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December 28, 2016

Recovering from Soul Sag

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No matter how open-handed we were, no matter how still we became, no matter how we tempered our expectations into expectancy, a majority of us have been feeling (or will feel) a let down after December 25. Our longings have been whetted by Advent, our desires help openly before God, and whatever of those were met in Him on Christmas, there are some longings still there, some aches still present.

Before you begin (or for most of us, continue) berating yourself for how you should have experienced December 25, I encourage you to remember we all—you, me, our children and grandchildren—are soaked in an atmosphere contrary to the Kingdom. On December 26 the radio station our family has listened to since early December switched abruptly from constant Christmas tunes back to “regularly scheduled programming.” Christmas trees have already made their migration curbside in our neighborhood, and people arch a puzzled eyebrow at me when I wish them a “merry Christmastide”. No matter how well-prepared, how “holy” we feel our Christmas Day may have been, the world we live in still refuses to take the long journey to the manger, preferring instead the quick fixes of glitter and gifts, buying our way into what we hope is acceptance, what we want to be love.

The longing and letdown are part of the Christmas story, believe it or not.

Think about it.

The shepherds in the fields were told in a display of great glory so overwhelming that they were terrified. A host of angels sang the good news of Messiah over them, and they were told that they would find a baby in a manger as “a sign to you”. Although it’s wild speculation, some of those shepherds might not even be expecting this baby to be anything more than a sign—maybe Messiah was here in more glory and pomp than that, and they only had to see this sign-child to be let in on the secret. For them, Messiah meant physical and political liberation from their oppressors (exile in general, Rome in particular). Messiah meant real, immediate deliverance, unquestionable victory, all hopes fulfilled. Sounds a little like our expectations of a perfect family Christmas, in a way.

To those still hoping in the promises of the Old Testament, rescue was assumed to look a certain way. And this over-the-top explosion of angel-glory might just have reinforced that assumption.

It would be easy for them to be let down by a regular baby in a regular manger.

It’s easy enough for us, thousands of years later and much more in the know, to feel that same sort of spiritual disappointment.

We’re leaning toward the Second Coming, the fulfillment of all promises, all longings, all hopes of the kingdom to come. And, really, God? It’s a baby? In a manger? Again?

It’s why we miss it so easily, the stunning reality of the rescue in front of us. We’re waiting for the fireworks—or at least for Uncle John to not show up drunk to the family Christmas celebration, or even for your mother to remember that you really don’t like the cookies she makes every year. Into our imperfect celebrations, our broken hallelujahs, our fumbling attempts at adoration slips the infant Christ.

This is the upside down kingdom, the Messiah as a helpless child, redemption not as a single point in time but a journey. What would it take to believe that the Messiah is really here, in this small boy nursing at His mother’s breast? What would the shepherds have to let go of in order for their entire experience of the redemption of all mankind not to feel like a let down?

That’s part of what this journey to the manger—the one that lasts all of Christmastide—is and does for us. It helps us learn to see what we know we cannot see. Messiah as child. God as man. The cross as victory.

I would hazard a guess that we don’t live into the fullness of the Christmas season for lots of reasons, but chief among them would be the fact that there are not enough teachers who help us know what it is to live in the Promised Land, to truly enter into the journey of fulfillment of God’s Word to us.

Sure, we have a lot of teachers who tell us to hope in the future kingdom (a good and valuable discipline), and a lot of teachers who help us live into the holiness of the sacrifice and discipline of the With God life. We even have some leaders who insist that God’s promise for us is material prosperity in the here and now (something Scripture contradicts). We don’t have a lot of people who are willing to lead us courageously, whole-heartedly, into the Promised Land, even if it is full of giants.

Why bring up the Promised Land when there’s a child in a manger? We’re close enough to the Advent readings that you might have an inkling of why, John the Baptist’s exhortations still echoing behind us. Although it will be years before either John or Jesus arrive at that point in the story, John’s choice of the Jordan River wasn’t just that it was a convenient body of water. The Jordan was the exact river that the people of Israel had to cross over in order to enter into the Promised Land. And John stood baptizing there as a message to the people that another crossing over was about to happen—that the days of wilderness living were about to end, that One was coming who would lead not just Israel but us all into a place of milk and honey (provision and sweetness), where we can live out the words that God has spoken to us.

