Feast upon the Word Blog

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Christmas Talk, 2010

Posted by BrianJ on December 15, 2010

This is a copy of the talk I gave a few days ago in church for our Christmas program.

As I re-read the New Testament accounts of Jesus’ birth in preparation for this talk, one message stood out to me. That message is best summarized by the familiar scripture in Luke:

“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”

During this time of year, we often hear people emphasize that the baby Jesus should be our focus. He is the centerpiece of the crèches, the subject of nearly every Christmas hymn, and of course, the holiday bears his name. Yet, in the Gospel accounts of his birth, there is surprisingly little mention of the baby Jesus himself:

  • Matthew’s account begins with a presentation of Joseph’s royal lineage, then focuses on Joseph’s interaction with an angel. From there, Matthew takes a detour to tell about King Herod and some unnamed visitors from the East, then it’s back to showing how Joseph was directed to take his family to Egypt for a time.
  • Luke’s account doesn’t even start with the birth of Jesus, but rather with the birth of John the Baptist. Then, just as Matthew focused his account on Joseph, Luke focuses his on Mary. Also like Matthew, Luke includes a moving account of unnamed visitors—in this case shepherds—and their interaction with an angel.
  • With Jesus’ parents being covered by Matthew and Luke, surely the remaining two Gospels would be free to focus on the baby Jesus, right? Quite the contrary, Mark and John don’t even find it important to mention Jesus’ birth at all.

This is not to suggest that Jesus’ birth is not central to Matthew and Luke’s story; certainly it is. But in their accounts, the birth is less important than what that birth means to—or how it affects—others.

***

Notice the common theme from the Angelic visits to Mary, Joseph, Zacharias, and the shepherds:

“Joseph, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife”

“Fear not, Zacharias: for thy prayer is heard;”

“Fear not, Mary: for thou hast found favour with God.”

And to the shepherds, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.”

All of this “fear not” raises an important question: Why would people have been afraid of a visit from an angel? What is it about interaction with Heaven that would strike fear in people? Were they concerned about being cursed by God? found unworthy, unqualified, or unwanted? worried that their lives just didn’t “measure up” in some way—either because of some blessing they never enjoyed, as in Zacharias’ case, or because they held no lofty social status, as in Joseph’s case or that of the shepherds. Maybe it’s simply a matter of believing that only certain people “deserve” to see angels or even be noticed by God: those who are important—kings, priests, prophets—and those who God just needs to smite.

Whatever their reasons for being afraid, the message of Jesus’ birth is that they should not be. His very name means “God saves,” and Joseph is told that this name is appropriate because “Jesus will save his people from their sins.”

Perhaps that still leaves room for fear—because after all, it says that Jesus will save his people. And what if I’m not one of his people? Several aspects of the story indicate that anyone can be considered one of God’s people. The most striking to me is the important role that the wise men play in Matthew’s account. I know that there has been a lot of speculation about who these men were, but Matthew tells us almost nothing about them, except that they came from the East and he uses the term magi—a Greek term for a type of “astrologer”—to describe them. What business did apparent outsiders have in welcoming the Lord to this earth? As far as we know, they weren’t Israelite and didn’t even recognize the God of the Abraham. Yet, not only were they welcome to visit the Christ child, they were encouraged and guided by God to do so. They came and showed their respect in their own manner, and then went their way.

One of the reasons this is so striking to me is that it goes against the idea that there is “a true meaning of Christmas” as we often hear—or at least, that there is only one “real” way to honor Christmastime. Unfortunately, throughout history, Christians, including Mormons, have shown a nasty tendency of drawing lines that exclude others from coming to Christ. Sometimes it’s a distinction based on religion, other times it is based on race, or economics, or lifestyle.

Ann Madsen published in the Ensign many years ago that “We separate ourselves from others by the differences we see. We feel comfortable with those who dress like we do, think like we do, and act like we do; and we feel uncomfortable with those who are different.

“Physical deformities or differences, for example, can sometimes cause discomfort. Of course, most people would never openly draw attention to such differences. But would you put forth the effort to get past the difference to establish a warm relationship? The gospel teaches us that that which is eternal in us provides kinship that no physical differences should undermine.”

I appreciate that she emphasizes that ignoring the differences is not good enough—we have to put forth the effort to get past the differences and establish a warm relationship. Remember, the wise men and shepherds weren’t just allowed to visit Jesus, they were encouraged.

