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Child, Why Have You Treated Us Like This?

Child, why have you treated us like this?

The exasperated question falls from Mary’s lips after discovering Jesus in the temple after they had spent the past three days looking for him.  And once the relief at finding Jesus sets in, Mary’s thoughts turn to rebuke.

How could you be so thoughtless?! How could you not think of us?!

Child, why have you treated us like this?

It’s an interesting question to consider as Christmas scenes of mangers and shepherds and wise men begin to recede in our rearview mirrors.  It signals the establishment of something of a pattern in the life and ministry of Jesus.  This will not be the last time that Jesus treats people in ways they don’t expect or want.

Jesus will, among other things, irritatingly insist on the good news being for the hated Gentiles (and not just the Jews), consistently eat with the wrong sorts of people and provoke the rich and the powerful, claim to do and to be what only God could do and be, call people to love their enemies (and in the next breath declare that he hasn’t come to bring peace but division), and uncomfortably talk a lot about suffering and dying and about how his followers ought to expect the same.

And then, of course, at the end of the story Jesus goes and dies like a common criminal, crushing the hopes of his people, confounding all who thought they understood who he was and what he was about.

The baby of idyllic Christmas manger scenes will come to ruffle a lot of feathers. He will provoke and unsettle. He will confuse and disorient. He will enrage and frustrate expectations. He will not dance to the people’s tune.

Mary’s question of the twelve-year-old Jesus in the temple will be echoed in different ways by different people throughout Jesus’ life.

Child, why have you treated us this way?

We ask it in our own ways, all these years later, don’t we? We celebrate the birth of Jesus each year. Each year Jesus takes his place amidst the lights and the tinsel and the songs of the season, amidst the laughing and feasting and parties and presents. And then, we lurch into a new year only to be reminded that this Jesus does not always perform as we would like him to.

Jesus does not nicely align himself with our preferred ways of looking at the world, will not be domesticated in the services of this or that specific political agenda.  Jesus asks hard things of us—asks us to make room for the stranger, to die to self, to love enemies and forgive seventy times seven. At times, we long for an easier Saviour.

At times we, too, ask the question, Child, why have you treated us like this?

Why have you not been God with us in the way that we want and expect? Why have you not made this life of faith easier? Why does your kingdom refuse to come, on earth as it is in heaven?

Why have all our sad divisions not ceased?

Why has death’s dark shadow not yet been put to flight?

Why do the fears of all the years still threaten to swallow up the hopes?

How could you entrust the church—of all things! The church full of selfish and broken people who so often get things wrong—with the task of representing you to the world?!

Why, child, have you not come to be God with us in the ways that we would prefer—why have you not vanquished the darkness in a display of force and strength? Why do you insist upon such an unimpressive and unobtrusive manner of being with your people?

Child, why have you treated us like this?

But the story told thus far doesn’t represent the sum total of how this child has treated us, does it? We could look at other stories, other patterns, other tendencies in the life of Jesus as well.

We could also look at Jesus treating people in unexpectedly liberating and compassionate ways.

We could point to lepers being healed or at sinners receiving pardon. We could look at a woman about to be stoned for adultery by righteous religious men and Jesus getting in the way.

We could look at dead girls being raised from the dead.

We could look at stories about lost coins and lost sons, about Samaritans bandaging wounds on the side of the road.

We could look at Jesus restoring the ear of his a Roman soldier after one of his disciples had hacked it off in a spasm of righteous anger.

We could look at Jesus saying, “Father, forgive them, they don’t know what they are doing…”

We could look at the overall shape of a life given over to expressing love to the lowly, freedom to the captive, release for the prisoner, and hope to the hopeless.

We could look to a life saturated by grace at every turn.

We know these things to also be true of the child in the manger, don’t we? We know this in our bones—particularly those of us who have kept company with Jesus for many long years.

We know that while this child will treat us in uncomfortable ways, while this child will demand things of us that seem impossible (love your enemies?!), while this child will insist on redeeming the world from beneath and within rather than from above, that this child will treat us far better than we deserve.

A new calendar year looms on the horizon. It is a year that will contain many challenges and obstacles. It is a year that, for some, will contain suffering and trial. It is a year that will yield joy and fulfillment, and opportunities for participating in what brings life and light.

It is a year that will also bring temptations to settle for lesser stories than the story of Christmas.

Sometimes, the world will seem futile, hopeless, meaningless.  Sometimes, it will not be easy to believe that love is the reason for this whole story we are a part of.

