How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, “Your God reigns!”
Let me tell you the story of God the Baby. The story which is good news to the poor, the weak, the humble, the lowly, the captives and the brokenhearted.
The Gospel of Luke tells of the Angel coming to announce the birth of Christ to his mother Mary. The Angel tells Mary that her son will be, not just the promised king, of whose “kingdom there will be no end,” but also, the “Son of the Most High,” that is, the second member of the Trinity:
And Behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.
This is pretty exalted language. And yet, the reality is shocking. There, conceived in the womb of Mary, is God the embryo, God the fetus, and finally, there, suckling on her breast, is God the baby. God, the sustainer and creator of life, is now brought into the world and sustained by his mother’s milk. The Lord of Creation, in whom we all “live and move and have our being,” now depends in the most radical way on the love and care provided by Mary of Nazareth. God the baby is not welcomed into the world. From before his infancy, he is rejected, and left without a place in the world:
And when they were there, the time came for her to give birth. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the Inn.
Most of the time, this image is reduced to a domestic cliché. The mass produced baby lies in the same old plastic manger, the bearded man and the woman in flowing cloak look on, the stable, the wise men, the shepherds, stand further back, all stamped with “made in China” on the base. It’s all comfortable and clean, pure and tidy, a pretty decoration, not unlike the church that you might attend around the same time of year you put out the nativity scene.
Perhaps the reason this image has become such a cliché is because the shocking, stinking reality is just too upsetting for us. It is an image that should be enough to wrench us continuously out of our middle class complacency. What are we to make of this powerless king, born homeless in a palace such as this? What are we to make of this God, babbling and giggling in the straw? What are cries of this baby telling us?
Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the east came to Jerusalem, saying, “where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.” When Herod the king heard this, he was troubled, and all of Jerusalem with him.
Note first, to whom the birth of the King is revealed: first, to the poor Shepherds, who were outcasts in their own community and then, to the foreigners from the east. The people of Bethlehem had no room for the baby, and Herod, and all of Jerusalem are troubled at his birth. Christ comes to the poor, the humble and the hungry. Those who are powerful, rich and mighty, cannot open their hearts to his birth. The rich can enter the kingdom of heaven only with “great difficulty” and only through the “eye of a needle” because it is only by laying their power and wealth at the feet of Christ the King, that they can be given the “eyes and ears” to see the way of kingdom.
“Herod the king,” like all the powers and petty tyrants of this world is “troubled” by this baby king. The coos and giggles of the baby in the manger speak the most radical words to power that have ever been spoken. Herod, like so many of us today, is deeply offended by God the baby. This new king challenges the tyrant, precisely because he is non-violent, precisely because he is voiceless. This way of truth, vulnerability, humility, poverty, and powerlessness that this child, from its very conception brings into the world, is the antithesis of all that Herod stands for. That Herod the Tyrant is disturbed by a baby, shows the quivering weakness which is behind his satanic grip on power. And while Herod is afraid of this peaceful baby, this Power on High made weak, Christ giggles in the face of death. God the baby exposes the lies of those seeking to maintain their power. The evil and injustice they perpetuate, done in the name of the good or preserving the status quo, is shown to be self-serving.
This baby then, is good news to the captives, the humble and the poor, but the most disturbing sight to the proud, rich and powerful. As the Mary the mother of God sang:
He has shown the strength of his arm
He has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts
He has brought down the mighty from their thrones
And exalted those of humble estate.
He has filled the hungry with good things
And the rich he has sent away empty.
God has shown the strength of his arm and brought down the mighty from their thrones, not by a great show of violence, but by the most profound act of weakness.
He has done these things by entering into the reality of the poor and by privileging the scum of the earth over the mighty. God lowers himself the raise the weak and by doing so, brings down the mighty from their thrones. What a disturbing message for those of us who claim to be Christian and yet prefer our rich, easy, comfortable, privileged lives, ignoring and excluding those we deem unworthy! If this is the God we claim to worship, how dare we ignore the plight of the less privileged, how dare we live easily, how dare we justify our exclusion? Christ always stands with the weak, and the powerful are always opposed to Him and His people. Even when Christianity is in power, as in Christendom, it is the satanic force that stands against Christ and is “troubled” at his birth.
The greatest might, strength and power then, does not stand on the side of the powers and oppressors, but rather, the infinite stands with the poor, the humble and the hungry. God made weak is the strength of the poor, for he has entered into their struggle and it is only those made humble who can call on his name. God is to found, not in power, but in weakness, humility and hunger.
The mighty rule by fear, compulsion and the threat of death, but God the baby conquers them all. That the Giver of Life stands with the weak, disarms the threats of the powers. Their reign of fear, and the legitimacy they claim, is broken. The strength of God’s arm then, topples the mighty and the rich by forming a people that is freed from the reign of the powers. They are a people that are faithful to the baby king and his kingdom, a kingdom not of this world: “My kingdom is not of this world. If my kingdom were of this world, my servants would have been fighting, that I might not be delivered over to the Jews.” The people of the baby king, in their refusal to be violent, crush the power of the strong, with the strength of God’s arm. They fearlessly carry out the subversive business of the kingdom, patiently toppling the mighty and bringing good things to the poor, in their weakness.
