I already mentioned that this year my Advent focus is on the Divine name Emmanuel: God With Us. God entering our world of chaos and mess, in order to bring it back into His proper order.
Last year my focus was on the quietness and unexpected nature of the birth; how while the whole Roman world was focused on the lives of the rich and great – Caesar Augustus, Herod the Great, Governor Quirinius – the Messiah promised for generations was born to a pair of poor teenagers in a tiny backwater town in a conquered province.
In this post we shall connect the two.
Emmanuel is God entering in, coming on our level and being born into human mess. And it doesn’t get much more potentially messy than the set of circumstances that Mary and Joseph were looking at.
First of all there’s the national political situation. Judea – the land of God’s own people – is a conquered Roman province, with an Edomite (=Idumaean) puppet king installed on David’s throne. With the Divine covenant with the House of David occupying such a prominent place in Judean ideas of legitimacy of kingship, the idea of a non-descendent of David occupying the throne is bad and wrong, let alone a foreigner like Herod the Great. And for the True God’s own people to be subject to pagan Romans, something ain’t right with the world.
YHWH will not be equated with the pagan Roman gods in the way that Celtic deities like Sulis were merged with their Roman counterparts like Minerva. If you worship the One God, part of the deal is that you don’t then turn around and burn incense to Jupiter, no matter how much secular peace that would buy you from the Romans of whose empire you are now a part. You can either be a good Jew or a good Roman.
And as usual, the poor people are caught in the middle, subject to being shunted around at the whim of godless rulers to facilitate their being gouged and screwed over to make rich tax-gatherers richer.
Then there’s the personal situation of Mary and Joseph.
Pledged to be married, Mary shows up pregnant, and Joseph knows it wasn’t his doing. As far as small-town scandals go, this is about as juicy as they come, and no doubt the rumours are flying. They’re still flying around, in fact, when Jesus is grown and in ministry; look at the derisive question of his home town: “Who’s his father?”
It’s never specifically said in the Bible, but reading between the lines a little in the matter of Jesus being born in a stable and there being no room at the inn, it seems likely that Mary and Joseph were being shunned by at least part of their family. Bethlehem was both Joseph and Mary’s ancestral town, and people in that day didn’t move around much. Undoubtedly they had relatives there, and the normal thing would be for them to stay with family, and for the family to put them up no matter how crowded it got. When I was working in Central Asia I had some experience with this same sort of mindset, and for family there’s always room for one more. Yet Mary and Joseph had to try the inn, where merchants and people who didn’t have family stayed. And it was full.
More, Mary and Joseph are young (they’re only pledged to be married in an age where you started popping out kids as soon as you started having sex) and poor (the sacrifice they make for a firstborn is the smallest and meanest version available, for those too poor to afford even a lamb) in a world that places all its adulation at the feet of the aged and the wealthy. The way we arrange our tax code, Joseph almost certainly wouldn’t be earning enough to pay tax today, yet back then his lack of economic muscle just made him a ready victim of the system.
Chaos and mess. A dark world doing what darkness does.
And into this low point comes not just a Messiah King but a God, born into squalor and privation in the equivalent of a bus shelter to a couple of homeless teenagers in a conquered province.
Who were then forced to flee for their lives when He was aged 2 and live as refugees in another country, their flight made possible by the gifts of the Magi just as it was made necessary by Herod the Great’s ambition and paranoia.
He really is God With Us. He’s been there, in the dark and pain of what passes for normal life in this fallen world. Entering in without visible glory or majesty or any of the trappings of success or material blessing. A baby boy growing up to be a man, apparently born on the wrong side of the tracks to a poverty-stricken family living in the town which is a byword for backward worthlessness. Growing up to die by a miscarriage of Roman justice without leaving a single offspring or visible result behind him.
It isn’t possible for the immortal God to be a failure, but this is what it looks like. The current President would no doubt dismiss him as a loser; most of his own town certainly did.
But this is what we need. A god who wins all the time cannot address our failures. A god of puffed-up pride cannot speak to our secret shame, except to condemn it.
There’s a poem I read, called “He showed them His hands and side”. One of the verses is appropriate here:
The other gods were strong, but Thou wast weak
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak
And not a god has wounds but Thou alone.
Emmanuel is God come down into our mess, walking my road and feeling my pain, as another song puts it. But not just God come down to experience our sufferings; God come down to do something about it. Just as when people were building the tower of Babel and the Bible says God “came down” to divide us one from another and check the untrammeled spread of diseased, sinful ideas between us, now in Jesus He comes down to make an end of sin once and for all. And now that He has done it and sits at the right hand of the Father, He will come down once more to make a final end, bringing with Him the New Jerusalem. “Now the dwelling-place of God is with men…”
God With Us.