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December 18, 2023

Rejoice! Justice, Love, and Beauty has Come

This is the month for celebrating Jesus’ birth, and serious Christians will do it with great joy. A lot of the time we’ll do it by singing. This is a celebration, after all, and that means raising our voices. It is not enough to say our joy. Our hearts are full and we need to sing our hearts out. We need to lift our heads and lift our voices. So we sing, “Joy to the World! The Lord is come: let earth receive her King. . . . Joy to the earth! The Savior reigns: let all their songs employ, while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains repeat the sounding joy . . . .” (Isaac Watts “Joy to the World” LUYH 92).

Why the drama? Why all the fuss? Why the gifts and feasts and wreaths and lit trees?

Why call the fields and floods to get in on the action?

The Scriptures offer multiple reasons to celebrate Jesus’ coming. He came "to destroy the works of the devil" (1 John 3:8). He came "to deal with sin" and to fulfill the law (Romans 8:3–4). He came "to seek out and to save the lost" (Luke 19:10). In his longest reach, he came "to gather up all things," or "to reconcile all things" to God (Ephesians 1:10, Colossians 1:20). The Scriptures use a riot of terms and images to describe the force of Jesus' work, but one way or another they all say that Jesus Christ came to put right what we human beings had put wrong by our sin.

In his magisterial book on justice, Nicholas Wolterstorff acknowledges that Jesus is the gift of God’s love for the world and that Jesus commanded his followers to love their neighbors (Justice: Rights and Wrongs, 2008). But in this and a companion volume Wolterstorff emphasizes that love without justice is sentimental (Justice in Love, 2011). Sometimes patronizing. Justice is, after all, a mighty part of love. We don’t properly show love to the downtrodden just by sending them food and blankets. We also have to seek justice for them so they can buy their own food and blankets.

And this is where Jesus’ mission comes in. He is the incarnation of God’s love for a sinful world, as John 3:16 says. But that means he is also the incarnation of God’s justice that champions the rights of widows, orphans, resident aliens, and the poor. This is “the quartet of the vulnerable” representing the plight of all oppressed people (Wolterstorff, Justice: Rights and Wrongs, 2008, p. 75). Very early in his public ministry Jesus tells his hometown citizens that he is a prophet in the tradition of Isaiah:

          The Spirit of the Lord is upon me 
          because he has anointed me 
          to bring good news to the poor. 
          He has sent me to proclaim release to the prisoners
          and recovery of sight to the blind, 
          to let the oppressed go free, 
          to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.

          —Luke 4:18–19 NRSV

All this justice inside of love is a component in Jesus’ mission to “reconcile all things,” i.e., to perform the crucial acts required for God’s kingdom, one day, to come in its fullness.

We can already see the leaven of the gospel at work in human history. To show us how potent it has been, the historian Jaroslav Pelikan once asked us to conduct a thought experiment. Suppose you were to pass a super magnet over the history of the world and pull up everything good that has been influenced by Jesus and his gospel. What would attach to your magnet?

Billions of people whose broken hearts have been mended by the gospel and then filled with hope. All who found themselves loved, forgiven, and accepted by the God of the universe. All the art and music and literature inspired by the greatest story ever told. All the hospitals and orphanages, all the adoption agencies, all the social justice movements in housing and finance and hunger relief, the whole movement for women’s rights and for setting slaves free. All the groups of Christian business people who have banded together to give an African village a well or a Haitian village a new clinic or Malawian schools new desks. Every Christian church, school, university, every mission movement and evangelistic crusade, all preaching, teaching, witnessing, and providing pastoral care. The AA movement. The social gospel movement. The U.S. civil rights movement. The anti-apartheid movement in South Africa. 

I repeat: What if you passed a super magnet over human history and lifted up all the justice, love, and beauty that have been influenced by Jesus Christ? Let’s say you’d need quite a magnet and that you’d leave quite a hole in history. 

The leaven of the gospel has been at work for centuries and it will keep on working till God’s kingdom comes in all its power and glory, till every knee bends and every tongue confesses that Jesus Christ is Lord to the glory of God the Father.

Is it any wonder that we sing our hearts out when we celebrate Christmas?