The story of the Gospel begins at the incarnation. Well, really, it begins thousands of years earlier, in the first chapters of Genesis, where the Gospel is promised, ushering in a long period of expectation. But the story of how God actually reached His hand into human history and brought about the salvation of His people really does begin in the manger, when God Himself became man and dwelt at last among us.
This was the moment that, as Paul described, Christ, though one in the same as God, willingly made Himself nothing. He made Himself man. In fact, He made himself into something less than man—He made Himself a slave to all men. He was not born in a home—he was born in a stable. He did not lie on blankets; he lay on a bed of straw. He did not descend to the world, he descended below the world, to a place meant for animals. He did not die as a leader, He died as a common criminal.
Here, while lying on a manger and worshipped as both God and King only by his family and some shepherds, God began his work. The beginnings were humble and unassuming, and, though one might expect the story to turn here into an underdog tale of a scrappy insurgency into the world, in fact the rest of the story does not stray far—a carpenter like His father, an itinerant teacher who happened to have a message bold and new enough to attract a few followers even before the first of the miracles. The rest of the story came and went like a whirlwind: miracles, confrontations with religious aristocracy, crowds, parables, death, resurrection. Three years of ministry followed by two thousand years (and counting) of wonder and further expectation.
Whether or not we choose to believe it at all, the child in the manger proves the pivot on which the axis of history continues to turn. It continues to be more influential than any war or ruler; it is more dramatic than the rising or falling of any great empire. It stands as the event. The foundation of the Gospel of salvation. Neither the most confused skeptic nor the most hardened humanist can deny with any honesty the influence of the event on the history of the world.
But what is this Gospel that began at the incarnation?
It is something that ought to be desired by man. The word itself scream that it is “good news,” and it really ought to be taken that way. Any expression of the Gospel that does not coincide with this fact, but which turns the Gospel into a mournful or condemning one, is nothing less than a false gospel. The Gospel is not a law, it is not a list of rules, it is nothing less than a promise of salvation.
Still, far too often the “good” is neglected in our expression of the Good News, and the Gospel is taken to be something rather to be ashamed of or to be hid from. We think that the imperfections of the world are things that somehow offer evidence against the Gospel, and we turn meek and mild, thinking that in boldness we might come up against questions we cannot answer. We forget that the long, often sordid history of the Christian faith, though indeed embarrassing at times, is a history that confirms rather than contradicts the message of the Gospel—the same Gospel that began on Christmas Day. The winding road of the church only fortifies what the Bible says of the followers of Christ, who three times fell asleep on the night of the arrest of their master and fought amongst themselves about which of them were the greatest. The peculiar shortcomings of the Disciples, culminating in the threefold denial by Peter, amount to perhaps the perfect cross section of the Christian church as it has existed throughout history. As Christians we continue (so it seems) in a perpetual state of either sleep or denial regarding our faith. We are either apathetic or actively antagonistic toward our creator, and I cannot say which is worse.
The shortcomings of Christians, while regrettable, do nothing to diminish the truth of the Gospel. The Bible is in no way silent about the more embarrassing tendencies of the Christian, just as it is painfully candid about the shortcomings of the Jews. The New Testament does not tell the story of a new, perfect movement, destined to take the world by a storm of righteousness. Though Christmas really did mean the birth of the King, and it really did mean the beginning of a Kingdom, the fullness of the Kingdom and the true reign of the King are yet to be experienced in their fullness. The movement that started on Christmas day is now as it was then—a great, even momentous, struggle; we strive to spread the message of the Kingdom despite facing opposition both from within and without. It is an imperfect movement (though based on perfect principles) that, if we are going to be reasonable, really should have died a young, ignoble death long ago.
Christianity really should never have survived past that first Christmas. The name of Jesus Christ really shouldn’t have outlasted the furniture made by His hands. The religious movement He began really ought to have died with Him. And yet, even in those first years and decades the Christ movement was already proclaiming victory. Christianity, even at the moment when it should have been in the throes of death, declared itself to be a force capable of overwhelming the Earth. The conquering nature of the faith was promised long before there were any signs that such a thing was even possible.
