Jesus never wears any disguise but the ones we insist on seeing when we look at him. He was a real baby, not someone cleverly disguised as one. It’s not that he looked like a baby, it’s just that a baby wasn’t what we were looking for.
Similarly, at his Crucifixion the placard and the crown of thorns, both of which were provided by Roman soldiers with cruel irony, were not a disguise because he really was and is a King.
In the stable at his birth he was not the kingly Son of God disguised as a helpless person, and on the cross he was not a helpless person disguised as the kingly Son of God. He was, in both instances, a helpless person. And he was, in both instances, the kingly Son of god. Praise him!
Prayer: I love you, Jesus, for being all of who you are. I confess that you are sometimes more than or other than what I was looking for. Help me to love you just as well when that’s the case. Because I know that if I’m ever surprised by you it’s not because you’ve misled me.
Song: Another new Christmas song today! The Gray Havens song “Come Behold the Wondrous Mystery” captures wonderfully the beauty of a Savior whose very nature is essentially mysterious. If you would grasp him at all, you must accept that he is beyond your grasping.
Serendipity is the good thing you discover when you are searching for something else. A scientist employed by 3M was trying in 1968 to come up with a powerful glue when he discovered, by chance, the pressure sensitive, tacky adhesive we know from post-it notes. It was unlooked for and was, for years, scorned at 3M as the “solution without a problem.” It wasn’t until 1980, twelve years after the discovery, that post-it notes were made nationally available.
It shouldn’t come as a surprise that Jesus is often regarded as a disappointment and a missed mark by people who find him while looking for something else. Our Christmastime narratives can’t afford to admit it, but doesn’t it seem likely that the shepherds were more impressed with the angels and the magi more impressed with the star than they were with the infant to which the angels and the star had pointed them. Could you blame them if they found the baby and his parents a bit of a let down?
Some people come upon Jesus while looking for something to make them more successful at life, a job for which Jesus is ill-suited.
Some people come upon Jesus while looking for a political identity (good luck with that!)
All sorts of things bring all sorts of people to the Jesus they weren’t looking for . . . but who was looking for them. And he is less offended (he’s not an insecure King) than he is amused by their perplexity and resignation.
Prayer: If I’ve been slow on the uptake and have had a hard time seeing you for who you are because I was looking for something else, I repent. Open my eyes. Give me a proper imagination where you are concerned and make me an “early adapter.” Let me be among the first to recognize you and to perceive what you’re up to, wherever you are and whatever you’re doing.
Song: The Oh Hello’s Mvmt IV: Every Bell on Earth Will Ring is a little longer than others we’ve commended to you, but worth a listen for the heartfelt way that they take us through this medley of Christmas carols to bring us to a crescendo of worship.
No one did any reconnaissance for Jesus’ arrival in Bethlehem. There was no security detail showing up days ahead of him to scope things out and “establish a perimeter.”
And when Jesus did arrive, it was not in the company of an impressive
entourage. The only people he had with him were the two people who had brought him, and they weren’t armed with anything.
The angels were sidelined, relegated to the job of alerting shepherds to what was happening.
Everyone comes into the world naked, but this was something else.
And yet, somehow, a mother and a father were sufficient and God was pleased with their sufficiency.
Have you ever met someone who had a security detail? It’s ironic because having bodyguards is a clear indication of insecurity, a fear of violence that the object of that guarding is not strong enough to handle on his own. But we’re conditioned to think that only the powerful and those with authority enjoy this measure of protection. In Washington among government officials, being assigned a security detail, regardless of whether or not you are threatened, is a coveted sign of your “arrival,” an indication that you are a real big deal.
And, truthfully, if any of us were in a crowd experiencing an emergency we would all look to the guy with a security detail for leadership and defer to his orders for no better reason than the fact that he was flanked by two big galoots with serious expressions.
And our Savior, when he made his appearance, had for a “security detail” an exhausted woman and a beleaguered man, neither of whom were proficient in jiu jitsu.
Prayer: Help me, Jesus, to have sanctified expectations. I know you’re not like other lords. You’re apt to be alone when I find you, or, as with the disciples in Samaria when they had left you alone at a well, in the company of unexpected people. So be it. You be you. Just help me to keep up.
Song: The Brilliance’s version of Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming is perfect with its stripped down arrangement and emphasis on vocal harmonies. It doesn’t always work, but one classroom management technique that teachers sometimes use, when their classroom has gotten competitively loud, is to stop shouting and to whisper. There is a hush that rings loud for having quieted us.
