The Risks of Christmas

(Based on a sermon/speech I gave at Christmastime a few years ago.) 

Not long after we moved to Delhi, someone told us that five people die in this city every day in traffic accidents. In happens in Canada too, but not at that frequency. But still, even in Canada, more people die every day in automobile accidents than in any other way.

Wherever we live, most of us brave the streets everyday. Most of us know the statistics, yet we still take the risk. We realize that it can be dangerous, even deadly, but we still do it. We still do it, despite the fact that we are exposing ourselves to danger.

That's what a risk is all about.

We take risks all the time. Every day, we expose ourselves to the possibility of harm, or injury, or loss. To be human is to take risks. Driving in a car is a physical risk, but there are other kinds of risks as well, risks that in some ways are greater and more significant, risks that we take in relationships, where we expose our emotions and we make ourselves vulnerable to another human being.

I think, in many ways, the biggest risk I've ever taken was marriage, not because of whom I married, but because of what marriage is. I vowed to open my heart to Amy and to make myself vulnerable to her in ways that I had never been with anyone else ever before. There we stood at the altar, two imperfect people making promises we could not keep. The desire was there. The commitment was there. But ultimately, we would fail each other. We would disappoint one another. We could not possibly keep all those promises without fail. That’s why, in my mind, no marriage can survive without grace and forgiveness, because we are all imperfect. That’s why, when you get married, you take a huge risk.

Of course, having kids is another risk. About three years after we were married, Amy came to me and told me that she was pregnant and I was genuinely excited. It wasn’t a huge surprise. It’s something we had talked about and planned as best we could, and in many ways we felt like it was time for us to take this step. But I have to admit that there was also a strong element of uncertainty and doubt, and I found myself asking, What are we doing? Are we really ready for this? Who will this child become whom we're bringing into this world? Parenthood is a huge risk.

When I held my daughter for the first time in that delivery room, amidst the incredible feelings of joy and gratitude were again those feelings of, O Lord, what have we done? What an amazing responsibility and risk? She was so vulnerable, so innocent, so helpless, so exposed to life, and to all the risks that come along with life. Will she be healthy? Will she be safe? Will her needs be met?

The Christian life is full of risks, and by that I mean that when God asks us to obey him, to follow him, we don’t always know what lies ahead. And often times obedience exposes us to possible hardships and loss. It’s what I call the risk of faith. We are trusting in God rather than trusting in ourselves, and there is always an element of risk involved with that.

The Christmas story is also full of risks taken, but it’s also so familiar to us that I think we often miss the significance of these things and we can easily overlook the impact that this should have on our relationship with God, and on our lives today.

At the end of Matthew chapter 1 the writer of that Gospel is telling the Christmas story and he quotes a verse from the Book of Isaiah. Matthew 1:22-23 reads, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” – which means, “God with us.” 

The quote comes from Isaiah 7:14, and I want to look briefly at the story in Isaiah where that verse is quoted from, before we come back to the Christmas story in the Gospels. I want to draw some interesting parallels between these stories that have a lot to do with taking the risk of faith.

In Isaiah chapter 7 we have Ahaz, King of Judah (as all kings of Judah, he was a direct descendant of David). Ahaz was in the capital city of Jerusalem. And he's nervous. Why? Because to the north of him live two kings who don't like him, the King of Israel and the King of Syria. So we have Judah in the South and then Israel and Syria in the North. King Ahaz is aware that these other two kings are trying to conquer Jerusalem and get rid of him as king. So he’s rightly nervous. This could be the end of him.

It is into this situation that God sends the prophet Isaiah with a word of encouragement for Ahaz and an invitation to him to trust in God. In v.4 it records the message that Isaiah had for Ahaz, “Be careful, keep calm and do not be afraid. Do not lose heart [because of these two kings who are trying to kill you.]” And basically God says that these two kings will not succeed against him. So, God has some good news for Ahaz.

In v.10, God says to Ahaz, “Ask the LORD your God for a sign.” God wants Ahaz to be confident of his promise, to be assured of God’s word to him. But instead of responding in faith, Ahaz responds in unbelief, and he says in v.12, “I will not ask; I will not put the LORD to the test.” Ahaz refuses God’s involvement in his life.           

And then in the next paragraph we have the promise of Immanuel, where God basically says that despite the unbelief of Ahaz he will, in the future, still bring redemption to his people; he will visit his people in the birth of a child named Immanuel.

