Saturday, December 17, 2011

Magicians and Kings

Wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the Child Who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed His star at its rising, and have come to pay Him homage.” (Matthew 2.1-2)


It’s rarely mentioned that the Christ Child’s most illustrious visitors are revered practitioners of occult arts. Bible translators take pains to divorce the star-brought Easterners from their profession, calling them “wise men,” or loosely transliterating Matthew’s word (magoi) as “Magi.” We associate them with storybook images of lavishly robed men presenting treasure to Baby Jesus. But in Matthew’s day, the Magi are legendary disciples of Zoroaster, the Persian seer credited with inventing astrology and composing two epic poems that depict humanity’s struggle to discern truth and lies. The Magi’s quest for truth and reputation for reading the skies lend credence to Matthew’s assertion a star brings them to Jesus's crib. What goes unnoted in his Gospel, however, is first-century readers’ assumption their gifts to divine astral augurs also equip them to alter fates foretold in the stars. In short, they’re wizards at rewriting history.

The Magi’s appearance in Matthew raises eyebrows, since he shapes his Gospel for notoriously xenophobic Jewish readers, whose sacred texts explicitly warn against consulting with astrologers and sorcerers. Thus, it’s likely that Matthew’s intended readership reacts very differently to the Magi than we do. What we find enchanting—the star, fancy costumes, gold, and exotic spices—is worrisome to them. Foreign magicians have no place in their Messiah narrative. Sure, the prophets tell of Gentile kings bowing before Israel’s King with offerings of gold and incense. But Matthew sends in kings’ men—well-paid staff astrologers who answer their king’s beck and call, even accompanying him in battle, where they monitor heavenly signs and wield magical powers that turn the tide in his favor.


At risk of alienating literal-minded readers, Matthew bends Jewish prophecy in hopes that more insightful ones will perceive the Nativity’s magnitude. The Magi’s presence in Bethlehem confirms Jesus’s birth as a Messianic event that signals the end of religious labels and exclusion—in other words, a New Order aligned with God’s intention that Jesus be the Savior of the world. While Luke stresses the universal significance of Jesus’s birth by setting it in a barn and delegating His worship to country bumpkins, Matthew ignores all of that to sock his readers with a staggering blow. The Magi are everything they loathe and fear—strangers, pagans, and sorcerers! They’re filthier than the filthiest stable. Yet they alone display courage to seek Christ. Which brings us to Matthew’s most radical point.

The Magi’s purported ability to change history invests Matthew’s scenario with a revolutionary concept: human agency. Prior to this, Israel’s hope for a Deliverer reflects the same passive position it takes in relationship to God. It watches and waits. God speaks and works. But the Magi see a star and, ascertaining its importance, they move without delay. Of the Nativity’s players, only they act without angelic directive. In a sense, they intrude on the story by making it their business to find Jesus. That’s not to say their involvement isn’t by divine providence, however. After inadvertently endangering Jesus’s life when they ask King Herod where they can find the King of the Jews, they do precisely what they’re known for: circumvent history. A dream alerts them that Herod plans to murder Jesus, and to ensure His safety, they defy the King’s request that they inform him where the Child is. They bypass Jerusalem, returning home another way. Matthew’s omission of any instructions in the dream makes clear they leave like they came—of their own volition. Acting solely on their agency, they bring something altogether new and dangerous to the Messianic equation. Matthew tells his readers salvation is a joint venture with God requiring our courage and active commitment.


Ironically, it appears Matthew is rewriting history to include the Magi and Herod in his account. Historians find no evidence of the infant massacre that he claims directly resulted from the magicians’ disregard for the king’s wishes. Since the brutality of Herod’s attempt to kill Jesus by slaughtering every male baby in Bethlehem couldn’t escape notice, no existing record of it calls Matthew’s veracity into question. Yet supposing his Magi subplot is bald fiction, his integrity remains intact, because he leads us to contrast magicians with kings. Magicians act without asking. Kings ask before they act. Kings just so happen to make history. Magicians change history so what’s just happens. Magicians seek truth. Kings spread deceit. Matthew asks which we will emulate. Will we actively pursue the opportunity to seek and worship Christ? Or will we passively sit by, expecting to benefit from others who do?

