
Beau Underwood is Campaigns Manager for Sojourners and a part-time pastor in a Washington, D.C., congregation.
Photo: Following the Star, ©