It was January 22, 1984. If you were old enough to stay up and watch Super Bowl XVIII, you may remember the moment. During a third quarter commercial break, Apple aired a blockbuster advertisement, promoting the release of the first Macintosh computer. If you weren’t around or old enough to stay up that late in the early eighties, check out the ad on YouTube. The commercial, titled “1984,” features hundreds of skinheads watching a video projection. On the huge screen, a Big Brother figure extolls the virtues of censorship. Then suddenly, a blonde heroine runs defiantly towards the front of the room. The athletic woman twirls and hurls the sledge hammer she’s carrying at the image. It shatters the screen.
Symbolically, she was liberating everyone from the conformity of technology groupthink. Or maybe from Microsoft, I’m not sure.
Whether or not you’re a Steve Jobs fan, you’ve got to give him his props. He was a master showman who could mark a moment in memorable ways. If there was something new happening at Apple, Jobs knew how to make it special. He’d grab global attention and incite excitement around any product launch.
God’s Launch Event
I thought about this today as I read Isaiah 9:6-7. It’s arguably one of the biggest news bulletins ever to break in human history:
For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given,
and the government will be on his shoulders.
And he will be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
This is one of those official Christmas passages. Our familiarity tempts us to skate on the surface instead of carving a hole in the ice to see the currents below. But grab your ice pick and look deep with me for a moment. Isaiah’s announcement is worth lingering observation.
The good news in this passage is a birth announcement. A mother will be given a child, but this would be no ordinary child. He would be born human. He would also be divine. This new Son, born of a woman and given to us, would share God’s names – Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. The Son would also shoulder a unique government, one that is inaugurated by God, increasing in peace, and expanding eternally. This newsflash qualifies as the greatest in world: God becoming man and installing an unending government of peace… Are you serious?
It’s beyond epic! Comparatively speaking, this news renders every Apple product launch irrelevant.
So, what kind of jaw-dropping, show-stopping, once-in-a-lifetime promotional event did God arrange for the Son’s celebrity arrival? The target audience was a few shepherds, the stage was a field with sheep and the timing was the middle of the night. We read about it in Luke 2:9-11:
And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them… [and] said to them, “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.
Steve Jobs would be appalled. God was delighted.
The Beauty of the Ordinary
An angel appearing to a group of shepherds in a field after midnight is the epitome of anticlimactic. The extraordinary news was missed by the paparazzi but echoed forth with reverb to ordinary shepherds. But that’s what makes it so beautiful. God didn’t aim his good news at the powerful, the noble, the mavens, or the networkers. The gatekeepers and educated elite were passed over. History’s most important newsflash wasn’t announced from a palace balcony. It didn’t arrive with an entourage. God’s good news was (and is) for regular folk humble enough to believe that God could come to them in ways they never expected—as a weak baby swaddled in cloths and lying in a manger.
Before I was a Christian, I believed that if God really wanted a relationship with me, he would introduce himself through a dramatic, cataclysmic, Red Sea-parting experience. After all, if you’re the King of the Universe and you want to recruit for your cause, you go big, right? Along the way, I had heard testimonies of powerful encounters with God at the point of conversion. I loved hearing these stories! And they reinforced my notion that when God comes, he rolls in with a shock and awe.
My own conversion had no pyrotechnics. There were no perceptible power-encounters with the enemy. There was nothing melodramatic or flashy. In fact, though I’m utterly convinced I was converted, I can’t even point to the day or hour. What I expected was fireworks, a memorable miracle, or hearing God’s voice. Heck, I would’ve settled for an angel holding a sparkler and a sign saying, “Wake up! God is real. Follow Him!” But what I received was far more understated. Conversion is the greatest miracle of all, but it sometimes arrives more as a small, highly-trained resistance force than as an army stockpiled with superior firepower.
God’s work in my heart was decisively subversive. There was a renovation of my desires, an inexplicable draw towards Jesus, and a growing hunger and thirst for God’s Word. But his subversive work taught me something critical about God. He often arrives in unexpected ways.
How to Have a Subversive Little Christmas
Here are three ways to celebrate the subversive little ways God moves at Christmas:
1. First, look beneath the surface. Most of my life, Christmas was always a big deal. The house was dressed. The attire was dressed up for church. And of course, the turkey was dressed. And you dressed up your behavior to score big with Santa. I’m not suggesting these traditions are wrong, but they hardly tune us to hear God on the frequency of ‘ordinary’. The more we glam up Christmas, the more the sacred is covered up by surface glamour. True beauty, meaning, and transcendence can be lost if we are desensitized by glitzy distractions.
The biblical Christmas story by contrast is less suited for cultural hype and marketing agendas. It consistently invites us to peer beneath the surface. At Christmas, God hides the best gifts in plain sight. He wraps them in sacred simplicity. The practice of reading a passage before presents are opened; a tradition of expressing thanks after gifts are opened; a prayer of thanks before the meal; inviting kids to share the Bethlehem drama; asking an older guest to share how God has been faithful over the past year; sitting with a relative to hear their story; exercising courage to share your own—the one that includes Jesus. There’s no genius to simple ideas like these, but embracing them requires faith to believe that God is magnified in life’s ordinary moments.
In these times, a cultural Christmas is subverted as Jesus is seen, both inside and outside of the manger, as the treasure that makes Christmas eternally significant.
2. Second, remember that when Christmas doesn’t give what you expect, it still brings more than we deserve. It’s likely you’ve had Christmases that exceeded your expectations as well as bad ones—like the one when you realized all future gifts would be primarily clothes. As a kid (or a kid at heart) that’s the equivalent of coal in your stocking. We all bring expectations with us into the Christmas season. And these expectations often revolve around what we are going to receive. That’s a clear indication that we are conforming more than subverting.
The Savior surprised everyone by using his arrival to empty himself of his riches: “Though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you by his poverty might become rich” (2 Cor. 8: 9). For a race born into hostility towards God and deserving his just wrath for our selfish fixations, God arranged to come as a baby, grow into a man, offer himself as our sacrifice, receive the punishment we deserved, and then redeem us to serve him with a new heart. Christmas reminds us that we deserve judgement, but our subversive Savior found a way to solve our problem and restore us back into his family.
You may not get all that’s on your Christmas list. But one thing remains certain. This Christmas, we will all receive far more than we deserve.
3. Finally, make Christmas about serving, not receiving. Christ, “who, being in very nature[a] God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature[b] of a servant, being made in human likeness” (Phil. 2:6-7). Tucked in the center of the Christmas story is Christ emptying himself of the things he rightly deserved—all to become a servant. Here we see the true power of subversion. It’s funny. Give me a couch, a football game, and a bag of pretzels at Christmas, and I descend into a sloth-like state. I also feel entitled to total control over the TV remote. But put me at the sink after dinner trying to help out with the dishes, and, well, it creates a completely different Christmas experience. One is about me subverting others for my own agenda. The others is about God subverting my selfishness for others.
The Savior is subversive not only because he’s a king who manages to arrive on earth as a baby, but because he takes those of us who are babies and calls us to subversive acts where we become more like him.
A Staggering Subversion
JI Packer once wrote this about the Christmas story: “The more you think about it, the more staggering it gets.” But here’s the thing. It’s not staggering like an Apple launch with its multi-million-dollar-blitz, screaming “Steve Jobs has done it again!”. No, it’s staggering because God chose the most unexpected way to launch a global invasion. He sent a baby, born of a virgin. And through the Christ child he placed within the world a resistance that would influence eternity.
‘Staggering’ barely captures the beauty and brilliance of this divine audacity. So, with that Christmas cheer, let me say to one and all, “Have yourself a very subversive Christmas!”