Whether or not Matthew’s account is factual, placing people who don’t belong at Jesus’s crib makes it true. He eliminates any visitors other than the Magi simply to dramatize God’s infinite love and acceptance for those who come to Christ of their own volition. That’s the crux of Matthew’s story: faith is a willing act, not a command performance. “We observed His star at its rising, and have come to pay Him homage,” the Magi confess. (Matthew 2.2) The Gospel goes on to say, “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him.” (v3) The very ones who should rejoice to hear their Messiah is born are terrified—and with good cause. They’re awaiting a ruler who divides and conquers, not one who wins the adoration of strangers, pagans, and wizards.


On the strength of a new star, the Magi foresee a New Order that unites the world in harmony and peace. That’s a dangerous prospect for kings, nations, and people who leverage exclusion, labeling, and the hatred they spawn to nullify the legitimacy of anyone they choose. On the strength of a new star—and the fiber to act on what they see—the Magi take back the right to choose. They voluntarily leave palaces where they’re respected and venture into a lowly place where they clearly don’t belong. Their courage illuminates our understanding that not belonging is why they belong.

As we enter Advent’s final days, may we shed any remnants of kingly traits—all hesitance and fear—to embrace the Magi's mindset. May we fix our eyes on the star we’ve seen and exercise our right to discover where it leads. May we ask dangerous questions and take bold risks that alter history. And when our quest ends with paying homage to the Newborn King, may our awareness that many think we don’t belong there secure our conviction we’re exactly where we belong.

Blessed Redeemer, our Deliverer, we’ve seen Your star and willingly followed it without reservation. Equip us with courage to finish this journey. Bring us safely to Your sacred birthplace, where not belonging is why we belong. Amen.

While it would seem Jesus’s birthplace is nowhere for sorcerers, the Magi prove the opposite by actively seeking and worshipping Him. (James Tissot: The Journey of the Magi; 1894)

Postscript: “We Three Kings”

The famous carol gets it wrong; the Magi aren’t kings (and Matthew doesn't limit them to three). Yet it also gets this right: “King forever, ceasing never over us all to reign…”

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

All We Ask of Christmas

One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD. (Psalm 27.4)

The Search

If we deconstruct The Nativity into two categories, one “Divine” and the other “Human,” dominant themes for each become apparent. The divine side is preoccupied with manifestation. God’s exquisite design is manifestly transmitted through supernatural media: angels everywhere, an astral phenomenon in the easterly sky, the unborn infant leaping in Elizabeth’s womb, and her impromptu prophecy to Mary. There’s no mistaking that Something Big is underway—the Biggest Something there ever was or ever will be, the Big Something everyone’s waiting for. So God removes any possibility for doubt. It’s manifestly obvious to all who receive the good news: This Is It.

The manifestations are writ large in headlines, with quick summaries attached. Mary’s told how she’ll conceive God’s Son, and that’s pretty much it. The rest is hers to figure out. The same goes for Joseph. His angelic dream instructs him to stand by Mary, yet offers no tactics to deal with the situation’s many intricacies. The Magi see the Eastern Star and realize what it signifies. But it’s not much more than a road sign hung in the sky; there’s no address attached. Angels declare Christ’s birth to shepherds, hasten them to Bethlehem, and inform them what to look for. Yet they don’t provide precise directions to the stable. So virtually every human in the Christmas story responds to these manifestations by looking for answers and guidance. Their column header is “The Search.” And for those who undertake it, the months, weeks, and hours leading up to the final manifestation are full of “I don’t know” and “I’m not sure.”

It’s tempting to question why God chooses to make good on the promise of a Savior in ancient times. Wouldn’t it be wiser to wait until we get the whole mass communication thing down, so this good news can spread virally? I think God’s got more than breaking news in mind. The ancients’ limitations immunize them from a curse we can’t seem shake. They’re not nearly as flippant about things that can’t be naturally or logically explained. Narrow understanding broadens their vision. Thin facts amplify their aptitude for thin places, where reason’s failure makes blind trust the only option. For them, “I don’t know” and “I’m not sure” are unabashed confessions. Not knowing and feeling unsure don’t threaten them. Do they wish they’d been given more thorough directions? Probably. But since so much of their lives proceeds without explanation, they avoid the modern pitfall of procrastinating until every detail is explicitly defined and every possibility considered. (We theorize. They theologize.)

