I imagine a woman peering out of her window as two people meander through the streets of Bethlehem. One of them appears to be pregnant and riding on a donkey led by the other. She doesn’t recognize them. One of her children pulls at the hem of her robe and, picking him up, turns away from the window. She sings a song and bounces him, forgetting about the two wayfarers.
I imagine a man standing outside his home one evening in Bethlehem, tending to various chores. He looks up, wiping sweat from his brow, and notices on a far hill a flash of light. What was that? And was the wind carrying the faintest notes of music? He pauses for a moment, trying to still his breath, but cannot hear anymore. Maybe some shepherds, drunk again around a fire that’s gotten too big for them to handle. He shrugs and returns to his work.
I imagine local politicians jockeying for positions of importance; elderly cynics staring at the sky, disillusioned with what’s become of the world; children running through the streets playing games; vendors trying to sell their wares for the best prices; masons laying brick after brick; thieves stealing; carpenters sawing and shaping wood; priests tending to the temple, night after night, generation after generation. Everything was going on as it had been for hundreds of years. There was nothing special about that day. That night was just like any other night. Was God even watching?
Yet that first Christmas was an interruption for everyone. They didn’t know it yet, but it was. It was an interruption for all of history. Mary and Joseph felt it most acutely, then those shepherds on the hillside and various others, and then wise men from distant lands. With a piercing cry, drawing the night air into his lungs, this baby was going to interrupt everything.
The incarnation of Christ testifies to the fact that God won’t leave us alone. Every person in Bethlehem, in all of Judea, indeed all of the world, was struggling in some way the night Jesus was born: whether it be with sickness or sin, finances or foreclosure, marital discord or martial law, legalism or licentiousness. Somewhere, a baby cries and nurses at his mother’s breast, and in that cry is the resolution of God to come among us.
Simeon was patient and wise enough to wait for the “consolation of Israel” (Luke 2:25), but knowing the hearts of men, I can’t help but wonder if there were others who had lost the faith; who were going through the exterior motions of religion because that was appropriate, without any expectation that God was going to do anything about the state of this world. Maybe Luke finds it worthwhile to remark upon Simeon’s behavior because his reaction would have been so rare. Perhaps others were waiting for God to come and pull them out of their present situation; he was going to lift Israel up to its rightful status of global superpower, and cast down all of Israel’s enemies!
No one was expecting, though, that God’s plan was to come among us, first as a baby. This child was “God with us,” Emmanuel. He doesn’t take us out of our present circumstances, but disrupts our present circumstances, setting them on a new trajectory. He is not going to aid our escape; he is going to lead us in paths of righteousness. He is not going to assuage the anxiety of maintaining an unjust status quo; he is going to send the Holy Spirit to convict us of sin. Becoming a new creation doesn’t mean everything changes according to our will, but his will (2 Corinthians 5:17)! In that way, it can feel like an interruption.
Jesus interrupts our pride. We may want so very much to climb the mountain of spiritual enlightenment, to find God sitting at its summit to congratulate us on our achievement and then, when we rest, we can peer down on all those who have yet to ascend or struggle along the way. With perhaps an inflated sense of magnanimity, we would go and help them. But this isn’t real. If you would ascend the mountain, all you would find is an altar to your own pride (Genesis 11:7-9). Jesus left the high place to come down here, into the mud and smoke of earth; and he didn’t come as a warrior riding atop a chariot. He came as a baby. That baby grew into a man who says, “Follow me” (Matthew 10:38, 16:24, 19:21; John 12:26, 21:22; etc.). Follow him down into a posture of humility, for the very God of the universe humbled himself to become a servant who would die on a cross (Philippians 2:5-11). There is no room for human pride here.
Jesus interrupts our suffering. Will we pray against cancer, infections, car accidents, grief, depression, anxiety, job loss, congenital malformations, miscarriages, and all other manner of worldly afflictions? Yes! Let us acknowledge God as sovereign over our very bodies, finances, marriages, children, and everything else. Let us pray for guidance, protection, and miracles. And let us also pray with a posture that God’s will be done in all those things; not just reciting the words by rote, but laying hold of the promises of God in Scripture and earnestly seeking God’s will, hoping for and expecting its course in our lives. Jesus interrupts our suffering here, and in a way that is unexpected and frightening. I say unexpected because he inhabits a human form that becomes hungry, bleeds, breaks, and dies. God deals with sin and death by ordaining that his own Son should be born as a baby, live, and die; in Chuck’s words, in order for us to have pity, Jesus endured no-pity. John Swinton says this about how Christ interrupts our suffering:
If the Holy One of Israel can experience such suffering and alienation, then it is not surprising that many sufferers have similar experiences. If this is so, then Jesus’ silence and alienation legitimate the experience of suffering. The cross speaks loudly to the experience of suffering: “It’s okay to feel this way; God remains with you and for you despite what you are experiencing at this moment.” The silence of Jesus on the cross is a liberating force that reveals God’s solidarity with the sufferer, not in unrealistic platitudes or false expectations, but in total identification and solidarity.
