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God Turns Up In All the Wrong Places at Christmas
Recently, at a Christian men’s breakfast that I wasn’t excited about attending, I was surprised to make an unlikely friend in an elderly man named John. At the age of seven, John had been evacuated on the Kindertransport program just before the Holocaust began in Germany. John’s parents were among the 6 million people living in the wrong place at the wrong time, caught on the wrong side of Hitler’s fanaticism. Seventy-six years later, John was able to tell me of his tremendous gratitude for the love and commitment of the family who not only sheltered him but adopted him as their own after it became clear that he no longer had a home to return to.
John’s story was made possible by a man named Nicholas Winton. The Christmas of 1938, Winton had planned to go on a skiing holiday, but a friend persuaded him instead to visit Prague. On that trip the 29-year-old stockbroker came across hundreds of refugees traveling across Europe, and he was particularly overwhelmed by the plight of the children.
Moved, Winton returned to London and orchestrated a total of eight trains to travel to Czechoslovakia evacuating 669 refugee children to safety. He secured homes and sponsorship for them. He also navigated the complex political system, even forging British Home Office documents in order to get children out of Nazi-occupied territory. He did this secretly—apparently not even his wife knew about it.
Winton and John were strangers to each other. Their paths crossed briefly in 1939 and again 60 years later, but Winton’s open hospitality changed the whole of John’s life. The story of Jesus is not dissimilar. Jesus was to dedicate himself to a rescue mission like no other. Strangers around the world now owe their lives to this man.
While Jesus is certainly a rescuer like Winton, we must not forget that first he was a refugee like John, forced to flee his country under threat of genocide. Jesus was born into a world of country-wide conflict, domestic discord, and personal poverty. From his very birth, he was identified with the persecuted, the illegitimate, the homeless, and the marginalized. The forgotten side of the Christmas story helps us to see something of what it means to find God in the wrong place at the wrong time.
God Shows Up
In Matthew’s account of the Christmas story, when Joseph discovers that Mary really is a divinely pregnant virgin, the gospel-writer links back to a prophecy from Isaiah: “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: ‘The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’” (Matt. 1:22–23). Immanuel means “God with us.”
In the Old Testament, God may be both absent and present by turns, both friend and stranger. This tension reaches a climax in the birth of Jesus. Adam’s, Abraham’s, Jacob’s, Gideon’s, Naomi’s, David’s, Isaiah’s, and Ezekiel’s elusive and brief encounters with the God who is a stranger were all insufficient to illustrate the paradox of how God wants to be with his people.
Now, finally, God has shown up, but will he be recognized? Will he be welcomed?
Immanuel arrives in the midst of military occupation, poverty, and oppression. Despite 400 years of silence since the feeble return of God’s people from a generation in exile, and 600 years of almost continual occupation of Palestine, finally God declares himself present. God has not rejected his suffering people. God has not disassociated from those who are troubled. He stands with them in solidarity
Mind you, it is a strange kind of solidarity, this newborn sleeping on straw in a shed. And despite his arrival being heralded by astronomical phenomena and angel choirs, for the most part his birth and life will continue as it has begun, marked by the fact that he is a stranger, unrecognized and unwelcomed as the Son of God. Why does God choose to turn up in the middle of the night, in the middle of nowhere, to a couple of nobodies, in the middle of a census, to a country in conflict?
Here is the news: God deliberately planned to turn up at the wrong time in the wrong place. God is Immanuel. God is present. God is with us. But God is also hidden, set apart, unassuming.
An Unconventional Welcome
Despite the inauspicious circumstances of Jesus’ birth, well-wishers arrive nonetheless. Not friends and family, but strangers. Nomadic shepherds, considered untrustworthy and regarded as unclean. But God sends angels to invite these homeless strangers to welcome his homeless son into the world.
Perhaps Mary had already begun to understand something of God’s unusual habit of welcome and hospitality. Perhaps that understanding began when she realized that God had not thought it beneath him to invite himself into her life and to become, as the carol says, “offspring of the Virgin’s womb.” Or perhaps it was when they had run out of options and had nowhere to stay, and then, by God’s mercy, a roof was offered them for the night. Perhaps it was a while before that, as she sang her worship to the God who had chosen her to host his Son:
He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1:52–53)
By the time the shepherds arrived, Mary knew that no unwashed outcast could be unwelcome under their roof. She draws them not only into her makeshift home but also into her affections. Luke explains that Mary treasured these moments in her heart.
