I need a word of hope.
In verse 1 of chapter 2 of Luke’s gospel we are introduced to a word of hope, a person who in the ancient Roman empire was referred to as “Divine, Son of God, God, God from God, Lord, Redeemer Liberator, and Savior of the World” and his name is…
No. Not Jesus.
All these terms are first used of Caesar Augustus. We use them in reference to Jesus because the gospel is a counterclaim against every other power. Every Christmas carol is a protest song. That is, every Christmas carol is a protest song if we realize Christmas isn’t about God’s ticket to escape the world and its pain. Christmas instead is the powerful way God shows up "in person" to transform the world and our pain.
Both imperial Rome and the early church claimed that their good news came from Heaven. Both announce a gospel of peace, here on earth. The Roman Empire believed it of Caesar Augustus — the early church believed it only of Jesus the Messiah.
Both those who claimed Caesar was Lord and those who claimed Jesus was Lord proclaimed a divine conception and a predestined Savior. Christ and Caesar’s birth stories were competing and noncompatible claims that a new world had started & a new start for the human race was underway. Both had the same goal: Peace on earth for the entire world.
But if you miss the different ways of getting to the world God dreams of, you miss the gospel. In the last Christmas sermon of his life — three months before his assassination, Martin Luther King Jr. preached,
“It's one of the strangest things that all the great military geniuses of the world have talked about peace. The conquerors of old who came killing in pursuit of peace, Alexander, Caesar, Charlemagne, and Napoleon, were akin in seeking a peaceful world order. If you will read Mein Kampf closely enough, you will discover that Hitler contended that everything he did in Germany was for peace... And the leaders of the world today talk eloquently about peace. What is the problem? They are talking about peace as a distant goal, as an end we seek, but we must come to see that peace is not merely a distant goal we seek… it is a means by which we arrive at that goal.”
For some, today’s Bible reading with its talk of empires is too political. For others its talk of angels too spiritual. But today’s gospel reading wants us to open our eyes to the empires and open our ears to the angels and their protest songs.
“Joy to the world” is a protest song if you are singing about the nonviolent King Jesus.
“Hark the herald angels sing” — a protest song.
“O holy night” — a protest song!
“O come all ye faithful” — guess what? Protest song!
“Frosty the snowman” … not a protest song.
Hear the angels' voices — God’s protest song to all oppression, evil, injustice, sin, violence, and death.
So maybe listen again to how the tune of Jesus’ life is composed. Listen again to the melody of the incarnation, born not in a palace but in an outhouse for animals. Hear the angels' voices?
Born not to the ruling elite but among the poor and oppressed masses. Hear the angels' voices?
Born not to a queen but to a yet-to-be-properly-wed teenage mum. Hear the angels' voices?
A king who will bring peace not with a sword but with nonviolent love — hear the angels' voices?
A king who brings good news to the poor, sight to the blind, healing to the lame, inclusion to the excluded, forgiveness to sinners and makes the last first. Hear the angels' voices?
A savior who will save not by killing his enemies but loving them, by suffering for them even to the point of death on a cross. A king who conquers and is coronated while being executed on cross as the world’s true Lord! Hear the angels' voices? A protest song divine?
But the song doesn’t stop there. Death could not hold him down. Love raised him from the grave as the world’s true king and he will reign in love for forever and ever! Hear the angels' voices? A protest song divine?
Yes! With the coming of the baby hear the angels' voices in the face of empire sing, “Glory to God in the Highest, and peace on earth.”
The way of the manger, where the Almighty takes on all vulnerability, leads directly to the way of the cross, where God is victorious over violence and injustice through suffering love.
This gets to the heart of the exclusivity of the Christian claim: there is only one Lord and Savior — and it ain't Caesar.
It’s the nonviolent Christ, whose name is Jesus, whose way of peace is vindicated in the Resurrection.
"His Law is Love and his Gospel is peace.
Chains he shall break for the slave is our brother,
And in his name all oppression shall cease!"
The early Christians insisted there is no way to peace, but Jesus’ peace is the way.
Sentimentalized and commercialized Christmas is something many of us seek to survive. But the Love that is the Incarnation is the only thing that can save our world. Only the true meaning of Christmas can speak at word profound enough to minister to the depths of human suffering. At the manger, through his ministry, on the cross, in the resurrection we hear Heaven declare, "Only love transforms."
As Biblical Scholar N.T. Wright says, "The trouble with how we’ve treated Christmas is we’ve screened out the Emperors, and so we’ve missed the point of the angels."
