What is God like? It’s a question most people think about from time to time, including me. And one of the first times I thought about what God was like was one Christmas when I was a little boy. It happened when my mother asked me to set up the family crèche, or nativity scene, for the Christmas holidays. I was excited at being assigned such a grown-up job. Eagerly I raced to the hall closet where there was a box in which we stored away the crèche for the rest of the year. I stretched to take down the box from the top shelf and carried it to a table my mother had prepared with angel hair and clean straw.
Carefully I began unwrapping each of the Christmas figurines, imagining the right place to put them in the nativity tableau. I thought it best to start with two simply- dressed shepherds and the two lambs they present to the Baby Jesus. Next I unwrapped a cow, minus one horn, seeking shelter on a winter night. Then there was the little donkey Mary rode the many bumpy, frightening miles from Nazareth. One by one I put in place the lavishly-dressed wise men who journeyed so far to worship the King. I thought for a moment, careful to place Mary right in the middle, puzzling that she had somehow carried God within her. Close beside her I put Joseph, wondering what it was like for him to know he was not Jesus’ father.
I then unwrapped the smallest, tiniest figure of them all. It was the Baby Jesus. I dithered; staring, holding the little newborn in my hand. I wondered; astounded that He was God. He felt so small to me, so helpless. He made Himself vulnerable to everything going on around Him. That was one of the first times I thought about what God is like.
Most people tell me that when they think about God they think of power and majesty. Yet, at that first Christmas there was God coming down to us in humility and abject helplessness. Years later there was Jesus ending His life on a shameful cross, despised and rejected by others.
As Christians we believe that Jesus is the revelation of God the Father. Jesus said, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9b). The New Testament declares that Jesus is “the exact imprint of God’s very being” (Hebrews 1:3). Isaiah the prophet and Matthew the evangelist proclaim Jesus as “Emmanuel…God with us” (Isaiah 7:14; Matthew 1:23).
The story of Christmas starts our thinking about God in a very different place. Jesus is the human face of God stepping onto the stage of history as a microscopic cell, totally dependent on a teen mother for His very life. “The Omnipotent, in one instant, made himself breakable. He who had been spirit became pierceable. He who was larger than the universe became an embryo.” (Max Lucado, It Began in a Manger) Jesus goes about His life with no place to lay His head, seeking to serve and not to be served, washing disciples’ feet, despised, rejected, dying in disgrace by an executioner’s hand. Jesus does not leave us guessing as to what God is like!
God in a manger is not God giving up the attributes of His divinity, but the very revelation of His divinity to us. This is what God is like! This is God acting most like God! This is God acting completely in character. The love that is the Triune God – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – overflows eternity into time. The God we believe in is the God whose very nature is to give Himself for others and to hold nothing back. This is the divine nature.
It may seem an oxymoron to speak of a “humble God”, and yet, this is how God reveals Himself to us. Reformed theologian Karl Barth rightly observed, “God is not proud. In His high majesty, He is humble.” (Church Dogmatics, IV/1) Jesus expresses deity in making Himself downwardly mobile for us.
Because God is humble in His innermost being, we catch glimpses of the full blaze of His glory bearing our humanity in a manger and taking on death, even death on a cross. Because God is love He makes Himself vulnerable, putting Himself at risk and taking on unspeakable suffering for us. Jesus invites all to come to Him for He is “gentle and humble in heart” (Matthew 11:29). Jesus leaves no one guessing what God is like!
OVERVIEW OF OUR HUMBLE GOD
These daily reflections for Advent 2017 take up the question of what God is like. We want to attempt each day to slow down a bit, to wonder and worship the God revealed to us in Jesus’ cradle and cross. Our scripture focus will center on the Christ Hymn found in Philippians 2:5-11. Won’t you please take a few moments and read the Christ Hymn printed below and let God’s words speak to you.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
William Barclay said of the Christ Hymn, “There is no passage in the New Testament which so movingly sets out the utter reality of the godhead and the manhood of Jesus and makes so vivid the sacrifice that he made when he laid aside his godhead and took manhood upon him.” (Daily Study Bible) Biblical scholar Michael Gorman calls the Christ Hymn Paul’s “master story” as it proclaims “his gospel more fully, yet succinctly than any other single text.” (Apostle of the Crucified Lord) Karl Barth said that the Christ Hymn threaded through all of Paul’s writings and called it “a little compendium of Paul’s testimony.” (Epistle to the Philippians) N. T. Wright declares this text is in Paul’s “bloodstream” giving us “a new view of Jesus,” and “a new understanding of God.”
The implications of the Christ Hymn for Paul’s first century readers and for readers today will become obvious. If God so loved the world that He humbly gave Himself, then we will give ourselves in humble love. Here we see what God is like! Here we see the true spirit of Christmas. There is a great gift in store for us by spending the days of Advent with the Christ Hymn!
CONTEXT THEN AND NOW
First century Philippi was a proud and prosperous Roman colony on the northeast coast of Greece where the apostle Paul planted his first church in Europe. Members of the elite Praetorian Guard had settled in Philippi along with other members of Rome’s Imperial Army. It enjoyed a privileged position on the Via Egnatia road, linking the west to the east.
Paul is well aware of the status conscious culture of Philippi and the “race to honors”, cursus honorum. He sees that status culture manifested in the selfish ambition and rivalry erupting in the Philippian Church. In the Christ Hymn Paul “challenged his audience to adopt, in their mutual relations, an attitude toward honor and power that was diametrically opposed to the status-conscious value system of the world in which they lived.” (Joseph Hellerman, Embracing Shared Ministry) Paul begins the Christ Hymn charging readers to change their minds about life and what is important, calling the Philippians to “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 2:5).
And what about Paul’s readers today? Do we not also live in a status conscious culture in which selfish ambition, rivalry, and strife mar relationships, families, churches, and, yes, even nations? New York Times columnist David Brooks chronicles in his best seller The Road to Character how the American culture is becoming increasingly self-centered and focused on the “Big Me”. Brooks marshals extensive data revealing “that we have seen a broad shift from a culture of humility to the culture of what you might call the Big Me, from a culture that encouraged people to think humbly of themselves to a culture that encouraged people to see themselves as the center of the universe.”
Paul’s plea to all readers is important, it is essential: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus…” He is our humble God who in self-forgetful love came down to us! All who would follow Jesus seek to put on His mind!