Article Dec 23, 2015

Why Christmas is deeply political

Christmastime is uniquely joyful and awe-inspiring, one in which we commemorate the coming of our God to earth, who took on flesh and dwelt among us.

And yet it can be far too easy to leave Jesus in the manger. For many, the little Lord Jesus lays down his sweet head, and is to be admired and even worshiped. But Jesus did not take on flesh and bear the fullness of humanity for the sake of sentimentality. Instead, the manger scene at Bethlehem is the opening salvo of world war—the invasion of a world in revolt. And this baby in the manger comes as one who will overthrow every worldly and other-worldly power.

So in a very real sense the Incarnation is deeply political.

This may seem counter-intuitive. After all, for years we’ve been told that the gospel must not be co-opted by any political program, and that’s true. Many plead for society to take a break this time of year from the typical arguing and partisan strife, and that’s understandable.

But for those of us in Christ, the Incarnation is vitally connected to Jesus’ mission and the church’s Commission, and we would do well to observe the ways Christ’s coming both animates and grounds our public advocacy and efforts.

1. The Incarnation is a public act with public implications. The Incarnation, Scripture reveals, is the moment at which God invades his fallen world. The whole point is that God has stepped onto the public scene—he is “God with us” (Matt. 1:23). This point was missed neither by Mary, who praises God for this birth, which will bring down thrones (Luke 1:52), nor by Herod, who is told of this “king of the Jews” born in David’s city and lashes out in fury.

And yet too often in our own ministry contexts, in our efforts to “focus on the gospel” we can bristle at things that Jesus saw as central to his own ministry. Among those things that often get overlooked are things that seem “political” in nature: speaking truth to tyranny, caring for the oppressed and marginalized, and contending for life at all stages—knowing as we do that our Incarnate Lord was once both a fetus and a corpse.

It is indeed true that the church must be vigilant to never to be co-opted by any partisan agenda, but the church must also bear in mind that Jesus taking on humanity and entering into public life means that God is not interested exclusively in “saving souls” but in the redemption both of humanity and the fallen universe over which this triumphant human Warrior-King will rule.

2. The Incarnation and its message brings continual disruption. Across all four of the Gospels, moments of coronation give way quickly to conflict. Immediately following a triumphant birth, Herod’s rage is unleashed (Matt. 2:13). After the Spirit descends on Jesus at his baptism in a moment of kingly coronation, Satan does battle with Jesus in the wilderness (Matt. 4:1-11). Shortly after riding triumphantly into Jerusalem, and thereby making a public claim to be Messiah (Zech. 9:9), Jesus is persecuted by an unlikely political alliance—Pilate and the Sanhedrin—who share nothing in common except the desire to neutralize this One who threatens their grip on power.

We must also see that, while a heavenly host revels in the “peace on earth” that God will bring (Luke 2:14), the Incarnation brings division before it yields ultimate peace. This is why Jesus speaks of his ministry as bringing not peace but a sword (Matt. 10:34). Similarly, those who carry Jesus’ gospel and give witness to his kingdom should likewise expect conflict (Matt. 5:11; John 15:21).

The message of the gospel means that our ultimate allegiance is to a kingdom that has yet to come in its fullness. It means that our end game is eschatological more than electoral, and this being the case we will work for the common good so as to testify to the ultimate good. It means that we will be confronted with opposition from all corners, either when we don’t fit nicely into partisan molds, or when alliances form in opposition to the strangeness of our convictions. So we engage with the tranquility of those who know to expect conflict but have in view a supermajority from every tribe, tongue, and nation.

3. The Incarnation compels Christian public witness. The Incarnation is the starting point of Jesus’ personally-present public engagement in the world. At the Incarnation, Jesus takes on flesh—he is God with us bodily, personally, in time and space. But the personal presence of Jesus does not terminate when Jesus ascends to heaven. Instead, with the sending of the Spirit, Jesus is personally present in the lives of those united to him in faith and in the life of the local church, and he summons his people both to demonstrate and to cultivate the virtues of the kingdom in the life of the church.

As they do so, Christians bear witness to the consciences of others and contribute to a public morality within a secular society as they show the watching world what the kingdom of God looks like. Armed with Word and gospel and enlivened by the Spirit, the church is also the agent through which Jesus is acting in the world to bring about redemption and reconciliation.

Bethlehem leads both to the baptistery and to the ballot box, as our Incarnate Lord addresses justice, justification, and everything in between. Christians are to care about “political” issues because we love our neighbors and have a better way to show them, because we have in view the heavenly “polis” which is to come, over which our Incarnate Lord rules, and into which he welcomes whosoever will pledge allegiance to the cross.

At Christmas, we celebrate the fact that Jesus is God Incarnate—the perfect union of God and man. Beyond this union, though, the believer is also united to Christ by faith through the power of the Spirit; the church is united to Christ like a head to a body (Eph. 5:22); and all the saints together look forward to the union of heaven and earth (Rev. 21:1-2) at the consummation of the kingdom. All the while, the Incarnation compels us both to work for the common good and for just societies in our earthly republic as we proclaim this kingdom and anticipate its fullness in the age to come—in which we the people of the cross will experience a far more perfect union.