Sunday, December 22, 2013

Come Lord Jesus

A reflection on Dietrich Bonhoeffer's "God in the Manger".

If you ever share a meal with someone of the Moravian Denomination, you will learn a simple, but profound prayer. “Come Lord Jesus, our guest to be. Bless these gifts bestowed by thee. Bless our dear ones everywhere, keep them in your loving care." Lamenting that my prayer life seems to revolve around the routine of... our ritualized dinner time blessing, I am drawn in the time of Advent to reflect upon the meaning of asking Jesus to come into my life. The Advent Study, God in the Manger, of theologian Deitrich Bonhoeffer provided the framework for my thoughts and my prayers.

Scripture paints the picture in our minds’ eye of Jesus standing at the door knocking. (Rev. 3:20) What are we to do? By our prayer we invite him to “Come” and here he is. Standing at our door, gently but firmly knocking. We can ignore the sound for only so long. As we peer through the curtains to catch a glimpse, who will we see? In truth, we see what we are afraid to confront. Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains it this way: “In total reality, he comes in the form of a beggar, of the dissolute human child in ragged clothes asking for help. He confronts you in every person that you meet. As long as there are people, Christ will walk the earth as your neighbor, as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you, makes demands on you. That is the great seriousness and the great blessedness of the Advent message. Christ is standing at the door; he lives in the form of a human being among us. Do you want to close the door or open it?”

Is not this the lost meaning of Christmas? God has become man. God is with us. He came into the world he created, but then as now, people did not recognize him. Amid all the Christmas celebrations we have become so accustomed to the story, or at least our version of the story, that the idea that a Creator God becomes a part of his creation no longer gives us pause. Bonhoeffer explains: “[We] no longer feel the shiver of fear that God’s coming should arouse in us. We are indifferent to the message, taking only the pleasant and agreeable out of it and forgetting the serious aspect that the God of the world draws near to the people of our little earth and lays claim to it”. The idea is enveloped in our songs and rituals, all of which, like the Moravian blessing, say in some form or another “Come Lord Jesus.” And amid our dismay and confusion, He comes.

Jesus does not come at times and places appointed by men. Bethlehem, a stable, a teenage maiden, this is not a story of men. It is a divine paradox- a mystery. “The greatest mystery is not the most distant star; on the contrary, the closer something comes to us and the better we know it, then the more mysterious it becomes for us. The greatest mystery to us is not the most distant person, but the one next to us.” Maybe he is knocking at the door. Maybe he is there in the smile of a child or the tears of the aged. Maybe he is hungry or in prison, sick or infirm. God with us does not mean he is with us as we may imagine or desire. “God travels in wonderful ways with human beings, he does not comply with the views and opinions of people. God does not go the way people want to prescribe for him; rather his way is beyond all comprehension, free and self-determined beyond all proof.” We want him to be a baby in a manger, soft and vulnerable. Truthfully, we would like to keep him in the manger for to confront him in another place and time would require us to fully appreciate the majesty of who he is and what we are. “Where reason is indignant, where our nature rebels, where our piety anxiously keeps us away: that is precisely where God loves to be. There he confounds the reason of the reasonable; there he aggravates our nature, our piety-that is where he wants to be, and no one can keep him from it.” Still we pray: “Come Lord Jesus”. And He Comes!

If God will not stay in the manger of Bethlehem’s stable, how then should we celebrate Christmas? Pastor Bonhoeffer observes: “Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly? Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger ; whoever remains lowly and lets God alone be high; whoever looks at the child in the manger and sees the glory of God precisely in his lowliness.” We cannot rely on the customs of our religions. No pomp and circumstance of man can add to the majesty of the birth of the child in the stable. Nor is such feeble response required. Bonhoeffer continues: “How we fail to understand when we think that the task of theology is to solve the mystery of God, to drag it down to the flat, ordinary wisdom of human experience and reason!” All religious ritual can do is to provide the means by which we can confront the frightful majesty of the question the Christ child presents to every person. Christmas theology is not about explaining mysteries, it is rather a matter of kindling faith. “If Christmas time cannot ignite within us again something like a love for holy theology, so that- captured and compelled by the wonder of the manger of the son of God- must reverently reflect on the mysteries of God, then it must be that the glow of the divine mysteries has also been extinguished in our heart and has died out.” Still we pray: “Come Lord Jesus” And up from the manger and down from the cross, He comes into our lives.

 It is the symbol of the manger contrasted with the symbol of the cross which dominates the holy theology of God. One cannot exist apart from the other. The joy of the manger is always tempered by the ugly shadow of the cross of Calvary. We know how the story plays out. It is on account of our belief in a glorious resurrection that tragedy becomes triumph. Still, we accept the glory and the majesty of both Christmas and Easter without ever answering that knock at the door. Afraid, I suppose, of who we are. Perhaps, ashamed of the impact of our sin on a baby in the manger and upon an innocent man on the cross. Still we pray: “Lord Jesus, come yourself and dwell with us as we are, and overcome what overwhelms us. Come into the midst of my evil, come close to my unfaithfulness. Share my sin, which I hate and which I cannot leave. Be my brother, thou Holy God. Be my brother in the kingdom of evil and suffering and death.”

Advent is the season of waiting. We are waiting for something we know is to come. Every advent season, we wait. We wait for the lights and the festivals. We wait for the presents and the simple joy in the eyes of children. We wait for the songs that warm our heart. We wait for the tastes and smells that delight our senses. We wait for the embrace of family. We wait for we know that all this is to come. We also wait for the coming of our Lord. “Now when these things begin to take place, stand up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.” (Luke 21:28) For what are we to look ? What burden can we no longer bear alone? What challenge do we face? What disappointment will we encounter? How are we changed by the baby in the manger and the innocent man on the cross? “Advent creates people, new people. We too, are supposed to become new people in Advent. Look up, you whose gaze is fixed on this earth, who are spellbound by the little events and changes on the face of the earth. Look up to these words, you who have turned away from heaven disappointed . Look up, you whose eyes are heavy with tears and who are heavy and crying over the act that the earth has gracelessly torn us away. Look up, you who, burdened with guilt, cannot lift your eyes. Look up your redemption is drawing near. Something different from what you daily see will happen. Just be aware, be watchful, wait just another short moment. Wait and something quite new will break over you. God will come” Yes, Come Lord Jesus!

So like the shepherds abiding in the fields and the magi from the east bearing gifts, bow this Christmas at the manger of the Christ Child. Your prayers have been answered. Lord Jesus has come. “We cannot approach the manger of Christ the same way we approach the cradle of another child. Rather, when we go to the manger, something happens, and we cannot leave it again unless we have been judged or redeemed. Here we must either collapse or know the mercy of God directed toward us.”

Yes, Come Lord Jesus, Come quickly!



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