“God’s glory was that he laid aside His glory, and the glory of the church is when she lays aside her respactablilty and her dignity, and counts it to be her glory to gather together the outcasts.” -Charles Spurgeon
So I’m guessing that bringing up the word Crusades is probably not the best image for most Western people when we think of Christmas. After all, the Crusades were part of a pretty dark time in Christian history, heck, it was a dark time in history.
The Crusades were a time when Christians went to a physical war with Muslim soldiers to take back the Holy Lands. It was a war fought presumably for the honor of God, in the name of God. But it certainly wasn’t fought with the spirit of God.
Last week, I wrote about how Christmas really is God’s way of waging war on the principalities and powers of the world.
And this is where you probably expect me to start talking about how the Christmas story really was something more like a metaphor for war. But it’s really not just a metaphor, after all Herod wasn’t metaphorically killing babies.
Worked into the very story we are celebrating in this season is a subversive element of how the Kingdom of God is breaking into the Kingdoms all over earth, Kingdoms that are very investing in keeping the status quo and protecting their own power and interests.
This isn’t just an isolated side note of the Christmas story. Both Matthew and Luke, (the only two Gospels that tell the Christmas story) tell the story of Jesus’ birth in terms of a war.
But since we’re not looking for it, we just read right past it.
King Baby Jesus
In the Gospel of Luke, the Christmas story starts off with Caesar Augustus taking a census. To most of us, that just sounds like the beginning of every Christmas pageant we’ve ever seen. But in reality, it means Caesar is flexing his power. To take a census means that you can tax your people and draft soldiers more efficiently. So far, this story begins like every other kind of ancient epic. The strong ruler is being strong and decisive and getting stronger.
But then the Gospel of Luke does something odd, Luke leaves his focus on Caesar and instead begins to tell us about this young unmarried, pregnant couple who have been forced to comply with Caesar’s edict. Even though she’s very pregnant, they’ve got to obey, because Caesar’s got the biggest army. Right?
Except, the way Luke tells the story is interesting. Because after Jesus is born in a cave in some nothing of a town named Bethlehem, this little family is visited not by royalty but by shepherds. Shepherds in the ancient world had the reputation something like homeless people have in today’s world. They have very little status. This is a detail that you should leave out if you are trying to convince people of a new world movement.
Unless, their presence in the story is a fundamental part of the new world movement.
And apparently God thought it was, because it was to these shepherds that the Angels appeared! Here’s the scene:
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. 9 An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”
13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,
14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
Now when you picture this scene, don’t get sentimental and imagine some scene from Charlie Brown. The Catholic priest Robert Barron points out that in the Bible when Angels appear to people, those people are always terrified.
Angels in the Scripture are warriors. And the word Luke uses to describe the Angels is Straitia, which means “multitude” or more literally it is a word that means an Army!
The reason Caesar is able to rule the world is because he’s got the biggest army, but the Gospel of Luke opens up by saying that this tiny baby King has a bigger army, and it is one that fights, not like the world fights, but with the power of Heaven, and this army fights for all those that the other Kingdoms have written off.
That’s the point of this war, it’s why God comes to the shepherds first. God is fighting for the people who don’t have anyone fighting for them. Jesus was born in a cave, on the margins of society.
But that was not a setback for God, it was the strategy of God.
God coming through the oppressed and poor isn’t just part of the story, it many ways, it is the point of the story.
A Way In A Manger
John Ortberg says that you might say there was an idea lying there in the cave along with this Baby. An idea that had mostly been confined to a little country called Israel, but was waiting for the right time to crawl out into the wider world—an idea which that wider world would be unable to wholly resist.
See, in the ancient world people had hierarchal gods. At the top of creation was the gods, then the king. Under the king were members of the court, priests, then artisans, merchants, craftspeople, and then peasants and slaves. The king was seen as divine (or semi-divine) and everyone knew that he was made in the image of the god, but that was something reserved only for the king.
Everyone knew that peasants and slaves were not made in the image of the god. They were created by inferior gods. But all this was challenged by that idea that lay there in the manger, an idea that had been guarded by Israel for centuries: There is only one God and He is good.
And every human being has been made in his image.
We have no idea how revolutionary this idea was…and is.
Here’s how G.K. Chesterton says this:
There is in that idea alone the touch of a revolution, as of the world turned upside down. It would be vain to attempt to say anything adequate, or anything new, about the change which this conception of a deity born like an outcast or even an outlaw had upon the whole conception of law and its duties to the poor and outcast. It is profoundly true to say that after that moment there could be no slaves. There could be and were people bearing that legal title, until the Church was strong enough to weed them out, but there could be no more of the pagan repose in the mere advantage to the state of keeping it a servile state. Individuals became important, in a sense in which no instruments can be important. A man could not be a means to an end, at any rate to any other man’s end.
The War of Christmas is a real thing. It’s a war on any idea that would reduce any living person to anything less than someone made in the image of God. It’s a war that was waged by a God who would be born with the outcasts in a cave
The problem with the Crusades, is the same problem with our culture wars today. We love the story of God, but not the strategy of God.
God wages war against war, by laying down his life, making himself vulnerable. He is the Lion who fights like a lamb…and wins.
That’s a Christian Crusade.
We call it Christmas.