Chapter 1

The God We Thought We Knew

I must confess that I have a soft spot for many of our familiar holiday movies, but there is one of which I am especially fond. It is the old favorite TV special, A Charlie Brown Christmas. Charles Schulz’s classic story of a little boy trying to find out what Christmas is all about in the midst of all the cultural embellishments of the season always touches me.

In this ageless story, Charlie Brown is feeling the emotions that so many of us experience as we approach the Christmas season. He knows he should be happier, and yet what seems to be bringing everyone else holiday happiness eludes him. The cultural expressions of the season seem plastic to him and leave him feeling empty. Lucy’s unbridled greed in seeking real estate for a Christmas present and the blinking electric Christmas lights on Snoopy’s doghouse conspire to deplete his “holiday” feelings. Even his attempt to get into the Christmas spirit by directing the Christmas play fails.

At his lowest point, when Charlie despairs of ever finding out what Christmas is all about, his friend Linus quietly reminds him that Christmas is really all about the birth of the Savior, Jesus. This epiphany changes Charlie Brown’s entire attitude as he joyfully discovers that Christmas is far more than he ever thought it was. His views of Christmas, he learns, have been all wrong.

One of the most amazing truths of Christmas is that God’s entrance into our world reveals that much of what we think we know about God is wrong.

One of the most amazing truths of Christmas is that God’s entrance into our world reveals that much of what we think we know about God is wrong. (Mankind has misunderstood God from the very beginning, so it is of little surprise that we still do.) In fact, this is one of the reasons that many modern-day Charlie Browns still fail to enter into the true Christmas spirit. Thinking they know the “real story” of Christmas, they tend to ignore it rather than examine it, leaving the Christmas story too soon. They fail to appreciate what God was showing us when He came into our world. But closer inspection reveals an event that makes no earthly or human sense.

HOW WELL DO WE KNOW GOD?

How would we have foreseen the incarnation? What would we have anticipated?

Because we see God as the Almighty Jehovah who is too glorious to look upon, wouldn’t we have expected Him to enter our world with ostentatious fanfare and world-stopping commotion?

“Well, didn’t He?” you might reply. “After all, angels announced the news to the shepherds. That’s certainly fanfare!” Yes, but they didn’t announce the news to everyone—not even to all shepherds.

“What about the Magi?” you might ask. True, a small group of Magi arrived from the east, following the star they had seen in the sky, but they were a mere token compared to the millions of people who inhabited the earth at the time.

“Well, then, what about the star?” Did everyone notice that one particular star? Did they understand the significance of that celestial sign? Of all the stars in the sky, did they focus on that one star above all others? It is doubtful. How many people even noticed the sky?

God did not choose to enter our world in the allpowerful city of Rome, but in the tiny town of Bethlehem. He was not born in a palace, but in a stable for animals. His royal entourage was not regally dressed nobles and princes, but common beasts of burden. His human parents were not royalty, but peasantry; His royal raiment nothing but common cloth.

Yes, I believe we would expect the God of the universe to reveal Himself on earth with an all-out, budgetbreaking PR blitz. Instead, God voluntarily gave up the glory He deserved, both on earth and in heaven, and chose to live most of His life in obscurity.

We would expect the God of the universe to reveal Himself on earth with an allout, budget-breaking PR blitz. Instead, God voluntarily gave up the glory He deserved, both on earth and in heaven, and chose to live most of His life in obscurity.

We would assume that a God who is all-powerful would exercise that power to protect His reputation and personal glory. And God would certainly not allow His puny creation to treat Him with defiance. With His perfect righteousness and holiness, God would come in judgment to a creation that had mocked His law and ignored His commandments. But He didn’t.

We are tempted to say that God didn’t act “naturally.” It doesn’t seem natural to us that a perfect deity would treat His creation with so much love and grace after they had treated Him so badly. We can’t even imagine a God who would love enough to allow Himself to be treated with contempt and disdain. But that’s just the point. He did act naturally. Not once in the magnificent incarnation did God act outside of His divine character. We just didn’t know Him as well as we thought we did. In fact, when God put Himself at our disposal, we didn’t even recognize Him.

