Ancient Answers

A Vulnerable God

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Christmas is the celebration of God’s vulnerability. It was the birth of a vulnerable baby that constituted God’s great plan for the redemption of human beings. So don’t turn God into a macho god, a warrior god, an imperial god!

Immanuel = “God with us” in Hebrew. Jesus is a wonderful name, it has been the name by which we’ve known him for 2,000 years. But Immanuel is the name by which the prophet spoke of his coming. And prophets looked deep into reality, deep under what was visible. Immanuel reveals more about Jesus than the name Jesus.

Immanuel, God with us – with us in our weaknesses, in our vulnerability, in our contingency.

God became vulnerable. Why are we so hesitant to show ourselves as vulnerable. Why do we always have to put on a strong face? Why is the American ideal that of the rugged individualist? Why is it part of our language to say, “me against the world”? Why pretend to be stronger than I am?

I’m usually grateful that we don’t have a magnificent cathedral. I’m grateful that our church is in this corner, hemmed in by other buildings, with inadequate parking. I’m glad we did not escape to the suburbs, where we don’t have to deal with “certain kinds of people”! What do huge, ornate churches have to do with the child that was born in a manger, or even a cave, as is usually depicted in our icons?

Let’s call him Immanuel, God with us. Let that name bring us into intimate relationship with him. When we call him Immanuel we remember that he was born to live in solidarity with us, to share our joys and pains, to defend and protect us, and to suffer everything that life can throw at us with us. The God with us is a close God; he is our refuge, our wisdom, our helper, our shepherd, our love.

He was born in a time of tyranny, a time of imperial domination and subjugation. He was born to an enslaved people, a people who had known and lived under slavery for so much of their history. He came to be their comforter, to suffer with them. And that’s how he comes to us today, because we are no different than the people of 2,000 years ago. We also live under tyranny – the tyranny of despair, of materialism, of competition, of suspicion, the tyranny of loneliness, of jealousy. And he comes to give us hope, to show us the true value of things, to show us co-existence and trust, to be our companion.

He comes as our liberator from all those things that oppress us. And that is why he is Immanuel, God with us. He is not remote. Though we represent him as Pantokrator in the ceilings or domes of our churches, that’s to miss the meaning of Immanuel, God with us. He did not come as Pantokrator; he came as a child, born in a nation that was under the heel of the Roman pantokrator. He came not to compete with Rome, but to expose the weakness and futility of all empires, ancient and modern. He was a direct threat to the Roman Empire and to all empires that oppress. But his threat was much greater and deeper than any military threat.

He lit a flame of hope and goodness and peace and love. A flame that directly went against the values of empire. He came to a people who had seen their own flames of hope and faith extinguished by one empire after another. Perhaps it is meaningful that the Jewish feast of Chanukah falls around the same time as Christmas. I love the song Peter, Paul and Mary used to sing during the holiday season, “Light One Candle”:

Light one candle for the Maccabee children

With thanks that their light didn’t die

Light one candle for the pain they endured

When their right to exist was denied.

Light one candle for the strength that we need

To never become our own foe

And light one candle for those who are suffering

Pain we learned so long ago.

Light one candle for all we believe in

That anger not tear us apart

And light one candle to find us together

With peace as the song in our hearts.

Don’t let the light go out

It’s lasted for so many years

Don’t let the light go out

Let it shine through our love and our tears.

We have come this far always believing

That justice would somehow prevail

This is the burden, this is the promise

This is why we will not fail.

Don’t let the light go out

It’s lasted for so many years

Don’t let the light go out

Let it shine through our love and our tears

Don’t let the light go out

Don’t let the light go out

Don’t let the light go out!

Call upon Immanuel and don’t let the light go out in your own hearts and lives. May Christmas be more than just a family day of joy and sharing. May it be the day that reminds us that God shared his own life with us. Don’t let that knowledge, that light in your souls, ever go out!

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