We are in the second week of Advent, this season of waiting and watching for the coming of Christ. This past Sunday, Chris introduced our Advent series with these words: “we are looking at the incredible and unexpected religion-breaking and future-altering newness that entered history 2,000 years ago”. That is a stunning sentence. Thanks Chris. And yet it doesn’t overreach. How could it? Christmas demands such language.
Still, in the much more tranquil and tamed form of Christmas we know and love, Christmas is anything but the description Chris gave it. Christmas is sentimental; a rehearsal in the old and familiar. How is it anything like an “unexpected religion-breaking and future-altering newness”? But the original Christmas was.
To read the gospel stories of Jesus’ birth is to understand that a full-on disruption of expectation and order is taking place. Perhaps the symbolic reason there was “no room for [him] in the inn” (the traditional rendering of Luke 2:7; literally “no place in the guest-room”) was that the birth of the one we call Emmanuel (God-With-Us) was not merely a temporary inconvenience; it was quite rightly a category-breaker. The birth of Jesus broke the mold of human expectation.
This is deeply challenging to us if we are honest. Especially for those of us quite fond of the quieter side of Christmas, the silent night of calm and heavenly peace. I admit I would be one of those persons. I like the quiet and ordered life. I like knowing what I can expect, what I can count on. But then I read the stories of Jesus’ birth and I see how his coming into the world is not only the big surprise, but the big disruption as well.
So here is my Christmas question: are you (and I) able to give up on normal, expected hope (the hope we want to manage and understand), and exchange it for the hope God brings in his own disruptive way? Can we trust him for that? As was pointed out on Sunday, the stories of Elizabeth and Zechariah, followed by the story of Mary, point to this kind of reality. As these characters are taken up into the bigger story of Jesus, they discover how hope is being re-ordered. God does not so much fulfill our dreams as replace our dreams with something far more wonderful, something we could never have dreamt up in the first place.
CS Lewis wrote that the gospel, “does not tell of a human search for God at all, but of something done by God for, to, and about, Man. And the way in which it is done is selective, undemocratic, to the highest degree.” Lewis continues:
“After the knowledge of God had been universally lost or obscured, one man from the whole earth (Abraham) is picked out. He is separated (miserably enough, we may suppose) from his natural surroundings, sent into a strange country, and made the ancestor of a nation who are to carry the knowledge of the true God. Within this nation there is further selection: some die in the desert, some remain behind in Babylon. There is further selection still. The process grows narrower and narrower, sharpens at last into one small bright point like the head of a spear. It is a Jewish girl at her prayers. All humanity (so far as it concerns its redemption) has narrowed to that.” [CS Lewis, Miracles, p. 120).
The thought, so well captured here by Lewis, is of the challenge that God’s actual salvation makes upon us, its obvious disruption to our plans, and its surprising pathway. In the story of Israel, we see how God chooses unusual ways and unusual people. He is the initiator: he chooses the how, the when, and the what. Very little of what we would call normal hope happens here. Instead, the thing we learn about God’s hope is that it surprises, it startles.
We invite you to read the first two chapters of Luke’s gospel and see how this works. The responses of the characters are crucial: Elizabeth and Zechariah, Mary, the Shepherds, Simeon and Anna -- all have something to say, and do. All respond to what God initiates.
But as we began on Sunday, at the center of the story is a young girl, about to be married but still a virgin, chosen to be the human womb for God’s grandest miracle, the moment when God became one with us. After the angel announced this plan to Mary,
Mary responded, “I am the Lord’s servant. May everything you have said about me come true.” [Luke 1:38, NLT]
May you find yourself responding to what God initiates with a "yes" this Christmas, and may you be most blessed.