Friday, December 23, 2016


The land into which Jesus was born burned with Messianic expectations. Prayers for a long-promised national deliverer arose constantly from homes, synagogues and the great Temple in Jerusalem. A nation which had for over six centuries been divided, humiliated and dominated by foreign powers awaited God’s anointed deliverer who would restore national honor, integrity, piety and power. The coming of this national redeemer would be a joyful event for the people—a momentous event that would be witnessed by all the nations of the earth. At least that was the populist belief of the time given the common interpretation of scriptural passages such as this:

“How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!”
Listen! Your watchmen lift up their voices; together they shout for joy.
When the LORD returns to Zion, they will see it with their own eyes.
Burst into songs of joy together, you ruins of Jerusalem,
for the LORD has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The LORD will lay bare his holy arm in the sight of all the nations,
and all the ends of the earth will see the salvation of our God."
(Isaiah 52:7-10)

The central reason why most believers in these scriptures rejected Jesus as God’s Messiah—His Anointed—was that his birth, life and death (and even the claims of his resurrection) met none of the expectations that the vast majority of the people had for their long-hoped-for redeemer.

In the decades and centuries following Jesus’s earthly ministry, those who did embrace him as the Messiah passed along stories and created traditions that commemorated his birth as a miraculous, earth-shaking event.

Thus, Christmas is celebrated by erecting Nativity scenes, singing glorious carols, and retelling stories of singing angelic hosts filling the night skies above shepherds in their fields; of Wise Men on camels following a blazing star from Persia to Bethlehem; of ancient Americans falling to their knees as the skies above them remain bright for a day, a night and day in recognition of the Savior’s birth.

There are two things that these stories have in common.

All of these stories involve great lights: the star of the east; a day, a night and a day as if they were one day; bright angelic host filling the night sky.

And all of these stories involve humans looking heavenward for signs of the Messiah’s birth.

Whether these particular stories are historical or legendary is of little importance to our discussion here. If they are indeed historical, they happened to only a handful of people in the Middle East or to an ancient America civilization that had no contact with the rest of the world. The fact remains that the rest of the human family—including those living in the small town where Jesus was born—had no idea that a Messiah had been born.

No one was looking earthward. No one was looking down.

With all of the reading of scripture that took place daily in synagogues and communities throughout the Roman Empire; all of the anticipation, all of the talking, bickering, debating, speculating and theorizing about the Messiah which consumed the faithful of that day—no one thought to look for the Lord’s Anointed in a dark stable, lying in a manger.

Certainly if (as the Gospel According to Luke testifies) Mary gave birth to Jesus in overcrowded Bethlehem during the taking of a national census, it would stand to reason that others in the crowded inn and adjoining stable would have been aware of the event. Others would have heard the newborn Jesus crying. Others would have passed the babe in the manger. Even with no heralding angles or stars rising in the east, Jesus was not born in isolation, in secret or even in the privacy of a home.

And yet as far as our traditions tell us, not a single soul in closest proximity to the newborn babe had the slightest inkling that their Messiah had come—that the child was “Emmanuel”—meaning “God with us.” The populist notions of national pride and power, the certainty that national and sectarian interests were the measure of God’s interests, the testimonies delivered by the multitudes asserting that they already knew the truth regarding the ways in which God operated—all of these combined to blind people to the way in which redemption, salvation, restoration, peace and the reign of God were being brought into the world.

For those who accepted Jesus as the Messiah—the Christ—God had entered the world quietly, undermining not only popular beliefs about how He operates but also undermining all traditional, orthodox assumptions about the very nature of the Divine’s relationship with humanity.

In Jesus’s day, as in our own, people were looking for blinding beams of glory streaming from the heaven, for the bright flash of a national deliverer’s sword, for the glowing radiance of thrones, crowns, riches and royal opulence.

No one thought of looking for the Light in the countenance of the weakest of humans—a seemingly ordinary infant asleep among the animals in a common stable.

As Phillip Brooks wrote his immortal 1868 Christmas carol:

“How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given!
So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
No ear may hear His coming,
But in this world of sin,
Where meek souls will receive him still,
The dear Christ enters in.”

How much time and energy have I spent looking heavenward for signs and wonders rather than looking at the world around me, in the faces and lives of others?

How have my experiences of God undermined the expectations I had based on my religious upbringing?

SHARING FOOD FOR THOUGHT: This Christmas Season bring up the above questions in conversations with family members or friends.

Don’t argue; don’t attempt to convince or convert one another to any particular idea. Just discuss your thoughts openly and honestly. Seek to understand one another first and then try to make your ideas understood. The objective is to create a bond between yourself and the other person in which such ideas can be expressed openly and without fear; in which each person can be true to what they believe while still feeling respected by the other person. The objective is to strengthen the sense of community between you and others.

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