Sometimes it will be all too easy to look at the child in the manger and think, why couldn’t you have set things up differently? Why is there still suffering in the world? Why is doubt easier than faith and fear easier than love?

It is at these times that we most need this reminder of how we have ultimately been treated by God in Christ.

We have been given an example of what a human life is supposed to look like.

We have been forgiven, healed, and set out on the path to freedom.

We have been invited to participate with God in the restoration of all things.

We have been given a light and a life like no other, and trusted to represent these to a watching world.

We have been loved.

The Christmas season is as good a time of year as any to be reminded of these things.

And if we keep these things before us, Mary’s question—Child, why have you treated us like this?—begins to shift from a frustrated complaint at what we imagine to be the inadequate and unsettling manner of God’s coming to be with us or an irritated judgment on an underperforming reality to an expression of reverent worship.

Child, how could you treat us with such love, such humility, such grace and mercy, such patience, such fierce determination to drag us from darkness to light and to rescue us from bondage to fear and sin and death?

This is the hope that the child in the manger holds out to each of us this Christmas season.

This child will not always treat us in ways expected or desired; but this child will always treat us in ways that address our deepest need.

——

The above is an edited version of a sermon preached December 27, 2015 at Lethbridge Mennonite Church.  The image is called “Joy to the World” by Virginia Wieringa, and is taken from the 2011-12 Christian Seasons Calendar.

7 Comments Post a comment
  1. Paul Johnston #

    Why the suffering? Redemption. Those who pass through trusting in Him, focused on Him, feel no pain, only grace.

    His death on the cross offers to absorb all pain, all suffering, all death, for all time, if we are prepared to surrender it to Him. If we are prepared to trust Him in love. Give it to Him and He will take it from you. Lay it at the foot of His cross and your suffering becomes His. He will absorb it unto Himself and return it back to you as grace.

    The sad reality though is that we all so often prefer our misery, prefer our suffering. We prefer pity. We prefer anger. We prefer self righteousness to His righteousness. We prefer our hopeless acts of transgression against one another instead of His offer of grace and redemption for all.

    The kingdom is always with us, if we want it. It’s location is a spiritual state of being.

    Always has been, always will be.

    The right spiritual disposition, that being a complete trust in His will, not ours, will extend the kingdom into our material reality. He only awaits our assent.

    On the other hand, no amount of however well intended human endeavour, can bring about the kingdom we seek. Spirit must lead the body. Grace not works.

    December 28, 2015
    • Paul Johnston #

      The first paragraph should read….”in the end, feel no pain”….the “end” should be understood as that point in time when suffering is surrendered to the Lord. Pain should be understood not as a physical feeling, those may still persist, rather that in spite of whatever physical feelings are present rhe disciple only experiences peace and a strong sense of otherness( love). They are completely trusting in the Lord with regard to their own welfare. All is grace.

      December 28, 2015
    • The sad reality though is that we all so often prefer our misery, prefer our suffering. We prefer pity. We prefer anger. We prefer self righteousness to His righteousness. We prefer our hopeless acts of transgression against one another instead of His offer of grace and redemption for all.

      Yes, this is sometimes undoubtedly true.

      December 29, 2015
  2. Thanks for writing this. I think it is easy for us to fall into the pattern of annoyance, frustration of not knowing what to expect. While the world seems to be going to hell in a hand basket I can’t fathom how we are supposed to fix this mess that we have created and wonder why God isn’t doing anything.

    I also wonder whether part of the difficulty is how Christianity and Jesus are presented….all you have to do is accept him and your life will be wonderful (sic). Properity Gospel for one, in my mind, sets up unrealistic expectations as to what it means to be a Christian and what a person can expect to get back.

    This is a good reminder of what we should be remembering though I will admit it is hard to do sometimes.

    December 28, 2015
    • Thank you, Wendy. Undoubtedly our expectations shape our perceptions in this life of faith. And it seems to me beyond question that, as you say, how Christianity is often presented does people few favours.

      December 29, 2015
  3. Paul Johnston #

    And how does, “the child” address our deepest need? Through our self identification of this need, followed by petition? But what if none of us know our greatest need. What if desire confuses and distorts our understanding? Maybe then it all distills down to this, He is our greatest need. “Through Him, with Him, in Him, in unity with the Holy Spirit”…make time daily. Receive Him daily. Experience the peace of relationship and leave the details to the Lord.

    December 28, 2015
    • Yes, He is in indeed our greatest need. Whether we realize it or not. Whether we understand how and when and why and for what we need him or not.

      December 29, 2015

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