“Have this mind in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not consider equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name which is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the Glory of God the Father.”
It really is a bad world out there, isn’t it? Statistics blur into meaninglessness, but we have been seeing the faces of those statistics lately, haven’t we? The children of Somalia, Zimbabwe, the crouching form on Fifth Avenue, the beaten kid caught in the wrong neighborhood or the innocent young wasting away with AIDS. Merry Christmas? We forget how remarkable and rare our circumstance is. It really is an incredibly bad world for many millions.
Where is God in such a world? Why does God allow, century after century, this kind of carnage and waste, this brutality and inhumanity, this suffering and dying? What kind of God is he, anyway? Well, let’s begin by at least noting that our world today is not so unusual, our time not a particularly unprecedented time. Read the accounts of the religious wars of the 17th century or the plundering hordes of the 14th. Read what the Crusaders and Muslims did to each other in the eleventh, or what the barbarians did when, in the six century, they sacked Rome. Or, for that matter, read your Bible.
Some of us were recently in Israel. You ran into Herod’s stones every time you turned around. “King of the Jews” the Christmas account calls him. But what a king – no Jew really, Edomite who had ingratiated himself with Rome. Great builder of the Temple in Jerusalem, palace at Masada, harbor city at Caeserea, tomb of the Patriarchs in Hebron. But he murdered his wife and mother-in-law as well as his two sons. Caesar Augustus, no softy, once said he would rather be Herod’s pig than his son. Near death Herod ordered that several hundred prominent citizens be rounded up and then killed as he breathed his last, so the citizens would not celebrate his death. A murderous tyrant who would not hesitate to slaughter all the infants under two around Bethlehem in order to snuff out the life of any pretender. His people, the Jews, suffered hunger and deprivation, oppression and humiliation at his hands. Life was brutal and brief under his yoke. And he was no unusual tyrant in his time.
Where was God in that kind of world? Well, says the Christmas story, he was present in some mysterious fashion in a child slumbering in straw at the knee of one Joseph and Mary caught overnight away from home. The Lord of the universe was hidden in the common and ordinary.
That ran against the grain of everything Jew and non-Jew knew about the deities of the day. The Romans knew where he was, he was in Rome, embodied in the political might of Augustus. It was self-evident. The Greeks knew where he was present to their world.
In the heads of the wise at the University of Athens. There in the minds that struggled for mastery over matter, the divine mind was most present. The Jews knew where he was. He had clearly withdrawn from this theater of suffering, and they awaited his return to tear through the land, destroying the Romans, restoring their dignity, setting them free and prosperous again as in the days of David, the once great King.
The religious of all kinds knew where God was present. He was real and powerful in the ecstatic, the religious experiences of cult and sacrifice, experiences that caught them up and delivered them from the pains and problems of this world, freed them from the messiness of matter and gave them union with their God.
Christmas says an odd thing. It is humility that characterizes the Spirit of the Eternal. “He emptied himself, being born in human likeness.” God is most often disguised in the ordinary, the humble, the human. The late Indian Jesuit priest-psychologist Antony de Mello wrote that while we are searching wildly for that “great experience of God,” there are a host of rich experiences of God passing us by. We, he says, are like the Jews who were straining their eyes toward the future in expectation of a glorious sensational Messiah, while all along the Messiah was beside them in the form of a humble man called Jesus of Nazareth…You wish to see God? Look at the face of the man next to you. You want to hear him? Listen to the cry of a baby, the laughter at a party, the wind rustling in the trees. You want to feel him? Stretch your hand out and hold someone.”
Now this is what the Christmas story is, first of all, trying to say. He is not present in the special and spectacular, the ecstatic and emotional escape. He is present in a father who forgot to make a reservation at Day’s Inn, and mother with a bawling baby and dirty diapers on her hands. Ever wonder what they did without pampers or cotton back then. He is present in that baby wrapped in swaddling clothes.
He is present in the ordinary, nitty-gritty burdensome agonies of life in this world. One evening of the season a minister was called by his four children to come and be the audience for their living room Christmas play. Typically the father entered the play’s set to find Jesus played by a flashlight wrapped in a blanket, Joseph defined by his bathrobe and mop-handle staff, Mary looking solemn with a sheet-draped head, the angel of the Lord with pillow-case wings, and one wise king with another pillowcase full of gifts. This king was being played by the youngest child, who felt duty bound to explain herself and her mission. “I’m all three wise men. I bring precious gifts: gold, circumstance and mud!”
And that’s what life brings to all of us, doesn’t it. Gold, perhaps, but also a lot of circumstance and mud. Lot of circumstance and mud in that manger that night, woven of the caprice of Rome, the crowds in Bethlehem, and the cry of a new born. And somehow that is where God hides, where God is most present, says the story.
But that is not all. God is not just present in the ordinary, period. He is present in the ordinary as something very extra-ordinary. God is present in that babe as the spirit of self-giving sacrificial love. “He humbled himself, took the form of a lowly servant, obedient to the point of death.” “The Jews want political paneceas and the Greeks intellectual analyses,” writes the Apostle Paul to friends, “but all we can talk about is a child crucified out of love for us.”
God is present in Jesus as the spirit of self-giving love – and wherever that spirit is now in our world, there God is. Extraordinary spirit in an ordinary place. Let me tell you how an acquaintance of many years ago found himself drawn to share that spirit. Juergen Moltmann, now retired professor of theology at Tuebingen, was probably the most influential Christian thinker among the clergy of Europe in the latter half of the twentieth century. But he did not grow up in the faith, but rather in Nazi Germany. He was drafted at age 16 near the end of World War II, was captured at war’s end and taken for several years to a camp in Scotland where he was forced to perform manual labor. The cold damp weather was bad for his health.
One winter he had a terrible cold and no handkerchief for his nose. He was forced to use his coat sleeve for the excessive nasal discharge. The coarse material became stiff and abrasive…felt like sandpaper on his nose. He looked up from his work to see a group of local women and children standing with the military guards observing him and the other prisoners. One of the women looked directly at him for some time. She then spoke with one of the guards and handed him something. The guard walked over and gave Juergen an old white rag. At first, he only stared at the nondescript piece of cloth in his hand, failing to understand what had happened. Then, suddenly, it dawned on him what she had done.
This was easily one of the most significant gifts he had ever received. It helped to change his life. The act did not cure his cold, nor did it free him from incarceration. But this love came from one who knew what it meant to be without the essentials of life. The old woman had just the right thing for his need: not a starchy new handkerchief, but a soft, worn rag. This was an act of grace and she had given it to a hated German prisoner. She became Christ for this young man and helped heal his loneliness, despair, and suffering. Open to that gesture of caring love, Moltmann became a Christian and went on to teach generations of young men to speak of His spirit of hope and love.
That’s where God is in this world – the extra-ordinary spirit of Jesus still present and powerful in very ordinary places, and people. God is present to our world in you and me as we are open to it – this extraordinary spirit in the ordinary. It is not obvious and overpowering. It is there nudging us when we are least expecting it, consumed with other things. “Have this mind/spirit in you that was in Christ Jesus.” We surrender to it, this self-giving love in the ordinary of family and neighbor, friendship and labor, all the casual and critical times, all the duties and diversions that are life – because that’s where God is and wants to be present in this kind of world, making his subtle subterranean way into our lives, whether as societies or as solitaries, as we are sensitive to the call of that extraordinary spirit, letting it in and living it out as servants of this humble servant king.