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Leading through Advent: Rethinking the Birth of Jesus

We have been exploring how the themes of Advent are opportunities for improving and enhancing your leadership. This fourth week let’s look at the theme of the birth of Jesus as another way of helping you become the leader needed at this time in history. 

How does rethinking the birth of Jesus help you be a Christ-centered leader? 

In a way, it is strange to “rethink the birth of Jesus” but slogans like “Let’s put Christ back into Christmas” and “Jesus is the reason for the season” invite us and challenge us to look closely at the meaning and purpose of the birth of Jesus.    

The Birth of Jesus

When we read the biblical stories, we find that the birth of Jesus, in a stable to humble parents, is God’s dramatic way of coming into the world in a way that we can understand. It is the story of God taking on the life of a human being and coming into this world to live with us. It is a story of incarnation. 

When you read Matthew’s story you find that the name Jesus means savior and that the name Emmanuel means God is with us. Matthew is telling us that in Jesus, God’s saving presence is with us.  

John points out that Jesus was present at the beginning with God because Jesus is God. Then God becomes flesh and lives among us. The words “became flesh and dwelt with us” literally mean “to pitch his tent.” Eugene Peterson in the Message says, “moved into our neighborhood.” John is telling us that God in Jesus has come to live with us.  

And Paul teaches us that God is in Christ “reconciling the world to himself.” It might be helpful to think of the word reconciled as being embraced or hugged. God is in Christ “embracing” the world and “hugging” us, each of us, holding us close in love. Paul tells us that God came to be with us to bring us back to him and to his purpose. 

Read Luke 2:1-20

So, let’s look at Luke’s story to discover how rethinking the birth of Jesus can help you lead through Advent. 

2 In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2 This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3 All went to their own towns to be registered. 4 Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5 He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. 6 While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7 And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, because there was no place in the guest room. 

8 Now in that same region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9 Then an angel of the Lord stood before 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, for see, I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: 11 to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” 13 And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”  

16 So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph and the child lying in the manger. 17 When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them, 19 and Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, just as it had been told them. 

Reflect 

The birth of Jesus is a story of an encounter with the divine in the midst of the ordinary. Luke uses ordinary people to introduce his good news. Within the historical context of political struggle, taxation, and the governmental and religious claims of Rome, Luke tells of God coming to be with us in the person of Jesus. In the midst of the ordinary, we have an encounter with God. 

Sometimes it seems that we have heard the story of the birth of Jesus so often that we miss Luke’s purpose in telling the story. As much as I like to think of Christmas as family gatherings, special decorations, lights, trees, candles, singing carols, and a winter wonderland, Luke’s first-century Christmas was different. 

God with Us

The birth of Jesus is about God coming to be with us. It is about light coming into our darkness.  Luke tells the story of Mary, a young woman from Nazareth, whose life is turned upside down by God’s call upon her life. In his first chapter, Luke tells of the angel Gabriel arriving with a greeting that is unsettling: “Favored woman! The Lord is with you.” As much as you and I might want to be favored by God, to be in God’s favor means God has some extraordinary work to be done. 

When you read Mary’s call to the ministry, she is “confused and disturbed.” There is always a mix of surprise, fear, and faith when you encounter God’s call. But like other stories in the scripture, we tend to focus only upon a portion of the story, like “the virgin birth,” and miss the purpose of the story.   

Luke’s good news is that Jesus not only possessed the Holy Spirit but promised the Holy Spirit to his followers. For Luke, the purpose of the Holy Spirit is to communicate the good news of God beyond the barriers that separate people from God and one another. 

God’s Promise Fulfilled

In chapter one, the Holy Spirit comes upon Mary (1:35) in the same way Luke understood the Holy Spirit to come upon the disciples at Pentecost (Acts 1:8). The fulfillment of God’s promise, to be with us, is part of the intention of this story. Mary becomes God’s agent, God’s instrument, fulfilling God’s promise. This is Luke’s way of emphasizing the true humanity of the One who shared our life by being born, growing up and dying 

God comes to be with us, through the faithful response of Mary, to give us what we need to navigate the barriers that separate us from one another. When you read the good news according to Luke and the stories recorded in The Acts of the Apostles, you will discover that the Holy Spirit that came to Mary and the disciples is the same Holy Spirit that has been given to you. 

