There is so much about the Christmas story that pushes us past our natural boundaries and expectations. That is precisely how those in the Bible leading up to Christ’s birth felt. Just for a moment, imagine how you would feel if you were past child bearing age, having been told that you would not be able to have children… and then you found yourself pregnant! Or, how would you feel if you discovered that your young fiancé was pregnant … but not with your child?
Surprisingly, that’s exactly how the Gospel writers, Luke and Matthew, begin their accounts of the nativity stories.
Mary’s aging relative Elizabeth falls pregnant (her baby will be John the Baptist) as a testimony to Mary that “nothing is impossible with God” (Luke 1.37). Meanwhile, after Joseph discovers that Mary is pregnant an angel of the Lord visits him in a dream to re-assure him that this is God at work (Matthew 1.20).
We read the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth and life and we look through his life to recognize the promises of the Old Testament. We have been taught to read the Old Testament through the lens of Jesus. That’s a great thing for us to do, but the problem is that we often miss out on the complex enigma that Jesus’ arrival was to many Jews (and others) who believed in God’s promises from their Scriptures. To many of them, they expected a conquering King, like King David ‘slaying his tens of thousands’; they awaited a deliverer like Moses who would bring down the Roman Pharaoh of their day and liberate them once for all time. This was, after all, how they had understood their Scriptures and God’s promise to restore his fallen people.
Instead, the life of Jesus looked very different to how many of them would have expected the life of God’s chosen One to look. He was born to an unimpressive family. His adoptive step-father was probably a local builder. He was a child refugee in Egypt briefly, fleeing a brutal infanticide in his home town by a despot ruler. Later in life, he dined with social outcasts and spoke out against the religious establishment that supposedly should have recognized his true identity. Even John the Baptist (a relative of Jesus), who had baptized Jesus and declared Him to be “the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world”, in later life began to question if Jesus really was the long anticipated Messiah sent by God (Matt 11.3). Eventually, this God-sent King would be given a criminal’s execution by the Roman empire… the very people that many Jews thought he was supposed to conquer!
And there is the rub for us.
We have our expectations of how God will fulfill his promises. But God does not seem bound by how we think it should look. He is not afraid of using the messiness of our lives to bring about his purposes. In fact, the angel reminds Joseph that Mary’s child will be Immanuel – ‘God with us’. Jesus came to be with us in the midst of our mess… in the midst of our brokenness… in the midst of our pain. The good news is that none of these things disqualify us from God’s purposes. I meet many Christians who are frustrated that things in life are not going as they thought they would. “God promised me ‘x,y &z’!”
Well, maybe He did. But thankfully God is not constrained by how you thought He should work those things out.
I’d like to suggest, He is concerned about whether we will embrace the fact that He is with us! Immanuel!
Reflection: What does it mean for you that God has promised to be with you and never leave you? What does “God with us” mean to you?