Christmas is near, although it seems a lot less like Christmas this year than I think it should be. It’s not that the external trappings aren’t familiar. The national Christmas tree has been lit. In Kansas City, the Plaza lighting ceremony has taken place. Here in Emporia, we’ve recently had our Christmas parade.
The trappings say peace, but events in our streets, in our neighborhoods, and on the international stage are telling us that violence is becoming the norm rather than the exception.
The trappings say good will, but the air is filled with unease and longing. People are looking for someone who will bring them peace and fill the longing in their souls. As it has always been, false messiahs of one sort or another have stepped into the gap. They seem omnipresent these days. They declare that they are society’s wise and anointed. They claim, by virtue of their education or pedigree, that they, and they alone, are capable of knowing what is good for the uneducated, unenlightened masses. Some even believe they have a duty to deceive us¸ because we’re too ignorant or stupid to understand the “truth” they peddle. They promise us peace and liberation, but no matter what they do or say, they cannot deliver us peace, nor can they satisfy the longing in our souls for liberation. All they can give us a lethal dose of oppression.
The refrain is oh so tragically familiar, so appropriate for this season.
Two thousand years ago, Israel’s dreams and longings, which had been so long dormant, were beginning to stir. For nearly four hundred years, the once proud nation had been ravaged by one conqueror after another – the Babylonians, the Persians, the Greeks, and the Romans. Hope had been all but extinguished. The warnings of Israel’s prophets had gone unheeded and hopelessness was now the people’s lot. As conquered people, their dreams and aspirations had to give way to the dreams and aspirations of their conquerors. No matter how enlightened the conquerors deemed themselves to be, the people of Israel felt oppressed. The Babylonian legal system couldn’t fill the people’s longing, nor could the efficiency of the Persian governmental system. Greek culture was no substitute for the glory days of David and Solomon. The Romans may have brought the Pax Romana with them, but it could not bring peace to the people’s souls.
The situation must have seemed hopeless, but, miraculously, hope persisted. It sprang up in the most unlikely places and it was revealed to the most unlikely people.
If someone had told most people back in those days that Bethlehem would host history’s most amazing event, they probably wouldn’t have believed their ears. The prophets may have presaged it all, but their words had been hidden by the years of silence. Bethlehem? It would have been like telling people that something amazing was going to happen in Lebo or Americus or Tonganoxie. After all, we know good and well that the important things only happen in Washington, D.C. or New York City. The event itself seemed to be by invitation only. Obscure players like Anna and Simeon were waiting in the wings for their glorious moment on stage. Out in the fields surrounding Bethlehem¸ angels proclaimed the good news to shepherds who were “tending their flocks” rather than to the connected and powerful of that time. It was like inviting long haul truckers rather than city commissioners, congressmen, senators, presidents, ambassadors, or policy experts of one stripe or another. The angels, by Divine appointment, knew the score. They knew the shepherds would rejoice. I suspect they also knew the powerful and connected would have felt threatened, as they probably would today.
A few dignitaries did manage to attend this wonderful event. We know them as the “Magi from the east.” How did these foreigners know where to go to find this new-born king? It’s written that they were guided by “his star.” And, how had the priests and teachers of the law missed what was happening? Could they have been too close to temporal power to see what was going on?
The Magi worshipped the child when they found him. King Herod, fearing for his throne, had children murdered in a failed attempt to eliminate him. About thirty years after his birth, the priests and teachers of the law had him crucified.
I doubt that things would change much if Jesus were to be born in our time. Long haul truckers and “foreigners” would worship him. The powerful and connected would try to do away with him.
In a week’s time many of us will be celebrating Jesus’ birth, remembering that he came to bring the world peace in a time that was every bit as chaotic as ours. We’ll be considering his humble advent and we’ll be looking forward to his second advent, the time when oppression will cease, peace will prevail, and the mouths of the so-called wise and powerful will be silenced.