Luke’s gospel continues to emphasize in chapter after chapter the significance of unexpected, risky hospitality when it comes to being around Jesus. Right from the day he was born, strangers are welcomed into the most private of moments and amid the most meager of circumstances. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus is the one who makes space for the sinners, the sick, and the separated to share food and fellowship with him, while the rich, the righteous, and the royals miss out or shun his offer of hospitality.
Matthew’s retelling of Jesus’ birth may focus more on the global reach of the Good News message, but he does not overlook the significance of Jesus’ first well-wishers either, and so he records the welcome given to the Magi. In contrast to the poor shepherds, these are rich, well-dressed dignitaries with social standing and expensive gifts, but they too are traveling strangers. In fact, they were “from the East,” an exotic description that would have sent a wave of fear and suspicion through most Jews at that time.
The Magi were astrologers and had discerned from observing the stars that a great Jewish king had been born. Naturally, they go to the palace first, in Jerusalem. But Jesus is going to be a different kind of king. He has begun his life among the poor and lowly for a reason. The Magi continue on their quest to find the King.
By now the shepherds are long gone. The family is most probably living in a house, not a shed, and Jesus may not be a babe so much as a toddler. But Mary has not forgotten that God welcomes the least likely people. Like the shepherds, these strange visitors from the East receive a warm welcome from Mary.
We are probably too familiar with the story to be shocked by Mary’s response here. Jews would have been taught not even to associate with such people—unclean foreigners with strange religious beliefs—let alone accommodate them warmly. Matthew makes a point of including the welcome they receive, just as he makes a point of including three non-Jews—and women at that—in the genealogy that starts his gospel, a doubly unusual inclusion in a Jewish family tree. We have intriguing hints here of God’s hospitality to all people, despite the fact that Jesus’ birth is seemingly ignoble and invisible.
Whether there were three magi or not (Matthew does not say), it is hard not to make the connection with Abraham, who welcomed three strangers who announced a child who would grow up to bless the nations. It is also hard not to make the connection between this story and that of King David, whose hometown was also Bethlehem and who was also an unexpected nobody.
This Christ child has turned up in the wrong place, and yet by doing so, from the outset brings hope and peace as strangers come together from all sorts of backgrounds and places.
At the same time, the arrival of the Christ child is also bringing division, destruction, and death. Herod’s reaction to the news from the Magi that there was a new King in town was to order the extermination of all male children under two years old. It is understandable that the mass killing of small children does not feature in our popular yuletide celebrations. But why does the Bible itself not airbrush out the tragedy?
We know from historical records that King Herod was a vicious and vindictive person. He was so determined to hold on to power that he was willing to murder any number of toddlers and babies. Herod’s actions mirror those of Pharaoh at the time of Moses, who was so afraid of the growing immigrant community that he instructed the midwives to undertake gender-selective extermination to ensure no male babies survived. Herod just wants to get rid of one baby, but he sees other infant deaths as mere collateral damage.
If we thought a manger was bad, now there is nowhere in Israel where Jesus is allowed to rest. If we thought homelessness was bad, now he is deemed an enemy of the state and Herod’s death squads are combing the streets for him, committing mass infanticide as they go. But God has warned Joseph in a dream, and to escape the slaughter, he and his family go on the run. They cross the border into Egypt and seek asylum there.
Jesus was a refugee. The Son of God was an asylum seeker. The Prince of Peace went on the run from a brutal and merciless regime, crossing borders to find sanctuary. We prefer a civilized Jesus, a respectable establishment type who will comfort us, protect us, and promise that all our dreams will come true. The real Jesus, who identifies with the poor and the refugees, is a threat to our ambitions. Are we more like Herod than we like to admit? If there is no room for the outcast, vulnerable, poverty-stricken refugee Jesus in our lives, then we have to get rid of the other outcast, vulnerable, poverty-stricken refugees he associates with: collateral damage in our bid to protect a ruling position we are unwilling to budge from.
