Surprise! Surprise!

Remember Christmas when you were a kid? The stomach-churning excitement as the days ticked down towards Christmas Day. No more school. No more shopping days. It’s coming, it’s coming! And as we inspected the piles of presents beneath the tree, the most important question: is that big box near the back for me? Because big was good, remember? A big truck. A big train set. A big something. Now, perhaps small is better. Jewellery. A phone. An iPad.

Christmas itself wasn’t a surprise but the paper covering each gift ensured it remained a surprise until the very last moment. (Most perhaps, but not all . . . hmm, that certainly looks like a cricket bat, despite all the wrapping.) I wonder if you like surprises. I do. The right kind, of course. The edible is good; the wearable a risk; the driveable always welcome.

Is Christmas a surprise? Perhaps some aspects of what took place on the first Christmas, depending on what you’ve read. So, for some, here are some surprises about the event itself. Look away now if you prefer to keep your Nativity story the way it’s always been.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you . . .

Okay. Shepherds, yes, all there present and correct. Magi also, though who knows how many? Three comes from the number of gifts mentioned; there’s no way of knowing how many wisemen-astrologer-fortune-tellers were bearing them. No kings. Oh come on, we know there weren’t any kings. Clue – not one mention in any of the gospels. We have kings because Class 3A has 35 kids and hey, Tommy and the gang are getting restless and need parts to calm them down.

Mary and Joseph, yes. Virgin Birth. Well, yes, but . . . in truth, we should focus on the Virginal Conception, to use its technical name. That’s really the key moment. Not the birth. The truly miraculous moment was when the Holy Spirit alighted upon Mary and fertilized an ovum. That’s extraordinary. A divine intervention to change history, for sure. And then, yes, you’re entitled to celebrate the virgin who gives birth.

A census. Yes, although hard to pin down. We’ve got a slight problem with the dating here. It gets complicated, with Quirinius’ dates as governor of Syria causing an issue. Maybe the translation should be ‘after he was governor.’ Or was he governor twice? As I say . . . anyway, there were censuses. Quite a few, and Mary and Joseph traveled to their hometown to register during one of them.

Arriving out of breath, nine months pregnant? Nowhere to be found in the text. Evident in lots of re-telling, of course, but not in the most important source document, Luke’s gospel. Au contraire, the passage reads, ‘while they were there, the time came for the baby to be born.’ There for how long? No way of knowing. Maybe weeks or months. Who knows?

Stables and innkeepers? Sorry. They’ve got to go.

Stable. The word for stable – nowhere in the text at all. Manger, yes. Mentioned three times actually. But stable, no. So, why was Jesus laid in a manger? Because they weren’t staying at a commercial inn. So no innkeepers. They were most likely staying in a home. Joseph turns up in his familial hometown and he could have stayed at almost anyone’s home. That was how the culture worked.

So, what’s the baby doing in a feeding trough? Because ‘there was no room for them in the guest-room.’ (That comes from the NIV) Not inn, guest-room. Katalyma. Trans: place to stay. Almost certainly a room on the roof of the house, filled with another family member. So Mary and Joseph were in the main room downstairs. At one end, the animals were brought in for the night. Feeding trough available when Jesus was born. Busy time, a convenient place to lay him.

I know we’ve all heard the sermons and songs about Jesus being rejected at his birth. Sermon main point: Like Bethlehem’s inns and innkeepers, neither do we make room for him. And the point is well taken. It’s just not based on the events as they actually happened. In reality, Christ was most likely born in a simple home surrounded by women. Men were never allowed near a birthing woman. So, lots of family, lots of noise, a regular birth – extraordinary and just like any other – the most beautiful of paradoxes. Perhaps that’s the point.

The rest you can keep. The shepherds and the Magi – the coolest dudes in the Bible (Wouldn’t Morgan Freeman make a great Magi?) And then, of course, the angels. Which provoke fear. Just how terrifying were they? Take a read of Ezekiel 1. Then imagine thousands of these guys spinning around in the heavens. Breath-taking. And apparently terrifying.

