*Sorry, no audio this week.
People, as much as they are creatures of habit, are also addicted to novelty. I think it’s part of the coming of sin in the world that humans not only hate change but we get bored if things stay the same for too long. Have you noticed this?
We have things we consistently like– traditions, foods, favourite toys, certain authors, or styles of movie – and we will get quite put out if someone messes with them, right? But then, at some point, we look at that thing and we’re just sick of it and want something else. We wait all year for some special Christmas treat, but after a couple days we don’t ever want to see it again – but somehow it’s not Christmas if it’s not there.
This happens in pop-culture all the time. Right now, in Hollywood, a lot of people are wondering if we’ve reached peak saturation with superhero movies. No one was making them 10 years ago and this year we had 6 of them, and together they made over 4.5 Billion dollars. But everyone is wondering when the bubble will burst. This isn’t the first time this kind of thing has happened. This happened years ago with Westerns too. First, there were none, then they were being cranked out by the dozens, and then audiences got tired of them.
It’s that same give and take we just talked about. We love it for a while but end up getting tired of seeing and hearing the same story over and over, so we want something new. But ironically, it’s not even that new. If you think about it, there’s a lot of similarities between the old westerns and the new superhero movies, right?
There are clear distinctions between good and evil. The problems are usually solved with some mashup of personal sacrifice and violence. The archetypes are similar. There’s the very good guys, like the lawful sheriff and then the antihero outlaws. The good guys are usually traditional North Americans and the bad guys are often people with different coloured skin – then it was red or brown, now it’s purple. And then, at some point, instead of lone ranger defending one place, they put a whole bunch of them in the same movie.
So, it’s not that we get tired of the story – what we get tired of the package the story comes in. We still want a story about good conquering evil, heroes overcoming villains, the strong protecting the weak, and people sacrificially working together for a common cause that is greater than them. We just want the packaging to change.
Bored with The Christmas Story
Christians believe that the Christmas story is one of the most important stories in history and that we need to keep telling it. The incarnation of the Son of God as a human baby, announced by angels and miracles, conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of a virgin, fulfilling thousands of years of prophecy, is a really big deal – but, after so many years of telling it, we somehow get tired of the story.
I think this is how we end up with so many retellings of the Christmas story from so many different perspectives. We see it from the perspective of Mary and Joseph, like in the Bible, but after that we get bored. So then we watch it from the perspective of the Shepherds, King Herod, or even the Wise Men (who weren’t even there when Jesus was born). But then we get tired of that, because it keeps coming around to Mary, Joseph, and Jesus in some cave or barn somewhere and we want even newer packaging, so we stretch things. Then we get the story from a few more obscure characters that don’t have a lot of backstory, like the Angels, the citizens of Bethlehem, or the man running the overfilled Inn.
But then that gets boring, so where else do we turn? Well, then it’s time to start really getting creative by changing the story a bit, making it funnier, sending people back in time to have adventures – and then finally of course, we come to where we are today – a non-Christian celebrity voiced, comedic version of the Birth of Jesus from the perspective of some random animals who are tasked with using their animal kung-fu skills to save Mary, Joseph and Jesus. And the main song they use in the trailer is by Stevie Wonder and is about how what Christmas really means is “lots of mistletoe, kissing, pretty trees, and snow”.
Now, I don’t want to rain on anyone’s Christmas parade because I like stupid Christmas stuff too. I’ve told you guys over the past month how tired I am of disliking things, right? My personal motto has become “Take serious stuff serious and not serious stuff not serious”, and I’ve always liked silly stuff anyway. I think dumb songs about red-nosed reindeer and magically animated snowmen are fun. I think that watching a movie with Santa in it is fine, the Grinch is awesome, and having an upside down tree is cool, so whatever.
But, from a pastoral perspective, I think there is a spiritual danger to getting bored by the actual Christmas story and concentrating not only on the peripherals, but everything else. Why do I think this? Because the current problem of the day isn’t that we have heard the Christmas story so many times that we are too familiar with it, but that we’ve spend so much time on the edges of it that we’ve forgotten the actual story.