Which brings us all the way back to the book of Joshua, and a mixed multitude of people perplexedly entering into a space that they’d never been before—a space where manna didn’t appear every day, but provision came from a different source. Things were changing, and God wasn’t providing in the ways that they had come to expect. No more manna could possibly feel like abandonment, when in fact it was God moving into the neighborhood. A crying infant might feel like a cruel joke, when in fact it was God made flesh.

(As a small aside, it’s helpful to know that the Greek translation of Joshua is Yeshua which, yes, is the same word as Jesus. And do you know what Jesus—and Yeshua and Joshua—means? It means salvation. So the Book of Joshua could also be translated as the Book of Salvation.)

What does it take to enter into the Promised Land in fullness, when all that you’ve experienced is the wilderness? What does it take to begin to see the smallness of the Kingdom of God as rescue and beauty, when the world around us screams for bigger, newer, better, more?

If we look at Joshua 5, what happens right before the manna stops and they begin to eat off of the provision of the land that they have been given (inhabiting the Promise) is sacrifice. The people celebrate the Passover, but not only in remembrance of God’s liberation of them from Egypt. This time, the Passover represents a celebration of God’s faithful work of bringing them out of the wilderness and into the promise that had been given to Abraham.

The sacrifice the people make here is not just a lamb, but a sacrifice of the ways of the wilderness. It’s a letting go of all that has been, in order to make space for what will be.

It’s something that we all have to do, at some point, in order to begin to actually inhabit the Promised Land, to inhabit the Kingdom of God here and now. We have to let go of those things (often good things) that have sustained us in the wilderness. We have to let them go, because if we don’t, we’ll go straight back into those places of deprivation and longing, and not realize that we’re actually standing on the very ground of fulfillment that we’ve been longing for (sadly, this is Judas’s very story, and why Christ aches so much over him).

So, beloveds, here are my Christmastide questions for you:

What is the way of the wilderness that you need to lay down (and let burn, to use the imagery of Monday’s video) in order to be ready to enter the Promise?

What has your manna been, the gift from God that sustained you, that needs to be let go of in order to see the abundance of the land you’re standing on?

What does it mean to let go of the let down of Christmas and instead see and learn something altogether new?

What does the child in the manger really mean to you—can you see Him as fulfillment, even when there’s more journey ahead?

Can you begin to believe that you’ve crossed over into God’s Kingdom, even when the world still seems so broken?

Sometimes, dear ones, let down is a good thing. Sometimes it’s a release of all that was so that a new, more glorious future can unfold.

Merry Christmastide. Christ is born!

Grace & peace,
Tara

  1. Jason Leslie Rogers
    December 30, 2016 at 12:48 pm

    Every day this week, I’ve walked past the Advent calendar in the hallway near our living room. My family never got around to opening all of those little doors this year, and we still haven’t finished reading the devotional we started on December 1st. I don’t know what happened, except to say that Christmas didn’t turn out like I planned. So, I’ve had to ask God for a lot of grace since Christmas morning, not because I didn’t live up to his expectations of how I might worship him this season, but because he didn’t live up to mine, apparently. I’m grateful for your words, Tara. I needed them

    I often think about John the Baptist, about the sacrifices he made to become the “voice crying in the wilderness.” His father, Zechariah, was a priest, which meant that John should have inherited the priesthood, too. But he walked away from that. He left the temple, the place of sacrifice, and ventured to a place where, as you pointed out, a much older sacrifice was made, upon the threshold of a new nation and a new abundance from God. What, indeed, will we need to walk away from to speak the message of baptism and repentance? Where we will end up, what place in our own lives that will serve as a go-between, a place of in-breaking for the upside-down kingdom of our unlikely king?

    Merry Christmastide to you!

    Jason

    • Tara M. Owens
      December 30, 2016 at 4:00 pm

      Your words blessed me, Jason. What will we need to walk away from? That’s a good reminder as we step toward 2017.