“And he sent [the Wiseman] to Bethlehem, saying, “go and search diligently for the child, and when you have found him, bring me word, that I too may come and worship him. After listening to the king, they went on their way…and going into the house they saw the child with Mary his mother, and they fell down and worshiped him. Then opening their treasures, they offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh. And being warned in a dream not to return to Herod… they departed to their own country by another way. Now when they had departed, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “rise and take the child and his mother and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child and destroy it. And he rose up and took the child and his mother by night and departed to Egypt… And Herod, when he saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, became furious and he sent and killed all the male children in Bethlehem and in all that region who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had ascertained from the wise men.”
Here we see the two responses to the birth of the King: one response from the Kings of the east, and another, from Herod the King. The Kings from the East humbly bow in allegiance before the newborn king. They represent the true path of humility, weakness and vulnerability that the church is called to tread.
But on the other hand, we have the satanic image of Herod. Herod, chillingly, does not tell the Wiseman, that his true intention is to kill Christ. Rather, he hides his sick and twisted soul behind a false pretence of piety. The image Herod displays here is echoed throughout the gospels. This satanic inversion of the kingdom is seen in the Pharisees who are white-washed tombs, the son who says he will work in his father’s garden but doesn’t and Pilate who washes his hands but gives Christ over to be crucified. Herod hides his lust for power and his terror of the powerless child behind ever more lies. When Herod commands the slaughter of the innocent children, the power behind this Tyrant is shown to be none other than the prince of lies. The baby king escapes to Egypt for now, but the powers of evil have not seen the last of this powerless king. He will return one day and in the ultimate act of weakness will unmask, expose and defeat the prince of lies and those who serve him.
Hendrikus Berkhof, quoted in The Politics of Jesus writes:
“By the cross, Christ abolished the slavery which, as a result of sin, lay over our existence as a menace and an accusation. On the cross He “disarmed’ the Powers, “made a public example of them and thereby triumphed over them” Paul uses three different verbs to express more adequately what happened to the Powers at the cross. He “made a public example of them.” It is precisely in the crucifixion that the true nature of the Powers has come to light. Previously they were accepted as the most basic and ultimate realities, as the gods of the world. Never had it been previewed, nor could it have been perceived, that this belief was founded on deception. Now that the true God appears on earth in Christ, it becomes apparent that the powers are inimical to Him, acting not as His instruments but His adversaries. The scribes, representatives of the Jewish law, far from receiving gratefully Him who came in the name of the God of the law crucified Him in the name of the temple. The Pharisees, personifying piety, crucified him in the name of piety. Pilate, representing Roman justice and law, shows what these are wroth when called upon to do justice to the truth Himself. Obviously, “none of the rulers of this age” who let themselves be worshiped as divinities, understood God’s wisdom, “for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory” (1 Cor. 2:8). Now they are unmasked as false gods by their encounter with very God; they are made a public spectacle. Thus Christ has “triumphed over them.” The unmasking is actually already their defeat. Yet this is only humanly visible when they know that God Himself has appeared on earth in Christ. Therefore we must be thinking of the resurrection as well as of the cross. The resurrection manifests what was already accomplished at the cross: that Christ God has challenged the Powers, has penetrated into their territory, and has displayed that He is stronger than they. The concrete evidence of this triumph is that at the cross Christ has disarmed the Powers. The weapons from which there heretofore derived their strength is struck out of their hands. This weapon was the power of illusion, their ability to convince us that they were the divine regents of the world, ultimate certainty and ultimate direction, ultimate happiness and the ultimate duty from the small, dependent humanity. Since Christ we know that this is illusion. We are called to a higher destiny: we have higher orders to follow and we stand under a greater protector. No powers can separate us from God’s love in Christ. Unmasked, revealed in their true nature, they have lost their mighty grip on us. The cross has disarmed them: where after it is preached, the unmasking and the disarming of the powers takes place.”
The story of God the Baby is the story of who the God Christians worship really is. He is a God who, in His truest, Triune self, exists, not in power and subjugation, but in full and radical self giving love. He is not a God perched high on an almighty throne, but a God who goes to the ends of Himself to give Himself up for humanity. The God revealed in the incarnation is a God who shows his power through the most stupendous expression of weakness, a God who rules with powerlessness and a God who makes himself vulnerable to human wickedness. The story of God the baby is the story of this God, and of no other God but this God. It is the story of the Prince of Peace being made king, and the powers of darkness being defeated and unmasked. It is the good news that a new way of life: the powerless way of the kingdom of God, has been born in the stall among the hay. For indeed, “the people walking in darkness have seen a great light; on those living in the land of deep darkness a light has dawned.”
The featured painting is called Mary and Baby Jesus by Lance Brown.