The Vulnerability of Christmas
by Jack Wald | December 23rd, 2018

various texts

The prophecy of a coming Messiah God gave through Isaiah had to wait a long time until it was fulfilled. Israel waited and hoped for a hundred years or so and then Jerusalem was conquered by the Babylonians. Jerusalem was ransacked, the temple destroyed, and the prominent citizens were taken into captivity. Where was the promised Messiah?

The desire for a Messiah to rescue Israel intensified over the next six hundred years. Every time there was a crisis, people would ask, “Wouldn’t this be a good time for the Messiah to come?” When the Romans occupied Israel in 63 BC, mothers who gave birth hoped their child would be the promised Messiah. Through all these years biblical scholars searched the scriptures to find when the Messiah would come and how he would come.

In their search for the Messiah, scholars overlooked the passages that talked about the suffering servant. (Isaiah 53:4-5)
Surely he took up our pain
and bore our suffering,
yet we considered him punished by God,
stricken by him, and afflicted.
5 But he was pierced for our transgressions,
he was crushed for our iniquities;
the punishment that brought us peace was on him,
and by his wounds we are healed.

We read that passage and know immediately that this talks about Jesus and his crucifixion. But the biblical scholars missed that reference. They focused instead on the triumphant king who would come and rescue Israel from its oppressors and restore Israel to the grandeur they had experienced under King David. (Isaiah 2:2)
In the last days
the mountain of the Lord’s temple will be established
as the highest of the mountains;
it will be exalted above the hills,
and all nations will stream to it.

If you are suffering and need a savior, who would you choose? Someone who was stricken and afflicted, pierced, crushed, wounded? Or someone who would make the Temple in Jerusalem the most honored and revered destination of the entire world?

When Solomon was king, the Queen of Sheba came a long way to see his achievements and wisdom. The people of Israel longed to be in that position again.

So the biblical scholars overlooked the suffering servant passages of the Bible and focused their attention instead on the triumphant king.

Two to three thousand years later we do the same. We reject the image of Jesus, meek and mild. We want a powerful Jesus. We want a muscular Jesus. We want Jesus to act in power. This is how we pray. Jesus has power over demons, over nature, over authorities and when we pray, we pray he will use this power to answer our prayers. We pray for Jesus to use his power to depose unjust leaders and to break the economic injustice that keeps people in poverty. But unjust leaders and economic injustice have been a constant in history. Either God is impotent, unable to answer this prayer, or he has another way of working in the world.

Jesus, in his earthly ministry, had power. Jesus continues to have power. He is all powerful. He is God. He created the world and he can do whatever he chooses to do in the world. The gospels reveal Jesus who has power over demons and storms, who powerfully confronts the religious leaders. But when Jesus relates to people, he is gentle and compassionate. Jesus has all power but Jesus does not come with power into our lives.

How did God become flesh? How was Jesus born?

Mary and Joseph left the shame of Nazareth and traveled to Bethlehem. They were welcomed into the home of a relative of Joseph. Because the guest room was already occupied, they stayed in the family room with Joseph’s relatives. This was not a wealthy family. This was not an extravagant home. This was a simple Palestinian home with a lower level where the animals spent the night.

The shepherds who heard of the birth of Jesus from the angels came to this home to see Jesus who was lying in the manger at the edge of the room where the animals fed.

This was not the home we would expect for a king.

How would we have organized the birth of Jesus?

There was risk involved in the birth of Jesus. Mary could have died giving birth. Jesus could have died in the birth process. What would have happened if Joseph had not paid attention to the angel who told him to leave? What would have happened if Joseph had decided to wait a few days to make arrangements? The journey to Egypt was not without risks from bandits. What about childhood diseases, accidents? We all know this, even today when the world is much safer than it was then, life is not without risks.

Let’s say that God gave us the task of preparing for the birth of Jesus and guarding him through his life, up to the point where it was time for him to die on the cross? We have people in our church community whose job it is to organize visits of heads of state and others who come to Morocco. They plan for every possibility so they are ready for whatever happens when the visit takes place. How would they, with all their expertise, and how would we, with our lesser experience, have organized the birth of Jesus?

For starters, If it had been up to us to organize the coming of Jesus, we would have had him born into a position of wealth and power so he could use his wealth and power to influence other influential people. We would have given him a platform where he could speak and be heard. This way he would have the ear of the decision makers and be able to affect the change he wanted.

We would have protected Mary from the shame of being pregnant without Joseph being the father. In our planning we could use the power of God. Why waste that power?

