by Christopher C. Thompson | 23 December 2022 |
Did you ever participate in a Christmas pageant or recite an Easter speech? If you have, then you’ll appreciate the story I have to tell you.
When I was growing up in the First African Baptist Church in Beaufort, South Carolina, we commonly had Christmas pageants, Easter speeches, and that sort of thing. One year, I remember, they organized a quite impressive Christmas pageant—probably the largest one ever. There was an extensive cast of characters: Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, shepherds, and wise men—the whole nine yards.
I was a little guy at the time, probably no more than kindergarten or first grade, so I wasn’t fortunate enough to have a major role. But I did have a small speaking part: I was assigned to help narrate the scene when the shepherds received word from the angels that Jesus had been born. My lines were simple, taken directly from Luke 2:12: “And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”
Simple enough, right?
Effective communication is practically my entire life now. I speak to crowds in public spaces almost every single day: from the classroom to the pulpit to community meetings to radio to books and articles, I use my voice, my educational training, and my writing skills to communicate with people all over the world. This is what I do. Well, it’s safe to say that I’ve had to grow into my gift because on that particular day those communication skills didn’t actually work like I’d like them to.
First African Baptist Church was one of the oldest and most prominent churches in our town. It’s a large church, built around the 1890s, and it seats at least 500 people. On this particular night, the church was packed from wall to wall. There were people everywhere. The stage was beautifully decorated, and they even brought in some stage lighting and a spotlight.
And there I was, front and center, standing just below the stage right in front of the live audience. The sanctuary lights were turned off, so the only faces I could see were the folks sitting right up front, the rest just dark outlines bathed in a blue tint from some of the spotlights.
I thought, “This should be easy enough.” I knew those two little lines like they were my first and last name. I had rehearsed them 1,000 times or more. I figured I’d say my piece and exit stage right. The spotlight focused on me, and it was time for me to recite my scripture.
But when I opened my mouth, the weirdest thing happened. I began, “And this shall be a sign unto you…” That first part was a cinch. No sweat. However, it was that second part that threw everyone for a loop. “Ye shall find the babe wrapped in…SWOCK…”
It is to date the most bizarre public speaking experience I’ve had in my entire life. I had a wild experience with a French-speaking audience and a translator once. This tops that by far. I have no idea what happened. My voice simply cracked, choked, croaked, and checked out. To this day, I still don’t know what happened.
Surprisingly, I wasn’t as embarrassed as I was shocked and confused. Fortunately, everyone just laughed and it turned out to be quite amusing.
The lesson stands
Even though I blew it that night, I haven’t forgotten the profound clarity of the text “And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.”
The words hold so much irony, complexity, and power. There’s a gospel song that says, “This is such a strange way to save the world.” Really: if you wanted to save the world, what would be your strategy? What would be your first move? Some might want to form an army, or some sort of militia at least. I think I’d be inclined to enlist the commitment of the world’s greatest superhero. There are the scientists who might try to quickly develop a cure for all sickness and disease. A genius economist might try to solve world hunger or poverty.
But no one—absolutely no one—would decide that to solve the world’s problems we will need a brand new bouncing baby boy.
Babies are small, unintelligent, helpless, defenseless, and needy…and in the moment that the angels announce his arrival he is even more vulnerable because he’s swaddled in a blanket. Neither his arms nor his legs are free to utilize any of the superpowers he’s certainly going to need for such a dangerous, injurious, and, ultimately, fatal mission. How will a baby help?
But this is actually the secret strategy. A baby is a secret weapon.
The vulnerability of this little baby reflects the vulnerability of all who have ever been exposed, or endangered, hurt, harmed, or powerless against the forces that are at work around you (or even within you). The power of God that it will take to cover this baby throughout his entire life is the same exact power enlisted to cover our lives just the same.
So actually, there is no better plan than a baby. That baby will be sensitive to every human need and every human frailty. Only this kind of identification—this kind of interpolation in the incarnation—will be sufficient to meet the needs of the people.
Covering our failures and doubts
I’m really glad that no one stood up and shouted that I was a failure when my voice checked out that day. I wasn’t carted off to jail. I didn’t lose my family and all of my possessions with that misstep. It was just awkward and embarrassing. The miracle of the incarnation is that the birth of Jesus is designed to cover our embarrassing moments, our lowest moments, and everything in between.
Nevertheless, there is an additional truth here that is very meaningful. While the announcement to the shepherds is iconic, I think the initial message to Joseph is nearly just as powerful. “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins” (Matt. 1:20b-21 NIV).
