Thursday, December 20, 2012

Baby Strength

      Here’s a truth you’ve probably never thought of: You can’t win an argument with a baby.  Ever notice that?  Think about it.  Babies don't try to compete, don't stand up to you, don't try to best you in an argument, and don't try to impress you with their answers. Indeed, they can't speak at all. You have to coax everything out of them, and that effort demands great patience.  Push at a baby too hard and it will begin to cry and the session is over.
And that is the Savior who was born in Bethlehem, and that is too how God is still basically in the world. Like a baby, God does not outgun anyone, out-muscle anyone, threaten anyone, or overpower anyone. The power of God revealed in Christmas is the power of a baby, nothing more, nothing less:  innocence, gentleness, helplessness, a vulnerability that can soften hearts, invite in, have us hush our voices, teach us patience, and call forth what's best in us.
The power of Christmas is like the power of a baby; it underwhelms in such a way so as to eventually overwhelm. There is a greater power than muscle, speed, charisma, and any unstoppable force: If you were to put a baby into a room with the heavy-weight boxing champion of the world,  the baby would win every time.  Something about the baby's powerlessness would overwhelm the boxer. Such is the way of God, and that is the message of Christmas to those who have ears to hear.
But we have always been slow to understand this; we want our messiahs to possess more immediate power.   And we are in good company here, because for centuries the Jews longed for a messiah who would be kind of a human superhero, someone with the earthly muscle to bang heads together and rid the world of evil by might as well as right. 
Even John the Baptist expected the messiah to come with that kind of power. He was concerned with justice and repentance, but with a sackcloth and ashes—or, rather, camel hair and leather—kind of attitude.   He warned people of an approaching time of reckoning and expected the longed-for messiah to come precisely as a violent fire, a winnowing fan that would separate the bad from the good and burn up the former with a righteousness that came straight from God.  When he heard reports of Jesus gently inviting sinners in rather than casting them off, John was scandalized.  That wasn’t the kind of a messiah he expected.  Why, that wasn’t any kind of messiah at all.  Jesus didn't fit his expectations or his preaching. That's why Jesus, in sending a response to him, invites John not to be scandalized in him.  John hadn't wanted a gentle, vulnerable, peace-preaching messiah.  He wanted bad people punished, not converted.  But, to his credit, once he saw how Jesus' power worked, he got it.  He accepted a deeper truth, stepped back, and pointed people in Jesus' direction.   “He must increase and I must decrease. I'm not even worthy to untie his scandal strap!”
We too are slow to understand. Like John the Baptist, our impatience for truth and justice makes us want and expect a messiah who comes in earthly terms, all talent and muscle, banging heads together so as to rid the planet of falsehood and evil. We want the kind of messiah we see at the end of every Hollywood thriller, Mother Theresa turned into Sylvester Stallone or Bruce Willis, beating up the bad guys with a violence they can only envy.
But that's not the Christmas story.  That’s not the kind of power that God wields.  An infant lying in the straw in Bethlehem didn't outgun anyone. He just lay there, waiting for anyone, good or bad, to come to him, to see his helplessness, to feel a tug at his or her heart strings, and then gently try to coax a smile or a word out of him.
That's still how God meets us.
You can try to argue with that, but you won’t win.  Like John the Baptist, our ways must decrease, and his way—that of a baby—must increase.

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