God’s plan to save the world seems desperately flimsy. He seems to be making it up as he goes along. Like in 24, West Wing, Lost, The Killing or Homeland, the plan quickly turns into a catalogue of errors. But zooming through the story with the box set and no need to wait, major mishaps become smaller as they are solved or trumped by a new one 5 minutes later. Jack Bauer will always win in the end.
Back to the Christmas story. Each year it’s like we put the box set on and watch it on fast forward. We’re so familiar we don’t need the words, just join in with the songs like the Christmas airing of The Sound of Music. But it deserves more than that. It’s more complex than that. It’s needs to be read slower than that.
God’s flimsy plan went something like this.
Part 1: Must incarnate. Eew. Choose a human. Young peasant girl. Unmarried. Pregnant. Scandal. D’oh! Well-meaning boyfriend. Got a trade. Scandal. D’oh! Loyalty. Nice. Census! Oops. Must travel. Or not. Already live in Bethlehem. Do I? Matthew says. Quirinius is Governor. And Herod. Doesn’t tie up. Never mind. Carry on. Long journey. 65 miles. Bad plan. Nowhere to sleep. Having a baby. Put him with the animals. Really? God’s lost it. Poo everywhere. Cows. Stink. Dirty birth. No family to help. Homeless. D’oh! Baby born. Part 1: done.
Part 2: Must tell someone. Choose humans. Who? Shepherds. Why? Poor, smelly, unloved. Untrusted. D’oh! Great. Send the angels. Why them? No-one will listen. Better idea. Tell rich people. Here’s some. Foreigners? Hang on. Astrology. Astronomy? Sorry. Reading the stars? Not here surely. Jewish story. Gentile visitors. Go to Herod. No! Bad plan. D’oh! Didn’t see that coming. Shuffle away. Nothing to worry about King. Nasty King. Find family. Shepherds long gone. Or never here. Keep them in. Nativity looks better. Gifts. Bit odd. Myrrh? Death. Didn’t see that coming. Never trust foreigners. Part 2: done. Just.
Part 3: Plan gone bad. Must run away. Or not. Luke no. Simeon and Anna. Circumcision. Ouch. Matthew yes. Run now! Herod very cross. Escape to Egypt! Pause to respect the irony. Refugees. New born. Poor. Travelling carpenter. Untrustworthy. D’oh! Meanwhile Herod. Murders 20 children. Erm. Is God still planning? Herod dead. Go to Nazareth. Or return to Nazareth. Out of Egypt I will call my son. In secret. In shame? Who’s baby is it? Part 3: run away. Done.
Part 4: Must keep quiet. Live quietly. Shepherds long-forgotten. Until afterwards. Mary remembered. Told Luke. Matthew? Heard about strange foreigners. Included them. Joseph? Probably died. Not mentioned after 12. Jesus father dead. Pause for that one. Reflect. What a crazy few years. In what sense was this planned?
Take the gloss away and it’s not the children’s Bible story at all. It’s a haphazard mess of cliffhangers and near misses, of bad decisions and thinking on the hoof. But I know what it does say. That when God enters our world he doesn’t smooth the edges for himself, he doesn’t pull rank and take the best. He doesn’t hide from moral scandal or vicious gossip, he doesn’t turn a blind eye to poverty or power struggles, he doesn’t pretend other religions don’t exist and when his plan causes the death of children in a massacre… I just don’t know. What is he thinking? Is he even thinking? Be angry.
I think I know it means that God doesn’t have a linear plan. If he doesn’t even micro-manage his own life why on earth would he micro-manage ours? His plan is as subject to alterations as ours. He thinks on the hoof. So don’t get het up about falling off of it. The story of the incarnation is not a beautifully packaged school play where everything slots into place. Right from the start God is working from and redeeming the raw materials of human experience. Love, hate, trust, scandal, prejudice, life and death. It’s chaotic, it’s fascinating, it’s a mixture of truth and rumour and heresay and heresy and in that respect, it’s a lot like life.