A Left Handed Infant: A Sermon for Advent

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shined…. The people will rejoice…. For the yoke of their burden and the staff on their shoulder and the rod of their oppressor thou hast broken as on the day of Midian. For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult and every garment rolled in blood will be burned as fuel for the fire.  For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government will be upon his shoulder; and his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty Hero, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, upon the throne of David, and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and righteousness from this time forth and for evermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this. (Isaiah 9:2-7)

The ideas of left-handed and right handed power come from Robert Capon’s book.

Alright, so let’s do a little experiment.  Let’s say your boy is 16 years old and he is standing at the edge of a cliff.  You obviously don’t want him there, because he could fall off.  So there is two different ways to exert your hopeful result; the result being of course that he doesn’t fall off the cliff.  One way to stop him would be to sneak up from behind him and tackle him away from the cliff, this would be a very direct way of making sure you got your way.  Or you could call to him from afar and try to convince him to come away from the cliff.  One would be very-direct straight line power, and the other more left handed.  Right hand power is that which comes out of our self-determination and self-direction, focused on getting the results that we want.  It is governed by the logical, plausible-loving left hemisphere of the brain.

Now direct, straight-line, intervening power does have many uses, so I’m not telling you this to say it’s wrong.  You can do most chores this way.  If you want to use the phone, you bring the phone to your head.  If you want to drive across the street, you get in the car and drive it there. This type of power, the kind of power that uses the force that you need to get the result that you want is the reason that almost anything in this world exists. Anything you want done, you have to apply direct force and power to it.

So if you want your way…you apply direct force and get it. You use direct, right handed power.

Now let’s keep this analogy going for a bit. Let’s say that your 16 year old went back to the cliff, and you told him not too and then he went back again.  Let’s say he just keeps going back and back and back and never listens to you.  At first you may drag him away from the cliff.  Maybe next time to drag him away and yell at him to try to scare him a bit more.  Let’s say he keeps doing it, again and again and again?  What do you do next if you only know straight line direct power?  Well I suppose you could start beating him, and then just beat him harder and harder.  Then you can chain him to a pole. In the end of this exchange of affairs you get your way.  But there is something lost in this.  If we as humans believe that one of our main objectives in life is to remain in loving relationships with other people, then this direct, straight-line power becomes completely useless.  It doesn’t work.  The relationship will always be damaged.

This is where forcing direct straight line power gets you.  It gets you your way, when you don’t even want it anymore because your relationships have been completely destroyed.  It eats itself. You will get your way most certainly, but the power you have exerted has caused damage elsewhere.

The other option in this situation is something Luther calls left-handed power.  “Unlike the power of the right hand (which is governed by the logical, plausible-loving left hemisphere of the brain), left-handed power is guided by the more intuitive open, and imaginative right side of the brain.” Left-handed power, is paradoxical power.  It looks like weakness, intervention that seems indistinguishable from nonintervention.  Examples of left-handed power would be what Gandhi organized in his non-violent resistance against the British.  Any martyr is using this type of power also.  This kind of power though, never ever guarantees that you will get your own way and it will never stop evil doers from doing evil things. The only thing that left-handed power does is guarantee you have not made the mistake of closing any relational doors from your side.  There is a deep paradoxical understanding that is needed for this type of power to be understood, but it is the only way that conflicts between people can ever be truly solved and dealt with.

Q: What are some modern day and biblical examples of obvious right handed or left handed power?

We see this kind of struggle all through the scriptures.  Man constantly trying to do things by simply getting them done and God always taking back roads and indirect ways of doing things.  Prophets are a perfect example of left-handed power. Radical individuals who were set apart to call Israel back to God.  They end up alone, wandering in desserts with very few people listening to them.  You think that if God wanted to accomplish something he would make it obvious? Use some of the power that he obviously had.  The examples are endless in how God acts within history and chooses a very left-handed solutions. A solution that usually doesn’t even look like power at all, but rather weakness.  Atheists argue from this point of view all the time.  If God was real, if God was alive and wanted us to have a relationship with him then he would make it obvious.  In other words, he would use a very direct and straight-line approach of getting our attention to let us know he is out there.

