Monday, January 03, 2011

What Christmas Does to the Power of God

Sermon preached on the 2nd Sunday after Christmas at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene: Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19a; Matthew 2:13-23

St. Paul prays for the Christians in Ephesus this morning, “That you may know…what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe.”

You may not find a Christian anywhere that would dispute those words. “Power” is a word we naturally associate with God, and the fact that God’s power is “great,” even “immeasurably great,” goes without saying. It is in the very definition of God that he be “almighty.” Who doesn’t sing with great gusto those words from Handel’s Hallelujah Chorus: “For the Lord God Omnipotent reigneth.”

God wouldn’t be God if he was not powerful enough to do anything he wanted to do, right?

Yet here we are in what the Episcopal lay woman and writer Madeline L’Engle (who died in 2007) calls, “the Irrational Season,”[1] celebrating God taking on, in an immediate sense, the weakness of a human baby, and in a more general sense, the weakness of humanity itself.

What does Christmas do to our understanding of the power of God?

It may, of course, cause us to call it into question. Or it may at least encourage us to a new understanding. Maybe power doesn’t mean the same thing for God as it does for human beings.

For those of you who were here last Sunday, you may have groaned a bit when you looked at the Gospel reading this morning. Last Sunday we read the story of the stoning to death of Stephen and had to wonder what the first Christian martyr had to do with Christmas. This Sunday we have a piece of Matthew’s Christmas story, but including the violent scene of the paranoid Herod having little children murdered.

What is it with the church? Can’t we just read stories about angels and shepherds and sing lovely Christmas carols for a couple Sundays. Why is Christmas soaked in blood?

The answer is partially that life is soaked in blood. If God really took on human flesh, then he took on human reality, all of it and not just the nice bits. People like Stephen get killed in religious conflicts. Jesus himself did. Tyrants kill innocent people, including children, on a regular basis, into our own day. And Jesus died the death of an innocent man at the hands of a brutal state.

So we read these stories so that we don’t forget what it costs to be human. We read them so that we do not lapse into dangerous fantasy, asleep in our beautiful manger scenes, forgetting that the wood of the manger becomes the wood of the cross.

But still we want to protest, and it has to do with the power of God. Madeline L’Engle writes the following passage talking about the “love of God,” but I think she is also talking about the power of God.

Holy Innocents’ Day is a stumbling block for me….Jesus grew up to heal and preach at the expense of all those little ones, and I have sometimes wondered if his loving gentleness with small children may not have had something to do with this incredible price. And it causes me to ask painful questions about the love of God….

I sometimes get very angry with God, and I do not feel guilty about it, because the anger is an affirmation of faith. You cannot get angry at someone who is not there. So the raging for me is a necessary step toward accepting that God’s way of loving is more real than [ours], that this irrational, seemingly unsuccessful love is what it’s all about, is what created the galaxies, is what keeps the stars in their courses, is what gives all life value and meaning.

But what kind of meaning? It’s not a meaning that makes any sense in a world geared to success and self-fulfillment….

Sometimes when I think of our battlefields and slums and insane asylums … I ask: why does God treat in such a peculiar way the creatures he loves so much that he sent his own Son to them?[2]

In coming to terms with this, L’Engle stumbles upon a passage from St. Paul.

I was given a thorn in the flesh, an angel of Satan to beat me and stop me from getting too proud. About this thing, I have pleaded with the Lord three times for it to leave me, but he has said, “My grace is enough for you: my power is at its best in weakness.”[3]

God’s power looks more like human weakness, the implication being that it took the ultimate weakness of human birth and human death to overcome sin and death. The resurrection, in a sense then, is not a display of God’s almighty power. It is the energy that is unleashed when human weakness is embraced and even trusted.

This makes sense to me because of something my favorite theologian, Edward Schillebeckx, said in a Christmas sermon about this passage:

At the same time, people felt that this Jesus must inevitably be a stumbling block for the powerful of the earth, people who seem only to be put off by other people’s goodness and therefore become aggressive. When pure goodness appears…all the opposing forces of the earth do in fact join together: “They come to search for the child, to destroy him” (Matt. 2:13). Love is disarming. That is, people can be won over by it, or, it makes those who are evil even worse. The theme of the massacre of the innocents in Bethlehem has more human truth than the historian can ever discover. Faced with love which shows itself to be unarmed—and not knowing that it is love—the human reaction is either unconditional surrender or panic fear which will do anything to strengthen its own position of power, even to the point of killing all young children who are two years old and younger (Matt. 2:16).[4]

Pure, unadulterated, unconditional love has one of two effects on us, Schillebeeckx is saying, and, generally speaking, I think he is right. It can completely disarm us, or it can make us afraid. That is to say, in the language of power, it can inspire us to set aside our power or it can cause us to reach into our arsenal and use what weapons we have in order to protect ourselves.

Christmas is about God dis-arming himself, becoming as weak and vulnerable as he could be. And Jesus lived this out in his life. Didn’t he use power to heal? Absolutely, but never did he use power to defend himself or even his followers.

I do not believe that God’s disarmament in Jesus was a temporary thing. I believe it was permanent. I believe, in fact, that it was true all along and that Israel’s warrior God was a profound misunderstanding on their part of what God wanted from them. Similar Christian understandings are just as flawed.

“Our God is a mighty God.” I hear that phrase over and over again in churches I visit all over this city and beyond. And we ourselves pray it. Of the 113 Collects of the Day available for Sundays and Feast Days in the Prayer Book, 42% of them begin with some form of “Almighty God…” No other way of starting those prayers comes even close.

For Christians, God’s mightiest acts are all about God giving up power and using the weakness of unconditional love to transform us and the world. The power of God is found only in the weakness of God. And to share in that power I have to disarm myself, humble myself, be willing to acknowledge that I have no idea what I’m doing here. It’s a hard place for this proud man to go, but I have learned in my 50 years that if I don’t go there, God has trouble working with me. My power too must come from my weakness.

“Our God is a mighty God.” Indeed he is. In a manger. On a cross. Loving unconditional in the weakness of our flesh.

That is what Christmas does to the power of God. It turns it into dis-arming, saving love.

[1] The title of a book of L’Engle’s: The Irrational Season: The Crosswick Journal, Book Three (HarperCollins, 1977). The phrase comes from a poem that appears on p. 27.

[2] L’Engle, Irrational Season, pp. 28-32.

[3] 2 Corinthians 12:7-9. I cannot find which translation she is using.

[4] Schillebeeckx, God Among Us: The Gospel Proclaimed (Crossroad, 1983), pp. 11-12.

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