When you read the Christmas story you see that everyone who comes in contact with God – whether it be Zechariah, Mary, or the shepherds – is initially afraid. This is the case throughout the course of the entire Bible. Whenever someone gets even a glimpse of the glory of God the response was universal: they were filled with holy terror.
When God decided to enter into human history, God had an abundance of choices as how to do that. God could choreograph his entrance to produce whatever response was desired. If what God ultimately wanted was dutiful obedience or fear-based submission that would have been simple. Just a small glimpse of God’s glory was enough to terrify men and women throughout the Bible. What if God would have ripped the sky into two upon his entrance? That would have done the trick to get full compliance.
But that was not God’s motivation. God was motivated by love. John 3.16 – arguably the most well known verse in the Bible – gives exact clarity to God’s motivation. “For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son…”
So if you are God, what do you do? How do you stay true to the nature and character of God, yet not have the end result be fear, insecurity, and shrinking away? How do you maintain a duality of glory/holiness yet simultaneously communicate love and intimacy?
When God chose to enter the world as a baby, it was the most brilliant maneuver for communicating the incredible combination of holiness and love. There is nothing less frightening and more accessible than a baby. Everyone feels safe around a baby. A baby is approachable. A baby projects warmth and innocence and joy.
When God made the choice to enter humanity in such a disarming way, God took a tremendous risk. Have you ever thought about that? When God chose to incarnate into humanity as an infant, there was the inherent risk that God would be overlooked. How often do you notice babies that are not your own? But even more than that, God chose to risk being minimized and discredited.
The nature of this risk became apparent to me in the midst of a conversation with a friend one December. We were talking about the meaning of Christmas, and he asked me a question that was partly playful but partly honest.
“You really believe that the God of the Universe came to earth as a baby?”
I told him I did.
“So you are saying that if Mary and Joseph didn’t take care of baby Jesus, that God could have died? You are telling me that you believe God needed his diaper changed? You are telling me that God used to eat baby food and play with toys? This is the God you believe in?”
The more he mischievously dug in with his questions, the more sheepish I became about answering them. Though I fully trust in the reality of the incarnation of Christ, I had to admit that it did sound a bit absurd when you say it out loud to someone that doesn’t share those beliefs.
Our dinner ended, but I was still thinking about the conversation hours later. As I replayed the dialogue in my head, I found myself praying something like this.
“God, sometimes I wish you would have made it a little bit easier to believe in you. My friend is right. It requires a pretty significant stretch to put your faith in the story of God entering humanity as an infant. Couldn’t you have added a little bit of flair to the story? Then people like my friend would have a better chance of believing in you.” I laughed at myself for even saying such a thing in prayer. That must be sacrilegious.
But as I sat there thinking about it, something began to dawn on me. God was not unaware of the risk that He took to enter humanity as a baby. God knew how easy it would be for us to miss the significance of what that represented. God knew that the humility and vulnerability represented by the Incarnation would easily turn into fodder for those that wanted to convince themselves that Jesus wasn’t for them.
But God did it anyway. Why?
God found the perfect way to communicate both glory and grace; royalty yet accessibility; cosmically majestic yet tangible present.
The risk of coming as a baby was that we could miss or minimize the nature and character of God. The upside was greater though. Through the safety of a baby we would see just how accessible and near God’s presence was.
This is how the angel of the Lord said it: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”). (Matthew 1.22-23)
This is the center of the Christmas message, and therefore I would suggest, at the center of Christianity: “God with us.” God has come near to you, and now God longs for you to come near to Him. God does not want you to be driven by fear or duty or impersonal obedience. God wants to be intimately connected to you, and wants you to be intimately connected to God. All else in the Christian life flows from that living, breathing reality of spiritual intimacy with God.
So when you see the baby Jesus this Christmas, remember the Christmas story. Remember than no one person who saw that baby, saw just a baby. Not one. The shepherds, the wise men, Mary, Joseph, Simeon, Anna, they all knew what was happening.
Luke’s account ends with the response of the shepherds in v20. May it be ours as well: “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen…”