“He’s only a kid, Harry. We can take him.” -Marv, Home Alone
Bad wedding presents.
Friends of mine got married about ten years ago. Amidst the many gifts they received were a couple of less desirable acquisitions. Not everyone uses the registry. If you’ve ever gotten married you can probably relate.
My favourite present was the most chilling picture of Jesus I’ve ever laid eyes on, a painting in a thick gold frame. A Mediterranean town was in the background, with Jesus in the foreground. His arms were open wide to the viewer. This Jesus boasted a unique gaze, a stare that made the hair on the back of your neck stand on end. It appeared the artist wished to capture that rarely seen side of Jesus that would terrify small children. I told my newlywed friends they should hang the piece above their bed. Its actual home became a closet, until they re-gifted it.
Over the years it’s been passed from couple to couple as a sort of gag wedding gift. Amongst the toasters and crockpots, many a gift table has been laden with a familiar large, square shape. Though elegantly wrapped, everyone knows what lies beneath the paper: death-stare Jesus. Perhaps the artist was trying to capture the same sentiment as the makers of that seventies Jesus movie I mentioned earlier: an other-worldly Jesus. You can’t blame an artist for trying. If Jesus was more than human, how does one convey that?
That’s one big baby.
I love nature. One of the things I love most about nature is how awe-inspiring and vast it is. The mountains are huge, and the ocean is almost unfathomably powerful. Trees that are hundreds of years old leave me breathless. Living around Vancouver, Canada, that’s just my backyard.
When I think about the rest of the province, or the country, and then the world, I get overwhelmed. The earth is huge! Then I start thinking about our solar system, the sun, the moon, the other planets, and the stars. In my monthly subscription to National Geographic I read about the seemingly infinite expanse of outer space. These thoughts leave me adrift in awe. We’re tiny, you and I, aren’t we?
I resonate with one biblical poet who wrote:
“When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?”
I recently sat next to an interesting man on a five-hour flight. I don’t know about you, but when I fly I hope to either be seated next to someone who wants to sleep, or at least someone fascinating. I was in for a treat when this guy sat down next to me.
I’m never sure how strangers will act around me once I share that I’m a pastor. I’ve become accustomed to asking people on planes as many questions as possible before they have a chance to ask me what my job is. It’s a tricky little strategy, but so far it’s paid off. I got tons out of the guy in the seat next to me before I had to tell him I was a religious nut. Turned out my new friend was an astronomer. I’m fascinated by space, so I tried to maintain some composure and not get too giddy. I had a thousand questions.
He told me he spent most of his time teaching, but in past years he was what you’d call a planet hunter. He helped discover a couple of planetary disks beyond our solar system, saying they were “young, infants really, still in their swaddling clothes” (by this point he had learned I was a minister, so he threw in some biblical Christmas language for me). We exchanged business cards, and he said if I was ever in his neck of the woods he’d gladly give me a tour of his department at the university.
Serendipitously, the magazine I had packed in my carry-on boasted a cover that read: Is anybody out there? Life beyond earth. He chuckled when I showed him my in-flight reading material, and understood why I nerded out once he revealed what he did for a living. I took a photo of him holding the magazine and encouraged him to sign up for Instagram and Twitter, saying he’d be my new favourite follow if he started posting photos. I’d love to see what he and his colleagues spy through big, expensive telescopes.
It’s easy to forget, but conversations with people like my astronomer friend remind us that the universe is a big place. It’s almost too big for us to fathom. This guy and his friends are in awe of what they study. They’ve got thousands of questions, too. After years and years of schooling and research, he still lit up when he shared about the vastness and complexity of the cosmos.
The biblical story says God created all that vastness, the entire universe. A being with that kind of power and creative juice has inspired and intrigued philosophers, artists, and scientists since humans started scribbling on walls. A God that big, the Bible says, visited us in the person of Jesus.
