The most valuable lessons of life are so difficult to learn and so easy to forget. What we have learned at University of Adversity so quickly fades from memory when a few years of prosperity leave us with the illusion that we are ten feet tall and bullet proof. When our primary sense of security is material possessions, we forget how quickly the bottom can drop out from under us when financial institutions fail, the Dow tanks, and the price of oil escalates and the dollar becomes weak around the world.
Having just ended a year in which so many things happened that we thought could never happen, when so many things we thought were nailed down have come loose, we find ourselves in a state of shock. Psychiatric hospitals nationwide are reporting that admissions have more than doubled due to people suffering extreme stress about home foreclosures, job losses, and plunging stock prices. People are picking up the pieces of what is left after the storm and looking around hoping to find something they can trust to last in the year and the years ahead.
A few weeks ago I was sitting on the front pew beside the pastor in a church where I was the guest preacher for the day. The offering had been taken, the choir was singing their last song, and I was about to be introduced when an usher walked up the side isle and handed the pastor a note that had been put in the offering plate. The pastor read the note and passed it on to me. It read: "I have nothing to offer today but the hope for a better tomorrow." That just about said it all, not only for whoever wrote the note, but for all the rest of us whose recent life-experiences have left us with that very same thought. Well, what have we to say about that at the beginning of this new year?
Surely the faith we espouse in the Christian tradition and the churches in and through which that faith is expressed have something to offer in times like these.
Think with me on this matter.
No act of God in time and history gives us more reason to hope in any age or any human condition than the Incarnation. And what is the Incarnation? At the right time and in the most undeniable and unforgettable way, God stepped into our world of sin and sorrow to break the grip of evil and to save us--from ourselves and all the demonic forces that deface the image of God in us. On one night of all nights God entered our world with an infant in his arms. This was not an ordinary infant. This child was more than he appeared to be. In adulthood it became increasingly obvious that he was more than just a man. He looked like us. He grew up like any other child of his time, but he had a reason for being here that not only required him to be human, but more. In him we got a permanent glimpse of God, and in him we came to know more about God than has ever been known, before or since.
In this man Jesus, we saw, and see, the face of God. That had never happened before and has never needed to happen in that way again.
It would come as no surprise to the religious community of Jesus' time that God was showing up in some manner to influence people and events. The Jewish people were marinated in a God-haunted history. Ever since Adam, God had been actively involved in the nitty-gritty details of their individual and community life. God spoke to Abraham, came to Jacob and Joseph in dreams and sent word through the Prophets to the leaders and people of Israel. In the ups and downs of his mercurial life, Israel's favorite King, David, had a life-long divine dialogue.
God's guiding presence was never more obvious in the lives of any of the remembered heroes and leaders of Jewish history than in the life of Moses. He was miraculously protected as an infant. After many years of self-imposed exile, it appeared that he was not to have a leadership role in the God-guided history of the Jews. Not so. God spoke to Moses from a burning bush, and thus began an intimate relationship in which God guided Moses as the titular leader of the exodus of the Jewish people from slavery in Egypt to freedom in the promised land. Moses was the Lord's main man right up to the edge of the promised land. And when this man, who had been the recipient of so much revelation and guidance learned that he would not be allowed to enter the promised land, he asked a final favor of God. He wanted to see God's face. And why not? If anybody deserved to see the face of God, it was Moses!! But the request was denied. God said: "You may not see my face, for no man may see me and live." The Lord said to Moses: "Here is a place beside me. I will put you in a cleft of the rock, and I will cover you with my hand until I have passed by; then I will take away my hand, and you shall see my back, but my face shall not be seen." (Exodus 33:21-23) This man to whom God had spoken so clearly and so frequently and for so long, was told that he could see God, but not all of God. "You can see where I have been. You can see my backside, but you cannot see my face." That was as good as it was going to get.
The Jews in Jesus' time were not surprised that God would show up, but they did not expect God to show up as he did--as a child of peasant parentage, without royal credentials, without power as they understood power and with a human face. A speaking God would fit comfortably into their tradition, but the idea of God in decisive human form would not. The proclamation that God had become flesh and blood, with the feelings and features of any other man was to them beyond strange. So here we are face to face with the God whose face even Moses was not allowed to see.
John does not offer details of how and where. There is no manger scene, no adoring shepherds, no wise men from the East, just the incredible revolutionary announcement that God has become like us in Christ so that we can become like him. In this transaction we come to an understanding of the nature of God that exceeds any previous understanding. In Jesus, we are able to see all of God we need to see. It is very important for us to keep our eyes upon Jesus when we want to know what God is like.
