Christmas is proof that God loves surprises. According to the prophet Isaiah, God had promised to bring light to people living in darkness, joy to replace sorrow, and freedom from the burden of oppression. He would do this by sending someone to rule with justice and spread peace everywhere. What is surprising about that? That the someone he was sending would be a baby.
God is good at surprising us. We expect prompt solutions, monumental events, and endless hype. We choose immediate results over lasting ones. God does not. He solves the world’s problems by sending a child.
An apocryphal – but insightful – story has been told about a person who complained to God about the pandemic, about racial injustice, about income inequality, and human rights abuses. “God,” he said, “you made us. You are responsible for this mess. Why don’t you do something?”
God replied, “I have done something: I have sent you cures for disease, for racial injustice, for income inequality, and for human rights abuses.”
“God, how can you say that?” the person replied. “We have no cure for the pandemic, or for racial injustice, or income inequality—and human rights abuses occur more frequently now than ever before. How can you say you have sent us cures for these terrible ills?”
God replied, “I sent people to bring you the cures to all these ills – and more beside; but your society keeps terminating them while they are still in their mothers’ wombs.”
This says something true about God. When intervention is needed, he sends a baby. God has done this time and again. He sent the child of promise, Isaac, to prepare the line through which blessing would come to all the nations of the earth. He sent the child Samson to turn back the enemy, the child Samuel to guide his people, and the child John to call a nation to repentance. And finally, he sent his own son, born of a virgin, to redeem and renew the world.
At last, the divine rescue, for which God’s people had been waiting since Isaiah’s prophecy, had come. But the hosts of heaven sang praise; they did not make war. The King of Heaven did not thunder, he cried, cried like a baby. But the cry of that baby shook the gates of hell.
The Christmas surprise is not that a conqueror comes, nor that his government increases, nor that he rules from David’s throne. The surprise is that he conquers people’s hearts from Bethlehem’s manger and saves their souls from Calvary’s cross.
That there is a savior in the City of David is no surprise; people had been expecting one for a thousand years. That the savior was wrapped in swaddling and lying in a manger is ineffable mystery. That he came to rule is not surprising; it is the same old story a thousand tyrants have told. That he allows men and women to choose whether he will rule them, that is a surprise. The Mighty God came not with shock and awe but with cooing and crying, not with irresistible force but with grace and love.
At Christmas, we love to repeat this story. But it is important for us to remember that the story did not begin in Bethlehem with its manger, nor did it end at Calvary with its cross. It did not even end in Jerusalem with its empty tomb. It could not end there because it has not ended. The story continues still, and we are a part of it.
A surprising and glorious future lies before us, the outlines of which we can see only faintly. For the one born in Bethlehem is the Son of Man, the Second Adam, and the future of humanity lies in his manger. He is, as St. Paul put it, “all creation’s firstborn.”
At Bethlehem the bridge that reaches heaven touched earth. Nestled in the hay of that manger lay the genesis of the new creation, the firstborn of a fulfilled humanity. What this means is that the God who surprised us at Bethlehem, at Calvary, and at the garden tomb, has surprises still in store for us.
(First published by Gannett.)