Perhaps we could have erased from the memory of the people of Nazareth any of the details of what had happened. We would have spared Mary the pain of having to make a long journey while being pregnant. We would have made sure there was a suitable home with plenty of room for Mary to give birth.

We would have told the wise men not to go to Herod. If they had gone, we would have made Herod mute so he could not tell his soldiers to kill all the baby boys in Bethlehem. If he had written down his instructions, we would have made his soldiers blind so they could not carry out Herod’s orders. To spare Mary and Joseph the long trip to Egypt, we would have had Herod die of some sudden illness.

If we had been in charge, we would have made plans for every possibility we could think of and even have a plan of what to do when something unexpected happened.

But that is not how God became flesh. Jesus was born in a humble home, in a dangerous time, and Joseph had to be warned to keep his son out of danger. Jesus did not come in power. He came as a defenseless, helpless baby who needed the protection of his parents.

Isaiah’s solution to the fear and anxiety of Jerusalem as Assyria approached was not a large army, not more weapons, not stronger walls. His solution was (Isaiah 9:6)
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,

A baby is the answer to the suffering of the world. A baby, not a superhero. Humility, not power. Vulnerability, not invincibility.

The way Jesus was born is how he lived his life on earth. Jesus did not come with power; he came with humility and vulnerability. (Isaiah 11:6) “a little child will lead them.”

Here is a description of what God revealed to Isaiah about the character of the Messiah who was to come. (Isaiah 42:1–3)
“Here is my servant, whom I uphold,
my chosen one in whom I delight;
I will put my Spirit on him,
and he will bring justice to the nations.
2 He will not shout or cry out,
or raise his voice in the streets.
3 A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”

A bruised reed is very fragile. It hangs in the air, connected to the stalk by just a few fibers. As the wind passes, it moves to the left and right and you wonder how soon it will fall to the ground. If you touched it, it would break off.

At the end of the service this morning, someone will blow out the candles on the Advent Wreaths. The flame goes out and there is smoke as the wick of the candle still has a glow of light. In just seconds the glow will be extinguished, there will be no more smoke, the wick will be snuffed out.

How will Jesus bring justice to the nations?
3 A bruised reed he will not break,
and a smoldering wick he will not snuff out.”

This is not the description of a powerful, warrior king. This is the description of a gentle and kind king.

It is not that Jesus had no other choice. When Peter took up a sword to defend Jesus against the temple guard, Jesus told him, (Matthew 26:53)
Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?

Jesus stood before Pilate who had the power to have him crucified or to release him. What did Jesus do? He had the power to strike Pilate dead. With a word he could have silenced the Jewish leaders who were accusing him. But he offered no defense. He was silent. He allowed himself to be beaten, flogged, mocked, ridiculed, and taken to the cross.

Jesus had strong words for the religious leaders who ruled, but he treated people who suffered with gentleness. He said to the woman who was caught in adultery and expected that any moment she would feel the pain of the first stone hurled at her head, (John 8:10–11)
“Woman, where are [your accusers]? Has no one condemned you?”
11 “No one, sir,” she said.
“Then neither do I condemn you. Go now and leave your life of sin.”

Lepers and others who were considered unclean were used to being ignored. Jesus not only paid attention to those who were unclean, he took time to focus on them. They did not think they were worthy of attention, but Jesus spoke to them and did the unthinkable – he touched them. He restored honor to those who were deeply shamed.

He honored the prostitute who washed his feet and anointed them with oil. He grieved for the rich young ruler who was not able to give up his attachment to his possessions. He called for Zacchaeus, a dishonorable tax collector, to come down from the tree and honored him by saying he would eat with him in his home. He had compassion on the crowds who were seeking his help.

Although he sometimes had to get away to pray and restore his energy and spirit, he encouraged people to come to him. He said, (Matthew 11:28–30)
“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. 29 Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. 30 For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Jesus had power and used it to overcome demonic oppression, to heal and raise from the dead. Jesus had power and used it to confront the religious leaders of Israel. But he was not that way with the people who came to him with their needs.

Why? Why not come with power?

When one country invades another, if it has a well organized plan of attack and comes with overpowering might, it conquers that country. It defeats the country’s military and occupies its land. But what happens to the people? They have been conquered, but do they now love the people who conquered them. No. They are bitter at the occupying army that has killed their fathers, husbands, and sons. They are a conquered nation and while there may be quiet in the streets, their hearts are bitter and longing for freedom and revenge.

