What The Manger Means, Pt. I

A couple of weeks ago, my pastor preached one of “those” sermons. You know the kind. The ones that you can’t deny are exactly what you needed to hear, no matter how much it stings. It was part of his Advent series, and he was talking about how most people missed the point of the Messiah when He showed up.

Looking back with the clarity of hindsight, we see the reasons why. The shame and the pain of Roman rule, the crushing apathy borne of the laying aside of the most basic elements of their worship, and 400 years of silence since the last prophet’s mouth had fallen silent in death — no small wonder that the idea of Messiah meant little more to the masses than political deliverance. He would crush Rome. He would enter into Jerusalem, triumphant over her enemies. He would take his seat on David’s throne and He would rule forever. Of the increase of His government of peace there would be no end.

How wrong they were. How “right side up” they were in contrast to the upside down nature of the Kingdom He was bringing. How shortsighted and temporal was their thinking. It’s so easy to sit here, thousands of years later, and shake our heads at their naiveté. They were so focused on their own wants and desires, they could not see the nature of what the Incarnation meant.

But then he dropped the bomb. My pastor said that we shouldn’t probably let ourselves off the hook so quickly, hindsight or no. Wanting something from Messiah that fell short of what He came to give isn’t exclusively the domain of folk in the first century. We should ask ourselves this diagnostic question, he said. We should ask ourselves “If God told me that He would change one thing (without restrictions) in my life if I asked, what would that thing be?”

Would it be a relationship? I got divorced this year, and I miss my wife every day. Being home for the holidays without her rips at my soul.

Would it be friendships? There is brokenness and awkward silence in some of mine that I wish would go away, but not enough to do the hard work to heal them.

Would it be health-related? I have a friend from high school who is likely spending his last Christmas with his family. Unless God does something spectacular, cancer will take him home to Jesus within the year.

Would it be a job? Would it be financial? I have unemployed friends, friends who are losing their homes, friends who are underemployed and whose Christmases were short on presents this year.

All of those are good things to want. Healing of relationships, of sickness, of want and need — we aren’t wanting wrongly to desire those things. But we aren’t wanting best.

My pastor’s next statement felt like a gut punch. He basically said that of all the problems and hardships in my life, if there were any that bothered me more than my sin, I was just as shortsighted and wrong about the nature of the Kingdom that showed up in Bethlehem that night. If there is anything that feels like a more pressing need than the sentence my sinfulness has given me, then I don’t comprehend what the manger means. I believe the direct quote from the sermon was that “If I don’t deeply understand the deadly nature of my sin, then I will never understand the joy of Christmas.”

I’ve been thinking about it since then, and today it comes home hardest.

Mild, He lays His glory by
Born that men no more may die
Born to raise the sons of earth
Born to give them second birth

Hark, indeed! Sing with the angels, who marveled at this gift while we sat (and still so often sit) dimly unaware of the priceless gift given. Christ is born in Bethlehem, come to do something about my deepest problem. Come to fix it. Come to make me new.

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