What do we learn from Ahaz? He’s nervous and vulnerable, and yet he rejects the invitation to trust in God. He doesn’t have time for God. He refuses to take the risk of faith, and he pushes God out of the picture.

It's a pretty sad story. God is wanting to prove himself to Ahaz, to protect him, and to give him safety and security in the midst of his vulnerability. Yet Ahaz stubbornly refuses.

Do we do this? Maybe we’re in a situation where we’re desperate, we’re nervous, we don’t know what to do, and God is there inviting us to trust in him, to take the risk of faith. Yet we refuse. We choose our own way. And we push God away. 

Maybe some of you are at that place right now: you're facing some difficulty, and God is inviting you to trust him. God is saying, "It's OK. Stay calm. Don't be afraid. I want to help you. I want to protect you. You just have to reach out and trust me. You have to take that risk."

Ahaz was unwilling, and he suffered the consequences. What about you?

From this passage in Isaiah we jump ahead to the Christmas story, to the passage in Matthew where he quotes from Isaiah chapter 7, and again we have a descendant of David, Joseph, who is in a difficult situation. It's not on the same international scale as with Ahaz, but nevertheless Joseph is nervous. Why?  Because the girl he’s engaged to is pregnant. He’s planning as quiet a way as possible to get out of the mess, and so he decides to divorce her – which in that context is probably the most respectful thing to do. But then God speaks, and God says to Joseph, “Do not be afraid. Go ahead and take Mary as your wife.” God was asking Joseph to take a risk.

What is Joseph risking at this point?  Public embarrassment and scorn?  His reputation?  Do you think people are going to believe him that Mary is pregnant by the Holy Spirit?

Unlike Ahaz, Joseph rises to the challenge. Joseph takes the risk of faith. Despite the potential scorn and misunderstanding and whatever else, he chooses to obey God.

What would you have done? It's easy to say, Well, if an angel appeared to me in a dream, I'd do whatever he said. But would you? What do you do when you have the opportunity to get out of a mess quietly and unnoticed, but you know that the right thing to do is to face the opposition, to face the embarrassment? In those kinds of situations, are we willing to take the risk of faith and obey God? There is great reward when we take that risk, but it is not without a price.

Remember that the first word that God spoke to Joseph was the same word that he spoke to Ahaz, saying, “Do not be afraid.”

Why does God say that? Because obedience sometimes is a scary thing. Because obedience exposes us to potential hazards, potential problems. Obedience is never the easy road, yet it is the only path to blessing.

What are you afraid of? When it comes to your relationship with God, what is the toughest thing God is asking of you right now? Is he asking you to risk your reputation? Maybe he’s asking you to risk being alone, giving up a relationship. Maybe he’s asking you to take a financial risk. Maybe he’s asking you to put a friendship on the line. Whatever it is, God is saying, “Don’t be afraid. Don’t be afraid to take the risk of faith. Trust me.” Your relationship with God is worth the risk. God is going to be faithful to lead you and guide you.

When God first appeared to Mary (as recorded in Luke chapter 1), he spoke the same word of comfort, “Do not be afraid, Mary.” Why?  Because again, God was asking her to take a risk, to put her reputation on the line, to put her marriage on the line. This was a young girl with a bright future, and now this, she’s pregnant before she’s married.

It says in v.29 of Luke chapter 1 that she was “greatly troubled” when the angel appeared and spoke to her. But the angel spoke words of comfort and words of promise. And Mary’s response (in v.38 of Luke chapter 1) is in many ways the model for the Christian life, a model of obedience and submission. She says, “I am the Lord’s servant; may it be to me as you have said.”

Mary was willing to take the risk. Despite the difficulties that lay ahead, she was willing to do whatever it was that God was calling her to do. Despite the pain and potential misunderstanding she is willing and eager to obey.

So together both Mary and Joseph embrace this challenge. They take on this risk. And it doesn't necessarily get easier for them at that point. In fact, in many ways it gets even more challenging for them. But they have chosen God's way. They find themselves in very vulnerable situations, yet they continue to trust in God.

It is in the situations when we are most vulnerable that God wants to speak to us and invite us to trust in Him. How will we respond to his invitation? Will we be like Mary and Joseph, who embrace God’s will despite the hardships? Or will we respond like Ahaz, who pushed God out of the picture and refused to trust in Him?

