Capital Commentary is the weekly current-affairs publication of CPJ, written to encourage the pursuit of public justice.
Christmas – Interlude or Main Event?
James W. Skillen
[Editor’s Note: The following are three excerpts from James W. Skillen’s book “A Covenant to Keep: Meditations on the Biblical Theme of Justice.”]
CHRISTMAS– INTERLUDE OR MAIN EVENT?
For most of us, Christmas is a long-anticipated vacation break from our main activity of work. The Christmas holiday gives families an early winter breathing space in the school schedule. For members of Congress and Parliament, Christmas and Hanukkah provide the excuse for a long recess.
From a biblical point of view, this is upside-down and backwards. Christmas is not first of all an American or international vacation day; it is the birthday celebration of the Messiah who is at work even now, driving all of history—all calendar days and seasons—toward their proper destiny. The center of life's meaning is not our work or school or legislation, but rather the creating, judging, and saving Lord who sustains all our daily activities.
Israel had been called by God to live among the nations as a faithful testimony to God's love and justice. The chosen people were to order all of their work and rest in ways that would serve as a beacon to people everywhere, as a clear pointer to the God who fulfills covenant promises. When the Israelites lost their grip on this truth, they sank into the mire of ordinary nationhood. And God was outraged.
So the Lord of heaven and earth told Isaiah to tell a dull and sinful Israel that judgment was on its way, a judgment required and promised by the covenant itself.
For your hands are stained with blood, your fingers with guilt. Your lips have spoken lies, and your tongue mutters wicked things. No one calls for justice; no one pleads his case with integrity. They rely on empty arguments and speak lies; they conceive trouble and give birth to evil.
Israel had continued to celebrate festivals and holidays. Many of the people remembered the exodus from Egypt and offered sacrifices on holy days. Most had kept up some ceremonial practices. But by the time Isaiah arrived on the scene, all of these religious ceremonies and holidays had been domesticated. The children of Israel thought God belonged to them and could be pigeonholed into their busy schedules. They thought they had arrived and quit looking to see where God was still leading them.
Special days and monuments are set aside for a reason. They remind us of God's past actions. The key to such memorials is to understand that they point to the God who continues to march out in front of us and to act in new ways. God cannot be confined in memory, in ceremony, in Christian holidays. Christmas loses its meaning if we think of it only as a reminder of something past and finished.
LIGHT THAT SHATTERS THE DARKNESS
Isaiah 59:9-21; Matthew 4:12-17
Despite Israel's regular celebration of special holy days, the people actually lived in darkness and confusion. Isaiah said they were groping and stumbling like “men without eyes," like the dead among the strong (Isa. 59:9-10).
The Lord Most High had no intention of allowing Israel to defile the appointed festivals and holidays forever. God would not allow the creational purposes to be destroyed. No, the Almighty would act to confirm the covenant that both undergirds and transcends all earthly calendars and ceremonies. God prepared to sweep down on Israel, breaking through all their tired social patterns and rote traditions that block out God.
The LORD looked and was displeased that there was no justice. He saw that there was no one, he was appalled that there was no one to intercede; so his own arm worked salvation for him, and his own righteousness sustained him. He put on righteousness as his breastplate, and the helmet of salvation on his head; he put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak.
The surprise comes in the way God chose to accomplish judgment and redemption, for the great light that finally dawns on people living in darkness is Jesus, the quiet, humble child who accommodates himself at first to all of the Jewish holy days.
Yet the incarnate Son of God does not lose himself in the events of the Jewish calendar. Christ's work cannot be remembered or grasped by an annual holiday. Christmas marks the beginning of the end of history, the end of the beginning of all Creation. The incarnate one came to bear God's judgment against sin, to suffer death in order to satisfy God's just requirements for the entire creation. The One before whom every knee will bow came first to bow before the Father who sent him.
Jesus comes preaching, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is near" (Matt. 4:17). Only by heeding this word from God will anyone be able to see the light that gives hope and leads to true justice. Only by entering into Jesus's response to God's condemnation of Israel will we be able to repent and exit the darkness of sin that inhabits us. Only by watching to see what Jesus does and following him where he goes will it be possible to celebrate Christmas aright.
PREPARING FOR IMMANUEL
John the Baptist was sent to prepare the way for the coming Messiah, to trumpet the arrival of Jesus Christ, Immanuel. Before John was born, his father anticipated the truth that would define John's career. Filled with the Holy Spirit, Zechariah prophesied that John would prepare the way for the Messiah.
And you, my child. . . will go before the Lord to prepare the way for him, to give his people the knowledge of salvation through the forgiveness of their sins, because of the tender mercy of our God, by which the rising sun will come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace.
Many of the Jews living in the land that had once been under their control were expecting the Messiah to release them from the grip of Rome. They were waiting for God to restore them to independence in the promised land and to free them from oppressors forever. But Zechariah's prophecy anticipated something much greater than Israel's freedom from Rome.
The nation that God came to release from its enemies (v. 71) is the one that he is drawing to the light of Jesus, the nation that will follow him “into the path of peace.” This nation will include a remnant of Israel, to be sure, but it will include forgiven sinners from all nations. The lineage of the old Israel will not exhaust the lineage of the new Israel.
This also means that no other nation or state may claim the identity of God's chosen people, as if God came in Christ simply to relocate his throne from Israel to Rome, to Paris or Mexico City, to Berlin or Beijing, to Moscow or Washington, D.C. The great divide of which Zechariah spoke is not between Jews and Gentiles, between East and West, or between North and South. No, the grand drama that John came to announce reveals the divide between the “rising sun” of the Lord Jesus and all the enemies that stand against him. This drama will be played out in every corner of the world, beginning in Jerusalem, but reaching to encompass every nation, every state, and every human heart.
Take hold of the knowledge of salvation that comes through the forgiveness of sins. Welcome the rising sun that dispels darkness everywhere, and rejoice in the light that gives hope to those who now cower under the shadow of death.
In this spirit, let us bind ourselves so closely to God's people everywhere that our sense of solidarity in Christ will lift us above the confines of parochial political ideologies and will free us to serve the one who is redeeming his people and setting all things right before God. With John the Baptist, let us prepare for the Lord's coming with acts of repentance rooted in and aiming for justice.
-- James Skillen is the founder and former president of the Center for Public Justice.
Questions for Reflection
- What is it about our lack or weakness of faith that allows us to turn perfectly good habits of worship into patterns that close our hearts to the living God?
- What is the difference between the act of remembering a past event of divine intervention and the act of doing justice? Why does God seem more impressed with the latter than the former?
- What acts of repentance do you see in Christian circles today that indicate John the Baptist’s message is still being heard? What evidence do you see to the contrary?
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Capital Commentary is a weekly current-affairs publication of the Center for Public Justice. Published since 1996, it is written to encourage the pursuit of justice. Commentaries do not necessarily represent an official position of the Center for Public Justice but are intended to help advance discussion. Articles, with attribution, may be republished according to our publishing guidelines.”