Madsen continues by quoting the prophet Joseph Smith:

“All the religious world is boasting of righteousness: It is the doctrine of the devil to…[fill] us with self-righteousness. The nearer we get to our Heavenly Father, the more we are disposed to look with compassion on perishing souls; we feel that we want to take them upon our shoulders, and cast their sins behind our backs.”

President Gordon B. Hinckley expressed a similar concern in a Pioneer Day message in 2001. While he specifically addressed religious elitism in this talk, I believe his remarks apply to other forms of prejudice.

“[Utah has] become the home of many people of great diversity in their backgrounds, beliefs, and religious persuasions. I plead with our people to welcome them, to befriend them, to mingle with them, to associate with them.

“We are all sons and daughters of God…

“I repeat the words which Brigham Young spoke 135 years ago. He said: “To be adverse to Gentiles, because they are Gentiles, or Jews, because they are Jews, is in direct opposition to the genius of our religion. It matters not what a man’s creed is, whether it be Catholic, or Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Methodist, Baptist, Quaker, or Jew, he will receive kindness and friendship from us”

“I echo those sentiments. As I have said before, we must not be clannish. We must never adopt a holier-than-thou attitude. We must not be self-righteous. We must be magnanimous and open and friendly. We can keep our faith. We can practice our religion. We can cherish our method of worship without being offensive to others. I take this occasion to plead for a spirit of tolerance and neighborliness, of friendship and love toward those of other faiths.”

President Hinckley illustrates why many today would be afraid of a visit by an angel. Too often their interaction with religious people is to feel belittled, condemned, and judged.

President Hinckley said that we should never adopt a holier-than-though attitude or be clannish. Christ’s birth sets this example. After all, he was born in one of the humblest of places despite being the Lord of all. He accepted visits from outsiders and lowly shepherds. Thus, the story of his birth is one of inclusion—in fact, only one person is really singled out as the ‘opponent’ in the story—King Herod—and that is because he singles himself out over fear that he will lose his status.

But that is the beauty of Jesus’ Gospel: it does destroy status. Those who have placed themselves “on top” will be toppled, and those who are excluded will be accepted by him. Mary captures this spirit of inclusion beautifully when she exclaims to Elizabeth:

“My soul exalts the Lord, and my spirit has begun to rejoice in God my Savior, because he has looked upon the humble state of his servant. He has demonstrated power with his arm; he has scattered those whose pride wells up from the sheer arrogance of their hearts. He has brought down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up those of lowly position; He has helped his servant Israel, remembering his mercy, as he promised to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

***

Now, getting back to that proclamation from the multitude of angels in the fields of Judea…. “Peace on earth, and good will toward men.” Before any greeting cards or holiday specials came up with a Christmas message, that was the message from heaven: Jesus’ birth signifies an extension of peace from God to you. And that, I think, should be the Christmas message we try to share this time of year—and not just share in words, but by deeds—Fear not, because while you may feel rejected by man, you are not rejected by God.

2 Responses to “Christmas Talk, 2010”

  1. Robert C. said

    Very nice, Brian. I esp. like your initial motivating question: why do the Gospels focus so much on the surroundings and effects on others in the birth narratives? Very rich approach….

    I was a tad surprised you didn’t mention or cite Ballard’s “Doctrine of Inclusion” General Conference talk in 2001, just prior to the SLC Olympics. That talk left a strong impression on me, and might be a good resource for others interested in this topic.

    Also, I’m reading a fantastic book on this topic, To Change the World: The Irony, Tragedy, and Possibility of Christianity in the Late Modern World by James Davison Hunter. A nice review can be found here. In a nutshell, Hunter complains that there is a dangerous tendency among Christians to either be too separatist from the world (like conservative Christians and pacifist/radical Christians), or too assimilationist (progressive Christians). Your talk nicely touches on what I like about that book: as disciples of Christ we are called to become loving engaged in the world—not in a power-grab sort of way that tries, first and foremost, to change the world, but to serve the world….

  2. BrianJ said

    Robert: The talk by Ballard is a great addition. I hadn’t remembered it at the time I prepared my talk. Thanks.

    “as disciples of Christ we are called to become loving engaged in the world—not in a power-grab sort of way that tries, first and foremost, to change the world, but to serve the world….”

    That is very well put.

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