Seeing Christ

To illustrate the magnitude of differences between their era and ours, let’s run a few likely scenarios if God delayed Christ’s birth for our time. If we were Mary’s parents and knew her to be a truthful child, we’d still question why the angel told her to name the Child “Jesus,” but left no further instructions. If we were Joseph’s friends, we’d urge him to hold out for more information before moving too hastily. If we were the Magi’s colleagues, we’d laugh at the idea of trusting a star’s trajectory to guide them to Christ’s birthplace. If we were shepherds who missed the angelic concert, we’d tell the others they were crazy to go on a wild chase and risk getting fired. Those would be our gut reactions.

With more thought, we’d blow their stories to pieces. Hang on, Mary: Isaiah says the Messiah will be called “Emmanuel,” not “Jesus.” Hang on, Joseph: The Law says a man whose fiancée gets pregnant should put her to death. Hang on, Magi: The star rises in the East; Palestine is west. Hang on, shepherds: Israel’s Savior will come as a King, not a poor Infant in a manger. Maybe some register these objections. Yet with so few facts littering the searchers’ lives, these arguments carry less weight for them than they would for us.

Strange and inexplicable events inspire ancient minds to suspect divine activity. While their manifestations offer no advice, the searchers are all given the Child’s true identity. Mary’s told He’s God’s Son. Joseph learns He’ll be the Savior. The Magi’s star signifies He’s Israel’s King. The shepherds hear He’s Christ the Lord. That’s all they need to set off on their search, because all they want is to look on the Redeemer’s face. Just knowing Who He is drives their belief they will see Him. And they believe seeing Him will enable them to see everything differently.

Asking to See

Sight causes modern minds to believe. Ancient thought insists belief leads to sight. Psalm 27 begins with David declaring belief: “The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid… Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though wars rise up against me, yet I will be confident.” (v1,3) Then, in verse 4, we find him asking to see: “One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD.” Since David knows Whom he’s looking for, he knows exactly what he longs to see—the beauty of the LORD.

Surely by this stage in our Advent pilgrimage we have no doubt Whom we’re seeking—God’s Son, our Savior, Israel’s King, Christ the Lord, our Light and our Salvation. We’re long past fearing “I don’t know” and feeling threatened by “I’m not sure.” Argument’s armies and warring opinions can’t shake our belief we’ll arrive at the manger. Since that’s all we need to know, all we ask of Christmas is one thing: to behold the beauty of the Lord. Let those who assert that the Nativity is a myth live with their doubts. We’re not seeking literalism; we’re searching for Light. Let those who quibble with implausibility feed their addiction; we crave impossibility. We believe we will see Christ’s beauty, and that will forever change how we see. Isaiah 40.5 promises, “The glory of the LORD will be revealed.” We hazard our way to Bethlehem, driven by certainty we’ll find the impossible beauty awaiting us there. To behold it—that’s all we ask.

Impossibly Beautiful Child, conceive anew in us profound belief that leads us to sight. May these final days of Advent be fueled with determination to behold You. Draw all of us to the manger, eager to be astonished and changed. Amen.

One thought drives us to Bethlehem: to behold the beauty of the Lord.

Postscript: “Come Darkness, Come Light”

This reprises a video I made for an Advent post last year. Yet I think it speaks to the desire to see that drives our journey. I trust you’ll enjoy it.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

a place where change looks possible


Our church has taken “building a place” as this year’s Advent theme, and we’re doing just that. Each week a large set piece is added to the sanctuary—a pair of workhorses, wide doors, hayloft, and (soon to come) a manger—to suggest the construction of a stable and reinforce the idea of preparing a place for Christ to be born anew in us. An evocative musical number and cleverly insightful sketch set the stage for each sermon, whose title builds off “a place where”—printed in lower-case, subtly muting the racket affixed to Christmas so our contemplations are in scale with Bethlehem’s humility. It’s been a profoundly moving journey. And though there’s more to come, it well may have peaked with last Sunday’s message, “a place where change looks possible.” When our pastor, Joy Douglas Strome, finished, few eyes were dry and very few doubts remained that any of us will ever see Advent and Christmas the same way again. I was so stirred, my thoughts turned to all of you. With Joy’s permission, I’m sharing it here, in its entirety, conceding its power on the page can’t compare with her inspired delivery. Nonetheless, the sermon—which synthesizes Isaiah 61 and John 1.6-9, 19-28—has much to tell us and gives us much to think about. I trust you’ll take time to read it, and make time to sit with it, wrestle with it, and be blessed by it. If its impact here is half of what we experienced, my prayers in passing it along will be answered.