When Jesus made his debut in Bethlehem, as opposed to Jerusalem, it was not just about ticking the prophetic box or demonstrating humility (Bethlehem was to the other cities of Israel, what the manger was to the other cribs at the time,) or even because the Roman emperor had decreed it. There was a very practical reason for Jesus to be born in such a place.
It might have been more fitting for Jesus, being a king, to have been born in a palace. But the palace, like every room in Bethlehem, was occupied. And those who occupy palaces are possessively protective of them.
Perhaps you’ve heard a missionary return from a developing country in chastened awe, reporting that people living on $1 a day were cheerfully generous with what little they had, insisting that the well-nourished Western guest eat the biggest and best portions.
In many places throughout history you’d be better off depending on the camaraderie of the poorest people in that place than the generosity of the wealthiest ones. It’s easier to catch a ride in a crowded minivan than it is to catch a ride in a spacious limousine.
Jesus came to Bethlehem and not the palace because Bethlehem was the sort of place where you could expect people to scoot over and make a little room. Not so the palace.
If you’re ever surprised to find Jesus among people whose company you yourself would not keep, or surprised at his conspicuous absence among the people you admire, bear this in mind. People who scoot, who make room, who set an extra place (even when they can only do it metaphorically because they lack a table and place settings) are the sort of people to whom Jesus comes. He is an opportunistic Savior.
Let us be hospitable people, and let us, like our Savior, aspire less to the palaces where we’re not wanted than to the places where we might have a place.
Prayer: Lord, if I have not been hospitable please forgive me. If I am reluctant to scoot down and make room, help me remember that it might be, in some sense, you I am making room for. And help me to be someone who is content with whatever places you make for me. There’s a part of me that’s always whispering that I belong in the “palace.” wherever that is. Help me to make that part of me shut up and stay quiet.
Song: I love Wilder Adkins! And this version of “Royal David’s City” shows all the reasons why I appreciate him so much. It is a fresh arrangement of the traditional carol, but it is so sweet and earnest that it does not feel like a calculated attempt at novelty at all. And what a carol it is! (I also love the artwork!)
If Jesus showed up at a party that you were attending and someone tried to “kidnap” him in broad daylight, by putting a possessive hand on his elbow and trying to steer him around the room while monopolizing his time and attention, we don’t have to wonder how he would handle that.
He’s not easily manipulated or controlled, this Jesus of ours. He never has been.
When he was a religious celebrity in Judea the religious leaders were always there wanting to tie him up in the sort of tricky theological discussions that they loved. He gave them brief answers that made them angry and that freed him up to spend time with real people.
When his disciples turned children away to prevent them making a claim on Jesus for blessings, Jesus had none of it. He rebuked the gatekeepers and made room for the children.
And when he came as a baby he demonstrated that he would not be the possession of Herod for violence, the possession of the magi for purposes of government, the possession of the shepherds for validation, or even the possession of his parents for progeny.
Be assured, dear friend, that Jesus has come for you. He does not belong to some group of special people. He doesn’t need to satisfy someone else’s demands before he can attend to your own private needs. He is for you and with you and no one else, however privileged he appears to be, can come between you and the Jesus who has sought you out.
Prayer: Help me to remember, Lord, that the self-appointed gatekeepers are no threat to my place in your heart or in your Kingdom. That’s hard for me because of my insecurities, I admit, but I believe that you can make me confident. And, while we’re at it, please forgive me for any time that I was a self-appointed gatekeeper myself and prevent me from ever doing that in the future.
Song: Part of the reason I love “O Christ, Draw Near” is because of Taylor Leonhardt’s vocals. But what I really love and appreciate are the earnest lyrics. I have been hugged so fiercely by someone I love so deeply that I have wished that the hug could succeed in squeezing the two of us into one inseparable unit. In Bethlehem, God initiated such an embrace and at Christmas we squeeze a little tighter in anticipation of that day when the work of the great hug will be complete.
Jesus’ brother James makes a big deal about the sin of showing favoritism in his letter. He calls out the sort of church leader, for instance, who would show well dressed people to the best seats when they show up for a worship service, while keeping the poorly dressed people on the uncomfortable margins. It’s scripture, but you also get the impression that for James it’s personal.
It’s a family value, it seems.
If Jesus was a high school student, it’s hard to imagine him gravitating toward the cool kid’s table in the lunchroom.
If Jesus was at a game, it’s hard to imagine him watching it from the owner’s box.
Jesus is not impressed with the things that impress us.