We don’t know the prophecies being fulfilled, why it was in Bethlehem, why Joseph being of the house of David matters, who Gabriel was, the actual meaning of the name Jesus means, or the other titles He’s given in the Christmas story. We’ve lost the drama of the virgin being with child and then almost divorced and what an incredible person Mary was. We feature Shepherds and Wise Men in our Christmas play, but have forgotten Zachariah and Elizabeth whose story is interwoven with, and takes up just as much space in scripture, as the birth of Jesus. It is not that we are too familiar with the Christmas story, it is that we think we are too familiar, but many have actually forgotten it.
The Nativity Story
Turn with me and let’s read Luke 1:26–55. We talked a bit about John the Baptist last week, the forerunner of Jesus, and if you scan back a little bit you’ll see that his story is told first, before Mary and Joseph are even introduced. If you recall, the miraculous conception of John the Baptist by Zechariah and Elizabeth was the natural place to start the story after the last lines of Malachi 4, because John the Baptist was the one who would come in the spirit of Elijah (Matthew 11:14; Mark 9:11; Luke 1:17). The story of the birth of Jesus and John the Baptist are interwoven in the first chapters of Luke. But for today we are going to start with the announcement of the birth of Jesus by the angel Gabriel. Look at Luke 1:
“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary.
And he came to her and said, ‘Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!’ But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, ‘Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.’
And Mary said to the angel, ‘How will this be, since I am a virgin?’
And the angel answered her, ‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.’ And Mary said, ‘Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.’ And the angel departed from her.”
There’s a lot packed into that part, some of it is pretty amazing.
It begins, “In the sixth month”. That’s the sixth month of Elizabeth’s pregnancy, not the sixth month of the year, because it’s tying the two stories together. In the sixth month of Elizabeth’s miraculous pregnancy, an angel also came to one of her relatives, a young girl named Mary. Gabriel connects these two women together by informing Mary that God is already at work and has worked miracles to prepare for Jesus to come. Mary’s worry is to wonder how this is going to come about since she’s not married, nor has she ever been with a man before, and the angels response is, “The Holy Spirit will take care of that part. Do you know your old, barren, relative Elizabeth? She’s pregnant too. Nothing’s impossible with God!”
Mary and Elizabeth would have a very special relationship. The much older woman would be a great support to the nervous, young Mary whose life had been completely shaken up by God’s gift. In fact, Mary almost immediately goes running to Elizabeth for support.
Look at verse 39:
“In those days Mary arose and went with haste into the hill country, to a town in Judah, and she entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. And when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, the baby leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit, and she exclaimed with a loud cry, ‘Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For behold, when the sound of your greeting came to my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her from the Lord.’”
We have no indication that Elizabeth knew Mary was coming, and it was unlikely in that culture that Mary’s pregnancy news had travelled that far so quickly, so it must have been so encouraging to hear these words of prophecy about her obedience, God’s plan, and the truth of who her baby would be coming from someone she knew and trusted.
The mother of John the Baptist, the prophesied forerunner of Jesus, and the mother of Jesus, the Saviour of the World, coming together to care for, support, and wonder at God’s work together. It’s a beautiful picture – one I don’t see very often in many Christmas stories.
And what is Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s encouragement? One of the most beautiful songs in all of scripture: one that we call “The Magnificat”. She says,
“And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.’”
God’s Plan of Salvation Shakes Our World
That’s a beautiful song of faith from a young woman in a very difficult situation. There’s so much happening in this story, but I want to point at just one thing I think we can learn from today. I want to notice that God’s Plan of Salvation Shakes Up Our World.
The coming of Jesus, the Saviour of the World, was the best news in the world, but it wasn’t news that made everyone’s life comfortable. Jesus coming into the world sent shockwaves everywhere and caused a lot of problems for a lot of people – but it was still God’s perfect plan and was the way He would work out our salvation.