In our culture we have been made incapable of understanding anything but right handed, direct power.  We go to war to get what we want.  We spank to stop our kids from doing what we don’t want them to do.  We push hard and fight hard and manipulate to swing the favour of an argument into our direction.  We always choose results over relationship. We have no understanding of choosing relationships over results. It barely makes sense to us. This isn’t just happening in our culture or our time. It is has been happening ever since humans realized that they could get what they wanted if they just pushed and forced harder enough. Let’s look at the Jewish nation, and the types of power they expected.

There were a few major sects of Jews that existed when Jesus was born, and I think if we understand them a bit, we can get a better understanding of the birth of Jesus and why it was so important.

The main group, that most of us are aware of are the Pharisees.  The Pharisees had very specific ideas of what they were expecting in terms of a Messiah.  They were studying the Torah in and out and they were convinced that someone was going to come who would finally purify Israel of all the sin and infringements on the Torah.  They spent their lives staying pure and chastising others to be pure also.  They had very strict rules following the Torah and they kept people in and out of their community based on whether or not the rules were followed.  This is why most stories we read in the New Testament have the Pharisees gawking at Jesus hanging out with impure people and having problems with the sin that they thought he was committing. To them, a Messiah was coming to reward the pure, punish the impure.  He was coming to a cleaned up people, ones that were already fixed.  Because of this, the Pharisees found it necessary to use direct, straight-line power to try and make everyone pure so that their Messiah would come and not be disappointed.  They stoned prostitutes.  They instilled fear into tax collectors.  They eventually crucified anything or anyone that got in their way of doing what they thought needed to be done, even if it meant destroying relationships.

Another group that existed in this time was the Sadducees.  The Sadducees were much more involved in politics and they used that to sway the public. When they wanted to get something done, they simply used their social capital and made it happen.  Everything they did was very straight-line and direct to get their own way using very powerful structures to get their own way.

Another group that existed were types of revolutionaries. There active slogan was “no King but God” and there was many violent attempts to remove power from the Romans. They did not believe in any sort of power in the king.

What they all had in common was that they were being persecuted and oppressed in the very land that God had promised them.  They all had their own ways to use direct, straight-line, right handed power to try and make this happen.  One used manipulation and fear, the other ones used politics and social capital and the others used violent means to get what they wanted or what they felt they deserved.  All of them chose results over relationship.  None of them would be in right relationship with the people they were trying to have power over.

So you have three strong people groups, all expecting some type of Messiah, some type of Saviour.  One group is expecting rewards and punishments, another is expecting the Messiah to be a political hero and the other is expecting a war hero.  This is the environment and the expectations that were everywhere when Jesus was born.  Everyone is expecting a messiah who is going to right-handedly take down Rome and usher in a new kingdom.

Jesus was born in a stable.  There is absolutely nothing royal, beautiful or exciting about it.  This is one of the filthiest places around.  This is where animals, the slaves of men, live.  He was armed with nothing but his own innocence.  The first things to experience the birth of the most important person to ever be born was a young virgin, her confused fiance and a bunch of farm animals.  This is what Jesus was born into.

Jesus, the messiah, the one everyone was waiting for, arrived on the scene in the most anti-climatic way possible.  Nobody knew it happened, besides a few animals. They couldn’t even get into the inn. The only people that found out were some random shepherds…people who really have nothing to do with the entire story. At this point in the story, there is absolutely no reason for anyone to assume or expect that this kid is actually a king. All the signs point away from it. Out of wedlock, zero power, in a barnyard with smelly excrement lying around.  This is better told as a story of a kid in a trailer park.

This is a risky move by God.  God chooses to do the opposite of what the world expected and knew to start the beginning of the most important birth in the world.  I want to show you this clip from a radio show called wiretap. Wiretap is a show on CBC of scripted conversations that a guy named Jonathan Goldstein writes and performs on the radio. This one is about a guy named Gregor pitching his idea for marketing the Messiah.

