“Somebody’s got to do something about these Romans!” That’s the underlying sentiment that lays the groundwork for “Unto us a child is born. Unto us a son is given.” We long for a deliverer only when deliverance is out of our hands. The child to be born becomes the hope of those who have no hope. Where is David the King when you need him most? Who will be Little David for us? Son of David? David without the excesses and deficiencies? When will the Deliverer come?
Whenever the Deliverer comes, he won’t be the Deliverer we have in mind. When he comes, he won’t come talking about the Romans. He will come talking about us. “Love the Lord, your God, with all your heart, and mind, and soul and strength, and love your neighbor as yourself!” How’s that for deliverance? How’s that for the solution to the Roman Problem? “Do unto others as you would do unto you!” How’s that for deliverance? How’s that for the solution to the Roman Problem? Deliverance is never our idea of deliverance. The Promised Land is not what we have in mind.
The Deliverer has us pegged. “You don’t need a child to be born,” he says. “A child wouldn’t do you any good. You wouldn’t listen to a child! You wouldn’t listen if someone should rise from the dead! You need ears to hear, eyes to see, a heart that understands. No child can give you that! You need to wake up, be aware, be alive! No child can do that for you! Your only hope is to be born yourselves, from above!” Which is exactly Jesus’ advice to Nicodemus, and to all of us (John 3:1ff).
We are at the point of deepening/broadening/expanding/enlarging the idea of the birth of the Christ into a metaphor encompassing all people, as the story of our own spiritual becoming—our own birthing, our own awakening. We trek to the manger, to the place of nondescript beginnings to behold the child who is beholding us. Who IS us, each one of us. We cannot mistake Jesus for the only Christ. You are the one! I am the one! The birth we celebrate at Christmas is our own birthing, our own becoming, our own awakening. As we come to the manger, we recognize our responsibility for our own spiritual growth, and for that of those about us. Those at the manger are responsible for the one in the manger. The baby in the manger cannot be separated from those gathered at the manger. Christmas Eve is about our birthing, our awakening and our responsibility for waking up, for being awake. We are advocates, guardians, for the babe we are, for the babe each other is.
There are two metaphors for visualizing what we are about that I would like for you to carry with you for the rest of your life. One is the scene from the movie The Miracle Worker, where Anne Sullivan is holding Helen Keller’s hand under the water pump, with water flowing over her hand while Anne makes the sign for “water” in Helen’s palm. Something happens. Helen “sees.” Helen gets it. Helen is born from above. Everything is transformed.
Hold that image in tension with the story of the blind men and the elephant. The blind men argue, debate, condemn each other to hell, and wage war (well, not really, but the logical implication of the story takes us there) because all don’t “see” the elephant in the same way. Nothing happens. No one is born from above. Nothing is changed.
The spiritual journey is exactly the distance from the elephant to the water pump. The blind girl “sees” water. The blind men do not “see” the elephant. There you are. Your work is cut out for you. It is the work of moving from not seeing to seeing. See?
“The message of the Messiah,” says Fred Craddock, “is that there is no Messiah.” No Messiah can do for us what must be done. The problem is not with the Romans. The problem is with ourselves. The problem is how we see the problem. What is The Problem? What is The Problem from which we need to be delivered? What would deliverance do for us? What exactly do we need? What does Jesus find lacking in the people? “They have eyes and don’t see,” he says. “They have ears and don’t hear.” They do not know the time of their visitation. They do not understand the central place of compassion in their lives. They are asleep at the wheel.
What we need is waking up. What we need are eyes that see, ears that hear, and hearts that understand. What we need is a perspective that takes itself into account, so that we see that what we see is limited by how we see. So that we see that our view of the good is restricted by, and to, what we think is good. Who can show us what we don’t want to see?
One of the things we don’t want to see is that the Messiah is not who we say he is. Jesus didn’t have it all figured out. Jesus was not the all-knowing adult among the two-year-olds on the playground. Jesus was one of us. More awake than average, and more vocal, but growing in awareness, and coming to see what he did not see just like the rest of us. The gospels present us with a beautiful opportunity to witness Jesus’ growth toward realization and enlightenment, and awareness. But, we generally miss it.
We take all the words in red, in those red-letter-editions of the Bible, at face value, and treat them as though they are equally valid across time and space. Over the course of his life in the gospels, and certainly among the differing views of his life offered by the gospel writers, Jesus is reported to have said and done things which are startlingly contradictory, yet, we gloss over the conflicts and string the accounts together in one smooth, un-rippled, reading. If we highlight the oppositional nature of what we find, we can spot the shifts, the transitions, the growth points in Jesus’ spiritual development over the course of the three, or so, years of his life the gospels discuss.
