We were coming to the Florida Keys for an interview for a new job for me and I was sick as a dog. We flew into Miami and rented a car to drive to Big Pine Key but I missed my chance to admire these beautiful islands because I was unconscious in the reclined passenger seat. So I showed up for my interview for a radio job with weepy eyes, a scratchy throat and a waterfall issuing from my nose. A box of Kleenex was my constant companion and because I didn’t know if this was an allergy or a disease I was hesitant to shake hands lest I infect my prospective boss and coworkers. Fortunately the job was for production director and copywriter so I didn’t have to record anything while sneezing and snerfing. I was given a client fact sheet and banged out the copy for an ad. It must have been good enough because I got the job. Still I wish I had made a better first impression.
We all wish we could put our best foot forward when we meet others for the first time. We wish we could make as good a first impression as movie heroes do. In the first 10 minutes of Doctor No, you see all you need to in order to conclude that James Bond is cool. He is handsome, dresses well, gambles skillfully and he can handle a gun or a woman. I doubt the series would have lasted for more than 50 years had his first appearance shown him with a red nose, which he blew constantly, while producing buckets of mucus.
Ideally a first impression should do two things: make people like you and, unless you are a spy, show who you truly are. Tonight we celebrate Jesus’ arrival and ask what first impression did he make.
First impressions can be influenced by what people are expecting. And what people were expecting in a Messiah in Jesus’ day varied. Some expected that the Messiah would be a prophet, like Elijah, a fiery messenger of God’s judgment. Some expected that God’s Anointed One would be a priest, like Ezra, bringing back people to true worship of God. But the most popular conception of the Messiah was that he would be a king, like David, defeating the Gentile oppressors, freeing his people from pagan Rome and setting up a physical kingdom of God on earth. That’s what people were expecting. It’s not exactly what they got.
What they got was a baby. Now of course all prophets, priests and kings start out as babies. One of the marvelous things about a baby is that it can grow up to be almost anyone. And if the Messiah were a mere human chosen by God for a special role or purpose, it wouldn’t be surprising that he should start out as a baby.
What nobody expected is that God wouldn’t delegate the role of Messiah. He was going to do it himself. And when you think about God coming to earth you expect fireworks. You expect thunder and lightning and scary signs in the sky. You don’t expect God to make his appearance as a vulnerable infant. So what does that say about God?
Usually we think of God in Old Testament terms, a God of justice, a God who fights for his people, but therefore a God that expects a kind of military discipline. Everything has to be done precisely according to the regs. If it isn’t there will be hell to pay.
Unfortunately we see God like that because that is the role he must play at that time in that context. Israel is a tiny nation, occupying strategic territory, wedged between enormous empires. Israel was on the crossroads between Africa, Asia Minor, Asia and Arabia. Every trade route between those continents and regions went through there. Every army seeking to expand did too. Egypt to their southwest and the succession of empires to the East wanted to secure that land. There was no United Nations, no Geneva Conventions, no World Court to protect them and see that everybody played nice. There was no reliable way to know that the Assyrians or the Babylonians weren’t on the other side of the mountains waiting to slaughter or enslave you and your family as they expanded their reach. The people wanted and needed someone powerful to save them. They wanted the Lord of Hosts, which really means the Lord of the Armies. It was a precarious existence and they wanted a law code that laid everything out in black and white so they knew where they stood and they wanted a big, strong God on their side to protect them. And that colors the picture of God we get when we read the story about how a nation of freed slaves managed to establish a small, hard-won kingdom in the middle of some of the most coveted and disputed trade and travel routes in the Near East. They were not looking for and they did not need a particularly cuddly God. They wanted General Patton.
Not that they obeyed him particularly well. Like I said, a life that uncertain called for an almost military-style discipline, with everybody knowing and doing their job. You see this not just in the Bible but in most ancient societies where there are a lot of rules that don't always make sense to those of us who live in modern western rich democratic societies who live in relative safety. The threats of hostile neighbors, famine, disease, and internal conflict require an overriding concern for the cohesion of the group and everyone's commitment to the good of the whole over and above individual freedoms. The survival of all could be compromised by 1 or a few not paying attention to what they had to do. Yet over and over again, when things are good, the people get slack. They start adopting other gods, like the fertility gods of the Canaanites, who practiced sacred prostitution, or Moloch, who required the sacrifice of children. Or they were just going through the motions of worshiping the Lord but not living out their faith in any meaningful way. As a consequence they stop taking care of the poor and start exploiting them. Because if you don't really care about God, you ultimately don't care for those made in his image, especially those who need a lot of help but can't pay you or society back. If people don't have any intrinsic worth, it's hard to justify taking care of them. So again and again we see the prophets warning the people about the consequences of both not caring anything for God or for other people. And this happens so frequently, the prophets sound really exasperated on God's behalf. God comes off as the frustrated and irate parent of a bunch of unruly two-year olds at the end of a very bad day.
So what is God like when he is not on guard duty nor herding a bunch of ungrateful, disobedient and contentious people? That's what we see in Jesus. And we first see him--God Incarnate--as an infant. God Almighty not only takes on our humanity but in its most vulnerable form. What does this say?