We knew many things about God, but our understanding was black and white. And when He came, He overwhelmed us with the brilliant colors of His divine character.

We thought we knew God, but the incarnation proved us wrong.

We thought we knew God, but the incarnation proved us wrong.

IF GOD VISITED THE PLANET

One of the most popular and cherished human ideas is that we can seek and find God. But if you had known ahead of time that God was planning to visit our planet, where would you have expected to find Him? Where would you have started looking for Him? Would you have thought of looking for a baby? Would your first stop have been an animal stall? Would you have gone to the home of a carpenter to find the designer of the universe? Wouldn’t you have been looking for an angelic type of being—powerful, awesome, terrifying, and unapproachable?

If you knew that God planned to announce His coming to His world, would you ever have put a rude and crude bunch of shepherds anywhere near the top of the “to be notified” list? If you knew that God was going to visit your planet, what do you think He would plan for His first year on earth, or His first 5 years? What kind of splash would He make to get the world’s attention? Who would He speak to? How would He go about instituting change in this world He had created so perfectly, and which we had so dreadfully messed up? How would He use His awesome infinite power? How would He display His omnipotence, His omniscience, and His holiness?

Knowing what we think we know about God, we probably could come up with thousands of ideas, many of them reasonable and logical and even creative. But would we think to have Him humble Himself before His creation by being born a tiny vulnerable baby and spending His first days on this earth in an animal stall, unable to speak or even communicate any but His most basic human needs?

Christmas celebrates the awesome and amazing fact that God is grander, wiser, and more mysterious than we could have ever imagined.

Christmas celebrates the awesome and amazing fact that God is grander, wiser, and more mysterious than we could have ever imagined.

WE CAN’T FIND GOD BY OURSELVES

If there is one thing we learn at Christmas, it is that our understanding of God was so woefully inadequate that we could never have hoped to find Him on our own. How can you find a God you can’t even truly understand? Which leads to the next logical question: How would a God of perfect glory and awesome splendor reveal Himself?

In his best-selling book, The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey contrasts the humility of Jesus’ entrance onto our planet with the prestigious entrance of the British royal family.

In London, looking toward the auditorium’s royal box where the queen and her family sat, I caught glimpses of the . . . ways rulers stride through the world: with bodyguards, and a trumpet fanfare and a flourish of bright clothes and flashing jewelry. Queen Elizabeth II had recently visited the United States, and reporters delighted in spelling out the logistics involved: her 4,000 pounds of luggage included two outfits for every occasion, a mourning outfit in case someone died, 40 pints of plasma, and white kid-leather toilet seat covers. She brought along her own hairdresser, two valets, and a host of other attendants. A brief visit of royalty to a foreign country can easily cost 20 million dollars. In meek contrast, God’s visit to earth took place in an animal shelter with no attendants present and nowhere to lay the newborn king but a feed trou gh. Indeed, the event that divided history, and even our calendars, into two parts may have had more animal than human witnesses. A mule could have stepped on Him (Zondervan, 1995; pp.36-37).

The British royalty are merely human beings, and look at the pomp and circumstance with which they arrive on the scene. In light of that, when we think that God was planning a visit to His own creation, with all of eternity to plan the event, we can’t look at the Christmas story and make sense out of it. Everything about Christmas is totally unexpected. In retrospect, of course, we see His infinite wisdom; but even then, we see this only with His divine help and the eyes of faith. God is so much different than we imagined Him to be. We are not surprised that He is greater in glory than we could ever imagine. But the discovery that He is greater in humility is too great a leap for us to take. God and humility seem such opposite terms. Only in His infinite wisdom and mercy—and in the incarnation—could they ever be reconciled.

Everything about Christmas is totally unexpected. In retrospect, of course, we see God’s infinite wisdom; but even then, we see this only with His divine help and the eyes of faith.

