Dave Buttgen, in rehearsal with the Disciples of Christ Choir
It was my pleasure to attend a "Christmas Cantata" at the Disciples of Christ (First Christian Church Berryville) last Sunday. There, I heard a really moving service that was written, narrated, and conducted by Dave Buttgen, a local businessman. I found the service and Contata to be a very powerful and enriching experience. I share Mr Buttgen's script, a beautiful Christmas present to us all, here:
Knowledge is power. News is power. I think it was in the Economist that I read about how financial firms pay a lot for cutting edge communication technologies. The firm that gets the trading news first from Wall Street or Tokyo has the advantage over all the other firms. Every nanosecond matters. The firm that gets the news first wins.
This is also true for political power. The government in Iran has put a blockade on the communication of news. The government doesn't want the world to know what is going on. It controls the video footage and written reports of what is going on in the streets of Tehran. Knowledge is power; news is power.
News is especially important for warrior nations, for nations whose identity is tied to war--a nation whose history can be told as a great chain of wars, like ours: the Great War, a war against organized crime, a World War, a Cold War, the Vietnam War, a war on drugs, a war on terror.
For warriors, knowledge is power--to anticipate your enemy's next move, to know the enemy better then they know themselves. And news about the enemy is power--to decide what news the public should know about and what to hide and what to lie about. That's just the way of the warrior. Truth is scarified on the altar of power.
So, how strange is it that the news of Jesus' birth first comes to lowly shepherds? "[T]he angel said to them, 'Do not be afraid; for see--I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord" (Lk. 2:10-11). Notice how the news is so personal: twice the angel addresses the shepherds as "you"--"I am bringing you good news," and "to you is born this day." Yes, this news will change the world, but it is also for the shepherds, maybe even primarily for the shepherds, because they get the news first.
The lowly get the news first, not Emperor Augustus. Everyone would expect that Augustus would get the news first. His reign extended throughout the known world. Many even thought he was more like a god than a human--all powerful, all knowing, a benevolent leader. Roman citizens hailed Augustus as a force of peace since he united the empire and efficiently put down insurrectionists and invaders. War in the name of peace is the oldest play in the warrior playbook.
But that's not who first get's the news. The good news comes to the shepherds, to the lowly, to the ones without any plans to change the world, to the outsiders. Maybe that's why they get the news first. Unlike people with power, the shepherds have no reason to make the good news useful for their own plans. The shepherds don't need to manipulate the news, the fact on the ground, because they don't have any desires or dreams or responsibilities that can corrupt the news. They don't need to manipulate the news for their own ends, for their security, for their economic prosperity, for their hold on power.
This good news comes to those without power. The news of Christ's birth comes to lowly shepherds in the fields, tending their flocks, providing for their families, doing their jobs. And when they hear the angels, they follow. "I am bringing you good news... to you is born this day a Savior."
This is a word for us as well. We are also included in that "you"--you means you and me, all of us, a humble congregation, gathered to receive the good news... and it's not just for us, but for the world. As the angel says, "I am bringing good news of great joy for all the people" (v. 10). And all means all--people you may like, and those you who don't; friends and enemies; neighbors and strangers. We don't get to decide who deserves the good news; it's just our job to share it with anyone.
Pregnancy is an amazing thing--to have another person actually growing inside of you is a miracle. But what Mary experienced sounds like a science fiction movie. Imagine! A woman has something growing in her that is human, yet more than human. The fetus has taken on the form of a person, but it is completely other, as well. I try to envision what Mary might have felt, knowing that the unborn child growing in her was also the Holy God, Creator of the universe. It's mind blowing. Singer and comedian, Mark Lowry, tried to capture that amazement in some lyrics he wrote:
Did you know, that your baby boy
Has walked where angels trod
And when you kiss your little baby,
You've kissed the face of God?
Oh, Mary did you know?
Mary did you know?
And yet, the real wonder comes when we turn the situation around and look at it from the other side. God in human form was willing to make himself dependent. His body, growing inside of Mary, was completely dependent on his mother's body. The umbilical cord nourished him. Mary's body warmed him; her womb protected him. He was vulnerable and frail and without Mary's body sustaining him, he would have died.
And that seems to fly in the face of everything we know about God. What are we to make of a God that takes on a position of weakness and dependence? We're tempted to think, "But that was only true about Jesus--not God the Father." Really? Jesus told his disciples that if they had seen him they had seen the Father. And the scripture from Colossians that says "Jesus is the "image of the invisible God." It contains the idea that Jesus is a picture of God, and that if we look at Jesus we will see what God is like. And what about the fact that God continually puts himself in a position where he depends on people? God has a plan for this world, but he calls you and I to bring it about.
It seems to me that somewhere at the very core of the universe there is something surprising--something that we would never expect. God is not powerful because he is self-reliant. God shows his power in the very act of entering into dependant relationships with his creation. It is part of the up-side-down paradoxical way that God built this world. "If you want to be great, then you need to be the least. If you really want to find your life, then you must lose it. If you want to be the leader, then become the servant of all." In the same way, humans are not strong because we are independent and self-reliant--even though that's what our culture tells us. We are strongest when we depend on God and make ourselves vulnerable toward other people. The apostle Paul expressed it this way early in the first century:
Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me. That is why, for Christ's sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong. --2 Corinthians 12:9b-10
In order to most fully experience the power of God and be most completely human I must fully depend upon Him and lose myself in Him.
