Sunday, December 12, 1993

Location - Bridgewater
Bible Verses - Isaiah 9:1-7
Luke 9:1-14

For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given: and the government shall be upon his

shoulder: and his name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the mighty God, the

everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.

Isaiah 9:6

This statement comes from what we might regard as the longest story ever told. Most

scholars would date Abraham to the nineteenth century B.C.E., roughly, and the Exodus from

Egypt to the thirteenth. This means that if we take Abraham to be its founder, Judaism is

almost four thousand years old. If we take the Exodus to be its Declaration of

Independence, it is over three thousand years old.

It was remarkable enough that this people retained their distinctive identity through the

difficulties that followed the Exodus--through the wilderness, through the conquest, and

especially through the disorganized period of the judges. A confluence of circumstances

that we can only regard as providential enabled them to become a significant nation for a

relatively brief span of time, during the reigns of David and Solomon; and then, like all

the empires of all the ages, they fell.

Unlike "all the empires of all the ages," though, they did not lose sight of their dream.

Their prophets looked beyond the disaster to a restoration, and when circumstances changed

in their favor, they gathered again in Jerusalem. Ultimately the Romans would drive them

out again, and Judaism would become scattered throughout the Western world, until in our

own times, in response to the holocaust, the Western nations "played Cyrus" and enabled

the establishment of the modern nation of Israel.

We must presume that other nations of ancient times had their dreams as well. Certainly

there are plenty of texts in which kings or emperors claim special divine favor, texts in

which, for example, the ascendancy of the city of Babylon is seen as a sign that the

tutelary deity of the city, Marduk, has been made executive head of the pantheon. The

contest between Elijah and the prophets of Baal recorded in First Kings eighteen presumes

that those prophets claimed that Baal was supreme. On the basis of political and military

power, there was every evidence that the gods of Egypt and Mesopotamia were greater than

the god of Israel.

Yet they, to all intents and purposes, have vanished from the scene, and the God of Israel

is still worshipped. Why? Does this perhaps prove that this is the true God, and that all

the others were false or illusory? That would be a risky conclusion to draw, since it

would make our faith dependent on earthly circumstances. If we extended the principle

consistently, we would find ourselves with the impossible task of balancing the claims of

Islam and Hinduism and Buddhism and Christianity on the basis of their survival or their


We should rather, I believe, look at the quality of the dream itself. I suspect that

Judaism has survived because it has a truly viable vision, that it holds forth a way of

living together that actually works. In the midst of all its militarism--and we should not

forget that "the Lord of hosts" means "the Lord of armies"--there is the recurrent theme

of righteousness. In our text from the prophecy of Isaiah, this theme comes to the fore,

and the ideal king of the golden future is portrayed not as a warrior but as a counselor,

a father, and as "the prince of peace."

At Christmas, we celebrate the birth of that prince. Isaiah had prophesied that there

would be no end to the increase of his government and peace. The message of the angels to

the shepherds was "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth, peace to those of good

will." The Hebrew word translated "salvation" was most commonly used to refer to

deliverance from external enemies, and could often be translated "victory." The name of

Israel's great general Joshua means approximately "the Lord is [our] salvation" or "[our]

victory," and Joshua certainly lived out his name in its military sense. Both Matthew and

Luke have an angel bring instructions that Mary's child is to be named Jesus, which is the

Greek form of the name Joshua; and Matthew adds the detail that this is because he will

save his people from their sins.

Here again, in the midst of more materialistic expectations, the theme of righteousness

comes to the fore. The intent of this birth is not to save us by means of violence but to

save us from violence. The dream is not one of military supremacy but of ethical

invulnerability. The dream is of the peaceable kingdom, where the wolf lies down with the

lamb and the lion and the ox feed together, where there is no hurt or destruction.

Ultimately, the dream goes beyond righteousness to love, beyond obeying laws that prohibit

the worst to an active seeking of the best.

"And a little child shall lead them." As the Lord made vividly clear by precept and

example, the essence of peace and security is to be found in innocence. This may in fact

be one of the most distinctive features of Christianity, that its notion of divinity

includes the image of infancy, that we can and do worship before a manger, a cradle, as

well as before a throne.

What we see in the manger scene, though, is only the beginning of our salvation from our

sins. This prince of peace would later say that he had not come to bring peace, but a

sword. In Swedenborgian terms, it is a difficult journey from the innocence of infancy to

the innocence of wisdom, a journey that seems to take us far from innocence along the way.