Consider this: Right up until the ministry of Christ and the writing of the New Testament, when God finally announced that the message of his salvation was to be taken to the ends of the Earth—the moment he declared that this formerly localized religion was destined to completely overwhelm civilization—this was an unheard of conceit. The very notion of evangelism in the name of religion was practically unheard of. Religions had, until then, been driven by cultural forces—the culture and the people had created the religion rather than the other way around. It was as true in the Mediterranean world, where the gods of Greece, Rome and Egypt all bore an uncanny likeness to the cultures that bore them, as it was in the East, where Hinduism, Buddhism and the like seem almost inevitable. Before Christ, the only culture ever founded upon religion was that of the Jews, and still, these were a people who seemed to do everything they could to shake off the shackles of God and make Him conform to what they found more comfortable—and to their own demise.
The Jews wanted desperately to be like every other Kingdom—the Egyptians, the Romans, the Greeks, the Persians—who were not bound by religion. The people of these other cultures created gods for themselves that strengthened them. There was nothing challenging or burdensome about their manmade gods. We all recognize the truth that the God of Israel can be difficult to follow; He asks hard things from us and often offers no explanations. Who would dare create such a God? And who could possibly convince others to follow such a God, especially when it requires so much? We can see, in retrospect, that following God, though difficult, truly was the best for the people of Israel—for when they turned from Him it only meant disaster—but it is hard, almost impossible to understand this in the moment.
Still, even for the Israelites there was the sense that God belonged to them alone—that He was a God that had confined Himself to a single people. It is even more astonishing, in light of this, that the New Testament should be so presumptuous as to declare that the Gospel would overrun the world. And bear in mind, this claim is being made at the very time that Paul is writing to some of the earliest churches, who should have been quick to believe, being so inundated with first-hand witnesses of Christ, “I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you,” or from John: “I know of your works, you have the reputation of being alive, but you are dead.” Who, in light of these letters, in light of the turmoil of the canon debates and the rise of apostasy and Gnosticism and false gospels, could have been confident that such a church could ultimately not just survive, but soar? The early church was many things, but destined to overcome the world it was not.
Indeed, the church could not possibly have succeeded had it been built upon the shoulders of a homely religious leader like Paul or a lowly fisherman who could not hold his tongue like Peter. It could not have been built upon anything other than an absolute, concrete truth. It could not have stood on any shoulders but that of a true King—albeit one born under the lowliest of circumstances. It almost seems that it could not possibly have happened any other way.
The Bible ends with a dramatic prophesy of absolute hope—the revealing of the true, perfect Kingdom over which the Christ Child will reign—but that very same prophesy candidly acknowledges that the church will face tremendous hardships and make many mistakes before this comes about. The Bible ends with what seems to me to be this assurance: If the gospel is anything less than the truth—if the child born on Christmas is anything less than God Himself—rest assured, it will be sent through the fire. It will be purged until only the truth, if there is any truth to be found, will remain. The fires of history have shown that the weaknesses of the faith come in the form of the followers rather than the founder of Christianity. The Bible has withstood the tests of the skeptics, Christ has easily withstood His harshest critics, even when the Christian has failed. There is hope in this.
The history of humanity has always been—indeed, continues to be—a history of waiting for God to come. He came first to the garden and brought both condemnation and hope; He came in the incarnation and brought salvation; He promises to come again to bring the fulfillment of every promise. He came to the garden and Adam hid in his shame. He came to Bethlehem and the King tried to kill him, eventually succeeding. He will come in the end to rescue His people and to conquer and crush His enemies beneath his feet.
The season of Advent represents this time of waiting. It is a time when we ought to reflect upon not just what we are waiting for or who we are waiting for, but how we go about it. How are our lives reflecting our deep anticipation and hope? What roles are we choosing to play in the history of our faith?
If we truly believe the truth of the Gospel that claims itself capable of overtaking the world, why are we so hesitant to take part in this unstoppable force?