The Risky Question

Audio Currently Unavailable

If we believe that "love came down at Christmas," if we appreciate as inestimably precious the fact that "the Word became flesh and dwelt among us" (St. John 1:14), then we have to ask a crucial question that remains. To what end, to what end did love come down? To what end did God make His unique appearance on the human stage? Why Christmas?

"Love came down" for the sake of our Justification. Love came down to answer the root question of human existence. Love came down to answer the question: How can I be justified?

There are many question we can ask in relation to God: What is the origin of suffering, particularly innocent suffering? Why do some people believe in God, and others, not? Where do we come from, who are we, and where are we going? (Those three questions are the title of a mural-painting by Paul Gauguin which hangs in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.) These first questions we might call "risk-free" questions. They are risk-free questions because they are abstract. They are questions which are 'out there'. They may conceal or veil a more personal question, such as why am I suffering? But they are optional, mainly intellectual questions. The most commonly posed example of such questions is this: Why do the guilty prosper and the innocent suffer? Not only is this question an intellectual one, usually framed in terms of groups and categories of persons; but it is also unanswerable. There is no answer to this question, even in the Scriptures. The ultimate cause of the continuing existence of unfairness in the world is not knowable -- or at least it never has been known, or understood, in such a way that most people are convinced.

Most questions commonly asked about God are risk-free questions. Even the answers, if we knew them, would not necessarily affect you and me directly.

But there is one risky question. It is the question, "How can I be justified?" This question has been asked by persons as diverse as St. Augustine in the Fourth Century, Martin Luther in the Sixteenth Century, and Sam Pekinpah the film director, in our own time. Pekinpah, by the way, said that the single question he pondered day and night his entire life was, How can I go down to my house justified? We could paraphrase the question in a more contemporary way; How can my personal existence amount to anything? How can I be legitimized? How can I be recognized, evaluated, valued, in such a way that my life will add up to something?

To put this negatively, what prevents my life from being judged a failure? What is able to defend my life from the charge of mismanagement, misuse, abuse, "the things done and the things left undone"? What will prevent me, on the basis of the life I have lived, from being found wanting, from being regarded as inferior to someone else, from being left out and judged unworthy? The question of justification can thus be put in two ways. How can I find justification? Or how can I defeat accusation? Those two are the same question. And if you know anything of the wincing pain of being accused of something, whether truly or falsely, you will agree that this is not a risk-free question. It is a risky question. How can I be justified?

To return to "the Word made flesh" and the good news of Christmas, the New Testament builds the case that this great step of Incarnation took place for a purpose. That purpose became apparent as a result of the death and resurrection of the One who had first come down at Christmas. It is perfectly put to us in the 25th verse of the 4th Chapter of Romans, where St. Paul writes, "Our Lord Jesus was raised for our justification." The purpose for which He "came down" was to justify us, us who are asking ourselves consciously or unconsciously the gnawing question.

When you feel stress, you are asking yourself, how can I be justified? And you are answering the question for yourself in the negative. I can't be!

This came home to me personally in a conversation exactly 20 years ago. I had just submitted a manuscript for a book to a published in New York City. I was telling a friend about it who was a professional art historian. She asked me, "How do you feel about the manuscript?" I replied, "Well, I guess I think it's pretty good." She commented, "Great, if you think it's good, that's all that matters." "Yuh," I said. But what I thought was: "NO, it doesn't matter what I think at all! The only thing that matters is what the publisher thinks. The only thing that matters is what they think!"

My inward being was fixed on the question, how can I be justified? And I couldn't do this for myself, as my non-neurotic friend had implied I could. I needed to be justified, to be given the "A", by the other.

St. Paul in Romans, Chapter Four wants us to hear that we have been justified. "Christ was put to death for our trespasses," as the first part of verse 25 says, "and he was raised for our justification." Our sins having been forgiven, we can rise with Christ -- justified. What this means is that the question of our lives -- how can I be justified (or in present parlance, esteemed, accepted, included)? -- has been answered. It has been answered by a true miracle, the resurrection of Jesus, the book-end to Christmas, unprecedented, entirely outside our best (insufficient) efforts to justify ourselves. It is not just the forgiveness of sins by means of the atoning Cross of Christ. That was a negation of the negative. It was, and is, the justification of our present lives by the rising of Christ to life enduring. It is an affirmation of the great positive.

Where are you with this explanation of the real reason for the season?

Almighty Father, who hast given thine only Son to die for our sins, and to rise again for our justification; grant us so to put away the leaven of malice and wickedness, that we may always serve thee in pureness of living and truth, through the merits of the same, thy Son Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Audio Currently Unavailable