So little to give to two people for whom I care so deeply. This is all that I really have, a few small words to give. Mark and Miranda, may your Christmas be ever filled with this kind of love….
“Oh Little town of Bethlehem”… A favorite among Christmas Carols for its sweet lyrics and simple melody. Bethlehem itself however, held perhaps less appeal than that Carol. It was known for little other than its sheep. The lambs used for temple sacrifices, for the atonement of sins, were born and raised in Bethlehem. The shepherds who guarded and watched over them, were officially labeled by religious leaders as sinners. They shared a social caste system with dung sweepers, both ritually and socially unclean; and tax collectors, little more than Roman sanctioned thugs and thieves.
While shepherding was an important and necessary job, and had at certain times garnered a modicum of respect, at the time of Christ’s birth, the role had fallen into increasingly ill-repute. Jewish scholars and historians note that purchasing milk, wool or a lamb directly from a shepherd was illegal as it was assumed that the purchase would almost certainly be stolen merchandise. In the book of Zephaniah shepherding was paralleled with ostracism and a disconnect from the accepted and valued of society.
From the beginning of time, the very first murder occurred because of the rift between a shepherd and a farmer. That rivalry continued. Egypt was an agrarian society and they despised the unkempt “hillbilly” sons of Jacob. Egyptian art and literature refered negatively to shepherds and their hatred peaked when shepherds overran and settled in lower Egypt, their flocks devouring the carefully cultivated crops.
The Mishnah, the “Oral Torah” of Jewish traditions, states that you must save a lamb or sheep from a fall in a well or pit, but makes it clear that no one should feel obligated to save a shepherd who had likewise fallen into a pit. Nothing says, “you have no value” more than the socially sanctioned exculpation of your own demise. It’s ok, it’s just a shepherd… don’t strain your back.
Matthew’s account of the birth of Christ starts with his genealogy. But most people who read this account frequently start at verse 18, skipping over the somewhat tedious list of long, hard to pronounce names. But that list is important. There are a lot of lowly shepherds in that list and some other interesting people as well. Rahab, the harlot. The role of the harlot in history has always been linked to the fall of a nation, the descent into broken, lewd, failure. And yet, there she is, her future forever secured not only in her link to Christ, but also through the birth of her son Boaz who married the next odd member of Christ’s line. Ruth, not an Israelite, but a Moabite and an outsider. An odd choice, a foreigner with foreign gods, to be related to the King of kings. Tamar, who took matters into her own hands by disguising herself as a prostitute to sleep with her father-in-law. Not the tidy heritage we think of in relation to the holy, blemish-free Son of God. And there hidden in plain sight in Matthew 1:6 that most famous of women, unnamed and yet mentioned. “David was the father of Solomon, whose mother had been Uriah’s wife” Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba. And the list includes other notable mistake-makers, David may have topped the list, but he sure had company! Amon, Judah, Manasseh and the list goes on. The perfect Lamb of God was not afraid to hold a heritage of stain. It was, in fact, not a random downline of simple sex and progeny. It was designed and chosen. He chose to claim the outcasts, shepherds, prostitutes and blunderers.
Odd choices, lowly they seem. Insignificant and maybe a bit improper. He chose some illiterate fishermen, a tax collector, a hot-tempered zealot and a cynical doubter instead of religious men to be his closest friends and confidantes. He chose a borrowed crib and a borrowed tomb. He chose a mother and father too poor to present the customary sacrifice for the birth of a first-born son and the ritual cleansing of Mary. Instead, they brought the lowest acceptable sacrifice, two doves. He chose the path in Jerusalem to an ugly wooden beam through the gate that all lambs travelled on their way to slaughter in the temple, the Sheep gate. He chose a donkey, a symbol of peaceful trade and lowly station for his first ride through the city. Interestingly his next return will not be as passive or as peaceful. The clear juxtaposition of choosing first a donkey and then a horse for his second return to Jerusalem was significant not only to the Jews, but to the ruling Roman body. Horses were for royalty and for war. Signs and symbols of power and might, they were used not only as transport, but as intimidation, terror and crowd control. And his return to Jerusalem will not be through the sheep gate, it will be through the Eastern gate, the Golden gate, the only gate that enters from the outside directly to the temple mount facing the Mount of Olives to the East. It has been sealed for over a thousand years despite several plots and violent attempts to open it. It will indeed be opened one day, only once, by only one King.
