Wineskins Archive

January 8, 2014

The God of Impossibilities (Nov 1992)

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by Jack R. Reese
November, 1992

7They were an ordinary couple – just plain folks. Nothing in their demeanor, their clothes, their accent revealed their role in the divine drama. At no time in their lives had Mary and Joseph been among the privileged. They were just common people who placed their trust in the Lord.

With great economy of language and considerable subtlety, Luke tells the story of a God who does extraordinary things through ordinary people.

Mary and Joseph were anonymous villagers in an insignificant province. Elizabeth and Zecharaiah were an elderly couple whose righteous living was overshadowed by the stigma of childlessness. Simeon and Anna were strange characters in a teeming crowd of worshippers and sightseers. It is through such people that the Lord chose to work.

Not all of the people in Luke’s story are ordinary. Two giants loom in the background: the ruling powers in Rome and the religious establishment in Jerusalem. Luke mentions many of the powerful secular leaders of the day, men such as Augustus, Quirinius, Tiberus, Pontius Pilate, and Herod. And much of the early action takes place within the shadow of the Temple under the administration of Caiaphas and Annas. Extraordinary people all.

But two poor Galileans, strangers to power and influence, quietly make their way to Bethlehem.

We read too much into Luke’s story when we suggest that the innkeeper in Bethlehem turned them away. This is not a rejection story. It is an ordinary event involving rather common people.

They had travelled to a khan or cravansary – it was no English-style inn with a front desk and nice rooms, but a place where poorer travellers could spend the night. It is not surprising that the stalls where families were bedded were full.

Mary and Joseph graciously were provided a place near the central fire where the animals were secured. It is not less than they would have expected and no great burden. In Galilee and Judea it was not uncommon to sleep to the sound and smell of animals.

And it was there that the baby was born.

Mary had no one to attend to her so she herself wrapped the boy in strips of cloth and placed him in a nearby animal trough. The savior of the world lay helplessly near his family. Who there would have known? From all appearances it was a brith like thousands of births.

News of the event was first made known, not to Roman leaders or Jewish religious authorities, but to lowly citizens of the area, shepherds busy with their work. They would later tell with amazement the story of the visit from angels, not knowing that for centuries people all over the world would still know of a band of common shepherds who were led by the Lord to visit the newborn king.

On the eighth day, Joseph and Mary offered a sacrifice in the Temple – not the sacrifice of a lamb as a wealthier family might offer, but just a couple of small birds. Hundreds of people were there at the Temple, but only two noticed the dedication of the boy: Simeon and Anna, an old man and an old woman guided by the Holy Spirit to bless the child.

Then, Luke says, the young family returned to Galilee where the boy grew strong and was filled with wisdom. This simple story demands no sentimentalizing or embellishment. Our Christmas tales often miss the point. These were ordinary people through whom God worked extraordinarily.

Luke makes it clear that this has always been God’s way and will continue to be. Mary sings of the Lord who has “brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly,” who has “filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” Zechariah sings of the inbreaking of the “dawn from on high” which will “give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death.”

No human power or competence can lift the lowly and fill the hungry with good things. No piety or religious servitude can make possible the dawning from on high.

We stand with Mary and Joseph as ordinary people, women and men whose lives do not merit God’s extraordinary intervention. It is for us Jesus came, God entering human flesh so that we might taste the eternal, the divine transforming the carnal into its own image..

When we see what the Lord has done, we cannot help but cry out with Mary, “How can this be?” How can our ordinary lives be imbued with such extraordinary power and glory? Mary and Joseph may be larger-than-life characters faithfully receiving the blessings of God. We have never known them in any other way. Our earliest recollections of them establish them firmly as heroes – almost mythical characters.

But we know ourselves to be too faithless, too weak, too sinful, too ordinary to receive such divine favor from the Lord. “How can this be?” we ask.

Perhaps, then, we need to hear the angel’s reply, “Nothing is impossible with God.”Wineskins Magazine

Jack R. Reese

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