Sometimes people say things like, “God is bigger than your problems.” I think they hope it will encourage others to trust that God is in control, and can handle their issues. They’re well-intentioned. But God’s bigness and ability to handle what I can throw at him isn’t my primary concern. If the God of the Bible is out there, of course he’s huge and powerful. My primary concern is not if God can handle my problems, it’s if God cares about my problems at all.
This is what’s staggering about Jesus’ humble beginnings, and earthly life and times. If he’s more than human, if he’s the one-true God of the universe, star-smith and planet former, what’s he doing in the hay? Does it have anything to do with me?
Does Jesus really = God?
The author of the biblical book of Hebrews held Jesus in high regard. They weighed the evidence, pulled apart the puzzle, and tried to wrap their heads around a cosmic Jesus.
Hebrews starts like this:
“Long ago, at many times and in many ways, God spoke to our fathers by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed the heir of all things, through whom also he created the world. He is the radiance of the glory of God and the exact imprint of his nature, and he upholds the universe by the word of his power.”
The author of Hebrews identifies Jesus as God’s Son, but a different kind of son than the demi-gods of Greek mythology we mentioned in part one. They tell us that Jesus was the person through whom the world was created. Hebrews says Jesus holds the universe together.
Paul made a similar statement about Jesus in another biblical book written to a group of people called the Colossians:
“He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.”
Notice how many books in the Bible’s New Testament begin with the assertion that Jesus is a big deal. He’s not God’s sidekick, he’s not just a prophet, he’s not an angel. To the first Christians he was God. Made of the same matter or substance. He’s been around from the beginning, and he keeps the universe running.
Jesus did and said things no one else had ever done or said, or has since, for that matter. The first Christians couldn’t shake this. When they surveyed their religious past they saw that Jesus was the embodiment of dozens of prophecies handed down to them from generations past.
Paul spent years trying to stamp the message of Jesus out before he became one of Christianity’s most important figures. One day he saw something he couldn’t explain. More accurately, he saw someone. The book of Acts tells us Paul had a vision of Jesus that changed his life. This moment was so eye-opening (pun intended, read Acts 9) that it forced Paul to radically alter his entire world view and belief system. Some argue he was one of the most trained and learned religious men in the Jewish world at the time. He was also a venomous persecutor of Jesus’ first followers. After his eye-opening experience, he had to re-think everything he thought he knew. For Paul and thousands of Jesus’ other contemporaries, Jesus = God.
Jesus, the Father, and the Spirit.
The New Testament, along with the rest of the Bible, leads its subscribers to believe that God is Triune. This is a fancy word for three in one. God the Father, God the Son, and God the Spirit. The God of the Bible is one being, but three distinct persons.
This is a challenging thought. Many feel this concept of God’s personhood is illogical, even silly. But the Bible is a collection of human-kind’s interaction with this God, and a Triune deity is prominent throughout the book. A comprehensive survey of the biblical story strongly asserts that God is both three and one.
Let’s consider, however, that if we’re entertaining the thought of an all-powerful, omnipresent and omniscient being logically, perhaps we would be wise not to scoff at the possibility that its nature may be a little challenging to compute. Is it really beyond the realm of possibility?
The first Christians believed Jesus to be fully human, but also fully God. In studying the Bible we find that Jesus is a member of what is called the Trinity, along with the Father and the Spirit. This is why books like Hebrews and Colossians start like they do. To these writers, there was more to the grungy, rabbi Jesus than met the eye.
When God speaks.
This might be slightly new for some of us, but let’s do a little biblical study. Think of it like investigating any other form of literature. In part two we briefly looked at John’s gospel and noticed how he opens his biography of Jesus:
“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”
Notice the first three words, “in the beginning.” John uses these words intentionally. They’re meant to trigger a thought in the mind of the reader: Hey, I’ve heard that before! The first book of the Jewish scriptures is Genesis. It starts this way:
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters. And God said, “Let there be light,” and there was light.”
John’s working about a dozen literary wonders in the first words of his gospel (you’d need to be able to read ancient Greek to notice them), but right away, us regular folk can spot a couple of key similar elements:
God speaks creation into existence in Genesis (Jesus being the agent of that generative work), and God’s Word is revealed most clearly in the person of Jesus, God-made-flesh.
