The liberation of Hebrew slaves begins with a mother’s sorrow of sending her child away in a basket, and the deliverance of humanity begins with a mother’s pain of welcoming her child in a manger. The liberator in Exodus is named Moses, meaning “to draw from the water”; while the promised deliverer is given the name Jesus because “he will save his people from their sins.” A vulnerable newborn child opens God’s stories of liberation and deliverance, encircled in the emotion and nurture of a heartbroken mother. Moses fulfilled God’s will only after being humbled during 40 years in the desert of Midian, and Jesus’ earthly ministry began after he overcame the temptations of Satan during 40 days of fasting in the wilderness.

The salvation that Jesus brings is the unmerited gift purchased with his blood, for all who humbly come to receive. It’s an unmerited favor that proclaims freedom from the deception of self-righteousness: Grace fulfills all the requirements of the law! Perhaps what baby Jesus teaches us, lying in a manger, is the paradox of ‘non-doing’ that Lao Tzu talked about. God’s perfect, saving love was revealed to us in this paradoxical truth, later culminating at the Cross. Yet Pharisees and proponents of the law rejected this good news, and their resistance to unmerited grace led them to crucify God’s greatest gift.

I recently learned that for the first time in Afghanistan’s history, a foreigner was presented with the nation’s highest medal of honor for individual meritorious contributions. The recipient is Korean Ambassador to Afghanistan Rhee Zha Hyoung, who was previously Korea’s representative to the United Nations in New York. It was his dream to be commissioned to Israel. “Then I’ll accompany you on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land,” he used to say. Why Israel, I asked, to which he replied, “It’s because of the presence of God I experienced in the Judaean desert.” The holy presence of God surrounds you in the most unusual way in that dry and arid place, he said.

Despite all the crises caused by COVID-19, we hear news reports that Dow Jones broke through 30,000 points for the first time in history. Homeowners gained $1 trillion from pandemic-driven
housing boom. And alongside such headlines was the news of ex-Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, the void and loneliness he felt despite the success, and how a spiral of alcohol and drugs led him to the tragic death. Woven into Hsieh’s story was the question: Why, despite money and privilege to a degree not seen in decades of American history, 70% of multimillionaires experience dissatisfaction and a crisis of meaning? These seeming paradoxes of human reality always bring me to the point of how much we all need Jesus, whoever and whatever our situations.

God-with-us comes in the form of a naked and vulnerable newborn child, saying nothing, doing nothing. The task of meeting God and eternal salvation in a helpless, dependent babe may come as a challenge to faith for some. I reflect on the words of Mr. Rhee Za Hyoung. For him, the journey through the Holy Land was not a sightseeing or architecture tour. Rather, it was about finding yourself in a thin place where heaven and the lands come together, and welcoming the desert winds with all your being. We may be walking through a Judaean desert here in New York. No matter how dry and thirsty the surrounding wilderness may be, the in-dwelling presence of Jesus changes everything. Your one exhaled breath in his presence can, in time, become the wind of the Spirit that blows the great love of God into the hearts of many.

There’s something I’m reminded of lately. I long planned to invite my friends who can teach us some self-sufficiency skills. Rev. Cho Kyu-baek, who runs a farm in Georgia, can share a lot of tips on farming. Rev. Kang Sung-do who does tent-making ministry as a general contractor in Los Angeles can shed some light on house building; while Rev. Lee Dong-su who serves an Anglo-American church in Wisconsin can teach us natural healing. We will have to wait for now, but when the weather gets warmer, we could go learn these skills at our church retreat center and farm.

In the meantime, a bit suspended between coming and going, I try to lose and find myself in a thin place here where I am. And in there I see, hear, and welcome the little Lord Jesus who has come to me.