We see this in Israel and Palestine. Israel dominates with their superior technology. They have smart bombs while the Palestinians throw rocks. Israel has taken Palestinian territory over the decades of its existence and pushed the Palestinians into refugee camps. Israel has land but it does not have peace. It has conquered but it has not won.

A thousand years ago, 1,000 AD, King Olaf of Norway brought Christianity to his country with the sword. He sailed with his Viking warriors into the fjords of Norway and told the villages there to convert to Christianity or face his warriors in battle. Village after village surrendered and Norway became a Christian country. Did King Olaf’s actions bring people into the kingdom of God? Not really. There was outward compliance but not a change of heart. Historians say it took two to three generations for Christian faith to develop.

What God wants is not submission to his authority and power. God wants a change of heart and that does not happen by force or power. Hearts are changed by love.

God woos us, as a lover woos his love. He comes to us in our youth and calls to us. Regardless of whether or not we respond positively to him, he continues throughout our life, even in the last days of our life on earth, to call us to come to him.

He does not force us to come. He does not pressure us to come. There are life events that happen. We go through difficult times and while God is not the one who creates the difficulties in our life, it is when we go through difficult times that we are most receptive to hearing the call of Jesus to come follow him.

A lover sends flowers, sends notes, gives gifts and waits for love to awaken. Pushing is counterproductive. Pressuring is not helpful. A lover needs to patiently wait for love to awaken.

If we push and pressure, we may get an agreement to get married, but it will be a marriage without the heart having been awakened. Love must come voluntarily.

A lover does not want an agreement; a lover wants the heart of his love. God wants us, of our own free will, to give him our heart.

Let me draw a couple lessons from this for us.

First, we are to be vulnerable in relationships as God is vulnerable with us.

How does God come to us? He comes without defenses. He tells us, “I love you. Come to me.” When he says that, he risks rejection. He risks ridicule. He risks indifference.

How does God respond to our rejection, insults, ridicule, and indifference? Does he retreat to lick his wounds and vow never again to be so vulnerable? No. God comes to us again and again and again and tells us, “I love you. Come to me.”

God is vulnerable in his relationship with us. He opens himself to rejection.

How do we handle relationships?

We protect ourselves. We cover up our hurt, pretend what was said or done did not hurt us. Or, if we are powerful enough, we blast the person who hurt us. We reject those who reject us. We don’t let people know what we feel until we are very certain it is safe to do so. We guard ourselves.

Where did we learn to do this?

When a baby is born into a loving home, and I realize this is not the case for all children, a baby is treated with tenderness and love. The baby is fed, diaper changed, is held in loving arms, plays with soft toys. As the baby learns to crawl and then take first steps, parents and older siblings clap and cheer. Little accomplishments are greeted with great joy. The toddler things he or she is the best person in the world. As the child moves into years three and four there are further explorations and then comes the big shock as the child moves out into the world and goes to pre-school, kindergarten, first grade – and then into the years of adolescence.

What happens there? For the first time, the child learns there is injustice in the world. One child bullies another. There is a group of children who band together and reject someone who is different. Someone the child thought was a friend turns away because that child wants to be with the popular kids. Even the popular kids are working hard to make sure they stay popular. They know as much as anyone else how dangerous it is to deviate, to be different. No one wants to be on the outside.

One of my daughters came home from school on Valentine’s Day. She was twelve years old and had just moved at the end of December so she was still new in the school. She was in tears because all the girls in the class had received cards and flowers and teddy bears from the boys – except for her. She had not received anything. She was crushed and I held her in my arms and told her how wonderful she was. These are painful experiences that last a lifetime.

What is the consequence? There is a hardening of the spirit that takes place. Unfortunately, for some children who do not have a safe home, this hardening process takes place earlier. But whenever it happens, we all learn that we need to protect ourselves from being hurt. We need to create a defense that protects us. We work really hard to protect ourselves from being hurt because in our past we have been hurt and know how painful that is.

We are not vulnerable in our relationships because we have been hurt in the past and do not want to get hurt in the future.

So how can we be vulnerable in relationships when we have been so hurt by our life experiences? How do we let down the wall we have built to protect ourselves from hurt and rejection?

Paul wrote in his Ephesians letter, (Ephesians 5:25)
Husbands, love your wives, just as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her.

This is one of the most neglected of all Biblical instructions. Husbands, including me, do a less than perfect job of loving our wives as Christ loved the church. Do we give ourselves up for our wives? We ask, “What about my needs? Why do I always have to be the one who gives in? What about me?”

