Jesus was not quarterbacking his own birth. The Father arranged with Mary and Joseph for this to happen. The Holy Spirit came upon Mary and she conceived Jesus. And then it was up to them to care for him in utero. It was up to Mary to eat well and take care of herself. It was up to Joseph to get them to Bethlehem. Jesus put himself in a position where it would be up to others to get him safely delivered, to cut the umbilical cord, to keep him warm and safe in those critical hours.
It seems an awfully risky thing, considering why and how badly we needed redeeming, to give us a role in the accomplishment of that redemption.
But it’s not an indication of how careless or sloppy Jesus was about his incarnation that he afforded us a role to play in it. As it turns out, it’s kind of a theme with him. I wouldn’t say Jesus trusts us. He shouldn’t.
But he involves us and gives us real, meaningful roles to play in the unfolding of his Kingdom.
Maybe it’s like when you invite a child to help you make the Christmas cookies. It’s not that you think the four year old is a good cook. But you believe yourself to be a good enough cook to compensate. You expect that you can fish out the pieces of egg shell. And that it’s worth it.
He believes we’re worth it!
1 Corinthians 12:12-13
Prayer: Lord, I thank you for making use of Mary and Joseph. More than that I admire you for the way that you put yourself in their hands. It motivates me to trust you at least as much as you ever trusted them. Forgive me for the times I have not trusted you and help me to do better.
Song: Come and Stand Amazed, by Citizens. Citizens was one of the “house” bands at Mars Hill Church in the Pacific Northwest. The music from these bands and that church is complicated for us by the fact that Mars Hill was an unhealthy and even toxic church and thousands of people are still grappling with the legacy of abuse and trauma that they experienced there. And yet, these lyrics do an amazing job of capturing all of the paradoxical things about Jesus’ arrival in Bethlehem and listening to you can’t help being moved.
Earlier this week I was in a coffee shop in Rutland with a friend and overheard a conversation at the next table. Two put together women in professional attire were comparing notes on an event they'd recently attended at a church. I couldn't tell if it was a funeral or a wedding, but the important thing was that communion was served at this event.
"I don't get it," the one woman said, taking a sip of her latte. "Is it supposed to be, like, mock cannibalism or something." They both laughed and the conversation moved on.
I did feel some indignation, it's true. That charge of cannibalism is old and has served as the justification for all sorts of violence toward believers. It made it easier for the Romans to cheer when Christians were thrown to the lions, for instance.
But my indignation was quickly replaced with something else. I felt a thrill of potential here.
Imagine a flooded landscape. The water rose at some time in the past, rose all the way up the slopes, eventually submerging the peaks and kept rising. That's a picture of the Western World, of what was once thought of as "Christendom." The success of Christianity in the West meant, ironically, that if your boat had a shallow keel you could float over all the jagged pinnacles of the faith. Because everyone knew about communion, because everyone had taken communion, because it was such a given, no one had to think much about communion.
Ever since the Enlightenment the water has been draining from the West and that process has accelerated in the last fifty years to the point where some of the previously submerged peaks are now glistening again in the sunlight. The civil authorities are putting their buoys up to warn off those in danger of crashing on the rocks.
Now the mountains in this metaphor neither shrink nor grow. The change of water level gives them the appearance of rising out of the water, but it's an illusion. the mountains do not change. In the same way, the weird things about the Christian faith were no less weird when everyone accepted them than they are now when a startled world discovers them in their arresting and stark oddness.
A God who died.
A God who, before he died, went through gestation.
Sinners going under the water and coming out a new creation.
People voluntarily giving a tenth of their income to God.
Belief in heaven and hell.
And, yes, eating bread representing a broken body, and drinking from a cup representing the shed blood of a Jewish rabbi we believe to be the Son of God.
That's some weird stuff.
And all this weirdness is perfectly consistent with belief in a supernatural God who redemptively loves his creation.
I think that we, as believers, can be pleased that the receding waters have exposed the crags of our faith. We shouldn't be embarrassed by them or try to strip them of their weirdness, explaining away every odd detail.
The buoys put out to warn away the voyagers of this age will have the effect of drawing some. Some people are weary of drifting on a sea of shifting waves and long to plant their feet on something solid, even if it's weird. Especially if it's weird. Let's meet them on the slopes of the holy mountains on which they wash up. And when we meet them there in the weird places where time and eternity intersect, let's not greet them with apologies and sheepish explanations, but with a hearty welcome.
There are people who can slip into a room unseen, and who make a very light impression, if they make one at all.
And then there are people with such charisma that, even though they are doing nothing to draw attention to themselves, get the attention of everyone in the room as soon as they step into it. The very atmosphere of the room changes with their arrival.