Maybe there are people who are reading this who are feeling particularly vulnerable. Maybe you have a choice before you, whether to take the risk of faith like Mary and Joseph or to refuse it like Ahaz. Maybe you’ve never really said Yes to God, and you need to tell God that you’re willing to trust Him no matter what. That’s probably not easy to say. But God wants to speak to you just like he spoke to Mary and Joseph and Ahaz, and to say, “Do not be afraid!” You will never regret taking that risk. It won’t be an easy road, but the rewards will far outweigh the price you will pay.

For Mary and Joseph, the road ahead was filled with maybe even more challenges and greater risks. Just before Mary is to give birth, her and Joseph have to set out to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem, and then when they get there they have trouble finding a place to stay and end up having their baby in a stable. It’s a rather strange situation that they find themselves in. And as soon as they have the baby they have an interesting mix of visitors: shepherds from the fields and magi from the east. Then, as soon as the local king, King Herod, hears about it, he’s out to kill this baby. So the parents flee to Egypt and then when they finally do return again to the area Bethlehem still isn’t safe so they move back to Nazareth. It seems that they are fugitives for much of Jesus’ early life.

What kind of a life is this?  Well, it's a life of obedience. It’s the life that God chose for these people. It’s the life that God chose for his Son.

Maybe the question should rather be, What kind of a God is this? Because in many ways, no one in the Christmas story takes a greater risk than God himself. A risk, not in the sense of not knowing what's going to happen, but a risk in the sense of making himself vulnerable to humanity. No one makes himself more vulnerable than God.

From human standards, this baby born in a barn to peasant parents doesn’t seem to have much of a chance at survival, let alone success. Right from the beginning, this baby’s life is threatened and the parents are on the run. It makes for an interesting story, but this isn’t fiction, this is the story of God, the Creator of the world, the Lord of the universe. He is exposing himself to humanity in this way, exposing himself to a barn full of animals, exposing himself to death threats and to possible harm and injury. He is a God who chooses to humble himself in every way, who chooses for himself the way of the poor, the meek and the lowly.

The question is, Why?  Why does God do this?  Why does God choose to take such risks?

The simple answer seems to be that he did this because he came for us, to identify with us and to serve us. He was a king, but a different kind of king, a king not coming to lord it over us but to serve us, to give his life for us.

One of the less familiar of our Christmas hymns says it well:

“He comes from his loved Father’s side,

Becomes an infant small,

And lies with scarce a want supplied,

Weak in a humble stall.

His power divine aside is laid,

No crown adorns his brow,

The Mighty God who all things made,

Comes as a servant now.”

The way in which God became man says a lot about who God is. The little details of the Christmas story (which are sometimes lost because it’s so familiar) remind us of God’s humility, his gentleness and his love. After all, it was his love that motivated him to take the risk of becoming one of us. His love for you and for me motivated him to expose himself to all that is truly human. We cannot tell the Christmas story without telling of God’s incredible love for humanity.

Ultimately, in becoming a man, God risked rejection. He made himself vulnerable to us, knowing full well that some would reject him. Some would misunderstand him. Some would mock him. Some would crucify him. But it was a risk he was willing to take. It was for those who would receive his love that he came and died.

The English word “vulnerable” comes from the Latin word meaning “to wound”, and basically the word means, “capable of being wounded; susceptible to injury”. That's exactly what God did for us. As a human being, he became “capable of being wounded”; he became “susceptible to injury”.

At Christmas we think of God as an innocent, fragile baby, but there is another picture of God that the Bible gives us that shows us just how vulnerable he was willing to be with us. It is the picture of God from the story of Easter, a wounded God, dying on a cross.

The message of Christmas is one and the same with the message of Easter. The story of God in the Bible reveals a vulnerable God who gives himself in love to humanity.

It was the prophet Isaiah who wrote these words about what God would accomplish on the cross:

“He was despised and rejected by men,

a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering.

Like one from whom men hide their faces,

he was despised and we esteemed him not.

Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows,

yet we considered him stricken by God,

smitten by him, and afflicted.

But he was pierced for our transgressions,

he was crushed for our iniquities;

the punishment that brought us peace was upon him,

and by his wounds we are healed.” (Isaiah 53:3-5)

This is the message of Christmas – God came for us, to become one of us, to live among us, and to die for us. He took that risk for us. Are we willing to take the risk of faith for him?

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