When Jesus was born, we left behind the promised land.
By that first Christmas day, something had happened to the temple–scripture tells us it was no longer a place of true worship. It no longer led the heart, mind, and soul into the knowledge of the love of God. Instead, it was a a place of duty–where you had to bring your offerings in order to expiate your sin. And it was a place of politics, having authority over, and making laws for, a special group of people in the Roman Empire; a people for which it had become the most exclusive of clubs. Soon it would become a place that would lead the persecution of God’s chosen. Scripture, often in the words of Jesus, suggests the temple had lost its soul, the desire to be with and of God.
When God chose to send Jesus into the world, God chose to do so outside of the temple. Mary and Joseph had to leave their home in order to make their way to Bethlehem. The shepherds were on the hills when the angels arrived to tell them of Jesus’ birth. The wise men who came later leave behind their country to find what God has brought to life. While Luke has poetically drawn Simeon and Anna in the temple waiting for Jesus to arrive for his blessing, even he has to admit that the arrival of Jesus, the incarnation, happened outside.
Christianity is, at its very beginning, an outsiders’ religion.
Terry, a friend of mine, was sitting in her car at 5:30 in the morning yesterday. Her skin is of a darker hue than most in Southern Orange County. Seeing her in the car in that pre-dawn hour, a woman was moved to go to her and offer her $10. What did Terry do? Take offense? Get angry? Drive away embarrassed? No, she invited the woman to her party that day and asked her to bring gifts for kids who are staying in a shelter. The only reason we know this story is the woman arrived with her daughter and gifts in hand. If Terry had thought only of her dignity in that bizarre morning moment, this would never have happened.
A church musician who recently felt the barbs of those whose selective reading of the Bible put him, because of his sexuality, outside of the Christian Way rehearsed countless hours to present a program which honored many musicians who created the organ repertoire. He used his words to lift up others, and his talent to create memories and draw us into a world beyond our own. As is his way, he added a few more pieces at the end. One moment inviting a soprano to sing with him a favorite soft operatic piece, gladly taking his place in the background. Another moment, playing a song he knew was the favorite composition of a man in the audience because his wife (who had passed) had often played it. He played on because he knew this music would minister to those who were present. His focus was never on himself.
Christianity is an outsider’s religion. In the scriptures that tell of Jesus’ birth, there is no sense that those involved argued or felt sorry for themselves. They didn’t put down a precondition of acceptance or welcome before they responded to God’s call on their lives. Rather, scripture shows them responding with willful abandon. Mary and Joseph lay down on the hay and, when Jesus arrived, they made good use of the feeding trough. The shepherds most likely left their sheep on the hill, overcome by the message they had been given by the angels in the sky. God didn’t mind having Jesus arrive to the song of the mooing cows. It wouldn’t be wrong to say God planned it that way.
Not only did Jesus come to welcome the outsider into God’s love, but God depended on the outsiders to bring Jesus into the world, to announce his arrival, to bray in the new kingdom. And so perhaps if we are feeling a little more like a donkey than a king today, we might choose not to put our tale between our legs.