Snowbound: A Christmas Story
“What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger on a bus Tryin’ to make his way home?”
The first time I heard Joan Osbourne’s “One of Us” lyrics, driving in my car, I actually yelled at the radio. No! You missed it!
I said this to no one but my dashboard. But my crusade had just begun. I’m embarrassed to say that — over-zealous youth pastor that I was — I eventually grabbed my guitar, re-wrote the words to the offending parts, and trotted them out to my youth group for a more theologically precise sing-along. That was the cool thing for a youth pastor to do 25 years ago. I think.
Joan Osbourne wrote those lyrics in 1995 about a sadly pathetic deity that’s lost and lonely and maybe deserves our pity. Osbourne demoted the God of the universe to the role of hitchhiking bum. And honestly, who cares if a God like that became one of us?
And yet when someone skirts as close as she did to the actual truth of the matter, and still misses it, it just makes you want to finish the sentence. Christmas is the shocking proclamation that God did become one of us, in a way that did not cheapen or marginalize his glory.
And so, with that Osbourne song as counter-context, I want to reproduce a compelling story about birds that the great radio broadcaster Paul Harvey regularly told at Christmas. (If you’d like to hear Harvey read it to you in his warm plaintively-precise manner, here’s the original):
“The man to whom I’m going to introduce you was not a scrooge. He was generous to his family, upright in his dealings with other men. But he just didn’t believe all that incarnation stuff that the churches proclaim at Christmas Time. It just didn’t make sense and he was too honest to pretend otherwise. He just couldn’t swallow the Jesus Story, about God coming to Earth as a man.
“I’m truly sorry to distress you,” he told his wife, “but I’m not going with you to church this Christmas Eve.” He said he’d feel like a hypocrite. And so he stayed and they went to the midnight service.
Shortly after the family drove away in the car, snow began to fall. He went to the window to watch the flurries getting heavier and heavier and then went back to his fireside chair and began to read his newspaper. Minutes later he was startled by a thudding sound…Then another, and then another. Sort of a thump or a thud… When he went to the front door to investigate, he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the snow. They’d been caught in the storm and, in a desperate search for shelter, had tried to fly through his large landscape window.
Well, he couldn’t let the poor creatures lie there and freeze, so he remembered the barn where his children stabled their pony. That would provide a warm shelter, if he could direct the birds to it.
Quickly he put on a coat, galoshes, tramped through the deepening snow to the barn. He opened the doors wide and turned on a light, but the birds did not come in. He figured food would entice them in. So he hurried back to the house, fetched breadcrumbs, sprinkled them on the snow, making a trail to the wide open doorway of the stable. But to his dismay, the birds ignored the bread crumbs, and continued to flap around helplessly in the snow. He tried catching them… He tried shooing them into the barn by walking around them waving his arms… Instead, they scattered in every direction, except into the warm, lighted barn.
And then, he realized that they were afraid of him. To them, he reasoned, I am a strange and terrifying creature. If only I could think of some way to let them know that they can trust me… That I am not trying to hurt them, but to help them. But how? Any move he made tended to frighten them and confuse them. They just would not follow. They would not be led or shooed because they feared him.
“If only I could be a bird,” he thought to himself, “and mingle with them and speak their language. Then I could tell them not to be afraid. Then I could show them the way to safety. But I would have to be one of them, so they could see and hear and understand.”
At that moment the church bells began to ring. The sound reached his ears above the sounds of the wind. And he stood there listening to the bells – O Come All Ye Faithful – listening to the bells pealing the glad tidings of Christmas.
And he sank to his knees in the snow.”
Paul Harvey ends the story there, leaving the listener there amongst skittish birds and cold snow and warm bells, knowing that the obvious Christmas ramifications would be writing themselves into the hearts of his hearers as he signed off. But if he were to add just one more sentence to the story, in case anyone missed the unfathomable point, I think the Apostle John’s words would seal the deal:
“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.” (John 1:14)
John prefaces those words with this equally bold statement about Jesus: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind.” (John 1:1-4)
But I would have to be one of them, so they could see and hear and understand.
Through Christ were made the materials that eventually became his manger. Through Christ was made the star that guided people to Himself. Through Christ were made the angels that announced his coming. Through Christ were made the very people he came to save, including the mother who gave him birth. For thirty-three years Jesus’ feet walked through a world of which He Himself was the causal agent—not simply as its originator but as its sustainer, upholding the universe by the word of his power.
We were caught in the storm of our own making, and God sent his son to speak our language, wear our frame, walk our soil, bear our burdens. He came to seek and save storm-disoriented sparrows like us.
A God like that became one of us.