NFL quarterbacks are tearing a page from God's playbook. Whether the line of scrimmage marks a passage in life or is chalked on a football field, audibles count. Pro quarterbacks use an audible when they bark out a play before the ball is hiked, confusing the defense by mixing code language with chatter.
On the first Christmas, God used an audible to mark his visit with humanity. "(God's) word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth" (John 1:14). That is, God's coming to Earth got legs because of Jesus' birth.
For centuries, ancient Jews were perplexed because they didn't hear God's clear word about his keen interest in them. His audible got lost in excuses people made for why God didn't boldly intersect their lives. Some pictured God as an absentee landlord of the universe, forgetful of human need. Others regarded him as superintending the cosmos, remote because he opted to hide beyond the Milky Way. Still, more surmised that God had given up on our planet and moved his interest to another universe. Then, God called an audible. His line of scrimmage, so to speak, was Bethlehem.
Sam Portaro, a Princeton classmate and Episcopalian college chaplain, penned a Christmas greeting which helps us understand God's audible. "One of the most important (dimensions of Christmas," Sam wrote, "is the belief that Jesus' birth is a declaration of God's loving embrace of all that is human, of God's desire and determination to make a home with us. Thus, home isn't a terrain or territory bounded by borders or walls. Home is wherever, whenever we're within the circle of God's love."
God's audible nestles among us. He makes a home where we live. He camps with us. God's audible is Jesus' birth.
Theologians often clutter this audible with turgid terminology such as "incarnation" or "the Godhead was enfleshed" at Bethlehem. Christians sing carols, voicing muddied lyrics that believing insiders understand, such as: "Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the incarnate deity" ("Hark! The Herald Angels Sing") or "Jesus, to thee be all glory giv'n. Word of the father, now in flesh appearing." ("Oh, Come, All Ye Faithful"). When meanings sound garbled, we ask, "Please flesh out what you are trying to say. Clarify your meaning."
God's audible that he's made a home with us sticks in heart and mind because it creates a picture. Biblical teacher Richard Foster helps us understand God's audible. He coaches Christians to picture Jesus' coming at Bethlehem, rather than merely read it as another birth announcement. "Live the experience of Scripture," advises Foster. "Smell the sea. Hear the lap of water against the shore. See the crowd. Feel the sun on your head and the hunger in your stomach. Taste the salt in the air. Touch the hem of Jesus' garment." Such audibles make Jesus' teaching memorable.
God's personal audible on the first Christmas had body to it. Listen, says the Bible, to a baby's cry. Monitor the timber of Jesus' voice. Do you recognize it as God's?
Who else ranks high at giving an audible?
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning is one of the best at cloaking an audible. Hearing his chatter, the defense can't guess the next play. Manning is a master at sliding along the line before the ball is snapped, moving a running back to a new position, using hand signals, talking a blue streak and through it all sneaking in the Broncos' play to be run.
Kevin Clark, in an article, "Quarterbacks Speak Fluent Gibberish" (Wall Street Journal, Nov. 20, p. D6) describes how Manning excels at concealing a play in an audible filling the air with sound but scant sense. "Daniel Muir, a veteran NFL defensive lineman, estimates," writes Clark, "that 80 percent of Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning's calls from the line of scrimmage are made up. And though Manning was master of the audible before the rule change, players say it has taken on new importance. 'He'll bluff you just to do it because he knows he can,' Muir said."
Manning's verbal agility is similar in mastery to God's at Bethlehem. We are caught off guard with an unexpected announcement. Manning camouflages play calling. God hid his voice within a squirming baby. Surprising, isn't it? For ages, people expected God to speak with a thunderous voice. They wanted him to flex his muscles and KO the Roman empire. But he expressed himself in a baby's whimper. Not an invincible warlord, but a vulnerable infant.
Broncos pick up the right signal hidden amid Manning's banter at the line of scrimmage. This helps them execute the next play and move the ball toward the goal line.
Do we recognize God's audible hidden in Jesus? It wraps us in a circle of love. God's surprising homecoming enters human hearts.
The Rev. Jack R. Van Ens is a Presbyterian minister who heads the nonprofit, tax-exempt Creative Growth (www.theliving
history.com), which enhances Christian worship through storytelling and dramatic presentations.