When we think of Christmas the images that often come to mind are usually ones of a happy family gathered around a crackling fire, the children gleefully unwrapping their mountain of presents. Perhaps we see Santa seated in a cosy armchair enjoying a glass of cold milk and a freshly baked – melt in your mouth – mince pie or two. Or maybe we imagine a softly lit nativity scene complete with lowing cattle and a little Lord Jesus asleep on the hay. While these images warm our hearts (and they most certainly should) if they are all we imagine when we think about Christmas they can distract us from the unsanitary nature of original Christmas story. A world of cruelty: of infertility, scandal, tears, and ignobility. But a world which God, nevertheless, steps into in the Person of Jesus the Messiah.
Darkness blanked the fields close to Bethlehem. Shepherds kept watch over their flocks by the light of stars and moon, their eyes having grown accustomed to the sight granted by the distant luminaries. The night, like the men, was unremarkable. There was no static in the air hinting at events to come. Anticipation was absent. Somewhere in Bethlehem town a young woman was crying out in the anguish of child birth but the only sounds that reached the ears of the shepherds were the bleating of sheep, the rustling of grass, and the howling of wayward winds.
Suddenly the sky was alive with an unearthly light and a heavenly figure appeared saying, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11 NIV). As the angel continued the shepherds’ terror turned to wonder, “This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger” (Luke 2:12 NIV). Without warning this solitary angel was joined by an army of heavenly hosts armed with praise, announcing,
“Glory to God in the highest heaven,
and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.”
Echoing the words of Isaiah, the shepherds must have wondered as, after finding things just as the angel had told them, they shared the story of what had happened to them this night,
“Who has believed our message
and to whom has the arm of the Lord been revealed?”
Indeed, this seems to have been the consensus among those who heard the shepherds’ tale: “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them” (Luke 2:18 NIV). Who would believe the word of a shepherd? You can’t trust a shepherd, they’re a disreputable sort. Besides, the Messiah won’t be born in such base circumstances as to necessitate re-appropriating a manger as a makeshift cot. And his birth certainly won’t be announced to the likes of shepherds, and by the angels of heaven in song no less.
What happens in Jesus’ birth narrative sets us up for what is to come: that God is doing something unexpected in Jesus. It wasn’t that God was acting uncharacteristically, rather, he wasn’t acting in exactly the way the Israelites had expected or even hoped he would. They wanted a Messiah with all the frills: a palace, an army, a king who would dash the oppressive Romans with a sword of steel. They wanted him to renew Israel’s religious life freeing it from the tyranny of the Pharisees and the politicking of the Sadducees. They wanted a conquering king riding on a warhorse with a glittering sword in his hand come to make the world right, and establish ethnic Israel in pride of place, by force. What they saw in Jesus was a king, but a king riding on a donkey weeping as he approached the city of the king. No sword, no army, only a lament:
“If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes. The days will come upon you when your enemies will build an embankment against you and encircle you and hem you in on every side. They will dash you to the ground, you and the children within your walls. They will not leave one stone on another, because you did not recognize the time of God’s coming to you.”
When he entered the Temple he brought no religious revival. Instead he interrupted the sacrifices bringing worship to a standstill (cf. Luke 19:45-46) and later prophesied the destruction of the Temple, the very centre of Israel’s worship (cf. Luke 21:5-6, and following), because he himself was replacing the Temple as the centre of worship.
What are we to make of this Messiah? He wasn’t the Messiah Israel was looking for:
“Jesus fitted no ready-made categories… To be sure, the categories were themselves flexible… But, even at their most flexible, Jesus both fitted and didn’t fit… It was as though he filled the existing categories, flexible as they were, so full that they all overflowed, and in that overflow he overwhelmed his followers, his hearers, the enthusiastic and the suspicious alike, and ultimately those who were attempting to put him on trial, both Jews and pagans.
The story, as we have it in the different gospels, is punctuated with moments of clarity, moments that steer the narrative away from the banal attempt that readers have made from time to time to squish Jesus into this or that box. Instead, these moments open the story up to the possibility that maybe, after all, heaven and earth would come together, God’s time and human time would coincide, and the physical reality of this world might indeed become the bearer of the fresh new reality of God’s new creation.”
The world can be an intolerably cruel place to live. But we have a God who cared enough to step down from his heavenly throne in order to take upon himself the entire weight of that cruelty so that he could exhaust it. This is what God was doing in Jesus. Jesus’ message – “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” (Mark 1:15 NIV) – was that in himself God was coming, indeed, had come, to reign on earth as in heaven, and in that process heaven would begin breaking through into earth. Changing it, renewing it, restoring it. God cares enough about this world to enter into it so that through him it will be redeemed from the corruption that has so long festered within (Romans 8:20-21).
Moreover, he invites us to join his restoration project. We do this as we share the gospel story of how God has become King in Jesus: in healings, in exorcisms, in forgiving, in living righteously, in loving even to death. And we must endeavour to live as Jesus lived, not only in our words but by our actions, as we bring the kingdom of God to bear in our spheres of influence. We must live in righteousness – actively seeking to do what is right – and justice – seeking to right wrongs when we find them. But most of all in loving the people we meet, the people we live with, the people we work with, even our enemies. Even when it costs us. God will work unexpectedly in us to bring about his purposes for his people and his world, through his Messiah and through the people of the Messiah. Expect to be surprised.