God as a Baby

Christmas Eve,  December 24, 2014


Until tonight
I could not fit the size of God
into my head.
I thought he was a God
for prophets and kings,
men of words and wisdom.
But tonight I am looking at God made small,
small enough for me,
small enough to pick up
and hold like a lamb.
I could not talk to a God in the clouds;
but tonight when I look and smile
and talk nonsense to this
tiny thing, I know that I am
talking to God.
And it is God who smiles
back at me and waves his
perfect hands in delight.
And tonight in your smallness, God,
you seem bigger and more powerful
to me than you ever did before.
I can hold you now,
hold you in my head
and hold you in my arms,
and know that you are holding me in yours.

Lisa Debney
 (From Hay and Stardust. Resources for Christmas to Candlemas, by Ruth Burgess. Wild Goose Publications, 2005)

So here we are again, on this the night of nights. We gather together, as we gather every week, but especially tonight. We gather to sing the familiar carols, to exchange Christmas cheer with friends, to enjoy the atmosphere. But really, we come to see the child born this night. We come to hear the story anew. We come like the shepherds, trudging to the stable to see this great wonder.

We draw near with awe and joy and puzzlement, because we know we are drawing near the very heart of our faith. Where we stand with that faith, will differ from person to person. For some of us, it is the firm centre of our lives, which gives us courage and joy and direction day by day. For others, our faith is a constant battle with doubt: on our good days, we believe in God; on those other days, we can only trust that God still believes in us. For still others, belief is a somewhat more distant proposition –  a nice idea, a memory from childhood perhaps, something we would sometimes like to believe, but we’re not sure how to, or if it’s completely honest. But wherever we are on the journey of faith, we all come here tonight understanding that this is what it is all about. In the Christian understanding of God, this is the one day in the year when we come up to the very core of faith, when God is a newborn lying in a cattle-shed. Well, today, and one other day, that dark day when God is a tortured man nailed to a cross – those are the times we draw closest to the essence of what Christian faith is about.

What do we find, when we draw near the cattleshed tonight? We find what the shepherd found, in the poem we heard in the place of the second reading tonight:

    But tonight I am looking at God made small,
small enough for me,
small enough to pick up
and hold like a lamb.

We find a God who has made himself small, who has given up the whole power and transcendence thing, given up being a God in the clouds, in order be God come among us, Emmanuel.

That is what we come to witness, tonight: the incredible miracle of God’s choice to be God among us. It is a choice so radical, so unexpected, so crazily subversive of the whole idea of religion – God has broken every rule about how to be a god! – that we just don’t get it. Or at least we get it when we see it, when we let this child into our hearts, we understand it instinctively. But then we turn away and go back to the business of religion, of trying to keep God safely in heaven, and we forget again that God has blown that out of the water by choosing to be God with us. Which is why we need to keep coming back to the stable, and to keep coming back to the cross, to remind ourselves of God’s radical overthrowing of all our religious impulses. We are like the Magi: we just keep looking for signs of God in the heavens; but the star that they followed led them back to earth, to the earthiness of a newborn wailing in a cattle-stall.

The events of this night really do completely overturn the logic of human religion.
•    God is supposed to be distant, completely other, infinitely superior to us. Yet here the God who is all these things chooses to be otherwise, chooses to be close to us, as close as our own flesh and blood.
•    God is supposed to be all-powerful, and to deal in power, lording it over all creation. We like a God like that, because it gives us cover for our own worship of power, and our desire to lord it over one another. And yet here God the all powerful has chosen vulnerability instead: the complete vulnerability of a helpless newborn, the complete vulnerability of a naked man nailed to a cross.
•    God is supposed to command our worship, and fear, and obedience. But here God has chosen to ask for something else instead, to ask for our love and tenderness. And when we begin to open our hearts to give him this love, we discover how much more he is asking of us than mere worship and obedience. Something much more intimate, he is really asking for our hearts.

And again and again we forget this. Again and again the church turns away from the babe in the manger, and the man on the cross, and goes back to worshipping the God of power and invincible might. Again and again we ignore the way God has chosen to relate to us; we assume we know better than God how a god has to behave. There was the Emperor Constantine, with his vision of a cross in the sky before a battle, and the words “in this sign conquer” – as though the cross could ever be a sign of military conquest! So Constantine made of Jesus a battle god, and made the religion of the empire a Christianity that had forgotten its own roots. And this imperial Christianity, this religion of power and obedience, would dominate the church for centuries, would underwrite the crusades, the persecution of Jews and heretics, the colonial enterprise. It still continues to underwrite the way we prosecute our wars in the Middle East.  Most of the evils of the church – and they have been many – flow from this one root evil: that we have turned away from the babe in the manger, and the man on the cross, to worship a God of power. Let us be clear: there is nothing Christian about a religion of power, no matter how much we dress it up with the name of Jesus. And conversely, anyone who responds with tenderness and delight and care to a helpless baby, or who responds to a tortured man surrounded by a mob with compassion and outrage and a thirst for justice – is a true follower of Jesus, be they Christian or Muslim or humanist or atheist.

And so let us return once more to the stable this year, as we return again and again. We come in order to continue to cure our hearts of our admiration for power and obedience. We come to learn once again the difficult lesson of God’s radical choice to come among us, to be a God of vulnerability and compassion and love. It is a choice that is always surprising, always more radical than we have understood. We come in order to understand this God not only with our heads, but with our hearts, to invite him in,

    to look and smile
and talk nonsense to this
tiny thing, and know that we are
talking to God.
And that it is God who smiles
back at us and waves his
perfect hands in delight.
And to know that tonight in his smallness,
God is bigger and more powerful
than all the tinpot gods of domination and violence
thundering down upon us from the mountaintop.

Thanks be to God.