“Buddy the Elf! What’s your favourite colour?!” – Buddy, Elf
Nice to meet you.
I remember meeting one of my best friends for the first time in a dormitory hallway. Our rooms were adjacent, and one day we emerged from them simultaneously. We each said hi and asked where the other was from. Because we were insecure nineteen-year-olds, we also each tried to out-cool the other.
I remember thinking he was stuck up. He remembers thinking I was kind of grumpy, but had sweet surfer hair. Our first impressions of one another were accurate. He was a little proud, and I’m still a little grumpy. Sadly, I’ve since lost the frosted tips. These first impressions took some time to get over. It wasn’t until later in September that we finally connected during a game of soccer. Our friendship’s been strong ever since.
First impressions matter. They affect how we relate to one another and can bring two people together, or drive them apart. What’s our first impression of Jesus?
Representing the family.
Preparing for formal functions or weddings in my teenage years was a dramatic struggle. It was the same every time: I would dress how I liked, come downstairs, and inevitably face my mother’s disapproving gaze. I’d be told to go back to my room and try again. Even though I knew I’d have to change, I never stopped trying.
My struggle for individuality (and comfort, quite honestly; I only wear a suit when I absolutely have to) continued wedding after wedding. My parents’ words are forever etched in my mind: “When you leave this house you are representing this family.” This meant I better think carefully about which outfit I put on next. The mantra didn’t mean I was forced to dress posh every day of my adolescent life. Clothing wasn’t the issue. This was a broader philosophy my parents wisely instilled. It meant I was expected to be polite, thoughtful and generally well-mannered everywhere I went. I was their child, and carried their character. In healthy doses this is appropriate. We pass on the values we believe matter. So, when it came to attending a formal event, I was expected to dress and act appropriately. Fair enough! Sorry, teenage me, you lose.
How we dress, act and speak says a lot about who we are. This doesn’t mean we’re a better person depending on how courteous we are or how nice we scrub up. It just means that appearance, actions and speech are windows into our background, value system and worldview.
John’s gospel describes Jesus as God’s Word. We’ll consider this in more detail in part four, but for now let’s simply note this: John believed that when God spoke, we met Jesus. For John, Jesus was the language and logic of God, and expressed his heart and character while he lived amongst us.
This is why our first impression of Jesus is vital. Jesus could have shown up as a fully-grown man, having teleported from some heavenly realm. He could have immediately jumped into his work on earth, focused on efficiency, and streamlined his mission on Google calendar. This isn’t his narrative, however. Our first glimpse of Jesus is of an infant lying in a manger.
EE-man-u-el (what’s in a name?)
There’s a family in my church who names their kids a little differently. They have names like: Hope, Mercy, and Justice—you get the picture. Naming their children this way obviously reflects the parents’ values and passions. They hope the name will help define the child as she or he grows up.
Matthew tells us that Joseph and Mary were instructed by an angel to call their new baby “Jesus.” Jesus means “God saves”. He also says a Jewish prophet named Isaiah, who lived seven hundred years before Jesus, predicted this:
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.”
Immanuel means “God with us”. Names in the ancient world were of great importance. Jesus’ name is crucial in understanding who he is. Matthew begins by telling us that Jesus’ name means God is with us, and he saves.
As we noted in part two, Jesus experienced life like we do. I recently heard a fellow pastor make a simple yet profound insight. He was talking about how important it is for Christians to simply love people, just because. This way of life, he said, is at the core of the Christian message, so it must be the Christian medium. He based his thinking on Jesus’ life and noted that Jesus was quite content to live amongst us for thirty years or so before he started teaching, preaching and healing. Jesus was just with us, period. Jesus was happy to feel what we feel, and live how we live. He wasn’t in a hurry.
The gospels tell us Jesus’ arrival was so under the radar that when he started working miracles and teaching thousands, many rejected him, even though they were amazed at what he did and said. Mark says Jesus was rejected outright in his hometown because they felt he couldn’t be anything special based on their familiarity with his humble origins. Wasn’t he Mary and Joseph’s boy? What makes him so special?
Back to my parent’s mantra: When you leave this house you represent this family. The first Christians believed that when Jesus left his heavenly standing, he was representing who God was and how God operated. Perhaps God can put on a big show, but does that mean he always does? Maybe he acts differently than we might expect, they thought.
This is why Christians care so much about who Jesus is. If he’s God with us, then his life, words and actions give us unique insight into the Maker of all things. This is why the thought of Jesus brings so many such comfort. This is also why Christians should be people who bring comfort to others.
Recently, an elderly man in my church died. He had cancer and lived only a couple of months after the diagnosis. When I called him at home to see if he’d like me to come visit, he hesitated. He explained that he was tired because he’d had so many visitors and friends come from the church to care for him. He literally felt over-supported by his church family.Eventually, I visited him. We talked about life, and death and if he was scared of what might come next. He said he wasn’t, and that he trusted God with his future. I could tell he was at peace, felt loved and was determined to finish life well. He drew all this from his relationship with God, his family and his friends from church.
I know a lot of people who walk through horrible circumstances, and yet carry deep peace and joy. Many of them would tell you this comes from their trust in God’s faithfulness to be with them through thick and thin, and the example of this kind of faithfulness by their Christian community.
The Psalms are a collection of poems and songs found in the Bible. One of my favourites says this:
“The LORD is near to the broken-hearted and saves the crushed in spirit.”