I hope there weren’t too many surprises in there for you. You want to keep the innkeeper and a woman in labour wandering around late at night seeking shelter? Be my guest. It doesn’t bother me. We own lots of nativity scenes, collected from around the world and we display them all. The fact is, the core of the story remains the same. That Christ was born in Bethlehem. Surprise?

Oh, yes. A shocking surprise. So surprising, in fact, we humans are still reeling.

This past year, I passed a milestone, which I passed while looking in a different direction. Fifty won’t be a number I remember with much fondness. And as the Christmases arrive and pass on, I even become familiar with the paradoxes which at first seemed so stirring when first I became aware of them. The Good Shepherd surrounded by shepherds. Magi bearing gifts, laid before the Gift; wise men bowed before Wisdom. The eternal Word, brand new. The powerful powerless to feed himself. The mighty one bathed in humility.

So how can a scene so unutterably beautiful, become familiar? Dare I say it, routine.

Because we grow up? Because we hear the story so many times, we know all the best lines? Because it’s no longer a surprise?

How foolish. Like many, I desire to know instead of trust. I am in the Garden desiring knowledge and control, instead of trusting and loving. It is undoubtedly true that surprise is in essence a dramatic shift from the unknown to the known. But what a risk! Surprises are great – but hold on, because this one here might be more lime green socks from Auntie Beryl. Like last year. Like the previous three years. Not much of a surprise there. Does that woman have no imagination?

Perhaps, then, it’s partly about the timing. Because surprise is always at the behest of the surprise-giver. The gift-giver. He chooses when to surprise us. We don’t. We’re not in control, which is why we’re so stressed so much of the time.

Kids, on the other hand . . .

Who loves surprises the most? Children. They are in a constant state of excitement over what’s coming. Christmas is coming. But what exactly does that mean? I don’t know but last year it was fab because I got a bike and I can’t sleep because I want to see Santa and I’m fairly sure he’ll know I want a puppy. Or at least a camera or a skateboard . . . or . . . I’m feeling sleepy now. Ooh, I wonder if grandma will put £20 in with her card like she did last year. Hmm . . I’m sure if I stay awake long enough, I’ll see Ss. . . zzzzz.

Is Christmas a surprise? It certainly can be. So, some Scripture for jaded souls.

Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.

I’m a child. Created by the will of God, according to St. John. And my Lord affirmed the importance of children in a society in which they were often ignored.

Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. Truly I tell you, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.” And he took the children in his arms, placed his hands on them and blessed them.

Children possess a trait, so clear and unvarnished, it simply beams out of them. They trust. Oh yes, they do. Just look at that toddler waddling towards you, arms outstretched. Without faith, it is impossible to please God.

Receive the kingdom like a little child.

Ooh, I wonder what surprises lie under the tree, in the kitchen. Next week. Next year. Whoa, starting to feel anxious – not enough money, exams coming up, medical bills . . . oh, I’m tired. Of the worry. Of the effort expended in trying to lasso the unknown.

Frankly, I don’t know what next year will bring.

Surprise me, Lord.

And teach me how to trust.

Amen.

© Richard Collins 2014

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Afterword: Christmas is a time for giving, of course. And top of my Christmas list is a publisher for my book. You probably can’t help with that, but you could give me a FREE gift. Re-blog or share this page with your friends. Especially if you’ve followed this blog for the latter part of this year, that’s a gift I’d really appreciate. And it’s a gift that keeps on giving. Many thanks.

Growing Up

I wonder if you’ve heard this one: Jesus was a man, but you know, he never had to struggle like us, did he? He was the Son of God so he must have found it easy to do the right thing. Right?’

I normally have two responses. The first is Hebrews 4.15,

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to empathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are–yet he did not sin.

And Luke 2.51-52,

51 Then he went down to Nazareth with them and was obedient to them. But his mother treasured all these things in her heart. 52 And Jesus grew in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.