Light imagery is very important in John’s gospel. He says Jesus is the light and the life. He means that Jesus is the origin of both of these things. Jesus is the light and life giver. Genesis says God’s first creative burst came when he said, “let there be light.” Light is created by God’s word and John identifies Jesus as this Word. Later in John’s gospel, Jesus calls himself the “light of the world.”
John can get deep, fast. For now, what we should notice is that he and the other first Christians were absolutely convinced that Jesus was not just a man. Jesus was the one-true God of the universe as previously understood throughout Jewish history.
When we talk about baby Jesus (according to John), we’re talking about an Intergalactic Infant. John calls Jesus “the Word” of God. This Word has power, is a person, and “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us…” As we said earlier: when God speaks, we meet Jesus.
Jesus was both nothing (and something) to write home about.
It’s plausible that writing like John’s could come along a couple generations after Jesus was kicking around. Perhaps some passionate poet, romanticizing and exaggerating a man he never met could have turned Jesus into a God he never was. But these words don’t come from an estranged individual with an overactive imagination. They come from John, a man who knew how ordinary Jesus was in many ways.
John was probably the closest friend Jesus had. He sat with Jesus at the last meal he ate, and watched him die on a cross. He also said he was the first to investigate the empty tomb Jesus supposedly resurrected from. John’s gospel is staunchly different from the other gospels.
Some scholars believe this is the case because John was Jesus’ closest disciple. These scholars assert that a rabbi’s (or teacher’s) closest disciple had a special role. Knowing and understanding the rabbi the best, they were supposed to pass on and correctly apply the teacher’s lessons to a wider audience. John was closest to the heart of Jesus and was part of the inner circle that knew him the best. His goal was to help the world, not just the Jewish people, understand who Jesus really was.
When John writes about Jesus you might think he would spend time emphasizing Jesus’ humanity. Maybe he would regale us with intimate moments and stories that only a best friend could relate. Some of these are present in his gospel, but John also spends loads of time emphasizing Jesus’ divine nature.
John implores his audience to correctly identify Jesus as the one-true God of the universe. He does this in other biblical books, as well as in the last book of the Bible, Revelation. John’s vision of Jesus is dazzling:
“No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also. Let what you heard from the begin- ning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father.”
In Revelation John writes about the visions of Jesus he had later in life. These visions were so vivid he had to describe them using rich imagery and metaphor. In the first chapter he describes seeing Jesus:
“When I saw him, I fell at his feet as though dead. But he laid his right hand on me, saying, “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one. I died, and behold I am alive forevermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hades. Write therefore the things that you have seen, those that are and those that are to take place after this.”
Is the dazzling image John paints of Jesus a far cry from the friend he shared meals with? Perhaps John experienced a Jesus who was simul- taneously humble and awe-inspiring. John’s vision of Jesus isn’t overly chummy, nor is it inaccessibly exalted. John believed humans could be friends with this gloriously magnificent Jesus. It’s a perfect balance.
Might this say something about Jesus’ true nature? Doesn’t the fact that his closest friend was so utterly convinced that Jesus was other- worldly, yet incredibly near, rather compelling? John knew Jesus for a maximum of three years. The two probably met when John was still a teenager. He spent less time with Jesus than you and I did in high school.
Imagine the impact Jesus must have made on him. John spent the rest of his entire life telling others about Jesus. Christian tradition holds that John lived a long life, eventually ending up an old man imprisoned on an island called Patmos because his story was threatening the stability of the Roman Empire. The first Christians held bold convictions about Jesus that changed the world forever. They believed Jesus to be glorious and exalted. They also believed he was humble and accessible.
Adventures in accessibility.
Every year our church holds a Christmas play that stars children of all ages. A Sunday is dedicated to learning the true meaning of Christmas through dramatic art and music as performed by the kids. Over the years this production has grown, become wonderfully rambunctious, and our church has learned to expect the unexpected. One year, during a musical number, I was lowered through the roof in a gorilla costume. You might wonder what that has to do with Christmas. It was a stretch, but we made it work.