For instance, how do you square the Parable of the Prodigal, or the Parable of the Good Samaritan, with the Parable of the Foolish Bridesmaids or the Parable of the Net of Fishes? At what point in Jesus’ career did he tell each of the parables, and would he tell them all, in the same way, at the end of his life? How did Jesus’ idea of God change over the course of his life? Is God like the Prodigal’s father or like the King who kills the people who killed his son, or like the harsh task-master in the Parable of the Talents who harvests where he does not plant and reaps what he does not sow? Jesus’ view of God is hardly the same across the board. Do the differences suggest a shift in Jesus’ understanding of God? How comfortable can we be with the idea that Jesus’ understanding of God changed over time?
To suggest that Jesus changed his idea of the nature of God is to shock and appall those who think Jesus came fully developed from the Virgin Mary’s womb, and was The Teacher from birth, with nothing to learn about anything. ever. How do we come to think something about Jesus we don’t already think? How do we come to think something about Jesus that stands in stark contrast to what we already think? How do we get to the point of laying aside what we have been told to think in order to be able to think something else? How can we think about what we think about Jesus without running the risk of jeopardizing our eternal salvation and damning ourselves to the lava lakes of ever-lasting hell?
How does the church change its mind? How does the church say, “Boy, we were wrong about that! We’ve always been wrong about that! We can’t believe we were so wrong for so long about that, but we can’t deny it either! We were dead wrong about that!”? Once something is believed for a generation or two, it’s believed forever. You can’t un-believe something your ancestors believed. It’s to desecrate their memory to un-believe something they believed with all their hearts, and minds, and souls, and strength. If it was good enough for them, it’s good enough for us. If they believed it, it must be true. We’ll believe it, too.
The people who have told us what to think about Jesus have done an amazing job. They have told us what to think and told us not to think about our thinking or we’ll be damned forever with no hope of redemption. That’s powerful stuff. Voodoo can’t touch it for its power to bind us with its hypnotic spell of tunnel vision—of seeing, and hearing, and thinking, and believing only what we have been told to see, and hear, and think, and believe. We have been charmed by the best in the business, and think that if we think, it’s all over for us.
How do we break the spell? How do we cast off the charm? Who is going to kiss the frog, or the sleeping beauty, and bring us back to life? Who is going to wake us up? How do we get from here to there? Particularly, if we don’t see the need for making the trip? Who will deliver us? Good questions, don’t you think? How do we wake up when we have been hypnotized into being “very sleepy”?
In all the old stories, it takes a shock to the system to do it. Maybe it comes in the form of a vision, like the burning bush, or the call to Abraham. Or, maybe it takes the visit of a handsome young stranger, or a gnarled old wizard. Or, maybe it takes just getting fed up. Somebody gets a hankering for something different, something else, something more, saddles up and rides over the hill, and comes back to say, “Hey, you should see what’s over the hill!” And, some go with her, or with him, and some stay behind. And, what’s the difference between those who go and those who stay? We could speculate for days, and never get to the bottom of it. Some go, some stay. Some think about their thinking, some never do. Are we going, or staying, is the question.
Joseph Campbell says, “Either you can take it, or you can’t.” Take what? Waking up. Take waking up. Take being awake. Take seeing life as it is. Take seen it for what it is as it comes right out of the box. How do we do that? How do we see, and hear, and understand? How do we come by eyes that see, and ears that hear, and hearts that understand? How do we see that we don’t see? Hear that we don’t hear? Know that we don’t quite get it yet? Who can tell us what we don’t want to be told?
We are not in charge of our own awakening. We look, but we do not see. We listen, but we do not hear. We say, “Lo, here! Lo, there!,” but what we seek is neither here nor there. And, we cannot deliver ourselves from “this body of death,” from the world of the walking dead. But, we can be delivered. We hear some things no matter what our frame of mind is. Some things shock us awake regardless of the deadness of our spirit. Sometimes, we look without seeing; sometimes we see without looking. Sometimes, we are like the man on the ox looking for the ox; like the woman with her glasses on a chain around her neck, looking for her glasses. Then, “Boom!”, as John Madden would say, there it is. A gift of grace. We look, and nothing. We look again, and there it is. We are not in charge of the kingdom’s coming to us, or through us into the world any more than we are in charge of the seasons, or in charge of the hen’s laying, or the tomato’s ripening. But, we can buy a hen. We can plant tomato seeds, and water them. And wait, like babes in a manger to grow up and begin to see.