Prophecy required that Jesus’ parents have a royal pedigree. But Jesus' mission required that they not have a royal lifestyle. How good it is to have a Savior like this who comes and sits at our table not to make a point or to demonstrate his noble largesse, but for the simple reason that he wants to be with us.
Prayer - I repent, Jesus, of all the ways in which I am a respecter of persons. You have not shown favoritism or you would not have made yourself my friend. So help me not to show favoritism any more than you do.
Song - I love the line in “Bring a Torch, Jeanette Isabella,” that says “Jesus is born to the folk of the village.” Not born to the upper echelons of society, to the elite and the influencers. Born to the folk of the village. Savor that.
When there’s a natural disaster, I’m almost tempted to feel more sympathy for the President than for the people whose homes were washed away. If he goes to the devastated community and dons a ridiculous hardhat for his inspection of the destruction, or fills a few sandbags in front of the cameras, he will be accused of grandstanding and of being cynically superficial in his concern. And if he stays at the White House to direct the relief efforts from there he will be accused of being out of touch and detached and of being insufficiently devoted to the welfare of the people.
It’s kind of a no-win situation for him.
Consider, in light of that, the choices that God made in response to our unrelenting disaster. He did not content himself with such steps as he could take from heaven. He did not rely on angels to act on his behalf at a distance.
But neither did he go with the photo op. He didn’t signal his virtue with a well choreographed visit.
He went all in.
Can you imagine a President delegating the official response to someone else and using his vacation time to go to the flood zone and descend into moldy basements with a shovel and his sleeves rolled up, a long way from any cameras? When it came to our disaster, Jesus took everything seriously but his own prerogatives.
Having such a Savior should shape our own responses to the disasters around us. None of us can do everything that needs doing. And we all have to have boundaries. But let us be all in on redemption.
Prayer: Jesus, I thank you for the selfless way in which you threw yourself into the business of my redemption. When it comes to the disasters around me, help me not to be content with delegated virtue or photo ops. Help me to love in the same way that you do.
Song: The version of “O Come All Ye Faithful” by husband and wife band Johnnyswim is sweet without being saccharine. This traditional carol is heavy on the mandate. It is more imperative than pleading. Do it. Come and adore Him.
She didn’t know CPR or first aid. In fact, she didn’t know about the existence of germs or viruses or the principles of infection. She didn’t have running water at home. She seldom bathed. Certainly she meant well and had good impulses, but I wouldn’t have hired her to care for my baby in my own home, much less hers.
And that Mary is the one to whom God entrusted the care of his one and only Son. If she took folic acid and listened to Baby Mozart during her pregnancy, Luke fails to mention it.
And, from our perspective, Mary looks very primitive. We imagine that we would have been superior surrogate parents for the Christ child in every way. We would have been able to give him better medical care, immunizations, disposable diapers, and a proper diet. Infant mortality, it is true, has never been lower than it is now.
But Jesus would have been no safer with us than he was with Mary, and no more at risk for harm. He was always going to die, but he was never going to die as a baby.
The truth is that Jesus would never be safe with any of us, and that he did not come to be safe but to be a Savior.
Prayer: Jesus, forgive me for ever thinking that you were safe with me, or, worse, if I ever thought that I might be safe without you. And help me to think confidently about the rough people and rough situations that I might introduce you to, as I do not have a fragile Savior.
Song: “Light of the World” by We The Kingdom, is another new song but I can’t help wanting to share it with you. We’ll keep writing and singing new songs about the first Advent until the wonderful day of the second Advent.
It’s a scandal that Jesus came to sinners. And really, it does nothing to lessen the scandal when you consider that there was no one else to come to.
Jesus did not just have the purity of infancy. His was the purity of the sinless and divine Son of God. He was the pure white field of new snow on which no muddy boot had yet trampled a path. And he showed up where everything was muddy boots and heedless tramplers.
And for all that, not only did he come to sinners in their sin, but he came happily. There was no reluctance, no hedging, no prissy pinching of the nose. He did not show up as God at arm’s length, but Emmanuel - God With Us.
Prayer: Lord, help me to take to heart the fact that you have come to me to take your place in my heart and in my life though I have been a sinner. Make me aware of the scandal of it in a way that does more to heighten my gratitude than it does to stir up my shame. And help me to be just as “scandalous” in the loving way that I approach other sinners.
Song: This version of “I Heard the Bells” by Sleeping at Last does a good job of catching all the pathos of this carol which absorbs with serious reflection the persistent reality of a world that is contrary to the promise of the incarnation and then proceeds to a resolute conviction about the ultimate victory of the promise.
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