These days, television shows which use hidden cameras are commonplace. Back in the day, there was Candid Camera. Members of the public were put in bizarre situations and their reactions secretly filmed. And hilarity ensued.
My favourite stunt is from the American version of the show (1974). Children were interviewed and asked a hypothetical question. Imagine you could meet a legendary sportsman, like the boxer, Muhammad Ali. What would you say to him and what would you do? Muhammad Ali probably still is the most famous sportsman of the modern era. What would it be like to meet such an iconic figure, a legendary almost mythical character? What would it be like to meet Muhammad Ali, face-to-face?
The children have a variety of responses; questions they would ask, things they would say if they could meet the legend. Of course, while they are answering the hypothetical question, Muhammad Ali himself, in person, walks into the room, behind the child. While they are still talking, Ali taps them on the shoulder. They turn their heads and find themselves looking up into the face of the legendary, mythical figure. At that point they stop talking. Their mouth falls open and they are silent, for a moment at least. What had been a hypothetical question about a mythical figure is now a face-to-face encounter with a person who has entered the room.
And that’s what the Christmas story is about. The figure of myth and speculation has entered the room. We can speculate about God – whether God exists, what God might be like – but the Christmas story says that God has walked into the room and is not a concept to be debated, but a person to be encountered.
It’s time to stop talking about God. It’s time to meet God. We find ourselves looking into the face of God in – of all places – a manger, an animal’s feed trough. The last place on earth you’d go looking for God!
The trouble is, the God of our imagination doesn’t look like this: that most helpless of creatures, a new-born human baby. A weak, vulnerable child that needs a mother’s milk to survive; a baby that needs to be changed and cleaned by human parents. And don’t give me any of that ‘Away in a Manger’ nonsense about the little Lord Jesus – “no crying he makes”! Of course he cried, when he was hungry, cold, uncomfortable or dirty. Like any one of us.
The adult Jesus wept at the grave of his friend Lazarus and over the city of Jerusalem because it didn’t know the way to find peace. It seems highly unlikely that he didn’t cry as baby!
‘Once In Royal David’s City’ gets closer to the truth:
He came down to earth from heaven,
Who is God and Lord of all,
And His shelter was a stable,
And His cradle was a stall;
He was little, weak and helpless.
Tears and smiles like us he knew.
And he feeleth for our sadness
And he shareth in our gladness.
The bible says, that’s what God is like: little, weak and helpless. The child in the manger, because there was “no room at the inn”, discovers there’s no room in the world. The earthly life that begins in a wooden manger, will end on a wooden cross. Mary’s child will be nailed to a beam and publicly exposed to humiliation. A baby in a manger or a man nailed to a cross is hardly in a position of power! But then, this man shows what real power looks like when he wraps himself in a towel and washes the feet of his disciples. Jesus shows us a God who chooses the role of a servant, not the boss.
Not the God you want? Other gods are available! The gods of power, wealth, fame, comfort, religion… But I’m sticking with this one! The one who, as ‘Emmanuel’ – God with us – offers to share our lives with us.
Of course, one day we will have to give an account to God of what we did with the life he gave us. That’s a terrifying prospect! But the bible says we can face it with confidence because of what that child in the manger has done for us: he has broken the barrier between us and God through his death on the cross. At the Lord’s Table we are invited to take bread and wine in remembrance of him; the God who makes himself known as the babe in the manger, the foot-washing servant, the man on the cross and in the everyday ordinariness of bread and wine.