A Christmas Meditation

The scene is more lowly than idyllic. A child has been born and wrapped in cloth. He lies in a manger because no guest room can be found. We’ve heard the story so many times that we can miss the stark backwardness of it all. The Son of God should have come in trappings of greatness. He should have been born to power and ease. Yet he spends the first night of his human life lying in a feeding trough.

There is a scandal of lowliness in the nativity.

But the scandal goes deeper than this. The child is born in low estate, but the true wonder of the nativity is found in the birth itself. The One through whom and for whom all things were made has become a part of his creation. The Infinite has taken on finite existence. The One who sustains all things by his powerful word has become completely dependent on the sustenance of another. God the Son has taken on human flesh and become the Son of man. And on this night and many to follow, he lies helpless and dependent in the frail existence of a newborn child.

There is also a scandal of humanness to be found.

This is the force of the incarnation. The great has become small. The infinite finite. The uncontainable contained. The Apostle Paul put it like this: “For you know the grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.” (2 Cor. 8:9, NIV)

Augustine waxed poetic on the same theme: “He lies in a manger, but contains the world. He feeds at the breast, but also feeds the angels. He is wrapped in swaddling clothes, but vests us with immortality. He found no place in the inn, but makes for Himself a temple in the hearts of believers. In order that weakness might become strong, strength became weak.” (Sermon 190 3, 4)

The rich has become poor. The strong has become weak. And all this that we might become rich and strong through him.

We are used to speaking of the love that led Jesus to the cross.

Perhaps we should also speak of the love that led him to his birth.

In the nativity, God the Son has poured himself out and taken human form, and in this we see the nature of God on display. Jesus, “Who being in very nature God, did not consider his equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness.” (Phil. 2:6-7, NIV) It is in the nature of God to pour himself out on behalf of others, and though it is scandalous to us, it is natural to him. Such is the wonder of the God we serve. Such is the splendor of a newborn baby who bears the weight of the world. Such is the beauty of Christmas.

With Him

In Mark 3:13-15, we see Jesus appointing the twelve.  As the text states, “Jesus went up on a mountainside and called to him those he wanted, and they came to him.  He appointed twelve, that they might be with him and that he might send them out to preach and to have authority to drive out demons.” (NIV 2011)  As we observe the reasons for this calling out, our attention is often drawn to the two-fold ministry of preaching and casting out demons.  These, of course, are two activities in which Jesus himself engages.  The apostles are appointed to participate in and further the ministry of Jesus!  As we apply this story to our own experience, we find that we are given the same opportunity.  Though in different ways than the apostles, we also share in and further the ministry of Jesus as we carry the word and minister to the oppressed.  In this light, the calling of Jesus on our lives centers around what we do on behalf of Jesus and the kingdom.

To stop here, though, is to miss another extremely important part of the story.  The apostles are indeed appointed to further Jesus’ ministry, but they are called for another purpose as well: “to be with him.”  Note that this reason for their calling comes before the others and is certainly of equal importance.  In fact, Jesus will not send his disciples out in ministry for another three chapters.  They must first be with him before they go for him.  And after they go for him, they will return to be with him yet again.

Ultimately, this call to be with makes a lot of sense.  The apostles must be with the one to whom they will testify after the resurrection.  They must learn the content of their preaching from him.  They must observe his ministry before taking part.  All of these are very practical necessities that demand being with the one who calls.

But the fulfillment of these practical necessities is not the only thing we see happening to the apostles as they are with Jesus, as if they must simply observe Jesus’ preaching and teaching and go do the same.  No, we see much more transpiring in this with relationship.  The apostles are pulled and stretched, they are challenged and rebuked.  The apostles are formed by their relationship with Jesus.  This forming will enable them to embody the kingdom that they will proclaim.  And we can also posit that the disciples are simply with Jesus.  They fellowship and break bread with him.  The disciples are not called to be mere workhorses for the kingdom.  They are called to fellowship with the king himself!

Just as it is important for us to hear the call to kingdom activity as we listen to this story, so it is also important for us to hear the call to simply be with the king.  In this, we hear the call to simple fellowship, and we learn that we are worth more to Jesus than only what we can do for him.  And we also hear the call to formation, for it is often in being with Jesus that we are challenged and formed and thereby come to embody the kingdom that we proclaim.

In the end, I’m not sure that there is any one prescription for being with our Lord, though I would suggest prayer and spiritual reading as foundational disciplines for relationship (even these will be pursued in various ways).  More than the how, which can differ from person to person, I want to stress the call.  We are called to be with Jesus.  And as we are with Jesus, we find that our activity for Jesus flows from this relationship with the king.  Let us, then, rest in the presence of the king.  Let us hear his words anew.  And let us revel in the privilege of being with the one who calls and saves.

The Mission of God

We often think of mission as something that happens “over there.”  In a sense, this is not a bad definition.  God does, after all, call missionaries to take the gospel to far-away places, and it is our privilege to support missionaries in this endeavor.  But the definition can’t stop there.  No, it must extend far past the work of the few to the work of the many.  Mission is the vocation of the whole church, not just a segment of it.  But even this understanding of mission is not grand enough.  A dynamic, full-bodied understanding of mission must reach past the few to the many and then even to God himself.

The theological parlance for this wider missional understanding is found in the term Missio Dei (Latin for “Mission of God”), and this shift in focus from us to God is significant.  As Jenson and Wilhite note in their book The Church, “This is not a mission from God, but the mission of God.  Where the first emphasizes divine sponsorship of our program … the second emphasizes a divine program in which we graciously have been included.”[1]  God is on the move, and we are caught up in his movement.

So just how are God’s people caught up in God’s mission?  I would suggest two ways.  First, we are the recipients of God’s mission.  This is seen clearly in our salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ.  At one time, we were estranged from God because of our sin, but God has reconciled us to himself in Christ.  Not only this, he now makes us new as we are transformed by the Holy Spirit and walk in the ways of the kingdom.  We are first recipients of God’s mission because he saves us!

Second, we become instruments of God’s mission.  Like Paul, who called himself Christ’s ambassador (2 Corinthians 5:20), we have become witnesses to God’s saving action in the world.  At times we are given opportunity to speak the message of salvation to those around us.  Always, though, we are called to live the message.  As Saint Francis of Assisi reportedly said, “Preach the gospel at all times; when necessary, use words.”  As Evangelicals and Baptists, we believe that words are very often necessary.  After all, “faith comes from hearing the message.” (Romans 10:17; NIV)  At the same time, the quote above calls our attention to an important truth: the spoken word of the gospel should not be divorced from the lived life of the gospel.  In an importance sense, our lives are sermons in themselves!  How is this so?  Because God is working in us, transforming us through the work of the Holy Spirit and leading us in the ways of the kingdom.  And as he does, our transformed lives become signs to those around us of what God is doing in the world!

Of course, being an instrument of God’s mission can be intimidating.  After all, we’re not perfect and often fall short of the mark.  But perfection isn’t the point.  Rather, responsive obedience to God’s leading and working is the key, and here is where things get interesting.  As we welcome God’s work into our lives and are made new, we continue to be recipients of God’s mission, and our continued reception forms us into useful instruments of the same mission.  We receive and further the mission of God, and it turns out that these roles are more intertwined than we may have thought.  For our formation into the image of Christ has a missional aspect in itself, and as we walk with God, we are caught up into his beautiful movement toward the world.

[1] Matt Jenson and David Wilhite, The Church: A Guide for the Perplexed (New York: T&T Clark International, 2010), 155.