When I was a child, I enjoyed joking about the Wise Men smoking monkey cigars. Little did I realize the global implications of their story. The Magi were Persian astrologers, followers of Zoroaster and religious experts in their region. Jews of the day didn’t chuckle at them as many do at horoscopes today, but looked askance on them because their God condemned practices like astrology and witchcraft.
Yet in what is more a turn in plot than a change of opinion about such things, God speaks to these Magi through their star-reading, telling them to go to Bethlehem where they will worship a newborn Jewish king. It is an odd story, a bit like the Dhali-Lama visiting a black southern baptist church because God has told him the savior of the world was just born in the local hospital. Is this just a tale of quirky Iranians bringing money, perfumes, and incense to a Jewish baby boy and his impoverished parents?
As we step back and look at the grand narrative of the Christian scriptures, we see that in response to a devolving humanity obsessed with themselves and embracing evil at every level (Tower of Babel), God initiates a relationship with an ancient Iraqi rancher named Abraham, promising him and his descendants security, prosperity and global influence — “in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed” (Gen 12:3). This family becomes the start of God’s grand plan to restore the cosmos racked by evil and death. The Bible doesn’t answer every question out there about evil, but rather it narrates how God is on the move to get rid of it.
Christmas fascinates many people for its hybrid of sublimity, humility, holiness, and tenderness — especially it is amazing picture of the Creator of the Universe as a little baby. It comforts us to know that God can be near us, knowing our sorrows, fears, and temptations, not in an abstract Obi-Wan Kenobi way “Force is with you,” but in a hyper-personal way as the God of the universe takes on a human body, a human walking around who is also the presence of God, someone in whom the dimension of heaven and this cosmos intersect without merging or losing its distinctivenesses.
While the God of Christmas cannot be put in a box, he always points us to Jesus as the fullest revelation of who he is and what he’s about. The Sermon on the Mount might not be cosmopolitan, but it is global in scope, whether we’re talking about loving one’s enemies in South Africa, being peacemakers in Israel/Palestine, or merely trusting God who clothes the lilies in the fields in spite of the press hyperbolizes about economic collapse.
The Magi reminds us not to get too distracted by Frosty, Santa, Scrooge, Charlie Brown and whoever is “saving Christmas” in this year’s holiday special. Rather, we see that God wants people of all nations, all faiths, all ethnicities to know that he is actively working to fix the brokenness of this world, offering a way out for those who respond to him, and invites all to behold and worship this Jewish king.
Thus, Christmas’ global implications call us to humility. God’s response to our Towers of Babel, whether technological, scientific, social, or religious/spiritual prowess, is to show up as a helpless nursing, crying, defecating, spitting-up baby. Who am I to craft a god for myself according to my preferences when such an image bursts so many philosophical categories?
Let us dwell in the presence of this tender sublimity a little bit more. Maybe I should put down my agendas, passions, feelings, and thoughts aside and pick up the Sermon on the Mount. Maybe we should dwell a bit more on the story of Jesus and let it shape our daily lives. His life not one of prestige but touching the forgotten, a life not of power but suffering when doing what is loving and right, a life not ending in another “tale told by an idiot — full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.” Rather his life “ends” as it began, in visible divine intervention, in heaven and this cosmos intersecting again. In death being trumped in Resurrection.
As our Christmas celebrations wrap up today, let us not go back to work (or play) tomorrow as if nothing happened, but rather freshly aware that God, the Being that which no greater can be conceived, is interested in restoring individuals as well as planets, babies as well as the biospheres, passions as well as bodies. In Christ, God shows us how to be human in our globalized world, how to live well, love well, and when the time comes how to die well. Christmas challenges us to put our agendas and prestige aside, and it gives us hope that God is not far away or only approachable through lots of effort or virtue, but is lovingly near, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16 NIV)