The Dark Side of Christ’s Advent
By Linda Rex
December 27, 2020, HOLY FAMILY | CHRISTMAS—A lot of times we include the visiting of the magi from the East in the Christmas story. The wise men followed a star, or angel, to Jerusalem, asked King Herod about the Messiah, and found he was to be born in Bethlehem. Having heard this, they left to find the child in this place. And this is where we encounter the dark side of the Christmas story.
It was significant that these wise men from other nations were seeking out the Messiah, while apparently, the chief priests and elders of the Jews only looked into it when King Herod asked them to. It was tragic that King Herod used the information he was given to have the infants of Bethlehem slaughtered. He didn’t want to risk losing his throne to a messianic upstart. Having been warned ahead of time by an angel, Joseph, Mary and Jesus escaped to Egypt, while the infants in Bethlehem were being killed by Herod’s soldiers. There was horrible loss and suffering that was experienced by so many because of Herod’s evil actions. He had no idea that his violent attack upon Jesus in this way predicted what would happen to Jesus as an adult when he died on behalf of all people, young and old.
But let me go back before this event. We often miss an important part of the story when we focus solely on the magi and the genocide in Bethlehem. Mary and Joseph went to Jerusalem with baby Jesus about forty days after he was born. They, as pious Jews, wanted to be obedient to the law of Moses as they understood it. So, they came to Jerusalem to do three things: 1) They offered the sacrifice necessary for Mary’s cleansing after having given birth to a son—forty days after the birth they offered the sacrifice of poor people of two turtledoves or two young pigeons. 2) They paid the redemption price for Mary’s firstborn son, Jesus, of five shekels. 3) And following the example of Hannah in the Old Testament, they presented their son to God for his service. The parents of Jesus, who was born under the law, fulfilled the requirements of the law as they understood them.
What would King Herod have thought if he had known the real Messiah was present in Jerusalem without his knowledge? It wasn’t like Mary and Joseph snuck in and out without anyone noticing. Luke tells about two elderly Jews who took special note of Jesus, acknowledging and proclaiming that he was the expected Messiah. Simeon and Anna were guided by the Spirit to affirm the special anointing which was on the Christ child. Anna celebrated loudly the redemption of Israel through this child. Simeon said that Jesus would be a light to the nations, but would face great opposition and one day Mary would experience the sharp pain of the loss of her son—there would be a dark side to Jesus’ life and ministry. I imagine the prophetic words of these two elders must have created a lot of talk among the people at the temple.
Somehow Mary and Joseph took care of what they felt was needed at the temple and returned to Bethlehem without raising the attention of the authorities or King Herod. We don’t know what they were doing during those first two years in Bethlehem before their flight to Egypt. Perhaps Joseph was doing work as a carpenter and was able to eventually provide them with a house to live in, for that is where the magi found them. In Christ’s story, we find Jesus identifying with a variety of people—working poor, pious Jews, humble shepherds, and in time, endangered refugees hiding in another land. If we look closely, we can see that as an infant and as a child, Jesus experienced the human condition—what people everywhere, in every nation, go through at some time and in some way.
Sometimes people project onto Jesus some fantasy childhood, where nothing ever went wrong and where his circumstances were always ideal. It could not have been easy for Joseph and Mary to drop everything to go to Bethlehem just because the Roman government was doing a census. What did they face due to Mary’s unexplained pregnancy? When they did arrive in Bethlehem, did they endure criticism or rejection from extended family members? When the baby came, did anyone help Mary out or was she left all alone with Joseph? What was it like for Joseph to be the guardian of his adopted son, knowing Jesus would never be fully his own? When Jesus’ parents knew that they had to flee Bethlehem, did their hearts ache for their friends and neighbors who were facing the loss of their children at the hands of the soldiers?
These are human experiences which can be found in nations all over the world among people of a wide variety of cultures and ethnicities. When Jesus came as a light to the nations, he did not do so externally to all we are as human beings, but as one of us within our humanity. He entered our human existence, to forge within us a new humanity able to share in his close relationship with his heavenly Father in the Spirit. He did not bring a political redemption, but a spiritual renewal and an ushering in of the age of the Spirit—a time when every human being could participate by faith in Jesus’ life of union and communion with the Father in the Spirit.
The prophet Isaiah celebrated this prophetically, saying:
“I will rejoice greatly in the LORD,
My soul will exult in my God;
For He has clothed me with garments of salvation,
He has wrapped me with a robe of righteousness,
As a bridegroom decks himself with a garland,
And as a bride adorns herself with her jewels” (61:10 NASB).
He spoke of our salvation as something God clothes us with—”garments of salvation” and “a robe of righteousness.” These are not things we create for ourselves—our best efforts never gain us a right relationship with God, nor do they save us from the consequences of our sin and rebellion against God. Nor do they free us from evil, sin, or death. Only God could and did do what was needed in and through his Son. He even went so far as to adopt us into his family—to make us his very own children rather than just merely his servants.
