Monday, January 22, 2007


Micah 5:2-5; Luke 1:39-55[1]

At this time of year, it seems that many of us are concerned with surprises. We want once again to surprise those we love with gifts that convey our love, and we want to be surprised again with gifts from them that convey their love. I’m not very good at surprising people. I’m too predictable. I find it amazingly challenging to try to understand a woman’s heart and mind, and then try to figure out what I can give her that will really surprise her. I think I’m not alone in that dilemma.

As we come to the celebration of Christmas, we need to be reminded again that we worship a God of surprises. The story of Jesus’ birth is one that is full of surprises—but then, so is the story of his life! The Savior of humankind comes to us not as a Roman aristocrat, but as a Jewish peasant! He is born not in the finest villa but in a cave cut out for livestock! He is worshipped not by the “high and mighty” among his people, but by the down and out, simple shepherds (I think about the guys who stand around at certain convenience stores in our area waiting to be hired for the day; or the guys who sell the Houston Chronicle on street corners 365 days a year, whether it’s pouring down rain or blistering with heat.) Those nobles who do pay homage to him are foreigners; they are astrologer-priests from Babylon whom we call “wise men” but who would have been considered magicians, enchanters, diviners, and sorcerers by the Jewish people (see Daniel!).

The story of Jesus’ birth is the prime illustration of God’s surprising mercy and love. It is a story of grace for sinners and restoration for the outcasts. Jesus reveals to us the God of love “who commits himself unreservedly to [humanity], to their needs and hopes: who does not demand but gives, does not oppress but raises up, does not wound but heals; who spares those who impugn his holy law and consequently himself, who forgives instead of condemning, liberates instead of punishing, leaves grace to rule instead of law.”[2] For some reason, that comes to us again and again as a surprise. But It’s the fundamental revelation of God’s nature: Throughout the Scriptures, God reveals himself as the God of unshakeable, indestructible, inexhaustible, unchangeable, unconditional love.

Perhaps the greatest surprise in the story of Jesus is that he shows us definitively once and for all that God is for us. In all that God does, God is “for us.” “For us” defines God’s essential nature. God has always worked to show himself as “the Father of the forsaken, the God of the godless and the refuge of those without hope.”[3] That’s the nature of God’s love. Whether it’s disobedient Israel or godless, ruthless Nineveh, God’s steadfast love prevails, even through an unwilling prophet like Jonah. He reaches out to those who promise to obey him but who disobey instead. He forgives those who seem to have no interest in God in the first place. He loves those who are hostile toward him—yes, even his enemies. God is the one who has always been “slow to chide and swift to bless.”

As one of my favorite theologians puts it: “The God who makes Himself known to us in His revelation, who above all, discloses His Name to us in the Incarnation of the Word in Jesus Christ, is the God whose whole revelation is one sole movement of gracious condescension to man, and act of saving Mercy.”[4]

The surprising story of Jesus’ birth is the most dramatic part of the ongoing story of God’s surprising way of redeeming us all. God redeems us through suffering shame and rejection, not by taking an earthly throne and winning over the power-mongers. God redeems us without any fanfare whatsoever. As the hymn puts it, “How silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given”! And yet that is how God always works to redeem us—“so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven”! And God redeems us humbly, by taking his place among us as one of the least, one of the last, one of those cast out and brushed aside. God redeems us not by coming with ten thousands of his angel armies; he does it by taking the form of a helpless infant lying in a feed trough. He does it by becoming God in flesh, God with us, Immanuel.

We must not fail to hear the challenge this surprising story poses to all of us. This surprising story of non-heroes and nobodies, the weak and the foolish, undercuts our traditional values and our pecking orders. But this surprising reversal occurs precisely “so that the integrity and worth of every person, thing, and moment—however lowly—may be defended and become the object of special wonder and delight.”[5] To some this seems absurd, but by this “marvelous absurdity,” we come to see that our God of surprises “opens up the future to a world where everything is possible, including the final setting of things right.”[6]

[1] A sermon preached 12/24/06 at First Presbyterian Church, Dickinson TX.

[2] Hans Küng, Does God Exist? , 675.

[3] Jürgen Moltmann, The Church in the Power of the Spirit, 94.

[4] Emil Brunner, The Christian Doctrine of God, 184

[5] Conrad Hyers, “The Nativity as Divine Comedy” The Christian Century (Dec. 11, 1974): 1168-72;

[6] Glen V. Wilberg, “God’s Surprise” The Christian Century (Dec. 7, 1994), .

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