When we have theological abstractions, we tend to develop concrete images. Like our spiritual forebears in the Old Testament, these images sometimes generate descriptions of God that are less than divine, and sometimes even less than human. In Christ there is opened to us a whole new enlightened understanding of God. It is difficult for those of us who have inherited 2000 years of theological explanation of the Incarnation to realize what an incredibly joyful surprise it must have been for the first disciples of Jesus to hear him say: "He who has seen me has seen the Father." (John 14:9b) No longer is God a disembodied voice from some distant place. The Incarnation gives us the wonderful insight that not only is Jesus like God, but God is like Jesus, and always has been.
In his Daily Study Bible Series on the Gospel of John, Dr. William Barclay tells of a little girl who when she was confronted with some of the more bloodthirsty and savage parts of the Old Testament felt called upon to offer some explanation in defense of God. She said: "That happened before God became a Christian." (Barclay, William, Daily Study Series, The Gospel of John, Vol. 1, pg 16, Westminster Press, 1956) In John's portrayal of Jesus, he is telling us that God was always like Jesus, but we never realized that until Jesus came. If God is like Jesus, we need not be afraid.
It is wonderful to know that the God who came in Christ still comes. The experience is not limited to dead saints and distant history. It happens every day to and through some of the strangest people and circumstances. It can happen to you. Perhaps it already has.
Most of us have a well developed theology for the good times in life. When everything is going well in our lives and in our world, we get along fine with the God of good times. And when times are REAL good, we sometimes get along fine without God. But our theology of prosperity with God in a Brooks Brothers suit disappears from the scene when tragedy, sorrow and loss leave our lives in shambles at our feet. Where is God when our world falls apart and when we face tragedy beyond any human explanation?
In his book NIGHT, Ellie Wiesel wrote of the year he spent in Auschwitz, where both his parents and his sister died and where he witnessed unspeakable horrors. He told of one terrible evening when the whole camp was forced to witness the hanging of three prisoners. One of them was just a child whose crime was stealing bread. Wiesel said the boy had the face of a sad angel. When the three victims were being prepared for execution, a man behind Wiesel asked, "Where is God?" As the whole camp was forced to march past the gallows where the two adults were no longer alive, but the boy was still dying, Wiesel heard the same man behind him asking, "Where is God now?" Ellie Wiesel said he heard a voice in himself answer him, "Where is God? God is here, hanging on this gallows...." (Wiesel, Ellie, Night, Bantam Books, pg. 61-62)
The incarnate God in Christ, who himself died an ignominious death on a cross, is always with us. He does not leave us alone in life or in death, in the best or the worst times. God shows up at the strangest times and in the strangest people.
One of the most chilling pictures of the 9/11 tragedy was a candid shot of the people running out of the World Trade Center while grim-faced firemen in full gear were streaming into the building. One woman said that as she was running out of the building, she turned and looked at the firemen going up the stairs. One of the firemen turned and looked at her. She said that in that moment of eye contact, his face was transformed into the face of Christ. She said, "It was a transforming experience I will never forget." It happens. We do not live in a God-forsaken world!!
In the play Green Pastures, which ran for many years on Broadway, playwright Marc Connelly has a moving and memorable scene. The Lord is anxiously looking out over the parapets of heaven, trying to decide what to do with the sinful situation on earth. Gabriel enters with his horn tucked under his arm. Sensing the Lord's dilemma, he brushes his lips across the trumpet to keep the feel of it and asks, "Lord, has the time come for me to blow the trumpet?" "No, no," said the Lord, "don't touch the trumpet, not yet." God continues to worry with the problem. Gabriel asks the Lord again what he plans to do. Will he send someone to tend to the situation? Who will it be? Gabriel makes some suggestions. "How about another David or Moses? You could send one of the prophets: Isaiah or Jeremiah. There are lots of great prophets up here. What do you think, Lord?" Without looking back at Gabriel, God said, "I am not going to send anyone. This time I am going myself!!"
"Joy to the world, the Lord has come, let earth receive her king. Let every heart prepare Him room, and heaven and nature sing."
"God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself." Let us pray. Dear God, Father and Mother of us all, we come before you with the smell of life fresh upon us. We thank you for what we know in Christ Jesus our Lord, and we celebrate the sense of security we feel when we remember that when we see Jesus, we have seen you.
We confess that we have invested our lives in things not consistent with our best interests and not respectful of your plan for our place in the world. In our overweening desire to look good and fit in, we have lost battles that we should have won and won battles we should have lost. In our struggle with materialism, we have wanted more than we need. In our battle against selfishness and greed, we realize in retrospect that we did not put up a very good fight. Save us from casually confessing social sins we did not commit, but which we did nothing to prevent. Forgive us for taking the comfortable road of generalization in order to save ourselves from the embarrassment of being specific. Teach us, O God, in our confession to be honest enough to know when to say "we" and when to say "I."
We offer this prayer through the listening ear of Jesus, who said when we pray we should mention his name. Amen.