“Well, time passed slowly. Rudolf existed as best he could…during all that time, a strange and wonderful thing happened: Rudolf was growing up….And pretty soon he knew where he had to go: home.”
-Rudolf, The Red-Nosed Reindeer
A couple of years ago I visited a friend who lives in Hawaii. He offered me a bed and to tour me around the Big Island. Born and raised in paradise, Chris was the ideal guide. I had no idea how much I needed this kind of vacation. Sometimes I can be boring. Chris’ way of life was anything but. We hiked through the jungle, and swam in a remote waterfall. We dipped in natural hot springs nestled up to the ocean, and jumped off cliffs into the deep blue pacific. One cliff earned the nickname “the end of the world”. Another was located at the southernmost tip of the United States. We stood on a 40-foot outcrop, looked into the vast horizon, and tried to spot Antarctica. He jumped. My mouth dried up. I eventually followed. One morning Chris informed me we were heading to a unique spot. He told me to pack for a desert hike, but also be ready to swim.
We drove into the middle of nowhere, an area covered in volcanic rock, parked the car on a dirt road, and pulled on our packs. As we trudged through the barren landscape, the snorkel and fins we carried felt a like a silly choice of hiking equipment. We wandered for a while, and then finally found what he was looking for. “Here it is.” said Chris. “It’s a lava tube!” I had no idea what to expect as we descended into the dusty hole. Light soon disappeared, and a couple of headlamps illuminated our path. Not only were we deep underground, but we were in the middle of the desert. I’ve never felt more isolated in my life. If something went wrong here, we were on our own.
After about half an hour we reached what I thought was the end of the tube. I was wrong. Before us was a glassy pool, perfectly calm. We shone our headlamps on it. For a moment I thought I was looking at a perfect reflection of the cave’s ceiling. I then realized what I saw was not the ceiling, but the bottom of the water source. The pool had perfect visibility. The rock formations were spectacular.
We got into our masks and fins, and into the water. It’s eerie to swim in the pitch black. No stars, no moon, just a headlamp. Turn that off and you’re blind as a bat. I bobbed up and down on the surface, occasionally diving to the bottom to have a look. Admittedly, it wasn’t my bravest of days. Every crevice and hole I shone my lamp into looked like it might house an underwater movie monster. Chris was far braver. He jumped right in (after complaining about the cold water—Hawaiians hate cold water) and immediately began exploring the submerged caves. He swam between pillars, under big boulders, and squeezed into spots I refused to follow him through.
Later, we sat in the dark on a big rock and he told me about the times he’d been there before. Chris and his friends would hike a dive tank into the tube, share a regulator, and see how far the smaller tubes stretched from the main one. I thought this was reckless and foolish. I told him that. He’s used to me saying things like this about his choice of recreational activities. Chris didn’t find this stuff reckless. He’d grown up on a boat and been on hundreds of unique dives. He knew what he was doing, trusted his equipment, and relied on his training. All these factors allowed Chris to experience and explore worlds I’d only dreamt of. Now, he was helping me experience them too.
One day Chris taught me how to scuba dive. We began in the hotel pool, and I learned about all the equipment. By the end of the training I was able to identify and utilize each part of the gear by myself. I was also able to submerge to the bottom of the pool and breathe underwater, something I shouldn’t be able to do. Everyone knows humans can’t breathe underwater.
Eventually we got into the ocean, and I had the time of my life. Thirty feet or so below the surface was another world, a place I’d only ever seen on screen. I consider myself relatively well travelled, but this was different. Most of the earth isn’t covered by land, but by water. With a wetsuit and a tank I’d joined the ranks of humans who explore the most mysterious and bountiful environment on our planet. A small part of it, at least. The coral, the fish, the seaweed, and the spiky, nasty, dangerous looking things were in vibrant, high-definition. I kept thinking to my- self, “This is real! Take in as much as you can!” It felt like a dream, but I couldn’t pinch myself through the wetsuit to see if I’d snap out of it.
Sadly, many people will never scuba dive. Some aren’t able to enjoy the sport because of health reasons, extreme phobias, inaccessibility, or cost. Many others, however, will never try it simply by choice. They decline the opportunity because it challenges a primal, hard-wired reality: everyone knows humans can’t breathe underwater.
