Contributed by Clarke Cayton, Chaplain for Christian Care Ministry (Chaplains Collective Member)
Christians love nativities at Christmastime. When I was growing up, I didn’t care much for decorating the tree or putting up lights, but I always made sure I was the one who got to arrange the nativity set. Every community has its own versions, from the colorful and ornate to the simple woodcarvings. I even recently came across a hipster nativity set including a drone, wise men on Segway’s and Mary and Joseph taking an iPhone selfie with new baby Jesus. For centuries, all cultures around the world have attempted to relate to this extravagant event and in nearly every way imaginable, all the displays fall incredibly short.
So, I want you to strip away all the Christmas trappings of everything you’ve been enculturated by relating to the birth of Jesus. I want you to absorb the scandal, hardship, and destitution of the situation.
We all know that Mary and Joseph were residing in Bethlehem when Jesus was born; having travelled from Nazareth to be present for the census of the Roman Empire. Bethlehem was of course Joseph’s ancestral hometown, being that he was of the line of King David who was both born in Bethlehem and anointed King by the prophet Samuel there.
To put this into context, upon the arrival of an unmarried pregnant couple showing up in the Father’s hometown to meet up with all his relatives, is beyond shameful and disreputable. We can only speculate as to why their own family did not make adequate room for them.
This my friends is the pathway through which our God has chosen to engage our world.
Now, there are couple terms I want to discuss right out of the shoot that get mentioned a lot around Christmastime that I want to make sure we all know the meaning of.
- Nativity, which is a derivative of an old Latin word meaning “the occasion of one’s birth”, it’s also the same root for the word “Native”; as in describing someone’s original birthplace. So, everyone is a native of somewhere and everyone has had a nativity!
- Incarnation, this again is a term with Latin roots meaning “in the flesh”. If you love Mexican food, you would recognize the presence of “Carne” in Incarnation. Carne is the Spanish word for meat (or flesh).
- Immanuel, is a Hebrew word originating in the book of Isaiah meaning “God with us”.
So, the nativity is the time and place of Jesus’ birth when God took on human form, in the flesh, to live among his people.
The Apostle John puts it this way,
No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God andis in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.
This is an absolutely astounding. That this would be the pathway our infinite, all powerful, almighty God would choose to engage mankind. And why would God come to us in this manner? That we might know him. Personally. But Jesus isn’t just a revelation of the Father, Jesus is also a revelation of us. He is us, in perfect form.
He represents humankind in perfect humankindness. And it is for this reason that Jesus calls us to be like him, because in becoming like him, we become our true God-intended, God-imagined, God-designed selves. Jesus took the form of an infant not just so that he could identify with us, but so that we could identify with God.
So how can we identify with this infant God? How can we apply his chosen form of revelation in a manner that will shape us further into his image?When we talk about discipleship we typically only look to the 3 years of Jesus’ ministry for examples of how we are to live. But what can we learn from the nativity of Jesus as it relates to our own discipleship?
There are 3 attributes of how God engaged the world through the sending of Jesus, that I believe must inform how we also engage the world on his behalf. And we are called to this, because Jesus himself told his disciples “Just as the Father sent me, so I am sending you.” Which is not just clarifying the fact that we are sent, but also specifying how we are to be sent. In the same incarnational pathway as Jesus.
The first is that God came completely incognito. Jesus was born just like all the other babes in Bethlehem and outside of an attempt by some free-rangers and a few wealthy astrology geeks to out Jesus as the son of God, he remained completely concealed and utterly shrouded in normalcy.
John 1:10 reads
He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.
Most people don’t take this into account, but his true identity was entirely hidden for 30 years! Can you imagine that?? The God of the universe learning to walk and talk, going to school, playing with his friends, growing up, and getting a job and NO ONE EVEN NOTICES?? What does this say about God?
It says that God knew he must first identify with us, before we could hope to identify with him. He knew he must learn to be like us, talk like us, eat like us, laugh like us, and just experience us… before we would desire to experience him. God is a god of connection, not just convincing. He does not stun us with his cosmic power, he does not berate us with his supreme knowledge, he does not shame us with his moral superiority. He simply becomes one of us first, loves us first, serves us first, before revealing his true self, to which he then invites us to know, follow, live and die for.
So I ask you… whom has God sent you to? What world has he called you into? And how can you incarnate yourself, or “take on the flesh” of the people you have been sent to reach?
For me? It’s my rugby club.
When I showed up at the rugby pitch for the first time, I might as well have been a screaming, helpless infant. It was a humiliating experience bumbling around out of shape, throwing up and dry heaving my way through the drills. I was a miserable mess. But I was drawn to these men. I showed up for the next training and the next one, learning the game, the language and the culture.
After weeks of blood, sweat, and beers… I was becoming one of them. Slowly, as we shared more and more life together, they began to recognize that while I was one of them, I wasn’t exactly like them. After about a year of being a part of the club, playing rugby and sharing life, I was approached by the team Captain, a young man 10 years my junior, who said to me “Clarke, you know how for a while now we have been teaching you how to play rugby? Well, I just want you to know all that time, you’ve been teaching us how to live life.”
My incognito presence had allowed me to infiltrate the world of rugby and reveal the Kingdom of God.
The second way God came is in complete submission. This may be the most incomprehensible approach to fathom, because it is sublimely counter to the very nature of how we think of God. We see God as having all authority, total dominion, and complete judgment. Yet, in the nativity of Christ we see powerlessness, defenselessness, and frailty.
