Will you join me for a little Bible Study? The Bible is truly a rich and amazing book. When we dig just a bit beneath the surface, it says some surprising things. In this case it will tell us something usually overlooked about Christmas that, if noticed, can reshape our sense of the Christian life.
Our family recently gathered on a Florida beach to say the prayers of Thanksgiving for the Birth of a Child (BCP 439). We were celebrating our new grandson Matthew. The service began with his 7-year-old brother, Daniel, reading Luke 18: 15-17, the story of people bringing babies to be blessed by Jesus, the disciples sending them away, and Jesus saying, “No! Let them come!” The text ends,
Whoever will not receive the Kingdom of God like a little child
will never enter it.”
I have looked and looked and cannot find an English translation that is not ambiguous. A Greek-reading friend tells me it is ambiguous in the original Greek. Did Jesus mean that in order to enter the Kingdom of God, we must “receive the Kingdom as a child would receive it” or did he mean that we must “receive the Kingdom as we would receive a child”? We usually take it to mean the former (childlike faith) but the context of a dispute over how we welcome children would suggest the latter. How we receive children is what it’s all about.
How does receiving a fragile child relate to receiving the Kingdom of God, the reign of divine power? Power and childhood seem utterly opposite. But look at the lesson from Isaiah for Christmas Eve – another text where I suspect we miss the meaning – Isaiah 9: 2-7. It begins with a promise of breaking “the rod of the oppressor.” But this isn’t just the overthrow of one gang of thugs by another, as usually happens in the politics of the domination system. Instead of politics as usual, when God intervenes, war and domination are themselves vanquished. “For the boots of the trampling warriors and the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for the fire.” This is not a violent overthrow but rather the overthrow of violence itself. If violence is not the means of overthrowing violence -- if as Dr. King said, “Darkness cannot drive away darkness” -- then how shall this come to pass? Isaiah answers:
“For a child has been born for us
a child has been given to us.
Authority rests upon his shoulders
And he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
The kicker here is that the verbs are present tense. It is not that the child will grow up someday, wield a sword, overthrow Assyria, Babylon, Rome, or the oppressor of the day, and establish his dominion. It is that a child is already vested with authority and honored as the Prince of Peace. A kind of power resides in the child as a child. Some early Madonna-and-Child icons express this authority of the divine child by showing the baby Jesus wearing a crown. This is a wildly paradoxical text. What can possibly be going on in these two lessons?
Isaiah and Luke are showing us how God exercises power. It is not in our ordinary human way.
My ways are not your ways, says the Lord, nor my thoughts your thoughts
.-- Isaiah 55: 8
God’s power is not like earthly power. It is really quite the opposite. We will go into the difference in due course, but first we need to address the whole question of power. Frederick Nietzsche launched the most powerful philosophical attack of all time on Christianity. What he despised about Christians is that we were pusillanimous, weak, mousey – that we made a religious virtue out of mousiness. As we practice the faith, we sometimes live up to Nietzsche’s description. A social media clergy friend recently went on a rant against broad-based community organizing to improve our common life because he had discovered it involved the building of power to effect positive change. Christians, he insisted, should have nothing to do with power – thereby proving Nietzsche’s point. Another clergy person on social media thought it was presumptuous for people to forgive each other because we have no right to claim such power (even though Christ commanded us to do so.) However, if we check our Bible we read that:
God has not given us a spirit of fear, but of power . . . .2 Timothy 1: 7
For the Kingdom of God is not in word but in power. 1 Corinthians 4: 20
But truly I am filled with power by the Sprit of the Lord, and of justice
and of might. Micah 3: 8
Now when the multitudes saw (the healing miracle) they marveled
that God had given such power to men. Matthew 9: 8
To them he gave the power to become sons of God. John 1: 13
You shall receive power when the Holy Spirit comes upon you. Act 1: 8
The Bible is repeatedly and emphatically clear that Christians are invested with the power of God to do God’s will in God’s world. When we confirm a Christian we pray, “ . . . empower her for your service.” That power goes back to our very creation. Here I must borrow from our pagan brother, Plato, who defined “being” as “the power to affect others or be affected by them.”[i] That definition remains widely accepted in philosophy today. We exist, we have our being, by virtue of our ability to be in relationship with others, influencing and being influenced by them. God gave us our being, with its attendant power, and said, “It is good.”
The confusion arises from the exercise of two dramatically different (one might even say diametrically opposed) kinds of power: dominating power and relational power.
Biblical scholar Walter Wink traced dominating power back to the rise of the nation state in antiquity.[ii] He said the religious foundation of the domination system was the Sumerian creation myth, The Enuma Elish, and made a persuasive case that Genesis was written to repudiate that view of God and the world. Church historian Karen Armstrong agrees, attributing dominating power to the first nation states as a system for an agrarian society.[iii] Biblical scholars like Walter Wink and N T Wright are clear that Jesus’ message was about overcoming sin and the domination system with the paradoxical, ironic, mischievous, non-violent relational power of love. [iv]
One Sunday recently, I saw a group of young adults standing on a corner at the intersection of two narrow streets. They were having a happy, fun conversation. On the street beside them, cars were stopped at a red light. When the light turned green, the driver of the second car in line did not think the driver of the first car was moving fast enough, so he blew his horn insistently. The young man on the corner whose back was to the street turned and waived cordially, saying “Hi-i-i-i!” as if it had been a greeting. Point made.
Jesus showed us and taught us the exercise of relational power, the art of influencing others thorugh care, compassion, respect, appreciation. Take the list of attributes of love cited by Paul in I Corinthians 13 for a good introduction to the meaning of relational power. Take the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the prototype of it.
Many people resist God because they think of God as a patriarch exercising dominating power in the world and aspiring to dominate them and their lives. On the contrary, the ancient Christian understanding of God is that God is, in God’s very being, in God’s very nature, relational – not dominating. God does not want to control us. God’s very nature would make that domination as distasteful to God as it would be to us. God wants lovers, not puppets. So God seeks to draw us by love. Hence God comes, not as a dominating conqueror, not as Attila, but as Jesus. Thus an anonymous poet in the 16th Century wrote:
To show God’s love aright
She bore for us a Savior
When half-spent was the night.[v]
The Kingdom of God is not like an earthly Kingdom with armies, weapons, high walls and dungeons. It is a Kingdom of Love – or if that word is too sentimental, a Kingdom of mutuality in which we all have power to affect one another for good, to build each other up – and God happens in that relational space. God is a field (in the sense of modern physics) in which such relationships can flourish.
The Kingdom of God does not overpower us like a military force. It charms us like a child in its cradle. That is why Jesus says we enter the Kingdom of God by our welcome of the vulnerable and our willingess to be vulnerable ourselves. We enter the Kingdom by submitting to the power of love. Hence God manifests at Christmas as a baby in a stable.
Our God, heaven cannot hold him
Nor Earth sustain . . . .
(But) in the bleak midwinter
A stable place sufficed
The Lord God Incarnate