Mary was betrothed to Joseph, that meant they were engaged but not living together, and both of them would have to wait a year and remain pure while they got their house in order for the marriage. Jesus’ birth messed all that up. Now Mary was pregnant out of wedlock, Joseph almost divorced her, and there was no doubt – even though it doesn’t say it in the story – that the family faced fallout from that for a long time. We know from second century writings that the Pharisees wrote in the Talmud that Jesus was the son of adultery. Another anti-Christian writer of the second century said Mary cheated on Joseph with a Roman soldier. Some people even take some of names the Pharisees called Jesus during their arguments as indication that there was a rumour that Jesus was an illegitimate child (John 8:41; Matthew 13:55)
Not only Mary and Joseph’s lives were turned upside down, but everyone around Jesus. Remember that after the Wise Men went to King Herod his response was to murder all the male children in Bethlehem under two years old (Matthew 2:16) causing Mary, Joseph and Jesus had to flee and live in a foreign land for a few years.
The faithful words of Elizabeth and Mary stir our hearts, but we must remember the context. The coming of the Lord, the long awaited Saviour, is good news, but it brought much trouble to those who God blessed to be part of the story. Mary declares that God will feed the weak, save the powerless, bless the nation – but it doesn’t happen immediately. Mary declares that she is blessed, and certainly was, blessed beyond all other women, but at times that blessing brought a lot of trouble.
And when baby Jesus was only 40 days old, and comes to the temple to be dedicated, what does Mary hear from Simeon? “Behold, this child is appointed for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is opposed (and a sword will pierce through your own soul also), so that thoughts from many hearts may be revealed.” (Luke 2:34–35). The greatest blessing in the world comes with a sword to the heart.
Hebrews 11 says faith is, “the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” I’m amazed at young Mary’s strength and even more amazed at her faith. She is troubled by what she hears from the Angel but doesn’t argue or demand a sign. She accepts God’s plan immediately – with her only hesitation being a quite natural wondering about how it’s going to work. She relents to God’s plan because she is sure she can trust Him. She doesn’t understand, but believes is convinced God knows what He’s doing.
Over and over, from the moment Jesus’ came into her life, everything got more complicated and more frightening. There’s the nervousness of being pregnant. Joseph almost divorces her. Then she walks three days to Elizabeth’s house and when she gets back it’s not long until she’s big and almost nine months pregnant, and then there’s the census requiring her and Joseph to travel a 10 day journey to Bethlehem! Then there’s nowhere to stay and she ends up giving birth in a stable and laying her baby in a feeding trough, maybe with people helping, maybe not. Then there’s some weird shepherds visiting and a month later Simeon’s bad news. Then, when Jesus is only 2 years old, they have to flee the country for a few years on fear of death, staying away until the heat dies down.
Sometimes God’s plan for our life is as complicated and troubling as it is amazing. Mary’s faith was in something she hoped for – the Salvation of the world through her Son Jesus, but it took years and years, from the manger to the cross to the resurrection, for her to start to understand God’s real plan – and then some troubled years as a persecuted Christian after that – and sure, maybe she had moments of doubt (Mark 3:21) (though so did John the Baptist!) – but overwhelmingly we have the story of a woman who trusted God, trusted Jesus, kept the faith, and knew that no matter the trouble, believed God knew what He was doing.
For us today, this application is pretty clear and important. God’s plan of salvation is amazing and life changing. Having Jesus in our lives is an incredible blessing, but His coming also stirs everything up. There’s nothing like the knowledge and hope that comes from being a Christian – to know we are saved from sin and death, forgiven of everything we’ve ever done wrong, adopted into God’s family, and secure in Him forever, is amazing and it is right for us to worship and be excited about that – but it doesn’t mean that our life is necessarily going to get easier and more comfortable. In fact, the more we follow Jesus, the more we act in faith, the more our life is going to look like His – and He had a lot of trouble, right?
