The Baby and the Lamb: A Christmas Reflection

Each year, one of the traditional Advent readings seems to grab my attention and occupy my mind through the season more than the others. I always include the typical texts from Isaiah to Matthew, Luke, or the introduction to John in my daily readings. But one will always stick out, and I’ll find myself reading and re-reading it over multiple days.

This year it’s Isaiah 9:2–7:

2 The people who walked in darkness

have seen a great light;

those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness,

on them has light shone.

3 You have multiplied the nation;

you have increased its joy;

they rejoice before you

as with joy at the harvest,

as they are glad when they divide the spoil.

4 For the yoke of his burden,

and the staff for his shoulder,

the rod of his oppressor,

you have broken as on the day of Midian.

5 For every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult

and every garment rolled in blood

will be burned as fuel for the fire.

6 For to us a child is born,

to us a son is given;

and the government shall be upon his shoulder,

and his name shall be called

Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

7 Of the increase of his government and of peace

there will be no end,

on the throne of David and over his kingdom,

to establish it and to uphold it

with justice and with righteousness

from this time forth and forevermore.

The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.

Ignoring the temptation to become too sermonic here, I’ll simply share a few thoughts, with very little exegesis.

First, the passive voice in verse 2 has struck me anew: “The people…have seen a great light; those who dwell in…darkness, on them has light shined.” Who is shining this light? Who is providing this hope? It is Yahweh, of course. But the light was not generated, projected, or sustained by the people of Israel. They were — as we are — simply recipients of a gift from the outside.

Secondly, the concluding line: “The zeal of the LORD of hosts will do this” (v. 7b). What is God’s zeal? It is, in Hebrew, the LORD’s qinʾah (קִנְאָה), which is most commonly translated as “jealousy” (25 times in the OT). What is the propulsion for God to shine his light and give the Messiah to Israel? He is jealous for them. Oftentimes this word is connected to a man’s passion for a woman or his religious zeal for his god. Jealousy is not the opposite of love; it is its core ingredient. For, as has been noted by many before me, the opposite of love is not hate; the opposite of love is apathy. God’s anti-apathy was the fuel for his mission — it’s his jealous love for his people.

Finally, the baby: “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given.” A beautiful, rich, and provocative line. But look at the imagery before the familial metaphor in verse 6: verse 4 is an agricultural metaphor about the breaking backs of the people (“the yoke of his burden…the staff for his shoulder”) and verse 5 is militaristic (“every boot of the tramping warrior in battle tumult…every garment rolled in blood”). And then, suddenly…a child. Or should we say: a child?

When Israel receives this prophecy, their hope for defeating evil, for enduring suffering, and for a promise of justice, is not to be found in traditional weapons of war or politics, but it will be found in a baby. God will not wage war the way humans wage war and he will not establish his government (v. 7) in typical fashion. He will use a baby.

Which is not new for God. He always uses the weak things in the world to shame the strong, the foolish things to shame the wise (1 Cor. 1:27–29). And this is why it should be no surprise to see this is how the story will end one day.

In the book of Revelation, during one of the beginning visions of St. John, he hears about a roaring Lion who might be able to open the scroll, which will begin the process of rectification across the whole earth. “Weep no more,” a heavenly being says to John, “the Lion…has conquered, so that he can open the scroll” (Rev. 5:5). But when John looks up he doesn’t see the traditional weapons of natural war — namely, the Lion he heard about — he, instead, sees a Lamb.

“I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain…” (Rev. 5:6)

This is a lot like God. He sounds like a lion but looks like a lamb. We see the earthly instruments of oppression, evil, and injustice and we look to God to help us. And he does. But not in the way we would expect and not with traditional measures. Because God knows what the great prophets and justice fighters have known throughout history: you cannot defeat evil with the same ideology that birthed it. In the Bible’s words: you can’t fight evil with evil. You’ve got to take on armies with a baby. You’ve got to take on a punch with another cheek. You’ve got to take down empires with a cross.

This is what Paul calls the skandalon (σκάνδαλον) of the cross, the “stumbling block,” the “foolishness” of it all (1 Cor. 1:18, 23). How will God wage war? By laying his life down. How will God show us he’s here and has not forgotten his promises? Not through a leader, a warrior, or a politician, but through a baby.

All of our stories and all of our faith points us to these bizarre and unexpected lessons of paradoxical truth: a baby is mighty. Weak things win. Defeats are victories. Death is no match for life.

This is the truth, isn’t it? But it’s the same truth found throughout the whole Bible and beyond. It’s the hidden message in all of life.

It’s the truth the resurrection tells us, which is the same truth the Passover tells us, which is the same truth Martin Luther King Jr. tells us, which is the same truth Nelson Mandela tells us, which is the same truth the Christmas story tells us: it actually works.

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Living in Portland, Oregon with my wife and son. Doctoral candidate at Duke University. Author of a few books: chrisnye.co/books

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Chris Nye

Living in Portland, Oregon with my wife and son. Doctoral candidate at Duke University. Author of a few books: chrisnye.co/books