The story of Jesus’s birth has never been more inspiring and challenging than it is today. Thanks for stopping and thinking with me about this world-changing event and its implications as we approach 2020.
America first! Ethiopia first! Israel first!
We live in a time of nationalism, and we often justify the ultimate importance of our nation by appealing to God. We tell a story about how God has chosen us and promises our group special favor, and thus we are right to put ourselves first, even if it harms others. Our nation’s success is a God-given blessing and duty.
There was every reason to expect the Christmas story to be a religious nationalism story. And this is how the Christmas holiday is often celebrated today. God is with us, we tell ourselves.
But when we read the Gospels’ Christmas stories, they are strikingly anti-nationalistic stories. God isn’t on the side of any nation. God doesn’t get behind the collective identity of any group.
God became human to be “with us” – all of us. And thus God explodes the human-made boundaries that separate us. The birth of the Messiah brings us back together.
For example, look at three often-ignored moments in Matthew’s amazing Christmas story.
1. Jesus’s Dirty Bloodline
Matthew initially sets Jesus up as a nationalistic hero. The boring list of names in Chapter 1 is meant to show Jesus’s national pedigree: he’s the son of King David and Father Abraham! He’s part of the original royal bloodline (1:1).
But then Matthew provocatively muddies this national genealogy: Jesus is also the son of foreign women, including hated outsiders like Ruth the Moabite and Rahab the Canaanite (1:5-6). These are the people that Moses said should be excluded or exterminated for Israel’s national survival (Deuteronomy 23:3).
Stop and think, Matthew whispers: that dirty, pagan blood flows through the Messiah’s veins. He’s one of “them” too. The Messiah is mixed!
2. Jesus’s Rebellious Dad
Matthew next presents Joseph, Jesus’s dad, as a man “faithful to the law” (1:19). He seems to be the kind of man who could train the Messiah in the ways of strict obedience to the identity markers of Israel. And this is crucial: faithfulness sustains favor.
And yet, when Joseph finds out that his fiancée Mary is pregnant before they have sex, he boldly breaks the law. Moses’s law required that unmarried women who couldn’t prove their virginity be stoned to death to “purge the evil from among you” (Deuteronomy 22:20-21). This severe punishment was meant to protect Israel’s claim to God’s enemy-defeating favor.
But Joseph defiantly takes the situation into his own hands and decides to “divorce her quietly,” because “he didn’t want to exposure her to public disgrace” (Matthew 1:19). Joseph cared more about saving the life of an unmarried pregnant woman than his religious-national identity. He refused to “purge the evil,” because he didn’t agree with the system of public shaming.
Stop and think, Matthew whispers: the man who raised the Messiah obeyed Israel’s law but only when it honored human life. Unsurprisingly, Jesus would go on to break religious laws that he considered unhelpful for human flourishing (see Matthew 12:1-8).
3. Jesus’s Infidel Witnesses
After Joseph scandalously disregards the law, Matthew tells us that an angel appears to him and instructs him to embrace Mary as his wife. The angel reveals Jesus’s ultimate vocation: “Mary will give birth to a son, and you are to name him Jesus [‘the Lord saves’], because he will save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:21).
This language sounds like straightforward religious nationalism: “the people” will be “saved” by their God-sent “messiah.” This was Israel’s ultimate hope. In fact, Matthew goes on to allude to Isaiah’s nationalistic prophecy that promised God would deliver Israel from her enemies (Isaiah 7:14).
But what happens next is stunning and surely one of the most brilliant twists in the entire Bible. In fact, some biblical scholars argue for its historical reliability precisely because it is so countercultural. Matthew had no incentive to include this story if it didn’t actually happen.
When Jesus is born, the first people to recognize him aren’t devout Jews but a group of pagan magicians likely from Iran – the ultimate infidels and enemies of Israel (Matthew 2:1-12)! Unlike orthodox Jews, who held to strict monotheism, these “Magi” weren’t closed off to the idea that God could become human, and thus they freely worship Jesus (2:2, 11).
Matthew brilliantly says that these “Magi” followed “a star” from the east to find Jesus (2:2). This image alludes to a messianic prophecy from Numbers 24 where Moses says that Israel’s Messiah would be like “a star” who would “crush” and “conquer” Israel’s enemies to the east (Numbers 24:17-19). Unsurprisingly, when the Jews violently revolted against Rome soon after Jesus, they were led by a man called Simon Bar Kokhba – “the Son of the Star.”
But Matthew flips this nationalistic prophecy on its head: the Messiah’s star doesn’t lead to the destruction of Israel’s pagan enemies. Instead, the star leads them to a powerless infant, and they save Jesus’s life from the murderous King Herod (Matthew 2:11-12).
Stop and think, Matthew whispers: the true Messiah doesn’t destroy his enemies; he welcomes them and gets saved by their kindness. In fact, their paganism became a counter-intuitive asset: they were ready to meet God in the most unexpected form – a child.
This is Matthew’s anti-nationalistic Christmas story.
Yes, Jesus comes from King David and Father Abraham. But his veins also flow with the blood of national enemies that Moses wanted to exclude or exterminate. Surprise, the Messiah is mixed!
Yes, Jesus was born to a dad who raised him in faithfulness to Moses’s Law. But Joseph prioritized people over national purity. Surprise, God rewards law-breaking and identity-disruption when it honors human life!
Yes, Jesus is the fulfillment of God’s ancient promises to the Prophets. But he doesn’t destroy Israel’s enemies; instead, he welcomes them and gets saved by their courageous kindness. Surprise, the enemy saves the Savior!
I love Christmas, because I love Jesus, and Jesus’s birth disrupts our religious nationalism. Whether it’s ideas of pure blood or unquestioning obedience to identity or old feuds with national enemies, Jesus’s birth crashes through all of this.
Jesus is Immanuel, “God with us.” And when God meets us in Jesus, us means everyone, especially those who have been excluded or attacked by religious nationalism. Outsiders become insiders, and a new community is created.
This Christmas, let us stop and remember: the child born in a manger got executed on a cross for his resistance to religious and political nationalism. Starting with his birth, Jesus challenged our ultimate loyalties.
As we look ahead to 2020, let us make a conscious choice: will we follow the Messiah Jesus or the religious narratives that turn him into a tool for our nationalistic agendas?