Okay, let’s put an end to any puzzlement, though I suspect you’ve already got the point: this is my visual aid for Christmas – me! Not my usual Sunday best – the nice suit, silk tie, polished shoes, and distinguished Genevan preaching gown. No, today, you get me dressing down – you get a jumper, jeans, and a pair of trainers. Sorry it’s not PowerPoint, but I’m suspicious of any technology that uses “bullets” to preach the Prince of Peace. So you’ll have to do with me – and my thesis that Christmas itself is a PowerlessPoint presentation of God dressing down – which is the way he dresses up.
The birth of a baby is, after all, a commonplace, not a spectacular. And with Jesus himself we celebrate the birth of a human, not a superhuman. Indeed that, precisely, is the message of Christmas: God is human. And not just partly, or contingently, or temporarily human, as if somewhere behind the God we see revealed at Christmas there is a god who is not human, some kind of divine essence or absolute, or even an inhuman deity, though there are plenty of such pop idols about, like Mammon the god of the banks and the market, or Mars the god of war and terror, or Venus the goddess of health and beauty. No, the humanity of God not only expresses, it actually defines, constitutes, the very being of God all the way down and from eternity to eternity. God is not only human, there is no non-human in God.
Now that’s the point, but it’s not the whole point. God is human, but what kind of human is God? That’s where Jesus comes in. God is not only human, God is this human. God the Son, the second person of the Trinity, has a name, his name is Jesus, and Jesus is the kind of person God is, Jesus is the person God is, here as a baby born in a stable, later as a man killed on a cross. (As John Donne said, Christmas and Good Friday are morning and evening of the same day.) Which is not the way a God who is omnipotent is supposed to behave. A PowerlessPoint presentation of divine dressing down indeed! A God, you might say, with no sense of occasion. Check it out.
At his baptism Jesus shows up to be baptised by John – and John exclaims, “No way! I need to be baptised by you!” Jesus appears not as a holy big shot, no, he identifies himself with the usual suspects and sinners. No sense of occasion.
Yes, his baptism turns out to be a royal occasion: Jesus is anointed by the Holy Spirit, as the Messiah. But what’s the next thing this messiah does? Go to a royal banquet of an inaugural ceremony with the great and the good? No, he heads for the desert, to sweat and starve for forty days – and keep company with the devil. No sense of occasion.
Then Jesus returns to civilization and begins to preach. He takes a service in Nazareth, his hometown. Preaches his socks off, to a rapturous reception. Not! No, he antagonises the congregation by reminding his neighbours of Bible stories where God plays away, ministering to foreigners, even enemies, rather than to local, patriotic folk. The Cohens, the Goldbergs, and the Finkelsteins are not pleased with the lad. They run him out of town. No feeling for his audience. No sense of occasion.
Then Jesus broadens his appeal. He preaches on a hillside to a crowd. What do crowds want to hear from a messiah? Promises of wealth, strength, happiness, and national security, of course. What does Jesus tell them? Blessed are the poor, the meek, the mournful, and the nonviolent. And, in this programmatic PowerlessPoint presentation, no big screen for those at the back. No sense of occasion.
Then there are the healings. Now that’s the way to impress the punters and get the word around – perform some sensational miracles. Except that Jesus is always telling his patients to keep schtum, and refusing to perform for the professionals who come to check him out for quality control. No stage presence. No sense of occasion.
Oh, and how do messiahs succeed? Keep your friends in the loop; make strategic alliances. Instead, Jesus dumbfounds his disciples – they constantly misunderstand him and even object to his teaching – and he alienates the clergy with his confrontational style. No sense of occasion … after occasion … after occasion.
Finally, the climax of his ministry, Jesus goes to Jerusalem, the capital city. Here he will finally convince his friends and defeat his foes. So he goes to work. At the last supper he demonstrates what lordship is like. How? – like a slave he washes the disciples’ feet. And before the high priest and the Roman governor he vindicates his cause. How? – he is silent before the one and lippy before the other. No sense of occasion. This time, big time. Caiaphas, however, has a sense of occasion: he dramatically rends his garment. And Pilate has a sense of occasion: he publicly washes his hands. And the people have a sense of occasion (like Herod, they know what to do when love incarnate appears): “Kill him!” they cry. But Jesus has no sense of occasion: his idea of a grand exit is hanging from a gibbet beside a rubbish tip.
But then what else from a God whose idea of a grand entry is a Nappy Christmas (Godfrey Rust), pulled from the womb of a peasant in the palace of a stable, surrounded by an entourage of cattle and yokels, and sleeping in the four-poster bed of a feeding trough? People think they have an idea of what God is like, and they would recognise him when he appears – awesome, stunning, prodigious (a kind of cross between the four horsemen of the apocalypse and the four judges on X Factor). They don’t. They didn’t. He isn’t.
Christmas: God’s PowerlessPoint presentation, God’s dressing down, God’s self-demonstration that he has no sense of occasion, that God is God in a messy birth (and, later, in a messier death). And there, I think, is the true wonder of Christmas: the miraculous not in some supernatural phenomenon but in the striking ordinariness of the neonatal (and the finally fatal). And there also is the real hope of Christmas: things are not as they seem; and, more, things are not as they have to be, they can be altogether otherwise. Is a new world possible? Absolutely, because a new world came. And because a new world came, a new world is coming.