I love “A Charlie Brown Christmas” and I love the scene where Charlie Brown finally breaks down and asks if anyone knows what Christmas is all about. You know the scene, Linus replies, “I do Charlie Brown” and then recites Luke 2:8-14. It is a poignant part of the drama, where all the decorations and plays end even the tree fade into the background as Jesus is highlighted. Every year I watch Linus recite these lines and every year I hear them again on Christmas Eve as part of a worship service. But this year as I approached these familiar words I realized that I am missing Jesus because of these words. I am missing Jesus because year after year I hear them read in the familiar King James or ESV. I am given a picture of shepherds quietly sitting around as the darkness is transformed into the soft glow of a bright full moon. The Angel excited but calm addresses the shepherds telling them that down the hill there is a little baby who is born as, savior. Then suddenly heaven’s choir is there singing backup and they break out into song about peace and goodwill coming to humanity. And throughout the process of hearing these words I stay asleep to much of what Luke wants me to hear.
I do not think I am alone in remaining asleep to the passage (though I may be alone in wanting to wake up). I can even remember once I was to read Luke 2 at a Christmas Eve service and decided to read a more modern version. I was mildly chastised after the service by a woman who was disappointed that the King James was not read.
What I saw as I re-read the passage was a shock and awe military campaign. The campaign begins when unsuspecting shepherds are suddenly engulfed in an almost blinding light. The Lord’s glory, after all, was intense enough to cause Moses’ face to shine after prolonged contact, it must have been intense. Further, there is this messenger bringing an announcement of political transformation. This part might be difficult for some, the word translated “good news” was when Luke wrote a word used by the government to talk of things like military victory. It was not a word I would use with my kids to say, “Good news we’re going to the zoo.” This messenger was proclaiming there was a new king in town. The message continues that the lord and anointed one is born he will be a savior to his people. Can you think of better propaganda for a Roman emperor? Jesus is being introduced by his army the way Caesar would have been. This lone messenger is suddenly backed up not by a choir, but by what I’m going to assume was the most intimidating army imaginable. Read like this even the song is somewhat transformed, it is no longer just a song of praise it is the anthem of an army marching to battle.
But realizing that Luke is trying his best to make Jesus’ birth sound like a military campaign also made me stop and ask, what kind of military campaign is this? Everything seems to make sense except the song of the army. The language is similar a song how Romans would have described the emperor. It talks of exulting the lord or in this case God, it talks of peace, which the Roman government was fond of claimed to bring and it talks of favors done for people again the emperor was often bestowing favor on worthy people. But Roman emperors would bestow favors on specific people for services they rendered the emperor and these would usually be temporary. The Divine favor mentioned at the end of the song, much like the peace, is universal. God’s favor is not on a privileged few and it does not go simply to those who show special service toward God it simply is.
This is a unique kingdom, at least by human standards not simply because the king is born into poverty in the backwater of civilization. The campaign begins in shock and awe, but ends without violence despite the obvious military superiority. The victory of the king does not end in the promotion of a few and the oppression of many, it ends in benevolence toward all. There is no hint of peace through armed enforcement, rather it is peace through change. This is the kingdom we want the kingdom we cannot create on our own may this king continue to come into this world.