This is the tenth reflection in the Missio Advent series. Read the rest here.
I take joy in the art of surprise, especially during the holidays. Last week, in between laughter and an appetizer, I slipped an invitation to my wife to join me in Paris next spring. Belinda was happily surprised.
The first Advent prepared a weary world for an outrageous surprise. The story begins with Herod, the king of Judea who rose to power through a massacre. During his reign, he murdered his wife and his wife’s mother, and slaughtered children in Bethlehem.
Caesar Augustus, Herod’s boss and emperor of Rome, was a tyrant too. Augustus was the adopted son of Julius Caesar, the first emperor “god of the Roman State,” making Augustus, the “son of god.” Along well-traveled roads, lawbreakers and dissidents were regularly crucified. Innocent people were constantly oppressed and young girls were enslaved for taxes unpaid, events all too common during a period called the Pax Romana, or “Roman Peace.”
Amidst this shocking context, what do we hear?
Mary sings, “He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” Zechariah sings: “He has come to his people and redeemed them..from our enemies and from the land of all who hate us….” And a chorus of angels sing “…peace on earth….”
Three songs, each revolutionary, each a cry of suffering and song of deliverance. Mary? She could have been enslaved for her seditious lyrics. Zachariah? Executed for his. The chorus of angels declaring “peace” during the high tide of Pax Romana? Treason. Gabriel, proclaiming the birth of the “Son of God” in the land of Augustus, the son of god? A coup d’état, punishable by death.
Into the first century world, saturated with pain and injustice, a light dawns. An unlikely pair: a peasant mother and trembling father. An improbable hero: a defenseless child from the periphery. And, an impossible plan: a life of sacrificial love to overcome a world of violent suffering. Altogether, a shock to a ragged world, an outrageous wonder, an ostentatious surprise…
Unto us a child is born.
Recent events on the national and international stage have surprised me this Advent season. I grieve the racial tensions in our country. I pray for the families who lost children in Pakistan and Yemen. I stand with my brothers and sisters facing famine in South Sudan.
Maybe reconciling the world’s insatiable thirst for justice with our craving for peace, even joy, isn’t so hard after all. That God would pitch his tent amidst the squalor of Bethlehem; that he would commission a heavenly chorus to announce joy; that he would summon a few sages from what is now Iran to bend their knees, says to me that God stands ready to shock the world once again.
Isaiah says, “Once more I will astound these people with wonder upon wonder…” (Isa. 29:14). There is an answer for the grieving mother who’s innocent child was slain in Pakistan, the community splintered by brutality, or the father who is prevented from planting because of war. And there’s an answer for you and me too, for our children, friends or family who are struggling with life; for our disillusionment with faith, a relationship or a career; for our dreams that seem to be delayed yet again…
Unto us a child is born.
Emmanuel, the God who is with us, usually doesn’t remove the pain in one fell swoop. He validates our suffering through consolation—he weeps with those who weep—but also protests against it, promising an end to all tears one day. He walks alongside anyone willing to reach out with simple faith, to comfort, heal, redeem, and restore, often quietly, sometimes slowly, but always faithfully, until we pause just long enough to recognize something so amazing, so counter-intuitive, so stunning, so surprising: his mercy, favor, goodwill, even joy, for a weary, waiting world.
’Tis the season for surprise.
Stephan Bauman is President and CEO of World Relief which empowers the worldwide church to overcome global poverty and injustice, and author of Possible: A Blueprint For Changing How We Change the World (Multnomah, 2105).
Photo: Vanessa Fitzgerald