Forming Faith Blog

The Baby Messiah (December 25 & 27, 2020)

December 25, 2020

Traditional Ethiopian Orthodox art depicting the Nativity.
Traditional Ethiopian Orthodox art depicting the Nativity.
The Blessing and Curse of the Familiar

The season of Advent is rapidly coming to a close, and Christmas is nigh (seemingly out of nowhere for me). This means that you in direct ministry are preparing (or have prepared) Christmas worship and activities. We return to the familiar story of Luke 2:1-20, which is the assigned reading for Christmas Eve/Christmas Day in each of the four years of the Narrative Lectionary. This is totally understandable, as—for many—Christmas is not complete unless we hear of a manger, shepherds, angels, and a certain baby. This familiarity is both a blessing and a curse. It is a blessing because it is a beloved tradition, but it is also a curse since we often think we know it completely.

Messiah versus Caesar

And, since we do hear this story so often, we do know the story well. It is possible, probable even, that there is little you can preach or teach that people don’t already know. However, a new(er) insight to me is the political implications of this story. As we are divorced from the original context, we are used to looking at the nativity as a story of purely spiritual/religious importance. When we learn more about its original context, we see something very different.

Much of the language we have attributed only Christians, such as “Son of God,” “Savior,” and “gospel,” were well-known politico-religious terms from the Roman Empire. The emperor Augustus himself was the son of god, the savior of the world, and the bringer of peace. The announcement of his arrival in a city was known as good news (gospel). Luke was consciously taking Roman political concepts and applying them to a specifically Jewish promise with universal implications: the coming of the Messiah. The message is clear. Jesus—this backwater Jew of humble origins—is the true king, not the most powerful man in the world, the emperor.

Politics on Christmas

What does this mean for teaching and preaching? The common, often unspoken, rule for Christmas gatherings is to avoid the subjects of religion and politics. Church is clearly the place for religion, but the divisiveness of politics makes many leaders wary of wading into those waters. Should we then just ignore the political implications of Jesus’ birth? No, I don’t think we should, but I also don’t think we should address partisan politics. Give the explanation, proclaim that Christ is Lord, and the emperor is not, and allow the people to make the connections.

December 27, 2020

Icon of the Presentation from the Menologion of Basil II (10th Century)
Icon of the Presentation from the Menologion of Basil II (10th Century)
Baby Jesus in the Temple

Merely two days after Christmas comes the first Sunday of the season of Christmas. My sympathies to you church leaders out there. While, in my experience, many churches have mercy on their pastors and often have a service of lessons and carols (and therefore no sermon), it’s my responsibility to address the day’s assigned reading. Very descriptively, we use the title “Baby Jesus in the Temple,” though most of our curricula combine this reading with the next (“Boy Jesus in the Temple”) in an extended lesson “Jesus in the Temple.”

Nunc Dimittis

If any part of this passage is best known, it is probably the Nunc Dimittis or the Song of Simeon. It is often used in the liturgy of a compline service before going to sleep. To my count, it is the third song/prophecy in the Gospel (after Mary’s and Zechariah’s, not counting the angelic host’s song).

A Messiah for All People

It is not surprising that this song—and whole passage—continues the themes from earlier. Particularly, that the coming of Jesus is rooted in the story of Israel with a universal reach. Simeon has been awaiting the “consolation of Israel” and seeing the Messiah. However, in his song, Simeon puts the connection to Israel last. Before that, he proclaims that the salvation represented in this newborn has been “prepared in the presence of all people” and is a “light for revelation to the Gentiles (literally “nations,” i.e., everyone else).”

I, for one, am happy about this since I am part of the “everyone else.” Like most of Luke’s original audience and most of you. As announced earlier in the chapter, Jesus is Lord, and we know that Jesus is Lord not just of Israel, but of the whole world.

The Practical

What is my practical suggestion here? At a minimum, use the Song of Simeon as the closing prayer, sung if possible. Also, provide a time of stillness as we are recovering from this busy time using our free activity, “Listening for God.” This activity leads participants to respond to the good news of Jesus with a stillness (or breath) prayer. It’s from our Living the Word: Cross+Gen Education (Narrative Lectionary) curriculum and everyone everywhere can use it, which is helpful in this time of pandemic.

May God grant you peace.


Gregory Rawn (Publisher)

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