Weekly stable construction in the Lake View Presbyterian sanctuary: doors (L) and hayloft awaiting the hay delivery (R).

Prayer for illumination

O Come, O Come Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel. Ransom us, O God, as we sit captive to many things. Ransom us that we might be free to encounter your liberating Word this day, right now. Amen.

Being Changed

A double dose of most things would seem excessive, would call for restraint, might even be dangerous. But a double dose of John the Baptist in the wilderness delivered by our lectionary is clearly here to make a point about Advent. Last week from Mark, this week from the Gospel of John, we hear the story of John the Baptist, precursor to Jesus. Part of why it is hard to hear is because we think we should be getting on with things by now. Isn’t it time for carols and the Baby, the soft side of the story? No, not yet.

Thomas Merton wrote, ”The Advent mystery is the beginning of the end of all in us that is not yet Christ.” Most of us would be undone by that, Many days I am undone by it. I suspect we’re all feeling off guard a bit by the notion that somehow we’re actually being transformed into Christ during Advent. That’s probably not what we signed up for. We want to see Christ. We’re glad for the story of angels and shepherds and Magi. We’re impressed with Mary’s courage, and Joseph’s commitment, and even God’s ingenuity with the delivery method for this important message. Still, we usually picture keeping our own human autonomy as we hear the story repeated for yet another year. We watch it unfold at a distance.

Merton would suggest that something a bit more lasting is happening, that in Advent we are actually being changed into something recognized as Christ. That is beyond the pale for most of us, and it’s easier to just hunker down and wait for the Christmas carols to finally come out. (And for those of you who are counting, they will come out next week.)

The One True Light

John came to testify to the one true light. That light would be Jesus, would be Christ, would be the Messiah. Even when everyone else around him seems confused, he seems to be comfortable with the job. The author of the gospel of John gives John the Baptist a little attitude and the conversation between John and the priests is almost funny. John sidesteps the questions with clever answers. He keeps them guessing about who he is and what his function will be.

John’s was the last of the Gospels to be written down, to the community that probably most needed to hear about testifying. But John the Baptist makes a bit of a mockery of their questioning: Who are you? Well, I’m not the Messiah. What then? Are you Elijah? I am not. Are you the Prophet? No. You’d think that he’d been coached by a good attorney, who warned, “Just answer the questions!” Then comes the breaking question: Well, then, who are you? I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness; make straight the way of the Lord. Well, if you are just a voice, they reason, why all the baptizing? It’s a trick question. He may be quoting Isaiah, but he isn’t authorized to perform this priestly function. But John the Baptist turns it around again: I’m just baptizing with water. The one who is coming after me? I’m not worthy to tie the thong of his sandal. No mention of fire, like last week. No mention of Holy Spirit. Just an allusion to the stature of the One Who will come after John.

John the Voice is out here doing his own thing, based on his belief that his singular job is to pave the way for God’s own Son to appear on the earthly scene. Did he know what that would be like? Well, partly. But he didn’t know everything, because if you remember, he ended up with his head on a plate. Surely if he would have known, he would have been more careful, don’t you think? Maybe. Maybe not. Maybe he was just faithful.

Big Ideas

Isaiah’s ideas are big ones. They become Jesus’ big ideas, too, when he starts his adult ministry—this idea about good news (which means “gospel”) to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners. Prisoners in Isaiah’s day were either political prisoners or people in debt. No prison space was taken up by hardened criminals; criminals were taken care of another way, if you catch my drift. People in debt in prison might have family members that could pay “on time” to get them out. It was one of a number of rackets. And in a time when the oppressed were never out of debt, you know who it was in prison waiting for the good news that Isaiah, then Jesus promised.

Anyway, these big ideas sound lofty, they sound like something we want, and they are just poetic enough to capture our imagination. But most of the time, before we get too carried away with the prophetic call, our rational mind kicks in gear and says, “Really, can this happen?” Well, probably not in our lifetime. How do we have faith like John the Baptist had, when we run short of patience with the waiting, when our rational minds have seen one too many oil deals, one too many businesses collapse, one too many bailouts, one too many scams, one too many abused children, one too many corrupt politicians.

