Tuesday, December 29, 2009

Heaven's Downward Escalator

By Margaret Manning

Christmas morning has come and gone for another year. Arriving and departing at an ever-quickening pace, I am always sad to see it go. Yet, the account of Jesus's birth in Luke's Gospel lingers with me even as another Christmas draws to a close.

I am always struck by the way Luke juxtaposes the announcement of the King of Israel—"for unto you is born this day in the city of David the Savior who is Christ the Lord"—with the sign of his kingship—"and this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger" (Luke 2:12). Israel's Messiah would be born in a feed trough for animals, and his royal vestments would be a few tattered cloth strips. How could a tiny baby—born in an animal barn with a manger for his bed—uniquely reveal the glory of God?

Luke's Gospel portrait of Jesus highlights what seem to be the most mundane details for us as modern readers. And yet, Luke highlights these seemingly ordinary details because they illumine his unique view of how God's kingdom would look very different from the kingdom the people of Jesus's day were expecting. For if you were a Jew living during this time, the announcement of the Messiah born in the city of David is a very big deal! The Jews had lived under repressive and oppressive regimes most of their history—some were of their own making, and some were brought upon them by foreign nations and through exile. The Davidic kingship represented the glory days of Israel, and the Jews knew that someday another king like David would arise who would lead them to freedom and greatness again. They were waiting for that king, and for that kingdom.

Out of the silence of 400 years, the angel Gabriel announces the promised Messiah to a young girl, Mary. She sings of his reign as that that which would "scatter the proud, bring down rulers from their thrones, exalt the humble and fill the hungry with good things" (Luke 1:46-52). Out of the silence of that quiet night, the angel spoke and announced what the people had all hoped for: He is here, Luke tells us, born in the same city as your great king of old, King David! The people now would look upon the new David—their new deliverer, their Messiah. He would be their great ruler. The prophet Micah announced, "As for you, Bethlehem too little to be among the clans of Judah, from you one will go forth for me to be ruler in Israel. His goings forth are from long ago, from the days of eternity."

But the king that came was not the king they expected. He was not born in a palace, the appropriate birthplace for a king, nor was he born into the household of a priest like his cousin John the Baptist. "And this will be a sign for you; you will find a baby wrapped in cloths, and lying in a manger." Born this day, in the city of David, is your Christ, your Messiah. And guess what? You'll find him in a manger.

The manger receives the Messiah, and poor shepherds receive the announcement of his birth. We might expect that the birth of Israel's king would be heralded throughout the nation—to the priests, the rulers, and to the leaders of the people. But no country-wide announcement is made. In fact, only those who seem most insignificant are the first to hear the good news. The coming of Jesus, the Messiah, is but a whisper into the ears of a few, select individuals; the announcement comes to a young, unmarried girl, her betrothed Joseph, and to poor shepherds—likely the youngest boys and girls in the family, just as David was sent out into the fields to tend his father's sheep. Israel's king would not reveal his glory as a conquering king against the Roman regime; this king came in humility as the prince of peace.

The Almighty God, Creator of heaven and earth, was the same God who chose to be glorified in human flesh as the baby Jesus. Unveiling the glory of God through the humble circumstances of Christ's birth is a point Luke doesn't want us to miss! Humility reveals the glory of God! Humility demonstrates his greatness and glory. God entered this world in humility to come among us as "God with us, Immanuel." As author Barbara Brown Taylor writes, "None of heaven's escalators are going up [this Christmas]. Everybody up there is coming down, right here, right into our own Bethlehem, bringing us the God who has decided to make his home in our arms."(1)

God's glory came into the world as the baby Jesus with a whisper in a few folks' ears. Those who heard the whisper believed the glory of God was revealed in that manger: "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father, full of grace and truth."

It's no matter that Christmas morning has come and gone just as the year gives way to another year. We can carry the message with us all year. Sometimes the most humble things reveal the awesome glory of God.

*(1) Barbara Brown Taylor, Home by Another Way (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Cowley Publications, 1999), 24.

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