This keeps many from ever attempting a dive. We won’t try it simply because it’s too strange, too new, and takes us beyond our comfort zone. We aren’t willing to trust the equipment or training. We won’t listen to others who’ve experienced it before and exclaim, “It’s totally worth it!”
Because of this, we’ll never see the coral, the fish, the seaweed and the spiky, nasty, dangerous looking things the way divers do. We’ll never stand on the bottom of the ocean, surrounded by sea life, and watch the sun shimmer and stream through forty feet of water, creating colours no screen saver can match. We’ll miss out on experiencing a unique perspective of an environment that covers two-thirds of our planet. Can you really say you’ve seen the world if you’ve never been to the bottom of the ocean and stayed there a while?
Scuba diving forces us to let go of preconceived assumptions, and even some fear. We reject a reality we know to be true (humans can’t breathe underwater), and learn to trust the training we receive and the equipment we’re using. We learn a new manner of breathing. When we do all this, we get to experience the world in a way we never have before.
Some of us have grown up knowing a few things. Things like: power and humility don’t mix; God is distant and unfeeling; love must be earned. I believe the baby in the manger challenges these assumptions.
Trusting and following Jesus is like choosing to scuba dive. We relinquish some thinking we know to be true, and dive into the unknown. We trust our new breath and embrace new truths we’ve recently discovered. We dive in with faith, and the world never looks the same again.
But, you might ask, isn’t faith about being totally sure about what you’re placing your faith in? Well, here’s a question in response. Is faith about assurance, or is faith about trust? Maybe it’s a little of both.
What if we’ve got questions? What if we’re screwed up? What if we feel we’re not cut out for this kind of trust and risk? Well, me too. I’ve got questions, I’m screwed up, and I constantly wonder if I’m cut out for this kind of life. Every Christian I know feels the same way. Curiosity simply gave way to exploration, and exploration gave way to trust. The Christian life is about learning to trust more every day.
Luke’s gospel holds a story about a short man named Zacchaeus. Zacch was a tax collector in a place called Jericho. Tax collectors weren’t popular in Jesus’ day, as you might imagine. They were known for extortion and fraud. Luke tells us Zacch was the chief tax collector in Jericho. He was unpopular and rich.
One day Jesus came to Jericho. Zacch had heard about him and wanted a closer look. Because Jesus was so popular, and Zacch was so short, the crowds around him made it impossible for Zacch to catch a glimpse. Eventually he climbed a tree to try and spot Jesus. The story goes that Jesus noticed him, told him to climb down, and invited himself over for dinner. This might seem like rude behaviour, but it would have been a great honour for Zacch to host a popular rabbi like Jesus. A bunch of people weren’t happy about Jesus’ dinner plans, however. They must have thought: Why is he eating with this guy? This guy’s a crook! Because of his line of work Zacchaeus was hated and marginalized by almost everyone.
Jesus noticed Zacch’s curiosity, and opened his hand in friendship to him. Zacch was overjoyed. Read more of the story in Luke 19, if you like.
Mark tells us that Jesus once said:
“Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.”
We might not like the word “sinner,” but all it really means is that someone isn’t perfect. It doesn’t mean someone isn’t worthy of love or wasn’t created with a purpose. Regardless of who we think Jesus is, or how many church services we may or may not have attended, no one’s got it all together. By this definition, everyone’s in the same boat. Knowing we’ve got problems isn’t the end of the world. It’s actually essential in understanding Jesus and the gospel.
Way back in part two we learned that “gospel” means good news. The good news is that Jesus came to heal the sick, and invite the sinners back home into his family. God isn’t surprised by our condition, or unwilling to help us out of it. He’s full of compassion and wants to help. He’d love to share a meal with us, just like he did with Zacchaeus.
Think about all the miracles Jesus performed: making blind people see, deaf people hear, lame people walk, curing lepers of their disease. What if all those miracles had a deeper meaning? What if they were physical metaphors for our human condition? What if Jesus was more than just a nice guy, but a living, breathing, walking example of God’s invitation to wholeness and fulfillment?
