If This Is God…


If This Is God…

Brian Zahnd

As we know, there was no room in the inn at Bethlehem, so the peasant couple from Galilee took refuge where they could. And as we know, the girl was “great with child” and her due date was nigh. As it turned out, the baby took his first breath and uttered his first cry in a cave that sheltered livestock. A feeding trough was turned into a crib for the newborn. A stable that had seen the birth of calves, kids, and lambs, now saw the birth of…GOD.

This is what Christians confess about Christmas.

We confess that Emmanuel (God with us) joined humanity, not by swooping down from the celestial heavens in a golden chariot, but by being born — born in a stable, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. Like all of us, God was pushed from the womb through contractions, labor, agony, and blood, to enter headfirst into the beautiful and horrible mess that is our world. This is not Athena springing fully formed from the head of Zeus, this is Jesus born of Mary.

To fulfill the promise of Emmanuel, God had to be born of woman. But God could have been born in a palace instead of a cave. This is what we would expect. God could have been born into the prosperity of billionaires, into the privilege of power-brokers. Isn’t that where kings come from? Not in the gospel story.

The ancient prophecies said that Messiah would be the son of David, and both Mary and Joseph were in the royal lineage of King David. (That’s what those genealogies in Matthew and Luke are about.) But when Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph were about as far from royalty as a Walmart greeter is from a Wall Street executive. The first gospel stories of Jesus — from his lowly birth in Bethlehem to his refugee flight into Egypt — tell us that God chose to enter the world among the poor and threatened. We who confess Jesus as the virgin-born Son of God should realize this:

If this is God…thus is God.

God is the Almighty who chooses absolute vulnerability.

God is the Divine Sovereign who accepts human limitation.

God is the Ultimate Transcendence who joins in human suffering.

God is the rightful Monarch who becomes a displaced refugee.

God is the Infinite who empties himself.

God is the God who becomes human.

God is the God who becomes common.

God is the God who becomes poor.

When we look at Jesus born in a cave in Bethlehem, fleeing a maniacal despot into Egypt, toiling as a common laborer in Nazareth, we have to say: If this is God…thus is God. And that forces us to rethink most of our assumptions about power, greatness, and the way the world is arranged.

Yes, Jesus was announced as a king by the angels and adored as a king by the magi, but we should recognize this as part of the divine irony of the gospel story. Jesus is a paradoxical king who was born in a stable, not in a palace; who was crowned with thorns, not with gold; who reigns from a Roman cross, not from an oval office.

The King of Kings turns out to be a very counterintuitive kind of king. The kingdom of God is revealed as utterly unlike the empires of Egypt, Babylon, and Rome. When Jesus’ disciples were jockeying for positions of power in the coming administration of Messiah, Jesus had to explain to them that his kingdom would be radically different from the superpowers they had known.

“You know that among the Gentiles those whom they recognize as their rulers dominate them, and their great ones are tyrants over them. But it shall not be so among you. Rather, whoever among you wishes to be great will be your servant.” (Mark 10:42, 43)

Jesus redefines greatness. So Christmas time is a good time to repent of our idolatrous fascination with conventional greatness. If we chase what is commonly considered great, we find ourselves running away from Jesus. A people drunk on visions of empire-styled greatness — the greatness of power, the greatness of money, the greatness of winning — will be more attracted to Herod in his regal palace than to Jesus in his humble manger. After all, it was not the elite of Jerusalem who were given an angelic invitation to visit the nativity, but poor shepherds tending their flocks by night. The kings, princes, and high priests were overlooked, while the poor and lowly were visited by angels. Mary had already sung about it in her revolutionary song…

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.

By the time Jesus was born in a Bethlehem cave, most of humanity had long ago moved beyond dwelling in caves. But since Christ gives the world a new start, perhaps it was fitting for the new Adam to be born in a cave. And though it might be pushing the subterranean metaphor a bit too far, I like to think that on that first Christmas night an underground movement was launched in Bethlehem that was destined to subvert and uproot the principalities and powers. No wonder Herod was so nervous. The old king had one foot in the grave and his dynasty was headed for an ignoble end, while the new king whose kingdom will never end was wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

The magi read the birth of the King of the Jews in the stars, but the king himself was born in a cave. It had to be that way. For in the kingdom of Christ greatness is not achieved by reaching for the stars, but by love’s willing descent into lowliness, meekness, and humility.

If this is God…thus is God.

Merry Christmas.


(The artwork is Nativity by Giovanni di Paolo, c. 1450.)