Each Christmas, I reread the stories of Jesus’s birth in the Gospels seeking fresh insight. What are these ancient stories trying to teach us today?
This year, I was struck by the brilliant intersection of Christmas, nationalism, and Jesus’s kingdom in Matthew’s Gospel. In short, Jesus is “God with us,” but Jesus totally reimagines the meaning of “us.”
Let me explain.
First, the not-yet-born Jesus is introduced as “the Messiah” who will “save his people from their sins” (Matthew 1:1, 21).
Matthew’s Jewish audience would have read this as nationalistic language. When the “people’s” sins were finally overcome, God’s favor would return, and thus Israel would defeat her enemies. Israel’s idea of salvation always had this double-meaning: salvation from sins (the cause of God’s judgment) leads to salvation from enemies (the agents of God’s judgment). The Messiah King was expected to be a military leader who would “save” the nation in both senses.
Second, Matthew quotes Isaiah 7:14 and calls Jesus “Immanuel” or “God with us.”
This was a deeply nationalistic title and prophecy. In Isaiah 7, Israel is about to be defeated by a foreign military. But Isaiah says that a child named “Immanuel” would be born, and before his childhood ends, “the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste” (Isaiah 7:16). Because God is with us, we will defeat them (Isaiah 8:10). The Messiah’s coming will destroy the enemy and save the nation.
Third, Matthew says that three wisemen are led to ”the king of the Jews” by “his star” from the east (Matthew 2:2).
Matthew is subtly referring to Numbers 24:17, which Jews read as a prophecy about their Messiah who would rise like a “star” and “crush the foreheads of Moab, the skulls of the people of Sheth.” Like Isaiah 7-8, Numbers 24 indicated that when the Messiah comes, Israel’s enemies will be “crushed” and the nation exalted.
Fourth, the nation’s religious leaders announce that the Messiah King would be born in Bethlehem, quoting Micah 5.
This prophecy is another war passage that calls Israel to “marshal her troops” (5:1). Micah pictures the Messiah as a military leader who would rule his enemies “with the sword” and protect Israel’s “borders” (5:6).
So Matthew is fueling the nationalistic fire of his readers. He’s piling on biblical ideas and verses like sticks of dynamite to make them think that Jesus is the hoped-for Messiah, the Savior who would put the nation first, crush their enemies, and restore their God-ordained supremacy. A Jewish reader of Matthew’s Christmas story would expect Jesus to grow up, marshal troops, amass weapons, and go to war for the nation as their Savior King. By itself, Matthew’s Christmas story has all the marks of a typical “us vs them” showdown.
But then Jesus systematically dismantles these expectations and establishes a radically different kind of kingdom.
Rather than a violent “star” that destroys the pagan Magi “from the east,” Jesus receives gifts from these foreigners, and they end up saving his life (2:9-16). Then his forerunner John declares that nationalistic identity has no value in God’s eyes; what matters is a changed life (3:9). Then Jesus rejects world supremacy as a satanic temptation (4:8-9).
In his most important sermon, Jesus blesses peacemakers and tells a huge crowd in rural Israel to love their enemies – the people the prophecies spoke about them crushing (5:9, 43). Then Jesus declares in public that a pagan Roman soldier has “more faith” than “anyone in Israel” (8:10). Indeed, Jesus goes further and says that compared to his faith, “The subjects of the kingdom will be thrown out into the darkness” (8:12).
This pattern of dismantling nationalistic loyalties builds until Jesus is welcomed into Jerusalem as the royal “Son of David” (21:9). But Jesus responds by driving people out of the Temple and calling it “a den of robbers” that had turned prayer into business (21:13). At last, Jesus has become completely unacceptable, and he is killed by his own people as a fake “king of Israel” (27:42).
But Jesus rises to new life and sends his followers on a global mission “to all nations” (28:19). The climax of Jesus’s mission isn’t a nationalistic military campaign. It’s an invitation into an unprecedented community for all people without borders. In Jesus’s kingdom, everyone is welcome.
To sum up, then, Matthew’s Christmas story cleverly fuels the nationalistic hope for a military leader who would save the nation and crush its enemies. But then Matthew systematically dismantles this hope by showing how Jesus rejects and reverses this understanding of “salvation.” And this is precisely what Matthew sees as the sign that Jesus is, in fact, “God with us” and the true Savior King: Jesus overcomes nationalism, gives the new command to love enemies, sacrifices himself rather than killing others, and creates a global community that welcomes everyone in his name. This is what “God with us” really looks like.
Christmas was supposed to be the triumph of nationalism. But with Jesus, Christmas was the triumph over nationalism.
What does it mean to say “God is with us”? Is it a justification of our nationalistic pride and power? Or is it a mandate to be with and for the people that our “us vs them” stories exclude and attack?
The original Christmas shockingly transformed the meaning of that tiny but crucial word “us.” After Immanuel is born, “us” means everyone, and to claim God’s presence “with us” is to claim God’s calling to embrace the people we’ve been hardwired to see as other or enemies.
Immanuel, “God with us” – that‘s the heart of Christmas. And the heart of Immanuel is for all people without exclusion or violence.
As we head into 2019, may we reject the divisive “us vs them” storylines we are fed and be Christ’s global ambassadors of reconciliation across every boundary.
Merry Christmas! God is with us!