Matthew 1:18-25 (New International Version, ©2010)
18 This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. 19 Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.
20 But after he had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet: 23 “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel” (which means “God with us”).
24 When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. 25 But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son. And he gave him the name Jesus.
It snowed here in the Shenandoah Valley this week and many of the local schools received an early Christmas gift in the form of an extra two days added on to the beginning of their Christmas break. Most of the people that I know would claim to love the snow. I believe that snow is indeed a beautiful thing. I love to see it up on the mountains and I love to watch it falling from the sky, forming a pillowy white covering on the surface of the earth. Is there anything more peaceful, more pristine, more enchanting than waking up to a fresh dusting of snow on the ground? I love waking up to snow on the ground because often when I am sleeping I don’t even know that it is snowing. You just wake up and there it is.
Now with that description, snow doesn’t sound all that intimidating, now does it? The words “pillowy white” don’t often leave me shaking in my boots. But we know that, though snow may seem soft and fluffy at first, it has the power to shut down schools, churches, highways, and cities. It can disconnect you from electricity, phone and internet. What may seem weak at first is actually quite powerful, which leads me to believe that sometimes our first thoughts and impressions can be misleading.
When we think of great leaders, what do we think of? Tall men and women, with flowing hair and rippling muscles? I think of someone taller than myself, stronger than myself, better looking than myself (It’s not hard to find that person). When I think of great leaders, I think of physically impressive and perhaps even intimidating individuals. When I think of great leaders, I think of men like Caesar Augustus.
The Roman Empire was the greatest power of the first century. The Roman Empire had money, they had goods, they had weapons, they had soldiers, and they had confidence. That is a powerful combination. Caesar Augustus became the emperor of the Roman Empire around the year 27 BC and held that position until his death in 14 AD. Caesar was both a brilliant and sick man. Caesar Augustus believed that he could bring peace to all of the world, if only all of the world would submit to the Roman army. So Caesar would march his armies from town to town, city to city, conquering them. But Caesar wasn’t all bad. He gave the people an option. You either submit to the Roman Empire or you will be slaughtered. The choice is yours to make. The result of all of this military dominance was that the Roman Empire had control over a large portion of the known world at the turn of the first century when Jesus was born.
Caesar would fit many people’s typical image of a powerful and strong leader. If you crossed Caesar, he would kill you. And it usually wasn’t a quick kill. No, what Caesar did was he had you beaten and tortured. Then he had you taken to a very public place, stripped down naked, and he would nail you to a cross. And there you would die a slow, painful, and humiliating death with everyone watching. That is power. A powerful man leading one of the most powerful empires of all time.
So in the first century there would have been a lot of animosity toward Caesar and anyone that was loyal to him (eg tax collectors) in the territories occupied by the Romans. There was such animosity that many of the Jewish people began to hope for the ancient prophecies to be fulfilled; that the messiah would come and deliver the people from the Roman oppressors. Different people had different understandings of how he would deliver the Jews from the Romans, but surely they had their expectations. Many believed he would be a big, strong man with authority. He would come in and he would over-throw the Roman soldiers and bring peace to the people.
When I think of God coming to earth, I think that it is only natural to picture Jesus as a tall, powerful man who would demand my respect. Jesus would look like a professional football player or wrestler. If you see Jesus walking down the street, you might say to yourself, “I don’t want to mess with that guy. That is a fight that I would surely lose.” But let’s at the life of Jesus to see if he was that strong and powerful man that I have in my mind.
First I want to look at a prophesy that many would agree is a reference to Jesus, though it doesn’t really coincide with the image of Jesus that many of us have in our heads right now. Isaiah 53:2b says, “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” The text then goes on to say how this man of no beauty or majesty was made to suffer for our sins so that we might have peace, and that by his wounds we are healed. Sounds like Jesus, doesn’t it? All except that part about not being beautiful and majestic. I have seen pictures of Jesus where he is taller than most of the people that he is around. He often has flowing blonde curls and high cheekbones. Sometimes he has that straight-from-the-gym look where he is powerful and stretching his tunic at the chest and biceps. But that isn’t what Jesus looked like. He would have probably been your average Middle Eastern man. Not overly tall or short, probably pretty thin and scraggily looking because he walked everywhere and ate mostly bread and fish. Jesus was average looking and he would not have stood out as a powerful person by just looking at him.
But he was powerful. And I’m not just talking about in a supernatural way. He had the ability to change the world, to make it a better place, by changing people’s hearts and minds. He had the ability to lead people back into a right relationship with God. But Jesus did not execute his power in the way that we might usually think of power.
Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount reveals his different kind of power. Matthew 5:38-41 gives three examples. 38 “You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ 39 But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. 40 And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. 41 If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles.”
You have heard it said, an eye for and eye and a tooth for a tooth. That is conventional power. If someone messes with you, get even. If they give you a black eye, give them one back. If they knock out your tooth, knock one of theirs out as well. If you don’t you will be seen as weak. So maybe you will even go ahead and knock out two of their teeth to prove that you are more powerful than they are. Of course, then they go and get more back-up and they knock out three of your teeth. It goes back and forth until someone proves that they are the strongest and most powerful, or we all run out of teeth.
