Christmas season is officially in full bloom.* I can say that because I finally heard John Lennon’s song Happy Xmas (War Is Over). The song has a background chorus that goes “War is over now, if you want it, war is over, now!” Of course, when the song was originally released in 1971, it was a song protesting the Vietnam War.
Whatever we think about the song and the Vietnam War, I must emphatically say that war is not over. For all the wars that existed before the advent of Jesus, a new cosmic war that wages on began with Jesus. Do not misunderstand me at this point. I am not speaking about the so-called culture war that some Christians wish to engage over the use of “Merry Christmas” in public or whether or not a nativity scene can be displayed on a courthouse lawn. The war I am speaking of here has to do with the clash of kingdoms, the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world. It is the collision of powers between God and the rulers of this world.
We encounter this clash right from the onset of the birth of Jesus. The story the Gospel of Matthew recounts is neither the story most learned in Sunday School nor is it the story portrayed in traditional nativity scenes. As Matthew recounts the story in chapters one and two, the joy of our Immanuel’s birth gives way to a grimmer fate once King Herod learns that the baby Jesus has also been born King of the Jews. Once the conspiracy to kill Jesus fails, this tyrant of a King orders the murder of ever boy age of two and under born in the vicinity of Bethlehem.
That is a terrible scene to fathom but it is the consequence of two kingdoms colliding. In this case, it happens to be the kingdom of God with Herod’s kingdom. Yet it is a war that wages on. Eventually those who rule this world killed Jesus but God raised him, assuring the world that its days under the rule of mere mortals is numbered.
Still we know that the rulers of this world do not surrender their thrones without a fight. We only need to read the book of Revelation to understand how this cosmic war wages on and is waged against Jesus and his church until that final victory is announced in judgment.
Glory to the newborn King!
Where does that leave us who proclaim Jesus as King? We sing “Hark the herald angels sing ‘Glory to the newborn King! Peace on earth and mercy mild, God and sinners reconciled…’” but our story reminds us that leaning into this reality places us against the kingdoms of this world. For to proclaim that Jesus is King is to renounce the claims of sovereignty which the rulers of this world continue to make, whether those rulers take the form of monarchy, oligarchy, or even a democracy.
This does not deny in any way the role which governments do serve as God’s agents for maintaining law and order in a fallen world (cf. Rom 13:4). However, we cannot be faithful to scripture and only embrace the G-rated version story of Jesus’ birth we teach our children. In fact, we may even do our children a disservice by teaching that sanitized version to begin with. The story of Jesus, beginning with his birth and subsequently his life to follow that culminates with his death, resurrection, and second-coming must provoke us, the church of Jesus Christ, with the kingdom question.
If we do not feel any dissonance with the rulers of the world when we sing “Glory to the newborn King!” could it be that we have settled for a Jesus different from the one who was born king of the Jews?
* This post is a slightly modified version of an article that was published as “Advent, the Cosmic War, and the Kingdom Question” in Connecting, 27 (December 12, 2012), a biweekly publication of the Columbia Church of Christ.