Each Christmas, the reality of the virgin birth in the humility of the stable invites us, like the wise men, on a search for the child – that is, to discover His identity and to worship Him.
‘For the Grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people’ (Titus 2:11-14)
Coming at the close of the year, Christmas gives us a wonderful annual opportunity to reflect on the most important questions in life. At the Ezra Institute, we never tire of showing that what we believe about these ultimate issues profoundly affects how we view our human identity and how we each live in the world.
Traditionally, advent is the season of symbolic waiting for salvation, reminding us of the reality of passing time and bringing into focus the meaning of history in Jesus Christ. Since not everybody was waiting for and expecting salvation that first Christmas, nor are they in 2019, we are reminded that God has chosen to both reveal and also conceal Himself within history. It is this revealing and concealing of God that makes Christmas perennially controversial. The incarnation we are celebrating is an event in real history concerning real persons – the importance of which is revealed to some and concealed from others.
Today, faithful Christian churches still emphasize what Paul wrote to Titus, “for the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation for all people.” In the midst of a broken world dominated by sin and death, all nations, peoples, classes and generations have had the kindness of God manifest for them in the person of Jesus Christ. However, a question that remains for many is if this salvation has appeared in history, why is that reality not more obvious
We are given part of the answer in what God declared centuries ago through Jeremiah, “And you will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart” (Jer. 29:13). Clearly, the fact that the grace of God has appeared in Christ does not mean there is no longer any need to seek Him. The magi from the East sought Him, traversing wilderness and dangers to find Him with their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. I once saw a bumper sticker which read, “wise men sought Jesus, they still do.”
The trouble is, many people are offended by the requirement to search for what has been revealed, especially one that leads to a backwater of the ancient Roman Empire, the womb of a Jewish peasant girl, a dirty, obscure stable, the stench of shepherds, a carpenter’s shop, a criminal’s cross and a borrowed tomb. I have frequently had people tell me what manifestations they would find acceptable as a revelation from God that would effectively eliminate the search – they are reminiscent of the late Yale philosopher, Norwood Russell Hanson’s perspective in an article called What I Don’t Believe. He describes the Marvel film type revelation he would require in order to believe in the God of the Bible:
Suppose…that next Tuesday morning, just after breakfast, all of us in this one world are knocked to our knees by a percussive and ear shattering thunderclap. Snow swirls; leaves drop from the trees; the earth heaves and buckles; buildings topple and towers tumble; the sky is ablaze with an eerie, silvery light. Just then, as all the people of this world look up, the heavens open – the clouds part – revealing an unbelievably immense Zeus like figure, towering above us like a hundred Everests. He frowns darkly as lighting plays across the features of his Michaelangeloid face. He then points down at me! – and exclaims, for every man woman and child to hear, ‘I have had quite enough of your too-clever-logic chopping and word watching in matters of theology. Be assured, N. R. Hanson, that I most certainly exist.
The egocentric preoccupation and conceit of Hanson is remarkable. The Christmas event means he has already received his answer, and he will get his moment before the judgment seat of Christ. Yet the question for many is a real one – why doesn’t God do something more epic for everyone to see, something a little more Walt Disney? Why the discreet and quiet condescension in the obscurity of Bethlehem 2000 years ago, the silent witness of Scripture and the gentle testimony of Christians to knowing God in Jesus Christ? The primary answer to this inquiry is bound up with the character of God.
Jesus Himself made clear, ‘seek and you will find.’ He described the truth of God’s kingdom as treasure that is to be searched for and when found, everything else must be sold to procure it. The search presupposes a certain concealing before there is a revealing! And this is the offensive part: to all of us as broken, sinful people, there is an initial hiddenness as to the transforming power of Christ in the crib because our enmity toward God blinds us to certain truths. Thus, Isaiah the prophet says, “Truly you are a God who hides Himself, O God of Israel, the Saviour” (Is. 45:15).
The living God is not a superhuman show-off, like the mythical Thor, performing in terms of our petty demands, obligated to meet our expectations. The God of Scripture is not insecure. His goal is not simply getting our open assent to what, deep down, we already know and fear – that He is God. Rather, the triune God is seeking to draw us into familial relationship with Him – to adopt us as His children. So, it is neither through great displays of earth-shaking drama, nor by brilliant philosophical oration that the salvation of God appeared to us at Christmas. St. Paul writes, “For since in the wisdom of God, the world through wisdom did not know God, it pleased God through the foolishness of the message preached to save those that believe.” God’s nature demands that He reveal Himself according to His wisdom, not ours, a wisdom consistent with His desire to draw people with a certain attitude of heart toward Him.
The incarnation makes tangible that the triune God is wholly personal and relational. Indeed, he is revealed by the Spirit in familial terms as Father and Son – for unto us a child is born, to us a son is given. God’s concealing of Himself to a degree, and the humility of His Christmas appearing, is therefore a relational and covenantal matter. This season reminds us that man must approach God for who He is, in the way He determines, not in the manner we imagine things ought to be. Scripture is plain that there is no other way to know God. He is not interested in being known as an inference to the best explanation of the universe, but as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is one thing for people to acknowledge the existence of their parents or siblings, it is another to build and treasure those relationships so that familial love is nurtured.
Each Christmas, the reality of the virgin birth in the humility of the stable invites us, like the wise men, on a search for the child – that is, to discover His identity and to worship Him. A sincere search is an act only of those who genuinely want to find. Who truly searches for what they do not want to find? We seek because we recognise our ignorance, helplessness and our need. Unless we love the truth enough to search for it, we cannot know it. The brilliant 17th century scientist, mathematician and Christian thinker Blaise Pascal put it this way:
If there were no obscurity man would not feel his corruption: if there were no light, man could not hope for a cure. Thus, it is not only right but useful for us that God should be partly concealed and partly revealed, since it is equally dangerous for man to know God without knowing his own wretchedness as to know his own wretchedness without knowing God.
We all think and live in a manner that is either conducive or hostile to a deepening knowledge of God. True knowledge of God without a right attitude toward God is impossible. The atheistic philosopher Thomas Nagel at least admitted, “I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God. I don’t want the universe to be like that.” Such a person cannot see that to which they are already blind, lying in the manger. Thus, Scripture says, “He resists the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” The apostle James, the brother of Jesus, puts it this way: “draw near to God and He will draw near to you.” In so doing we are assured by God that, just as the wise men sought and found Christ and recognised Him for who He is, “when you search for me with all your heart, I will be found by you says the Lord.”
At the Ezra Institute we are taken up with the task of helping people cultivate an attitude of heart and mind conducive to deepening their knowledge of God and the gospel through a diligent searching out of a Christ-centred world-and-life view. The search is worth it because Paul assures us, “In Christ are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Col 2:3). Since these treasures for every aspect of life are partly concealed in Christ, it takes conscientious effort and work to uncover these manifold riches of truth and knowledge. The goal of all this, as Paul declares, is “that they may have all the riches of assured understanding and have the knowledge of God’s mystery – Christ” (Col 2: 1-2). Paul goes on to say in the next verses, “I am saying this so that no-one will deceive you with persuasive arguments.”
This encapsulates the EICC’s mission. We are focused on uncovering and imparting to young and emerging leaders an assured understanding of reality in terms of the wisdom of the Word so that they are not deceived in a deceptive age but readied to defend the faith and engage the culture to the glory of God.
Let us marvel again this season at God’s mystery in the manger – Christ the Lord!