The birth narratives at the beginnings of Matthew and Luke are packed full of the Christmas gospel. However, it seems to me that none of the birth narratives sit easily with the ‘gospel’ preached by much of modern Christendom – in either its liberal or more conservative forms. Both tend to be individualistic, focusing on individual ‘spiritual’ experience or the salvation of one’s individual soul. But this makes the gospel about us – and one thing that we can know for certain here, the Christmas gospel is not about us. To put it simply: the gospel is not about my guilt, nor is it a general theory of salvation, nor is it about my individual relationship with God, nor is it about giving Jesus my soul. All these things have been made the gospel but these things are not the gospel. These things are important, there is no denying that, but the gospel is not ABOUT these things.
Jesus is (Not) My ‘Personal’ Lord and Savior…
What does this mean? One of the things it means is that the gospel can never primarily be about Jesus being my personal Lord and Savior. Jesus being my ‘personal’ Lord too often translates in modernity as my private Lord – and if Jesus is merely one’s private Lord then Jesus is not really Lord. Jesus is not content to be a private Lord; he demands to be one’s public Lord as well. Nor is Jesus merely my individual Lord; he is Lord and King precisely because he Lord and King of the whole world/cosmos. And neither can Jesus be merely my personal savior. I have an ongoing tension with what might be called the ‘plan of salvation’ gospel – what New Testament scholar Scot McKnight calls the ‘soterian’ gospel.
What’s this tension all about? Well its simple really – the tension here is that the ‘plan of salvation’ isn’t the gospel. The individualist plan of salvation both reduces the robust picture of salvation in the Scriptures and obscures the true gospel from us. It exchanges and confuses a small part for the whole and thereby distorts and loses the whole. Surely what evangelicals know as the plan of salvation is connected to the gospel (at least we hope it is) but we must avoid collapsing the gospel into the typical individualist plan of salvation of modern evangelicalism. This must be said, if we only know Jesus as ‘personal Lord and Savior’ in this sort of way we don’t really know Jesus.
A King and a Kingdom…
This is because there can be no good news apart from the gospel of the Kingdom. The gospel is about a Person (who is a king) and a Kingdom. The gospel is the good news of this King and Kingdom. If we fail to preach the gospel of the Kingdom, in favor of the plan of salvation, we have failed to preach the gospel. The gospel is the story about the Liberating King Jesus – how his life, death, burial, and resurrection of come to fulfill God’s promises to Israel and, through Israel and Jesus, God’s promises to the nations and all of the Created Order. The gospel story is the proclamation of the good news that Jesus is both Lord and King. There can be no good news apart from Jesus as the Liberating King. This is why I love ‘the Voice’ New Testament which is the work of the Ecclesia Bible Society which is connected to Ecclesia Church in Houston.
I came to love the reading of the Scriptures from the Voice in worship at Ecclesia. The biggest reason for this is that the translators for the Voice project chose to translate ‘Christ’ or ‘Messiah’ as ‘Liberating King’ or ‘Liberator’. Why do I like this so much? Its because so many today seem to have lost our story and consider the Old Testament superfluous. Disconnected from its story the term ‘Messiah’ (which is Hebrew) has no meaning. As a result when it comes to ‘Christ’ (which is Greek) these folks do no better. Many seem to think that ‘Christ’ is simply Jesus’ last name. I love the fact that the Voice makes clear that ‘Christ’ is not Jesus’ last name and that it gives some narrative content to ‘Messiah’ – Jesus is the Liberating King (a wonderful phrase that continues to capture my imagination about who Jesus really is). This is what the Christmas gospel in the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke are all about – the inbreaking of the Kingdom in the birth of the Liberating King of Israel and the world.
The Christmas Gospel in Matthew…
“What is the good news, the gospel, at Christmas? Very simply there is one basic message we are invited to announce: Jesus, son of Mary and Joseph, is the King. The Christmas gospel — it’s all here — is that Jesus is King” and “the gospel is to declare that the Story of Israel (or the Bible) has been fulfilled in the Story of Jesus, who is King (Messiah) and Lord who saves. At the heart of this gospel then is a Story, a Story that begins with Adam and then all over again with Abraham and winds and wends its way all the way to Jesus. That Story is told in the Old Testament. The Christmas Story is a Story fulfilled. Let me turn this around: these are Advent texts not just because they are about the birth of Jesus; they are Christmas texts because these texts singularly fulfill the OT Story’s anticipations.”