A lot of people who are a part of my church today didn’t grow up in one. Many of them investigated Jesus and the gospel, and chose to follow him later in life. A number of them share the same story when they talk about their journey toward the Christian faith. It usually sounds something like this:
I felt like something was missing, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. I tried everything, but nothing brought the kind of fulfillment and purpose I was looking for. I sensed life was about more than money, my job, pleasure, morality, even friends and family. As good as all those things are, they didn’t fully satisfy me. I was looking for something deeper, something more.
Upon my discovery of Jesus and the gospel, I found what I realized I had been searching for my entire life. Sure, life can still be hard, and I’m certainly not perfect, but I’ve experienced love, fulfilment and purpose like I never did before I started following Jesus.
Even though I grew up going to church, I felt similar to my friends at different points throughout my life. I know I’m not perfect either, and life will always have its ups and downs, but I’m daily choosing to accept Jesus’ invitation into life the way he designed it to be—life with him.
Solid as a sponge.
Peter was one of Jesus’ first disciples. He was great, I love that guy. I don’t mean I love him because he was inspiring or noteworthy when it came to the strength of his faith. I just find him entertaining. He’s like that friend who’s always saying and doing stupid stuff, and making you shake your head: Oh Pete, I love that guy.
To me, Peter’s one of the funniest characters in the Bible. He’s funny because Jesus nicknamed him “the rock.” Ironically, however, Peter was about as solid as a sponge. He had a couple shining moments, but much of what we see about him in the gospels concern his losses, not his wins. The theme of contrast continues.
One day Jesus asked Peter who he thought Jesus was. Peter knocks it out of the park: You’re God! he exclaimed. In the next story Jesus pre- dicts his death. Peter didn’t like the sound of this one bit, so he jumped in: No way that’s happening! Quit talking like that! Peter didn’t have a problem identifying Jesus as God. He also didn’t mind putting God in his place once in a while. Cheeky Pete. Who tells God off?
In part six we looked at a dinner wherein Jesus washed his friends’ feet. At that dinner Peter actually told Jesus he’d never leave him, and that he’d even die for him. When Jesus got up from the table and began preparing to wash his friends’ feet, the room must have been hushed. When he walked toward Peter and tried to wash his feet, Peter exclaimed, “No way!” You might remember that in the next breath he jumped in at the deep end, signing on for life, all without fully understanding what he’d signed on for.
Later that night, Jesus was praying in a garden and asked his friends to join him. John tells us Jesus was in agony, or severe distress, aware that his crucifixion was just hours away. The disciples kept falling asleep, including Peter. When a mob came to arrest Jesus, Peter sprang into action and sliced the ear off of someone trying to cuff his rabbi. Jesus told Peter to put his sword away, and healed the man. Nice save, Jesus. Peter then bolted, along with the rest of the disciples, abandoning Jesus to his arrestors. Later that night, during Jesus’ trial, Peter snuck into the courthouse courtyard to see what was happening. Several people noticed him and said, “Hey, I know you! You’re with Jesus, aren’t you?” Peter flat out denied it three times, and cursed Jesus. Then he ran off again in shame, bawling his eyes out.
Let’s recap. Within the span of about six hours, Peter has:
Told Jesus off for trying to wash his feet.
Changed his mind and opted for the dunk tank.
Fallen asleep when Jesus was having the worst night of his life. Swashbuckled the ear off a guy (in defence of a rabbi defined by a non-violent life ethic).
Run off into the bushes like a scaredy-pants.
Snuck into the back of a courthouse to spy on Jesus’ trial. Totally thrown Jesus under the bus by lying, saying he and Jesus had no association.
Run off again, and cried in a corner.
Question: Do you think Jesus chose Peter because of how stable, unflinching and sure he was of what being a follower of his meant? Another question: Do you think Jesus needs us to be perfectly stable, unflinching and totally sure of what we’d be getting into if we started to trust and follow him? Peter was compelled by, and drawn to Jesus. He was just like the shepherds and wise men. They couldn’t shake him. They didn’t know all the answers, but they couldn’t shake Jesus. They’d never heard of, or met anyone like him.