Rather than love as Christ loves us, when our wife says or does something that irritates us, offends us, hurts us, what do we do? We strike back in anger. When our wife tells us what irritates her about us, we give her a list of things she does that irritate us.

When a husband, even in a little way, begins to love his wife as Christ loves the church, the marriage begins to be transformed.

This is advice, not just for husbands, but advice for us all. We are to love each other as Christ loved the church. Jesus told us: (John 13:34)
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.

How is it possible for us to love this way? How is it possible for Jesus to love us and not be offended by our rejection of him? How is it possible for Jesus to come again and again and again and tell us, “I love you. Come to me.”

Jesus is loved by the Father and the Spirit. Jesus is secure in the perfect love of the Father and the Spirit. Jesus knows he is loved so he is able to love unconditionally. Because Jesus is so loved by the Father and the Spirit, he can absorb the rejection and insults and continue to pursue us with love.

If we are to love others as God loves us, we need to know we are deeply loved. This is why the most important part of our Christian life is to grow in our love relationship with Jesus.

We can learn how to share our faith with others, how to practice hospitality, how to lead a Bible study, how to preach, how to be generous in giving, how to pray, how to lead in worship – but who is it that said without love it is nothing?

In 1 Corinthians 13:1–3 Paul speaks of love.
If I speak in the tongues of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. 2 If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. 3 If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Someone asked why we don’t have strong sermons in church against immorality, against adultery, against sex outside of a marriage relationship. The answer is that the problem is not the behavior. The problem is an inadequate love relationship with Jesus. Our biggest problem is that we don’t know how passionately we are loved.

We are to be vulnerable in our relationships with others and if we have any hope of being vulnerable, we need to begin with knowing how deeply we are loved by God. Only with that security will be able to be vulnerable in our relationships.

A second lesson is that we need to have loving patience in evangelism.

It is not helpful to pressure people to come to Jesus. Coming to Jesus must be voluntary. King Olaf of Norway did not help the kingdom of God by bringing his Viking warriors into the fjords of Norway.

Evangelistic rallies are good, but sometimes evangelists use manipulative techniques to get people to respond. How many of the people who come forward give their heart to Jesus? How many of the people who come forward drop their faith when they go back home and have to deal with the pressures of daily living? Techniques and persuasion can get people to come forward and that may get more people to come to church, but how many people had their name added to the Lamb’s book of life in heaven?

Coming to Jesus must be voluntary, not manipulative, not coerced, not pressured.

The best evangelism is when we model for others how to live a life with Jesus. Too often, evangelistic programs consist only of training people how to give answers to questions. So people go out on the streets and give their answers, but no one is asking the questions. The best evangelism is living your life in such a way that questions are raised.

Why do you care for handicapped people? Why do you spend so much time caring for orphans? Why do you help immigrants to adapt to a new country? Why did you forgive the person who betrayed you? Why do you not cheat on exams? Why do you give people a second chance when they fail? Why are you so kind to people who cannot repay you for your kindness? Why do you not take drugs or get drunk? Why are you faithful to your spouse?

When we live our lives caring for the people Jesus cared for and loving people as Jesus loved people, questions are raised and then we can give an answer to why we believe and follow Jesus.

Parents, it is good to bring your children to church. It is what a family does. But don’t pressure them to give their lives to Jesus. Allow them to be found as you were found. Let them see Christ in you. Apologize when you mess up. Love them even when they do not return your love. Be patient and allow the Holy Spirit to work in their lives. Pray for them. Do not give up praying for them. Let Jesus woo them to win their hearts.

Do you believe you are loved by Jesus? You probably answer, “Yes, of course I am.” But now let me ask you the question again. Deep down where you seldom go, do you believe your are loveable? Do you believe you are loved by God?

This is where we need to grow in our love relationship with Jesus. Not just on the surface, not just in our head, but deep down in our heart.

You may be faithful in coming to church, in reading your Bible, in praying, in giving, but God wants more than your faithfulness. He wants you to give him your heart, not just a piece of your heart, he wants all your heart. He wants you to love him as passionately as he loves you.

Jesus is wooing you. He loves you and wants to grow in intimacy with you.

He sees your defenses. He knows your past experiences that have caused you to build walls to protect yourself. Jesus will find a way to get to your heart.

If you read the RICEmail this past week, you read an Advent Monologue written by Walter Wangerin. This is what inspired Jason Gray and Andy Gullahorn to write the song, I’ll Find A Way. It is a powerful and insightful Advent monologue and song. God is pursuing you. God will find a way into your heart.

Let’s listen to the song.