Jesus interrupts our suffering is also frightening because he does not banish it, but enters into it. The miracle may not be that the cancer melts away, that the baby is without blemish, that bankruptcy is avoided, that mom lives. Although the miracle may be that God uses even those things for good (Genesis 50:20), let’s put that thought on hold for a moment. Such explanations may cause us to forget, and also may cause us to be like Job’s friends, explaining things away when we should instead lean in to grace.
Let’s instead recognize that the certain miracle is that Jesus Christ lives. Jesus walked this earth, planting dirty feet in the dust each morning, speaking with a parched mouth, eating among friends and enemies, listening to lullabies from his mother, learning carpentry from his adoptive father, preaching the good news of the Kingdom of God, then was reviled, flogged, crucified, and then he died. If the story stopped there, there would be no story. But God. But God’s plan interrupted the plans of men, and raised Jesus from death, which vindicated everything he did and taught. Because that happened, we whom Jesus calls his own are saved. That’s the miracle. Our salvation does not yet mean salvation from all these worldly woes. Jesus interrupts our suffering, but in ways we don’t expect and in ways that will inevitably deepen our trust in him and his work.
Jesus interrupts our gluttony. While he walked the earth, he himself was accused of being a glutton (Luke 7:33-35), and admitted that the time for fasting for his disciples had not yet come while he was among them (Luke 5:35). However, the fact that God was enfleshed to walk among us, a man who could become hungry, sweaty, and tired, a wandering peasant-teacher without a place to rest his head, reveals that God repudiates gluttony. Love, in contrast to gluttony, was his priority. We are to love our neighbor even more than our own liberty as it pertains to something as basic as food (1 Corinthians 8:13).
But Jesus was living in a way that he was accused of being a glutton! One might observe that the difference between gluttony and feasting is that gluttony goes hand-in-hand with drunkenness, laziness, and over-indulgence, particularly in the setting in which others do not have enough. Feasting, on the other hand, is shared and directed toward some greater end than mere self-indulgence. Feasting does not necessarily carry a connotation of drunkenness, laziness, and over-indulgence. Paul warned against the imbalance of gluttony in the Church (1 Corinthians 11:21-22), and Jesus interrupts such gluttony with his very body and blood, uniting us together (1 Corinthians 11:24-25), reminding us that we have no right to over-indulge while others go hungry (Matthew 25:35).
Jesus interrupts our community. We inevitably drift toward some degree of apathy, complacency, and indifference. Such is the entropy of the universe and the entropy of our own sinful bodies this side of the new heavens and new earth. Brad House calls apathy “an unholy contentment with the status quo.” Such a status quo ignores our call to love God, loves others, and make disciples. According to D.A. Carson, this entropy is everywhere:
We drift toward compromise and call it tolerance; we drift toward disobedience and call it freedom; we drift toward superstition and call it faith. We cherish the indiscipline of lost self-control and call it relaxation; we slouch toward prayerlessness and delude ourselves into thinking we have escaped legalism; we slide toward godlessness and convince ourselves we have been liberated.
I would add that drifting also causes us to drift toward those who are like us, vocationally, ethnically, generationally, and socioeconomically.
Jesus ruins all this – thank God! His very birth testifies to the fact that God values a different kind of friendship. If God had abided by the “peer principle” that we so often use, like affiliating with like, Christ would have remained in heaven forevermore. Instead, Jesus chose to reach out to sinful people who were unlike him. He makes a family for himself not of people who are alike, but of people who are very different (see last week’s email); the Church has been variably successful in following this call.
He defibrillates the arrhythmias of our relationships; he is the pacemaker for a new rhythm in our lives – individually and together. We say we don’t have the time; he upsets our priorities. We say we don’t have the desire to meet someone new; he gives us a new heart. We say it’s awkward to confess our sins; he convicts us of our sin. We say we prefer sleeping in rather than gathering for prayer; he draws us to himself in “awe and intimacy,” as Tim Keller puts it. We say pizza, movies, and board games are more than enough; he calls us to something deeper and bigger, an eternal purpose to give our lives the meaning for which they were made.
Indeed, we say we’d rather not be interrupted at all: we cannot bother with the request to serve, the needs of others and the church, the inconvenient conversation, the distortion of our agenda. We cannot be interrupted. But Jesus interrupts. He is the interrupter, teaching us, by his very interruption, that his way of living is to allow oneself to be interrupted, as he so often was during his earthly ministry.
Are these interruptions going to shape our lives together? How? There are still other interruptions. What are the ways you have been interrupted by Jesus? He is God with us; he has not left us alone. On the one hand, that should be very comforting – God loves us! On the other hand, that should give us a little chill – not of terror, but of awe. God loves us, and has plans for this family he calls his Church, and for you. He is going to interrupt anything that gets in the way of that. Have you been interrupted?