I think “The Peaceable Kingdom” and “The New Jerusalem” might be the only detailed pictures of salvation in the Bible. Most of our conceptions have been pieced together from short illustrations. The Christmas Story is a perfect example. Matthew’s and Luke’s versions are quite different, yet still offer the same magnificent picture of salvation.
The angels instruct both Mary and Joseph the name shall be “Jesus” that means “God saves”. Matthew also cites Isaiah 7, claiming this is Emmanuel. It is clear these stories are about God coming to save his world.
Both gospels make clear salvation rescues us from self-serving, if not downright evil, government. Matthew pictures Herod, willing to kill all children less than two years old in order to get rid of a possible rival. We should think of modern governments willing to kill civilians in order to defeat their enemies. Luke begins his tale with an indifferent mighty emperor ordering a census to make sure nobody can hide from his tax collectors. This causes a poor pregnant woman to travel and finally give birth in a cow stall. We should think of modern politicians serving the extremely wealthy and neglecting the unemployed. The stories promise God, not worldly rulers, will bring the peace, safety, and justice we all crave.
Both also make clear God will first rescue the needy. In Luke angels announce the birth first to shepherds, the riffraff of that society. Both gospels present an embarrassed, young unmarried girl who offers a lame excuse for her pregnancy. Joseph is ready to get rid of her quietly. Perhaps Mary visits her cousin, Elizabeth, to find refuge from the barbs of the self-righteous. Certainly the Christmas story brings hope to those who most need it. Jesus describes that hope when he starts his ministry: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4: 18, 19)
Both gospels also describe salvation being open up to include many, many strange people. Matthew reports the first to bring gifts for the Christ Child are visitors from the East. These strange fellows obviously practice another religion. Luke makes the same point when he calls Jesus a “light for the Gentiles”.
Obviously, the Christmas stories make clear salvation will turn everything upside down. Mary’s Magnificat in Luke 1 pretty much sums up their meaning. “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. …He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants for ever.”
My recent classes have forced me to confront how difficult each part of the Christmas message is for us: 1) We have a terrible time believing the movement of salvation is God coming to us. That means. everything around us has meaning. What happens in history is important. God is active right here, right now. We prefer salvation to be our trying to get to God–after we die. In other words, having little to do with what is happening now. 2) We refuse to see God has trouble with the way we govern ourselves. No matter how much we complain, we want to think bad government and greed are simply what comes naturally. That enables us to ignore God’s call to repent and reform. 3) We resist the calls for helping the poor, rationalizing it really boils down to their not working as hard as we do. We prefer to pass charity on to institutions, pretending they must be more efficient than we in responding to our neighbors’ needs. Ho, ho, ho! 4) We are uneasy with foreigners who do not look and act as we do. Our Christianity is bound up with “American Exceptionalism” far more than we want to admit. Merry Christmas!