After Jesus Was Born
The tree is gone. The poinsettias. The wreaths. The nativities are put away. The celebration is over. Life has returned to normal. Surely that is how the wise men found Mary and her child. Matthew doesn’t mention Joseph. Mary is seen with her child, but not heard. The child is not described with extraordinary abilities. He doesn’t talk or perform miracles. He isn’t portrayed as regal or glowing or royal or grand. He is a child, with his mom.
Perhaps he was nestled with his head in the crook of her arm and his legs lying across her lap as he slept. Perhaps they were playing peek-a-boo and giggling as these strange men entered. Perhaps Mary scooped up the young boy to protect him as her eyes darted from one man’s face to another, trying to read what they wanted, why they might be here.
Early tradition said there were twelve of them. Later traditions have trimmed the guests down to three. But, we don’t really know how many there were. Matthew tells us that wise men from the East came to Jerusalem and then on to Bethlehem, following a star that led them to the place.
And when they saw the child with Mary his mother, they fell down and worshiped him. They were immediately all-in; he was their whole focus; they offered him their full devotion. When I envision the wise men falling on their knees, bowing before this toddler, I am aware of my own lack of faith. I know my unwillingness to take risks – pack up and go wherever a star might lead me? – not likely. I am aware of my own pride – fall down on my knees and worship a toddler? – not likely. I am aware of my own inhibitions – surrender myself and worship? – lift my hands? Open my palms? Fall on my knees? What if I lose control?
Craig Kelly writes about his struggle with faith and relationship with God in a way that I find helpful. Craig’s reluctance to give control of his life to Jesus contrasts with the wise men’s response to the Christ child in a way that I think we can all relate to.
Every summer, Craig spent the month of August with his grandparents at their cabin on the shores of Lake Melissa in Minnesota. Craig was from North Dakota, half-way between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans, and it was here that he enjoyed gazing at the landscape. He found it relaxing – completely devoid of a single drop of water. Craig wasn’t scared of the water. “Lake Melissa was in a beautiful area, filled with all the wonder and beauty that nature had to offer. It was just that the ‘lake’ part didn’t sit too well with [Craig]. Instead of looking out from [his] bedroom window and seeing fields of golden wheat stretching on endlessly toward the horizon, [he] looked out to a like filled with…well, water.” Craig said of it, “You can only look at water for so long, you know.”
His grandfather, a retired pastor, loved the water. He lived to swim, to canoe, to fish, anything really water related, his grandfather loved to soak up. “Sometimes early in the morning, he would just sit out on the lake in his canoe, looking at the sunrise appearing over the lake, deep in contemplation or prayer…Sometimes [Craig] even [saw] his jumping off his canoe and taking a dive in to the lake.” Craig admits that the first time he saw his granddad do this, the only explanation Craig could muster was that his grandfather must be having a heart attack – why would anyone willingly get out of their boat and into the water? He must have lost his balance, fallen in, only, moments later, Craig watched as his grandfather swam like a fish back to the canoe.
Most of the time, Craig would help his grandmother with chores and then take a walk along the shoreline, he even enjoyed walking into the lake – up to his knees. He would take a book with him – old Westerns were his favorites (no water in those).
Craig recalls those days, “Grandpa often left me a Bible to take with me, but it wasn’t my first choice for reading material. I loved God and Jesus and all that, but I didn’t need God invading every part of my life. I gave God his due on Sundays and some holidays and that was good enough. I suppose to his credit, Grandpa didn’t try to push his faith on me to the point of alienating me. But his love for God was like his love for water –obvious to everyone who know him. So I would occasionally indulge him and take the Bible along on my walks.” Craig read the stories of faith. He admits that a part of him longed for “that kind of reckless abandonment to God, the kind that could honestly say, ‘My life is hidden with Christ in God,’ or ‘To live is Christ and to die is gain.’” But he didn’t know how to get there.
