Isaiah 7:10-17, Luke 1:46-56
December 24, 2006
When the wise men came to see the Christ child, they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod. So they went back to their own country “by another way.” They avoided the king. They “circumvented” the king.
I tried to find a better word than that. They “went around,” they “side-stepped,” they “evaded” the king. But those really didn’t work. My Thesaurus failed me. So we’re stuck with this one. The wise men circumvented King Herod.
They did so with good cause, too! Herod had asked them to come back and tell him where the child was to be found, “So that he too could come and worship him.” But history tells us otherwise. History tells us that Herod was a ruthless king. He was very jealous of anyone who threatened his power. And he was known to have put members of his own family to death when he perceived them to be a threat. One historian noted that “it was better to be Herod’s dog than his son!”
Herod was to be avoided. So the wise men circumvented his city on the way home. But that’s not what this message is about – or at least not entirely. This is about the fact that, when Jesus was born, God was “circumventing” the kings of this world. Jesus may have been seen as a rival to Herod’s power, but if you think about it, if you remember how history was played out, there was really no contest! Yet even in the power he had as God’s own Son, still Jesus circumvented the power structures of this world. He didn’t challenge them, he made them irrelevant.
When Jesus came, and throughout the story of his Advent, these words of Mary became true. “God has shown his strength. He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, and has exalted those of low degree.” That’s the way God was working. That’s the way God always works!
When Jesus came, it was not to kings or princes or priests. He didn’t relate to or even approach those who held earthly power or prestige. He didn’t buy into their social system or court their earthly influence. He came to those of low estate. He came to shepherds – people who had almost no social status. He came to a peasant girl named Mary, and to one of her relatives, Elizabeth. And he exalted their lowly state. He showed the ways of God. And in God’s eyes, earthly systems of power and influence are not important.
He came to the man to whom Mary was betrothed – Joseph, a carpenter. Even that term is outside our understanding. When we think of a carpenter, we often think of a skilled tradesman. We think of someone we might refer to as an “artisan,” or a “skilled craftsman.” We think of one who does cabinetry, or creates fine furniture. Then when we think of Joseph, and later Jesus, we tend to project that understanding back on them. But that may well not have been the case. A carpenter then was not the same kind of wood worker we think of today. This family may well have been much lower on the social scale than we think.
It has also been suggested, and I think there’s some validity to this, that the word we translate “carpenter” can either mean “one who works with wood,” or “one who cares for the tools of those who work with wood.” That kind of person would have been even lower on the social scale. But you see, in either case, as we consider these people of low degree, we recognize that they are the people God exalted. And that’s the class of people out of which arose the Messiah!
Does that not make this story even more amazing to us?! Does that not make it even more in keeping with the way God sees the powers of this world? Does it not tell us more about the way he exalts those of lowly degree. Jesus, the long awaited Messiah came, not from the priestly class, not from the aristocracy, not from “important people,” but from the lowly people.
Those are the people God exalted throughout this story. When God chose this as the time to bring about the kingdom of his Messiah, he circumvented kings and priests and the powerful. He came to the lowly. He came to the unknown. And to them he gave this message of good news and great joy that would come to all people.
What does that say then to us? I always like to ask that question. Because, as you’ve heard me say, we can read the Bible, and we can hear the stories, and we can learn the ways of God, but if we don’t see what it all says to us, it’s just a lot of learning! And how many people make that learning the only thing?
Well, of all the stories, this is the one of which we need to ask that question of the most. What does it matter to us that this Messiah came? What does it matter that he came in the way he did, and to the kind of people he did?
There are an awful lot of people in our world who don’t care to ask that question at all. They can’t even get to the level of that question, because they are so caught up in the craziness of this season. Instead of worshipping the newborn king, they have taken to worshipping the celebration itself. And granted, this is a real nice celebration! And if they can get something out of it, if through it they can become better people, more generous and more caring, then great! If there’s a little more peace on earth and goodwill among men, simply because we say those things more at this time of year, that’s wonderful. But what of the newborn king? Are some people not circumventing him in this celebration as well?
There is a certain part of the Christmas tradition that threatens to make Jesus irrelevant, isn’t there? Don’t let that happen to you! Whether or not, in your Christmas celebration or in your life, you circumvent this King is up to you. The King of Kings has come. Ask yourself how you celebrate his coming, not just into this world, but his coming into your life! Are you part of this celebration, or is this celebration part of you?
The good news of a great joy has come to all people. And part of that message to all people, part of that good news, is that God has exalted those of low estate. When we come to be a part of his kingdom, he doesn’t see us the way the world sees us. The world says you can do great things if you are great. God says, you are great because I have made you great – and for no other earthly reason!
Mary said, “God has shown his strength. He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones. He has exalted those of low degree.” He came to the lowly. He circumvented the kings of this world. He still does today. He calls us!
Eternal God, you have come into our world so long ago, and you have come into our hearts. Help us to know the joy of this celebration. Help us to see the world the way you see it. We worship you, and we thank you in Jesus’ name, Amen.