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Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Sermon from January 2, 2011: Second Sunday of Christmas

Greater Than Glory
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen (Texts: John 1:1-18)

Sisters and brothers, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen

Human babies are among the most vulnerable mammals on the planet. Many mammals are able to walk shortly after birth, and feed themselves. Others have a bit more time as helpless beings, but none – as far as I know anyway – have several years of infancy, followed by many years before they can be self-sufficient.

All of which makes John’s assertion this morning so astonishing. He says that the Word of God, the very creative power of almighty God, who made all things, took on human nature, human “flesh,” as he calls it. He claims that Jesus, the one whose birth we celebrate, is in fact the living, breathing Word of God, now become human.

If that doesn’t amaze us, we’re not paying attention. The risks the God of the universe took in becoming one of us began from the moment of conception, lasted throughout the nine months of pregnancy, and became acute in a delivery in an animal stall far from any medical care. The risk of facing the cross is only the logical conclusion of these initial risks God took.

Martin Luther asked, “O Lord, you have created all! How did you come to be so small?” (“From Heaven Above to Earth I Come,” stanza 9, ELW 268) This is the amazing truth about Christmas. We’re astonished not at a baby in a manger – we’ve seen babies, we love babies. What is astonishing is that we believe that the God who created all is that baby in a manger. Vulnerable, weak, unable to care for himself for years. At risk of death at any moment, and not just from wicked kings (though that, too). Why on earth would God choose to be this vulnerable? Lord, “how did you come to be so small?”

Whatever God’s answer to the “why” (and we know that the answer is “love”), it is this vulnerability that is the point of everything.

I believe that the Scriptures teach that God came into the world to show us in person how to live, how to be truly human. Now, it’s one thing to simply think of God coming in person and leading us into a new relationship, a new way of life and being, of love of God and neighbor.

But God took it a step further. And we begin to understand it in this baby. Think of it: God could have come as a powerful being, a messenger of light. Any number of disguises or modes of appearing to the world could have gotten a message out. God could even have come in force, asserting control over the people of the world by might.

Instead, the almighty God of the universe, creator of a billion suns, whom we now know as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, became embodied in the weakest, most dependent form imaginable – a human baby.

For nearly a year or more this baby couldn’t even walk or talk. For a couple years he couldn’t even dress himself. For about 12 or 13 years he couldn’t take care of himself without adult help – that is, without adults providing shelter, clothing, food, protection. According to the Gospels, Jesus was about 30 when he began to teach, and lead people in God’s way. Until then, the most powerful being in the universe, the Creator of all, was simply living as one of us. And for a good portion of those years, incredibly vulnerable and unprotected.

If we look at what John is really saying this morning we see that God needs us to understand that the way God chose to come is a critical part of God’s message.

It’s not incidental, it’s central that God put aside all power and strength to accomplish this mission. John’s intentional connecting of Jesus to the creative Word of God reminds us of this. John doesn’t want us to forget the power and might hidden in this person – and not just in this baby, though that’s vulnerable enough. But in a person willing to suffer death on a cross rather than use power against us. And yet, even with this power at hand, God chooses to come in a way that risks losing everything God wants to accomplish.

Look at what John says – in his coming, Jesus came to his own, the people created through his work, and they did not know their own creator. Even more, Jesus came to his own people of that creation, the chosen family of God who should have recognized this coming, and his own people did not accept him.

There’s no reason for this rejection, this ignorance, this turning away from God. God could have ensured full acceptance and welcome by using a different way. So the way God comes to us must be critical. It must be the only way we could truly know God. It may be the only truth about God there is to know.

And so here’s how we answer Luther this morning: Why did the Creator become so small? Because it is the real truth about God. And it is our truth, too.

It’s funny how even when we recognize this weakness, this vulnerability of the Word among us, we assume it’s an aberration, a step downward for God. There’s a moment in the first chapter of Acts where the disciples reveal our own blindness on this. Now that they see Jesus raised from the dead, they assume he will begin to lead the revolt against Rome. “Now is it the time when will you restore Israel?” they ask. It’s as if they say, “OK, we realize that we were expecting a Messiah of triumph and we missed that he would suffer and die and share our weakness fully. We get that now. But now that he’s raised, now we get a triumphant Messiah, right?” It’s not very different from the Christians today who eagerly await the return of Jesus in power and force to wipe away all the unbelievers.

But what if God’s weakness here is the true way of God, God’s only truth?

Thomas Merton reflects on the Incarnation and says that the “one thing greater than glory is weakness, nothingness, poverty.” (from “Hagia Sophia,” included in “In the Dark Before Dawn: New Selected Poems of Thomas Merton,” New Directions Books 2005) An Orthodox priest from Tennessee, Father Stephen Freeman, recently wrote about this in a blog. He writes: “The all-powerful reveals Himself in His weakness, and not, I suspect, because it was a “backdoor” plan. Rather I believe the all-powerful revealed Himself most fully, most completely on the Cross because this is indeed what the power of God looks like. I do not know how to fathom the reality that the power that can only be seen in the Cross of Christ is the same power that created the universe, but I believe it is so.” (, “The God Who Became Small”)

Isn’t that stunning to consider? What if the only truth about God’s power that is knowable and real is that it cannot be used to accomplish what God wants, that God is fully revealed in weakness, not in power and glory? That in the baby and at the cross is exactly what God’s true power and glory looks like?

John says it today, “No one has ever seen God; it is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made God known.” Later in John’s Gospel, on the eve of the crucifixion, Philip desperately asks Jesus to show the disciples the Father – show us God, he asks. And Jesus says, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.”

What if Jesus is serious? What if John is right?

It may be that this is, as Father Stephen suggests, what the power of God looks like – weakness, vulnerability. Even though that power created a universe. What if the paradox is that this is the only truth about God’s power at all? That means not only should we stop waiting for God to act in this world in overtly powerful ways and start seeing God at work in the weakness of the world, the one thing greater than glory, which is God’s preferred way for acting in and healing the world. It also means we must rethink what this means for our discipleship as well.

God’s willingness to be completely vulnerable to us, risking the loss of everything, says that is the way we are called to live. When the adult Jesus describes the way of the rule of God, the kingdom of God, and lives it even to the cross, it is a way of this kind of vulnerability. A way which never uses power to achieve goals, even godly goals, but always gives of itself in love. A way which looks like utter weakness but which eventually will transform the whole world, like a grain of yeast or a mustard seed will grow from tiny to immense. A way which gives of itself for others in all things and trusts the power of love, not the love of power, to accomplish everything.

And in this baby we have our call – to be open to others, risking whatever we need to in order to embody God’s love. To find peace by setting aside power over others and transforming our part of the world with Christ’s love, God’s love, vulnerable love. It’s a frightening way to walk – but we always remember the Creator’s willingness to be a baby, even to die, and we know we can do it, with God’s help. Because it’s the only way to walk that is true to our Savior’s way, and the only way that really leads to life.

The amazing thing about this baby in a manger is not the baby after all, but who became the baby.

And as long as we see this baby and see it as central to the truth about God, as long as we keep pondering Luther’s question, “How did you come to be so small?” we will continue to learn the truth about God, the reality of God, and yes, this utter mystery of God – not a sidebar or distraction, but the full truth. And we will continue to learn the way of life God intends for us all, the only way that will bring not just us back to God, but eventually the whole world.
In the name of Jesus. Amen

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