by Matthew Morgan
The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God. — John 1:9-12
The world did not recognize him – Because he turned all our expectations upside down. This week, we are looking closely at the characters involved in Jesus’ birth in order to further understand that “the world did not recognize” Christ: in the Nativity Story, God turns every expectation upside down.
I wonder, if I were God, how would I send my son into the world? I would look into the neighborhoods – good schools are important. I would want to find parents that are stable, that have had a couple of kids already. I would make sure that the nearby hospital was top of the line. It would be critical that my son be born in a peaceful region of the world, with minimal threat of conflict. I would want an environment where he would be safe and would be afforded the opportunities to “succeed.”
The popular Jewish rabbi Harold Kushner wrote of the existence of two worlds. One world is the world we work in and go to school in. We play sports in this world and buy our cars in this world. It’s the world that honors people for their accomplishments and attractiveness. It is the world of success. If you ask most Americans what success looks like, they are going to talk to you about money. They might mention a nice house and a good job and the latest cell phone or they might talk of trips to exotic locations and healthy savings accounts but what they really mean is that success looks rich. They might also talk about popularity, about being well-liked by one’s family, neighbors, and co-workers. They might also use words like power, fame, influence, or pleasure. It’s a world that “reveres winners and scorns losers.” (Kushner)
But there is another world, one that has a much different definition of success. Bekah wrote on Saturday, Surely the Creator could have chosen a less vulnerable state in which to enter the world? And He could have. He could have been born to Pharisee parents. It would surely be safer and he would grow up with more influence. He could have been born into a family with close ties to Roman rulers. He might have more power and access to larger audiences. At least he could have been born in a big city, with access to the best midwives. That’s how I would have done it. But God didn’t come to prop up the kingdoms we build, to perpetuate our false view of success. God came to establish another world – His Kingdom on Earth. And our first glimpse into this kingdom is not one of nice houses, respected people, and worldly influence. It’s one of scandal and poverty. It a story of an illegitimate pregnancy, a baby sleeping in a feeding trough, and a refugee family hiding from the national authorities. And this is a story, a history of how Christ came into the world, but it is also a message – a message about where we find God.
The problem with “worldly success” is not that money is bad or that good jobs or nice homes are bad. The problem is that we often look at the world and find the good neighborhoods, the respected people with money in the bank, and we say that’s where God is found. We have equated material success with God’s presence. And the birth narrative of Jesus speaks loudly that we are looking in the wrong places. We are looking at the external realities, while God is more interested in humility, obedience, and a deep trust of Him.
I confess that my response to this is, Ok, so I can be rich, popular and important as long as I am also faithful and humble. This is certainly true, but we miss the warning of this story if we stop there. Throughout Scripture there is a consistent message about how humility and faithfulness is grown and nurtured. The Bible is clear that you can be rich and faithful, but it’s difficult. You can have worldly power and influence and be humble, but it’s not likely. There is a moral danger present in worldly success. There is a moral danger with having too much money. There is a moral danger with being popular. Jesus warns those of us who are well-fed and well-liked (Luke 6:24-26). We want to find God in the world? We want to find the situations and people that will nurture our faith and shape our character into that of Christ’s? The birth narrative of Jesus points us, like the star over Bethlehem, to the places we find Him most clearly and deeply. The story points us away from worldly success and towards the Kingdom of God: to the poor, the rejected, the refugee, and the scandalous.
Harold Kushner writes of two worlds – a world that values accomplishment and respectability and another world of humble dependance on God. We can’t live in both worlds. We have to pick one. God has chosen how he is going to live in the world; will we choose to follow? How have you let the world define success for you? How would your life look different if you let God form your view of success?