Some of my fondest memories of the kid’s play are from the first ones I was a part of. Most Christmas plays incorporate some sort of a nativity scene, and ours were no different. We had a manger, a baby Jesus, a Mary and a Joseph, shepherds, wise men, donkeys…even the odd Christmas gorilla.
One year a young boy (who we’ll call Tim) was chosen to play a wise man. Tim was physically and mentally challenged. He was also hearing impaired and used a wheelchair. He was extremely mischievous and a lot of fun. Tim and I spent a lot of time together back then. I’d pick him up once a week to give his foster parents a breather, and we’d just hang out. We’d go for walks, eat McDonalds and wander toy stores. Tim also had a way with the ladies. One year I took him to camp for a week and noticed he had a particular knack for getting girls to push him around in his wheelchair. He was perfectly capable of wheeling himself, but where was the fun in that?
When it came time for Tim’s big role as a wise man, I was the obvious choice to help him down the aisle with the gift he was supposed to present to baby Jesus. The morning promised to be interesting. The big moment came, so Tim donned his crown and cape. He rolled into the auditorium, gift in lap, and wheeled down the aisle. Once he got to the front, we lifted his chair onto the stage. He delivered his gift (delivered being a generous term, it was really more of a toss), and took his spot with the other wise men. That was that. Except it wasn’t.
During the final musical montage, Tim began a number of attempts to steal all of baby Jesus’ gifts. It was cute, so we let him have his fun. His cheeky smile and warm heart helped him get away with a lot back then. Things had to be put to a stop, however, when Tim moved beyond petty larceny and began poking baby Jesus with his wise man’s sceptre. A plastic doll played the Christ child that year, thankfully. No infants were harmed in the making of this Christmas play. Someone eventually took charge, and Tim’s mischief came to an end. One might find the entire sequence of events horribly sacrilegious, if it wasn’t so funny.
Why do we find moments like these amusing? Why do we allow them to happen in the first place? If Jesus really is Almighty God in the flesh, maker of heaven and earth, shouldn’t we keep the irreverent, frankincense-thieving Tims of this world miles away from him? Doesn’t Jesus deserve more respect than that?
Jesus might have deserved respect, but he never demanded it at the expense of people who wanted to be near him. Tim, and anyone else who wanted to, got to take a closer look. Even though Jesus was precious, he didn’t act like it. Perhaps he was born in a barn and laid in a manger so as to be absolutely accessible to everyone.
Divine fine china.
As we noted earlier, nativity sets, though thought-provoking and cute, aren’t always an accurate representation of what Jesus’ birth really looked like. Some of them are simple and humble. Others are fancy, with beautifully decorated figurines in unrealistic poses. I don’t really care what a nativity set looks like, but I do find the perfectly pristine ones a little odd. Sometimes they’re so clean, groomed and genteel that baby Jesus is simply replaced by a shape. God incarnate is represented by, and relegated to, a bit of shiny marble.
Some people treat God like a kind of divine fine china. They think they have to handle him with great care, only removing him from the fancy cabinet on special occasions. Jesus’ birth, life and death tell us that God belongs in the everyday, however. The first Christians thought Jesus was the cosmic superpower. They also witnessed him living amongst us, eating with us, and sleeping under the stars from time to time.
Maybe God isn’t as precious as porcelain. Maybe he doesn’t need to be handled with care or approached with caution. This isn’t to say God shouldn’t be respected, or honoured. The first Christians were able to deeply respect and worship God, but they couldn’t deny his humble character as seen in Jesus, either.
My friend Doug likes to say that “God got messy,” when he talks about Jesus. Perhaps God isn’t divine fine china. Maybe Jesus’ birth in a barn was an invitation to all of us to take a closer look, even if it meant he would be poked and prodded.
What if God’s not only bigger than our problems, but also willing to—even desperate to—come down to our level, live amongst us and do something about them?