Several Christmas themes resurface every year when we celebrate the birth of God’s Son, Jesus. It is, after all, the most remarkable event in human history. The most common themes or focal points include the virgin birth (important as it should be), God’s honoring of the lowly and using the humble state (Mary, Joseph, stable birth, etc.), the accompanying miraculous signs of the event itself (Elizabeth’s pregnancy and proclamation, angels and host before the shepherds, the star, the Magi, etc.), the content of the multiple angelic messages (Gabriel is the most notable in at least two instances) and, of course, the prophecies about Jesus and what he would become. That summarizes the foci of the sermons of advent. I have preached many times on each of these over the past 39 years. I might add that I cannot get enough of all of this since this is the pivot point of history.
One element that always comes out, but in a more incidental fashion is how inconspicuous the event itself was. The innkeeper was clueless. Even the king could not figure out how to find a miracle child. Mary didn’t know what this message meant in its entirety. The scent of Nazareth threw the religious scholars off the trail and disqualified Jesus in their minds from being the Messiah. The announcements to Zechariah and Mary and Joseph were all private and without fanfare or corroborating witnesses. And, aside from the Bible record of nine days- the day of His birth through the circumcision on the eighth day- accompanying historic evidence is non-existent. It seems like God acted incognito.
That is part but not the complete story. There was enough of the obvious and noticeable to give clear testimony to the event and its importance. Let me remind us that the Bible record is clear and this story has circled the globe thousands of times over. That is not the sign of anonymity. The angels did appear and in pretty impressive fashion. The shepherds saw a chorus of a lifetime- as a group. The heavens changed during that time. Simeon and Anna (Luke 2) gave clarity to all who would stop long enough and cared enough to listen. The wisemen from the east came a long way and saw what they came to see. In other words, God was not hiding himself at that time.
But, this is and has always been the nature of God. He is paradoxically inconspicuous and obvious. He can send plagues to destroy a nation, part water for His people or feed 5,000 people with a boy’s lunch. There were believers in each of these stories and unbelievably even more unbelievers in each of them. As Jesus quoted Isaiah, “You will be ever hearing but never understanding. . .” (Matthew 13:14). And, as Abraham told a rich man in Jesus’ parable, “If they do not listen to Moses and the prophets, they will not be convinced even if someone is raised from the dead” (Luke 16:31). When God was most obvious, people were not impressed or convinced.
Apparently, even when God is quite loud, there is enough deafness in people to miss His voluminous presence. It is a faith issue. God knows that he can be conspicuous, but that doesn’t necessarily result in belief. But, he also seems to convey that if he can be obvious enough for people of faith to see and believe, then that is the right balance of being obvious and inconspicuous.
He is attempting to show us how to live- free from pride and self-advancement. Satan tempted Jesus with the loud and proud. He was not biting. And, he doesn’t want us to either. He performed miracles, drew crowds, amazed people with his wisdom. These were obvious enough of His power and authority. He also slid away to quiet places, told people not to tell others who He was and refused to leverage His power when it would have done Him the most good on His dying day. He remained somewhat inconspicuous in these instances. Those seemingly contrary characteristics are not contrary at all. He longed for people to understand who He is. He also wanted people to believe and follow not for what they might get, but for how they might live. He modeled the life of humility and shook the heavens in the process.
It is the same with the Holy Spirit. He put on quite a display at Pentecost (Acts 2) and in Cornelius’s house (Acts 10) and in Ephesus (Acts 19). We have no doubt about His ability. He lit Stephen’s face up, overwhelmed believers with His baptism and gave us the gifts we have. Yet, for the most part, people then and now have a difficult time discerning what the Spirit is up to in their lives on a day by day basis. He makes himself obvious at times and we know when we see Him. Yet, he remains inconspicuous for the most part in this world allowing the doubters to doubt and the haters to hate. He is altogether unbelievable to most folks in the world.
This is the way that the Son of God entered our world. He was obvious to the people who needed to understand and to some bystanders who were willing to listen to God (shepherds, Anna and Simeon). He was just another baby born into a cruel and hopeless world to others and a threat to a power-hungry king. This is not a central theme to the Advent. But, it is a common way that God presents Himself throughout history, Advent included. For those of us who have eyes to see, we see Him obviously. There is nothing inconspicuous about Him. To others, they can’t understand how Jesus stole Christmas from Santa Claus. He is altogether inconspicuous to them- a hard-to-believe tale indeed. How about you?