[audio:http://www.nathancolquhoun.com/mp3/mareting_the_messiah.mp3]

This is what people expected the first time the Messiah showed up. They expected the fireworks, the battle where he comes out on top and for the world to know when he entered the scene. Jesus though, was up to something else. He is sent to a no-name virgin, in a no-name town, with literally no one around besides some no-name shepherds. Either God needs to take some marketing lessons from Gregor or he had something else under his sleeve.

“The world does not understand vulnerability. Neediness is rejected as incompetence and compassion is dismisseed as unprofitable. The great deception of television advertising is that being poor, vulnerable and weak is unattractive.

The spirituality of Bethleham is simply incomprehensible to the advertising industry. The opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony are being used to sell us a pain reliever, and the prayer of St. Francis is being used to sell us hair conditioner.

The Bethlehem mystery will ever be a scandal to aspiring disciples who seek a triumphant Savior and prosperity Gospel. The infant Jesus was born in unimpressive circumstances, no one can exactly say where. His parents were of no social significance whatsoever, and his chosen welcoming committee were all turkeys, losers and dirt-poor shepherds. But in this weakness and poverty the shipwrecked at the stable would come to know the love of God.

Sadly, Christian piety down through the centuries has prettified the Babe of Bethlehem. Christian art has trivialized the divine scandal into gingerbread creches. Christian worship as sentimentalized the smells of the stable into dignified pageant…Pious imagination and nostalgic music rob Christmas of its shock value, while some scholars reduce the crib to a tame theological symbol.”

Brennan Manning

I would argue that what God was doing with the birth of Jesus was exercising left-handed power. This left-handed power at first glance looks weak, and barely deserves the name of power. But really, when you think about it, it is the only kind of power in the world that evil can’t touch. This is the only way that he could have actually accomplished the redemption of all humankind. It had to come completely different than anything before. It couldn’t come from just stronger force and louder voices. It had to end the cycle, not just add to it with a loud bang.  This was the basis of Christ’s life and ministry. He could have many times over and over again, destroyed Roman rule, take power in the dessert, pulled himself down off the cross. All these temptations were there, in fact they were named many times over and over again through the entire New Testament.  No one really understood what was going on.  He was mocked, Peter cut off an ear, they challenged Jesus to show them miracles. Slowly as his ministry grew, Jesus used less and less right handed straight line power and started to see everything in a different light. Eventually the only option is that instead of dishing out power and justifiable pain and punishment he was willing, quite foolishly, to take it on himself. He refused to use his power, which is the ultimate showing of left-handed power.

Just like in the story with the kid at the side of the cliff, if relationship is actually important then right handed power does not actually work.  Instead of beating him into submission, you eventually take the beating on yourself, which we know that this is eventually what Jesus did. God in Christ died because he refused to use right handed straight line power to make his point and get the results that he wanted. In the end, he is on the cross, leaving the reality that there can be no more power that is exercised towards him, yet that leaves him with so much more he ever would have had if he ever forced his way.

Think about any situation where you are forced or coerced into doing something. While the person with the power may get his own way for a while, he will no longer have the relationships around him that he once had.  What happens if the results he wanted was love and followers? How do you force that? You can’t. The only option is to exercise left handed power, and take the brutality on yourself and allow it to happen. This truly is the only way.

It is this opposite left handed way of living that Jesus’ birth brought into the world. He was an innocent baby, not a powerful ruler or king.  Only through the innocence of his birth and being a child could this entire system of right handed living be reversed. If God would have sent another strong ruler, he would have only pushed a system that does not work, and would only make it worse and would still have no one following him after it was over.  A left handed baby brings hope to the entire world, because he takes left handedness to the extreme and destroys any hope of right handed power actually winning.  The only way to beat right handed power, is to take all the brutality of it on yourself and die.  The birth of Jesus was the beginning of this.