But there was a cost to God’s Son coming into our humanity to bind us in himself to the oneness of the Father, Son, and Spirit. What those children and families in Bethlehem experienced was the dark side of the coming of God into our humanity—when evil resisted the goodness of God once again, turning the beauty of what God had done for each of us in the Christ child into something horrific and tragic. What Jesus experienced in the wilderness and later on the cross, what he resisted each time he healed someone or delivered them from an evil spirit, was that darkness which from the beginning has resisted and sought to overcome the light of God’s love and life. The reality is that Jesus came and did what only God could do—delivered us from Satan’s hands, freed us from sin and death, and rising from the grave, brought our humanity into a new place in the presence of his Father now and forever.
In our western world today, we often are so comfortable that sometimes we forget what it is like to struggle, suffer, or go without. When a tragedy, violence, or natural disaster occurs, we are faced once again with the reality that we live in a broken world in which evil is still at work. We, in the already/not-yet of God’s kingdom, experience both the blessings of God’s presence and power at work in this world, but also the opposition, oppression, and assaults of the evil one as he opposes every good thing God is trying to do. There is evil at work in this world—but evil is always a parasite on what is good—it has no power that is not derivative. God always and ever has the final word—and this is why we pray, resist Satan and evil, and seek what is good, even when doing so may cost us our life, our financial well-being, or our good standing in the community.
There is a cost to following Jesus. Jesus said anyone who wanted to be his disciple needed to “lay down his life, pick up his cross, and follow” him. The price of doing this is what we may struggle with. But realizing that Jesus went first, and that he includes us in his perfect life of obedience with the Father, can enable us to do the difficult thing. Christ went first—and whatever we do, we do as a participation in his perfect and finished work. This can give us hope and courage when life gets hard, no matter who we are. We are not alone—he is present now and forever by his Spirit—and includes us as adopted children of a loving Father who by his Spirit affirms in our hearts that we are his very own, no matter the circumstances of our lives or the difficulties we face.
Dear Abba, thank you for making us your very own. We look forward to that day when evil, sin, and death are cast into the lake of fire and once and for all removed from our world. In the meantime, hold us close, Abba, and deliver us anew from evil people and the evil one, from the sin which so easily seduces us—we are helpless and hopeless without you. Thank you, Jesus, for sharing in our human existence so fully, and for coming to be with us and in us by your Holy Spirit now and forever. Amen.
“But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.” Galatians 4:4-7 NASB
See also Luke 2:22–40 and Isaiah 61:10–62:3.
By Linda Rex
Imagine yourself in the position of Mary, who had this incredible experience of hearing from God through an angel. Her surrender to the will and purposes of God meant she became pregnant by the Spirit, and she had to explain to her fiancé how this came about. There was no reason for him to believe her story.
Thankfully, Joseph was equally visited by God and chose to marry her in spite of all this. As the time of the baby’s birth came close, she ended up traveling to Bethlehem with her spouse for a census. Here she had a baby in the most uncomfortable circumstances, and named him Jesus as instructed. She and Joseph took him to the temple as the law required, and her baby was prophesied over and praised by two elderly God-fearing people.
Mary and her husband Joseph remained in Bethlehem for a while, and then one day, out of the blue, this entourage showed up at the door. These visitors were not typical Jewish people but foreign magi, and they came bearing expensive gifts. The frankincense, gold, and myrrh were gifts fit for a king, and they were presented to Mary’s child. Perhaps Jesus was old enough by this time to toddle over to the magi and explore what he was given. Mary and Joseph probably had to put the gifts somewhere safe so they would not be ruined.
But these wonderful visitors traveled many miles following a star and sought the one who was born king of the Jews. Having found him, they worshiped this special child, and gave him gifts which were precious and which honored his dignity as our prophet, priest, and king. And then these special people returned home by another way.
In some ways, we can say that these magi reflect the divine story. Our Abba’s Son too went on a journey far from home, into a land which was foreign to his divinity—he became flesh and dwelt among us. He took upon himself our broken humanity, bearing our frailty and weakness.
The Son of God was seeking the children of the King—the ones who were born to share life with his Abba. He was following the star of Abba’s heart—the covenant made with his people, the fulfillment of his divine destiny as the Elected One, the Son of God. He came to give us gifts, to restore to us the dignity of our personhood as those made in the image of God, and to provide for us a way home to Abba.
