28 When the angel entered her home, he greeted her and said, “You are favored by the Lord! The Lord is with you.” 29 She was startled by what the angel said and tried to figure out what this greeting meant. Luke 1
In 1946 only around 6.6% of babies were born out of wedlock, now 6 decades later it is more than 50% of children are born out of wedlock. Mary’s predicament has just begun, in a closely-knit Jewish community in the first century, the news an angel brought could not have been entirely welcome. The law regarded a betrothed woman who became pregnant as an adulteress, subject to death by stoning. In my opinion when Jesus made every male drop their stones from their hands when they were about to stone a woman caught in adultery he was actually building a fence around women who were victims of a male dominated society as he was helpless and could not build a fence around his own mother when he was conceived. Think of it, if this happened to our family and you received a vision of an angel how would you respond? We live in a society where we protect our names. Children are often told don’t forget which family you belong to. This happens when our children enter into wedlock. Don’t bring shame on our family name.
Matthew tells of Joseph magnanimously agreeing to divorce Mary in private rather than press charges, until an angel shows up to correct his perception of betrayal. Matt 1: 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. Matt 1:19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. Luke tells of a tremulous Mary hurrying off to the one person who could possibly understand what she was going through: her relative Elizabeth, who miraculously got pregnant in old age after another angelic annunciation. Elizabeth believes Mary and shares her joy, and yet the scene poignantly highlights the contrast between the two women: the whole countryside is talking about Elizabeth’s healed womb even as Mary must hide the shame of her own miracle.
In a few months, the birth of John the Baptist took place amid great fanfare, complete with midwives, doting relatives, and the traditional village chorus celebrating the birth of a Jewish male. Six months later, Jesus was born far from home, with no midwife, extended family, or village chorus present. A male head of household would have sufficed for the Roman census; did Joseph drag his pregnant wife along to Bethlehem in order to spare her the ignominy of childbirth in her home village? The first Christmas, when Christ came, was not a warm and loving experience.
Christmas has become a dangerous celebration to be suppressed as much as possible. Jesus was as far as I know was among the first of refugees to be born in another country. Some of our world leaders had better pay attention to the Christmas message when the doors are being shut to refugees and some of us want to build walls to keep them away. 87% of the world cup football winning team for France are made up of immigrants. So the starting point for Christmas message is by Jesus to immigrants and refugees around the world saying I know, I understand your displacement because I was born one. My parents were pushed from out of one country and fled to another. I know what it is to be homeless, I know what it is to be hunted (1)
How many times did Mary review the angels words as she felt the Son of God kicking against the walls of her uterus? How many times did Joseph second-guess his own encounter with an angel just a dream?—as he endured the hot shame of living among villagers who could plainly see the changing shape of his fiancé? It seems that God arranged the most humiliating circumstances possible for his entrance, as if to avoid any charge of favoritism. And so Jesus the Christ entered the world amid strife and terror, and spent his infancy hidden in Egypt as a refugee.
Matthew notes that local politics even determined where Jesus would grow up. When Herod the Great died, an angel reported to Joseph it was safe for him to return to Israel, but not to the region where Herod’s son Archelaus had taken command. Joseph moved his family instead to Nazareth in the north, where they lived under the domain of another of Herod’s sons, Antipas, the one Jesus would call “that fox,” and also the one who would have John the Baptist beheaded. Herod killed both his sons because they were threats to his throne or plotting to take his throne. What the lust for power can do to you. It is said that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely I have a bit of a different theory. Power erupts and absolute power erupts absolutely. What do I learn from a birth like this?
Because in reality the first Christmas, was not a warm and loving experience: the Gospel narrates the hard journey to Bethlehem, the lack of welcome, the birth among the animals of the stable. Not to mention the persecution of Herod, the massacre of the innocents, the flight into Egypt, which made Jesus the first “Christian” migrant to escape the threat of massacre. “He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him” (John 1,11).