And I can’t figure out which category Jesus belongs in. On the one hand, he’s the light of the world, and what could be more magnetic than that?
But on the other hand, Isaiah tells us that he had “no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” There are times in the gospels that he is the center of attention. And there are times that he seems invisible to the crowd until he says something to provoke them.
Even at his birth, Jesus was neither quite the center of attention nor the wallflower in the background. And following him still means paying close attention. He may come into a situation like balls of fire. Or you may, after looking for him intently for some time, discover that he’d been in the situation all along, keeping his peace. So pay attention and let Jesus be Jesus.
Prayer: Jesus I want to be alert to your arrival and presence, but I’m afraid I might miss you. You could so easily slip into my blind spot. So make me attuned to you and help me to welcome you whenever and wherever and however you show up.
Song: “Make the Gates All Wide” by Swedish musician A Treehouse Wait invites us to remove barriers and make room for Jesus on his own terms.
Much is made of the humble circumstances of Jesus’ birth, and rightly so. It would be extraordinary that God should humble himself to the condition of human infancy, even if that human infant was wrapped in purple linen and placed in the palace’s finest bed. But swaddling clothes? A manger? A makeshift “nursery?”
And the humility of it all is made so explicit that it seems like it must be the point. Jesus would brook no half-measures. He’d come to play a critical role and he wasn’t going to mumble any of his lines. If he was to be one of us then he’d be such a one as any one of us might relate to. If he was going to die for us he was going to suffer such a death as would kill any one of us. And if he was going to be a Savior he was going to provide such a salvation as would save any one of us.
Let us follow him in the same manner in which he has led us - without half-measures, wholeheartedly, with the sort of commitment that leaves nothing back.
Prayer: I have often been guilty of hedging when it comes to you. I’ve obeyed, yes, but often in such a way that I was comforted by the knowledge that disobedience was still an option. Help me to be as radically saved as Jesus was radically human.
Song: This version of “Cradle Hymn,” the words of which were written by Isaac Watts is from what may be the most played Christmas album in the Tate home. The song is addressed to a sleeping baby and compares the condition of that child with the Christ child. But any of us who are struggling to sleep and being weighed down by a burden of care might imagine this song being sung to us.
You wouldn’t exactly be right in saying that Jesus was born into obscurity. Not when there was a star over Bethlehem to alert those in the know to his identity and location. Not when hordes of angels showed up to trumpet the event. Mary had shepherds barging in to have a look at the infant Savior, for goodness sake!
No, it wasn’t really a private arrival.
But it wasn’t exactly a public one either.
Jesus’ birth and his identity were not common knowledge in the Empire. Not in Israel. Not in Bethlehem. Not even in his extended family. No one was doing any PR work for him, and Joseph didn’t have to excuse himself from the manger to go take questions at the press event.
Shepherds came from the fields, it’s true. But there’s no indication that neighbors bothered to come from next door.
Not public. Not private. But it was personal.
We are all, to one degree or another, “public figures.” We have all, at one time or another, performed for an “imaginary audience.” We are unrelentingly conscious of the fact that others perceive us, even if we are left to guess about how they perceive us.
Jesus, the Light of the World, is not a private figure, inaccessible and highly curated. Nor is Jesus, the Son of God, a public figure. He does not belong to us, even if he was happy to be counted as one of us.
But he is personal.
Prayer: Lord, help me resist the impulse to put you in human categories. And thank you for relating to me personally despite any of the various categories to which I belong.
Song: “The Light Came Down” by Josh Garrels. I promise, we’ll have some traditional Christmas songs to enjoy and reflect on as we go on, but I have to share another original song from a contemporary artist.
Is Jesus a make doer? Did he just “macgyver” his way from Bethlehem all the way back to his Father’s courts?
For a mom he had a woman who was not biologically a candidate for the role, being a virgin.
For a crib he had a manger.
For an administration he had 12 fickle friends.
For a throne he had a cross.
For a crown he had twined thorns, cruelly impressed.
You could look at Jesus and conclude that he was so weak a king that he had very little to work with.
Or you could look at him and, wonderingly, come to the conclusion that he is so great a king that the most mean and ill-suited things, when put to the purpose of his majesty, become the most beautiful, apt, and worthy objects of his royal order.
I want to be such a thing, an ill-suited and unlikely person whose accomplishments for the Kingdom can only be accounted for by the greatness of the King.
2 Corinthians 12:9
Prayer: Lord, I can't help wanting to be useful. I like to think that there are some things about me, some gifts you’ve given me, that you might be pleased to use. But I know I’m not indispensable to your cause. And perhaps you are most glorified when my weakness is most evident. So I drop every pretension and invite you to show off. I will gladly be a foil for your greatness.