The angels sing a protest song to the way our world works. An army of angels in Luke 2:14 mount a counterattack to the violence of the world as they declare glory to God and peace on earth comes through this nonviolent king born in Bethlehem.
It’s a song our world desperately needs to hear.
This Christmas I’m talking about:
What happened to those 8 precious children in Cains.
What happened to those 133 precious children at school in Peshawar.
What happened to those 2 innocent hostages at the hands of a very sick man in Sydney.
What happened last week outside a café in Queensland where despite it being 2014, a sign was hung that read “no Muslims.”
What happened 3 days before Christmas with the cutting of support for the homeless.
What’s happening with the demonising of those struggling in poverty by referring to them as "dole bludgers."
What happen during advent when $11 billion was stolen from our promises to the world poorest of poor in the Australian aid budget and all that means:
1.4 million mothers will give birth without the safety of a birth attendant
2.2 million children may not get to enroll in school
3.7 million children may not be vaccinated
4.7 million people may not get access to safe drinking water, and
21.9 million people in emergency situations may go unassisted.
These are just some of the reasons I need a word of hope this Christmas.
And, if I can risk being vulnerable with you, I’m struggling to work through forgiveness. Two weeks ago 53 church leaders were arrested in 7 actions in 6 cities calling for the release of refugee children from detention. Despite being praised by police, magistrates, and senators for our nonviolent discipline, 8 of us church leaders in Perth experienced the abuse of police powers in what the Australian Human Rights Law Centre has called “a deeply concerning use of strip searches to humiliate and punish peaceful protestors.” Hearing my wife sob from a prison cell after risking this kind of love so that others can be free is one of the reasons why this Christmas I need not sentimentalism, nor commercialism, nor kitsch, but a word of hope.
Not Caesar’s word of hope. Not peace through the sword. But the hope of Christ. The hope that insists, “Love makes a way." The hope that insists, “Love is the way” — because we see in Mary’s child, as he grows to be a man, God is love.
Violence can never transform — it can only momentarily subdue. Can you hear the angels' protest song? They announce a king who doesn’t violently suppress but nonviolently suffers so the world can know forgiveness and be transformed.
Hear the angels' voices?
This might not be the Christmas message you wanted to read. Then again, maybe you are as broken and problematic as me and don’t want to hear how God is transforming the world and wants sinners like us to be a part of it. Maybe you don’t want to hear a whitewashed, sanitized, fairy-tale bastardisation of the Gospel, and instead want to just hear the story of Jesus and its word of hope. Instead of escaping reality maybe you like me need a word of hope that another world is possible. Maybe like me you need that word of hope that in Jesus, a new world is on its way. Maybe like me you need to hear that not only can things be different, but we can be transformed.
Martin Luther King Jr. ended his last Christmas sermon by talking about God’s dream of a world that has started in Jesus. A world in which we are all welcomed to partake around this table. It’s the "Dream of God’s Kingdom:"
“I still have a dream today that one day justice will roll down like water, and righteousness like a mighty stream. I still have a dream today that people will be elected who will do justly and love mercy and walk humbly with their God. I still have a dream today that one day war will come to an end, that all will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, that nations will no longer rise up against nations, neither will they study war any more. I still have a dream today that one day the lamb and the lion will lie down together and everyone will sit under his own vine and fig tree and none shall be afraid. I still have a dream today that one day every valley shall be exalted and every mountain and hill will be made low, the rough places will be made smooth and the crooked places straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together. I still have a dream that with this faith we will be able to adjourn the councils of despair and bring new light into the dark chambers of pessimism. With this faith we will be able to witness to that day when there will be peace on earth and good will toward all.”
I heard the hope of Christmas proclaimed this Advent from my wife Teresa when she came out of that jail cell and told the press, “Even if you strip-search us, even if you make us squat naked and cough, even if you threaten us, we will not stop fighting for their freedom.”
These are the words of a sister whose eyes are open to the reality of the empires, principalities, and powers, but who can still hear the angels’ protest songs. They are the words of someone who, because of Christmas, her soul has found its worth. These are the words of someone who proclaims God’s dream of the kingdom and God’s nonviolent king, Jesus.
Let us open our eyes to the empires and our ears to the angels' protest songs. Let us fall on our knees in worship, then roll up our sleeves in discipleship.
Glory to the nonviolent King.
"O come let us adore him,
O come let us adore him,
O come let us adore him,
Christ the Lord."