Being rejected and trampled upon is part of the mystery of Christmas. It is Christmas for the refugees of Mosul, hunted down then driven from their homes, living in makeshift housing for three years now, still hoping to return to their city liberated from ISIS. If the ISIS doesn’t scare you I don’t know what will. An 82-year-old man in Syria was beheaded not long back. His body hung from a lamppost for all to see. Imagine, 82 years old. Khaled al-Asaadat, apparently he refused to reveal where valuable artefacts were being safeguarded and moved so the ISIS beheaded him. What maniacs do that and put a sword to a man who gave his life to the country by loving and preserving the traditions of the past. What do we say? Body held in display like that this is our world today. Homelessness comes along with rejection and (2) humiliation. What was the humiliation? First his fiancé carrying a child out of wedlock and second there was no room at the inn for her delivery.
Two years ago my wife told me of a story that brought her to tears. Apparently, a patient whom she had treated some time ago had revisited her to check if she was fine, because the week prior to that she had delivered a stillborn baby. So my wife had her checked and said she was fine and could go home and wait to conceive again. She and her husband left the room but after a while when my wife went out of the room and in again checking other patients they kept following her where she went. She noticed that and stopped to ask if there was a problem, the husband called her aside and said they saved Rs 50 for her and they wanted her to have it as a gift of gratitude so she could buy some sweets for herself. The reason being 7 other hospitals and turned them away until they came to this specific hospital where they happened to meet my wife and be accepted without hesitation. She tells me that she went back to her room and cried, of course she couldn’t accept the gift, it was all they had but to imagine the humiliation they would have borne to be turned away time and again for the lack of enough resources at hand.
I know in some hospitals you now have a corporate gold card membership, so if a patient lands up in the hospital even at 3 am with just a cold and sneeze, s/he must have the head of dept doctor in 5 minutes to attend to them. Wow, the corporatization of health where money is inversely proportional to humiliation.
3. Helplessness/vulnerability. One of the problems of growing up is that we learn to hide, when we are older we are no longer comfortable letting the truth be known, when we are little kids it doesn’t matter, if we are afraid we say we are scared. We take the hand of someone older cos we are scared, if we are not feeling well we say we are sick, we have no sophistication, if we are unable to keep up we say we are not as good as that, I cant run as fast I don’t know how to study that well. But as we get older we become reluctant and we turn from that kind of authenticity to a cover up and we get better at the cover up the more educated we become.
We feel the need unfortunately to become a little more sophisticated, tempted to be increasingly whom we are not; we are not who we are, we are not even who we think we are we are, we are who we think other people think we are. We need to think about this. We find that more and more folks want to protect us from letting the truth out. When you develop the value of vulnerability you will realize that everything is gained and nothing is lost by simply admitting the truth.
Some people hear this and decide to be vulnerable; they go into indiscriminate and inappropriate confessions. Now that’s stupidity, not vulnerability. One lady who confessed that ever since she got married she had a problem with her mother in law, and her mother in law was sitting a few rows behind, now that’s insulting and not vulnerability. It’s not about being rude; authentic does not mean we yield all restraint. Restraint is a mark of maturity and we learn what not to say when it’s inappropriate. Vulnerability is the acknowledgment that you are 100% human. And you will make mistakes and when you do you are to acknowledge it without hesitation. Just say it, I was wrong, learn to say it. I spoke to quickly. We get closer to our children when are completely honest with them. Joseph revealed his vulnerability but he also exercised restraint.
Karen grew up in a family who taught her not to “air our dirty laundry.” So she didn’t tell anyone when she got pregnant in college—not even the guy she’d been with that night. When she finally told her parents, they helped her get an abortion quickly, and never mentioned it again. Her family motto was “Don’t tell,” so Karen didn’t tell the man she fell in love with and married. But one day she realized she couldn’t keep her secret any longer, so she told him as he held her and assured her that he loved her. That moment became faith-shaping as Karen began to understand that his love was an extension of Jesus’ love, freely given in spite of knowing the truth about her. Slowly she began to believe that Jesus loved her, and finally, she felt worthy and lovable because she had the courage to tell her secret. It is important to tell, at least from time to time, the secret of who we truly and fully are—even if we tell it only to ourselves—because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are.