Song - Noel by Chris Tomlin and Lauren Daigle
If you were having a health emergency and the life saving measures were provided by an off duty EMT who just happened to be walking past, would you be disappointed that he hadn’t arrived in uniform by way of an ambulance with screaming sirens and flashing lights? Probably not. But truthfully, we find the ambulance reassuring. And if the off duty EMT offered to help but we could hear the ambulance approaching, there’s a chance we’d wait for the ambulance, isn’t there?
During Advent we have to face the uncomfortable truth that in Bethlehem we got the Savior we needed, even if he showed up in civilian attire. There were, it’s true, some flashing lights and lovely sirens to mark his arrival, but it was an unconventional ambulance. There are lots of other “saviors” offering to put us on their gurneys. Politics. Social action. Relationships.
But with Jesus, God was less concerned about reassuring us by the quality of his arrival than with saving us by the quality of his sacrifice.
Prayer: Help me Lord to know and feel just how desperately I need you and to know and feel just how completely able you are to meet my need. Disillusion me when it comes to lights and sirens and help me to be content with a perfect Savior.
Song: Sarah Sparks is worthy of more attention than she receives. In her original Christmas song “400 Years” she poignantly explores the response to hearing from God after 400 years of silence and plays with the refrain of a favorite carol in the process.
Jesus surprised people by coming when he did. As with every other natural birth, there was nothing Mary could do to determine the day and time of Jesus’ arrival. So she had to content herself with doing everything she could to be ready whenever that day came.
It’s easy to forgive a baby for operating on its own schedule. It’s much harder to forgive the service technician for doing so. We imagine we’d be happier if we could control the timing of everything in our lives. And our lives would certainly be easier if we could.
But Jesus has never been impressed with our calendars (or our need for control) and he is wise and good. So, like Mary, we should be confident that he is coming and content ourselves with doing our best to be ready when he does.
Prayer - “Lord forgive me for wanting to control the timing of everything. I believe that you love me and that I can trust you to order things for the best. So help me to use my time to prepare so that whenever you do show up I can greet your arrival without panic, without anything but pleasure.”
When my son hides behind a tree to hit me with a surprise snowball, I’m caught off guard because he was sneaking. When I stub my toe on a door frame that wasn’t exactly hiding from me, my problem is that I was not observant. And when I’m surprised by good news, I’m surprised because my expectations are those of someone with a worldly imagination. But in each case I can say “I didn’t see it coming.”
When Jesus came as a baby in Bethlehem the whole world at the time could have responded with a collective “we didn’t see that coming.” Was that because Jesus snuck up on them? Was it because they weren’t paying attention? Or was it because their imaginations were too impoverished to catch things unfolding in front of them?
And what about you?
Prayer - “Lord, if you want to surprise me, surprise me. If you want to sneak up on me, travel in my blindspot, confound my expectations - so be it. But help me, Lord, to be attentive and to have an imagination that takes you and your greatness into account.”
Song: "The Annunciation" by Giants & Pilgrims. I love how husband and wife team Tim and Betony Coons open their Christmas album, "The Joyous Mysteries," with a song about the annunciation in which there are no words, no lyrics. It begins with a simple whistle. It is the musical equivalent of a "psst." I like the reminder that God's efforts to prepare us for even the most momentous events begins with something like a whisper.
If in the valley you sense it seething,
See the surge of ancient tides,
Feel the shock to hear them shout
For blood who did not hide
From the soul's revealing
Or fail to take the devil's side,
If civil levees look to fail
If hooves are loud,
The rider pale,
If you hear sirens
Behind the veil,
And feel things freed
That best be bound,
Move to Higher Ground
This week, in the midst of a news cycle dominated by foreboding world events and natural disasters and an unthinkable groundswell of anti-semitism, I experienced two unrelated events that each felt, in their own way, like a matter of hell erupting into this world. That sense of finding myself at dangerous intersections made me conscious of the most dangerous intersection of all, the cross.
Here’s an irony for you: the more aware you are of the news and its prophetic implications the less time you have to spend worrying. The prophetically attuned believer doesn’t have to worry if things will get worse; he knows they will. He doesn’t need to worry if things will be okay; he knows it will be okay, knows Jesus will remain enthroned at the right hand of the Father, knows that nothing can separate us from God’s love.
So how do believers behave in alarming times like these?
In short, the things we should be doing in every season.
It’s going to get worse.
It’s going to be okay.
We’re going to be okay.
And Jesus will always be Lord
Furnace Brook Wesleyan Church Blog