Once, John tells us, a large group of people quit Jesus’ fan club when he said some difficult stuff for them to hear. In essence, Jesus was claiming to be God. When loads of people took off after hearing such challenging words, he asked his closest friends if they wanted to leave him, too. Peter piped up on behalf of the group:
“Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life, and we have believed, and have come to know, that you are the Holy One of God.”
Peter, I love that guy.
Not going anywhere.
You’ll be happy to hear that Peter’s journey got better. He learned to trust Jesus more and more every day. He still made mistakes, but he got less spongy and more rock-like as the years rolled on. He grew because he relied on Jesus. What’s interesting is that Peter only hung out with Jesus for a maximum of three years.
After Jesus’ death, the Bible tells us that Jesus rose from the dead. As we noted earlier, the Bible teaches that Jesus inhaled death and exhaled life. The first Christians believed we can truly live because Jesus lives. The Bible then says that Jesus physically left the earth. This would have been a massive let down for his friends if Jesus hadn’t prepared them for his departure. Listen to Jesus’ words to his disciples the night before he died, at the dinner with the foot-washing:
“But now I am going to him who sent me….I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Helper will not come to you. But if I go, I will send him to you.”
Who is Jesus referring to as “the Helper”? He’s speaking of the Holy Spirit, another member of the Trinity, along with Jesus and the Father. As we saw in part four, the God of the Bible is three, but also one. This means that when Jesus sent “the Helper,” he sent his Spirit to be with us.
Jesus goes so far as to say that this is to our advantage. Jesus was present physically in one place, at one time. Though his Spirit he is with all of us, all of the time. The Spirit’s role is to bring peace, comfort, and to continue to show us how to live like Jesus did. The Bible says that God is still with us. He never left, and he never will.
The Bible also teaches that Jesus’ Spirit is not only with us, but in us. This means God’s love and purpose is in those who trust and follow Jesus. The Christmas message didn’t stop with Jesus, it continues in his followers. The Bible’s New Testament teaches that the grace, mercy and kindness Jesus showed the world should extend through all who hold his name dear.
If phase one of God’s plan was to send Jesus into the world to model humility, grace and love, then phase two is that Jesus’ followers continue in this way of life. This means that little-old-ordinary you and I can join with God in bringing hope and healing to the world.
Christmas began with Jesus, but it continues through us.
Back in part five we talked about that scene in Home Alone when Kevin is sent to his room without any dinner. At the end of Home Alone, Kevin’s mother finally makes it back to her son after a long journey. Mother and son embrace and forgive one another, the whole family bursts through the door, and Kevin’s overjoyed to see them. I love that scene. It’s a familiar kind of scene in films in general, but especially popular in Christ- mas movies:
Everyone comes back together.
Everyone who’s previously been part of the story is reunited.
All gather under one roof, or around a Christmas tree, or a table. Everyone’s back home….and home is a good place.
When I watch our kids tell the Christmas story in plays at my church, my imagination kicks into overdrive. When I set up the family nativity scene on the mantelpiece every year, I can’t help but wonder… What was it like to be at the manger, actually in the stable the night Jesus was born? What was it like to be a shepherd, to have actually seen Jesus in the flesh? What about a wise man, and to have laid gifts at his feet?
It must have been amazing to have been part of the cast of Christmas. But what if (and I make no apology for this potentially cheesy metaphor), the casting call is still open, and the curtain call has been delayed?
What if we belong in, and can be part of the story, too? What if the angel’s message to the shepherds is for us all?
“Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news (God is near) of great joy (and loves you) for all people (yes, you in particular). For unto you is born this day a Saviour who is Christ the Lord…”
Shepherds, wise men, teenage girls, carpenters, teachers, bankers, car salespeople, stay-at-home moms, stay-at-home dads, lawyers, mechanics, business people, road workers, hairstylists, grandparents, uncles, aunts, students, kids, poor people, rich people, nice people and Scrooges. What if we all have a place in the story?
The good news says that everyone can come home. Everyone belongs at the table. Everyone can join the cast. God was little in the person of Jesus, but his love is bigger than we can possibly imagine. There’s plenty of room around the manger, and lots of space under the cross.
When God was little he made room for us all. The question is, will we make room for him?
Joy to the world, the Lord is come. Let earth receive her King. Let every heart prepare him room, And heaven and nature sing…