I was leading a Bible study earlier this week where one of the participants asked why God doesn’t just part the heavens and come down, saying, “Hey everybody, I’m here! This is absolute proof, so you’d better believe in me!”
I thought this was a great question. Why doesn’t God do that? It would certainly make some things easier. We wouldn’t have to wrestle so much with our faith. When refuted, we could simply point back to the absolute proof and blow our opponents’ arguments out of the water. Everything would become totally clear.
But I also wonder: What would be the cost of such certainty? We already know we live in a world where the strong dominate the weak, where history is written by the winners, and where winners often win by violence and manipulation. We lament this sad state of affairs, but fail to imagine any viable alternative.
Could things ever be any different?
At least one person has imagined so.
The poet in our psalm this morning spends his/her time imagining a different kind of ruler from the ones who tend to seize power on the global scene. The psalmist dreams instead of a ruler who governs by the power of gentleness and divine justice, rooted in the natural ebb and flow of creation itself. This dream is voiced as a prayer for the king:
“May he be like rain that falls on the mown grass, like showers that water the earth.”
That is a very gentle, life-giving image. It makes me think of sitting on my back porch in the spring time, watching the rain fall and the flowers beginning to sprout up after a long winter. Could that be a model for sound government?
The psalmist thinks so:
“May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.
For he delivers the needy when they call, the poor and those who have no helper.
He has pity on the weak and the needy, and saves the lives of the needy.
From oppression and violence he redeems their life; and precious is their blood in his sight.”
That might sound like a utopian pipe-dream, bound to end in disappointment, but the psalmist sees a different kind of outcome:
“May all kings fall down before him, all nations give him service.”
In a world governed by the power of violence, this dream might seem unattainable, but we Christians, who accept these words as sacred Scripture, are duty-bound to take them seriously as part of God’s Word. In God’s universe, it is right that makes might, not the other way around. If we really believed otherwise, why would we bother coming to church on Sunday?
This is no utopian pipe-dream or abstract principle for us Christians. We believe that this idea took on flesh and came to fulfillment in the person of Jesus Christ. St. Paul refers to this as “the mystery of Christ” in today’s epistle:
“In former generations this mystery was not made known to humankind, as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit: that is, the Gentiles have become fellow heirs, members of the same body, and sharers in the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel… so that through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”
In Paul’s vision, God wins the victory, not by dominating or destroying Gentile enemies, but by including them as friends in the redemption that Christ won for the world. This, in Paul’s mind, subverts the dominant paradigm of the powers-that-be.
The way of God’s kingdom stands in stark contrast to the powers of the world, like King Herod, who we read about in today’s gospel.
Herod vies for power, using all the means at his disposal. When he perceives a threat to his power, he gathers the scholars and clergy as part of his military and political intelligence program. He manipulates people with lies and fake displays of piety. When, at last, he is outsmarted by babies and dreams, he unleashes the full force of the military in a campaign deliberately designed to destroy innocent lives in the interest of maintaining his position.
The good news is that his plan fails miserably. God intervenes through unorthodox means, using pagan philosophers to subvert the diabolical schemes of this tyrant. Jesus, the one child Herod sought to kill, escapes unharmed and grows up to become the greatest personality in human history, not to mention the central figure in God’s plan to redeem the world.
The good news for us in this is that the ancient dreams of poets and prophets are coming true. There is a deeper justice in the universe that trumps the demonic schemes of powerful people. “Survival of the fittest” and “might makes right” do not have the last word in the order of life. By contrast, God seems to be saying to us in these texts that history is written by the losers, the weak ones, and the vulnerable, because history’s last word is written by the God who chose to become vulnerable in the infant Christ.
Sure, God could have parted the heavens and come down with irrefutable evidence to demand faith and obedience from the human race, but this would have been at odds with God’s actual plan for the world. In point of fact, God did come to earth, not as a ruler, but as a baby. God does not force the divine will upon us from without, like any other human tyrant, but influences us from within, respecting our freedom and inviting us to cooperate with the way of gentleness and vulnerability.
St. Teresa of Calcutta famously taught us that “Not everyone can do great things, but everyone can do small things with great love.” This is the way of God’s will in the world. It is the way that Christ invites us to follow.
The power of Jesus resides, not in inflicting pain, but in offering healing; not in pronouncing judgment, but in forgiveness; not in threatening deprivation, but in feeding hungry people with abundance; not in dealing death, but by rising to new life from the grave.
King Herod was not the last ruler who felt his power being threatened by Jesus. At the end of his life, Jesus stood before the Roman governor Pontius Pilate, who seemed to succeed where Herod had failed. He handed Jesus over to be tortured and crucified for crimes he did not commit.
They thought Jesus was a terrorist, plotting to overthrow the Roman government. Little did they know, Jesus’ real goal was far more dangerous: he was (and still is) plotting the overthrow of the entire world system of power based on endless cycles of violence.
Jesus brought those cycles to an end in himself by absorbing the violence of this world without retaliating. He allowed himself to bear the weight of our sin and be dragged into hell. But then, on the third day, he demonstrated the gentle power of God by tearing open the gates of hell and emerging victorious from the tomb. He undid the power of violence by showing it to be futile in the end.
We Christians are invited to share in this victory by walking in this world as Jesus walked. St. Paul tells us, “the Spirit of him who raised Jesus from the dead dwells in you” (Rom. 8:11). We are the members of Christ’s body, his hands and feet on earth today.
In times such as these, the greatest temptation is for Christians to give in to the demonic spirits of despair and cynicism. We think that violence of word or sword is the only way to guarantee peace and justice in life. We “study war” in our political and personal lives. We mistakenly come to believe that the only way to get ahead is by stepping on the backs of our neighbors and enemies.
Friends, I would humbly suggest to you today that there is another way. It is the way of gentleness and forgiveness, the way Jesus and the cross. While it is true that this way is likely to lead to crucifixion and death, it is also true that it leads even further into resurrection and the eternal life abundant that Christ promises for all who trust in him and walk in his ways.