Memorial hospital, here in South Bend, has a little chime that plays for the birth of each child. It rings throughout the hospital. It is not long or loud, but at any given moment, the tinkling sound lightens for a moment, that bleak house. It pierces through the painful prognosis, the mechanical noises of IV pumps and infusion sets, the intimidating whine of the radiation room, the click and hum of a hundred different machines reporting on a hundred different problems. It is a pause in the pain of a difficult place. It is heard by the patients in the psych ward, fighting their own little monsters. It is heard by the homeless addicts in the ER and the educated medical personnel alike. By the staff as they clean, cook, organize and go about their daily duties. I asked a nurse once if it became so common place that it almost didn’t register. Her response, “Oh absolutely not. It is always there, almost like we are waiting for it.” She worked on a difficult floor. Hers was the job of caring for high risk cancer patients. The ones who were not making it. She was the witness to stand in the room, quietly during the pronouncement that a person has left this Earth. How fitting that her ears were ever tuned for the uplifting chime of a life entering it two floors below.
God chose a chime to herald the birth of his Son on Earth. The chime of the host of Heaven. Most assuredly more impressive than the tinkle of that little hospital bell. I always smile just a little when I read the account of those shepherds long ago. Not just a day job shepherding was. Luke refers to them as living in the fields and watching the flocks at night. An angel appeared and in my mind I think … his first words were to shout “FEAR NOT!” scaring the living daylights out of the poor witless shepherds. God’s unique sense of humor. I admit that’s probably not how it happened, but I always felt the irony. I am not sure where the notion emerged that angels are fair-haired, feminine, toga-wearing beings who emanate a soft glow and have beautiful white feathery wings. Biblically, all references to angels are masculine and frankly a little scary! Their descriptions in Revelation are awe-inspiring, but in no way “gentle and sweet” as we tend to see them hovering over children’s cribs. Ironic too is their presence and proclamation to a group of people who carried no social weight. A shepherd’s witness was not admissible in the courts of the day, and they were considered less value than the sheep they were tending. Yet God chose them. The foolish things of the world, to confound the wise.
We wield logic, we rest in faith. We use logic as a tool in winning an argument to a provable definable end, but we err greatly if we conversely see faith as the weak and passive opposite to logic. Faith is not passive, it is living and active and permeates our every fiber. From infancy we form our faith. Children are creatures of amazing faith, simple, complete and unassuming. Faith in fact, precedes logic. But the two are not mutually exclusive and should work together like a finely tuned machine. A few years ago a friend and I discussed the birth of Christ, his death and resurrection and the hope and faith in his promised return. My friend disregarded faith as fallible and faulty, unsubstantiated, unprovable, unfounded. An exercise for the weak of mind. I reminded him that scientific method must by definition include human perspective. Was the world flat until we discovered through astrocartography and circumnavigation, that it was not so? Did the planets and galaxy clusters outside the Hubble deep space telescope’s ever-increasing view exist prior to their observation? Did gravity exist before Newton formulated that every mass exerts an attractive force on every other mass? Certainly. Truth does not require our admission, it does not need our approval or agreement. It does not need for us to understand it or recognize it or validate it. Truth exists as a stand-alone, Pro se entity. I wrote a chemical equation on a piece of paper, C12H22O….. X . I asked him to solve for X using Pierre Provost’s theory of exchanges. Provost’s theory is utilized throughout both applied and theoretical physics and I knew he would understand the reference. He rolled his eyes and I can hear the haughty sneer of condescension in his voice as he shook his head and said, “That is ridiculous. You can’t solve a Chemistry equation with a Physics theory.” I smiled. “Nor can you answer a Faith based question through logical argument alone.” God will not be mocked. God created a Universe more vast than any branch of Science can diminish. He created a universe so exact in its minutiae as to hold a complete and working biome in a single droplet of water or a speck of dirt. He will not be confused or concerned by our small disagreements and little logic problems. (By the way… it’s O11… a disaccharide combination of monosaccharides that we call Sucrose… common table sugar.)
