January 02, 2011
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.” When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born. They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet:
‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for from you shall come a ruler
who is to shepherd my people Israel.’”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.” When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure-chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.
As much as the Christmas story is focused on the birth of Christ on earth, and knowing that the miracle of the birth of Jesus is the central message of the story, I have always been interested by the peripheral characters and what they have to teach us about our response to the birth of Christ in our own hearts and minds. Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the Magi, even Herod all have something to teach us about what it means to be human in the presence of the divine.
We all begin our conscious relationship with the Lord by seeing God as something “out there.” We learn the Bible stories and think about how the people behaved as they interacted with God “back then.” We hear the Christmas story and wonder what it must have been like “for them.” But sooner or later, if we continue to progress on our lifelong journey of spiritual growth, if we in fact seek to know God, if we seek to bring the Lord into our lives, sooner or later we reach the point in our lives where we begin to experience our conscious relationship with God as something “in here”; we begin to think about how we interact with God “in this moment”; we begin to think about the birth of Christ and ask the question “How does this miracle affect me?” For you see, if we don’t begin asking these questions and spending some serious time thinking about the answers, then Christmas is truly nothing more than a nice story for the kids. We just buy some presents, get a couple of days off work, and then forget about it and go on as if nothing had ever happened.
But when we talk about Christmas we are talking about God, the creator of all that is, the source of life in all living things, the marriage of love and wisdom from whom everything and anything that is good and true has its origin. We are talking about the divine presence and power, which is beyond comprehension, being born in the form of a human baby—the most wonderful and the most vulnerable of all things.
This birth happened for many reasons. One of those reasons has ramifications on a universal level and is one of the things that differentiate the Swedenborgian Church from many other Christian traditions.
I have been asked many times lately what makes this church different from all the other Christian traditions out there. Mostly I shy away from this question because we have far more in common than we have differences, and generally I find that the people who ask that question are usually looking to find some reason to prove to themselves that they are right and you are wrong so they can feel self-righteous in either their pity or their condemnation.
But let’s put that one aside to answer the question of difference that is directly related to the birth of Christ: the question of why Christ came to the earth as a human. The standard answer in most—not all, but most— Christian churches is that Adam and Eve sinned, and therefore all human beings are inherently sinful. God, being a God of justice, needed to exact punishment, and feeling pity for his children sent his own child to be crucified so God wouldn’t have to punish us for our sins. It’s called the doctrine of vicarious atonement. In this church, by contrast, we teach that, while people are born with an inherent tendency toward evil, they are also born with an inherent capacity for good, and that each individual is responsible for his or her own actions. The Lord was born to teach, through his life and death and resurrection, that there is a God; that the spirit is the person, not the body; and that there is life after death and what you believe and how you behave matters very much. The crucifixion was an act of selfsacrifice
on God’s part to save us from our sin, not by
suffering so we don’t have to, but to show us the lengths
to which love will go for another and to show us that
when the body dies the spirit lives on forever with the
same values and characteristics and habits developed
in life. In this church we do not believe that Jesus paid
for our sins. We believe that we “pay” for our own sins;
we do not believe that God demands justice, but that,
as Jesus taught and repeatedly demonstrated, God is
a loving God of redemption and forgiveness, and that
if we want it, and ask for it, and change our evil ways
in favor of ways that are truly loving and good, we are
forgiven. Everyone is intended for heaven; heaven is
open to all, and all are welcomed. God sends no one
to hell; instead, those who reject God, who hate what
is good and kind and loving and can’t stand heaven,
choose, of their own free will, to enter into hell. God
neither rewards nor punishes: the rewards of heaven
and the punishments of hell are the direct results of
the values we embrace and the way we treat ourselves and each other.
You may not agree with all that I have said. You may have questions, you may have doubts, you may flat-out disagree! In this church, it is OK to have a different perspective, but you are welcome to be here and worship as a part of our community without judgment and without pressure to believe something that you don’t. You are left in freedom by the people of this community, because you have been given that freedom by God, and it is not for me or this congregation or anyone to take that freedom away.
That is one small part of what was born in Bethlehem, in a simple stable that smelled of animals; born to simple people, whose only warmth and comfort was provided by the beasts that we so often see as inconsequential and yet are so essential to life on earth. It was a humble birth, just one among hundreds of millions of other births, and yet it has proved to be the most profound source of love, compassion, and not only hope, but true faith in the reality of goodness and truth and the spirit as life, that the world has ever known. That the God of the universe, the God of all that is, would become as small and powerless as a helpless little baby; and through one human life, through the willing acceptance of one of the most horrible deaths man could devise, and through the resurrection, would change the nature of existence forever, is in my mind truly a miracle—a miracle that not only calls for but also demands a response from me.
To think the word “Christmas” is to think of all of life! It is to look up into a winter sky that is so dark and black it would suck out your soul if it were not for the fact that it is filled with stars. To think of Christmas is to think of the birth of God as a human, to think of all those who witnessed it, to think of all those who have been changed by it, to think of God the infinite and unknowable, and at the same time think of Jesus the shepherd who is there for us all. To think of Christmas is to think of all these things and ask, “How does this affect me? How must I respond? What can I give back to show my gratitude and begin, in some small way, to repay a debt that can never be paid back?” To think of Christmas and all that it encompasses and all that it means and not be moved to think of one’s own part in the unfolding miracle of life is to have one’s heart closed to God and be already halfway to hell.
The presence of God and everything that is wonderful about life is all around you. Look into the night sky; you can see emptiness and void, but if you look at the stars you see the presence of God. Look at something as simple as a Christmas card; you can see the presence of God in the signature of the one who sent it to you. Christmas is about giving, because it is a celebration of the greatest gift of all, the gift of life itself: the gift of the life of Jesus that was given to all people on earth, and the gift of our own life, which each one of us has received directly from the hand of God. To celebrate Christmas is to celebrate this gift of life. Who among us can celebrate such a miracle, a miracle of birth that continues after two thousand years to live with vibrancy and joy? Who among us can celebrate Christmas and not, at some point, begin to experience a relationship with God as something “in here,” or ask ourselves the question “How does this miracle affect me?”
Christmas is truly a time for angels and stars. It is truly a time for peace and joy and giving. It is truly a time for miracles. It is truly a time to look deep into the icy blackness of the night sky of our lives and find ourselves thrilled and humbled by the number of stars, each one a point of light and love that has its origin in the heart of God and reaches out to be seen and so touch the heart within our own breast.
Christmas is a gift of God, freely and openly offered to each one of us. Open your heart, open your mind, and receive Christmas freely in the spirit in which it has been given. Merry Christmas!
Rev. Ken Turley