Holy Spirit Power

So, here is a clue for your leadership. When the Holy Spirit comes upon you, O favored one, you will be given the power to witness beyond the barriers of theology, race, nationality, gender, economics, politics, social standing, etc. God’s purpose is being worked out in and through you. 

When Luke writes that there is “no place” for the newborn Messiah, he is saying that Jesus is a displaced person for whom the world will not make a place. “No room” is not simply a matter of space but a matter of choice. Jesus born in a stable will find “no vacancy” signs throughout his ministry and will finally be buried in a borrowed tomb. 

Empowered for Love

Jesus being born in a stable and placed in a manger represents solidarity with people of poverty. Luke brings this into dramatic contrast with Caesar who has a place in the empire. As a Christ-centered leader, you are empowered by the Holy Spirit to make a place for God’s love in the lives of the people who have been pushed aside and forgotten. 

The story of the shepherds and angels emphasizes God’s affirmation of the poor and despised. Although the image of shepherds is more positive in the Old Testament, in the first century, shepherds belonged to the lower class, irresponsible thieves who grazed their sheep on the land of other people. They were nomadic people taking advantage of others while using the care of their sheep as excuses for their behavior. 

Yet, it is to the shepherds that the angels bring the good news. Using the words and images meant for the emperor, Luke has the angels announce the birth of Jesus as the One who fulfills the aspirations and yearnings of all people. The message begins among the outsiders of Galilee and Judea and extends to Samaritans, Romans, and then to all people. 

Reimagine

The word “savior” was a word of honor often applied to the emperor and the word “lord” was a designation for the emperor and for pagan gods, as well as for the God of the Old Testament. The word “Christ” is the one anointed by God to fulfill God’s promises. The announcement was meant to reimage the empire. He was bringing good news to all people, Jews and Gentiles. As a Christ-centered leader, you are now a part of “the hopes and fears of all the years” are met in Jesus, God with us. 

The announcement of “peace” or “shalom” refers to the birth of Jesus as an act of the grace of God. Jesus is bringing wholeness and completeness to all people and every aspect of life. It carries with it the image of becoming who God created you to be. 

A Message of Peace

So, here is what is so awesome about the birth of Jesus. God gave the message of peace to amateurs. It is like the message was too important to be left to the diplomats and those in positions of power.  

Think about it. The great diplomats and ambassadors of the past 2000 years, the councils that have met, and the peace treaties that have been signed have mostly been forgotten. But we still remember and are shaped by the peacemaking messages of a host of angels, a group of unimportant shepherds, and Christ-centered leaders like you.   

After the shepherds had seen such wondrous things, they went back to their ordinary lives. And that is the rethinking of the birth of Jesus. How has the birth of Jesus changed your life and the way you relate to people? What difference has the birth of Jesus made in your leadership? 

Respond 

What does it mean to “rethink the birth of Jesus”? Slogans like “Let’s put Christ back into Christmas” and “Jesus is the reason for the season” are good slogans, but what do they mean? 

To rethink the birth of Jesus, you will have to ask yourself, “What will I do with the baby?” God has chosen to come to us in a way that we can understand. Now, how will you live and lead so others will know and understand God with us?    

After a busy morning of activity, a family decided to stop for lunch at a restaurant. The mother places her 12-month-old son, Erik, in his highchair. As soon as he was placed, he squealed with glee. He was giggling as he looked across the restaurant. 

His mother followed the direction of his eyes to see who or what had amused her son. Her eyes met a homeless-looking, unkempt old man just across from their table. With his hands waving at Erik, the man said “Hello baby. You are such a big boy.” 

Erik’s parents were startled. They were unsure how to respond to the situation. The baby didn’t seem to care that others in the restaurant were now staring at him and the old man. But his parents were uneasy. As soon as their meal arrived, they hurried and ate, not enjoying their food or one another. 

The old man was still making faces and playing with Erik. “Peek-a-boo . . . I see you.” The man was anything but cute and obviously intoxicated, but Erik didn’t care. 

As soon as they finished their meal, Erik’s dad told his wife to meet him in the parking lot and he hurried to pay the check. While Erik’s mother was gathering their belongings, she noticed that the old man sat between her and the door. “Lord, just let me out of here before he speaks to me or Erik,” she prayed. 