This week alone is enough to make us skeptical, isn’t it? More young people come forward in the Penn State mess, and another of our governors [Rod Blagojevich] is going to jail, and the judge says he ripped at the moral fabric of our society… That’s flowery language for we just don’t trust anyone much anymore.

Reason Needs Faith

Two different authors have helped me think about this this week. First is Theodoret, one of the Early Church leaders from the third century. He wrote about being able to perceive God’s light in this way:

To see visible objects we need the eyes of the body.

To understand intelligible truths we need the eyes of the mind.

To have the vision of divine things we cannot do without faith.

What the eye is for the body, faith is for reason.

To be more precise; the eye needs the light which puts it in contact with visible things; reason needs faith to show it divine things.

Reason would have us abandon the big ideas of our prophets for the most expedient, cost effective alternative. And most of the time that path does not bring about justice. Reason needs faith to show it divine things. That’s an interesting definition for faith… the ability to see divine things. And in John the Baptist’s case, it wasn’t just to see divine things, but to talk about them, interpret them, testify to them, and put his life on the line for them.

Open to the Divine

Barbara Brown Taylor wrote these provocative words about faith this week. She says:

Faith and hope can cancel each other out this time of year. Faith is radical trust in what God is doing, even when the divine mode of operation is far from clear… Hope, on the other hand, can easily assume the dimensions of individual and corporate wants. I hope for a white Christmas, a less contentious church, a closer relationship with Jesus, a God Who makes sense. While there is nothing wrong with any of these hopes, they still carry considerable cargo, suggesting that I know not only what my community and I need from God, but also how God might best come to us. The only hope that belongs on this Messiah table is the bare hope of God’s arrival, sweeping all clutter away.

For those of us who think we see pretty clearly what needs to happen to set everything straight in the world, this is sobering news. I think she is suggesting that faith means hanging on even when our idea of things is not coming to pass. Faith means hanging on beyond the time when reasonable people would have given up and gone home. Faith means the ability to see the sacred in the most profane places we can imagine. Faith means being open to the divine incoming in places we do not expect.

For some of us that means we open ourselves to the possibility that the divine could pop in on us at a board meeting in a big business… where we least expect God to be doing business. For some of us that means we open ourselves to the possibility that the divine might pop up in the most tangled up, corrupt political systems we could imagine… where we least expect God to be wheeling and dealing. For some of us that means we open ourselves to the possibility that the divine might pop up in our most contentious family dynamics, the ones that have us bluer than blue this season… a place where we have never had a divine experience before.

Truth be told, God showed up in first-century Bethlehem in a place where no one would have expected anything remotely divine to happen… and just look what happened.

John the Baptist’s faith—this ability to see divine things that were not even present yet—told him that change was coming, and it was possible that God would do a new thing. God would sweep away all the clutter, and make all things new. God would cause “righteousness and praise to spring up,” as Isaiah said.


So what does this mean for you and me, ordinary players in this big drama of Advent? None of us will have the lead roles. The spotlight won’t shine on us individually. There are no lines for us to memorize, no costumes to gather, no anxiety about opening night. But we still have a part to play.

Most of us know well the role of being reasonable. But as Theodoret reminds us, reason needs faith to show it divine things. So maybe our job, our part this Advent is to take that to heart… to let our faith chip away at our own personal reasonableness… and let in the light of something new.

Jackie’s song [“Come to the Manger”] said, “In our darkest of hours wherever we are, the shadows are parted by the light from this star.” In the places where our own lives seem the most undone… can we push our faith to reveal something divine there… even just a little something? Alternatively, in the places where our own sureties about what is right and wrong, good and bad, black and white push us to be disgruntled and cynical most of the time… can we push our faith to reveal something divine there… even just a little something?

What worries me is that our reasonable natures might just make us miss something hugely divine, because we, like those of old, are looking for a king who will lead us into battle (and battle can be defined many, many ways), and God is choosing to work behind the scenes in a stable in Bethlehem.

Watching for It

All we have to go on are these old ancient words, and 2000 years of history of faithful people who have heard them and been led to believe. Evidence of the divine? It is around us. But we have to be watching for it.

