“Don’t talk down to me!”
That’s how I feel when people use a condescending tone in their voice. It implies the other person is so great and I’m worthless. Even the word “condescension” makes me think of images of bullying and insulting. Nowhere in How to Win Friends and Influence People do we read that we should condescend to people. We hate condescension. It’s anathema.
Condescension is not a word fitting for Christmas, nor God. But at the heart of Christmas is the good news that God came down to our level. And thank God he is a condescending God.
We talk about heaven being “up there” and life on earth being “down here.” These colloquialisms are so engrained in the English language. Our friends who are relatable are called “down to earth.” At funerals, we will say of the deceased, “they’re looking down on us.” We’re down. Heaven is up. The psalmists had no problem with this idea, repeating often the dynamic between God and his creation as defined by our geographical separation (Psalm 14:2, 33:13, 53:2, 80:14, 102:19).
If at the center of Christmas is the celebration of the coming of Jesus, we must recognize this is movement in a particular direction. It’s downward. To honestly think of the pure, holy, powerful God condescending down from heaven is a disorienting thought. God does not live at our level. He is up.
Which is why what Jesus says in John 6 is very radical. Jesus, facing a hungry crowd of people, poised to feed them, asserts his birth was a “coming down from heaven” type of moment that fills a deeper need than simply physical food filling our stomaches.
“For the bread of God is he who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” They said to him, “Sir, give us this bread always.” Jesus said to them, “I am the bread of life; whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall never thirst… For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me(John 6:33-35, 38).
We imply a lot from Jesus’ words. If he came down from heaven to give life to the world, life must stem from what is up in heaven. And if life comes from what’s up, what is down must be radically inferior and require divine intervention.
This is remarkably consistent with what the prophet Isaiah says about the word of God. Through Isaiah, God said,
“For as the rain and the snow come down from heaven and do not return there but water the earth, making it bring forth and sprout, giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater, so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth; it shall not return to me empty, but it shall accomplish that which I purpose, and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it” (Is 55:10–11).
John and Isaiah agree about many things, but namely this: God sent his Son from heaven to come down to earth on a mission. And this mission will definitely succeed.
Advent is an overwhelmingly optimistic and hopeful season for the Christian. God has moved toward us. He who is high above all, who needed not come visit us, condescended to us.
Charles Spurgeon once observed, "Kings may visit their subjects, but they do not think of taking upon themselves their poverty, sickness, or sorrow: they could not if they would, and would not if they could; this were more than we could expect from them. But our diving Lord, when he came here, came into our flesh. He veiled his Godhead in a robe of our inferior clay.”
This is the way of God ever since the beginning. Eden frequently hosted the Creator God while he visited Adam and Eve. And throughout the pages of the Old Testament, the sovereign God was present among his people. This is the heart of God’s character! His very nature is to condescend and walk alongside his human subjects.
One of the more popular TV shows on a few years ago was the reality show Undercover Boss. What made this show so engaging was the idea that a CEO with an Ivy League degree would try his or her hand at manual labor and see how the employees in the company were accomplishing the mission of the organization. Often times I just watched to see the disguises and if the CEO was ever found out. The magic of the show wasn’t the CEO’s ineptitude, nor the handouts at the end of the project. The magic of the show was simply that the boss came down. It’s a show about condescension. The highest officer is present among the lowest workers.
This really resonates with our desire for equality. As humans, we realize that all are created equal, yet the modern workplace has a hierarchy based on performance and title that creates inequality in pay, recognition and power. But the undercover boss is putting him or herself on an equal playing field to empathize with the workers and improve the culture of the business. It feels so noble. It empowers and values and esteems the lowly workers.
And it’s just like that in the incarnation. In God’s condescension, the greater comes to the lesser and lives and moves and breathes and walks among them as one of them.
We expect this downward movement of God out of heaven to diminish his glory in direct proportion to his condescension. Said more simply, God must be more glorious in heaven than he is on lowly earth. But the formula is not so straightforward, for in his coming low to his people, his glory increases all the more. When the one who has all honor and glory and power comes to those who have no honor, glory nor power, and serves them and saves them and empowers them, he is magnified all the more, not diminished.
So it is with Christmas. Though God came down, he did so to lift us up. His condescension gives us and him all the more value and esteem. This is the mission of Jesus, that God would come down to us to lift us up to him. This is exactly what Jesus says in John 6:40,
“For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (John 6:40).
God has come down. Now we have hope in being raised up.