Sunday, December 9, 2018

MESSAGE FOR ADVENT #1

Surprised by Christmas

Sometimes our spiritual journeys take on the manner of basically just plodding along in our lives, step after step, almost forgetting what our real purpose in the journey is. We become so accustomed to dealing with a chaotic and war-faring existence that we must face almost every day that we lose sight of our ultimate goals.

Then suddenly, when we expect it the least, we are surprised by the possibility of redemption. We catch a glimpse of the Redeemer.
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Some of the more observant people and those who had been carefully listening to the message of God may have been looking for the Redeemer when he came in the first millennium, but very few had had the patience to wait. Most of the people of the day were too involved with their day-to-day activities and in their attempts to secure their own positions in this world to be concerned with the coming of a little baby born to a poor young woman and her husband. 

The Surprised that Came in the Swirling Dust
 
The little village in the dry regions of Venezuela through which I traveled one December day was swelteringly hot and dusty. The houses were mostly of adobe and the people of the village were poor goat-herders whose daily task was to wring out a living from the dry and desolate soil of the desert plain. Everything around me spoke of struggle.

Even the basic necessity of water had an alkali smell, and could only be obtained with much effort by walking to a village well, dropping a bucket into the deep round shaft dug into the ground, and pulling it up using a pulley system and a rope.

And the air, which especially should be equally abundant and vitalizing to all, refused to be too charitable with its refreshment. Every breath only brought into my lungs air that felt too dry and too hot. The dust that it contained mixed with the sweat rolling down my face and made dirt form around my nostrils. My nose was working doubly hard to strain out the dust before allowing the air to enter my lungs. It seemed that I could not get enough oxygen breathing in this way only, but because the air was so dirty, I was very hesitant to part my lips even just a bit in order to draw in a deeper breath. I could just envision all of that dust entering into my lungs.

Then, as I neared the plaza in the middle of the town, I saw something that seemed entirely out of place in that God forsaken corner of the world. There, in the middle of such a bleak and depressing area, the people of the town had set up one of the most elaborate nativity scenes that I had ever seen. The word they use there for this display is a pesebre.

This pesebre covered much of the area of the plaza and had a great variety of animal figures (not just goats). Mary and Joseph were represented by finely carved figures, as were many angels and shepherds, and of course, the wise men—only three of them. All of the figures, while not quite life-sized, where quite large.

The elaborate nativity scene took me by surprise.

“Oh, that’s right,” I heard myself say, “It’s almost Christmas.”

Driving through that arid and dusty area, I had become unaware that it was the middle of winter in the place where I grew up. To me, who grew up in the north country with its snow and freezing temperatures at Christmas time, this nativity scene in the midst of the cruel heat and the choking dirt all took on a rather surrealistic appearance. 

The Audacious Thought

But then again, when one thinks about it, the whole concept of Christmas might seem a little surrealistic. In some ways, one might even say that celebration of Christmas itself is a bit out of place.

Think about it. What is it that we are celebrating? To those of us who are audacious enough to believe that it is true, at Christmas we celebrate the birth, in human form, of the One who created the entire universe!

Astounding as it may seem to some, we are celebrating the birth of the One, born in the time of our own history, who Himself existed long before that world into which he was born! We celebrate infinity being born into the finite. It is all beyond our comprehension.

“How is it possible,” we might rightly ask, “that Mary could give birth to the One who created her in the first place?” It is no wonder that the prophet Isaiah asked rhetorically, “Who has believed our report?” 

God’s Desire to be with His Creation

I will not deny that on many levels, the concept of Christmas seems counterintuitive and surprising. Because of this, many people simply choose to deny the reality of Christ’s birth. They may celebrate the holiday of Christmas with no trouble, because, to most people, the holiday has become largely a non-religious celebration of family, shopping and gifts. Perhaps it has become so because the concept of Christ’s birth is so far beyond our understanding.

Celebration needs an objective. For many, the point of celebrating something that they do not understand and, if pressed to admit it, do not really believe, seems a little hollow. Instead, they have made family the object of celebration. Christmas has become the grand occasion of the year because it is time to have the family all get together again.

I agree that family is good and worthy of celebration, but it is not when it steals celebration from the King of kings. 

Thoughts at the Side of the Manger

I took a few moments to walk around and consider the pesebre in the little Latin plaza. The incarnation—God made flesh. The King of the universe born as a man-child in a corner of the world that was perhaps more forsaken than the one in which I found the pesebre on that day.

How could we dare to believe this to actually be true? It is surprising. But then, on the other hand, if one really knows this King of kings, it may not be so surprising that he would come to the world.

The God that we come to know in the Bible is One who creates out of a desire to express his love. Actually, we are able to understand a little of what it was like for God to have this desire to create. We, as humans, also possess some of this quality. We all have a spark of creativity in us. We cannot create something out of nothing as God did of course, but there is something within us that wants to create.

That is why we carve sculptures and make music and write poetry. That is why we take great care in designing and building our homes. That is why we keep our gardens so neat. In each of these things, we are expressing ourselves. In some ways, we identify ourselves with what we create. We do not grow tired of working with the things that we really enjoy, but rather are refreshed by them. In many ways, the things that we do are expressions of who we are.

In much the same way, God, in his creation, expresses himself. He identifies himself with what he has created. We see the personality of God in the mountains and the oceans, in the forests and the prairies, in the abundant wildlife and plant life. And, more than any other part of his creation, God identifies himself with man. “Let Us make man in Our image,” God said, “according to Our likeness” (Genesis 1:26).

Again making a comparison with ourselves as an example, we see more of the reason that God would choose to be born as a man. It is not only the act of creating that is enjoyable, but it is also enjoying being with what he created. God also enjoys the fruits of his creation.