It seems in fact that part of growing up involves turning our backs on innocence. There

are certainly substantial stretches of adulthood when naivete, the twin sister of

innocence, is shunned like the plague.

Our theology is admirably sane and practical about this issue. The innocence of infancy,

it tells us, is the innocence of ignorance. Quite simply, we are innocent as infants

because we don't know any better. We do not put our interests ahead of the interests of

others because we haven't learned to distinguish our interests from those of others. To

put it another way, as infants we were utterly trusting. This meant that we allowed our

parents to make our choices for us. What the Lord wants, though, is that we ourselves

choose to trust, and we cannot make that choice as long as we allow others to make our

choices for us. So birth launches us on the path from innocence into self-assertion, a

path designed to lead through self-assertion to trust.

In a way, then, we do not worship the infant in the manger. To be theologically correct

about it, we worship the risen and glorified Christ. However, we are to see in that risen

and glorified Christ the innocence of the infant, the utter harmlessness, the freedom from

fear--in a word, the peace. That is the message of Christmas, when our vision is the other

way around, when we see in the baby Jesus the life that is to triumph in the resurrection.

We see divine love coming down into our nature, into our helplessness. We see infinite

power visiting us in the least threatening way imaginable. In a very strange and perhaps

even disturbing sense, we see God trusting us, needing to be clothed and fed and cared

for, relying on our love of infant innocence to sustain his physical life.

At every stage of our lives, we are essentially and profoundly dependent creatures.

Whether we are homeless and destitute or fabulously rich and powerful or somewhere in

between, we are alike in our total dependence on the inflowing life that sustains us in

being. The Lord is the infinite source of that life. This means that there is something

intensely paradoxical about the manger scene, where we see infinite power lying helpless.

Let us come at the question from another side. We claim to believe that the divine is

absolute love and wisdom, totally and irrevocably devoted to our own best interests.

Theoretically, we have absolutely nothing to fear from our Lord. This, incidentally, is

one of the most powerful and most underestimated messages of near death experiences, that

in the light that sees every secret of our beings, there is no condemnation at all, only

understanding, compassion, and forgiveness.

But for us, power is intrinsically scary. Our experiences with power leave us cautious,

because we find out very soon that power can hurt. Small wonder that images of an

omnipotent deity trigger fear reactions. It is awfully hard for us to put majesty and

innocence together, the infant Jesus and the glorified Christ.

Yet, our theology tells us, that is exactly what we are supposed to do. What we see in the

manger scene is that quality of the divine which is hardest to see on an infinite scale.

Infinite power is infinitely innocent. Infinite power is infinitely peaceful.

Zacharias, the father of John the Baptist, sang of the visitation of the dayspring from on

high which would "guide our feet into the way of peace." We try to achieve peace, it

seems, by trying to become stronger than the forces we see as threatening us. This is one

way of reading the Darwinian message of the survival of the fittest. Another scientist,

though, Lewis Thomas (who died only last week), took a different view. As he saw things,

no species survived unless it contributed to the well-being of the whole system.

The moment we stop to think about it, this is absurdly clear. Our individual chances for

survival are immeasurably enhanced when our community values us and wants us to survive.

Our chances for survival are immeasurably diminished when we threaten the community,

giving it reason to think that it would be better off without us. The ancient dreams of

national supremacy that involved "our god" defeating "other gods" failed because they were

inherently impractical. The prophetic dream of the peaceable kingdom survived because it

is inherently practical.

We have a long way to go. We are far from able to frame a foreign policy on the principle

of innocence or to design an economic system around a principle of compassion. Yet every

year, Christmas comes and reminds us of the ideal, of the dream. Every year, we are drawn

to the thought that the baby in the manger is the Lord visiting us, that innocence is


For a moment, think back into those times. The "important people" were the Caesar, Herod,

the high priests, the Roman army. Anyone at all practical would say the same thing. Now

only scholars know which Caesar this was, who Herod was, who the high priests were, or

what the Roman army was like. Millions of people know about this child. Who were the

practical people?

Who, then, are the practical people today? By common wisdom, they are the ones who regard

Christmas as a romantic episode only, with no real relevance to the hard facts of everyday

life. According to the wisdom of innocence, though, the practical people are the ones who

refuse to be deceived by these so-called "hard facts," but hold fast to a recognition that

ultimately, national security and prosperity are inseparable from justice and compassion,

that until innocence rules supreme, no one is safe. There is no other prince of peace.


contact phil at for any problems or comments