Sunday, December 12, 2004

Away From the Manger...

Advent… it’s a time to prepare for the approach of Christmas. So what might be our approach? What does it mean for us to come close to the birth of Jesus… to walk up to the manger?

And what might we see in the manger? Jesus the homosexual and the champion of family values; Jesus the revolutionary and the running mate of the politician; Jesus the mystery and the best buddy; Jesus the rock star and the recluse; Jesus the liberator and the imperialist; Jesus the drunk and the nutritionist; Jesus the source of the prosperity gospel and in solidarity with the poor; Jesus the permissive and the wrathful; Jesus the hope of the world and the ideological wrench in the global gears of peace; Jesus the historical figure and the imaginary friend; Jesus the human, the god, the prophet, the savior, the sage?

I’m fearful that it’s easy for all of us to see anything we want to see in that manger. A baby can be efficiently manipulated and molded into our agendas and expectations, our hopes and dreams. Unlike wise ones who brought gifts to a child, I fear we bring lists. We assume that the baby Jesus grows up to be Father Christmas, capable of managing our problems by our timeline in our way. I’m embarrassed to admit that this is how I’ve expressed prayer at times. I’m convicted that I have contributed to the church becoming an advertising agency for Jesus that has commercialized his message making the gospel feel like an infomercial or blue light special. I read that Americans will spend $8 billion this year in Christmas decorations. And though I find this embarrassing, I shudder at how much churches will spend on “Jesus programming.” Sometimes I feel like we spend more time showing off how we’ve jazzed up the barn and that we’ve forgotten about who’s inside.

And so, I hope I can approach the manger with fresh eyes this year. I believe this baby has something to say about himself. The challenge for us all is to accept the fact that the baby grows up. We certainly must start with the manger yet recognize that we cannot stay there. Jesus’ call to, “Follow me,” bids us to walk away from the manger to discover a Jesus who chooses to define himself. And maybe that’s where we might struggle a bit. Jesus, the baby is manageable. Jesus the man is understandable. Jesus murdered is exceptional. Jesus the risen is incredible. And this highlights the “manger dissonance” I feel between the baby I want and the baby that is.

So this Advent and Christmas, I pray I might be able to approach the manger, seeing it as an essential starting point. Jesus, I’m sorry for thinking I can manipulate who you are and doubting the glimpses of the real you, you allow me to catch. I long to celebrate the real Christmas and the real Jesus. Teach me to walk up to the manger and then walk away, to follow you, who will define yourself… me… us. Maybe then you’ll sleep in heavenly peace….


Guided by the Spirit, Simeon came into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for him what was customary under the law, Simeon took him in his arms and praised God, saying, “Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.” And the child’s father and mother were amazed at what was being said about him. Then Simeon blessed them and said to his mother Mary, “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed—and a sword will pierce your own soul too.” (Luke 2.27-35)

“I believe that the closer we get to the original Jesus- to the storytelling Jesus, the healing Jesus, the welcoming Jesus, the Jesus who declared God’s judgment on those who rejected the way of peace and justice- the closer we come the kingdom-of- God Jesus, the closer we are to recognizing the face of the living God.

For many people today, this move is a bit radical, a bit threatening; so they prefer to back off, to see Jesus as simply, at best a signpost to God, the revealer of God, the teacher of timeless truths, someone who provokes us into thinking differently and perhaps even into living differently.

We can contain that sort of Jesus; he’s not particularly disturbing, and the God of whom he speaks is quite far off and doesn’t make too many immediate demands on us. We can quite easily make this Jesus, and this God, support our own favourite agendas. That’s an old game.

But the real Jesus won’t let us get away with that. …”

– N.T. Wright, The Original Jesus