Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Mild He Lays His Glory By

I have a piece of old plaster on my desk at home. It comes from the ancient site of Herodium in Israel.

Herodium was Herod's summer palace, located on an artificially heightened mountain about three miles southeast of the little town of Bethlehem. There's nothing there but rubble these days, but at the turn of the first century it was the location of a lavish royal residence that served as Herod's summer palace, district capital, fortress, tomb estate, and monument to his penchant for self-aggrandizement.

According to Josephus and other ancient historians the palace was encircled by two concentric walls with four defense towers that soared five stories or more above the complex. Two hundred polished marble steps led from the bottom of the mountain through the walls and into the interior to a villa with opulent apartments furnished for the royal family and their prominent guests.

A lower campus, at the foot of the mountain, boasted a Roman bath with hot, cold and lukewarm pools, surrounded by colonnaded gardens. Not far from the bath was an elaborate banquet hall with frescoed walls (from which my piece of plaster came) and exotic mosaic floors. This was a home for the rich and famous.

Herod built his palace, we're told, to commemorate a victory over a Hasmonean prince in 40 B.C., but perhaps he had another purpose in mind. Herod was not a Jew (he was Idumean), but he knew the Jewish scriptures. He was aware that Israel's Messiah would be born in Bethlehem as Micah predicted: "But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times" (Micah 5:1). Perhaps he hoped the Coming King would be born in his palace.

God, however, is not so grandiose. He announced his birth not to glitterati but to lowly shepherds, the outcasts of Israel. He chose to be born, not to royalty but to poverty; not in a castle but in a cave. It was there in a hole in the ground that the little Lord Jesus was born, a helpless infant. An easy thing it was to love him.

All through the Old Testament we read that God has been doing his best to get next to us, humbling himself to make himself known. German theologian Gerhard von Rad, whose thinking has dominated Old Testament studies for fifty years or more, describes these efforts as "irruptions," a word that means "to break in." (It's the exact opposite of the more familiar word "eruption," "to break out.") Christmas, whatever else it may be, is God's supreme effort to "break in" to this world and show us the measure of his love. This is the humility of God, an aspect of his character we rarely think about these days. More’s the pity.

One writer, Fredrick Buechner, put it this way: "The child is born among beasts. The sweet breath and steaming dung of beasts. And nothing is ever the same again. Those who believe in God can never in a way be sure of him again. Once they have seen him in a stable, they can never be sure where he will appear, or to what lengths he will go, or to what ludicrous depths of self-humiliation he will descend in his wild pursuit of mankind... For those who believe in God his birth means that God himself is never safe from us, and maybe that is the dark side of Christmas, the terror of the silence. He comes in such a way that we can always turn him down, as we would crack a baby's skull like an eggshell or nail him up when he gets too big for that" (The Hungering Dark).

Now I ask you: who can be afraid of a God like that? 


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