The Bible teaches that through Jesus, God was near and God saved. It also teaches that God is still doing this today.
Who’s on the guest list?
As was his custom, grown-up Jesus attended lots of social functions. Once, at a party, he noticed other guests jostling for the best seats at the table. Later, he turned to the host and said:
“When you give a dinner or a banquet, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbours, lest they also invite you in return and you be repaid. But when you give a feast, invite the poor, the crippled, the lame, the blind, and you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you. For you will be repaid at the resurrection of the just.”
Jesus encouraged his followers to be open to everyone. He sought the down and out, marginalized and unimpressive individuals; the people who can’t pay you back. Christmas, according to the gospels, shows us that Jesus’ life both inaugurated and modelled this philosophy. Grown-up Jesus walked the walk. Baby Jesus crawled the crawl.
We’ve already mentioned several members of the cast of Christmas. Mary, Joseph, the wise men. Who else was on the guest list for the “Welcome to earth, Almighty God” party?
Shepherds, dirt, angels and fear.
Have you ever visited a friend in hospital who’s recently had a baby and arrived a little too early, beating grandparents, uncles and aunts there? It’s awkward. You tend to wonder if you should even be there at all, and are tempted to cut the visit short. Aren’t you imposing? Surely more important people should hold the baby first.
The shepherds might have felt this way when they turned up the night Jesus was born. Luke’s gospel tells us they were working in the nearby fields of a small town called Bethlehem. The story goes that some angels appeared to them, and put on quite a show:
“And in the same region there were shepherds out in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And an angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were filled with great fear. And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!”
When the angels went away from them into heaven, the shep- herds said to one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has made known to us.” And they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby lying in a manger.”
The angel scene might feel a tad Spielberg-ian, even grandiose. The celestial chorus line, however, wasn’t delivering a message to royalty, a wealthy family or even an overly religious bunch. These were shepherds. The tradition of contrast in the Christmas story continues.
Many people’s view of shepherds is sterile and cute. We might picture children wearing bathrobes in church Christmas plays or decorative figurines on mantelpieces. In Jesus’ day, however, shepherds were anything but sterile, and nobody found them adorable.
Shepherds lived with their sheep in fields on the outskirts of towns and villages. They were nomadic by trade, of lower class, and had a nasty reputation for thievery. Shepherds also weren’t permitted to give testimony in Jewish law courts because people thought them to be untrustworthy. Shepherds were outsiders, and were even considered ritually “unclean” by their own religious system. Shepherds were dirty. Luke records that as this rag-tag band of misfits worked that night, an angel showed up and starting speaking to them.
Now, not to say that a luminous angelic vision wouldn’t impress us today, but can you imagine what it must have been like for first century sheepherders living in a time without electricity, movie theatres and rock concerts? There you are looking after your sheep in the dead of night, maybe dozing off a little, and then—WHAM—someone throws a switch, and a massive gang of radiant, celestial beings light up the night sky. It must have been mind-blowing. No wonder Luke describes them as “terrified.” Notice what the angel says, however: “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.”
These first words to the shepherds, “Fear not,” are actually found all over the Bible. One writer notes:
“Do you know what the most frequent command in the Bible turns out to be? What instruction, what order is given, again and again, by God, by angels, by Jesus, by prophets and apostles? What do you think—“Be good”? “Be holy, for I am holy”? Or neg- atively, “Don’t sin”? “Don’t be immoral”? No. The most frequent command in the Bible is: “Don’t be afraid.” Don’t be afraid. Fear not. Don’t be afraid.”
The angel echoes an ancient and faithful message from God to human-kind: You’ve got nothing to be afraid of. After “Fear not” the next words from the angel concern “good news of great joy.” According to the angel, Jesus’ arrival is good news. Good news is actually what “gospel” means.
The shepherds of Bethlehem were the first to visit newborn Jesus. Weren’t they imposing? Apparently not. They got a special and spectacular invitation. If God’s plan was unfolding as intended, then the angels didn’t deliver the invite to the wrong address. The shepherds belonged in the barn. They got the first impression.
Luke tells us that the shepherds rushed over to find the newborn baby Jesus. I wonder if any of the shepherds held him. Did they get their shepherd-stink on him? If Jesus was God, then God didn’t mind the company of dirty shepherds. He welcomed them.
Next, Luke says the shepherds left the baby, Mary and Joseph, and told everyone they met what had happened. This part makes me chuckle. The irony is delicious. If God’s intention upon arrival was to begin a legitimate global movement, surely he could have selected more respectable messengers than shepherds, couldn’t he?
“And all who heard it wondered at what the shepherds told them.”
Notice that Luke doesn’t say: And all who heard it immediately believed the shepherds, started going to church, and ran out to purchase “Baby Jesus is my Homeboy” t-shirts, because everyone knows shepherds are trustworthy and upstanding citizens.
People wondered at the events because they were spectacular, but also perhaps it was because this news was being relayed to them by a bunch of smelly sheepherders. Maybe God was making a point when he planned out the guest list. Maybe the outsiders weren’t outsiders any longer. Our first impression of Jesus isn’t that he’s proud, removed, or even sterile! He’s humble, present, and approachable.
What does Jesus’ first impression say?
Don’t be afraid. I’m not afraid of your dirt. There’s good news for everyone.