23 December 2016
A shocking story
Steve Clifford is general director of the Evangelical Alliance.
Christmas. I don't know how it is in your household, I know some people can't stand it, but I have to confess, I love it and we make a big thing of it in our family. Not quite the outside of the house covered in lights, but close.
Of course, the big problem with Christmas is that it's so easy to get used to it. We know the songs, we've read the familiar Bible passages old and new, you've maybe watched the Alliance's very own take on the Nativity mannequin challenge. It's so easy to forget as you read the gospel account yet again, just how shocking it all is. A young peasant girl from Nazareth, not even married, gives birth to a child. Bethlehem, not even Jerusalem, the great capital city. A stable, not a palace where kings belong. Shepherds of all people, the lowest of the low. Magi from the east - were they really practitioners of ancient traditions including astrology? And then of course, the genocide, all the boys under the age of three in Bethlehem, and the great escape to Egypt.
It's so easy to forget what was really going on, and of course, most shocking of all, a reality of which no one at the time could possibly conceive. This was completely outside of any philosophical or theological framework. This baby in the stable is God. The Christmas story is not just about a birth, this is God coming to us. God, creator of all things. God who has always existed outside of time and space. God choosing to be born, not only in the smelly place designed for animals, but in all the messiness, painfulness and vulnerability of a human birth.
"Everything in the Hebrew world view mitigated against the idea that a human being could be God. Jews would not even pronounce the name 'Yahweh', nor spell it. And yet Jesus Christ – by his life, by his claims and by his resurrection – convinced his closest Jewish followers that was not just a prophet telling them how to find God, but God Himself come to find us." Tim Keller, The Surprising Truth Behind the Birth of Christ.
It's easy for us now, looking back with 2000 years of hindsight, to wonder how they missed the clues. But was it really God's style to send a general king who would raise an army, fight a battle, defeat the Romans and put the Jews in their rightful place as God's chosen people?
Perhaps as we reflect back on the shocking events we know as the Christmas story, there is a fresh challenge for us as 21st century western Christians. Are we putting God into a neat box of our culture, our plans, our aspirations, our hopes? Maybe we are too quick to describe what God ought to be doing in our lives and indeed in our world. Maybe, particularly if we've been a Christian for a while, we've lost the element of surprise of what God may be asking of us.
Maybe as we reflect again on the birth of Jesus and discover afresh its shocking nature, we will be challenged once more, as we allow him to surprise us and as we respond to the ongoing call to be his obedient followers.
Watch Steve's Christmas message, calling for the Church to bring hope and unity to our divided nations in 2017.