he never asked to be king…
from Philippians 2:3-7a
December 3, 2017
Human beings are a stubborn lot. If there is anything clear about humanity in the biblical text, this fact ranks up there in the “main points” category. We long to follow someone who has all the answers, who can fix what we want fixed–and fix it right now. “Give us a king!” the Israelites begged God in ancient times. Their cry resounds throughout the ages in place after place, age after age.
The human race is not such a fan of someone who messes with common wisdom, disrupts the status quo, and when all is done—dies as a criminal, executed by the state and its religious allies as a threat to the social order. The human race is not such a fan of someone who asks us to leave behind our self-assurance and enter a life of humility, where paradox and mystery are at home.
I have been thinking a lot about “power” of late. So much that is happening within the United States right now is about flexing power—military might, political clout, professional status, race, class, gender, and more.
Yet none of this power remotely resembles the power of Incarnation—a power of self-emptying servanthood. It is a power of humility and esteeming others above oneself, of compassion and solidarity with the most vulnerable. The power of Incarnation, of God-made-flesh, is a power which aches for reconciliation at every turn, and longs for divisions to be healed.
Our world is drunk on the kind of power that only leads to more fracturing and ultimate catastrophe. The question I am pondering today is this: “As we enter this Advent season, what does ‘power’ mean for Jesus?”
First off, there is an ordinary-ness, an everyday-ness, to this power. It looks like God doing all the things that we do–waking and sleeping, laughing and crying, working and resting, socializing and praying. It looks like God enjoying loved ones and being frustrated by these same people. It looks like God entering humanity’s story in all its beauty and tragedy, loftiness and lowliness. So Incarnation, while cloaked in divinity, can look pretty ordinary. It’s something you and I can relate to.
Given the milieu of first century, occupied Israel, power for Jesus also looks pretty radical. It looks like a baby born in a smelly stable, instead of a palace. It looks like a bunch of rough-hewn shepherds hailing this holy birth, instead of a cadre of court advisers. It looks like a refugee family, fleeing to Egypt for safety from a king’s ire. It looks like a teacher, hailing the blessedness of mercy, peacemaking, lament, purity of heart, and so much more. It looks like a storyteller weaving tales about barns, seeds, coins, and wayward children. It looks like a prophet eating with sinners and confronting corrupt religious institutions. It looks like a servant-leader, washing his followers’ feet.
The Gospel of John tells us that Jesus is the manifestation of God; Jesus is the means by which people can see what God is like (John 1:14, 16-18). He comes not as a king, but as a servant. And, close to the end of his life, he calls his followers ‘friends’–neither subjects nor servants–friends (John 15:11-17)! When we worship Jesus instead of following him–we take great risks with his intent here on earth.
As I look at the world’s sorrows which stare us in the face every day, God’s power is most evident to me in Incarnation, in God’s radical solidarity with each of us and the whole Community of Creation. There is no solidarity more radical than Incarnation. As the Gospel of John proclaims, “The Word was the source of life, and this life brought light to humanity. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has never put it out” (John 1:4-5). Another way of saying this is proclaimed in a beautiful Taize chorus, “Our darkness is never darkness in your sight; the deepest night is clear as the daylight” (see “Songs and Prayers from Taize,” No. 14).
What, then, does this all have to do with hope? If it resides in false notions of power, our hope is easily dashed. The more we understand power as self-emptying servanthood accompanied by radical solidarity, the more we can seek to channel this prophetic fire into our world.
One thing, among many, that I have learned in our eight-week series on whiteness and racism is that self-emptying requires staying with difficult conversations, listening and learning. It requires facing our blind spots and being attentive to our defenses.
Richard Rohr quotes Brian McLaren in his December 2nd Daily Meditation. “One of the curses of late modernity was the belief that unless something was big and well-publicized, it didn’t count…[Jesus] spoke of tiny mustard seeds, of a little yeast in a lot of dough, of a little flock, of the greatness of smallness, of a secret good deed and a simple cup of cold water given to one in need.”
Hope rises amid the challenging processes of life, because hope and transformation are linked in the heart of God. Hope pushes forth, like the seed in the dark earth. Hope continually beckons us forward to bear witness to the One who has come, is coming, and continues to come, age after age. Amen.