At a time when the celebration of Jesus’ birth is being buried ever deeper beneath the landfill-waste of a decadent, hedonistic, secular western paganism, we are naturally anxious as the church to recover the true meaning of Christmas.
What we expect to find, when all the modern stuff has been stripped away, is a universal religious idea, pure and simple, divested of both narrative and historical context—that out of love for humanity God became flesh in a helpless babe. That’s fine. It has some point to it. But it is a theologically inspired reduction of the New Testament material to something more congenial to the mindset of the post-Jewish church. The story that is actually told in Matthew and Luke is rather different.
The priest Zechariah is reminded by an angel of Malachi’s warning to post-exilic Israel that God will soon come to judge a corrupt and faithless priesthood (Lk. 1:8-17). The priests have dishonoured their “father” and have led many astray with their worthless teaching. In the manner of Elijah, Zechariah’s son will prepare the way for one who will baptize both with the Spirit and with the fire of a dreadful destruction.
After the birth of John a more hopeful note sounds: God will raise up a king from the house of David, who will deliver Israel from its enemies so that righteous people like Zechariah will be able to serve God in peace and security (Lk. 1:67-79).
Mary is told that God will give to her son the throne of his father David and that he will reign over the house of Jacob for ever (Lk. 1:32-33; cf. 2 Sam. 7:16). She celebrates the fact that God will soon overthrow the current régime and will exalt the humble and downtrodden in Israel (Lk. 1:46-55).
The “virgin conception” of Jesus will be a sign that, at a time of great political instability, God is with his people (“Immanuel”) to deliver them finally from destruction. This is not incarnation as we understand it—it is a presence constrained historically in both time and space. Just as Isaiah’s child was given a prophetically significant name, so Mary’s child will be given a prophetically significant name: he will “save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:21-25; cf. Is. 7:10-8:10).
An angel proclaims to the shepherds the good news for all Israel that a Saviour has been born in the city of David; and a heavenly host promises liberation from oppression and peace for the people in whom God takes pleasure (Lk. 2:8-20).
When the chief priests and scribes consult the book of Micah, they find a story about the judgment of unrighteous Israel, the restoration of the lame and afflicted, and the emergence of a ruler from Bethlehem who will “stand and shepherd his flock in the strength of the LORD, in the majesty of the name of the LORD his God”, who will be “great to the ends of the earth” (Matt. 2:3-6; cf. Micah 3-5).
When God establishes his new king over his people, the nations will be drawn to the light. Jerusalem will see her sons and daughters being brought back from exile on the shoulders of foreigners. The wealth of the nations will be handed over to Jerusalem. People will come from Sheba bringing gold and frankincense, and they will “announce the good news of the salvation of the Lord” (Is. 60:1-6 LXX). The arrival of magi from the East to pay homage to Israel’s newborn king is a sign that this drama is being re-enacted in Israel (Matt. 2:1-12). The coming judgment and salvation of Israel will have a profound impact on the surrounding nations.
Simeon is another righteous Jew who is waiting for the sort of “consolation” of his people that Isaiah prophesied for the exiles (Lk. 2:25-32; cf. Is. 40:1-2; 51:3; 52:7-10). He sees in the infant Jesus the promise that God will save his people from annihilation and that this salvation in itself will reveal to the Gentiles the power and glory of the God of Israel.
Finally, the elderly prophetess Anna speaks of Jesus “to all who were waiting for the redemption of Jerusalem” (Lk. 2:38). There is no redemption of the world here. It is the story of first century Israel that is being told.
So here we have the true meaning of Christmas according to Matthew and Luke. It is not that the godhead is to be seen veiled in the flesh of the baby Jesus. The Christmas story simply is not about incarnation. It is about kingdom.
There are three parts to the story. First, God is about to take dramatic action in history to “judge” Israel—to punish the leadership in Jerusalem and to refine his people, as by fire. Secondly, a son is born who will not only save Israel from the consequences of its sins but will be established as king for ever over the restored community. Thirdly, the nations will see this manifestation of the sovereignty of Israel’s God and, in concrete ways, will acknowledge its theo-political significance for the ancient world.
That is all historical event, part of the grand narrative of the people of God. It’s our story. Have a great time celebrating it!