The Offense of Christmas
It’s a strange thing that, as followers of Jesus, we are dwellers in a story.
Religion is often conceived and described as ideology or a philosophy or an ethical system that provides answers to deep questions about the meaning of life and the nature of salvation. But as Christians, we are not given a generic, universal set of principles or techniques or transcendent truths or ethical absolutes by which to live.
We are, rather, thrust into a story—and a grubby, disheveled story, at that.
A story full of strange places and people and names that our tongues stumble awkwardly over—much of which took place a very long time ago, in a world that looks very unlike the one we live in today.
A story with more uncomfortable, even repellent parts than we might care to recount.
An intolerably particular story that scandalously claims to be the story of the whole world and all of history.
A story that offends our rational conceptions of what is and is not possible; a story that cares little for our cherished assumptions about tolerance, diversity, and the sovereignty of the individual human self.
A story we would probably never choose.
Where we might prefer ten steps to authentic spirituality, we are given the story of a baby born in a cattle trough in a barn.
Where we might prefer a simple, straightforward description of the nature of God, we are given a long, meandering, tortured journey with a human community and shown how God deals with these people.
Where we might prefer inspiration and validation for the project of self-actualization, we are confronted by a Jewish Palestinian revolutionary who hung out with lepers and whores and misfits, and who spoke uncomfortable, uncompromising words about dying to ourselves, talking up a cross, loving enemies, and resisting the allure of money.
Where we might prefer a view of the world with ourselves in the starring role on centre stage, we are plopped into an uncomfortable narrative about a world where last are first and first are last.
Where we might prefer principles and techniques and rational answers to abstract questions, we get a colourful cast of characters—real ugly, beautiful, conflicted, divided, heroic human beings responding to real situations in the real world.
The German philosopher Gottheld Lessing famously said that there was an “ugly ditch” between the messy events of history and the pure truths of reason—a ditch that he could not and would not cross. Many people feel the same. Many find odious the idea that God could expect us to encounter truth through the particularities of human stories and human history.
But as Christians we are convinced that God comes to us through stories. Through a story. We do not encounter God in any other way.
In Matthew 11:6, in response to John the Baptist’s impatient query as to whether or not he was the one to come, Jesus says: “blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”
In context, Jesus is telling John (and others) to reorient and recalibrate their expectations of what Israel’s liberation might look like. He is inviting them to consider a revolution that looked very different from the bloody, triumphant one they imagined. Jesus says, in essence, “Don’t be embarrassed, annoyed, impatient, offended when your salvation comes differently than you hoped it would.”
I wonder how Jesus’ words might sound in our context? What might Jesus have to say to us today?
Don’t be embarrassed by the particularity of God’s coming to you.
Don’t be ashamed of the God who comes as a squalling baby boy in the shit and the stench, the dirt and the grime, the scandalous and chaotic fulfillment of a the prophetic tradition of another people in another land caught up in another story.
Don’t be surprised to see the Prince of Peace arrive in an insignificant village under the boot of a brutal empire.
Don’t be surprised that God’s coming involves you in a story not of your choosing.
Don’t be put out when this is how God decides to dwell with and for human beings.
Don’t be offended by the storied-ness of your salvation, because this is how it comes.
This is how the God who is often less than we expected, less than we hoped for, and less than we are willing to accept shows that he is more than we could imagine and all that we need.