But that’s why we turn to scripture and prayer (I’m sure Mary did a lot of praying!) and other believers (like Mary did), because it is how we are reminded that God is faithful. For every trouble that came to Mary, God had a way to save her. When she was young, alone, and under great stress from Gabriel’s news, God provided Elizabeth. When Mary was about to get divorced, Joseph had a dream. When the soldiers were coming to kill Jesus, God warned them to leave. When it was time to come home, God brought them. Mary was never in the wrong place because she and Joseph were always following God’s leading. Sure it was tough, but God always saw them through.
That’s the simple message today. First, don’t get bored with the Christmas story and miss out on what the Bible actually says, because in doing so you will miss out on the best parts that help our faith in Jesus to grow. And second, remember that whenever we follow Jesus, exercise our faith, step out and do what God has asked us to do, it’s going to bring trials and troubles and shake up our world, but that’s normal and God has it under control. Our job is to trust Jesus each step of the way, lean on each other, and keep going, accepting whatever method He provides to help us.
Christmas is a big deal. So much so that many feel quite pressured to have a “perfect Christmas”? The tree decorated just right, the right food and desserts, the proper music playing in the background, the vacation plans laid out, the cards sent, matching bow and wrapping on the gifts, the best plates for the turkey… if we miss just one thing, we feel, Christmas could be ruined!
What struck me as I re-read the Christmas story was that there seems to be a lot of imperfections in the first Christmas! When you think about it, almost everything, to our human way of thinking, was out of place. On the face of it, the first Christmas is quite a mess!
Consider this: We live in a world where we can call or text someone and get a response within seconds. If someone tells you there going to do something, you can usually bet it’s going to happen at least within their lifetime!
But what how does God do it? He sends the message of salvation through Jesus Christ through prophecies – over thousands of years. He hints about it to Eve as she and Adam are cast out of the Garden (Gen 3:15). He tells Abraham that through his descendants all nations would be blessed (Gen 12:3). Later, He shares a bit more with Moses and the people of Israel, telling them about the coming of a great prophet (Deut 18:15-22). Then, almost 700 years later, God gives a little more information to the prophet Jeremiah saying that the Saviour would be a descendant of King David (Jer 23:5). Around this same time He tells a different prophet, Isaiah, that He would be born of a virgin (Isa 7:14). And then tells still a different prophet, Micah, that he would be born in Bethlehem (Mic 5:2). Hundreds of prophecies spanning thousands of years.
That kind of timeline certainly doesn’t make sense to us. It’d be like having one of my daughters send out invitations to their 100th birthday. It’s strange. God took hundreds and hundreds of years to reveal His plan.
God’s timing for when Jesus would come doesn’t make sense. God takes thousands of years to prepare the world for the coming of Jesus, but then chooses a pre-scientific time, before humanity has even figured out how to take a picture or send messages a long distance without using a horse! Why come 2000 years ago? Why not now? We have digital cameras and the internet!
Then, right before Jesus is to be born, God decides to send a forerunner to go ahead of him, a man named John the Baptist. John will be Jesus’ cousin and given the job to announce the coming of the Messiah to the world. And how does God bring John into the world? By appearing to an old man named Zachariah, who doesn’t believe him because his wife is very old and can’t have babies, and is then struck dumb for the rest of the pregnancy. (Luke 1:5-25) Is that really the best guy God could have picked to be the father of the last prophet before Jesus?
Let’s keep going. God sends the angel Gabriel to Nazareth – not Bethlehem where Jesus is supposed to be born, but to Nazareth – to talk to a young virgin named Mary who was engaged to a man named Joseph. Here, God’s plan leads to all kinds of trouble! Mary is obviously confused about how this is going to happen, and has to tell Joseph. Then Joseph almost dumps Mary because he thinks she cheated on him. God actually has to intervene in a dream to keep Joseph from divorcing her! (Luke 1:26-38) Why would God do that? That seems like too much drama.
So far we have, by our human estimation, the wrong time, the wrong place, and the wrong people! But let’s keep going.
