What we celebrate at Christmas is a repudiation of racism and all forms of ethnocentric superiority and segregation. Jesus of Nazareth was a Jew, born of the virgin Mary, and his adoptive father Joseph was of Davidic descent. Nevertheless the angel of the Lord declared about his birth: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all people” (Luke 2:10). Jesus’s conception and birth was a supernatural act of the triune God and the most significant event in Israel’s story and of God’s mission to all people.
There has always been a desire to clean up the incarnation story. From the moment of Christ’s incarnation people have attempted to disembody the Christmas story and make it more spiritual and less flesh-and-blood. Jesus has been fashioned as a heavenly teacher who only appeared human but who helps us to discover the greatness within. Others put forth a Jesus who was wholly mystical teacher of secret knowledge that can only be ascertained by a select few. In these Jesus makeovers he stays above the fray and his elite followers do as well. When Jesus is disembodied and removed from the story of Israel then his teaching, wisdom, and morality can be abstracted and simply incorporated into ones existing self-referential prejudices.
I appreciate Andrew Peterson’s song Labor of Love because it refuses to sanitize the birth of Christ.
It was not a silent night
There was blood on the ground
You could hear a woman cry
In the alleyways that night
On the streets of David’s town
And the stable was not clean
And the cobblestones were cold
And little Mary full of grace
With the tears upon her face
Had no mother’s hand to hold
It was a labor of pain
It was a cold sky above
But for the girl on the ground in the dark
With every beat of her beautiful heart
It was a labor of love
Christ is “the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created” and “all things were created through him and for him” (Col 1:15-17). Genesis begins with heaven and earth and then builds to God’s crowning creation—man and woman uniquely made in the image of God (Gen 1:26-27). Paul explains in his sermon at the Areopagus that God “gives to all mankind life and breath and everything. And he made from one man every nation of mankind” (Acts 17:25b-26). Thus, all forms of racism and cultural elitism are at odds with God’s design and are manifestations of sinful rebellion against God that began at the fall into sin.
After the fall, God announced the messianic promise of a seed born of woman who would crush the head of the serpent and his parasitic kingdom. The tragic events that disrupted the harmony of the entire created order, including the shame and alienation of man and woman in the presence of God, would not be the final word—God’s grace would be (Gen 3:15). The serpent seeks to divide God’s image bearers into antagonistic factions along whatever lines are at his disposal. The result of human image bearers in sinful rebellion to God is enmity with one another as the Genesis account exemplifies (Gen 4-11). The promise to Abraham, “in you all the families of the earth will be blessed” (Gen 12:3) was a continuance of the “seed promise” in Genesis 3:15 and finds its culmination in the unifying cosmic authority of Jesus Christ and by extension, all who are united to him and to one another by faith.
The New Testament gospel accounts make clear that the birth of Christ is good news of great joy “for all of the people” (Luke 2:10). Matthew’s gospel begins with reference to the Abrahamic promise and ends with the Great Commission command to “make disciples of all nations
Where racism is embraced, the mind of Christ on display in the incarnation and subsequent crucifixion is rejected. All racism and ethnocentrism grounds the identity of a life created in the image of God in self and not in God and the gospel of the kingdom. That is why Paul links believing in the incarnation of Christ with how we view and treat other image bearers:
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross (Phil 2:3-8).
Herod the Great saw the birth of Jesus Christ as a threat to his reign and he was right (Matthew 2). The same is true for all of the kingdoms we build including ones based on the shade of a person’s skin. This self-referential kingdom building is why every variety of the niche church mentality is so out of step with the gospel of Christ. When we segregate churches into rich, poor, cowboy, skater, cool guy, old-fashioned, and most tragically in America, into black and white niche churches, we are feeding a self-centered identity the gospel promises to end. Whatever Paul means by referring to the church, Jew and Gentile, as “one new man” and “fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God” (Eph 2:15, 19), at the very least, he means that reconciliation with God in Christ demands reconciliation across preferences and ethnicities with one another in Christ.
Isaac Watts wrote his famous song “Joy to the World” in 1719 as a celebration of Christ’s second coming, not his first advent. Nevertheless, it has become one of the best loved Christmas songs in the world, which is fitting since Christ’s first coming in the incarnation and second coming to consummate his kingdom are parts of the same eschatological event. Consider his words this Christmas while remembering that his flesh-and-blood incarnation as the light of the world and future bodily resurrection of believers from every tribe, tongue, and nation is to be reflected in the multiethnic unity and joy of his people and his churches here and now (John 8,9, 11, Eph 2, Rev 5, 7).
Joy to the world! the Savior reigns
Let men their songs employ
While fields and floods Rocks, hills and plains
Repeat the sounding joy Repeat the sounding joy
Repeat, repeat the sounding joy
No more let sins and sorrows grow
Nor thorns infest the ground
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found
Far as the curse is found
Far as, far as the curse is found
Many Christians will gather around our Christmas trees and sing, “Joy to the World” again this year. We will do so in a year that included a great deal of public racial tragedy and tension. As we remember the Donald Sterling tapes, Ferguson, Eric Garner, and more, may our thoughts be shaped by “Christ the Lord” whose birth was “good news of great joy for all the people,” (Luke 2:10-11) and not by political talking heads on the left or the right who profit from racial animus. Joy to the world means the eradication of the curse of racism as far as it is found.