I want to end this morning with reading a chapter to you from Jurgen Moltmann called the Disarming Child. I think this chapter perfectly summarizes what I am trying to get across.

The Disarming Child by Jurgen Moltmann (from Power of the Powerless)

This mighty vision of the prophet is founded on the liberation of oppressed men and women through the disarming birth of the divine child. Its goal is the turn from bloody war to the peace that endures and is unbroken. And in order to portray this hope for liberation and peace, the prophet falls back on a picture that is positively expressionist in style. The images jostle and tumble over one another, distorted beyond any possible reality, into what is impossible for human beings – possible only to God.

Realistically, though the prophet talks about hunger, slavery and occupying troops, he ends messianically. He lets his vision of the birth of the child and the appearance of the peace of God shine like a light into the conflicts and experiences of real life.

Darkness and Light

More is promised here than can be expressed simply through old-soldier reminiscences. For God’s victory does not come about through new armaments and force levied against force, or through alliances and solidarity. God has his own, divine kind of victory. For God’s victory puts an end to all human wars and victories once and for all. It is a final victory, which serves peace, not one that leads to the next war, as our melancholy victories usually do. The prophet gives his images of war so alien an orientation that they actually describe the conquest of war. Every weapon becomes a flame, every aggression fuel for the fire. God’s victory puts a final end to the victories of human beings. People lose their taste for them. Swords are turned into ploughshares and peace treaties replace the atom bombs.

But how is this supposed to happen? Does not the power to liberate the masses stem from rifles just as much as the forces of oppression? How can oppression and war be fought against and overcome without bringing new oppressions and new wars into the world, again with bloody coats and the tramp of boots through the streets?

The Liberator as Child

All the images the prophet uses to paint the possible future point to one fact: the birth of the divine child. The burning of the weapons, the jubilation and the great lights are all caught up in the birth of God’s peace-bringer. They are all to be found in him. Now the prophet stops talking in intoxicating images and thrilling comparisons, and comes to the heart of the matter: the person of the divine liberator. “To us a child is born. To us a son is given.” This future is wholly and entirely God’s initiative. That is why it is so totally different from our human plans and possibilities. If liberation and peace are bound up with the birth of a little helpless and defenseless child, then their future lies in the hands of God alone. On the human side, all we can see here is weakness and helplessness. It is not the pride and strength of the grown man which are proclaimed on the threshold of the kingdom, but the defenselessness and the hope of the child.

The kingdom of peace comes through a child, and liberation is bestowed on the people who become as children: disarmingly defenseless, disarming through their defenselessness, and making others defenseless because they themselves are so disarming.

After the prophet’s mighty visions of the destruction of all power and the forceful annihilation of all coercion, we are now suddenly face-to-face with this inconspicuous child. It sounds so paradoxical that some interpreters have assumed that this is a later interpolation. The prisoners who have to fight for their rights also find it difficult to understand how this child can help them. But it is really quite logical. For what the prophet says about the eternal peace of God which satisfies our longings can only come to meet us, whether we are frightened slaves or aggressive masters, in the form of the child.

A child is defenseless. A child is innocent. A child is the beginning of a new life. This defenselessness makes our armaments superfluous. We can put away the rifles and open our clenched fists. This innocence redeems us from the curse of the evil act that is bound to breed ever more evil. We no longer have to go on like this. And this birth opens up for us the future of a life in peace that is different from all life hitherto, since that life was bound up with death.

“For to us a child is born. To us a son is given. The government is upon his shoulders.” The liberator becomes a pleading child in our world, armed to the teeth as it is. And this child will become the liberator for the new world of peace. That is why this rule means life, not death; peace, not war; freedom, not oppression. This sovereignty lies on the defenseless, innocent and hopeful shoulders of this child.

This makes our fresh start into the future meaningful and possible. The oppressed will be free from oppression. And they will also be free from the dreams of darkness, the visions of revenge. They stand up and rejoice, and their rejoicing frees their masters too from their brutal armaments. The oppressors with their cudgels, their iron shoes and their bloody coats, will be freed from their grim machinations and will leave the poor in peace. For the new human being has been born, and a new humanity will be possible, a humanity which no longer knows either masters or slaves, either oppressed or oppressors. This is God’s initiative on behalf of his betrayed and tormented humanity. “The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.” It is the zeal of ardent love.

