Seasonal Reflections III
Article byDecember 2010
[Editor's note] This is the third in a series of Christmas-related postings by Carl Trueman. Several will come in this series during the month of December. The second can be read here.
One of the most beautiful vignettes in the gospel accounts of the Christmas story comes in Luke 1, where Mary goes to visit her cousin Elizabeth. Both women are pregnant in rather surprising circumstances: Mary is still a virgin; and Elizabeth has been barren for many years. Now each expects a child of promise.
What makes the story so beautiful is what happens as Mary enters Elizabeth's house. Following the protocols of the time, she, as the younger and thus junior party, has made the laborious and probably somewhat dangerous journey to see her cousin. Then, as she comes into Elizabeth's presence, two amazing things happen. First, the embryonic John the Baptist leaps within his mother's womb, beginning the ministry that will dominate his life: pointing to the presence of the Christ. Even before birth, this remarkable man is already witnessing to the coming of the kingdom in Jesus of Nazareth.
But the second thing is perhaps even more remarkable than that. It is Elizabeth's reaction: as soon as she hears the sound of Mary's feet, she is filled with the Holy Spirit and declares `Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why is this granted to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me?'
In Part I of this series, I wrote about the unexpected nature of the incarnation: that here, in the baby in the manger, the mighty God of Israel was manifest in the flesh. To borrow and intensify a phrase from Luther: this baby, this little baby, made heaven and earth. Yet the revelation of God in his incarnate hiddennness finds its corollary in the impact which such a God has: when God is present, hierarchies are inverted. This is why, against all social conventions and expectation, Elizabeth makes that incomprehensible statement, questioning why Mary has come to see her, when, quite frankly, it should have been the other way around.
This, of course, means that the incarnation is an affront to us not simply because it reveals God as who he is on his terms, not those we ourselves would set. It is also an affront because the very presence of Christ in human form dethrones all of our petty human pretentions and turns our world upside down.
The church in Corinth is a great case in point: a port city, rife with sexual sleaze and depravity, yet home to a small church which Paul dares to call the body of Christ and the temple of the Holy Spirit. When we read the letters to the Corinthian church, we are often struck by the contrast between the fabulous gifts that seem to have been exercised in the congregation and the terrible sexual sins in which certain congregants were involved, and which seemed to have been tolerated by the church at large.
Are we surprised by this? If so, what did we expect? Paul makes it clear in at the start of his first letter that the congregation in Corinth is primarily made up of the scum of the earth; and it does not take much imagination to make an informed guess concerning the kinds of trade which many of the congregants presumably plied before they were converted. Is it any surprise, therefore, that sexual deviancy continues to corrupt the congregation? The amazing thing about the Corinthian church is not the contrast between amazing gifts and sexual depravity; rather, it is the fact that there was any church there at all; and Paul makes it clear that this is for God's greater glory, a demonstration that the church was not built by some kind of co-operative effort between God and the greatest, most powerful and influential members of society. No: the church in Corinth is purely an act of God's grace because the scum used to build it had nothing in and of themselves to bring to the table.
The church in Corinth is, of course, merely an echo of God's actions through history. The choice of Abraham, the choice of Isaac, the choice of Moses, the choice of David: in no case did God opt for the strongest or most powerful person in order to accomplish his purposes. He chooses the weak, the marginal, the exiled, the least in the social hierarchy, and thus the glory of their work is not theirs at all - it is his. Then, in the incarnation, we see the supreme example of the Lord using the most unpromising material to achieve his goal. A slip of a girl, a virgin, bears a child; he is born in a stable; he grows up in a minor town in a land of little importance, and that under foreign occupation; as an adult, he lives a life which, outwardly, has all the appearance of an itinerant of no fixed address; he eschews military force; and finally, betrayed by a close friend, he is beaten and crucified; and, even then, he depends upon the generosity of another for his tomb. Every step of the way, salvation is wrought by God, in contradiction of the expectations and standards of this world
Not only does God not regard our human hierarchies of power, wealth, health, and beauty; in the incarnation, he contradicts them. Luther summed this up in terms of the theology of the cross, but that is too restrictive. It is the theology of the virgin conception, the theology of the manger, the theology of the whole Incarnation.
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