Christmas Eve, 2013
Pastor Joe Wittwer
Let me tell you a story. (Run the video during the story with the volume low.) http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UM21gPmkDpI
ILL: On January 12, 2007, a man sat at a metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin. In the next 45 minutes, he played six pieces by Bach. During that time, about 1,100 people went through the station, most of them on their way to work.
Only 6 people stopped to listen, including a 3 year-old boy whose his mother finally forced him to move along. About 20 dropped money in his case without stopping to listen; he collected $32. When he finished playing, no one noticed, no one applauded. One woman stopped to listen and engaged the musician in conversation because she recognized him.
You see, the violinist was Joshua Bell, one of the finest classical musicians in the world. He had just played some of the most elegant music ever written, on a violin worth $3.5 million dollars. Two days before playing in the subway, Joshua Bell sold out at a theater in Boston where the seats averaged $100.
The Washington Post staged this as part of a social experiment. In a commonplace environment at an inappropriate hour, do we perceive beauty? Do we stop to appreciate it? Do we recognize talent in an unexpected context?
If we do not have a moment to stop and listen to one of the best musicians in the world playing some of the best music ever written, how many other things are we missing?
How many other things are we missing? Here’s:
The Big Idea: On the first Christmas, God came to earth undercover, and almost everyone missed Him. It’s still possible to miss the Undercover God.
Let’s unpack it. (Luke 2:1-20 here?)
1. God came to earth undercover.
We don’t expect to find Joshua Bell playing in a subway station. And we wouldn’t expect God to come to earth as He did. We would expect something bigger, something royal, fit for a king.
ILL: In his best-selling book, The Jesus I Never Knew, Philip Yancey described Queen Elizabeth’s visit to the US.
The logistics involved were incredible: her four thousand pounds of luggage included two outfits for every occasion, a mourning outfit in case someone died, forty pints of plasma, and white kid-leather toilet seat covers. She brought along her own hairdresser, two valets, and a host of other attendants. A brief visit of royalty to a foreign country can easily cost twenty million dollars, and is a major news event.
ILL: Or think of the most recent presidential visit to Spokane. Ok, maybe that’s not a good example since presidents don’t come here! The last one I could find on Google was George Bush in 1989. Before that it was William Howard Taft in 1909! What’s wrong with these guys? This is Paradise! But when presidents come, it’s a big deal: millions of dollars in security, months of preparation, it’s all over the news. It’s a big stinking deal.
If we were looking for God to make an appearance, most of us would imagine something like that, something fit for a queen or a president.
But that’s not at all how He came. God came to earth incognito, undercover. He arrived as a baby born out of wedlock to Jewish peasants. He was born in a barn, a stable for animals, since there was no room in any of local bed and breakfasts. Rather than coming to Rome, the center of the power, He came to Bethlehem, a tiny village in a backwater corner of the Empire. No one in Bethlehem had the slightest idea who he was…or cared. His birth would have gone completely unnoticed if God hadn’t alerted some shepherds in nearby fields, and a few astrologers in Persia! And shortly after his birth, King Herod tried to murder him, so Jesus’ parents had to escape to Egypt where they lived for several years as political refugees. Jesus’ arrival was like Joshua Bell playing in the subway station—not what anyone would expect or look for. Jesus came as the Undercover God. And almost everyone missed him.
ILL: State representative Kevin Parker was one of the speakers at the Christian Service Summit in September. But he came undercover, disguised as a street person. I looked right him and didn’t recognize him. So did a lot of other people. In fact, when it was time for Kevin to speak, the MC asked if anyone had seen him, and most of us shook our heads. One person who didn’t miss him was our own Kristi Burns, leader of Love 360 here at Life Center. Kristi asked him, “Kevin, are you all right? You don’t look well.” Kevin was thinking, “Are you kidding me? I look terrible. How do you think I usually look?” I missed him; almost everyone missed him.
Same with Jesus—almost everyone missed him when he came, except for a few people who got messaged from heaven. Which raises the question: why did he come undercover? Why come as a defenseless baby born in poverty so that most people miss you? Maybe that was the best way to reach us.
ILL: Donald Miller, in his book, Blue Like Jazz, tells a story about a Navy SEAL who was performing a covert operation, freeing hostages in some dark part of the world. The SEAL team stormed the room where the hostages had been imprisoned for months. The hostages were curled up in a corner, terrified. The SEALs identified themselves as Americans and asked the hostages to follow them, but the hostages wouldn’t budge. They sat there on the floor cowering in fear.
The SEALs weren’t sure what to do. They couldn’t possibly carry everybody out. Then one of them got an idea. He put down his weapon, took off his helmet, and curled up tightly next to the other hostages, getting so close his body was touching some of theirs. He softened the look on his face and put his arms around them. He was trying to show them he was one of them. None of the prison guards would have done this. He stayed there for a little while until some of the hostages started to look at him, finally meeting his eyes. Then he whispered that they were Americans and were there to rescue them. “Will you follow us?” he asked. He stood to his feet and one of the hostages did the same, then another, until all of them were willing to go. The story ends with all the hostages safe on an American aircraft carrier.