But Jesus says if someone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other as well. I have heard this described a number of times so it is hard to say for sure where this hypothesis comes from. Regardless, in the culture in which Jesus would have lived, if an officer or a member of the elite class were to strike a civilian or someone of a lower class, they would always strike them with the back of their hand. And it would always be with the right hand because the left hand would be the one used for bathroom duties and you wouldn’t touch someone with that hand. So to have someone strike you on the right cheek would have been a right backhand from the higher-up, more powerful person. But now that this person has struck you, Jesus is saying that we are to turn the other cheek and offer the left. Now the person of power is left with the option of either an open hand slap across the face or a closed fist. Either way, this would have been seen as a sign of equality. What might seem to be an act of weakness is actually a challenge to treat you with equality and it is done without retaliating violently.
Jesus then goes on to instruct his hearers that if anyone takes their shirt, they are to give them their coat as well. If we think of this as our modern-day clothes, we would still be wearing pants and for men we would still have all of the private stuff covered. But in the 1st Century in Palestine, they would have really just worn two layers of bathrobes. And Jesus is saying that if someone tries to take one of those layers, give them both. This would leave you naked.
Most of us would find it very uncomfortable to be naked in public, especially after all of the Christmas cookies I have been eating lately. But remember that in the Jewish culture that the shame of nakedness was on the viewer, not on the naked person. In Genesis 9 we find that Noah got a little carried away with the wine and one of his sons found him naked. Two of his sons then take Noah’s cloak and hold it over their shoulders and back into Noah’s cave to cover him without seeing him naked. It was the offspring of the son that saw Noah naked that was cursed. So if one was to give someone who demanded your shirt your cloak as well, you are bringing shame upon them.
Finally, Jesus says that if someone forces you to go one mile, go two. There are a couple different views on what Jesus was suggesting that we do here. Romans were able to order a Jewish person to carry their heavy equipment, armor, rations, etc., for up to one mile. The Romans weren’t totally ruthless; they put a limit on how far a Roman could force someone to carry their stuff and that limit was one mile.
But now Jesus is saying that if someone forces you to carry their gear one mile, carry it a second mile voluntarily. Perhaps this will bring shame on the person that made you carry it the first mile because you cheerfully carried it a second. Or perhaps it is just a witness to the way that Christians are called to serve others. Regardless, these three examples that Jesus gave seem weak at first. A powerful person would strike back when hit, would fight for their clothes, and would probably refuse to carry a Roman soldier’s bag at all. But Jesus is calling his followers to do what appears on the outside to be weak because it will expose the evil that is present in the system. What seems weak is actually intellectually brilliant and more powerful than rising up and physically trying to seem tough.
Appearing tough and powerful just never seems to be Jesus’ plan. He is, in many ways, the antithesis to Caesar. And this is funny because we know that Jesus was more powerful than anyone else to have ever walked the face of the earth. The wind and the water obeyed him. He cast out demons and turned away angry mobs. He expanded a little boy’s meal exponentially and he turned water into wine. This man, or God in human form, was more powerful than we can imagine. But yet on the night when Jesus was to be betrayed and handed over to his enemies, he took on the role of a servant, taking off his outer garment, wrapping a towel around his waist, and began to wash the feet of his disciples. He even washed the feet of Judas, the one who was about to go out and betray him. Jesus washed Judas’ feet.
Jesus later was confronted by Judas, a mob of people, and some Roman guards who had come to arrest him. But when one of the guards tries to seize Jesus, Peter jumps out and cuts off the man’s ear. This was a final attempt by Peter to exercise the powers of this world to free his friend and leader. But Jesus says to Peter, That’s not how we do things anymore. He heals the man’s ear and tells Peter that he could call down legions of angels to defend him. But that isn’t the plan. No, the ways of power, force, coercion, and threat are now to be laid aside. Instead the ways of his followers are to be different and they will seem weak to outsiders.
Jesus calls us to a life of power, but power that is unconventional. I believe that Jesus calls us to a life of strength, but strength that differs from what most of the world would consider to be strong. The strength and power that we are called to employ may be viewed as weakness by others, but that is the nature of this upside-down kingdom known as the kingdom of God. We are called to a different way of life, a life of love, forgiveness, peace, and reconciliation.
As we approach Christmas day, let us remember that our God broke into this world over 2,000 years ago in human form. He could have come as a big, powerful, good looking man, but instead he chose to enter into this world as a baby. Babies are weak. When babies are born they can’t do much of anything on their own. We have to change them, feed them, wrap them up in blankets just to keep warm. You would never tell a crying baby to go to the kitchen and make themselves a sandwich if they were hungry. A newborn baby can’t even hold up its own head. And what does the head of an 8 lb baby weigh? Two pounds, max? To be a baby is not to be in a position of power.
Baby Jesus needed others to care and provide for him. I believe that Jesus’ incarnation as a baby boy is symbolic of the kind of power and strength that he taught and practiced. The power and strength that Jesus taught and practiced is the power and strength of servant leadership. It is the power and strength of turning the other cheek. It is the power and strength of washing your enemies’ feet. The power and strength of the kingdom of God may look like weakness to the world around us. But in Jesus’ kingdom, weak is the new strong.