On Epiphany, we are reminded of how the Son of God stooped to join with us in our brokenness and shame to lift us up into the divine dance of the love and life of Father, Son, and Spirit. He identified himself with us so completely in our humanity, he came to John the Baptist at the River Jordan to be baptized by him “to fulfill all righteousness.” As he came up out of the water, heaven burst open, and the Spirit lighted on him like a dove. The voice of Abba declared, “You are my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” (Matthew 3:13-17)
The way heaven opened and Abba and his Spirit embraced Jesus, is the way God has embraced all of us. Jesus has brought us into the intimate relationship he has with his Abba in the Spirit, and has shared this precious gift of relationship with you, and me, and every other person on this planet. No one is excluded from Jesus’ baptism in the Father’s amazing gift of love and grace. Each and every one are held in Abba’s embrace. All have available to them the precious gift of God’s presence and power in the Person of the Holy Spirit.
Like the magi, Jesus came out of the water and began to travel a new way home—the way we are to walk—in utter dependency on his Father. The Spirit immediately sent him out into the desert, and he was met there by the devil, who did his best to attempt to get Jesus to draw upon the benefits of his divinity rather than continuing to identify with all of humanity by depending solely upon his Father by the Spirit. But Jesus stood his ground—he would continue to set aside the benefits of his divinity for your sake and mine, so he would completely identify with us in our dependency upon Abba.
In Christ we are called to surrender our willfulness, our stubborn resistance against the love and grace of God, and our refusal to allow God to be the God he is and to define for us what it means to live in perfect, loving relationship. In Christ we are brought up against our surrender to the evil one’s way of doing things—participating in his desire to kill, steal, and destroy—and we are given the freedom to choose to submit to Abba and trust in him instead.
Just as Jesus did the right thing on our behalf by allowing himself to be baptized for us, we participate in his baptism by confessing our sins in repentance and obeying Abba’s instruction to be baptized for the remission of sins. We receive Abba’s gift of his Spirit in the same way his Son Jesus welcomed the heavenly Dove. We participate individually in what Jesus did for all.
And we begin our journey home to Abba by another route than the one we first came in on. We don’t seek our own path home but rather, we follow the bidding of the Father, keeping in step with Jesus by his Spirit, trusting in Abba’s perfect love and grace. Just as Jesus participated fully in our human existence, we begin participating in Jesus’ divine life within the embrace of Abba in the Spirit. We have a new life to live—in Christ we are dancers stepping in time with the heavenly music of Abba as we by the Spirit share in the Triune divine dance of love, of knowing and being known, for all eternity.
Dear Abba, thank you for sending your Son to come and find us, and to bring us home to you. Thank you, Jesus, for coming and sharing in our brokenness, and for identifying with us in our sin and dying our death in our place. Thank you, Spirit, for all you have done and are doing to bring us into full participation with the Father and Son in their love and life. Holy God, please grant us the repentance and faith we need, and the grace to obey your call to be baptized, so we might fully participate in your divine life and love. Lead us home to you, Abba, for we know you stand watching, expectantly awaiting our return, through Jesus our Lord. Amen.
“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness will cover the earth and deep darkness the peoples; but the Lord will rise upon you and His glory will appear upon you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. Lift up your eyes round about and see; they all gather together, they come to you. Your sons will come from afar, and your daughters will be carried in the arms. Then you will see and be radiant, and your heart will thrill and rejoice; because the abundance of the sea will be turned to you, the wealth of the nations will come to you. A multitude of camels will cover you, the young camels of Midian and Ephah; all those from Sheba will come; they will bring gold and frankincense, and will bear good news of the praises of the Lord.” Isaiah 60:1-6 NASB
Your Light Has Come
by Linda Rex
This season of year has its ups and downs. It can be so heartwarming and inspiring, while at the same time full of stress and anxious care about shopping and decorating and family complications. I have a special fondness for this time of year since God has awakened me to the wonder of its deep meaning. Understanding the mystery of the incarnation (can one truly understand a mystery?) carries me through all the hassle and frustration which can come from the external efforts to celebrate Christmas.
At this time of year I’m especially mindful of the time in my life when I distained Christmas as being a pagan holiday we should not celebrate if we are true Christians. While I’m still trying to determine exactly what a “true Christian” is (as compared to a “false Christian”), now I see a whole lot more clearly how we can get so caught up in a religious paradigm we cannot see what is right in front of us. We can be so focused on the “truth” that we miss seeing the living Truth who has entered our world and has begun to transform it from the inside out.
Today is Epiphany, and the gospel reading from the lectionary for today is Matthew 2:1-12. Here we read about the magi from the east who traveled many miles seeking to find a newly born king of the Jews. They followed a star and ended up in Jerusalem. I’m sure it was quite unnerving for King Herod to have these men asking about a king he knew nothing about. And no doubt it made him feel quite insecure about his throne.
So Herod called all together the chief priests and scribes—the ones who were supposed to know the Hebrew scriptures and history—and asked them where the Messiah was to be born. The high priests and scribes were the ones who probably would know the answer to the magi’s question, so Herod addressed the question to them.