Jesus grew up . . . what a fascinating concept. When I think of the idea of growing up, I can’t help returning to those days when my kids were little . . . really little . . . back in California . . . when our house looked like a trashed Toys R Us . . . It was enough to move my fingers over the keys . . .

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 We’ve got it all wrong when it comes to making toys for infants. Why are we designing them in bright colors and giving them actual practical and educational value? Why do we buy them plastic trucks and cooking utensils and dolls and blocks? Particularly if your child is under one, they are not looking at the latest miniature food mixer with the realistic raised speed dial – complete with microscopic numbers – and nodding in approval. First, they don’t care how realistic it is; it’s going in the mouth anyway. For them, that’s the test of quality: does it feel good in my mouth because the expensive doll with the human hair may fail dismally on that score. Second, most toys last about five seconds before their many constituent parts disappear magically to all four corners of the house.

And there are so many parts. What is the child really playing with anyway? She’s grabbed the arm of Mr. Potato Head and is banging it against a puzzle piece, a blue block and a dried-banana-covered piece of plastic, whose original purpose is impossible to discern. I don’t know why they don’t just market toys for infants in bits. “100 plastic bits for your child: wrapped in packs of ten. When the first ten have disappeared under chairs, down sinks and behind beds, pull out the next pack. It’s endless fun for mother and baby!”

Surely we should come to terms with the fact that our children aren’t in the slightest bit interested in the toys we give them, be they plastic bits or dolls that sing, dance and play the national anthem. They’re much more interested in real stuff. Just after opening a huge box full of the newest, most cleverly interactive toys money can buy, our 11-month-olds crawl with purpose to the cupboard to pull out the metal bowls. They sit for hours tapping a wooden spoon against a bowl and tinkering with the rice maker, pushing buttons and sucking the electric cord. We’ve paid for mental stimulation that would have made a young Einstein’s head spin but no, it’s the mixing spoon and the ceramic casserole dish that the child really loves. I think there’s a message here. I think we should go with this. Why resist? And why just stop with the bowls and dishes? Why not let Johnny get his hands on the whole lot …….?

“Oh, Jenny, I just love your furry knives!”

“ Not just furry, Sally … put that down, Kevin … take a look at this. Flick that switch and—”

“ –Oh my goodness, a razor sharp knife pops out. That is just fantastic! So Kevin can play with knives after all and you just pop a switch and within seconds, you’re dicing carrots! Can Kevin flick the switch too?”

“Not at his age, it’s been tested for resistance among one-year-olds. 80% couldn’t make it budge. They just recommend you don’t give them to the stronger ones. They’re such a delight, I love them!”

“Er, Jenny … is Katie okay? It looks like she’s eating the dishwasher powder. Are you sure that’s safe?”

“Sherbet, Sally. The plastic pouch on the side of the box is refillable and you can fill it with any food of your choice! Yesterday, she was munching on the Cheerios I’d swept up from the dining room floor. I like to keep an eye on her while she’s eating week old food. So much healthier and safer.”

“Oh yes, I totally agree. Keep ‘em close. I spray eatable glue on my shins and then cover them with snacks. Ben loves picking them off and I know exactly where he is by the slight stinging sensation as they come off in his fingers.”

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Hmm, happy days. So where was I? Oh yes, the serious subject of Jesus’ childhood. I think that phrase, Jesus grew up, possibly contains more theological conundrums than almost any other. Isn’t he the one referenced by Paul as the one who sustains the universe? Not just made, sustains – present tense. That guy aged five, who presumably asked his dad ‘So what’s this for?’ before hacking away at a piece of wood with a hammer and chisel, with Joseph looking on nervously.

And then there’s the original question. Wasn’t it just plain easy for him to be good? And doesn’t that mean he wasn’t really ‘just a man.’ He was . . . come on, admit it, a Super-man.

