where the courage of the great and powerful fails

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Christmas Eve Meditation

“For the great and powerful of this world, there are only two places in which their courage fails them, of which they are afraid deep down in their souls, from which they shy away. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ. No powerful person dares to approach the manger, and this even includes King Herod. For this is where thrones shake, the mighty fall, the prominent perish, because God is with the lowly. Here the rich come to nothing, because God is with the poor and hungry, but the rich and satisfied he sends away empty. Before Mary, the maid, before the manger of Christ, before God in lowliness, the powerful come to naught; they have no right, no hope; they are judged.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, from God is in the Manger

“… whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” The Gospel of Mark 10:43-45 (NIV)

John Piper tells the story of dejected and discouraged American prisoners of war, their depression clearly expressed in the language of posture and silence. Then, one day, a remarkable change in behaviour occurs—a whoop and whistle, a sudden smile—which their guards observe with curiosity. The reason? A radio had been smuggled into the camp, and it had carried the news of an advancing Allied force. Now note this, nothing in their immediate circumstances had changed, except for one thing; news. The power of news.

Christmas is good news, the Gospel is “good news”—literally, good news that starts with the birth of a baby. The well-known narrative from the Gospel of Luke tells the familiar story. But, upon closer investigation, the language is found to be layered and uncomfortably (for many) Jewish. The pervasive emphasis on the fulfilment of Jewish prophecy, hopes and aspirations takes the reader by surprise. Jesus the Messiah (read: Jewish King), “has helped His servant Israel, remembering to be merciful” (Lk 1:54), and only then will he be “a light for revelation to the Gentiles” (Lk 2:32).

The New Testament nowhere departs from this revelation of Jesus the King. Everything in it lends support to the Song of Mary, the song of Zechariah and the Prophecy of Simeon the priest. Peter made the truthful confession, “you are the Christ!” (Mk 8:29), God’s anointed king, and the inscription above the Christ’s head stated clearly for all to see; “This is Jesus, the King of the Jews” (Matt 27:37). The only problem being that the banner was at the head of a cross.

Or, is that a problem? Did Jesus fail his royal commission? Was this but a tragic end to a promising Christmas beginning? The answer is a resounding “no!”. A humble maiden, shepherds, a manger? The clues to the humble nature of Christ’s kingship were there at the start. The fashion of his imperial objective unambiguous. “The Son of Man must suffer many things …” (Lk 9:22). This is what he came for. The Gospel of Mark says it most powerfully and succinctly. “… the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mk 10:45). (And irony of ironies, as the disciples were discussing greatness in the presence of a King …)

Three points from this statement for our consideration …

1. His title. Jesus calls himself “Son of Man”. It is a very peculiar thing to call oneself, a statement of utmost humility for a king—“oh, I am but a ‘child of humanity’”. On the other hand, it’s pedigree cannot be loftier. The Son of Man from the prophecy of Daniel is one whom “all peoples, nations and men of every language worship” and whose “dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away” (Dan 7:13-14). Jesus, the one in whom humility and greatness perfectly matches. Is it not interesting that our desire is for a GREAT King, but one who is also humble. (If I were a king, we say to ourselves, I would be great, but humble … ever wondered where that comes from?)

2. His mandate. Jesus states it clearly, I “came not to be served but to serve …”. This is an uncomfortable truth for us, but if we were to come to Jesus and say to him—“let me serve you”, he will turn us away. Instead, Jesus comes to us and says: “will you let me serve you?”. Jesus the King is not in need of servants, nor does he find affirmation in the number of his recruits—that is the prerogative of the other religions. Jesus our King is whole, complete within himself; he does not want or need servants, he has already served us—he has come to find sons and daughters.

3. His mission. Jesus came to “give his life as a ransom for many”. The word ransom in the ancient world was most often associated with buying back people enslaved, or prisoners of conquest and war. There is nothing sentimental about being a prisoner awaiting execution, and this is the realism the Bible applies to the human condition. True freedom asks a price that only one could pay. This makes Jesus so much more than an example to follow, it makes him someone to entrust oneself to—someone to worship!

Consider in closing the power of humility. Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a man who resisted Hitler’s Nazi ideology, was put in prison and then finally executed by special command only days before the Allied forces arrived. Note this account of his death by the SS Doctor who was present at his execution:

Through the half-open door in the barracks I saw Pastor Bonhoeffer kneeling, immersed in prayer to his God, before he took off his prison clothing. The devotion which was obvious in the prayer of this extraordinarily agreeable man, and his certainty that God heard him, made a very deep impression upon me. At the place of execution too, he uttered a brief prayer and then courageously and calmly mounted the ladder to the gallows. Death followed after a few seconds. In my activity as a doctor, which has lasted almost fifty years, I have never seen a man die with such devotion to God.

A death marked by humility and trust, and therefore deeply powerful. At the end of Mark’s Gospel we hear an even more powerful testimony from an expert executioner, the Roman officer overseeing the death of Jesus:

… when the centurion, who stood there in front of Jesus, heard his cry and saw how he died, he said, “Surely this man was the Son of God!” (Mk 15:39)

There is no argument against humility. Especially that of King Jesus. Or, as Bonhoeffer put it so well: “For the great and powerful of this world, there are only two places in which their courage fails them, of which they are afraid deep down in their souls, from which they shy away. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ”.

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