As she drew closer to the man, she turned her back trying to sidestep the man and avoid any air he might be breathing. As she did, Erik leaned over her arm, reaching with both arms in a baby’s “pick-me-up” motion. Before his mom could stop him, Erik propelled himself from her arms to the old man’s arms. Suddenly the ragged, unkempt old man and the baby were face to face in a full embrace. Erik was giggling and squealing the whole time. 

The baby, in an act of total trust and love, laid his tiny head upon the man’s ragged shoulder. The man’s eyes closed, and tears filled his eyes. His old hands, full of grime and pain, cradled the baby and stroked his back. Erik’s mother stood stunned. She felt helpless and scared of the unknown. As the old man rocked and cradled Erik, he looked at the mother and said, “You take care of this baby.” 

Somehow, she managed to say, “I will.” 

He handed Erik back to her and said, “God bless you, ma’am; you’ve given me my Christmas gift.” 

She could say nothing more than mutter, “Thanks. With Erik in her arms, she walked to the car weeping, “Oh God, forgive me.” 

Rethink the Birth of Jesus

As you rethink the birth of Jesus, what are you doing with the baby? Maybe you can think of it this way, how is the birth of Jesus helping you love others as God in Jesus has loved you? 

Ann Douglas Vaughan tells the story of when she was ten, she found a wallet. There wasn’t any money in it, but even at ten years of age she knew how those things worked. She couldn’t wait to return the wallet and get her reward. All day long she called the phone number which she found in the brown leather wallet, but no one answered. 

She finally convinced her dad to drive her to the owner’s address. Once there, they found a modest military housing unit with a torn screen door. It was at that moment she noticed her dad doing something unexpected. As he rang the bell, he took three $20 bills and tucked them into the empty wallet. 

Ann Douglas Vaughan wrote, “Turns out my reward, for returning the wallet, was getting to see true love in action.” She witnessed, through the actions of her father, grace through generosity to a stranger. 

Rethink the Birth of Jesus

As you rethink the birth of Jesus, how do others experience love in action through you? How will you extend grace through generosity?   

To rethink the birth of Jesus, you will have to ask yourself, “Will I follow Jesus where he leads me?” Mary replied to the angel, “May it be to me as you have said.” You might not entirely understand what is going on. You might not anticipate what will happen. You only know that to put Christ back into Christmas, you have to allow yourself to be loved and to love others as you are loved. It means becoming vulnerable and available.    

When the Bible Grasps You

There once was a seminary student who approached the theologian Paul Tillich after a lecture on the authority of Scripture. The student was clutching a large, black, leather-bound Bible in his hand. As he approached Tillich, waving his Bible above his head, he shouted, “Do you believe this is the Word of God?” 

Tillich looked at the student’s fingers tightly gripping the Bible and responded, “Not if you think you can grasp it.” There was a moment of silence, then Tillich continued, “When the Bible grasps you, I believe it is the Word of God” 

God is Calling You to Participate in the Good News

The heartfelt music, good feelings, beautiful liturgies, nice presents, big dinners, and sweet words are all good, but they have numbed us to the intrusion of God’s love. Christmas is saying, “Yes” to something beyond all your emotions and feelings. Christmas is saying, “Yes” to a hope based on God’s initiative which has nothing to do with what you think and feel. It is believing that the salvation of the world is God’s work, and that God is calling you to not only announce the good news but to participate in it.  

So, when Jesus comes knocking on the door of your church building, be ready for his invitation. Because when you open the door to invite him in, he is going to invite you to follow him into your neighborhood. Get ready because he will introduce you to his friends. His poor, forgotten, disabled, overlooked friends. And if, by faith, you have the courage to follow him, you will take your first step in becoming the incarnational leader needed to meet the needs of people today.  

Join Mary in responding,  “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” It will be at that moment that you will join the heavenly host singing, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!” 

Put Christ back into Christmas by loving others as God in Christ has loved you. Who you are is how you lead. 

Return  

Give God thanks for the people you encountered today. What did you decide to do with the baby Jesus? How did you experience God’s love for you? How did you express God’s love for others? To whom is Jesus leading you? How will your experience of the birth of Jesus help you love as you have been loved? With whom do you need to celebrate the hope you have experienced in and through them? 

Merry Christmas! May the joy of Jesus be yours as you rethink the meaning and purpose of his birth in your life and in the lives of the people entrusted to your care.

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