Christmas Day (12/25/05)
Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas
University Congregational Church
I heard something wonderful about you people this week. I heard some very good news. Actually, I read this good news from the pages of my Bible. It seems that God loves you people so much, God actually came to earth in human form to teach us how to live, and to take the sins of the world upon himself.
That says a lot for you. Oh, there are those who treat life as something to be endured, some sort of painful trial we must go through as we await the future glory of heaven. But God must think we are pretty special. Why else would God create us in the first place? Why else would God choose to live among us? Why else would God think we are worth dying for?
It is ironic that when Christmas day falls on a Sunday, it is one of the most lightly attended services of the whole year! And ministers understand that. We have quite a buildup to Christmas. We go through Advent proclaiming the light that is soon to come into the world, and we have our church Christmas parties and our Christmas Eve services.
But Christmas morning, well, that’s no time to be at church! There are traditions that must be upheld! I actually had many people ask me if we would have a service this morning, since this particular Sunday gets in the way of Christmas! I assured them that yes, we would have a Sunday service, even though it fell on Christmas. And I really do understand the phenomenon of skipping church when it falls on Christmas, but I want to express a sincere thank you to those who came here this morning.
I think this is a good time to talk about the way God is revealed to us on Christmas. From the time we are very young, we are told to fear God. It is as if life was some sort of game, with God holding all the cards. God becomes some sort of boogey man in the human imagination. He is the stern father who sees all our shortcomings and is more than just in punishing us for each and every one of them.
That’s why Christmas is so important. This is the celebration of the incarnation, of God among us. But we sure didn’t get what we expected! I’ve sometimes said we all have a special little room in our minds where we put our images of God, and it is cluttered full of conflicting ideas. God loves you; but God will send you to hell. The jetliner falls from the sky, hundreds of innocent people die, and we hear some well-meaning person say, “It is God’s will.” A tsunami wipes out tens of thousand and we hear the same thing. It’s all a part of God’s glorious plan. In our youth we lose a childhood friend to some accident or disease. God called them home, we are told. They are in a better place.
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I feel especially sorry for young children today, as Kansas debates evolution, creationism and intelligent design. In the little room in their minds where they keep their images of God they have to crowd that room with an image of a God who stands opposed to science. Whatever God is, they are told, let us not confuse him with the truth. How absurd!
Is it any wonder we have such confusion when it comes to the subject of God? Let’s consider what God would look like if those images in our minds escaped from that little room and made themselves manifest in the world. We are told that God is about to become visible to us in this world of ours. What would we expect to see?
I’ll describe what many of us would expect. First, this God would be big. I mean really big. This God would be so big, and so strong, and so mighty, that there would be no doubt whatsoever that he was truly God. He would stand a couple of thousand feet tall, and his shoulders would stretch the width of the Mississippi River, which he could effortlessly stride across. This giant God of ours would be angry. And he would have every reason to be angry. He created us to be perfect, and we are not perfect. He is angered by our imperfections, and plans on dealing with us in the harshest possible manner.
Therefore, he is much more than a giant, overgrown man. In his right hand is the sword of justice, a mighty weapon as long as two football fields, which he waves about with fury. In his left hand are miniature stars, which he hurls at the sinful creatures who have disobeyed his will. His eyes are like mighty flames, and to even catch a peripheral glimpse of those eyes is to perish, to turn instantly to ashes and dust. And out of his mouth comes a roar, a roar equal to that of a thousand lions, shaking the very foundations of the cosmos, forcing us to our knees in fearful awe.
It may sound exaggerated, but most of us have that God somewhere in that little room in our minds. When we piece together all our images of God, that monstrous amalgam I’ve just described is hiding in there somewhere.
I imagine the wise men and shepherds were a bit surprised by what they found in Bethlehem. There was no mighty sword, no fire, no roaring voice that shook the earth. What they found in Bethlehem was the very image of God. And it was a baby. Listen to what the New Testament book Hebrews says about Jesus.
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
Listen to those words: “He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” And how did he enter the world? As a baby. A helpless, human baby, whose only hope for survival in a very cruel world was the love his parents felt for him.
