The unexpected Christmas

“That is one of the reasons I believe in Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed.” –C. S. Lewis in “Mere Christianity”

Nothing about the Christian faith is as we might have expected. Get into the business of a virgin birth, a sinless life, a vicarious death, and a resurrection, and have it happen to a Jew in First Century Roman-dominated Judea, and all bets are off.

Consider just the unexpectedness of the Christmas event itself, the birth of the Lord Jesus Christ.

1) Surprises from Matthew 1

–The lineage of Jesus contains an interesting lineup of characters, including several women of questionable character: Tamar who seduced her father-in-law, Rahab the prostitute of Jericho, Ruth who was the subject of gossip in Bethlehem, Bathsheba who was the “other woman” of David’s fall from grace, and of course, Mary herself, the target of malicious gossips throughout Nazareth.  Consider…

–The bride-to-be of Joseph is found to be “with child by the Holy Spirit.”  (You can just hear the gossips: “Yeah, likely story!”)

–Joseph is told by an angel that this is a God-thing, that his wife will bear a Son, the Son was to be called Jesus, and that He would “save his people from their sins.”  (God had to overcome his natural conservatism with his high standards!)

–This was all in fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14.  (No one had the slightest notion that the prophecy would be fulfilled 700 years later!  That’s like the 1400’s to us.)

Was any of this to be expected? Would you have guessed any of it?  No one did.

2) Surprises from Matthew 2

–It surprises us that Matthew does not give any details about the birth of Jesus. He’s like a photographer who, rather than point his camera at the setting sun to try to take in all of that, turns around and shoots the reflections of the dying sun off the landscape behind him.

–We have the story of the Magi who suddenly show up in Jerusalem asking, rather naively, “Where is the one born King of the Jews? We’re here to worship Him.”  We smile at their innocence, but King Herod blew a gasket. The very idea of someone else claiming to be king!

Who were these Magi?  Where did they come from, how did they know, what is their story, etc etc.

We could not have guessed this, not in a hundred years. There is not the first word of prophecy concerning them.  They just appear, as though the Lord decides to give us a little lagniappe (Cajun for “a little extra”).

–We are struck by how Herod’s advisors knew their scripture and quoted it to him, but then showed not the slightest curiosity or interest in traveling the five miles to Bethlehem to see for themselves.  How in the world are we to understand this? We could not guess.

–And that star. What was that all about? “We have seen His star in the east.”

3) Surprises from Luke 1

–Nothing in this first chapter of Luke’s Gospel is as we might have anticipated: the miracle of Zecharias/Elizabeth and baby John; the annunciation to Mary; the visit of Mary and Elizabeth; and the birth and naming of John followed by the untying of Zecharias’ tongue.

An editor would have suggested to Luke that much of the first chapter was unnecessary and bogged the story down before it got going good. But when the Holy Spirit is our Editor, nothing will be as we expected. In fact, those who know their Bible could say this of the entire book: “It is not at all the way we might have guessed or expected.”  (And don’t we love that!)

4) Surprises from Luke 2

–Luke, being a Physician, tells us of the birth of Jesus.  Well, he did to a certain extent. We could wish for more details, but we’re thankful for what we have.  We want to know more about the taxation/census business, the mode of transportation from Nazareth southward, why exactly Mary accompanied Joseph (although we can guess), the “no room in the inn” reference, and a better description of the stable or cave or whatever it was where the Holy Family bedded down that fateful night.  And we want to know about the actual birth.  Too bad. The Lord gave us what He wanted us to have.

We could not have guessed He would have done it this way.

–And if it were a stable, what was that all about? We’re confident that the devil and his hordes, having been at one time residents of heaven in all its glory, were expecting the Messiah to be born in the wealthiest surroundings possible and to the most prestigious parents available.

Satan was out-guessed too.

–The shepherds. They’re out there in the dead of night “keeping watch over their flock.”  Who were they, how many were there, what was their understanding of what they saw, and in later years, did they put two and two together and know that “this Jesus” is the One of whom the angel spoke? Did Luke get the story from them?

I love the drama of the shepherd event.  The darkness surely was almost absolute. Ask anyone raised on a farm where the only electric lights were at the house.  Nighttime outside can be sheer blindness.  And then, suddenly, the skies light up and a beautiful figure materializes in the air just above their heads and hangs there, supported by nothing, with everything about him glowing.  We smile at the angel’s words: “Don’t be afraid.”  Yeah, right.  Easy for you to say!

–The Angels.  Ah, those angels.  Heaven’s messengers. Subject of so much guesswork and object of so many questions.  Was this the Gabriel who had made the announcement to Mary and who makes occasional appearances throughout the Old Testament? Could we have more information as to the appearance and the sound of the angel?

The angelic choir excites our imagination.  What was going through their minds? Were they aware of all the Father was doing?  Had they practiced their song?  Were they disappointed that the audience for their grand performance was a few tone-deaf shepherds?

–The shepherds’ worship.  We have a thousand questions, none of which are answered in the Word, leaving us to ponder and speculate and dream.  (I think that’s called “meditation.”)

Everything about the Jesus story is not as we might have expected. He is the Surprising Christ.

Here is an exercise you will enjoy.  Open your Bible to Mark chapter one.  Now, try to imagine you had never read this story, that it was completely unfamiliar to you.  For those of us practically born and raised in church, this is hard. We read the Gospel story through the filter of a lifetime of hearing it read, reading it ourselves, and hearing countless retellings of it.  But see if you can strip that away and listen to it afresh.

This first chapter of Mark alone contains a dozen surprises.  Nothing is as we might have guessed.

Your list of surprises will include the choice of John as an announcer (look at his uncouth image in 1:6), the events at the Lord’s baptism (1:10), the Spirit driving Jesus into the wilderness (1:12), the temptation lasting 40 days during which time His company was Satan, wild beasts and angels (1:13), His choice of disciples (1:16ff), and so forth.  The chapter is remarkable for a hundred reasons.

The first chapter of John’s Gospel is just as remarkable, and is different.  (Don’t we have a fascinating Lord?!)

The entire life of Jesus is surprising, from beginning to end.  Nothing, of course, is more surprising than the manner in which His life ended.  Reading the last chapters of the four gospels, we are struck again and again by the unexpectedness of His arrest, the surprises of His trial, the uniqueness of His crucifixion, and most of all, the resurrection with all its ramifications.

We are in awe of this thing God has done.

“But Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).

So do we.

What a wonderful Lord we serve.

We read the Holy Scriptures, we try to take in all that God has done, and we come away shaking our heads in awe, saying, “This is the Lord’s doing and it is marvelous in our eyes” (Psalm 118:23).

And more: “Such knowledge is too wonderful for me; it is too high, I cannot attain to it” (Psalm 139:6).

“Oh, the depth of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments and unfathomable His ways!” (Romans 11:33)

We praise Thee, O Father.  Little children praise Thee perfectly…and so would we. And so would we.

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