It really is a bad world out there. One hundred million people without shelter. Eight hundred million without enough food for an active working life. Five hundred million suffering from iron-deficiency anemia. Almost one third of the earth’s population without safe drinking water. Every year, eight hundred million living in absolute poverty. Ten million babies born malnourished every year. Fourteen million babies dying of starvation. Twenty million suffering from AIDS in Africa.
Merry Christmas? We forget how remarkable and rare is our circumstance. It really is an incredibly bad world for many millions.
Where is God in such a world? Why does God allow, century after century, this kind of carnage and waste, this brutality and inhumanity, this suffering and dying? What kind of God is he, anyway? Where in the world is God?
Note that our world today is not so unusual, our time not a particularly unprecedented time. Read the accounts of the religious wars of the 17th century or the plundering hordes of the 14th. Read what the Crusaders and Muslims did to each other in the eleventh, or what the barbarians did in the sixth century when they sacked Rome. Or, for that matter, read your Bible.
Those of you who have been to the Holy Land know that you run into Herod’s stones every time you turn around. “King of the Jews” the Christmas account calls him. But what a king. No Jew really; but a Nabatean from Patras who had ingratiated himself with Rome and Mark Antony. Great builder of the Temple in Jerusalem, palace at Masada, harbor city at Caeserea, tomb of the Patriachs in Hebron. But he murdered his wife and mother-in-law as well as his two sons. Caesar Augustus, no softy himself, once said he would rather be Herod’s pig than his son. Near death he ordered that several hundred prominent citizens be rounded up and then killed as he breathed his last, so the citizens would not celebrate his demise. An altogether brutal first century Saddam Hussein, who would not hesitate to slaughter all the infants under two around Bethlehem in order to snuff out the life of a possible pretender. The story is entirely plausible. His people, the Jews, suffered hunger and deprivation, oppression and humiliation at his hands. Life was brutal and brief under his yoke.
Where was God in that kind of world? Well, says the Christmas story, he was present in some mysterious fashion in a child slumbering in straw in the company of one Joseph and Mary caught overnight away from home. The Lord of the universe hidden in the common and ordinary.
That ran against the grain of everything Jew and non-Jew knew about the deities of the day. The Romans knew where their god was, he was in Rome, embodied in the political might of Augustus. This was self-evident. The gods were above all else powerful. Those nearest the gods must be the men most powerful, like Caesar, whom they called son of God.
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The Greeks knew where he was present to their world. In the heads of the wise at the University of Athens. There in the minds that struggled for mastery over matter, the divine mind was surely most present. In philosophy there was divine liberation from the mud and mess of this grim world.
The Jews knew where he was. He had clearly withdrawn from this theater of suffering, and they awaited his return to tear through the land, destroying the Romans, restoring Jewish dignity, setting them free and prosperous, that they might be happy again as in the glory days of David, the once and future King.
The ultra-pious of all persuasions knew where God was present. He was powerfully present in the ecstatic religious experiences of cult and sacrifice, experiences that caught them up and delivered them from the pains and problems of this world, that freed them from the messiness of matter and gave them union with their god.
Christmas says an odd thing. It says that God makes himself known to us and the human story where no one would think to look, in a modest tradesman from a simple town in up country, Nazareth. Henri Nouwen comments on the verse in Isaiah, “A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse.” Jesse, was old King David’s father. Our salvation, he writes, comes from something small, tender, and vulnerable, something hardly noticeable. God, who is the Creator of the Universe, comes to us in smallness, weakness, and hiddenness. I find this a hopeful message. Somehow, I keep expecting loud and impressive events to convince me and others of God’s saving power; but over and over again, I am reminded that spectacles, power plays, and big events are the ways of the world. Our temptation is to be distracted by them and made blind to the “shoot that shall sprout from the stump.”
When I have no eyes for the small signs of God’s presence-the smile of a baby, the carefree play of children, the words of encouragement and gestures of love offered by friends – I will always remain tempted to despair. The small child of Bethlehem, the unknown man of Nazareth, the rejected preacher, the naked man on the cross, he asks for my full attention. The work of salvation takes place in the midst of a world that continues to shout, scream, and overwhelm us with its claims and promises. But the promise is hidden in the shoot that sprouts from the stump, a shoot that hardly anyone notices.”
Now this is what the Christmas story is, first of all, trying to say. He is not present in the special and spectacular, the ecstatic and emotional escape. He is present in a father who forgot to make a reservation at Day’s Inn, and a mother with a bawling baby and dirty diapers in her hands. Ever wonder what they did without pampers or cotton back then? He is present in that baby wrapped in swaddling clothes.
“Part of my job as a public-health nurse,” writes Sandra Verhagen, “was to teach new parents how to care for their infants. As I was demonstrating how to wrap a newborn, a young Asian couple turned to me and said, ‘You mean we should wrap the baby like an egg roll?” “Why yes,” I replied, “that’s a good analogy.” “I don’t know how to make egg rolls,” another mother asked anxiously, “Can I wrap mine like a burrito?”
He is present in the ordinary, nitty-gritty burdensome agonies of life in this world. One evening of the season a minister was called by his four children to come and be the audience for their living room Christmas play. Typically the father entered the play’s set to find Jesus played by a flashlight wrapped in a blanket, Joseph defined by his bathrobe and mop-handle staff, Mary looking solemn with a sheet-draped head, the angel of the Lord with pillow-case wings, and one wise king with another pillowcase full of gifts. This king was being played by the youngest child, who felt duty bound to explain herself and her mission. “I’m all three wise men. I bring precious gifts: gold, circumstance and mud!”
