Ancient Answers

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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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Boat on the Sea of History


Today’s Gospel reading (Matthew 14:22-34) has given rise to the traditional image of the church as a boat. Matthew certainly has a bigger church orientation than the other gospels – for example: Peter the rock on which Jesus builds the church; the command to go and baptize.

A typical icon showing the church as a boat through the sea of history with Jesus at the helm. Naturally, the icon shows bishops and kings instead of ordinary people.

A typical icon showing the church as a boat through the sea of history with Jesus at the helm. In typical fashion, the icon shows bishops with the apostles as leaders of the church, together with the all-holy mother of the Lord.

For the first time the disciples are sent forth without Jesus. The boat struggles in the stormy sea – a symbol of the church’s stormy journey through history. Jesus – who represents the presence of God (Emmanuel, “God with us”) – is not with them.

Where is Jesus while the storm tosses the boat? He is εἰς τὸ ὄρος κατ’ ἰδίαν προσεύξασθαι. ὀψίας δὲ γενομένης μόνος ἦν ἐκεῖ. He was alone by himself, praying on a mountain  – Matthew emphasizes the aloneness of Jesus twice!

In the fourth watch – meaning, between 3 and 6 AM – Jesus comes to them, walking on the water. He reassures them that it is he – ἐγώ εἰμι, an echo of the divine name in Exodus 3:14? This doesn’t of course mean that Jesus claims to be Yahweh – after all, he was praying to Yahweh (God the Father) just hours earlier. But regardless how his walking on the water was interpreted on that night or by the apostles, it was clearly a demonstration of divine power and Jesus represented the divine presence and assurance.

Peter’s attempt to walk on the water is unique to Matthew (not in Mark’s version) – another sign of Matthew’s church orientation. Peter steps off the boat and begins to walk toward Jesus. But he notices the storm – which means he took his eyes off Jesus, and that’s when he began to sink. But the first step was to leave the boat – the boat which represented community, Peter’s community: the company of the disciples.

Lesson for us, for the church of all ages? Step away from community invariably leads to losing sight of Jesus. Then the storms overwhelm. The sea is a barrier that separates the disciples from Jesus and the presence of God. We can try to overcome barriers on our own, but Jesus meant us to be a community of believers who share the experience of the storms of life. Peter not only took his eyes away from Jesus, but he left the boat, which was the community, the church, for him!

Jesus assures his disciples at the end of Matthew’s gospel (Matthew 28:19-20) that he will aways be with them until the end of time. Today’s gospel reading shows some of the ways he is always with us:

He is with us in prayer – as our high priest.

He is with us in the storms of life – reassuring us, telling us, “don’t be afraid, I AM” – I AM the presence of God.

He is with us in the community – the church – that he established so that we will never be alone in the storms of life. 

The church is not bishops and priests. The church is not an institution. The church is not another organization that competes for your time and money.

The church is a boat. Are you on board? Or are you trying to do it on your own?