One of the common tools of criminal investigators is to create a profile. By studying the habits and patterns and behaviors of a given criminal, they can get a good idea of what he is thinking, why he acts the way he does, and sometimes even where he lives. By this process, they narrow down their search for who this criminal might be. In doing this, they apply human wisdom and logic to the sticky problem of human nature. They understand people because they are people themselves—they share the same human nature. Because they do, they can deduce how someone will act, and at times predict their actions.

But all these humannature tools are useless when we come to God. Christmas reveals to us that the idea of God we had developed was woefully inadequate.

CONFUSED BY HUMILITY

When we read of God’s divine power and authority so clearly demonstrated in the Old Testament, we quite logically expect God to react and behave in that manner. When we remember the displays of His presence and power in burning bushes, fire by night, cloud by day, thunder, lightning, and many other awesome manifestations, we are sure that when He comes to visit us He will use these same methods. Familiarity with what He has done in the past blinds us to what He intended on that first Christmas.

Familiarity with what God has done in the past blinds us to what He intended on that first Christmas.

As J. B. Phillips writes, “Whenever familiarity breeds contempt there is potential danger. The particular danger which faces us as Christmas approaches is unlikely to be contempt for the sacred season, but nevertheless our familiarity with it may easily produce in us a kind of indifference. The true wonder and mystery may leave us unmoved; familiarity may easily blind us to the shining fact that lies at the heart of Christmastide” (“The Christian Year” in Good News: Thoughts On God And Man, Macmillan, 1963).

Had you lived in firstcentury Israel and known Mary and Joseph, or been one of the shepherds or Magi, you might have been able to cradle God in your arms. You could have easily overpowered His tiny arms and legs as He lay there vulnerable and helpless.

Helpless God.

Vulnerable God.

Hungry God.

Tired God.

None of these phrases would have any meaning to us had Christmas never occurred. Indeed, we would consider them blasphemous. We could simply not imagine these words used in connection with perfect deity. But because of the incarnation, they have meaning.

Even more difficult for us to comprehend would be the reason God made Himself helpless, vulnerable, hungry, and tired. We could in a finite sense understand God’s power and His glory and His majesty, but nothing could prepare us to understand the depth of His love as demonstrated in His unimaginable humility. His actions on that wonderful day we celebrate every year as Christmas displayed love better than any definition could ever hope to do.

“For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son, that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send His Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through Him” (Jn. 3:16- 17). These familiar verses are the Magna Carta of the incarnation, the one and only possible explanation for the unthinkable.

Christmas is God unrecognized, God unexpected, God misunderstood. It is also, to our utter amazement and joy, God delightfully revealed. Though it had been prophesied, His birth was nothing we expected, and more than we could have hoped for. His humility touches us deeply, revealing to us the depth of God’s love. His entire life, from His humble birth to His humiliating and agonizing death on the cross, is proof of the love He has for us.

Christmas is God unrecognized, God unexpected, God misunderstood. It is also, to our utter amazement and joy, God delightfully revealed.

We could never have sought such a God, because we have never understood Him and would never have recognized Him. So He had to come looking for us. That is the inescapable conclusion of the Christmas story.

God tracked us down, each and every one of us. He came to find us and reveal Himself to us because He wanted us to know Him. He wanted us to know the depth of His love for us. Words weren’t enough. Only actions could communicate the extent to which He would go to bring us back home.

Do you want to get into the Christmas spirit? Cuddle a baby close to you. Let those tiny fingers grab yours. Snuggle the child against you and feel its complete dependence upon you. Experience the fragile vulnerability of that precious little life and you will begin, in a small sense, to understand the incarnation. Your God poured Himself into just such a frail life and made it His own. He allowed Himself to be dependent upon His creation, to be at their mercy. Then ask yourself: What kind of love would compel a perfect, all-powerful being to do such a thing?

We can never hope to capture the Christmas spirit and make it our own unless we understand that God is so much greater than we ever thought He was.

We thought we knew all about God. The incarnation proved us wrong.

We can never hope to capture the Christmas spirit and make it our own unless we understand that God is so much greater than we ever thought He was. We thought we knew all about God. The incarnation proved us wrong.

 

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