And that’s what life brings to all of us, doesn’t it. Gold, perhaps, but with it a lot of circumstance and mud.A lot of circumstance and mud in that manger that night, woven of the caprice of Rome, the crowds in Bethlehem, and the cry of a newborn. And somehow that is where God hides and yet is most present, says the story.
This means, of course, he is not present in this world of circumstance and mud as we would like him to be, a little more obvious and ambitious, more prepared to fix things, intervene on the behalf of truth and justice where we seem unable to do so. The Christmas story makes clear that the power behind the universe is willing to be present only in and through us, his creatures, and children as we are available to his presence and power. Which is to say that God is not just present in the ordinary, period. He is present in the ordinary as something very extra-ordinary. God is present in that babe as the spirit of self-giving sacrificial love.
God is present in Jesus not as wisdom and not as power, but as the spirit of self-giving love – and wherever that spirit is now in our world, God is. And that is extra-ordinary. Because according to Paul, this is the only way that God can be present to us that deprives us of our arrogance and self-exultation, that defensiveness and pride that has made our world the mess it is. This is the only way that God’s presence can offer the possibility of a spirit within us and among us that stands a chance of slowly, subtly but surely changing our world.
Think tanks and army tanks have their purposes, but human transformation is not one of them. They will never fundamentally alter us in ways that make for peace and brotherhood. This is something the powerful and professional elite find hard to understand and so they are always at risk of missing Him. But even so, neither can we engineer or coerce Him into our lives. How hard we try especially in this season. We can only set the scene and try to be available. In fact, God’s coming on a holiday or any day is more a matter of humble availability than human effort.
My favorite Christmas story of the difference an extraordinary spirit can make, is a story told by an American who years ago was traveling in France with his wife and three young sons in a rented car, which broke down. The hotels were “tourist traps” in this particular town and the family was increasingly irritable. Finally, on Christmas Eve, the family checked into a dingy hotel in Nice, all the better hotels being filled. It was raining and cold when they went up the street to a drab little joint to have dinner. Only five of the tables were occupied, and the place had a depressing atmosphere, but the father was too tired and miserable to go any farther.
His wife ordered the meal in French, and what came back was something she hadn’t ordered and they didn’t want. So he proceeded to needle her about her French. But the boys defended her and left him feeling rejected. A French couple with several children was sitting at the next table. The father slapped one child for some minor infraction, and the child wept. On the other side was a German couple engaged in a bitching contest. The only happy-seeming person in the restaurant was an American sailor at a table by himself. He was writing a letter as he ate his simple meal, and he had a half-smile on his face.
The front door opened, letting in a gust of cold air, and through the door came an old woman selling flowers. If you have been to Europe, you know the woman. Her long coat was dripping with rain, her rundown shoes left wet footprints as she went from table to table with her basket of flowers. No one bought any, and she sat at an unoccupied table and said to the waiter, “A bowl of soup. I haven’t sold a flower all afternoon.” In one corner, a piano player had been listlessly playing some music of the season. “Can you imagine, Joseph?” the flower woman said, “Soup on Christmas Eve.” And they sat there in heavy silence.
Then the sailor, having finished his meal, got up and walked over to the flower woman. “Merry Christmas,” he said, smiling. “I would like two of your flowers. How much are they?” “Oh, monsieur,” she said, “they are a franc apiece.” “I’ll take two,” he said and handed her a 20-franc note. “Monsieur,” she said, “I don’t have change. I’ll get some from the waiter.” “No, ma’am,” he replied, “don’t bother. The change is my Christmas present to you.” And he leaned over and kissed her ancient cheek. Then he walked over to the writer and said, “Sir, may I have the pleasure of presenting this corsage to your beautiful daughter?” Whereupon he handed the corsage to the man’s wife, while the three boys broke into broad grins. Then he pressed the other corsage flat, put it into the letter he had written, and said, “Merry Christmas, everybody!” and walked out into the night.
Then, says the writer, the restaurant exploded with Christmas. The old woman danced a little jig and called to the piano player, “Joseph, my Christmas present! And you shall have half of it, so that you, too, can have a feast.”
The American wife waved her hands, keeping time with the music, tears in her eyes. The German couple stood up and began to dance. The French boy who had been slapped climbed into his father’s lap. Everyone joined in his own language and manner with such enthusiasm that people streamed in from the street to see what was going on.
Where is God in this world? That’s where he is. Extraordinary spirit in an ordinary place. And it really has the power to change things, to change us. So that’s where God is in this world – the extra-ordinary spirit of Jesus still present and powerful in very ordinary places. And the danger is that we will miss it, pass it by, fail to embrace and live it because we, like those long ago, look for God elsewhere, in political panaceas, in miracles of technical know-how, in special exotic experiences, hoping that these will lift from us the burden of life in this ordinary world.
So we need to be careful about passing by the simple and apparently powerless for the more impressive and practical. We need to stay humbly open for it, this extraordinary spirit in the ordinary. It is not obvious and over-powering. It is there nudging us when we are least expecting it, consumed with other things. Running around under our feet or meeting us in the eyes of loneliness and need.
But with its stories and songs Christmas calls us once again to let it in, give into it, this nudge running counter to the spirit of this or any age, the nudge of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control. In the ordinary of family and neighbor, friendship and labor, all the casual and critical times, all the duties and diversions that are life. Says the old story; this is where he is in this world of prestige and power, of celebrity and smarts, making his subtle subterranean way into our days as we are humbly sensitive to the call of the spirit, breathe it in, breathe it out as servants of this suffering king. Not New York, London or Rome. But in O Little Town. In manger town. Our God came down.
Copyright 2003, Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.