What raw power couldn’t accomplish, weakness and vulnerability did. God came to rescue us—that’s what the name, Jesus, means: God to the rescue. But to rescue us, God needed us to trust Him, and He knew that would happen best if He became one of us. So He came undercover, as a weak and vulnerable baby. And He whispers, “Will you follow me?”
God knew that He could do more undercover than He could coming in power. He could have flexed His almighty arm and forced us to follow, but a forced relationship isn’t what He wanted or we needed. He wants a willing relationship, a freely chosen relationship of love, and He chose to win our love by becoming one of us. So He came as the Undercover God.
Jesus was not only born undercover, but He died that way too.
2. God died undercover.
At the end of His life, God died undercover. God was crucified by His unsuspecting creatures. They had no idea who they were whipping, beating, and nailing to a cross. The apostle Paul explained,
Acts 13:27 The people of Jerusalem and their rulers did not recognize Jesus, yet in condemning him they fulfilled the words of the prophets that are read every Sabbath.
Notice that Paul says that they didn’t recognize Jesus—they had no idea who He really was, that He was the Undercover God. But when they condemned and killed him, they were fulfilling God’s plan revealed through the prophets. Peter said the same thing:
Acts 3:17–18 Now, fellow Israelites, I know that you acted in ignorance, as did your leaders. 18 But this is how God fulfilled what he had foretold through all the prophets, saying that his Messiah would suffer.
Notice that they acted in ignorance—they had no idea that Jesus was God undercover. But, Peter adds, God was at work fulfilling His plan announced through the prophets.
They didn’t recognize the Undercover God. They acted in ignorance when they crucified Him. God died undercover.
This was an enormous stumbling block to many in the first century: how could they believe in a God who became man? Worse, how could they believe in a crucified God, a God who suffered as a common criminal? This couldn’t be God! They had their notions of God, and this didn’t fit the picture.
Greek thought tended to separate the spiritual and physical. The physical was evil, the spiritual was good. The soul or spirit was trapped in the body, and the goal was to free the spirit from the body. God, who was pure spirit, could not have created the material universe—that was considered the work of lesser, evil powers. So the idea that God would enter a human body was simply unthinkable. And that God would suffer and die on a cross—impossible!
So when Christians began to spread the good news that God had come to earth as a man, was crucified and rose again, it was a shocking message. An incarnate God? A crucified God? What kind of God is that?
It’s the kind of God I can trust.
This is one of the things I love about the Christian message: it is so earthy and practical, not ethereal or escapist.
- We believe that God created the material world and that it is good, not evil. So living in a material world is good. We enjoy God’s creation and care for it, because it is His and it is good.
- We believe in the incarnation, that God came to earth as one of us, that Jesus is God in a bod! Christianity is an embodied faith. I don’t need to escape this physical life; I need to live it to the full, because God did.
- We believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, and that one day He will raise us to everlasting life—not in some mystical spiritual plane, but in a new heavens and a new earth that are material.
God came undercover—in a body. And He died undercover—on a cross. No one expected either.
Today, we hurry past Joshua Bell as he plays incognito in the subway. What else are we missing? Many of us miss Jesus. Like our first century forebears, we reject Him because it seems implausible (or impossible) for God to slip into our world undercover: to be born a baby and die a criminal. And many of us miss what God is doing in our lives for the same reason. We have our own idea of what God looks like and how God behaves, and so we miss Him.
3. God still works undercover.
God still works in the dark, undercover. I think we’d often prefer that He show up with signs and wonders, and power and lights. And sometimes He does. But usually He still comes undercover; He slips in silently and goes to work.
ILL: When I was 13, a friend invited me to a youth rally at his church. I went reluctantly and was ambushed by God! Afterwards, I walked home in the dark and made my decision. “God, I don’t know anything about you. I don’t even know if you’re really there. All I know is that I want what that guy has. So here’s my life.”
Luke 2:13–14 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared…praising God and saying, 14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”
Oh wait, did I get my stories mixed up? That’s right, I was telling my story. But wouldn’t it be cool if that was my story, or your story? Don’t you wish sometimes that God showed up in a big way like that—angels and lights and songs? Wow!
What happened to me instead was…nothing. I saw nothing—no angels in the night sky. I felt nothing—no electrical currents, no flood of emotion–nothing. I just kept walking home. But God heard my prayer, and silently slipped into my life, and went to work and changed everything.
How many of you had experiences like that? Some of you had Big Experiences—God can and does do that sometimes. But for most of us, the Undercover God is still slipping in quietly, like He did that first Christmas, and He sets to work transforming us!
