The front yard is blanketed in snow and there is extreme cold weather warning for this part of the world for the next 24 hours.
Christmas must be coming.
As we come to the end of a year in which politics and power seemed to dominate every news bulletin, we find ourselves again being reminded of a little baby born in Bethlehem who gained more followers than any politician in history, yet never grasped for power.
That wasn’t how the Messiah was supposed to act.
Lots of Jews had been waiting expectantly for a baby to be born, but not this baby, not this way.
They expected a baby who would eventually force the anti-Jewish powers to bow to a stronger political force. They expected a baby who would reinstate the political might their nation had once enjoyed under Kings David and Solomon.
They expected a powerful king.
The baby born in Bethlehem had indeed come as king, but of a wholly different kind of Kingdom. He had come to institute a kingdom based on love and not coercion.
Coercive power and love are opposite forces.
As I wrote in my book 6 Radical Decisions, sociologist Willard Waller has demonstrated what he calls the principle of least interest. This rather disturbing but obviously true principle states that the person who cares the least in any relationship is the person who has the most power.
The more you love, the more you are willing to put aside your agenda for the sake of the other person. The less you love, the less likely you are to sacrifice for the other person.
While it took a sociologist to give the principle a name, it was Jesus who first made the truth of the principle of least interest clear when he said:
My command is this: Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends. (John 15:12-13)
Jesus defined love as the willingness to die for the sake of another, something which he of course would ultimately demonstrate on the cross, but something he was clearly asking his followers to be willing to do as well.
We are used to people grasping for power. We are not used to people demonstrating selfless love, but perhaps we should be. After all it is self-giving love that is always the key that breaks the curse in the blockbuster movies (think Darth Vader disposing of the Emperor in Return of the Jedi or Leonardo DiCaprio freezing in the icy Atlantic waters in Titanic or Sigourney Weaver sacrificing herself in Avatar). It is self giving love that gave weight to the words of Mother Theresa or Nelson Mandala. It is self giving love we hope for in our leaders (but often find ourselves disappointed).
At one point in “the Hobbit” Gandalf is asked why he chose Bilbo. He nailed the difference between a kingdom of power and a kingdom of love:
“Saruman [another wizard] believes that it is only great power that can hold evil in check. That is not what I’ve found. I found it is the small things, everyday deeds of ordinary folk, that keeps the darkness at bay. Simple acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? Perhaps it is because I’m afraid, and he gives me courage.”
It is not a stronger coercive power that contains an evil power, it is the power of love. As Martin Luther King wrote;
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Love is a wholly other way of living. When you love you allow your needs to not be the primary filter through which you see the world, and as a result you are actually able to see the world. N.T. Wright wrote:
When I truly love, whether the object of my love is a planet or a person, a symphony or a sunset, I am celebrating the otherness of the beloved, wanting the beloved to be what it really is, greater than my imagining or perception, stranger, more mysterious. Love celebrates that mystery: in that sense, it is truly ‘objective’; but it is also of course delightedly ‘subjective’
In the 80’s the rock group Foreigner had a hit with the song “I want to know what love is.” Some of the lyrics were:
In my life there’s been heartache and painI don’t know if I can face it againCan’t stop now, I’ve traveled so far, to change this lonely lifeI want to know what love is, I want you to show meI want to feel what love is, I know you can show meI want to know what love is, I want you to show me(And I want to feel) I want to feel what love is(And I know) I know you can show me
The only way to understand love is to learn to love. Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote:
“Love can only be perceived by love.”
When the Messiah actually did appear, he appears as love incarnate. The longing of Jewish people for political power was understandable after centuries of subjugation, however God was wanting to establish a kingdom of love and not political coercion. This actually was not news, he had made it clear 400 years earlier:
Zechariah 4:6 Not by might, nor by power, but by my Spirit, says the Lord of hosts.
In fact, God had told them that the Messiah would be almost the exact opposite of the powerful political figure they were longing for:
2 He grew up before him like a tender shoot,
and like a root out of dry ground.
He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him,
nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.
3 He was despised and rejected by mankind,
a man of suffering, and familiar with pain.
Like one from whom people hide their faces
he was despised, and we held him in low esteem.
Jesus came as a tiny, helpless baby, born to a teenage mother amongst the fecal stench of a barnyard. Jesus came as the perfect demonstration of self giving love.
I love how Bono puts it (in describing a moment of realization at a Christmas church service):
The idea that God, if there is a force of Logic and Love in the universe, that it would seek to explain itself is amazing enough. That it would seek to explain itself and describe itself by becoming a child born in straw poverty, in shit and straw…a child… I just thought: “Wow!” Just the poetry … Unknowable love, unknowable power, describes itself as the most vulnerable. There it was. I was sitting there, and it’s not that it hadn’t struck me before, but tears came streaming down my face, and I saw the genius of this, utter genius of picking a particular point in time and deciding to turn on this.”
Santa is much safer than that baby. Santa makes us feel happy while promising to meet our desires for stuff. The baby asks us to give up our agendas and to learn to love. He invites us to step into a wholly other way of living, a way of living that actually is the only way to a whole life.
It is important for us not to sentimentalize the baby born in Bethlehem, but to recognise him for who he is: the instigator of a revolution of love.