Faith is an important quality to have. It is trust and when the Bible speaks of having faith in God it is not so much interested in merely believing in God's existence as in trusting him. I believe President Assad of Syria exists; I don't trust him. Trust underlies all relationships. It's really hard to work with someone you don't trust. By coming to us as a baby God is showing his trust in us, in the form of Mary and Joseph. Now you may say, "Of course a baby can trust its parents to take care of it." Except we see in the news all too often that some parents cannot be trusted not to harm their children. Herod the Great executed 3 of his sons. So God by putting himself in the hands of human beings is showing his trust in at least those of good will.
In the film The Trigger Effect, all power goes out. With all media out as well, nobody knows why this has happen--war? natural disaster?--and civilization starts to fray. Not feeling safe in their own house and neighborhood, Matthew, Annie, their infant daughter and their friend Joe decide to drive to Annie's parents house some 500 miles away. When their vehicle is stolen and their friend Joe is seriously wounded, Matthew treks more than an hour to the nearest farmhouse to seek help. The homeowner will not open his door or let him use his car to get Joe to a hospital. Matthew retrieves his shotgun and breaks into the farmhouse to get the keys to the homeowner's car. The homeowner surprises him with his own gun and the two are at a standoff. When Matthew sees the homeowner's little girl, he, a father himself, understands the man's fear. Just when you think the film will veer into tragedy, Matthew slowly puts down his shotgun and picks up the keys, giving the homeowner the power of life and death over him. His gesture allows the man to know that he has nothing to fear from Matthew and he trusts him in return with his car.
To elicit trust you must show trust. God shows his trust in coming as a helpless child and, by letting his guard down, shows us we can trust him as well.
What else can we gather from our first impression of God in human form? Besides being cute, babies elicit strong positive emotions from us because they are vessels of hope. They not only hold the promise that our family lines will continue but also that humanity as a whole has a fresh start. Their talents and capabilities are as yet unknown. A baby could grow up to be almost anyone and to achieve almost anything, as we said. Now of course Mary and Joseph know that Jesus is to the Messiah but as we said, there were different concepts in the wind. Would he be a prophet, a priest or a warrior? All they knew was that he would make the world better through establishing justice and mercy, by feeding the hungry, freeing the oppressed and elevating the poor. This was God’s son; whatever he did, it would be wonderful.
There is another thing we can take from God appearing as a baby. It means he is all about love. Babies are not only the products of love but are made to be loved. In fact infants not given love, even if all of their physical needs are taken care of, can sicken and even die. The medical term is “failure to thrive.” Babies who manage to survive loveless childhoods suffer crippling psychological problems. Love is as vital as light or air to babies.
And babies can’t do much in return but love you back. They can’t do chores or earn money or even scratch your back when it itches. They just bask in your love and reflect it back at you.
In 1 John 4:7 we are told that God is love. It doesn’t say God is merely loving; God is love, the eternal love relationship of the Father and the Son, in the unity of the Spirit. And if God is love, then Jesus is God’s love made flesh and blood. God’s love finds its ultimate expression in him.
It has always been hard to imagine God, this amorphous Spirit, who created a universe that science is just beginning to understand. Comprehending the Trinity is like trying to tackle string theory or quantum entanglement. But Jesus is, as J.B. Philips put it, that vast, nebulous God focused into terms that we can relate to: time and space and human personality. That means that when we look at Jesus we see God as he really is, not in his role as protector of Israel but as the one who loves all of humanity enough to die for it.
The Bible tells us in the very first chapter of its very first book that we were created, male and female, in God’s image. If that image of God is love, then it is fairly obvious that we have marred it. The world is a pretty unloving place. We love our own but we shun and even mistreat those not like us. But Jesus is the restored image of God, or as the book of Hebrews says it, “the exact imprint of God’s very being.” So Jesus shows us not only what God is like but what we were meant to be. And if we open our hearts and minds to his Spirit, he shows us what we can grow to be. As it says in 1 John 3:2 “Beloved, we are God’s children now; what we will be has not yet been revealed. What we know is this: when he is revealed, we will be like him, for we will see him as he is.” To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, the son of God became a human being to enable human beings to become children of God.
One last thing we can pick up from our first impression of God as an infant: when he does something, he doesn’t do it halfway. He didn’t live an edited human life; he lived it fully, from beginning to the end. He not only risked being vulnerable, he chose to start out helpless. He chose to begin the arduous process of learning to walk, to talk, to feed and clothe oneself. He chose to have to get up every morning, do chores, go to school. He chose to learn a hard profession that required strength and skill and the ability to deal with splinters. He also dealt with clients and siblings who didn’t respect him and people who couldn’t see what he could see. He chose to undergo being betrayed by a friend and deserted by others, arrested, convicted, punished and executed on a bogus charge. What ever emotions we have experienced, so has he. He knows what our lives are like firsthand. So we can go to him with anything and know that we will receive sympathy, and understanding and mercy.
Our first impression of God is that he offers us trust, hope and love. He also knows us because he has lived and died as one of us. All that we get from gazing into the face of the newborn who made the world.
We tend to picture the birth of Jesus in the manger in a kind of hazy beautiful Hallmark card kind of way. But it wasn’t like that. He was born as we are and that is a messy process. He lived as we do, struggling at times and facing injustice. He died in a way we hope never to experience: in pain, abandoned and abused. He didn't live a sanitized life; he lived a real one. It could be pretty ugly at times. The beauty is that he did all that out of love for us. Deep eternal love. The love that made us and the love that calls us back home to God.