My (Phil's) first experience with an Asian traffic jam occurred over thirty years ago, at 11:45 p.m., in Bangkok, Thailand. Our group had just landed from a very long flight, gone through baggage claim (there were eight missing bags for our group of 13), immigration, visa then passport checks, after which we made a mad dash to the restrooms. We were bone-weary. As we headed to the hotel in a red taxi truck, we entered into a sea of vehicles that soon engulfed us in an awful, ninety-minute traffic jam at a traffic light.
ARGH! Welcome to Bangkok, Thailand!
At first, we were a bit upset and cranky. After a few minutes of whining, either the Holy Spirit (or delirium?) moved us to action. After thirty-plus hours of traveling, we were more than ready for a hotel where we could fall through the mattress" and get some sleep. In our weariness, we had allowed ourselves to be caught up in frustration and had lost sight of the great opportunities God was placing before us.
We suddenly realized that we were in Thailand and on the opposite side of the planet from where we usually lived. The sounds, smells, sights, language, and pace of life were all different... fascinating... exotic... and new!
As we looked around, we realized that cars were six across at an intersection with only four lanes. In between, in front, and behind each car were 10-12 motor scooters. Sometimes as many as six people crammed onto each scooter. The air was humid and full of spicy, savory, exhaust-laden, and trash-propelled aromas.
We suddenly began to laugh and giggle. Among the many things we were smelling, we realized that some of the foul aromas were coming from us! We began to joke that five of us had brought backpacks with extra underwear and clothes. Except, those five were the only five to get their luggage. The other eight had no change of clothes, and each was smelling quite "odiferous"! We began to speculate just how odiferous they would be in fifteen days! When we arrived at our inexpensive hotel, I explained to all of these lovely and smelly friends how to use one hanger to make a windsock to hook into the air conditioner vent so their underwear and socks could be washed, then DRIED, in the humid air of Bangkok.
Next, we realized that we would soon be getting up and going to church with all sorts of other believers from all over the world. Genuine excitement began to build in our hearts. The discussion turned to speculation of what it would be like worshiping in a language none of us had ever really experienced.
Who would we meet?
How would God use us?
Why were we so blessed to be able to come and be God's representatives in a place so far from home, yet so welcoming to us?
Before we realized it, bleary eyes gave way to hope-filled expectations. Foggy minds gave way to excited and holy speculation. And the irritations of a traffic jam at midnight gave way to the anticipated praise stories we would tell our friends and family when we went home.
The difficulties of travel, weariness from no sleep, and frustration of no clean clothes were all swallowed up in the greater reality of God's grace and what the Holy Spirit would do with us. For the next two weeks, we were not disappointed with what happened. (None of us except the three guys who roomed together and never got their luggage until we returned to the Thailand airport.) We now look on our irritating traffic jam as our intersection with joy!
Jesus' birth was the incarnation of God as Immanuel, Jesus the Christ and Son of God. The world was mired in a traffic jam of awful problems. The Christ was born at a time and in a place where political oppression, Jewish resentment, and unfair taxes collided. The Messiah's first bed was a place where animals fed and forgotten shepherds gathered around the unmarried woman who delivered him with the help of her promised husband. This young woman's baby, Jesus, would one day save people from their sins.
Messy, real-world realities framed the events that surrounded the birth of Jesus. Those problems were the setting for the Son of God's arrival to earth. God's grace had always been at work on a grand scale to do things for all the world. And this set of circumstances became the intersection through which redemption, hope, and life arrived for a lost and hopeless world. In a world where life was hard, felt demeaned, often was stolen by hardship, God chose to bring hope with the birth of a baby, baby Jesus!
Luke emphasized Jesus was born into human time with all of its political realities. Herod was a tenant king over the Jews for Rome, and Roman power exercised dominion over God's people's affairs (Luke 1:4; 2:1-3). Simple, holy people named Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5-25), Joseph and Mary (Luke 1:26-38; 2:1-7), and Simeon and Anna (Luke 2:25-38) were all caught up in this story. So, too, were unnamed shepherds out in their fields with their flocks at night. But as real as each of these people was, they were only a part of the extraordinary story of grace. That story had begun with Adam's sin. God began to tell it with hope with his promise to Abraham. Down through the kings and prophets and the dark days of exile, that story moved toward a bright future. That future dawned with Joseph and Mary in their newborn child. Even though this child was the Son of God, they laid him in a feed trough because no one provided him a room (Luke 2:1-7; 3:23-38).
However, the circumstances of the moment could not erase the joy of the more important story! Despite the messy moment in which Jesus was born, the angels spoke about a bigger picture, God's eternal plan, and the great joy this child's coming brought to earth. Sin would be dealt a deadly blow. Political domination, religious scheming, racial hatred, social prejudices, family shame, and cultural bias may have ruled the moment, but genuine and lasting joy was born with Jesus. That joy could not be contained, re-routed, stopped, or co-opted. Jesus' birth became humanity's intersection with joy. It is our intersection of joy!
Listen and rejoice with James Nored as he reminds us of the sea-change in reality and the overwhelming joy that came with the birth of Jesus.
As the angel told the shepherds:
Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David, a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger (Luke 2:10-12).
The world didn't know it yet, but from this moment on, people recalibrated time. Politics, skeptics, and critics have not been able to stop the good news of that night. Petty disagreements and deep-rooted hatred have not been able to derail the joy this news has brought through the centuries. Religious abuse, failure, and cynicism could not snuff out the light of hope born that night.
Because God's long story of grace intersected the mess of our world with Jesus' birth, the rest of Jesus' story is our "good news of great joy." This story is also the good news that our world desperately needs today. Caught in the hard struggle with disease, famine, fires, droughts, and all sorts of violence, we need "good news of great joy." And we have it, and it begins with a baby in a manger.