Allowing our vulnerability to encourage others
This I know for sure: Our vulnerability is contagious. Going first and talking about our true selves encourages others to go second. Karen told her story about her abortion describing how she told her husband about the abortion after years of feeling as though she was in bondage to her secret, and how his loving forgiveness set her free. Several women came up to her afterward and said, “You just told my story. I’ve never told anyone. Because you did, maybe I can.” After Karen emotionally admitted her fears, some of the women acknowledged their own fears about their life circumstances. Our vulnerability—admitting who we are with all our imperfections—makes us more compassionate and empathetic with others who are also messy and broken. I want to be a person who allows others to be vulnerable with me. To be a safe person. To listen well. To empathize. Surely God wants us to share our lives and challenges with honesty and vulnerability because others find themselves in our stories—and they also find him.
We are useful in his hands when we share who we are with one another. Our vulnerability is a gift because it helps us recognize our need for community and deepens our connections in emotionally healthy relationships. Who needs that? We all do.
The Christmas story is possible only because of the miracle that Mary was willing to vulnerably trust God, risking the judgment of family and others. And the miracle that Joseph was willing to vulnerably care for Mary, despite what others might say.
At the heart of the Christmas story is an infant who is poor, homeless, humiliated, helpless and born into less than desirable conditions. The baby Jesus spends spent his first night sleeping in a manger, the filthy feeding trench for farm animals. What has been romanticized as a cute and cuddly tale is really a courageous act of trust and vulnerability for the holy family. For us, the first Christmas throws open a window into the nature of God who chooses to manifest not through power, control, wealth, or status, but through vulnerability.
Who would welcome this kind of vulnerability and loss of control? I find it much more comfortable to be in charge and call the shots. I value looking smart and “being on top of things.” I enjoy planning and organizing life so that everything unfolds in a smooth and orderly fashion. If I am honest, I have created a life that requires minimal vulnerability. We love being the boss and are obsessed with leadership. Christ never made anyone leaders or taught us to be one. There are only 3 times the word leader mentioned in the NT and countless times servant hood. He taught us that there is only one boss, God the father. He taught us to be servants yet we attend leadership camps in plenty. Perhaps Christmas invites us not to prettify our lives, but to risk showing parts of ourselves that we fear others might not judge as beautiful. So this Christmas I am asking myself:
Can I remove the armor I use to defend myself from the judgment of others and allow myself to be really seen for who I am? Can I let go of my habitual pattern to run away from discomfort and learn to appreciate the hidden wisdom in unpleasant circumstances? Can I loosen my grip on life and allow moments to unfold more slowly without forcing my agenda? These are some of the universal questions that lead me to the vulnerability at the heart of Christmas.
Vulnerability/helplessness is the willingness to open ourselves to love and to be loved, to forgive and to be forgiven, and to care and to be cared for. It takes courage to live this way. We will be hurt and we will hurt others.
And at the center of this understanding of God is Jesus, and the start of our realizing the vulnerability of God comes at Christmas – for is there any creature less powerful and more vulnerable than a human baby? Newborn horses stand within minutes, puppies chase one another within days, but a human baby doesn’t even have the capability of turning herself over for months.
Hope and vulnerability are odd partners yet they join in the core message of Christmas. God so loved the world that he gave himself to the world in the form of a child, a newborn baby. Why ever would an omni-competent God give up so much to be presented as a newborn vulnerable child? God by doing so gives the world hope above all hope. I want to leave you with two words. Hope and forgiveness.
The apostle Peter also struggled with the issue of forgiveness. In Matthew chapter eighteen Jesus has been dealing with the subject of dealing with a brother who has sinned. As Peter listens to the LORD teach he fastens on one aspect, “What does this mean about how much I must forgive someone who has wronged me?” Peter directs his question to the Lord asking in verse twenty-one, “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? Up to seven times?”
