The granddaddy of all ironies is that one of the cheeriest days of the year commemorates the event that should rock us to our core. The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14). Why would a holy and wholly other god, with no beginning and no end, enshroud himself in temporality to be in relationship with people who would not only be ungrateful, but also reject him? What kind of love is this that perfection would enter, not just imperfection, but a hot mess of a world and suffer the indignity of being killed by lesser beings.
How do we celebrate the eternal entering into temporality? With gross materialism and wanton feasts. Human nature is not receptive to the radical change that the gospel requires. Indulging the flesh makes it even less so. For the flesh desires what is contrary to the Spirit, and the Spirit what is contrary to the flesh. They are in conflict with each other, so that you are not to do whatever you want. (Galatians 5:17). Yes, we have a rationale for everything. We exchange gifts to honor the gesture of the three wise men to the newborn savior. But have gold, frankincense and myrrh ever been among the top sellers?
Being a management consultant by trade, one of my favorite episodes of Seinfeld is when upstart comedian Kenny Bania mistakenly takes George’s work presentation on risk management and presents it on stage in his standup act. Kenny later relayed to Jerry that he killed the crowd with his routine.
Risk management in the real world is just as funny. It is a business practice based on eliminating or mitigating threats to planned events or desirable outcomes when in fact there is more in the world beyond our control than vice versa.
Jesus’ birth presented the greatest threat to human history. Simeon told Mary: This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too (Luke 2:34-35). The world did not bake cookies and sing songs when Jesus was born. It hated him from beginning to end.
King Herod and all Jerusalem were disturbed upon learning of Jesus’ birth. He sent the magi to Bethlehem find the baby so he could supposedly worship him. God was way ahead of Herod because the magi received a vision not to inform the King of Jesus’ whereabouts. When he realized he had been outwitted, Herod ordered the execution of all toddler and baby boys in and around Bethlehem. Joseph and Mary had to lay low in Egypt with little Jesus until Herod died.
Upon beginning his earthly ministry, Jesus posed a threat to the religious establishment and the political world order. The priests did not sit idly as he abolished the Israelite ritualistic system, which was their bread and butter. Neither did earthly kings who wondered what threat this King of the Jews posed to their reign.
He warned his disciples in John 15:18, If the world hates you, keep in mind that it hated me first. He was ridiculed for his claims even as he hung on the cross. One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him: “Aren’t you the Messiah? Save yourself and us!” (Luke 23:39)
In the same way, Jesus is a threat to our natural beings and any plans of our own. I can testify that I had no desire to be a minister and quite frankly enjoyed my carnal ways prior to him disrupting my life. Acceptance of the grace he gives so freely changed my orientation away from a worldly perspective to things eternal. That has made me more enemies than I ever expected—both inside and outside the church.
This is the time of year when families gather from near and far, but Jesus’ presence calls us to loosen natural ties. For whoever does the will of My Father who is in heaven, he is My brother and sister and mother.” (Matthew 12:50).
If no other time of the year we get along, it can be while we celebrate his birth, right?
“Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I did not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to turn
“‘a man against his father,
a daughter against her mother,
a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law—
a man’s enemies will be the members of his own household.’ (Matthew 10:34-36)
Jesus did not come that we might all get along. When relationships must change for his sake, there can be momentary distress, but it leads to everlasting joy.
To manage the risk that Jesus’ presence brings, so many have dulled their receptors to maintain an uninterrupted and indulgent existence. It can take the form of overconsumption, excessive activity, or even good religious form. Seasons come and seasons go without eternity breaking into temporality, with flesh fighting the indwelling of spirit with all it can muster. During the season commemorating his birth, otherworldliness seems more appropriate to focus believers on his continued presence in the world.
This is not a sentimental holiday. Move beyond the presents of today, to his presence that compels you to the abundant life his coming secured. Sin made it necessary for God to become one of us. His doing so gives us power over sin and the inauthentic life that it breeds. It’s not enough to be touched by his spirit. Unless you open your heart to receive the fullness of the promise, you will always be left wanting and despising those who do. Dare to give up the life you have planned for yourself to embrace the existence that makes you one with him and free from the fear of losing anything.