If you invite Him in today, He’ll come. Probably quietly, undercover. But He’ll come, and He’ll set to work transforming you. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that nothing happened. God loves to slip in undercover and save us! Almost everyone missed Jesus because He didn’t come the way they expected. Set aside your expectations, and just invite Him in, and let Him go to work. (Prayer here.)
Don’t make the mistake of thinking that nothing happened. God heard your prayer and He’s there, at work in you.
Here’s another mistake you don’t want to make: when things are dark and difficult, don’t think that God has left you. To the contrary, God seems to do His best work in our darkest and most difficult moments.
ILL: Easily, the darkest and most difficult time of Laina’s and my life was when our son, Jeff, died just before his 23rd birthday. He would have been 30 this year. To lose a child is unimaginable grief—I sunk into a quiet depression for the next six months. It was the hardest thing I’ve ever faced.
But God was at work in those dark moments. Don’t misunderstand me. I don’t believe God caused Jeff’s death. But in that darkest of times, God was with us in the deepest way. I drew rich comfort from my times with Him. Scripture spoke to me in new ways. Prayer was like air to a submerged man—I hungrily gulped it. And on the other side of tragedy, by God’s grace, we came out better.
Jeff had Asperger’s Syndrome—a form of high functioning autism—that made him a handful to live with. We used to say that God gave us Jeff because otherwise our lives would have been perfect and no one’s life should be perfect! But the reality was that God used Jeff to perfect us, to make us better human beings. My kids are amazing people with huge, compassionate hearts—and that is due in large part to living with Jeff.
On Halloween, Laina and I were reminiscing about taking the kids trick-or-treating. Jeff would get so wound up, so anxious that he would throw up. This was his big night! He had to get as much candy as possible—he would get so anxious—then ralph all over! Good times!
The darkest moment in our story was when Jeff died. God was there, at work. The darkest moment in God’s story was when His Son died on a cross. But that’s also when God did His best work, saving us.
Right now, in your darkest moment, God is quietly working for your good.
Romans 8:28 And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.
In all things, even in your darkest and most difficult moments, God is at work for your good. God still works undercover.
4. God comes to us undercover.
God came to earth the first Christmas undercover. God still comes to us undercover; He comes to us in the small, the despised, the broken, the weak and the needy.
ILL: In a poem called “The Inn That Missed Its Chance,” the innkeeper explains the matter to his friends:
How could I know
That they were so important, just the two.
No servants, just a workman sort of man
Leading a donkey, and his wife thereon.
I saw them not myself,
My servants must have driven them away;
But had I seen them-how was I to know?
There was a sign,
But I had no time for stars;
And there were songs
Out on the hills; but how was I to hear
Amid the thousand clamors of an Inn?
The innkeeper missed his chance and what was his excuse? He was too busy to notice the sign or hear the songs. But even more, had he seen them himself, how was he to know who they were? They were just two ordinary people—a workman and his wife on a donkey. No servants—obviously poor. How was he to know?
He missed his chance. And we often miss ours because God comes to us undercover, disguised as a child, or a hurting friend, or a person in need.
Matthew 25:35–40 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Mother Teresa used to say, “In the poor we meet Jesus in his most distressing disguises.”
ILL: Patricia Miller tells this story:
While at work in the hospital emergency room, I learned to stop crying at the pain around me. Each day I was becoming more insensitive to people and their real needs. Five years of emergency room exposure had taken its toll.
Then God intervened.
I was taking information for registering a young woman who had overdosed on drugs and had attempted suicide. Her mother sat before me as I typed the information into the computer. The mother was unkempt and bleary eyed. She had been awakened in the middle of the night by the police to come to the hospital. She could only speak to me in a whisper.
“Hurry up,” I said to myself, as she slowly gave me the information. My impatience was raw as I finished the report and jumped to the machine to copy the medical cards. That’s when God stopped me—at the copy machine. He spoke to my heart so clearly: “You didn’t even look at her.” He repeated it, gently: “You didn’t even look at her.”
I felt His grief for her and for her daughter, and I bowed my head. “I’m sorry, Lord. I am so sorry.”
I sat down in front of the distraught woman and covered her hands with mine. I looked into her eyes with all the love that God could flood through me and said, “I care. Don’t give up.”
She wept and wept. She poured her heart out to me about the years of dealing with a rebellious daughter as a single mom. Finally, she looked up and thanked me.
My attitude changed that night. Jesus came right into my workplace in spite of rules that tried to keep him out. He came in to set me free to care again. He gave himself to that woman through me.
Jesus came into her workplace—undercover, as a hurting mom. But Patricia missed him…until she looked, really looked at her.
What are you missing? Look again at each person you meet. God comes to us in the most distressing disguises: a child, a hurting friend or neighbor, a needy person.
He’s the undercover God. Don’t miss Him!