“God came as a baby!” I overhear one mom saying to a new mom looking a little worn out with the care of her totally helpless newborn who needs to be changed and fed and cuddled night and day. A friend writes it in a newsletter, “He came not as a triumphant King, but a tiny, vulnerable baby, so that we would see He knows our weakness and our struggles.” Another friend explores the wonder of it on her blog: “God needy?!”
I’m hearing the familiar truth this year against the backdrop of a question I recently read, a question God seems to be asking me, “I can accept you as you are—but can you?”
I hear it in a multitude of versions:
I can accept you as you are—with your tendency to withdraw when you feel like you’re failing—but can you?
I can accept you as you are—with your fear and your questions—but can you?
I can accept you as you are—even with your struggle to accept your own limited, sinful self and rest in My love. Can you?
At first a little voice in my head asks if it’s really God I’m hearing. It sounds like the gentle, welcoming voice of the God I’ve come to love, but what about those verses about being perfect? Does God really accept me as I am, or does he want to change me? Slowly I’m realizing that acceptance and change are not only not mutually exclusive but necessarily intertwined. It is only in finding myself accepted as I am that I can change in ways that are deeper than the masks I wear. When I accept that I’m accepted, I begin to relax. My defenses come down and I open to love, and that love reshapes me from the inside so that I become loving too.
Jesus accepts Zacchaeus as he is, inviting himself over for the meal which makes public Jesus’ acceptance of him, and that love turns Zacchaeus’ grabbing, hoarding nature into one which gives and loves and makes right.
Jesus accepts Peter as he is, a tempestuous follower who in one instant is brazenly slicing off an attacker’s ear to defend his Lord and in the next denying he ever knew him. And through Jesus’ acceptance as he looks at Peter rather than looking away after Peter speaks those words of denial, through Jesus’ acceptance as he gives Peter a three-fold chance to reaffirm his love coupled with Jesus’ own threefold affirmation of acceptance, Peter is transformed into a rock who will not again deny his Lord even when it costs him his life.
“I can accept you as you are”—isn’t that the point of Peter’s vision of the unclean animals . . . and of the giving of the Spirit to the Gentiles . . . and of the whole book of Galatians—that we don’t have to follow the law or cut off parts of ourselves or otherwise make ourselves “perfect” in order to be accepted? That, in fact, we are missing the whole point of the gospel if we insist on trying to make this sort of perfection a prerequisite for acceptance? Only in Galatians is the severest possible curse—“let them be eternally condemned”—leveled, (twice!), and it is against those who preach that we can’t trust this love, that we are not accepted unless we first shape up.
I look back again to the baby—God accepting us so fully as to become one of us, taking on our flesh with its limitations and eccentricities, and continuing to wear it—complete with scars—into eternity.
This is the point of the cross, too—not judgment (we would then be on that cross), but an acceptance deep enough that Jesus hangs there in our place, arms open in embrace.
The God who became needy, accepting us in our neediness, became sin, accepting us in the worst of our offenses.
The table-top tree stands in the corner, dressed with tiny red and gold crosses, reminding me that the incarnation which we celebrate speaks the deepest of acceptance. The manger scene sits underneath, and a dove with the word “Peace” perches near the tree’s top, inviting me to respond, to surrender to the peace that comes with knowing myself accepted as I am.