In order to get Mary to the right place, so Jesus can be born in Bethlehem like He’s supposed to, God has Caesar Augustus command a registry and taxation of the entire Roman world. 85 million people[i] are inconvenienced and have to pay extra taxes so God can get three people from Nazareth to Bethlehem. (Luke 2:1-5) That seems kind of poorly planned… or at least unnecessarily complicated.
And then, it seems, almost as soon as they get to Bethlehem, Mary goes into labour (Luke 2:6-7) Is this how God ordained His Son, Immanuel, the Messiah, the Christ, to be born? If we had planned this birth, we would have the best medical technology available, all the best doctors and midwives to make sure everything goes well. Prince George got the royal obstetrician, who was assisted by three other doctors including the Queen’s personal physician. I’ve got nothing against Baby Prince George, but this is Jesus! We would have sent for the royal trumpets, golden diapers and a scarlet onesie. This is the most important birth in the history of the world!
Nope… Jesus is born in a barn. The God of the universe, the one who invented stars, oceans, gravity, love, and joy, was born in a barn. The Creator lowered Himself to become one of His own creatures. The One whom Angels worship came not as a grown man, but as a helpless baby. Human infants are, perhaps, the most helpless creature on earth.[ii] And there was no fanfare. Jesus came in obscurity, wrapped in strips of used cloth and laid in an animal’s feeding trough, in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by the smell of cattle.
God has, literally, been prophesying about this forever! This would be the beginning of the culmination of the salvation of the world, the putting right of all sin and death, the greatest life to be lived. And he’s laid in a manger.
The one thing that seems to go right is when God pulls back the curtain separating heaven and earth, and has a host of radiant, shining angels shout “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!” (Luke 2:8-20) What a show that must have been! A multitude of glorious angels praising God!
And who gets that peak into heaven, to see that sight that almost no one has ever seen? Who gets to hear the great, heavenly declaration of “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.”? A small group of socially rejected shepherds with reputations for being dishonest and perpetually unclean according to the law. Outcasts and sinners – not to be trusted as messengers of any kind.
And to top it off, the only people of influence who had actually figured out the importance of the birth of Jesus were a group of gentile, pagan, astrologers who came from hundreds of miles away, were two years late, went to the wrong city first, and left without telling hardly anyone.
Oh, but the person they did tell was crazy, king Herod who was so jealous of a contender to the throne that he had all the boys aged two years and under slaughtered in an attempt to kill Jesus. The three gifts they gave to Jesus were almost immediately pawned so that Joseph could afford to flee to Egypt.
The entire story of Christmas seems to be an absolute mess! It’s not the “perfect Christmas” at all! The way God orchestrates Christmas, when we look at it from a human perspective, is quite a mystery.
We Love a Good Mystery
I actually like mysteries. I don’t read a lot of fiction, but I love Sherlock Holmes. I just finished reading a compendium of all the stories Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about him. I’m not the only one too – a lot of people enjoyed reading it. Everyone, it seems, except Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself. He’s famously known for not wanting to write as many stories as he did. He killed Sherlock off once, and retired him a couple times after that.
He even tried to making his price so high that it would discourage the publishers from asking for any more – but they paid it and he became one of the best-paid authors of his time.
For me, one of the best things about reading Sherlock Holmes is the way that Sherlock solves the mystery in such a dramatic fashion. In most of the stories Sherlock admits that he solved the crime within the first few minutes of hearing about it, but just wanted to check out a few things to be sure. He keeps everyone in suspense – even, and maybe especially, Watson – so he can do a theatrical reveal, or even better, have the criminal reveal themselves.
But the story doesn’t end after the bad guy has been caught – and this is, I think, Conan Doyle’s genius – instead we turn the page and find Holmes and Watson sitting together as Sherlock explains every decision, every movement, and every clue to the smallest detail. I think that’s what I like best. The mystery was fun, but my favourite part is the explanation of the clues that I, and everyone else, missed along the way.
