Often, I find myself feeling like our church plant is so small and slow and unorthodox that it’s almost inconsequential. The gatherings are ordinary, and our meeting places are less than ideal. I wonder, “Am I the right person for this?” And “Wouldn’t God be more glorified by a more attractive environment?”
In the middle of my church planting insecurities, the season of Advent speaks into my fears. This Advent, I have been especially aware of the paradox of Christmas and the advent (the arrival) of our hope in Christ. In the paradox of Christmas and the advent of our hope, I am discovering that perhaps this humble, newborn church is the exact type of place that God likes to appear.
The Paradox of Christmas
In what sense is Christmas a paradox? It’s a profound spiritual holy day and yet a commercialized bonanza. It celebrates the turning point in human history—and yet only a handful of people witnessed it. It makes this remarkable claim: The King of the universe came to earth! And yet this remarkable claim appears most foolish: He was born as a baby… to poor parents… in a stable for animals.
Centuries before the birth of our Lord, the prophet Isaiah foreshadowed the advent of our hope:
“Nevertheless, there will be no more gloom for those who were in distress….
The people walking in darkness
have seen a great light;
on those living in the land of deep darkness
a light has dawned….
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given.”
Isaiah 9:1-2, 6. (NIV)
Into a world of darkness, a Light has dawned. Into a world of despair, Hope has risen. Into a world of money and power and war… a Child is born?
The birth narrative in Luke’s gospel tells us of Joseph and Mary’s 80 or 90 mile journey to Bethlehem, of their inability to secure a safe place to give birth, and of the humble conditions into which our Savior arrived.
This is the paradox: The King of the universe—the Creator of the cosmos, the Son of God—comes in the form of a baby. And yet Joseph and Mary named him Jesus, meaning “Savior,” and Emmanuel, meaning “God is with us.” He of infinite glory and majesty became helpless, dependent, and small.
In the middle of nowhere, to parents who were nobodies, this Child, who looked like any other child, was born. Jesus didn’t come by way of fairy tale birth into a golden palace. Jesus came by way of pain, of poverty, of confusion. Jesus comes into the real world, this place of both beauty and of brokenness, and not an idealized world.
Our Imperfect World
Have you ever seen a picture of the world? It looks so perfect: Big blue oceans, white clouds, green land, and brown mountain ranges. Well, I just found out that it’s not a real picture. Apparently, it takes a combination of nearly one hundred photos—because there’s darkness and shadows on different parts of the earth at one time, so photographers patch together numerous images into one picture. It’s beautiful, but it’s not real. That perfect world doesn’t exist.
Much like this photoshopped earth, we have an idealized version of it in our minds. The earth is supposed to be this perfectly beautiful place, but that world doesn’t exist. Instead, we get both pieces of beauty and pieces of brokenness.
This is the power of the Christmas story: Jesus doesn’t come to the idealized world from the NASA postcard. He comes to the real world. Our home of brokenness and beauty. He came to the real world because it’s the real world that needs to be made whole.
The Advent of Hope
So, the paradox is that the King is born a Child. His palace is a stable. His bed is dirt and straw. And as Frederick Buechner describes it, that’s when all heaven broke loose.
The darkness was shattered like glass, and the glory flooded through with the light of a thousand suns. A new star blazed forth where there had never been a star before, and the air was filled with the bright wings of angels, the night sky came alive with the glittering armies of God, and a great hymn of victory rose up from them—Glory to God in the highest—and strange kings arrived out of the East to lay kingly gifts at the feet of this even stranger and more kingly child. Frederick Buechner, “Come and See,” The Hungering Dark, 51.
The angelic choir appeared to the shepherds—not noblemen, not priests and religious leaders, just ordinary guys working the night shift. The text says they were terrified. Surely if God was appearing to these guys, it meant judgment, it meant death. But instead the angel speaks good news: “Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.”
Could this be the great arrival all Israel had been waiting for? After centuries of silence—no new prophecies, no freedom from oppressors, no new Scripture—the King has arrived.
It’s as if the angels couldn’t contain themselves. Just like when a new parent posts dozens of baby pics to Instagram as soon as possible, the angels burst into our world, find some unsuspecting shepherds, and break into song.
In this angelic song, heaven and earth meet. The glory of angels and the ordinariness of common men come together as one.
Finding God in the Mangers
The great paradox and advent of the Christmas narrative reminds us: If God can show up here, he can show up anywhere. Here’s Buechner again:
“Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in a stable, they can never be sure where he will appear or to what lengths he will go or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of man. If holiness and the awful power and majesty of God were present in this least auspicious of all events, this birth of a peasant’s child, then there is no place or time so lowly and earthbound but that holiness can be present there too.” Frederick Buechner, “The Face in the Sky,” The Hungering Dark, 13.
Indeed, it’s just where God seems most hidden and most powerless, that he may reveal himself most powerfully. If God can show up here in the darkness of a stable, then he can show up in the messy places of our marriages, our parenting, and our work. If he can show up here among the animals and the shepherds, then he can certainly show up in the messy places of church planting.
As I write this, we have lost our meeting space, and I don’t know where we’ll be able to gather next month. But looking at the birth narrative, Joseph and Mary couldn’t find a place either, and God’s beautiful, mysterious, exceedingly wise plan of redemption still moved forward anyway.
Into darkness, a light has dawned. Fear not: God is not afraid to show up in unlikely, unseen, and humble places.