The Christmas Gospel in Luke…
Andrew Perriman at the P.OST blog has a good post on ‘Christmas now and then’ in which he traces the Kingdom theme present in Luke. He says,
“Jesus will be king over Israel, in the line of David: ‘And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end’ (Lk. 1:32-33). The magi come looking for a new born king of the Jews, whose star they had seen. When many nations are assembled against Jerusalem, a ‘ruler in Israel’ will come from Bethlehem, who will ‘gather the rest of his brothers’ and deliver his people from the invader, and the ‘remnant of Jacob’ will be established amongst the nations (Mic. 4:11-5:9; cf. Matt. 2:6). Herod had the male infants of Bethlehem slaughtered not because he feared the arrival of a personal saviour but because he believed his rule over Israel was threatened.”
This kingdom theme ought to cause us to think differently about the pronouncements of peace in Luke (see 1:30 with Mary’s ‘Do not be afraid’ and 2:10-14 with the shepherds). At church we did a study by Rick Warren called ‘The Purpose of Christmas’. But I was terribly disappointed that his study never mentioned anything of the Kingdom theme. Instead, the guy who sold a ton of books proclaiming ‘its not about you’ ultimately made it all about us. Christmas it seems was so that we can individually experience peace with God and feel at peace with God. I confessed in our discussion group that I was not at peace with Warren’s take on Christmas peace. I wondered…where is the Kingdom? Christmas peace that’s not Kingdom peace actually misses the ‘purpose of Christmas.’ Christmas peace can never be merely individual peace. Christmas peace is only found within the context of the Kingdom.
Perriman again comments,
“the birth of Jesus in the city of David coincided with a registration of the whole empire ordered by Caesar Augustus (Lk. 2:1-7). The good news of Jesus’ birth as ‘Saviour’ and ‘Lord’, of peace for those in Israel with whom God is pleased (Lk. 2:10-14), clashes with pronouncements concerning the birth of the divine Augustus, who was Son of God, Saviour, Lord, who had brought peace and prosperity to the empire.”
The (counter) Kingdom theme runs all throughout the birth narratives and this is what the peace pronouncements are – royal, kingly pronouncements of the arrival of King Jesus. What we have here is the Kingdom favor, Kingdom good news, and Kingdom peace of Jesus the Liberating King. The point is clear, the true king of Israel and the world is neither Herod nor Caesar but Jesus.
The Christmas Gospel of Mary’s Magnificat…
1) sees what God has done for her as personal but not the sense that its private;
2) sees herself in God’s Story, not just God in her story;
3) sees the coming of Jesus coming as the inaguration of The Great Reversal (versus merely The Great Exchange);
and 4) sees the coming of Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham.
“Mary has a BIG gospel! — a gospel that covers the whole Bible and the whole world. This isn’t something she learned as a ‘deeper truth’ for mature Christians; this was her hope and expectation, but it is something the soterians miss because they jump from Genesis to Jesus and don’t include the whole story in their understanding of Gospel as Mary did. From the beginning, Mary praised God as the King who rules the earth, who has called her to join him in the Missio Dei of bringing about the blessing of a New Creation.”
I think that pretty much hits the gospel nail on its head!
The Christmas Gospel is a BIG Gospel…
I will be honest, the individualist plan of salvation ‘gospel’ (if we can even call it a gospel) crumpled under the weight of my grief as Christie and I went through a devastating failed adoption and also lost three of our babies to miscarriage. Because of this Christmas can be hard for us. As I navigated my grief I needed more than a general theory of salvation, getting my guilt taken care of, or being sure my soul went to heaven when I died so that I could hang out with other souls (do we not see how Gnostic this is when we speak this way?). I needed a gospel that was not about me, that was bigger than me, that was bigger than my grief. As it turns out I needed what the rest of the world needs; that which is ultimately true – the reality that actually constitutes the world – the gospel of the Kingdom. I needed the Christmas gospel of the Liberating King. The Kingdom and the communion of Father, Son, and Spirit it seemed were the only realities bigger than my grief.
This Advent season we have prepared for the coming (again) of Christ with the themes of hope, joy, peace, and love. These are Kingdom realities first and foremost which are rooted in the Kingdom of the Liberating King, and in which our participation in these realities comes not primarily in existential ‘goose bump’ fashion but through participation in the triune communion of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This is true hope, true joy, true peace, and true love. This is Kingdom hope, joy, peace, and love that draws us into the story of the Liberating King in which God is putting all things to rights, that gives us bodily resurrection, that includes a new heavens and a new earth, that calls us to join the Liberating King in the triune Missio Dei in the world of bringing new creation. This is the BIG gospel that Mary knew. Let us learn from Mary. Let us live within the Christmas gospel of the Liberating King, today and every day.
Happy Incarnation Day! May the hope, joy, peace, and love of the Liberating King Jesus be with you at all times.