The traditional response draws strongly on Philippians 2.5-8,

In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus:

Who, being in very nature God,
did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage;
rather, he made himself nothing
by taking the very nature of a servant,
being made in human likeness.
And being found in appearance as a man,
he humbled himself
by becoming obedient to death—
even death on a cross!

This section – which is so intensely beautiful, it should move us straight to adoration – refers to what is called the Kenosis, or emptying. Christ emptied himself for us. But let’s stop for a moment and be clear what we’re talking about.

Christ was the God-Man. He possessed both a human and a divine nature. How the two natures interacted with each other is hard to understand at the best of times. If Jesus had been asked, ‘So can you explain the electronic gadgetry on the latest F-16?’ he would have done what any first century carpenter would have done. Looked at you as though you’d arrived from the moon. The suppression, therefore, of divine knowledge – which is all-encompassing – during his time on earth, was necessary in order for him to function as a normal human being.

Ah, but perhaps it was also necessary so that he could grow up. Right now, I have 2 teenagers – girls – and a son who will turn 13 in a couple of months. First, there is no contest between ‘the early years’ and the ‘teenage years.’ The early years are easy-peasy. Oh yes, they are! Change a diaper. Read a book. Endure a tantrum. Rock a baby to sleep. Exhausting often. But liable to completely do your head in!? That’s reserved for the teenage years. (All those with little ones, please feel free to vent . . . er, I mean, comment).

Yet, I do think watching children grow up is simply one of the most life-changing, beautiful, gratifying, soul-destroying, life-enhancing, satisfying, agonizing things that a person can experience.

Growth is good. Always. It often hurts but it’s good.

That Jesus grew up, I find deeply reassuring. We’re told he ‘grew in wisdom.’ He was Wisdom. How did that work? Surely, it can only mean that he acquired knowledge of his world just like any other boy. And that, therefore, must have meant . . . homework! Oh yes, the Teenage Burden, even for Jesus. In the Luke passage, we’re told that he grew up just after we’ve read about his extraordinary mastery of the OT Law, surrounded by rabbis in the temple. No, it didn’t mean he simply downloaded his knowledge of the OT via his divine nature. It means he studied hard. Really hard. (Are you listening, son?) He studied hard. And he reaped the rewards. Great wisdom.

That he limited himself in a human body and in that human body he grew up in a similar fashion to any other Middle Eastern boy of his day, well, we talk about identification a lot. In his suffering, Christ identifies with us. Suffers like us. And in his growing up, he was . . . well, perhaps he was a little like my son. Perhaps Mary called to him to come to dinner, waited for a minute or two, then went into the living room and shouted ‘NOW!’

No one said being a teenager was a sin . . . though no doubt some parents are tempted down that road.

I thank my heavenly father that my Lord was once a teenager, no doubt with smelly shoes and, who knows, maybe even an attitude at times. He knows our world because he has lived in it with a real human body, a human nature and all that goes with that. He knows intimately the intricacies of human family relationships, having grown up in a family.

I despair of myself, sometimes, when in dealing with my children, I’m tempted to reach for those over-used parental words, In my day, we used to . . . How much better simply to remind myself that my Lord knows what my kids go through because he was once their age, as astonishing as that sounds. He knows them, can strengthen them; he loves them and he’s with us as a family, having lived in one himself.

May that be a reassuring and encouraging truth to you, if you’re a parent with teenagers. And if you have little ones, well, all I can say is . . . it just gets better and better!

Our favourite family show of the moment is The Middle. If you’re a parent and you haven’t yet seen this show, you’re missing out. Borrow a box-set. Let me leave you with some wisdom from Rev. Tim-Tom, the friendly guitar-playing pastor:

Jesus was a teenager too,
Beneath the long hair, awkwardness, pimples . . . King of the Jews
A lonely teenage Saviour no one could understand
Awkward on the outside, but inside a wise young man,
Yeah, Jesus was a teenager too.
Hmm, yes he was . . .

© Richard Collins 2014

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