This baby is a far cry from the gigantic figment of our imaginations we envisioned earlier. But our faith makes the claim that it is here we see God. Not in the philosophical tracts of great theologians, not in the depths of the starry universe, not even in our sacred scriptures, but rather in this child, this baby.
I’m not sure this is the God we were hoping for. It certainly wasn’t the God the religious folk of the first century were wanting. They wanted something much closer to that image we conjured earlier, with the flaming eyes and the swift sword. They wanted a God whose primary attribute was justice, a God who would wreak havoc on the oppressors of the Jewish people. They wanted a mighty king of a God who would trample his enemies beneath his feet, restore Israel to its ancient glory, destroy the Roman army, and punish the wealthy for having oppressed the poor people of the land.
And they got a baby. A baby! Of course, we know the rest of the story, which is more than we can say for those few gathered in Bethlehem that sacred night so long ago. They might have held out some hope that this baby would grow into a warrior. He might not end up being two thousand feet tall, but surely he would be able to use a sword with unprecedented skill.
But no! Not this baby! He didn’t grow up like that at all. Remember that amazing scene from the final evening of his life. He has been arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane. Why? He’s not a thief, a robber, or a killer. Many of his followers have urged him to take up arms against the Romans, but he has refused. He seems to be some strange sort of pacifist. But still, he is a trouble maker. No doubt about that, constantly telling his little stories about masters and slaves and lost sheep and sleeping bridesmaids…
Oh, this guy is trouble. He wants to turn the whole social order upside down. He claims God loves the poor as much or more than the wealthy. He says we are our brother’s keeper. And he is constantly hiding snide little remarks in his stories, remarks that attack the Roman Empire, claiming there is a greater authority than Caesar at work in the world, a kingdom more powerful than Rome.
That is treason. The Roman authorities’ primary job in Israel was to keep the peace, and to do that they had to try to keep the Jewish authorities happy. So they couldn’t kill off every Jew who upset them. But by a great stroke of luck, this Jesus of Nazareth had walked into the Jerusalem temple the previous week with his motley crew of followers and knocked over the tables of the moneychangers.
Now the most powerful religious folks in town also wanted to get rid of Jesus. The last thing they wanted was the Roman government making their life difficult because of some crazy troublemaker from Nazareth. Jesus’ episode at the temple made things much easier for the Romans. They learned that Jesus and his little gang were hiding out in the Garden of Gethsemane just outside of town, and they approached them by night. All four gospels agree that one of more of Jesus followers drew swords to protect him. The Gospel of Matthew provides Jesus’ famous response: Put your sword back into its place, for those who live by the sword shall die by the sword.
Jesus is led away, tortured, beaten, and ultimately nailed to a cross. Wait a second! Are we honestly suppose to believe that God came into the world as a little baby, grew into a man who lived life in peace while challenging the powers of the world, and then allowed himself to be cruelly murdered by his enemies? Are we honestly supposed to believe that when his enemies were hammering the nails into his hands he spoke these words from the depths of his heart: Father forgive them, they know not what they do.?
What kind of God do we have, anyway?
We should be very grateful for the God we actually have, the only God in the universe, the God made known in Jesus Christ. Our God is the God of mercy, not vengeance. And God brought the universe into being with love. It is the very power of God’s love that holds the universe together, that calls it into being moment to moment, the very power of God’s love that came to dwell among us in the person of Jesus.
I wondered how to bring this Christmas day sermon to an end. I decided I would leave you with my favorite passage of scripture, the prologue to the Gospel of John. Let me preface this reading by explaining how I interpret the passage. This passage talks about “the Word.” The Greek term is logos. I think of the Word as being God’s redemptive love. I believe that before a single creature was created with the ability to move away from God, God’s redemptive love was in place, ready to heal, to forgive, to reconcile. I believe that redemptive love is the very nature of reality, the very power of being that allows creation to exist. John calls that redemptive love “the Word.”
Hear now the prologue to the Gospel of John:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
That is the God we’ve got. Praise God, now and forever. And I wish you all a beautiful and joyous Christmas day.