A long time ago now I read a piece by Walter Wangerin called “An Advent Monologue.” Though the language is dated now, I still recommend it. It stuck with me, as good writing does. It introduced me to the idea of God’s gentleness.
In the books of the law and the prophets, a person who looked upon God would die. Not that God would strike that one dead, but that the very act of beholding God with mortal eyes would slay him or her.
Of what did they die? Awe? Broken heart? Heart attack? Aneurysm? Did the view of God burst heart or mind?
Moses, however, looked on God and lived. He went up on the mountain and spoke with God and returned with a face shining so brightly that the people could not bear the sight of him. The reflected glory, the absorbed glory of God was unbearable, even in a broken human being.
Those are the kinds of occurrences, I’ve discovered, that people who do not count themselves as Jesus followers tend to see as fiction.
But the more hard to accept event, if you will, is the virgin birth. I think it touches on too many things. It touches on sex, or the lack thereof. A virgin will bear a child and give birth. Virgins don’t bear children, at least not in the age before in vitro fertilization. An engaged young women, “betrothed to be wed,” turns up pregnant, so now we have sex and scandal. That wasn’t a culture which took such things in stride (he understated). Name and reputation were at stake, which also meant business prospects and future opportunities. If this child was conceived out of wedlock, his fortunes were largely ruined before birth.
“No one should be surprised that Mary claimed not to have had sex,” I’ve been told, “the surprise is that billions of people throughout history have believed her.” I’ve been told this in a wink-wink, nudge-nudge manner, as if to say “We’re all adults here and we’re not really pretending that’s true. Right?”
I think that’s funny. I believe in a bunch of crazy things, easily six impossible things before breakfast, the central one of which is that a man was God, that God became a particular man, and this particular God-man not only lived on earth but resurrected from the dead after being violently murdered. I not only believe that happened, I believe it has formed me. I’m not a rich or famous man, but I have had a number of people call me the most influential person in their lives for a period of time, and a smaller group within that will tell you I saved their lives. The crazy things I believe have helped other people live.
I don’t consider the virgin birth even Top Ten of improbable things I believe.
But I do consider it the utmost evidence of God’s gentleness.
Those who believe in God would say that God could have chosen many means of self-revelation. Romans tells us that nature has revealed God’s divine nature and eternal power. Yet many who love nature see nothing of a God or Creator there.
God chose to be born. God’s choice for revealing almighty power, but more importantly unconditional, unwavering, undefeatable love was to become an embryo and, eventually, a newborn. John writes, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.”
I know this seems crazy if you don’t believe in Jesus’ deity. It’s a ridiculous assertion. I believe it because the ridiculous assertion, or the subject of the ridiculous assertion, changed me.
For those of us who believe in Jesus’ deity, this should strike us as more crazy than it does.
God whose appearance caused instant death became God who depended on humans for life. God the all-powerful made himself so powerless that any adult, any child could have taken his life.
Within the last twenty-four hours of his life, Jesus would tell his disciples that he could appeal to his Father who would at once send more than twelve legions of angels.* But he did not.
Jesus entered in gentleness and left in gentleness. Some have described it as weakness, but weakness, self-imposed, is gentleness.
Jesus came to his own, and those whom he had created did not recognize him. He didn’t force them. He still doesn’t.
Gentleness is a withholding of strength. Jesus used gentleness to express love.
He still does.
*A legion of the Roman army had roughly 6,000 men, so assuming Jesus was speaking in context for his followers to understand, he meant about 72,000 angels. Considering that a single visiting angel invariably scared the snot out of whomever received the visit (“Do not be afraid,” every single time) seventy-two thousand would have provided sufficient force. I don’t know where this one ranks in the “improbable things,” but I do believe it.