Away – or rather, the way – in a manger

A man asked God how long a million years was to him. God replied, “It’s just like a single second of your time, my child.” So the man asked, “And what about a million dollars?” The Lord replied, “To me, it is just like a single penny.” So the man mustered his courage and said, “Well, Lord, could you spare me just one of your pennies?” And God said, “Certainly, my child; just a second.”

God just doesn’t seem to see things the way we see them, nor does he always do things the way we would like them done. We want our friend to be healed; he is not. We want the bank to come through on that loan; it does not. We want our adult children to live near us; their jobs scatter them throughout the country. Why doesn’t God get with the program?

But the biblical witness, along with the testimony of saints throughout the ages, suggests that God goes about his business in ways we never would. The classic example is Christmas. What was God thinking, sending the world’s savior as a helpless baby, born into a poor, working-class family, stuck in a forgettable village like Bethlehem? It was impractical and it was time-consuming – as any efficiency expert could have told him – and the cost was staggering.

No, if we were rescuing the world from its mess, we would form a committee, begin raising funds, and hire an advertising agency. We would enlist support from government leaders, from intellectuals and from celebrities. We would ask both our propaganda department and our military experts to devise a campaign of “shock and awe” with which to launch our operation.

But God’s ways are not our ways, and every Christmas we are reminded of the fact. If you ever doubt that, just look back to Bethlehem. God obviously wasn’t kidding when he said, “My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways.”

There is a profound mystery in Christ’s strange arrival on our planet. The mystery is not that God invaded the world. That had long been foretold. People were expecting him. It is not that he came “to do away with sin.” The prophets repeatedly warned that he would. The marvel is that he invaded the world as a baby.

When God came to his world, he came with love, not irresistible force; with grace, not with threats. People had believed for a thousand years that God would do away with sin, but they assumed he would do so by destroying sinners. It’s probably how we would have done it. But not him. He did not come, as he once said, “to condemn the world but to save the world.”

“To save the world.” God’s plan for Jesus was not merely to get people into heaven when they die, but to give people a meaningful way to live now. It was God’s intent (so says St. Peter) to free people from the pointless way of life handed down to them from previous generations; to give their lives meaning and fill them with love.

Yet people continue to pursue empty and pointless lives. They invest their time and energy in accumulating stuff, hoping that it will somehow bring them happiness. The wild rush at Christmas time is just one more expression of humanity’s compulsive attempt to fill its emptiness. Yet when the presents have been put away, people’s souls are often just as empty as the discarded boxes that litter their floors. They have missed the real treasure of Bethlehem.

Bethlehem’s treasure was not a diamond bracelet or a new iPhone, or whatever else this year’s advertisements are trying to convince us we can’t live without. It was not even gold, frankincense or myrrh. Bethlehem’s treasure was packaged in flesh, gift-wrapped in swaddling, and laid in a manger – with your name on the gift card.

When he came to earth, he was not just away in a manger; he was the way in a manger, the way to a meaningful life now as well as a glorious life forevermore. Of all the gifts ever given, this one is the most precious.

First Published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 12/20/2014

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