Personal Sovereignty and the Baby's Nose
Text: Matthew 3:1-12
Grace and peace be unto you from God who is our Creator and from Jesus Christ who is our Savior and our Friend. Amen.
Well, it had to happen. Elijah has his first cold.
I mean, I know we are lucky. A friend’s little girl has a rare blood disease and they spent weeks in the hospital before she even turned two. We joke that their little girl wonders why mommy and daddy keep checking in to the world’s worst hotel. The service is terrible - the staff keeps poking you with needles.
So a cold is not a big deal in the big picture. But it does bring its own unique miseries.
When babies have colds they get runny noses. What do you do? You wipe their nose. I wiped Elijah’s nose for the first time and he was not having it. He shook his head from side to side and grabbed my wrists with his strong little hands and he screamed bloody murder. The boy has a well-developed set of lungs and he is very strong, and he fought me for his life. He did NOT want his nose wiped. Not at all.
In that moment I heard myself utter these fateful words. “Baby, if you didn’t fight it, it wouldn’t be so bad.”
Even as I said it I was aware of how extremely problematic this statement usually is. Don’t fight it and it won’t be so bad. That’s what an oppressor says to the oppressed.
The Romans said that to the Jews and to all the peoples they conquered, “Calm down. Don’t fight it. Don’t rebel. Then we won’t have to slaughter you.” It’s what colonists say to native people. “Don’t fight. This doesn’t have to hurt. Just give us your land and your timber and your minerals and your labor we won’t have to kill you.”
It’s what white America told Black America and still tells Black America. Just be good and be quiet. Don’t try to escape. Don’t run. Don’t speak up. Don’t drive. Don’t shop. Accept your place and we won’t have to kill you. See? It can all be so easy.
The twisted nature of this phrase is that it puts the responsibility for the suffering of the oppressed on the one being oppressed. Do you see that?
But am I oppressing my baby by wiping his nose?
The use of force needed to wipe a child’s nose, or to keep them from running into the street or to prevent them from playing over the hole of an asp or putting their hand into an adder’s den, is arguably necessary to keep them alive and healthy.
But on some essential level, by forcing my will on the baby, taking his little arms in my hands and holding his little head still, using my strength to overcome his opposition, I do disrespect his sovereign person-hood.
God made that baby in God’s image, not mine, and he is radically free unto himself. Using force of any kind against another person’s will is a violation, even if small.
Yes, there are times when we have to wipe the baby’s nose. We as a society are obligated to protect the innocent from harm. And that is the only reason the lay hands on another person. We dare do this within the boundaries of the law and within a strict code of conduct, not outside it.
What we more commonly experience, and the source of tremendous suffering and sorrow in our world is the violence that permeates this life. Violence is committed by the state in our name, and violence is committed by those who wish to do harm to the innocent or to themselves.
Violence also includes those small, interpersonal acts of aggression that might not involve striking another person, but nonetheless cause injury.
“A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots. The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.
His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth…”
The nature of violence, on a large scale or small, is to impose one’s will on another person. Usually violence involves the physical. Striking someone, or restraining them. But it does not have to. We commit violence with our words and well as our fists. The old nursery school rhyme that “sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me” is simply not true.
When we manipulate people to bend them to our will, that is also violence. For example, think about the manipulation located within the phrase, “Look what you made me do.”
I have a friend whose husband grew up in a pretty dysfunctional household. He brings certain patterns into his marriage that are unkind and this unkindness makes his wife feel sad and crazy and like a chump for putting up with it. So she responds with anger and frustration. “Look what you made me do.”
The irony is that the husband takes his emotional cues from his wife. So when she responds with anger to his unkindness, he thinks, “Oh, I see that it’s acceptable to communicate with anger,” and then he does it too, and so it goes. “Look what you made me do.”
Neither is being forced to respond as they do. Within a complicated relationship that is complicated because it involves humans and their histories--which they did not necessarily ask for--nonetheless each is responsible for their own actions.
“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the failing together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” Isaiah 11:6-7
Isaiah paints a powerful vision of a world where not only are humans at peace with one another, but so is the natural world. That is what verse 7 means when it says that the cow and the bear shall graze – animals will no longer eat other animals. Presumably, neither will humans.
No force will be needed to keep babies safe and no violence will be committed, or to eat an animal, or to conquer another human. We are to understand that this is both God’s will and intention.
“The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand in the adder’s den. They will not hurt of destroy on all my holy mountain; for the earth will be full of the knowledge of the LORD as the waters cover the sea.” Isaiah 11:8-9.
As we prepare for the coming of the Christ Child, both in a manger and into our hearts and lives, as we ask what it means to walk in the light of the Lord as Isaiah said last week, let us commit ourselves to ridding our lives of all kinds violence.
For most of us, walking with God, matching our steps to God’s steps, walking in the light and toward the light, means removing not only physical violence but interpersonal aggression or manipulation from our lives and relationships.
Doing that involves a radical recognition of the holy and God-given sovereignty of each human being. Each person is made in God’s image, each person has their own rights and loves and purpose. Each individual is holy. The Christ-light burns in them, in you, whether faintly or like a fire. It is there because God put it there.
When we see Christ in one another then we are less likely to manipulate or to act with aggression, and certainly we refuse to use violence.
Similarly, each of you, each of us, is holy and Christ’s light burns within us, sometimes only flickering and sometimes shining like the moon and stars, and no one has the right manipulate you or me, to use aggression or violence against me, or you.
And what about Elijah and his baby, God-given personal sovereignty and his runny nose? He came up with a solution that he much prefers. He likes to bury his face in my chest and rub his face vigorously back and forth, and that takes care of the problem. It’s effective. So we compromise. Sometimes it’s a tissue and sometimes it’s my t-shirt.
“And again Isaiah says, “The root of Jesse shall come, the one who rises to rule the Gentiles; in him the Gentiles shall hope.”” Romans 15:12.
In Christ is our hope. It is Christ who fills us and makes us new. God intends to renew not only humans but the whole creation. The renewal begins with the birth of a tiny baby in a rough land whose earthly parents traveled far, and in this season of Advent as we walk with God and measure our steps to God’s, we say “Come, Lord Jesus. Come now. Make it so.” Amen.