Then, when he was sixteen, his grandfather took him out with him on his canoe – onto the lake. Craig was not thrilled with the idea, but he says, “at least there was a canoe between me and dozens of feet of water. I just sat rigid in the middle of the canoe, safe and dry. After about five minutes of rowing, Grandpa put his paddle back in the canoe, leaving us floating idly about a hundred yards from shore. We just kept bobbing up and down on the lake, each rise and fall making me more and more uneasy.
“I know you don’t like the water, son,” Grandpa finally said, breaking the silence.
“Um, it’s okay.”
“You’re not very convincing,” he replied with a smile. “It’s okay, you know. Not everyone has to love the water. But I have noticed you wading out into the lake, letting it wash over your feet and legs, even letting it get up to your knees. And I saw that smile. You may like the water more than you think.”
“I don’t think so,” I said with a chuckle. “The water, swimming—that’s definitely more your thing, Gramps.”
He sighed thoughtfully as he looked out over the water. “Yeah, I can’t imagine life without the joy of immersing
myself in the water. There’s a release, a letting go when you let yourself sink into it. You lose control in a way. Maybe that’s why you only like going part way in. You’re in the water, supposedly, but you’re still the one in control. You get a taste, but that’s all.”
Craig admits, “I couldn’t deny what he was saying. Immersed in the water, I couldn’t touch the bottom. I couldn’t walk where I wanted to like I could on land. While I had some control by swimming, in a way I was almost at the mercy of the water. ‘I guess you could be right.’”
“’That’s often what our faith is like,’ Grandpa continued. ‘We know about Jesus, we accept what he did, and we think it’s great, but to actually surrender, to lose control of our lives and futures, giving it all to him—we’re afraid to take that step. We’ll only go in to a point and that’s it. That way, we control Jesus and not the other way around.”
Craig could see the truth in his grandfather’s words. “ ‘Yeah, you’re right. I want to love God and follow him, but I want to be in control of my own life. I’m scared to think of where he might take me if I let go.’”
Craig’s grandfather’s reply captures the shift that was made in our relationship with God after the birth of Jesus. We see the Jewish shepherds come and leave the night of his birth, telling everyone what they have heard and seen. But, it is only when the wise men, these Gentiles from the east, foreigners, strangers, arrive and fall down on their knees that we begin to realize the full impact of his birth on the world.
Grandpa reached over and placed his hand gently on Craig’s shoulder, When we are scared to let go, ‘That’s when we have to remember that God is loving and merciful, and he wouldn’t take us anywhere that wasn’t the best for us. He is our loving Father and he will take care of us, always. We just have to trust him, and to do that, we have to let go. We have to lose control and be okay with that. In a way, that’s what baptism is about. It’s not just a seal of membership in a church. It’s a symbol that we have died with Christ and have been raised to new life. As people were lowered into the water, the old life was being buried, and the old life was having it our way, being in control of ourselves. As we rose from the grave, so to speak, we showed that we were reborn with Christ, our old ways were dead, and our lives were surrendered to him and his will. His Spirit filled us and [will] lead and guide us the rest of our lives.’
Craig says there was a part of him “that yearned for that, even as [he] feared it….Even now, [he] can’t say exactly what happened. But [Craig] found [himself] beginning to weep as [he] yearned for the first time to give God control of [his] life. ‘Grandpa reached over and hugged me and began to pray. I prayed with him as he prayed that I would give Christ my whole heart and that I would let him lead me. ‘We all have to let go, son,’ he whispered to me. As we finished, I looked out over the lake with what seemed to be new eyes. I saw the ripples of the water, and instead of foreboding, I felt an odd sense of peace. I looked over at my grandfather, and he just smiled and winked at me as he slowly nodded his head. With unsteady legs, I rose to my feet, looked out over Lake Melissa, and dove into the water.”
The wise men saw the child and his mother as they entered the house and they fell down and worshipped him. I can just imagine them being so focused on him that they almost forgot they brought gifts. Oh, of course, we brought you these – gold and frankincense and myrrh – as they realized what he wanted most was them, to know them, to guide them the REST of their lives. (Whisper) We all have to let go.