There is no other initiative we can seize with absolute assurance, for ourselves or for other people. There is no other zeal for the liberation of the world in which we can place a certain hope.

The Zeal of Love

There are certainly many other movements, and much fervent zeal for the liberation of the masses. It certainly sounds more realistic for people in darkness to dream of God’s day of vengeance, finding satisfaction in the hope that at the Last Judgment all the godless enemies who oppress us here will be cast into hellfire. But what kind of blessedness is it that luxuriates in revenge and needs the groans of the damned as background to its own joy? To us a child is born, not an embittered old man. God in a child, not as hangman. That is why he prayed on his cross, “Father, forgive them; for they know not what they do.” It sounded more heroic when, in 1934, Hitler’s columns marched through Tubingen, singing with fanatical zeal, “One day, the day of revenge! One day, and we shall be free!” It was a zeal that led to Auschwitz and Stalingrad.

Emperors have always liked to be called emperors of peace, from Augustus down to the present day. Their opponents and the heroes of the people have always liked to be called “liberators,” from Arminius of the Cherusci to Simón Bolívar. They have come and gone. Neither their rule nor their liberation endured. God was not with them. Their zeal was not the zeal of the Lord. They did not disarm this divided world. They could not forgive the guilt, because they themselves were not innocent. Their hope did not bring new life. So let them go their way. Let us deny them our complete obedience. “To us this child is born.” The divine liberty lies upon his shoulders.

What does his rule look like? We have to know this if we want to begin to live with him. He will establish “peace on earth,” we are told, and he will “uphold peace with justice and with righteousness.” But how can peace go together with justice? What we are familiar with is generally based on conflict. The life of justice is struggle. Among us, peace and justice are divided by the struggle for power. The so-called “law of the strongest” destroys justice and right. The weakness of the peacemakers makes peace fragile. It is only in the zeal of love that what power has separated can be put together again: in a just peace and in the right to peace.

This love does not mean accepting breaches of justice “for the sake of peace,” as we say. But it does not mean, either, breaking someone else’s peace for the sake of our own rights. Peace and righteousness will kiss and be one only when the new person is born, and God the Lord, who has created all things, arrives at just rights in the creation. When God is God in the world, then no one will want to be anyone else’s Lord and God anymore.

But is this really possible here and now, or is it just a dream?

There is nothing against dreams if they are good ones. The prophet gave the people in darkness, and us, this unforgettable dream. We should remain true to it. But he could see only the shadowy outline of the name of the divine child, born for the freedom of the world; he called him Wonderful Counselor, Mighty Hero, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

The New Testament proclaims to us the person himself. He is Jesus Christ, the child in the manger, the preacher on the mount, the tormented man on the cross, the risen liberator.

So according to the New Testament the dream of a liberator, and the dream of peace, is not merely a dream. The liberator is already present and his power is already among us. We can follow him, even today making visible something of the peace, liberty and righteousness of the kingdom that he will complete. It is no longer impossible. It has become possible for us in fellowship with him. Let us share in his new creation of the world and – born again to a living hope – live as new men and women.

The zeal of the Lord be with us all.

3 Comments

  • A Brennan Manning quote? Nathan Colquhoun, my heart is warm.

  • Hello,

    I am searching for a reference where Luther referred to left-handed power. I am reading Capon’s book on the parables, and I, too, was struck by the sensibility of the notions of left-handed and right-handed power. But I am having a hard time finding where Luther might have called it this. I see he has the idea of the two Kingdoms, but in that the left hand kingdom is the kingdom of law, which should correspond to the strong-arm, right-handed power Capon is describing.

    Can you help?

    Thanks!

    -Misty

  • Hi Misty, I’m not sure besides what Capon mentions, sorry about this!

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