One of my favorite church conflicts involved the placement of baby Jesus in the manger of the congregation’s outdoor nativity scene. A previous pastor had demanded Jesus not be placed in the manger until Christmas eve. Members of the church felt an empty manger was an embarrassment because all the other churches put their baby Jesus in the manger right away. Sides were taken, bad words spoken and hard feelings were forged.
When invited into the debate I provided a less than inspiring response. I could care less. A look of horror came over the member’s face who asked for my opinion. She couldn’t believe I was not taking it seriously. I explained, “This is not Jesus. This is a plastic figurine with a lightbulb up his backside. There are a million serious things to fight about. Little plastic illuminated baby Jesus is not one of them.”
These kind of arguments always leave me wondering, how do any of our traditions help us understand Christmas? Events this past month have given me pause to think about how we understand the Jesus of Christmas. Strangely, nothing speaks more directly to this than our culture trying to relate Allah to Christ.
At times like these, I find myself drawn to the lessons I learned from Winston Persaud, one of my favorite professors at Wartburg Theological Seminary. Winston had this amazing ability to take complicated thoughts and weave them into a simple sentence. Sentences I could easily grasp and remember. About Jesus, Winston would always say, “We don’t look behind Jesus to see God.”
Too often we think of Jesus in biological terms. Jesus is to God what my son is to me. Jesus is not the offspring of a God who stands behind him. He is the image of the invisible God who called out to Abraham. Jesus is the visible image of the God who was revealed in a fire to Moses. When we look at baby Jesus in the manger, we are looking at the God of Abraham.
Worried that I had failed to teach my children appropriately, I questioned my son on the way home from college. I asked Peter, “Who do the Jews worship?” He responded, “the God of Abraham. We continued, “Who do the Muslims worship? The God of Abraham. Who do we worship? The God of Abraham.” I sighed in relief.
Winston would also say, “God speaks in a multitude of languages, but has spoken something specific in Christ Jesus.” If God is an elusive invisible presence, we can shape our understanding of God to our comfort level. It is the moment we accept a specific statement made about this God that we lose our control. This is the difficulty of Christianity.
Our break with Judaism and Islam is not that we worship a different God, but the specific claim we accept about the same God. A claim for which there is no human proof, only an experience passed on from one generation to the next through worship, teaching, rituals and traditions. An experience grounded in the witness and testimony of those who experienced it. The truth of this experience was not the result of human minds working together. It was a truth proclaimed by the one who created it. We simply accept it.
Over the past 2,000 years the question remains the same. Is the child born in Bethlehem a skilled teacher, a great prophet or, as Paul writes in Colossians, “the image of the invisible God?”
Too often what stands in our way of grasping the specific answer to this question are the arguments we humans create. If we can argue over when to put plastic Jesus in a manger scene then we are capable of creating a wide variety of arguments that cloud our ability to see God. Human agreement does not define who God is and what God does. The absurd proclamation that this child is God invites us to realize God works in ways that defy our understanding. And that’s a good thing.
The other night, Peggy and I realized how much we miss seeing the stars. The ground lights of the city and trees prevent us from seeing them. Cut off from the stars all we look at are the works and accomplishments of human hands. Without realizing it, all of us who cannot see the stars or do not take time to ponder them, lose a sense of the almighty. We become defined by the finite reality of human life. Things are only real if humans can make them.
This Christmas eve I invite to look deep into the night sky, if you can. Consider the stars and the universe that holds them together. Stars speak to things not created with human hands. They speak of wonder, awe and mystery. They testify to a God who can do things beyond our understanding.
Then contemplate the specific truth we proclaim when we celebrate the Jesus of Christmas. See, in this child, the home of God is among mortals. God will dwell with us and we will be God’s people, and God with be with us. (Rev. 21: 3ff) God dwells with all of creation, but it is those who cling deeply to it that find the greatest expression of hope in a wounded world. May the Hope and Peace of Jesus guide your hearts and minds this night and all nights throughout the coming years.