It might not be obvious. It might be in the gentle hands of a nurse who is hooking us up to the IV right before we are wheeled in for surgery. It might be in the hug of a teacher who is paying attention to the child who is all of a sudden withdrawn. It might be in the beautiful chortles of a baby who has found her voice for the very first time. It might be in the wise counsel of a senior citizen who has experienced the world and then some. It might be in the patient parent, who has set aside many of their own needs for the years of parenting in order that a new, young life might be launched in a healthy way. It might be… well, as sure as I start to identify places, those won’t be the places you experience the divine or even I experience them again.

Harder than Lent

So, open is the key. Wherever our reasonableness has gotten a bit out of control, maybe there is the place to crack things open a bit. I’m not even sure how that sounds to you, or me for that matter. I like the idea of being open, but my heart is afraid. If I let myself be open to the divine, there could be a lot of other stuff that comes in with it, and that is very scary. Maybe we only like the idea of a sacred experience. What if we were to actually run into one?

Some people think Lent is the hard season, but I say no. This [Advent] is such hard work. In Lent we know exactly what’s getting ready to happen. We are headed to the cross, and there’s no going back, and afterwards the resurrection is going to be good news. But in Advent? We are headed to a manger, and a boy will be born into a world not all that unlike ours, full of danger, and heartache… Full of sorrow and missed opportunity… Full of people whose needs far exceed our ability to meet or give or serve.

The possibility of failing Advent is looming right before us. We could get right up to the door of the manger and freeze: Really. Do I want to go in and risk this? Do I want to look this child in the face and sign my name on the dotted line? Will I ever be able to make good on this promise? To be the ones who will harbor a Baby somewhere inside ourselves and let ourselves be changed? Do I really want to do this? What if I fail? What if I try and fail? What if I can’t muster the courage? What if I embarrass myself? What if I have to talk to people I don’t know? What if I have to help out kids or seniors? Or what if I have to listen to someone else’s pain? It’s so much harder than Lent.

A Dangerous Prospect

This birth requires something of us. If you haven’t figured it out yet, we are not building a stable that you get to look at. We are building a stable that we are inside. These are doors that open to the outside. And if it hasn’t hit you yet, this is a dangerous prospect.

We don’t get to be moved by the beautiful Christmas carols if we aren’t ready to take on the consequences of the birth, the care of a Baby. Unless we are willing to let all the clutter of our lives be blown away, then the trip to the manger has every possibility of being the most devastating thing we have ever done.

Peek over the edge of the manger and look, but don’t make eye contact—because one look and you will be changed. Everything that your reasonable mind will tell you can’t be will all of a sudden look possible. Everything that your reasonable mind would like to quantify and explain away will fall away and in its place will come big Bible ideas like glory, and justice, and righteousness and peace.

And if we have made eye contact with the baby, if we have opened ourselves to the divine, we will discover that reason isn’t all that it’s cracked up to be. Reason needs faith in order to show it divine things.

May reason scatter, so that divine things might come to us all. Amen.

Peek over the edge of the manger and look, but don’t make eye contact—because one look and you will be changed.

Postscript: “Come to the Manger”

This is the song that Jackie Jasperson, our church’s music director, exquisitely rendered prior to Joy’s sermon.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Open Casting

For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations. (Isaiah 61.11)

Whose Story Is It?

Every human holds a standing invitation to enter God’s story. God wants us there, actively participating in the epic drama of reconciliation. The divine casting call is wide open, and there’s room for actors of every gender, ethnicity, orientation, class, background, ability, etc. There are no auditions to find the most perfect player for a particular role, no competition with others, no anxious interims waiting to hear if we’ve been chosen. Talent, training, and prior experience—religious or otherwise—have no bearing on whether or not we get the job. God carves out unique spaces in the redemption narrative that only we can fill. We aren’t typecast. We’re created for purpose—born for the part.

We see this over and over in Scripture. In Jeremiah 1.5, God informs the writer, “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you; I appointed you a prophet to the nations.” David reaches a similar conclusion in Psalm 139.15-16: “My frame was not hidden from You, when I was being made in secret, intricately woven in the depths of the earth. Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In Your book were written all the days that were formed for me, when none of them as yet existed.” During the Last Supper, as Jesus finalizes His instructions to the disciples, He preempts any potential jockeying for star positions by reminding them, “You did not choose Me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask in My name.” (John 14.16-17) Our role comes by divine appointment. When we say, “Yes,” to God, it’s ours.

