God sent the angel Gabriel to Nazareth, a town in Galilee, to a virgin pledged to be married to a man named Joseph, a descendant of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. The angel went to her and said, “Greetings, you who are highly favored! The Lord is with you.”
Mary was greatly troubled at his words and wondered what kind of greeting this might be. But the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary; you have found favor with God. You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you are to call him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?”
The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God. Even Elizabeth your relative is going to have a child in her old age, and she who was said to be unable to conceive is in her sixth month. For no word from God will ever fail.”
“I am the Lord’s servant,” Mary answered. “May your word to me be fulfilled.” Then the angel left her. –Luke 1:26-38
Look at the baby in the manger—tiny, helpless, crying, covered in straw and a little bit of animal poop—and then listen again to the words that the angel said to Mary, and see if they fit with what you see in that manger:
“He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over Jacob’s descendants forever; his kingdom will never end.”
Does this little baby look “great?” Does he look like what you’d expect the Son of the Most High God to look like? Does he look like the promised King who will reign forever?
No? That’s because God loves to surprise us, to do things we’d never expect, things that seem upside-down and backwards. Upside-down, backwards things like leaving heaven’s throne to become poor, like the King of kings being born as a baby, like announcing his birth to shepherds. Upside-down, backwards things like touching gross lepers, like loving unlovable sinners, like welcoming little creeps like Zacchaeus. Upside-down, backwards things like loving his enemies, like going to the cross to the pay for rebels’ sins, like dying in order to beat death.
Christmas is the story of God doing all sorts of upside-down, backwards things. Actually, scratch that; that’s not quite right: God’s not actually the one who’s upside-down and backwards. We’re the ones who are upside-down and backwards, not God. It’s like if you stand on your head, everything looks upside-down, but of course it’s not really; you’re actually the one who’s upside-down. We’ve got everything backwards: we put ourselves first instead of other people, we obey our own thoughts instead of God’s, we think that being tough and strong and smart and beautiful and good is the way to be special (instead of what God says: that being humble and gentle and a servant and sorry for your sins is the only way to be special in his kingdom).
And so when King Jesus shows up doing things the right way—putting other people before himself, being humble and kind and gentle and patient, serving others, and sacrificing himself even for his enemies—it may look upside-down to us, but it’s not really. This is the way things are supposed to look like. This whole time, we’ve been the ones who are upside-down.
So it turns out that Christmas isn’t the story of God doing upside-down things, after all. Instead, Christmas is the story of God starting to put everything right-ways up again. It’s the beginning of the great reversal, of sins being forgiven and sinners being restored and everything sad coming untrue.
So look at that baby in the manger again. He really is great, because what greatness really looks like is humility. He really is the King of kings, because God’s true King came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many. This little baby is putting everything right-ways up again.