They told the magi to look for the Messiah in Bethlehem. Now, it seems to me, if they had a real interest in knowing about the Messiah or in seeking him out, they would have been alert to what was really going on. They would have joined the search party, or would have maybe even led it. But King Herod sent the magi to Bethlehem and told them to look for the child and to tell him if or when they found him. And the magi left all by themselves, with no Jewish people in their party.
These people who were trusting in astrology to guide them, who were in essence, pagan Gentiles, were seeking to find a child who was Jewish. Now there were some Jews who were pagan enough that they believed the stars ordained certain events. But the Jews had nothing to do with the Gentiles, and because of this they missed something very important which was happening in their world. Their religious paradigm did not allow them to believe that someone other than a Jew might know something about the Messiah they had been expecting for centuries.
Is it possible to have the light of God available to you and still wander around in darkness? Apparently so.
The gospel story we read in the Bible shows us that these Jewish leaders were a whole lot more interested in retaining their positions of power and influence and in restoring the Jewish nation to prominence than they were interested in finding out if the messiah had arrived and had something important to say to them as his people. Their paradigm assured them the messiah would appear in a certain way, he would do certain things, and he most certainly would not look, talk or behave anything like Jesus Christ.
When I was growing up, I was told a lot of things about the Christmas holiday and what it meant and why it shouldn’t be observed, but no one ever told me the truth. I was told a lot of superstition, a lot of hearsay, and a lot of heated explanations of why observing Christmas was a sin, but none of those things turned out to be based on facts or on a mature, well-examined explanation of Christian history.
I remember one afternoon sitting in the audience at the Ambassador Auditorium listening to a performance of Handel’s “Messiah”. It stirred something deep within me. I knew the event of Jesus Christ coming to us and dying on the cross was significant, but I still missed the crucial point—God came into human flesh to live and die and to rise again, and now he bears our perfected humanity for all eternity in the presence of the Father. Forever, we are with God, in Christ by the Spirit. We are embraced, held, in the life and love of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit by God’s infinite grace through the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
We can focus on whether or not something is pagan, and miss the light of God in the midst of the darkness. Whatever we observe as human is bound to be pagan in some way because we are all broken people. All our righteousness ends up being filthy rags to God—we must never forget God reconciled all things to himself in Christ Jesus.
Whatever we offer to God is broken and flawed—our efforts to get it right are feeble at best. This is why we follow the lead of the Spirit and the guidance of the Word of God, Jesus Christ. We count on God’s grace to carry us. We need to be alert to the living Truth in the midst of all our darkness and brokenness. The Light has come—we need to pay attention, turn to the Light and allow him to show us what is really going on, and to follow where he leads us rather than stay in our misguided paradigms.
Who we listen to is crucial. The magi listened to God when he spoke to them in a dream (would we ever consider doing that)? These people who the Jews distained listened to God and obeyed him, and went home a different way, and in the process, they were kept safe from King Herod’s evil plot. They had followed the light of a star, had worshiped the Light who had come and offered him gifts, and by the light of the revelation of God in a dream, found their way safely home.
When Jesus grew older, the scribes, the high priests—this group of people who should have known, recognized and received him as the Light of God—were the very ones who rejected him and crucified him. As John wrote in his gospel: “There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.” (John 1:9–11 NASB) Their preconceived notions of how things were supposed to be, and their preoccupation which the things of this life—money, power, prestige—blinded them to the true Light which was in their midst.
On this day of Epiphany, it would be good to pause for a moment and to consider this Light of God who has entered our world and brought to us a whole new way of being—the life of God in human flesh. It would be good to ponder the ways in which we close our eyes to the light he wishes to bring into our world: What paradigms do we need to set aside? What old ways of thinking and believing do we need to suspend in order to embrace the possibility we could be wrong or might need to change? What things are we trusting in which have nothing to do with God’s values and God’s desires and what he wants to accomplish in this world?
God’s Light has come, and he is renewing our broken world and existence from the inside out. We have a wonderful opportunity to embrace this New Year in a new frame of mind and heart—one in which Christ is the center rather than us. May your 2017 be full of an abundance of all God’s blessings in Christ!
Abba, thank you for the gift of your Son, and for the gift of a new year ahead of us. You are always working at creating new beginnings. Grant us the grace to keep our life and our being centered in your Light, in Christ your Son, and to stay in tune with and obedient to your Spirit of Life, through Jesus our Lord, amen.
“Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. For behold, darkness will cover the earth and deep darkness the peoples; but the Lord will rise upon you and His glory will appear upon you. Nations will come to your light, and kings to the brightness of your rising. … No longer will you have the sun for light by day, nor for brightness will the moon give you light; but you will have the Lord for an everlasting light, and your God for your glory.” Isaiah 60:1–3, 19 NASB