In our own attempts at creating, when we are pleased with how our craftsmanship turned out, we take great pleasure in our work. If we are gardeners, it is not only the work of the garden that we enjoy, but we also like to sit in the shade of our favorite tree and sip some iced tea. If we have written a piece of music that we particularly like, we take pleasure in playing it from time to time.

The fact is that we love to be with the things that we create. In much the same way, it has always been the desire of God to be with us. He has shown us that from the beginning. He used to come and walk in the Garden of Eden in the cool of the day with Adam and Eve. He desires fellowship with us. Even after Adam and Eve broke that fellowship when they allowed the evil thought, God’s desire to be with them remained constant.

The embodiment of this evil thought that came to Adam and Eve was that they, as creatures, could be complete without the fellowship of their Creator. They thought that they could exist by deciding their own state of affairs.

However, the Creator knew that it was not so. No matter how independent people may convince themselves that they have become, they will never be complete without a relationship with He who made them. 

Reestablishing a Relationship

After that fateful day, God immediately set about reestablishing the relationship with his creation that he had first enjoyed. It was not such a simple task. From the very beginning, it was evident that this undertaking would require the death of a substitute. With their innocence now lost, Adam and Eve had tried to utilize the simple leaves of the fig tree as a covering for themselves, but God later made for them garments of the skin of an animal. This was not the final solution, but it was the beginning.

Throughout the generations and the centuries, God progressed in his plan to reestablish the harmony of his creation with himself. At one point, God began to teach us to what degree he would eventually have to go in his goal to achieve the perfect redemption of his creation. To begin to communicate this, God chose for this purpose a man by the name of Abraham. To this man, God gave the dreadful task of offering Abraham’s own son upon an altar as a means of worshiping God.

As it turned out, in the end, after Abraham’s heart had been tested and proved to be righteous, God did not require the death of Abraham’s son. Nevertheless, we should note that even though the son was not sacrificed at this time, there still was a death that occurred in the sacrifice. God provided a ram, which innocently happened to be in the area and had become caught by its horns in some brush. The sacrifice of Abraham’s son had been averted.

But we have been left with a question that was not answered completely. What are we to make of the fact that Abraham had been required to offer up his own son to death? Was God introducing us to a new aspect in his redemptive plan? 

The Innocent Substitute

The prominence of sacrifices and substitutionary death continued throughout the long history of God’s people. Lest our attention in the scheme of the plan of God become diverted, he repeated it throughout the writings of Scripture. God introduced the system of sacrificing animals to act as a means of atonement for the sins of the people.

The sacrificial deaths that the Lord required were not because God somehow delighted in death, but instead was meant only to demonstrate to us that the rebellion of man was so heinous, that it was only by the death of one who had no part in the rebellion that the price could be paid. This was the purpose of the entire sacrificial system of the Old Testament.

Why this death of the innocent was required, we do not know. We must remember that we are but creatures; we are of the creation. We are not He who creates and we cannot know the deep things of God.

Nevertheless, we do know the final and eternal purpose of God, for he has told us. “My dwelling place will be with them;” he said, “and I will be their God and they shall be my people” (Ezekiel 37:27 and other passages).

It is God’s intention to finally and completely reestablish what was lost in Eden. It is his purpose to have uninhibited fellowship with us once again. This can only come about when he dwells with us and when we recognize at last that he is our God and that we are his people. 

To the Least of Them

In the little village of the arid region of Venezuela, as I stood before the nativity scene in the plaza of the village, a gust of wind came and blew dirt all over the figures standing and kneeling there.

“Even if all this is true,” I thought, “why did the Christ feel that he needed to come to earth into such humble circumstances? If a king, why not come as king?”

The truth is; that day also will come. We ask that question now because we do not completely understand the creative heart of God. Nevertheless, the prophet Isaiah gives us some insight into why Christ came to live among the poor. To understand what Isaiah said is to understand the heart of God: 

For thus says the high and exalted One who lives forever, whose name is Holy, “I dwell on a high and holy place, and also with the contrite and lowly of spirit in order to revive the spirit of the lowly and to revive the heart of the contrite” (Isaiah 57:15). 

Although he is the Holy One, he came to associate himself with the least of us. This fact is more important than we sometimes understand. The message of Christmas was not only to those who lived in positions of privilege, but it was also to the most humble of the earth. He came for these goat herders in this little Latin American town. He came for me. 

God Continues to Work in His Creation

We sometimes think of the creative work of God as being completed. God has been compared by some people to a sort of galactic clockmaker, who once he had created his immense creation, wound it up, then stepped back to let it run by itself.

This comparison is far from adequate. God is still intimately involved with his creation and it might even be said that God’s work of creation is not really finished. God still works within his creation to bring it to perfection.

As I watched the dust blow all over the figures in the pesebre, I remembered that we also are susceptible to the dust and grime of our daily existence in this world. We live in an existence where true peace seems only like a distant and hazy dream. To us, who still are looking and waiting for the perfection of the creation, God says this: 

I have seen his ways, but I will heal him; I will lead him and restore comfort to him and to his mourners, creating the praise of the lips. Peace, peace to him who is far and to him who is near. I will heal him (Isaiah 57:18-19). 

Still Surprised

I am still surprised by Christmas. I am surprised that the God of the universe at one time could be found, having just been born out of the womb of a poor and humble teenage girl and lying in a feeding manger of donkeys and sheep. But at the same time, I think I can understand a little why all of creation was rejoicing in that very moment. The Creator had come! 

Suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased” (Luke 2:13-14). 

As surprised as we may be about the fact of the birth of God as a human child, there are even more surprising things in store for us.

However, as strange as it may seem, it is our very celebration of the birth of Christ that may prevent us from seeing these things. So it is that we must continue with our Christmas message.

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