Peter makes two mistakes that are apparent to us. First, he assumes that his brother will sin against him and not he against his brother. Secondly, Peter wanted to set some kind of limit on forgiveness. In all fairness to Peter he was generous in his limit. He asked if forgiving seven times would be sufficient. The Rabbi’s of the time taught that one must forgive three times, this is drawn from a misunderstanding of the book of Amos, which says that God would revoke punishment against them for three transgressions but not for four. Thus they taught that God himself never forgave more than three times. To Peter’s credit he is more than doubling what the Rabbi’s taught.
As you prepare to celebrate Christmas this year I encourage you to consider where do hope and vulnerability fit in to your lives. Sadly, I fear too many people seem to imagine they cannot show that they are vulnerable to others. So there are false displays of strength and aggression and before you know it arguments break out and sadly many relationships appear to be about a show of strength rather than sharing our vulnerabilities.
Often I hear from members that they can’t come to church when they are grieving because they might cry, or they can’t come when they are in the midst of family troubles, because they feel uncomfortable in church when things are going badly, and they don’t want anyone to know. What kind of community could we be if we were able to be fully present to one another, broken places and all? My hope for us – individually and as a community – this year is that we might more fully embrace the vulnerability of God, and more fully accept one another as frail human beings, who make mistakes, who can forgive and accept forgiveness, and who are each trying to grow into our full humanity.
Forgiving someone who has deeply hurt us is a daunting task, and its difficulty is proportionate to the degree of injury we have experienced. The deeper the wound, the harder forgiveness comes. It takes big people to forgive, small people do not forgive, they hold grudges they do not let go. What happened twenty years back they still remember. That’s the sign of a small-hearted and small-minded person. If we do not forgive, we will not be forgiven: For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses (Mt. 6:14).
One of my favorite stories concerns a man who was bitten by a dog, which was later discovered to be rabid. The man was rushed to the hospital where tests revealed that he had, in fact, contracted rabies. At the time, medical science had no solution for this problem, and his doctor faced the difficult task of informing him that his condition was incurable and terminal. ‘Sir, we will do all we can to make you comfortable. But I cannot give you false hope. There is nothing we can really do. My best advice is that you put your affairs in order as soon as possible.’ The dying man sank back on his bed in shock, but finally rallied enough strength to ask for a pen and some paper. He then set to work with great energy. An hour later, when the doctor returned, the man was stilling writing vigorously. ’I’m glad to see that you’re working on your will.’ ‘This ain’t no will, Doc. This is a list of the people I’m going to bite before I die. Many of us live and die with that kind of list, written in our minds, if not on paper.”
Life can become better, we are loved and there is real hope in the world. I wish you a very happy Christmas. As you celebrate this year I encourage you to recognize your own vulnerability as you look at that baby in the manager. I encourage you to see that baby as a real sign of strength rather than weakness and within that same baby, newborn, we see hope beyond hope. Christmas tells us we can do things differently and we can share with each other our vulnerabilities which make us the hopeful human beings loved by God that we are
May I encourage you to give up various forms of pretence and dare to be vulnerable, dare to love, dare to accept that you can be humiliated, dare to acknowledge that you can hurt and be hurt because you have a heart of flesh, regardless of your social standing or your status in the hierarchy of power. It is only in humble recognition that we can be exposed and susceptible to the pressures of life that we can truly understand the meaning of Christmas.
What do I learn from a birth like this? Jesus was homeless, humiliated, helpless & hunted. That was the background of the first-ever Christmas friends. He knew rejection; he was born in vulnerability in very unhygienic dirty conditions in a stable. Pushed from one country to another. He knew fear, he knew humiliation he knew shame. He understands us when we stand in similar situations years later today.
Tozer said it’s doubtful God can use anyone till s/he is hurting deeply. Oswald Chambers: “If you are going to be used by God, he will take you through a multitude of experiences that are not meant for you at all. They are meant to make you useful in his hands.” Have a blessed Christmas friends.