This idea of the virgin birth was a little too much for Joseph to accept. Joseph was (reasonably) under the impression that Mary had been involved in some scandalous ordeal. He was an honorable man, so he wanted to save her from public humiliation. He decided that he would divorce her quietly and free himself of the public shame of this illegitimate child and the shame of a scandalous wife.
Nevertheless, the angel comes to reassure him and to alert him to the real purpose of this curious and suspicious situation. The angel first acknowledges that Joseph is indeed a man of honor, as he calls him a son of David, a man in whom there resides royal blood. Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. The child she carries is for certain of divine origin. She will give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus…Now all of this must have been quite astounding. Nevertheless, it’s that last part that gets me every time I read it or recite it. He must be called Jesus…because he will save his people from their sins.
I have to speak to this because I too have a son, and this is the most difficult and terrifying job I’ve ever had. Just yesterday one of my students asked me if I thought that my son would be a writer like me. I told them, “I don’t know. He is a good writer, though.” I can remember that there have been several times over the years that people have asked me if he will be a pastor like me. I’m not sure that I want him to be a pastor. Nevertheless, Christopher has had several iterations of things he’s wanted to do or be so far.
My job is to facilitate his interests and dreams. I have to steward my resources and utilize them strategically so that he can maximize his gifts, skills, and abilities. I don’t know what he will be, but I know that he has a very high ceiling and bright future ahead of him. There’s tremendous pressure in stewarding your child’s future. Hats off to the single parents like my mom who didn’t have a helping hand at home to make sure their children traveled the right road. It’s very hard–especially in this day and age. Nevertheless, imagine how difficult it is to shoulder the responsibility that your child is destined to be the Savior of the world.
Imagine if Barack Obama’s parents had been told before he was born that he was destined to become the first black President of the United States of America. Imagine if Michael Jordan’s parents got a visit from an angel while Mrs. Jordan was holding baby Michael in the hospital. Think of the pressure they’d have to contend with if they knew that their son would later become the most famous athlete on the planet. What about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.? What if his parents knew that he would change the course of American history in an effort to break the power of Jim Crow, and that he would give his own life in the process? Talk about the burden of pressure and grief!
Joseph and Mary had to manage a parental responsibility that no one had ever had before, and no one has had since. Joseph must have needed two weeks’ vacation from work just to fully process the magnitude of what the angel said to him. How do you prepare your son to take away all the sins of the world? It must have been an overwhelming sense of responsibility for Joseph.
A strange way to save the world
Earlier, I mentioned that gospel song that looks at the advent of Christ from Joseph’s perspective.
Why me? I’m just a simple man of trade
Why Him with all the rulers in the world
Why here inside this stable filled with hay
Why her, she’s just an ordinary girl
Now I’m not one to second guess
What angels have to say
But this is such a strange way to save the World
The fact is, Joseph is not handling daddy duties on his own. Jesus would also draw insight and strength from his Heavenly Father, who would lead him daily even to the cross. It would be that same Heavenly Father that would empower Jesus to defeat death by raising himself to life. And with the resurrection, Jesus thus demonstrates all of the power necessary to take away our sins and to cover us when we are exposed and vulnerable. Jesus bore the ultimate shame and vulnerability on Calvary. And with such an intimate knowledge of shame, he knows how to cover us and protect us. Jesus offers us the robe of his righteousness to cover our shame, and underneath the robe, the Spirit of God is working to transform our hearts. And our entire inner lives.
The reason heaven chose such a strange way to save the world was because power and might was not what was needed most. There was no effort to try to conquer the world. It already belonged to God. The primary need was to win back the hearts and minds of men and women. And some people don’t necessarily want children, but everyone loves babies. And just as babies soften our hearts, the Spirit of God wants to take out the heart of stone and give us a heart of flesh. God wants to give us a new heart that beats at the impulse of divine love.
This Christmas, as family members gather together, and as we all enjoy some downtime and reflective space, reflect on the most embarrassing moments you’ve ever faced. What were some decisions or choices that you wish you could take back or do over? How did you fail? How bad did it hurt? How long did it hurt? We are mindful that Jesus’ birth ensures that we don’t have to bear those embarrassments alone. However, this truth begs another set of questions. How might we cover those who are exposed and vulnerable? How might we do for others what Christ has done for us? And if we don’t, are we really children of the King?
Christopher C. Thompson writes about culture and communication at thinkinwrite.com. He’s the author of Choose to Dream. When not writing, he’s jogging or binge-watching Designated Survivor. He’s married to Tracy, who teaches at Oakwood University.