Sunday, December 25, 2016

Christmas 2016

The Christmas story will be read from pulpits today, performed on stages and screen, broadcast across the airwaves and read in quiet studies. It is only part of the story of Jesus, but it is the part that tells us how He came among us, and that makes it inexhaustibly fascinating and profound. It is a story about Who He is, and why He came, and how. I think I am safe in saying it is the best-known story in human history.

But the cast of characters is really pretty small! That’s one of the surprising things about this story: it is completely particular. We don’t tell the story of humanity receiving Jesus; we tell the story of two particular Jews - Joseph and Mary - receiving Jesus. We don’t tell the story of how whole civilizations have found Jesus; we tell the story of a few particular Shepherds who were nearby. We don’t talk about the Gentile nations coming to faith in the Jewish Messiah; we talk about just three particular wise men from the East. So in one sense, this is the biggest and grandest story ever told. But in another sense, everything about it is small. Not the halls of power and empire, but a stable behind a small-town inn. Not the remarkable historical figures and emperors, but the most ordinary shepherds and such. And that fits: because this is, after all, the story of how the Eternal Creator God, whom the universe could not contain, becomes small.
Giotto, Nativity

There’s something tragically sad about them being turned away at the inn. Fulton Sheen said that “when finally the scrolls of history are completed down to the last words of time, the saddest lines of all will be ‘There was no room in the inn.’” But I think there’s also a little bit of an ironic theological joke to it. Of course there isn’t enough room in the inn to fit the one who holds all time and space in the palm of His hand. There isn’t enough room in the world. There isn’t enough room between here and the farthest star. Not because God takes up a lot of space, but because He’s outside of space, He’s God, and how could anything contain Him? How could anything measure up? If He’d ordered a magnificent palace to be built for Him to be born in, how grand would be grand enough? There’s no such thing — the project is doomed from the start. If He’d planned out a red carpet event, what gala would be grand enough? There’s nothing big enough, nothing magnificent enough, nothing grand enough for the arrival of the Creator. He could never express His grandeur by being big and grand… so He expresses it by being small and powerless and cast aside.

So that’s the paradox of the Christmas story: On one hand, we have the most significant event to have occurred since the Creation of the world. Nothing has changed human history more than this birth, together with His death and Resurrection. But on the other hand, who actually noticed anything at the time? Not many - that surprisingly small cast of characters.

There were the shepherds, humble regular people who were willing to listen to the angels. They were at work when they found the Messiah. They were busy about their daily responsibilities, doing their daily routine, and it was in the midst of ordinary life that they suddenly found themselves in the company of angels. They were scared at first. The angels had to tell them not to be afraid, that this was good news of great joy, and where they must go greet the Savior. That’s how it is sometimes. Jesus comes to us in our ordinary daily lives, but sometimes in ways that can be scary. He shakes things up. He calls us forward. He comes with a power that we know will transform us, and part of us is afraid of that, afraid to change. But the angel tells us not to be afraid, and where to seek out the Savior.

Very different from the shepherds, there were the Magi. They were educated academic types, scholars and sages, seekers of truth. The Gospels mention no connection at all with the Jewish people and their awaited Messiah. The Magi weren’t on that track, weren’t thinking about Jewish prophets or divine promises. But they were honest truth seekers, and that quest led them to Jesus. They recognized in Him the presence of a Truth before which they wished to bow. Some people still come to Jesus this way, very intellectually. Sometimes they are extremely surprised when their quest for truth leads them to Christianity. Sometimes that’s the last place they expected to end up. But they are following the star they’ve been given, and it comes to rest over this particular stable… so in they go.

Not everyone who noticed the birth of Jesus welcomed it. There was Herod, whose notice was hostile and murderous: he recognized this threat to his wicked power. In this way, Herod was absolutely right, and in this way, Herod understood the meaning of Christmas better than most. His kingdom of murderous wickedness was under assault, this was an invasion. This child born today was promised to be the downfall of many, a sign of contradiction, and a just judge. Herod will not bow, not even to the Messiah, not even to the Son of David, not even to the True Eternal King, not even to God. His dark power of violence and fear have met their match, and they will not go quietly. But they will go. There’s a real King in Israel now… now and forever. And there will always be those who cannot tolerate Him.

And of course, saving the main characters for last, there were Mary and Joseph: these humble people whose qualifications were that they believed God's Promise and followed in faith. It seems like more should be said, but in a sense it really was that simple and to complicate it would rob it of its power. Mary and Joseph believed God’s Promise and followed in faith. And that opened a door so powerful that even God Himself could come through it.

Still today, we consider the question of who really notices the birth of the Lord. We see all kinds of messaging about the "True Meaning of Christmas" and whether people are in touch with it in the midst of all the distractions. I think about those people in the inn… apparently it was crowded enough to be turning away pregnant women… and think about how close they were. They were eating their dinner and drinking their wine and telling their stories and going about the busy business of the world and just a stone’s throw away, just right out the back door, the birth of the savior happens and they’re just clueless, they miss it entirely. They’re so close, but yet they miss it entirely.

But churches are full around the world today, because there are also a lot of people who do follow that star and seek that Savior. Just like in the original story, they arrive at the stable by different paths. Many won't be regular churchgoers; they aren't fully committed disciples but there is something that draws them to celebrate this birth. I'll be praying for this Christmas miracle above all others: that the joy and promise of this day will shine in new hearts this year, that Jesus will have new disciples who recognize just how much the world has changed when we enter this stable and kneel before this manger. Peace to you all!

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