There was no room at the Inn. To us, that sounds like a necessary--if not a cozy--detail of the Christmas story. Of course there was no room in the Inn, we think. Jesus had to be born in a stable and laid in a manger! But, the fact that Jesus was born in a stable was a consequence of the hard realities of life. Bethlehem was overflowing with visitors because of the census. Every place that a visitor might stay was filled. The stable was all that was left. No one was willing to share their space so that this woman who was about to give birth might have her baby in clean and warm surroundings. "There was no room at the inn." These words highlight the calloused attitude of the world to the beauty of new life. They point out the self-centered attitude that most of us have when faced with people in need. "Why should I give up my room for them? This man and his pregnant wife are nobody special."
Now you would think that if God so rules the world as to use an empire-wide census to bring Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem, He surely could have seen to it that a room was available in the inn. Yes, He could have. And Jesus could have been born into a wealthy family. He could have turned stone into bread in the wilderness. He could have called 10,000 angels to His aid in Gethsemane. He could have come down from the cross and saved Himself. The question is not what God could do but what He willed to do. God's will was that though Christ was rich, yet for your sake He became poor. The "No vacancy" signs over all the motels in Bethlehem were for your sake. "For your sake He became poor." God rules all things -- even motel capacities, for the sake of His children. The Calvary road begins with a no vacancy sign in Bethlehem and ends with the spitting and scoffing and the cross in Jerusalem.
And yet, we know that God was in charge. He could have made it so that there was just one spot left when Mary and Joseph got to Bethlehem. He could have arranged it so that Mary and Joseph were able to leave Nazareth earlier and arrive before all the rooms were taken. Why didn't God do that? We have to assume that somehow it fit God's purposes for his son to be born this way.
At least three important truths are revealed in these events. First, being born in a stable showed Jesus' solidarity with the poor and the displaced. It proved that Jesus came for all people--not just the rich and powerful. Second, the truth of a powerful spiritual metaphor is revealed. A manger is a feeding trough for animals. So, being laid in a manger as though he were food anticipates that his body will one day be the "spiritual food" offered in the Lord's Supper. Cyril, the patriarch of Alexandria, wrote in the fifth century:
He found humanity reduced to the level of the beasts. Therefore he is placed like feed in a manger that we, having left behind our carnal desires, might rise up to that degree of intelligence which befits human nature. Whereas we were brutish in soul, by now approaching the manger, yes, his table, we find no longer feed, but the bread from heaven, which is the body of life.
But, most importantly, it showed that God came in an attitude of great humility. He could have claimed for himself the best place. He could have demanded that the world worship him. Roman emperors certainly did. Yet Christ came in gentleness and humility. Instead of demanding our worship or forcing his way upon us he waits. He waits for us to invite him in.
Long before Jesus was born God had devised a plan.
Have you ever thought what an amazing thing it is that God ordained beforehand that the Messiah be born in Bethlehem (as the prophecy in Micah 5 shows), and that He so ordained things that when the time came, the Messiah's mother and legal father were living in Nazareth, and that in order to fulfill His word and bring two little people to Bethlehem that first Christmas, God put it in the heart of Caesar Augustus that all the Roman world should be enrolled each in his own town?
The problem, you see, was that in those days the world was bound by darkness and sin. There was cruelty and hate. Neighbor went to war against neighbor. The strong dominated the weak and the rich oppressed the poor. And no one seemed to know that God cared! Even the religious leaders of the time, the ones who should have spoken for God, were more interested in building their wealth and gaining political power than truly representing God. So God devised a plan to send his son as a light into that darkness, and then announced that plan through his prophets. The prophet Isaiah who foretells much about the coming of Jesus wrote some 700 years before the actual birth of Christ.
But, if I'm honest, I have to admit that the world is still held in bondage. It is still in darkness. And if I'm really honest, I have to admit that my own heart often reflects the darkness and sin around me. And so I recognize that this world still needs God's plan; I need God's plan. And that is what is so wonderful. It is not a plan that is cemented in history -- good for 2,000 years ago but having no significance for today. God's plan weaves through history. It's like a melody that dances in and out, through the movements of a symphony. It's there, ready to be taken into the heart and sung by anyone who hears it.
"Immanuel! God is with us!" We proclaim this fact in the sense that God's love includes the entire world! One can't even cross a street today without meeting people whose ideas and outlook on life are different. You can't travel to any place without mixing and living with people who are different. If God is with us, then he must also be with them! If we think we have to wait until they are converted or changed, we'll most certainly be least in God's kingdom. Jesus died for us because he died for the entire, godless world. This is the love of God: he bestows a kiss without waiting until we have become angels! If God is with me, he is with all people! God is with us -- all of us!
If we are honest it is not easy to identify with this Immanuel. It would be so much simpler if I could just stand in a niche near my savior and be "saved" and let the world go to hell --that's not hard. But to accept Immanuel and proclaim, "God with us," and be entirely sure that the world belongs to God, and get to work, that's difficult. Much of the world doesn't want anything to do with God. Worse still, even the followers of Jesus hardly understand what it means that the world belongs to God. Christians not only take up arms against "unbelievers," they fight one another and kill each other and consign one another to hell -- that is sheer torment.
Jesus, the light of the world, Jesus, the love of God for the world -- these must be put into practice! "Immanuel!" Let it be today, tomorrow, and for all time: "God with you, with me, with the entire world!" In this way we can be, "people for life"; and wherever we go, wherever we stay, we can say "Immanuel." When things are hard for us, when we meet enemies, let us remember "Immanuel". and be joyful that this savior came into the world! Madeleine l'Engle, the children's author wrote of Christ's coming:
He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.
He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. He did not wait,
till hearts were pure. In joy he came,
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame,
he came, and his Light would not go out.
He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh,
the Maker of the stars was born.
We cannot wait till the world is sane,
to raise our songs with joyful voice, ,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice!
ęDave Buttgen, 2012.