December 22, 2013
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
THE VISITED PLANET
Our middle child, Heather, was born in Idaho but grew up in Portland, Oregon. She grew up a city girl. The closest she came to country life was when she visited the Portland Zoo and experienced the sights and sounds and smells of real animals.
You need to know this to understand her comment when we were driving through Idaho on vacation. Heather was maybe 3 at the time. We drove past a huge feedlot near Wendell. The fragrant aroma filled our car. Heather held her nose and said, “Yuck!! Elephants!”
It seems sacrilegious to point out the obvious. It didn’t smell very good the night Jesus was born. Heather would have held her nose. It’s actually quite a contrast between the dreamy scenes on our Christmas cards and the reality of what that first Christmas was like. The reality was cold and frightening. The smell of the farm animals was the least of Mary and Joseph’s concerns, but it was part of their reality as well.
And it started long before they found themselves figuring out how to do childbirth in that lonely Bethlehem stable. Life had been pretty hard for Joseph and Mary for a long time before that — at least nine months. There was this unplanned pregnancy. Imagine being Joseph. He must have had a hard time believing Mary’s explanation. Imagine being Mary. She must have had a hard time believing the angel’s explanation. But more than that, she knew that being pregnant and unmarried in her world not only would cost her her reputation. It could cost her her life.
In America today where a million unwed teenagers get pregnant every year, Mary’s predicament is harder for us to understand. But in Mary’s world, she would have fit the legal definition of an adulteress and the punishment for that was death by stoning.
You have to admire Joseph. He was right there for Mary. He knew this was hard enough for her without him leaving. He even took her to Bethlehem with him. He didn’t have to. The male head of the household by himself would have been sufficient for the Roman census. He could have just left Mary behind. He wouldn’t be long. And she wouldn’t be alone. She would have her extended family. She would have access to midwives with some experience in helping with a birth. It was the worst possible time for her to travel. So why did Joseph take her? Maybe to spare her the shame of giving birth in her home town.
Another question. Where are the grandparents? There is no mention of either Joseph’s or Mary’s parents. We’re left wondering why. Maybe they wanted no part of this. They were that angry and that hurt. Or maybe, like many grandparents today, they were only too willing to step in and raise the baby as their own if Mary and Joseph could not. We just don’t know.
It’s been pointed out that in similar circumstances today, Mary might have been referred to an abortion clinic. If she protested by telling of her visit with the angel, she would have been sent to a psychiatrist. Maybe locked up. This whole situation was just too crazy. We would have been too humane to allow God to send us Jesus in this particular way.
But God did send us Jesus in this particular way. There must have been a reason. If Jesus was sent to reveal to us the truth about God, then I wonder what truth God was revealing to us in the way Jesus was born.
I wonder first of all if God might have been giving us a lesson in humility. The Muslims are known for their cry, “God is great!” Christians too believe that God is great. But when God was born as a tiny baby it was not with the trappings of greatness. The circumstances were about as humble as could be. When Jesus was born, the way he was born did not proclaim, “God is great!” but rather “God is little”. God is not too big and too great and too wonderful to stoop down, all the way down, and be born as a helpless baby whose very survival was in the hands of a couple of teenagers.
When President Obama visited South Africa after the death of Nelson Mandela, the cost of his travel and security was seven million dollars. When God visited Planet Earth, it was accomplished more economically than that. There was no Secret Service. There was no royal welcome. There were no five star accommodations. God came to earth in an animal shelter. With unmentionable smells that have already been noted. With more animal than human witnesses.
His life began in the humblest of surroundings. And then he lived a life that was characterized by humility. He came not to be served, but to serve. He came not to show us how great he was but to show us how true greatness is found in humility. The first will be last. The last will be first. Exult yourself and you will be humbled. Humble yourself and you will be exalted. I love the way Paul puts it in the second chapter of Philippians.
Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (2:5-11).
The very way Jesus was born gave us a clue that this is the way he would live his life. Humbly. And that one clear mark of his disciples would be their humility.
The way Jesus was born tells us also something about the approachability of God. In most religious traditions, God is approached with fear. In fact, many Christians approach God this way. And many people don’t approach God at all. They keep their distance. They want nothing to do with church, because they are afraid of God. I’m not sure I blame them. Fear is natural. It’s the default mode for human beings facing what we don’t know and don’t understand. It’s right there in the Christmas story. The shepherds were filled with fear and the first words of the angel were, “Be not afraid.”
