The culminating story of Advent is the birth of Jesus. In it we are presented with a paradox that actively demonstrates how far God is willing to go to bring us the hope of His salvation. The story begins with the masters of the world still pulling hard at power’s strings so they won’t be puppets dancing on them. King Herod’s fears of being deposed are rising to a murderous level of anxiety, while Caesar Augustus orders a census so he knows who and where to tax. This is our human understanding of power, how far we are able to wield control. God, however, is about to display His power by how far He is willing to care.
The virgin Mary is miraculously with child; along with her husband Joseph, a simple carpenter, this common couple from a common town travel far to register in another common town, now busy with travelers and family reunions. The only available space they could find was likely in a simple stable. “While they were there, the days were completed for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”
Within a common town, in a smelly stable, born to a poor couple of commoners, and in a feeding trough, lies incarnate the infinite infant. The LORD of life in the lowliest lair. God had humiliated himself.
In order to show humanity how holiness is substantially lived out and to save them from sin and for His Kingdom, the Most High God reduced himself to the lowliest human. The LORD God gift-wrapped His magnificent majesty and indescribable glory with the common frame of the human form. He was willing to step out of an eternity of joy and peace to set the hope of salvation into a time of distress and despair.
This juxtaposition is about to be witnessed firsthand by a group of shepherds watching their flocks in the fields nearby. Luke here now presents two very different moments that each depict an extreme opposite end of the spectrum of God’s humiliation. And since shepherds were a smelly, dirty annoyance, something of a necessary bother, their humiliated state readied them to receive God’s humiliated form.
The first moment is permeated with glory. An angel appears to them sharing good news: Messiah has been born! Frightened, yet invigorated, their vision is consumed with a choir of celestial creatures revealing and declaring God’s majestic mystery: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among men with whom He is pleased.”
The moment is exhilaratingly magnificent, all their senses heightened as the illustrious sights and sounds summon the salvation of the past to saturate their immediate awareness with the hope that God has come near. It’s a moment where all of life’s doubts and uncertainties are discarded, revealing the glorious backdrop that assures the shepherds they are not alone, that God is still at work. But they soon learn, as do we, that this moment of revealed majesty was just a moment; the angels’ song emphasized that what was “in the highest” is now taking shape “on earth”; that the glorious God is reducing himself to something completely unimpressive.
The second moment, therefore, is utterly ordinary. Having searched, the shepherds find the baby “as He lay in the manger.” There are no celestial beings here, no thunderous songs, no powerful presence to hold their hearts in awe. This is the other end of the spectrum of God’s humiliation where his appearance is as simple as the common couple to which he was born and the smelly stable in which he lay. The all-powerful God has humiliated himself to that of an all-helpless baby; surely that occurred to Mary when she had to change God’s diaper! It feels offensive, really. We humans expect the powerful to show off, to flaunt and strut; but again, God displays His power by how far He’s willing to care, by placing himself into humanity’s everyday ordinary conditions. The salvation God is bringing cannot take root on Earth if it is not lived within the ordinary conditions of Earth. Holiness must be lived out in human form if humanity is ever to learn how to live it; Jesus shows us how. The ordinary doesn’t have to be sneered at, despised, or considered “unspiritual”. The unimpressive appearance of Jesus did nothing to diminish the hope set in the shepherds’ hearts. Returning to their fields and flocks praising God, they were fully aware of God’s salvation at work in that simple stable, knowing its appearance was much more than it seemed.
Up until now, Advent’s story of hope has allowed us to simply be spectators, unassuming recipients of the salvation God has been setting into our midst. But having observed the humiliation of God through the birth of Jesus Christ, we are now invited to join in as participants in the salvation story God is authoring. The heavenly hope lying inside the lowly locale invites us to enter his humble abode, behold Him and believe. Belief is what draws the hope of His salvation deep within; it gives Jesus prime placement at the center of our lives. Christ-at-our-center cultivates humility of heart that readies us to respond as witnesses to a world in need of the hope we have. As participants in His salvation story, the humiliation of God moves us to consider how far we are willing to go to convey the hope of Christ. It would be appropriate, as this Advent season draws near its end, to prayerfully consider how we might “humiliate” ourselves in order to display the hope of God’s salvation. The hope of humanity hinged on the humiliation of God, a hope we bear witness to as we choose to humbly step into the salvation story that’s lived in the footsteps of Jesus.