Occupy the manger #1: God’s poverty

For the duration of Advent, I’m going to be focusing my blog posts on the concept of “occupying” the manger of Jesus, or making it our central focus in a time when so many things are competing for our attention. Every week in Advent, there is an Old Testament reading, a psalm, a gospel reading, and an epistle reading. I will be looking to these for inspiration as well as Mike Slaughter’s book Christmas is Not Your Birthday, which we are reading together as a congregation. My first devotion comes from Mike Slaughter’s book.

On page 4 of Slaughter’s book, he shares a quote from Simon Tugwell that made me do a double-take:

If we keep clamoring for things we want from God, we may often find ourselves disappointed, because we have forgotten the weakness of God and what we may call the poverty of God. We had thought of God as the dispenser of all the good things we would possibly desire; but in a very real sense, God has nothing to give at all except himself.

I’m still not sure I agree with this. I’ve been wrestling with it for the past couple of days. How can God be poor if He created everything and is the true owner of everything? I put this out as a question on twitter yesterday: “Is God poor or rich?” And my friend answered, “Both and neither.” Then it hit me that God both owns everything and keeps nothing for Himself.

We are rich to the degree that we have things other people can’t use or that they have to ask our permission before using. We would call a hermit “poor” who lives in a beautiful rainforest that provides all of his food and has better furnishings between the trees and waterfalls than any McMansion in McLean. He’s poor because he hasn’t built a fence around what he has and doesn’t have a title that somebody with an official stamp has signed to make it his.

God doesn’t have a title for His creation that any worldly governing body has signed. God doesn’t defend His property when His trees are clear-cut and His mountains are strip-mined. There are consequences to these actions that are part of the equilibrium God creates, but God doesn’t strike people with lightning or afflict them with disease as an immediate punitive response to abusing what belongs to Him. What makes God poor is that He lets us exploit and abuse a world that He loves.

In any case, the larger point that Slaughter was making is that when we pray to God, we should remember that God is not Santa Claus. God is not somebody to ask for stuff. If we’re asking Him for stuff, that’s better than not talking to Him at all, but what we should be asking for are the spiritual fruits that are greater riches than any material possessions: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Gal 5:22).

We don’t know what God’s throne room is going to look like when we join Him in His eternal reality. I imagine it will be way more beautiful than the finest furnishings of the richest people on this planet. But what does it say about God that He chose to represent Himself to us in a baby that was born in a stable and spent his first night in a manger? In this sense, we can say that despite the infinite wealth God possesses, He chose poverty in order to win us away from our single-minded focus on pursuing our wealth so that we could pursue a relationship with Him instead.

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