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The Surprise We Cannot Grasp

This image by an unknown Fleming artist (circa 1515) captures the common medieval theme of Jesus born in the ruins of Solomon's palace, the fallen House of David.

The lover surprises his beloved with a ring and question. The friends shout, “Happy Birthday” to their unsuspecting companion. The parent transforms their home into a Christmas wonderland for the waking child.

Surprise breaks into our world and opens us to something deeper, something richer, some wonder that is just beyond our grasp. In this moment of surprise, of love expressed, of celebration, we are raptured into a brief moment of sheer joy. The glory, the beauty, the delight of this passing moment wounds us with longing to experience yet again.

Recreating a moment of surprise is almost impossible.

Chesterton once suggested that at Christmas we seek to recreate that first Christmas experience when the wonder of the day captured the heart of the child. But that wonder so often eludes us. How do you create a wonder-filled surprise?

As we approach Christmas morning, as we step toward the birth of the baby Jesus, as we anticipate relaxing and rejoicing with family, we long for this surprise, and yet we are already preparing for disappointment. The hopes of Christmas so often disappoint and even repel.

Thus for many, Christmas is just another day, or worse, it’s a time a depression and loneliness, when our own lack is magnified. If the Christ child really did come, if peace on earth really is true, why do we still live in the dark?
As that question resounds within me, I think of the prayers of the church from yesterday and today. Last night the church sang out the “O Antiphons” chant,

O Flower of Jesse’s stem, you have been raised up as a sign for all peoples; kings stand silent in your presence; the nations bow down in worship before you. Come, let nothing keep you from coming.

And tonight the church cries out,

O Key of David, O royal Power of Israel, controlling at your will the gate of heaven: Come, break down the prison walls of death for those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death; and lead your captive people into freedom.

Both prayers focus on different aspects of the House of David. The kingdom of David came as a promised hope to the people of Israel. This small Palestinian nation looked to King David and his descendants as the promise of God in their midst to protect them and extend their rule and fulfill the hope of Abraham to become a blessing for all nations.

Israel’s prophets saw kings of the earth flocking to Mount Zion for wisdom. David’s house would grow up as tree or vine of Jesse that would extend to all nations, bringing the rule of the Lord, the order of the Lord, the fulness of the Lord to a world in desperate need.

But the tree fell, the vine was burned. When Babylon burned Jerusalem to the ground, the fall of the House of David was not simply the crumbling of a great dynasty, it was death of hope for Israel and ultimately for the world. It was the disappointment with no respite.

Imagine the agony of Isaiah, Jeremy or Ezekiel when they behold the plans of the Lord. Is God abandoning His people? Is God abandoning this earth? By allowing the fall of the House of David, He has forsaken His plan of redemption for all creation. The darkness that resides where the Temple once glowed will eventually quench all light.

Darkness, darkness and more darkness.

Then by sheer surprise, the Spirit of God prompts Isaiah to write the following song:
There shall come forth a shoot from the stump of Jesse,
and a branch from his roots shall bear fruit.
(Isaiah 11:1 ESV)

In his song, he sees a stump. The tree has long since been chopped down. The stump is the very image of death. The House of David is dead. The stump of Jesse cannot grow, cannot shelter the earth, cannot provide. It is dead.
But suddenly a tiny green shoot springs forth from the dead stump. This tiny shoot changes everything. Life grows up in the place of death? How can this be? The Lord resurrects the House of David. Hope is not lost.

And by unspeakable wonder, He comes down; He enters history; He establishes a throne that cannot, will not be overturned. Not even death can stop His rule.

As we look toward the babe in the manger, we are beholding the shoot springing forth from the stump of Jesse. This tiny babe, this frail babe, this dependent babe who rests in the arms of Mary and Joseph, is “God with us.”

He will restore the throne in unexpected, surprising ways. He will rule in life and death. No foe is beyond his rule, not even death. In His rule, Jesus enters into the tombs, takes hold of dead humanity and raises us up into the life-giving presence of the Father.

This is the surprise that we still do not grasp. But every time we catch but a glimmer, we are overwhelmed. It is the surprise that cannot be contained in our Nativities, our Christmas songs, our Santa games. It is the surprise that keeps breaking out of all the ways we try to share it and contain it and grasp it.

It is the surprise we simply cannot grasp. Christ has come and in coming, he enters into our low estate and even into our death and has raised up to life and life and life.

So we return again and again and again to the wonder of this birth, this babe, this light that penetrates all darkness. If you know the darkness of depression, of disappointment, of death. If you know the darkness of this anguished earth, come with me to the Nativity.

Come rehearse, retell, remember the story that is not old but newer and more vital than we ourselves. Let us look, listen and wait for the Good News of God. In our darkness, we will be surprised again and again by a glory that is beyond all we can grasp. We will be overwhelmed by a wonder that cannot be exhausted because it flows out from the one who is Life Unconquerable.

Our Christmas celebrations, our gift giving, our songs and stories are but ways of remembering, rehearsing, revisiting the surprise of His life that sustains. Open your eyes and look out with hope, for He is coming and in Him, you will discover the longing of your weary soul.

Categories: Advent
  1. December 20, 2010 at 2:03 pm

    That first Christmass, the awe and wonder was over a child, the only begotten
    Today, the awe and wonder is, a child almost forgotten
    Except by pilgrims,
    Expecting to find

    By giving
    By living
    By dieing

  2. December 20, 2010 at 2:53 pm

    Thanks Doug
    Would not faith be impossible to live by,
    Were it not for the surprise of it?
    You have traced it from alpha to omega!
    Tomorrow is the longest night of the year plus a full eclipse of the moon makes it the darkest night in over 400 years.
    Surprise—the sun will come up in the morning!

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