The whole story

In the book, The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey tells about a Jesuit missionary who went to China in the sixteenth century. He took samples of religious art to illustrate the story of Jesus. He discovered that the Chinese loved the pictures of the Virgin Mary holding her child, but were horrified by pictures of the crucifixion. They insisted on worshiping the Virgin Mary rather than the crucified Jesus.

Yancey says we do pretty much the same thing. Go through any stack of Christmas cards, and even the Christian-themed cards have been purged of any reminder of how the story that began in Bethlehem turned out at Calvary.

When Jesus was eight days old, Mary and Joseph took him to the temple in Jerusalem to be circumcised. They met a man named Simeon who told them wonderful things about what Jesus was to become. Then he told Mary, “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many…. The thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.”

Over and over throughout his ministry, Jesus said the same things.

Imagine for a moment that you’re Mary. You followed your Son’s life and ministry with the interest that only a mother has. You saw how he revealed people’s hearts. You saw how the light came on as people believed, and then you saw the rejection and the trial.

And then you saw him hanging on the cross.

I wonder. As Mary stood helplessly in front of her son on the cross, did she think back to that day in the temple 33 years before? Did she think, “I always wondered what Simeon meant. This has got to be it. This is a sword through my soul. A sword through my body would be preferable to this.”

And so, Simeon’s warning has to be part of the Christmas story. We can’t just settle for the baby Jesus.

Jesus stepped into our world, knowing that he would divide people.

He knew that when he revealed their hearts, most would reject him, yet he willingly went to the cross for them.

He was pierced so that we could be healed.


Lauren’s toffee

Last week, a plain Tupperware container appeared in the office. The container’s appearance belied the unexpected delight to be found inside: an incredible combination of toffee, chocolate, and almonds. Melt-in-your-mouth deliciousness. Everyone was raving about it. But who had shared such an incredible delight?

This was Lauren’s chocolate almond toffee.

Lauren politely accepted our thanks, but let everyone know that the batch was a failure. Something about the chocolate layer wasn’t right.

This wasn’t how it was supposed to be.

It caused me to think about famous things that people use every day. Penicillin, pacemakers, and Post-It notes all started out as someone’s mistake. This wasn’t what those things were supposed to be.

And that made me think about the way God came at Christmas. God incarnate wrapped in swaddling clothes? This wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Had God made a mistake? What good could come out of this?

Lauren says she has no plans to quit her job and go into the toffee business, but if she did, I would buy stock in that company. Love and delight go into everything she does, even her “mistakes.”

Receiving God’s gift of the incarnation is a bit like trying Lauren’s toffee. You just need to set aside expectations, and let the love and delight sink in.


My dad would have turned 100 this week.

Dad passed away in 1981, but I can still remember the way he felt when he hugged me when I came home. When I had to leave, I will never forget the way he stood and watched until I had driven out of sight. Dad told me every day that he loved me. He was constantly after me to do my best. When I got my first job cutting the neighbors’ grass, he insisted that I do more than was expected. Even now, when I see someone cutting grass and allowing the clippings to blow in the street, I think of him. He would not have approved.

I’m reading a book called Hillbilly Elegy, by J.D. Vance, who was born about 100 miles south of where I grew up in Ashland, Kentucky. Vance simply tells the story of his family, but it’s full of insights about poverty and brokenness. Its lessons reach way beyond the poor whites of Appalachia.

In the week ahead, our church will take part in National Homeless Persons’ Memorial Day with a walk and vigil downtown. We’ll remember those who passed away without a home, and without loving, supportive relationships. We’ll also remind ourselves of our own blessings.

We like to think that we’re our own persons; that we control our own destinies; that we can be anything we want. It’s true, but it’s also true that our family, our friends, the places we grow up, and even our ancestors, influence us far more than we know. Homelessness can often be traced to the kinds of broken relationships that Vance describes in Hillbilly Elegy.

Dad was far from perfect. He could be moody and lose his temper. He never had a new car, and we lived in the same converted duplex until I left home. But he worked hard his whole life and was always there for us.

I’m older now than Dad was when he died, but he’s still the most influential person in my life.

The children in the story

John Huffman, the minister 40 years ago at the church I now serve, told about hosting a staff Christmas luncheon in his home. They had a “white elephant” gift exchange, and were all laughing and having a good time until it all came to a stop.

One person picked a gift bag, reached in, and pulled out a little baby Jesus in a manger. They were all stunned. Who would put the baby Jesus in a white elephant gift exchange?  But then they noticed that it looked like the baby Jesus in the nativity set on their living room table. John’s wife, Anne, checked, and sure enough, the baby Jesus figurine was missing. Somehow it had fallen off the table and into a gift bag. They all had a good laugh and put the baby Jesus back where it belonged.

John said, “The more I thought about it, this little incident was quite telling.  So often Jesus is relegated to a kind of “white elephant” status at Christmas. Not central to the celebration at all.

The Christmas story we love the most is from Luke. Luke gives us shepherds, angels, and the baby Jesus in the manger. We love Luke.

And then there’s John.

No angels, no shepherds, and no baby.

John begins: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Greek word for “word” is logos. It’s where we get the word logic.

In other faiths the logic is, follow the rules, and if you’re good enough, you might please God. But John says that Jesus is the logic of God. Instead of rules, you get a person who wants to have a relationship with you.

John says, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”

The infinite became finite. The inaccessible became accessible. The immortal became mortal. You could touch him; hold him; you could feel his breath on your cheek.

That’s the logic of God.

And John says, “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”

We’re the children in this story.