April 9, 2008

On Being Graphic

Dr. Seamands called my latest creation for Doctrine "provocative" and "graphic." Then he gave me an "A", so I guess that was ok for him. Let me know what you think. We had to write a "devotional" piece for a potential congregation (even though I'm not going to be a pastor) around Christmas. So I wrote this. Enjoy.

Sometimes gospel (“good news”) is hard to accept. Read John 1:1-18, and then read the following story:
In the Appalachian mountains of West Virginia, in the late 1960’s, a teenage girl discovered she was pregnant through no doing of her own. Unwilling to marry someone who would betray him, her fiancĂ© quietly tried to divorce her. That night, he had a dream of a man in a gleaming white suit telling him to marry her anyway, because her child was not a betrayal, but a fulfillment of ancient prophesy. Also, he was to name the baby John. He thought this unfitting for someone who was so special, but nonetheless when he woke up, he followed the advice and married her before she began to show. Naturally, the two were the talk of the region, but he loved her well. In her ninth month, the president called an unusual census, requiring them to return to the city of the husband’s birth (apparently, the internet wasn’t good enough). The two began the slow westward journey to California in the husband’s old ’68 Chevy truck. When they arrived, San Francisco was teeming with those arriving to register for the census. The husband could not find a hotel to stay in, as they were all full. While driving through a rough part of town, he stopped in a convenience store for coffee, and the owner offered his storage room as the only place he knew of without tenets. The husband accepted, and in that storage room, the boy John was born, wrapped in dish rags, and placed in a box full of bags of skittles. Later that evening, a gaggle of hippies was wandering along the street, stoned out of their minds, when in the air above them appeared a glowing man, telling them that God had come to earth this very night, and he’d be found at the Seven Eleven three streets over. Of course, the hippies investigated, and there in the storage room in front of an exhausted mother and skeptical father, retold the story and then worshipped the wailing infant. Later that week, some unusual celestial activity prompted a number of Iranian Muslims to find their way to the convenience store.
Is this a story you could believe? If it sounds oddly familiar, you’d be right; it’s a modernization of the Christmas narrative, found in Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2. But do some of the things that happened seem odd at all? Could you believe that drugged-up gay hippies or Iranian Muslims would worship the God of the universe after being drawn there in such strange fashion? Could you believe that God would take one of the most common names circulating around? That God would allow himself to be born in the back room of a convenience store, announced only to these unlikely characters? Would you lay down your life for the truth of this story?

The story of Christmas doesn’t sound the same to us as it did back in the day. It’s taken on meanings outside of its context, or original setting. When the gospels say that Jesus was born of a virgin, we don’t think about the fact that Mary was an unmarried woman who was found pregnant and thus worried about being ostracized from society! Or how about Joseph; would you take Mary to be your wife, thinking that she’d been unfaithful to you before you even got married? Place yourself in Mary’s shoes; do you think that anyone would believe you when you told them you had gotten pregnant without having sex, even after Joseph married you? I imagine nobody's ever used the "Holy Spirit" excuse before (though I imagine many have since), but what must the neighbors have thought? Her parents? Why would God allow Joseph the humiliation of having to explain that Jesus was not his biological son, but that an angel told him to marry Mary anyway?

As I’ve reflected on the Christmas story, I continue to wonder why the triune God would pick this sort of story as the inauguration of His time on earth; why God would start off in such humble circumstances. Why send the couple on a long, hard journey to Bethlehem on a donkey just when Jesus is about to be born, only to stay in a cave with animals for the birth? Furthermore, why are the first visitors the local outcasts, those with no social skills that spend their lives watching the sheep so everybody else can have wool and the occasional lamb dish? And lastly, why send Iraqi Astrologers – whom you probably know as the “magi” or “wisemen” – to see Jesus at all?

The story of our faith teems with evidence of God’s character, with His compassion and mercy and grace towards the lowest of the low. Jesus said he came not for those that didn’t need help, but for the broken, the lost, the destitute: those that needed a healer and a shepherd. The Christmas story is not something we'd like to tell in a church these days if it happened on our turf. Rather, it is the story of a good God who cared so much about His creation that He came and “made his dwelling among us.” For thirty-three years he lived in skin, in a zip code. His origins helped him understand those with whom he lived; the broken, the disenfranchised, the sinners. He knew what ridicule was, he knew what hard labor was, and he knew that life can be grueling. We in our comfy church buildings don’t often empathize with growing up in the lowest caste or in poverty. Jesus could identify with the poor (though in some fashion or another, we are all poor) because he’d grown up that way! It’s not as if serving others in humility was anything new to Jesus; it was not a strange feeling for Him. As the Word, the second of the Trinity, serving others was His nature; his participation in the creation of the world bears witness to his loving nature. Where else would he be born than into a region that needed his service, to people who needed his help?

He could die on the cross for our transgressions because he was the only human being to ever live without sin. And yet He is a part of God, who knew us as intimately as possible by taking on our very skin and bones. A paradox? For sure. But if you thought that the faith you’ve adopted wasn’t scandalous, wasn’t full of paradox and mystery and things that cannot be explained by any rational means, then you’ve been missing out on the most beautiful parts of our story. The incarnation, this “dwelling among us,” is gospel because Jesus loves all the world, calls all to Him, even those that might not deserve it (perhaps especially those), and sets them free. He came to Earth in order that we might come to Him. And that is good news for us all. Merry Christmas.

1 comment:

Dan said...

nice job... I - must - copy - Chris... off to post mine also (actually, not this time). Seriously, I enjoyed your retelling of the nativity story! It really is great creativity.