Jesus was born a refugee in a conquered and occupied land. His birthplace was dictated by a mandate from the empire and his life was threatened by a hostile King. The infant ruler of the world, had no government, no military, and no allies. He came and lived submitted to the very world he created. Submitted unto death.
The Apostle Peter calls us to the same.
I Peter 2:11-14
Dear friends, I urge you, as foreigners and refugee-exiles, 12 Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God. Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human ruler: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps. He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in his mouth. When they hurled insults at him, he did not retaliate; when he suffered, he made no threats. Instead, he entrusted himself to him who judges justly.
As I have reflected on my life I would have to say the time I have felt the most powerless and helpless was when my wife and I submitted ourselves to the Missouri State Department of Family Services – Children’s Division and became licenses foster parents. Our lives and our home were under constant scrutiny, by state officials who could at any time revoke our status, terminate our service, or demand compliance in a hundred finite ways.
We could go days and weeks with no communication, only to be called upon with minutes to prepare. At times it was excruciating to be controlled by people who more often than not worked for an out of control system. But my wife and I were convinced that if we remained steadfast, committed and submitted, God would accomplish his work through us.
And he did.
In January 2013 two sisters were placed in our home and who would eventually become my daughters. We would be their 5th family in 4 years. The system had failed them time and time again. Families had abandoned them over and over. They were orphaned to the State, until a judge made them our own.
Now they are my joy.
Natalie was 9 when she came to us, she will turn 15 next month.Bailey was 6, and will soon turn 12.Shortly after adopting Natalie and Bailey, we adopted a third child who we named Elli, who is now 6.
God was working out their story through the authorities of earth. The system was broken in the hands of man, but he used it none the less. Our submission was required, for his redemption to reign.
The third approach of God in the nativity is one of subversion. We are introduced to the Christmas story in Luke by a decree given by Caesar Augustus for a census of the Roman Empire. Augustus was the adopted son of his Emperor Predecessor Julius Caesar who in 42 BC assumed the title Divius Lulius or The Divine Julius. In 27 BC following the assassination of Julius Caesar, Augustus was named Emperor of Rome and in succession was given the title Divi Filius or Son of God.
In 40 BC Herod with the backing of Rome invaded and captured Jerusalem, a strategic win for the Empire after being controlled by Pompey for 27 years. Once established the Roman Senate appointed Herod as King of the Jews, which ushered in a 37 year reign.
It is fascinating that at the very occasion of the first Roman ruler referred to as the Son of God, whose army occupied Judea, and whose senate appointed Herod as King of the Jews, that we have the coming of Christ the true Son of God and true King of the Jews.
In fact, it would be Pontius Pilate the roman prefect of Judea that would question Jesus at his trial and demand to know “Are YOU the Son of God?” and before handing him over to Herod questioned, “Are YOU the King of the Jews?”
Luke 23 we read of this encounter,
When Herod saw Jesus, he was greatly pleased, because for a long time he had been wanting to see him. From what he had heard about him, he hoped to see him perform a sign of some sort. 9 He plied him with many questions, but Jesus gave him no answer. 10 The chief priests and the teachers of the law were standing there, vehemently accusing him. 11 Then Herod and his soldiers ridiculed and mocked him.
From his birth and unto death, Jesus never opposed a human adversary; he never raised an army, nor threatened those in power. Yet his subversive claims that he was the messiah and that his kingdom was not of this earth, but of eternal heaven, would upheave the world.
As followers of Jesus, the everlasting King of Kings. We have been given his Spirit to engage the world in this same subversive way. It is not our purpose to campaign and overthrow, conquer and destroy with force, or crush our human opposition. We are to follow the pathway of Jesus to allow the message of God to transform our world not with sword, but with service.
Prior to coming to Colorado and working as a Chaplain for Christian Care Ministry, I served as the Clinic Operations Director for a network of Christian sexual health and pregnancy clinics in Missouri. We were on the front lines of the pro-life movement. On the same block as our primary clinic was also a Planned Parenthood. For years, our local church supporters would plead with us to take the lead in organizing protests and picketing for the defunding and closure of the local site, and were confused and even furious by our lack of political aggression.
But what many church leaders failed to realize is that we were trying to reach the very same people that planned parenthood was marketing to. The at-risk and the ashamed. If we attacked Planned Parenthood as its adversary, and were seen only as the “Pro-Life” place, guess who would be the only people we would reach? Pro-life people.
If we were going to be effective in our subversive mission and message then we had to be incognito, and submitto the maximum standards of health care laws and mandates. We had to have the highest credibility if we wanted to have access to the most vulnerable.
In 2016, the Planned Parenthood just around the corner from our clinic was attacked by an arsonist who attempted to burn down the building. The fire was unsuccessful, but it ignited the city…. Against the pro-life conservative community, which because of our covert approach thankfully we were insulated from.
A couple of days following the fire, our team prepared a gift basket and a signed card condemning the attack and offering our prayers to them as we were sure it was a scary and uncertain time.
We never got a formal reply but something interesting began to happen. We started to see clients who shared with us that they actually worked for Planned Parenthood, but were choosing to come to us. In fact, the impact was so significant the local Planned Parenthood began to refer abortion determined clients to us for their STD testing prior to the procedure! This gave us the opportunity to engage every single woman seeking an abortion in our city! Through our ministry and the grace of God, 3 out of every 4 abortion determined women would change their mind and choose life for their child.
This is the power of god in the posture of Christ.
So this Christmas season, let us look to infant Jesus and may we engage our world in the same pathways given to us in the nativity of Christ.