by Bob Lupton
Wonderment. That’s what the Christmas story stirs in me. Fixed in my earliest memories are indelible pictures of baby Jesus in the manger, choirs of angels appearing to the shepherds, wise-men following a star – scenes full of wonder and intrigue. Over the years, the entire cast of players has filled the stage, each contributing to the drama: the pregnant virgin, the evil king, the night-time escape to Egypt. What an amazing story!
These are wondrous images, especially for children, and romantics – but for reasoning adults, more than a little baffling. So many unanswered questions. So many “whys.” Like why all the secrecy? Why announce the arrival of the long awaited Messiah to a handful of virtual unknowns? Why not sufficient preparation to at least have a clean bed made up?
In church recently, the scripture reading was about two minor players in the cast - Simeon and Anna, both ancient fixtures at the Jerusalem Temple. They, like many Godly Jews before them, had longed to see the arrival of the promised Deliverer of Israel. Old Simeon claimed to have received a revelation years earlier that he would live to see that day.
Widow Anna, a prophetess, simply longed without such an assurance, praying fervently, day after day as she quietly went about her Temple duties. And then one day, an infant is brought to the Temple for a routine circumcision. There is no fanfare to mark the event – only the presentation of a couple of doves, as the law required. But instantly, as if by some divine inner-prompting, both Simeon and Anna knew. Both declared aloud that this child, Jesus, was the One sent from Yahweh, the Deliverer Israel had so long awaited. Simeon said he could now go home and die in peace.
And that was it. For the next thirty years the Prince of Heaven remained in obscurity in rural Galilee, save for one brief encounter with Temple leadership when He was twelve.
It is baffling to me. Why was the Messiah not announced through proper Temple channels? For centuries prophets had foretold his coming. Religious scholars had spent lifetimes deciphering how the redemption of Israel would occur. Devout priests faithfully opened the scriptures to worshipers, reassuring them that Israel’s Deliverer would surely come in the fullness of time. Would it not seem fitting, then, for the Temple establishment to unveil this all-important arrival? Why does Yahweh not reveal the divine plan to those who devoted their entire lives to the study and teaching of scripture? Instead, the One sent from above seems to “sneak” into history, by-pass the religious leadership, and announce His arrival to three foreign astronomers, a handful of peasant shepherds and two seniors. And His parents, of course. What sense am I to make of this?
Is this how God operates this Kingdom? You would think this birth would be the most joyous celebration in all of Jewish history. Why all the secrecy? Does God prefer anonymity over fanfare, subtleties over public proclamations? And why would God arrange the divine arrival to coincide with the reign of a paranoid king who would over-react by butchering all the boy babies in Bethlehem?
To whom shall we turn for an explanation of these mysterious things? While orthodox priests in the Temple academy debate theology, star-gazers from Persia somehow decipher the divine plan from the alignment of the heavens. Teachers with rabbinical degrees dissect the scriptures while illiterate shepherds sit around their nightly campfire imagining. And tottering old Simeon – long ago sidelined by younger, more capable clergy – ambles home, smiling, mumbling to himself, “Now I can die in peace.” For some mysterious reason God side-steps respected religious professionals – those who should know – and reveals the divine plan to the least likely.
And then, when this long-awaited Messiah takes center stage, He offers only snapshots of what the Kingdom of God is like – a lost coin, a pearl of great price, a mustard seed, a fishing net and a few other common images. He tells stories to illustrate this new order, oblique glimpses that confuse most – anything but precise definitions upon which to construct sound doctrine. Is this Kingdom to be “caught” in the routines of daily life rather than “taught” in the halls of higher learning? Some will have eyes to see and ears to hear, this Prince of Peace says, with little apparent interest in proclaiming cogent, compelling dogma. Children will get it and those with childlike faith. And those whose hearts and spirits are broken.
But for some reason it will be harder for the confident, the educated, the affluent to enter into this Kingdom. “If not our respected leaders, then who can get in?” His disciples question. “Anything’s possible,” He responds. “It’s just not likely.” And when one considers who is more likely to embrace such ideals as giving away one’s second coat, or turning the other cheek, or taking no thought for tomorrow, or laying not up treasures on earth, then one can begin to understand what He meant. Such values are much better suited for those who have little to lose.
Immanuel. God is with us. Still. He appears today in the same obscured ways as on His first arrival. Occasionally in the Temple. But more often in such places as a clinic where a fevered child feels a cooling hand, in a supermarket line where a kind word calms a harried shopper, or at an urban curbside where a trash collector gets an unexpected appreciation card from a thoughtful homeowner.
Immanuel is here, disguised as ordinary people in common everyday places, quietly extending uncommon love. If we have eyes to see, His presence is detectable. How wonderfully mysterious is that!