Availability, not acceptability or adequacy, is the decisive factor. Since some remain unavailable to God’s purpose, the redemption saga evolves organically—with or without us. Awareness of that, combined with recognition that God invites all of us to assume roles we’re born to play, fosters an interesting offstage dynamic. By removing all barriers to our participation, God hands the issue of inclusion to us. We alone choose whether we take part in God’s story. Self-appointed casting directors who insist we’re unfit for roles we’ve been given are running a show that neither affects us nor interests God. We erase doubts about our acceptance and adequacy with two easy questions. Whose story is it? It’s God’s. Who decides if we’re part of it? We do.

At the Very Least, Most

Jesus debunks the myth of exclusion in Mark 10.45: “The Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give His life a ransom for many.” The original Greek employs a word for “many” that emphasizes vast quantities—at very least, most—and implies those unavailable to God constitute the minority. And we get a snapshot of the overwhelming majority in Isaiah 61 (which figures prominently in Sunday’s Advent readings). The prophet writes, “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; God has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and to release the prisoners; to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all who mourn.” (v1-2) It’s not a homogenized, well-adjusted crowd, but a startling convocation of survivors, refugees, outcasts, and criminals. Isaiah’s good news is directed to Jews returning from Babylonian exile. He declares God’s intention to restore their land and generate new growth. He says, “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.” (v11) How Jesus uses the passage in reference to inclusion, however, makes it really fascinating.

Jesus is invited to preach at His hometown synagogue in Nazareth. (Luke 4.16-30) He opens Isaiah 61 to explain His role in the redemption story—essentially repeating Mark 10.45: “I came to serve and save the masses.” This doesn’t sit well with Jesus’s childhood friends and neighbors, whose very existence rests on belief that conforming to a religious norm entitles them to rare privileges as God’s “elect.” They maintain insider status by shutting people out. They resist foreign oppression by oppressing strangers. They remedy heartbreak and abuse by hurting anyone unlike them. They assuage grief by causing it. Their notions of justice breed injustice. Now the greatest Teacher and Prophet their town ever produced looks them in the eye and says, “I’m anointed to gather everyone you’ve turned away.” Like many practitioners of Christian exclusion might do today, they answer Jesus’s call for inclusion and compassion by rejecting and attacking Him. They don’t just run Him out of town. They contrive to throw Him into a ravine. Jesus leaves them to their drama and walks away. He chooses not to participate, because it’s fruitless. Their story has no restorative power. It doesn’t nurture righteousness and praise.

The Choice We Make

Advent pushes us to discover why Jesus came by recalling how He came. Christ’s role in redemption commences as a needy, homeless Child. Other than two astutely brave parents, a handful of shepherds, and an entourage of curious pagans, no one is available to welcome Him. No one else takes the part he/she is born to play. They’re chasing other stories, doing other things, and while they’re obeying rules, courting favor, and being counted by a regime that counts them out, the greatest story ever told begins without them. They pass by and say, “No, thanks.” As a result, they never find out that the Babe they ignore comes to make Himself available to them—to welcome, heal, and free them of every sorrow and weakness hindering their availability to Him.

Christ’s sole purpose for entering our story is to invite us to enter God’s story. God doesn’t need us. God wants us. Our availability brings about restoration. It generates growth. Allowing other stories to affect or interest us bars our participation in the greatest story of all time. God has removed every barrier to roles we’re born to play. We’re part of the masses Christ comes to serve and save. Inclusion rests in our hands. How we handle it is our choice. And the choice we make determines if righteousness and praise spring up around us.

Homeless, Needy, Holy Child, we repent for all the times we’ve been unavailable to You. Forgive how easily we’re distracted by stories that neither affect us nor interest You. Refire our fervor to participate in Your story, to assume the roles we’re born to play. Make us catalysts of righteousness and praise. Amen.

God carves out unique roles for each of us and calls us to play the parts we’re created to play.

Postscript: “Somewhere”

I’m not a huge fan, but I must admit there are times when Barbra Streisand’s gifts border on prophetic. The power she invests in this classic song speaks to a day when we resist trivial distractions and take the roles we’re created to play.