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Surprise!

Christmas, children, and surprises go together like peanut butter and jam. There is nothing more delightful than seeing a child’s eyes light up as they unwrap a Christmas gift they really wanted but didn’t expect to get, or than when you’ve found that perfect gift for someone. Christmas surprises are joyful surprises.

That first Christmas, when Christ was born, was also a time of surprises—though it really shouldn’t have been. The script for Christ’s birth was slowly revealed from Genesis through Malachi. You would have thought that those who studied the Scriptures would have caught on to where Christ was going to be born and what his mission was. But no, his birth caught the religious leaders and their followers unaware.

Throughout the Old Testament God consistently showed great concern for the most vulnerable, the orphan, the widow, and the foreigner. God has always been attentive to those considered the least and elevated them to honor. Think of Moses, the adopted child neither fully Egyptian nor culturally Hebrew—a misfit—yet God made him a leader of his people. And how about David, the youngest of many boys, the one least likely to amount to anything, the errand boy? God made him king. Or Ruth, the Moabite, an ancestor of Christ himself. The low are raised up; the outsider becomes the insider.

Are we so caught up with getting religion right, with being orthodox in belief and practice, that we miss the amazing, miraculous work that the Holy Spirit is doing in the world around us?

The fact that Christ was born in a lowly town rather than a politically and commercially significant city shouldn’t have been a surprise, then. That the shepherds received the news first rather than the religious elite should have been expected. And the inclusion of the Magi in the story shouldn’t have seemed remarkable at all. Yet Jews and Christians alike continue to be surprised by the way the events of Christ’s birth turned the order of the world upside down. Or is it right-side up?

As I reflect on the revolutionary events of that first Christmas I can’t help but wonder if we aren’t more like the religious establishment of Christ’s day. Are we so caught up with getting religion right, with being orthodox in belief and practice, that we miss the amazing, miraculous work that the Holy Spirit is doing in the world around us? Orthodoxy isn’t a bad thing— unless its pursuit is at the expense of living fully into our identity as Christ’s followers.

Christ’s birth, life, death, and resurrection were revolutionary. In all his dealings Christ continued to turn the world around, to break social convention in order to be fully present with people, to love them as they were and where they were, and then to invite them to be in relationship with him and become a follower. Christ reached across entrenched divisions between Jews and Gentiles, rich and poor, men and women. Christ broke down walls and built bridges.

This is the work that the Holy Spirit continues to be about today; this is the kingdom-building work that we as Christ’s followers are invited to participate in. So the question before us is: Are going to live lives that surprise other people? Are we going to live lives that are so countercultural that they turn this world right-side up?