Subtle in the Manger and Beyond
Many themes emerge at advent worship celebrations across the globe- the lowly baby, the displaced parents, Old Testament prophecies unfurled, Elizabeth and Zechariah, the necessity of faith of both Joseph and Mary, Gabriel’s shocking announcement, the unsuspecting parents, the tirades and ego of Herod, the wise men’s representative inclusion of the world, Anna’s testimony, Simeon’s prophecy, shepherds’ curiosity and honor, and even the inn-keeper gets quite a bit of play. One of the most telling themes in this incarnation story is the subtle nature that God chose in coming to be with us.
You have likely heard it over and over again. God could have come as royalty with great wealth or in a little better and more conspicuous place in the world. But, he came as a lowly child, humble as could be in the most humble setting imaginable in a relatively obscure place among an obscure people. He came in such a subtle way that, aside from angelic announcements, a star and some unusual pronouncements from foreigners and eccentrics, one would never know this was God. It is though God came incognito.
However, that sums up the concluding days of Jesus as well. He gathered a large band of followers throughout life. But, by the wind down in Jerusalem, most of them scattered like cockroaches from the light. Many in Jerusalem were looking for the miraculous and spectacular if even from the cross. He had ample opportunity in those last few days to let his deity ring out undeniably and resoundingly. But, aside from a seemingly coincidental tearing of the temple curtain without explanation and the sky becoming peculiarly dark at midday, he simply died. He died as poor as a beggar and as quiet as a synagogue mouse; hanging between common criminals. Again, his wrap-up was disappointingly unspectacular to many who witnessed it. Both disciples and skeptics were left convinced (with the exception of the soldier attending to the cross the entire time) that this was a puzzling and disappointing conclusion. Cleopas and his traveling companion both seemed to say that their hopes were dashed by all of this. It was all so subtle.
Even when Jesus rose from the dead, he appeared to a sufficient number of people to corroborate the story. But, it was not a political or social spectacle by any means. You have to remember that even in life, Jesus was fond of telling people, “Don’t say anything to anyone” or his disciples, “Let’s slip out of town before anyone knows we’re gone so we can get to the next place, unannounced.” That is the way his resurrection seemed as well.
Here is the issue. He just did not draw much attention to himself in birth, life, death or resurrection. Don’t get me wrong. Everything he did made a huge splash in human history. He earned us life abundant and everlasting. However, it was more subtle than it had to be or than we would perhaps like it to be. But that is precisely the way God does it- not just then, but now. It is not just about the birth. It is about God’s way of coming, speaking, drawing and doing.
Christ has not changed from that day until this. Neither has his Spirit. He is, after all, the Spirit of Jesus Christ (Philippians 1:19; Romans 8:9). And, as his Spirit, he would naturally behave in the manner of Christ himself. Aside from a grand and powerful entrance (Acts 2) and some powerful displays, the Spirit comes and does his work in generally subtle ways- on the heart and in the mind, bringing invisible peace, love and joy. Again, this is not spectacular to the naked eye. But, it is transforming to the life.
So, why are people so surprised at the simple and subtle ways in which God does his work even now? Why is there an underlying expectation that God is only about the spectacular? Why do people fear that God must not exist if he is not clanging around like a celebrity on display? Why must so many of the “viable, notable and celebrated” testimonies that attract our attention include sensational God appearances? Is it not possible that we might be trying to make God out to be someone he is not? I find myself annoyed at the carnival way in which Christ’s presence is often demonstrated. It is out of character for the Christ I know and the Spirit with whom I have become well acquainted.
Please don’t misunderstand me. Christ’s second advent will indeed be spectacular and notable enough. But, until then, “subtle sprinkled with occasionally powerful and clear demonstrations” seems to be the preferred method of God’s appearing and work. God has never seemed to be too interested in drawing people by sight and spectacle rather than by faith. I believe when Jesus said, “a wicked and perverse generation seeks for signs”, he was not only talking about the generation in which he lived. It was clearly a broader statement about every conceivable generation. And, we find ourselves in one such generation where many clamor for the spectacular sign as a demand for belief or a reason to whoop it up. We will spend a pretty penny to attend an event where a spectacular testimony or certain miracles will be displayed.
However, the manger appearance was not an anomaly. It was not a bizarre opening act that would crescendo throughout his life. It was the basic trajectory of God’s presence among and in his people. Remember as you think of the subtle entrance of Jesus, that he is most likely coming in our world in similar ways. It is critical that we have open hearts, eyes, minds and ears. The most impressive work is a subtle one- no money, no whistles, no stage lights. It is inner transformation, kindness that gets little attention, quiet tears of uncontainable joy, and peace that transcends understanding. That is how he shows up most of the time. Giving the options, I will take the subtle presence of God over the loud one every day of the week and twice on Sunday.