Do you read some books more than once? I do. Colin Dexter, the British mystery writer, gave us Inspector Morse and his last in the series, The Remorseful Day, is a book I have read repeatedly for the sheer joy of it. Or how about George MacDonald’s Phantases, a fantasy book that greatly influenced C.S. Lewis? Then there are some of Henri Nouwen’s short books of devotional literature, stuffed with insights, which cause the reader to stop repeatedly as the weight of the truth disassembles preconceived notions of what is real.
There can’t be a story in the Bible read as repeatedly as the Christmas story. But the layered nature of Scripture allows us to read it fresh, as if for the first time, and see insights emerge that seemed veiled in an earlier reading.
As I read the story again this year, I saw three things that seem so obvious, yet came more fully into focus when married to current life experience.
A message for the excluded
The first is the glorious account of how the shepherds were the first to hear. From a Pharisee’s point of view, the shepherds were unclean and part of a despised occupation. So right from the beginning, God was articulating via choice the nature of His message and the inclusive nature of His Kingdom.
My religious background was highly exclusionary—”come out from among them.” And in this high-tech world, refashioning the invitation and re-envisioning who belongs is a necessary exercise in Kingdom perspective.
An Insignificant Place
My wife Marcy and I just returned from San Antonio, Tex., and while there, journeyed down to Austin to see the LBJ library. In my youth, Johnson was a controversial president, presiding over a tumultuous time. I saw him in person at an event on the White House lawn. Not far from Austin is San Marcos. It was in this small town, home of Southwest Texas State, that Lyndon Johnson graduated from college. He always felt intimidated by and reacted to the Harvard crowd, including the Kennedys, and tried to overcompensate for not graduating from a castle on the hill. San Marcos held no reputation and had no images that could only be described in superlatives, as with Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York. And such is geographic prejudice. “Can any good come from there (Nazareth)?”
But in the “greatest story ever told,” we start, not in Athens, or Rome, or Alexandria, or even Jerusalem, but in Bethlehem. It is estimated that even when Herod had all the male babies killed, it may have been no more than twelve or so. One student said, “We are bigger than our story.” Scripture counsels not to despise small beginnings. We may have parts of our story that do not scream “keep your eye on this person, they are going somewhere.” But that has little to do with our place in what is significant and meaningful.
A Life of Questioning
For the last, we move ahead to John 8. Jesus is talking to some Jews who had believed Him, but they were caught up in their ethnic and religious identity and still saw Jesus as a threat. They were boasting that they were descendants of Abraham and argued that “We are not illegitimate children” (v. 41). One does not have to ponder long to understand that even these many years later, the circumstances of Jesus birth were murky—a truth that I dislike. I like being understood and abhor being misunderstood. But Mary, the mother of Jesus, lived out her life knowing that her responsiveness and willing obedience to God’s call resulted in others questioning her behavior and integrity throughout her life. And further, she knew that there was nothing she could do to clear up the misunderstanding.
A surprise selection for the declaration of God’s act, a puzzling event in a dismissed town, and a sustained sacrifice for a redemptive good. These leave us with the reflection, in what way might the Lord surprise us with His redemptive activity? Further, is our faith all about sureness, or are we open to the invitation to a disorienting appearance of the Lord into our controlled universe?