Another mystery novelist, PD James, once said,
“In turbulent times people turn to detective stories for reassurance as much as entertainment ‘because they do affirm the intelligibility of the universe, the moral norm, the sanctity of life. It seems to me that the more we live in a society in which we feel our problems — be they international problems of war and peace, racial problems, problems of drugs, problems of violence — to be literally beyond our ability to solve, the more reassuring it is to read a popular form of fiction which itself has a problem at the heart of it. One which the reader knows will be solved by the end of the book.’”[iii]
PD James was a Christian. She wrote mysteries because she believed in rational, ordered, moral universe. She used detective stories to “show human nature, human sinfulness, and the endurance of a moral code that wasn’t invented by humanity, but rather given to us.”[iv]
God is Mysterious and Rational
I couldn’t agree more – and I think that’s why people love a good mystery – because they remind us of God. We want to believe that the universe in which we live was intelligently designed, well organized, and that all the pieces fit together. We may not feel like it all the time, but knowing that no matter how bad things look, how unintelligible and messed up the clues that are before us, there is Someone that can look at them all, see them for what they are, and put them in order.
And I think that helps us understand the Christmas story. On the surface, it seems jumbled and messy – a pile of clues that even Sherlock Holmes couldn’t riddle out. But as we look deeper into God’s word, past the surface events, and God begins to explain to us what He what He’s been doing all along – we begin to see the intricate story being woven – with a perfection of detail, with clockwork precision, that astonishes us.
A Christian understands this. In fact, it’s our baseline for understanding everything. Yes, God is mysterious, but He is also moral, ordered, and reasonable. He is not like the pagan god’s that simply do things out of spite or boredom. He never experiments. He never guesses. He never does something and wonders what will happen next. He is absolutely in control and fully aware of every cause and effect in the universe.
He’s not just a very smart person who can react quickly to what is going on– no, He is orchestrating every action in this world, from the smallest detail to the largest – from the quarks that make up the protons and neutrons of atoms, to the governments that rule the largest nations on the planet – God orchestrates them all in an orderly, constant, rational, moral and precise way.
Mysterious to Us
That being said, though God knows everything, we certainly don’t – do we? No, for us, there are many mysteries in this world. I read a great quote from Deitrich Bonhoeffer this week where he said that for people, “mystery remains a mystery. It withdraws from our grasp.”
What does that mean? It means that for humans, everything we think we know only reveals more things that we don’t. Why? Bonhoeffer continues,
“[Because] mystery… does not mean simply not knowing something. The greatest mystery is not the most distant star; on the contrary, the closer something comes to us and the better we know it, then the more mysterious it becomes for us. The greatest mystery to us is not the most distant person, but the one next to us. The mystery of other people is not reduced by getting to know more and more about them. Rather, in their closeness they become more and more mysterious.” [vii]
That’s how it works on our side of the universe, doesn’t it? God understands the big things and the small, the causes and the effects, and for Him it all makes sense. We, however, as the more study anything, the more mysteries open up to us! It is only those who have a surface knowledge of something that believe they have it all figured out. The ones who really study something, for years and years, and really delve deeply into understanding it – astronomy, biology, physics, psychology, cooking, art, or even their own family and friends – as they peel back the onion layers, they discover more wonders and delights and questions than they had when they started. The more they learn the more they realize they don’t know.
God created this world that way on purpose. He designed a place where powerfully intricate, mysteries abound. There are forces in this world like love and fear that can be spoken in a single word, and understood by almost anyone, and yet are beyond explanation even by the greatest scientists and poets.
That makes up part of the beauty, complexity and frustration of living in this world. And it is perfectly illustrated in the beauty, complexity, and frustration, of the Christmas story and the Gospel of Jesus.
