*A Repost from 2010
It is not too often that as a rabbi, I get asked to give a Christmas message. A good friend of mine, who is a young pastor from Rwanda, leads a church here in the DC area and asked if I would be the guest speaker for a special Christmas celebration his church was sponsoring. So … last Saturday night I spoke to a gathering of mostly pastors from around the world on the Christmas story, but with a little Jewish twist.
Most people have a simplistic understanding of this joyous season. Although this is not bad, there is so much symbolism that is hidden and to truly appreciate the holiday message, one needs to delve a little deeper …
To appreciate the fullness of Christmas one must take a few steps backward in time … back through Hanukkah … and even further into Israel’s history. Because the connections are greater than you may suppose. After all, Jesus was Jewish … born to Jewish parents … and as the Jewish Messiah, his life and identity is forever entangled with the Jewish people.
Drawing from the Luke narrative in the Gospels, last week’s Torah portion, and the Hanukkah story, I basically gave a d’rash on the concept of hipuch (הפוך ) – which literally means to turn upside-down. This is actually one of the major themes that runs throughout the biblical text. We repeatedly see how G-d takes a situation and unexpectedly turns it on its head.
For example, in the last few weeks the Torah portions have centered on the life of Joseph. This young lad was despised by his brothers, rejected, and sold into slavery in Egypt. Despite his innocence, he was accused of rape and thrown in prison. And even in prison things were not going so well.
And then … all of a sudden, hipuch! G-d turned the situation on its head. The downtrodden, least likely character (from a human perspective) is placed into a position of authority over all Egypt and ends up becoming the redeemer of not only the Jewish people, but the entire generation.
In the Hanukkah story, the small outnumbered rag-tag army of Jewish farmers and townsmen, led by the Maccabees defeated the well-trained and equipped army of the Syrian-Greeks. Apart from a miracle, they should not have been able to defeat their foes and recapture Jerusalem and re-cleanse the Temple. But it was another act of hipuch. HaShem took the least likely scenario, and flipped it around.
Finally, we turn to the incarnation of Messiah. A powerful story of the indwelling of G-d in a physical form. Christmas is essentially about the revelation of a Jewish Messiah to the world.
The message is not so much about the birth of a baby, as much as it is about the incarnation of G-d in the earth (Immanuel). It is the establishment of Messiah as the redeemer of not only the Jewish people, but of all humanity. The story is also a continuation of a common theme that appears throughout the Bible – hipuch – of G-d turning things upside-down, the opposite of what you would expect.
The reality is that a helpless baby was born in an animal trough. His parents were not welcomed anywhere in Bethlehem, and the only place they could find shelter was in some type of cave or covering for animals. Miriam had to give birth in a dank and dusty environment, surrounded by animal dung, rotting food, and the smell of livestock.
Furthermore, it was probably better that Yeshua was born in Bethlehem and not Nazareth, because back home, he was the center of a perceived local scandal. His mother became pregnant out of wedlock, Joseph himself did not even believe her at first. Just imagine – “Yea right! You were impregnated by the Holy Spirit!” So he made plans to break-off the engagement. It was only an angelic visitation that convinced him to do otherwise (see Matthew 1:19-20). Why do you think Miriam spent the first three months of pregnancy with her relative Elizabeth (who experienced her own hipuch miracle)? In a small town, word gets around – whether it’s true or not.
Yeshua was born amidst a scandal and was not recognized by many of his own people. Yet, it is this figure, born in the middle of ‘nowhere Judea’ (an occupied territory of the great Roman Empire) who ends up becoming the redeemer of all humanity! He was the least likely candidate from an earthly perspective. Yet, Yeshua was the physical manifestation of G-d in the Earth. There is no greater hipuch! For this idea continues to baffle many great minds to this very day.
How can the least likely scenario become the reality? G-d has a way of taking our lives and turning them upside-down in unexpected ways – empowering the powerless, healing the broken, helping the helpless, loving the unloved. This idea of hipuch is actually one of the great cardinal lessons of the story.
At least … that’s the way a rabbi would explain it. ((wink))