Identification and Invitation
It is as Jesus is excluded, estranged, and made an outsider and a refugee that we can come to see two things. We see God’s identification with the outsider, and we see his invitation to the outsider. God is a stranger so that strangers can know God. If we know God, then we were once strangers, and we are to welcome strangers just as God welcomed us.
For the stranger that was Jesus, however, a warm welcome was rare. Jesus’ childhood exclusion and rejection was a pattern that would continue to mark his life. He was rejected by the people of his own hometown after preaching in their synagogue, where a sermon about God’s concern for the poor and oppressed almost ended with him being thrown off a cliff. Jesus was rejected by the religious elite after healing the sick and disabled. Jesus was rejected for his choice of friends, food, and forgiveness. Jesus was rejected by his own brothers, betrayed by one of his own disciples, disowned by another, and turned on by the Jewish crowd when they demanded the Romans crucify him.
The gospel writer John puts it incredibly bluntly: “He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him” (1:11). He who came to teach us about being welcoming was time and again the least welcomed. Constantly on the receiving end of what we might call anti-hospitality, Jesus stood in solidarity with others in society who were rejected and marginalized. He fraternized with Roman collaborators, unclean foreigners, lepers, prostitutes, and the poor. He lived among the sick, the lonely, the bereaved, the morally outcast, and the extremists. He brought to them welcome, forgiveness, and hope.
This is God’s hospitality: Jesus welcomed the rejected despite being rejected for it himself. This is the God who is a stranger: Jesus, who knew what it was like to be unwelcome in his own country, would die so that others could be welcomed into his own family. This is the God who turns up in the wrong places: Jesus is found with the least likely people because he wants to make sure they are in the right place when it comes to their standing before God.
Finding God in All the Wrong Places
Christians love the Christmas story. But perhaps we need to turn the tables on the popular family-oriented celebration by demonstrating something of Jesus’ flip-flop hospitality. We may not know many shepherds or traveling astrologers, but there are plenty of other unlikely people, people who are rejected and marginalized, whom we could invite into our homes and our hearts.
Under Nazism, one of the first groups of people to be picked out were children with learning difficulties. When the Netherlands was invaded, the Nazis banned the church services specifically for children with learning difficulties that were being run by Corrie ten Boom. For the Nazis, their treatment of these particularly vulnerable children was the starting point for the trajectory that would end in genocide. For Ten Boom, her treatment of these particularly vulnerable children was the starting point for the trajectory that would turn her humble kitchen table into a secret trapdoor, her home into a hiding place, and her protection of hundreds of Jews from Haarlem into an inspiration for Christians everywhere.
Shortly after the services were shut down, Ten Boom went to see her pastor, pleading with him to shield a Jewish baby she had rescued. He refused, for fear of losing his life, but at that moment Ten Boom’s father appeared in the doorway. She credits his words as the turning point in her life:
“Give the child to me, Corrie,” he said. Father held the baby close, his white beard brushing its cheek, looking into the little face with eyes as blue and innocent as the baby’s. “You say we could lose our lives for this child. I would consider that the greatest honour that could come to my family.”
Ten Boom and her father were not afraid to put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of others because they were driven by their faith in the Christ who had done the same for them. They followed a God who wrote himself into the pages of history at what seemed like an utterly wrong place and time: in the middle of a military occupation and into a poverty-stricken family soon forced into being refugees. But for Jesus, this was exactly the right time and place to be in order to accomplish all that had been planned.
If we want to know the God who is a stranger, we may have to start looking in all the wrong places. To do that we may have to start being in all the wrong places. If it wasn’t beneath God himself to turn up in the lowly villages of ancient Israel or the refugee camps of Egypt, it cannot be beneath us. Where will our hospitality be most costly, most effective, and most appreciated?
Krish Kandiah is founding director of Home for Good, an adoption and foster care ministry, and a lecturer in theology at Regents Park College, Oxford University. This essay is adapted from his latest book, God Is Stranger: Finding God in Unexpected Places (InterVarsity Press).