An Inside Out Onion
The gospel of Jesus is simple enough for even a small child to understand, but works like an inside-out onion – the more layers you peel back from the gospel and the person of Jesus Christ, the bigger the onion is on the inside. Once you think you understand a layer, you peel back the next, and there are more intricacies, more meaning, more depth, more substance, and more mysteries than you ever could have imagined.[v]
Paul describes the mystery of the Gospel in 1 Corinthians 1:20-25:
“Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.”
The religious Jews demanded that Jesus prove everything to them by signs and wonders, but even when He did they didn’t believe in Him. The intellectual Greeks wanted everything to be proven by facts, logic and coherent, human arguments. But the way that Jesus revealed Himself, the way He lived, God’s whole of salvation, was offensive to the religious people (who want to earn their way to heaven) and nonsensical to the intellectuals.
And their inability to grasp what God was doing – rather than trying meeting their expectations – was a “stumbling block” that kept them from being able to accept the truth.
This is why Christian theologians emphasize the need for God to open our hearts and minds before we can be saved. Because without His Spirit revealing Himself to us, the Gospel doesn’t make sense. We can’t think God’s thoughts unless God has opened our mind.
A few verses later in 1 Corinthians 2:7-16. Paul says:
“But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. But, as it is written, ‘What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”—these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God. For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.
Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God. And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.
The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. ‘For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?’ But we have the mind of Christ.”
Do you see that? We must be given the Spirit of God to understand what is going on with God’s plan. The religious experts didn’t accept what God was doing because they wanted to earn their way to heaven through things like good deeds and religious ceremony, the great intellectuals didn’t like it either because there were too many unexplained mysteries. No, it is only the ones to whom the Spirit of God is revealed who get this.
That’s why the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge and wisdom.[vi] That’s why we must turn to Him for understanding. That’s why we pray to God to reveal Himself to our lost friends and neighbours – because no matter what, they can’t understand it unless He opens their eyes. That’s why, when we are in crisis – suffering with pain, anxiety, or depression, we are told to cry out to God; because human answers are not good enough. We need to hear from the One who knows what’s going on behind the curtain, the Designer, who knows the beginning and the end, who holds it all together, in whom we can put our hope, faith and trust.
Things like love, fear, hate, joy, salvation, mercy, grace, peace – and the deep questions like “why am I here?”, “what is my purpose?”, “why does everything exist?”, “what is the meaning of my life?” are not discerned by human wisdom. Human wisdom falls utterly short to explain the things that really matter – and even when we get a taste of truth, we peal back the onion and it’s only bigger and more mysterious on the inside.
No, these things are only discerned by God – and so it is in Him that we must put our faith and trust.
So, as we celebrate the advent season, and tell the story of Christmas, let us embrace the paradox and the mystery of what is happening, and let it grow our faith and trust in God.
- Through prophecies God weaves the Gospel of Jesus into the very fabric of reality, over all millennia, from the first people to today.
- God moves the hand of Ceasar to show He is in coontrol of everything, even pagan rulers.
- Jesus shows us what it means to be meek by being born in humility.
- God opens the skies and has angels sing to outcasts and rebels because they needed the good news as much as anyone, and represent all of us outcasts and rebels who need Him too.
- God speaks to gentile foreigners, like us, in a way they can understand, inviting people who didn’t belong, who would never have gotten an invitation, to be a part of the greatest story ever told, and witness the salvation of the world.
And as we remember the mystery of Christmas, let us remember the mystery of why Jesus came – that great absurdity – the plan that we would never have come up with in a million years. God sent His one and only Son, the perfection of glory, to be humiliated and be declared guilty by a condemned world, and murdered by His own creation, exchanging His own body for ours, taking the wrath of God for us.
“God wants to be guilty of our guilt and takes upon Himself our punishment and suffering that this guilt brought to us. God stands in for godlessness, love stands in for hate, the Holy One for the sinner.”[vii]
And He invites us to be forgiven, to believe in Him, to trust Him, and to be changed by Him.
[v] Borrowed illustration from “The Last Battle” by CS Lewis
[vi] Prov 1:7; 9:10
[vii] (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God is in the Manger, Pg 26)