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A Vulnerable God

 

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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A Christmas Community

(I apologize that I had to remove the audio file of my complete sermon, as there seems to have been a technical glitch. In compensation, I’ll try to flesh out the brief version of my sermon below. Check back in a day or two to see if I have expanded what is shown here.)

A kindergarten teacher gave her class a “show and tell” assignment. Each student was instructed to bring in an object that represented their religion to share with the class.

The first student got up in front of the class and said, “My name is Benjamin and I am Jewish, and this is a Star of David.”

The second student got up in front of the class and said, “My name is Mary. I’m a Catholic and this is a Rosary.”

The third student got in up front of the class and said, “My name is Kosta. I am Greek Orthodox, and this is a baklava.”

Funny, but not far from the truth. What are we known for? Our icons? Maybe, to a few of the more intellectually curious people in our city. Our theology? To an even fewer number of people. But almost everyone knows us because of our Festival and bake sales. When people ask me where I work, I tell them Holy Trinity – you know, the Greek church, the one with the Greek Festival. Ah, people know right away which church I’m talking about.

I don’t mind, I like it. There’s nothing wrong with being recognized as the priest of the church that has the popular Greek Festival. That’s become my standard introduction to strangers who want to know what I do and where I work. In my more rigid days it used to bother me that people know us for our food and pastries rather than for our theology and liturgy. Not any more. I’ve grown up. Nothing to be embarrassed about. Jesus himself was not embarrassed by who he was and where he came from. That’s the whole point of today’s Gospel reading, that amazing genealogy that Matthew made up. Sure, he made it up to show Jesus came from important stock. But in that genealogy there are men and women not so lofty, not so holy, including some that you and I would be embarrassed to have in our family tree. No matter. God touched down on real earth and real people.

Right there at the beginning of the genealogy we find Abraham and Sarah. They were visited by three men who clearly came as representatives of God. They were on their way to Sodom and Gomorrah, to destroy those notorious cities of sin – kind of the Las Vegas of that time. But Abraham bargained with them, trying to convince God not to destroy – partly because Abraham had a nephew living there, Lot, but perhaps also because Abraham knew from personal experience how easy it is for people to sin. God listened and made the bargain with Abraham, but to no avail. He destroyed the city. The story of humankind starts with fire and brimstone, and so it continued for millennia. Then Jesus came, as the Prince of Peace, to bind up the wounds of the people, to preach good news to the poor, to heal the sick, to liberate the captives and the oppressed, to open the eyes of the blind, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord. That’s how he identified himself to the people of Nazareth when he started his ministry as an adult. He came precisely for every inhabitant of Sodom and Gomorrah of every place and time. We are all bound, we are all blind in one way or another, we all need good news to come our way.

Every time we are in spiritual need, we stand with people of all times – in waiting, anticipation for the release that Jesus brings. And the miracle of Christmas happens every time we need good news, every time we need our eyes and hearts to be opened, every time we need forgiveness. God knows that we need the miracle of Christmas in our lives. Jesus did not choose to mingle with the religious types. He chose to be with the regular folks, people like us. And if he were in Portland in June he would definitely come to our Festival and taste our shish-kebab and baklava and loukoumades and even drink some Greek beer. I’m not sure about the Greek coffee. He can get better coffee in the Middle East.

That’s what Christmas is all about. It’s about God becoming one of us so we can have life and have it abundantly. And God provided us with this church as our spiritual home where we can receive Christ in our mouths and hear the good news every Sunday. We receive Christ so we can be received in the kingdom. I want people in Portland to know us as a place where people can taste Christ in addition to our baklava and shish-kebab. But it begins with us, every one of us. “Taste and see that the Lord is good,” says one of our communion hymns. It happens right here. And so Christ is born in us, and lives in us. Let us be a Christmas community year round! God bless you in this season of Christmas and in all 365 days of Christmas!