Phillip Yancey was once responsible for a salt-water aquarium. He discovered it was a lot of work. He had to monitor nitrate levels and ammonia content. He had to add vitamins and antibiotics and enzymes. He filtered the water and exposed it to ultraviolet light. All for the good of the fish. He would have thought they would at least be grateful. But no. Every single time he approached the tank, the fish would see his shadow and dive for cover. They were terrified of him! Even when he opened the tank to feed them, they got as far away from him as they could. He was getting ready to torture them as far as they were concerned.
It dawned on him that these fish felt about him the same way many people feel about God. And the only way to convince the fish otherwise, the only way to get them to realize there was nothing to fear, would be for him to become one of them.
The only way God could convince us of his love for us was for him to become one of us. A baby. Who can be afraid of a baby? When Jesus was born, it was God reaching down to us out of his desire to be approachable.
Finally, the way Jesus was born says a lot about courage. Childbirth takes courage. We all had brave mothers! Or at least mothers who were able to suspend their fears long enough to allow us to enter the world. And of course the courage of Mary was greater than the courage of the average mother because of the shame and the scorn directed her way by so many.
As we’ve seen, Joseph also showed courage by hanging in there. Either by believing what Mary and the angel had told him or by suspending his disbelief long enough for him to play his part in this most unexpected drama. He showed courage in protecting his family from Herod as he took them on a long, dangerous journey into Egypt. We don’t know a lot about Joseph but one thing we know for sure is that he was a brave man.
I’m not sure a baby is capable of courage. A baby is too helpless for that. But it wasn’t long before Jesus was able to show us what courage looks like. He took on Satan in the wilderness and won. He took on the powerbrokers of his day. He was not afraid of a fight. But he also showed us that the greatest courage is shown in not fighting at all. He didn’t fight those who arrested him, and tortured him, and nailed him to a cross. He said, “Father, forgive them.”
And we haven’t said a thing yet of the courage of God in all this. Just think how horribly this all could have gone wrong. To come to earth in this way, as a helpless, vulnerable, newborn who could easily have not survived that first night. To risk it all on this kind of a grand entry. G.K. Chesterton said this: “Alone of all the creeds, Christianity has added courage to the virtues of the Creator.”
I love the play written by J.B. Phillips called “The Visited Planet.” You may remember him for his translation of the New Testament into modern English and for his book, Your God is Too Small. This play is found in another one of his books. He says it tells the Christmas story from the perspective of angels.
There is a senior, experienced angel and there is an angel who is just getting started. He is being trained as all angels are trained in the ways of God.
First, it’s a tour of the universe. “Whirling galaxies, blazing suns, infinite distances.” It was a lot to take in. The junior angel is getting tired and even bored. Then they approach that particular star that means a great deal to us. The sun. And the planets circling the sun. The senior angel points to one of them. It was not the biggest or the smallest of the planets. It looked dull, almost like a dirty tennis ball.
“That one”, the angel said, “is the Visited Planet.”
The younger angel is appalled. For one thing, there were many more impressive looking celestial bodies he had been allowed to see that would have seemed so much more deserving. But mainly he is appalled at the thought that God would have become one of them.
The little angel’s face wrinkled in disgust. “Do you mean to tell me, that he stooped so low as to become one of those creeping, crawling creatures of that floating ball?” “I do, and I don’t think he would like you to call them ‘creeping, crawling creatures’ in that tone of voice. For, strange as it may seem to us, he loves them. He went down to visit them to lift them up to become like him.” The little angel looked blank. Such a thought was almost beyond his comprehension.
Some of you are old enough to remember the Christmas when we saw pictures of our planet sent to us from space. It was 1968. Apollo 8 was the first manned spacecraft to leave the earth’s orbit. It was orbiting the moon on Christmas Eve when the biggest audience to ever watch anything on television stared at their screens in amazement. The image was black and white and grainy. It showed the moon’s surface. The voices of the astronauts could be clearly heard. And in a moment I will never forget, they took turns reading the first 10 verses of the Bible. Let’s take a look.
(YouTube video: Apollo 8 Christmas)
The still pictures they brought back were much clearer and in brilliant color. They were truly spectacular. They demonstrated that J.B. Phillips wasn’t giving the Planet Earth quite enough credit when he described it as a dull and dirty tennis ball. It really is quite beautiful.
But J.B. Phillips got it right when he captured the wonder of God coming to our planet and being born as one of us “creeping, crawling creatures”. He got it right when he gave us the only reason that makes any sense that God would possibly have wanted to do such a thing. “For strange as it seems, he loves [us]”.
We know, dear God, that we are not capable of taking in the full wonder of Christmas. Maybe the best we can do is to pause in reverent awe as we hear the old story that never gets old and as we open our hearts to Jesus who really did visit this earth. And it wasn’t just a visit. He is still here. He is here to stay. And the meaning of our lives is found in him. In Jesus. Amen.