In a Micky Mouse special, Mickey proclaims, “Christmas is found by the way that we live, not what we receive, but what we can give.”
It’s a sweet quote and I am all for giving gifts. I love it. But to be completely clear, Christmas is NOT about the way we live. If that notion were true, Christ’s lineage would be filled with people who could be seen to have backed up that claim. His first birth announcement would have been at the temple in Jerusalem to the priests and religious elite. His life would have been dedicated to the proper social strata.
Christmas breaks the rules and shatters propriety. Christmas fulfills prophesy and promise. Christmas is not logical. Christmas is the I Am in the form of a powerless baby. The I Am who slung the stars into space, more stars than are countable. In fact, we threw out practical mathematics and developed a whole new theoretical branch of math and STILL can’t number the stars in the sky. Our futile attempt to understand that which was never ours to comprehend. And that unnumbered canopy that lights the sky at night, is but a small representation of the vast and pervasive love of a Father for his child. A love that is without end, without comprehension, without explanation. It is a relentless love that would command the prophet Hosea to marry the whore Gomer, to demonstrate to a wandering and fickle nation, His undying redemptive love in the face of utter faithlessness. It is a love that cannot be destroyed, dimmed or denied. It is not only, the soft gentle response of a mother to her child, but the thundering demand for justice from an entirely holy and completely righteous God. It is an amazing and wild love, a violent and costly grace. It is the untamed tidal wave, all-consuming and unfathomable. Christmas is hope through the birth of a child born to die and through death to save. Christmas is omnipotence wrapped in strips of cloth, with a dirty feed trough for a bed. The Alpha and Omega in 7 pounds of wailing helplessness.
Christmas is radical. Never in the history of the world has there been a more loved, more despised man. You cannot sit on the fence. His very existence requires a radical choice. He cannot be merely a good man, a clever prophet. As C.S. Lewis put in his great trilemma, He is either liar, lunatic or Lord. “A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic — on the level with the man who says he is a poached egg — or else he would be the Devil of Hell. You must make your choice. Either this man was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut him up for a fool, you can spit at him and kill him as a demon or you can fall at his feet and call him Lord and God.”
Choose for yourselves this day, whom you will serve…
The baby in the manger who grew, struggled, was tempted, lonely, tired, hurt, tortured, abandoned, bled and died; is no longer the helpless infant in that still and silent town of Bethlehem. He is very much alive and He is on His throne. He has conquered. The war is won, though the battle is coming.
The shepherds response to the angel’s message was as simple as they were. They held no meeting to discuss the possible meanings and outcomes, they did not vote, they took no gifts, they had nothing of value to offer. They simply came. They abandoned the sheep on that hill, the lambs that would provide temporary atonement for sin. They abandoned the temporary lambs to seek the One eternal Lamb, who could take away the sins of the world once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous. Make me as simple as those shepherds. May I ever be willing just to come. May your Christmas be filled with illogical, radical, life-changing faith in the knowledge of Christ’s deep and indescribable love for you. His willing sacrifice to save you, not corporeally, but personally, intimately and eternally. You were bought with a price, redeemed through His righteousness. You were, are and always will remain loved beyond measure. The very definition of love, the baby, the King, our Savior Immanuel.
To not only Mark and Miranda, but to all of you, each unique, valued, individual and precious…