Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
December 22, 2002
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
It all seems so improbable. It just doesnít make sense. I mean, weíre talking about God here. God! That greater than which nothing can be imagined! The Creator and Sustainer of the universe! The ultimate! The utterly transcendent! Scripture often goes to incredible lengths to depict the glory, majesty, power, and awe inspiring nature of this God. The Book of Revelation does it magnificently. We just heard John of Patmosí (heís the one who wrote the book) attempt to convey the nature of God. He tells us of a vision he had of God seated on a celestial throne. John canít even bring himself to utter the name of God, calling God only "the one seated on the throne." He looks like jasper and carnelian, and over him arcs a rainbow that looks like an emerald. An emerald the size of a rainbow. Wow! Godís throne is surrounded by twenty-four other thrones occupied by twenty-four elders in white robes with gold crowns. Lightning and thunder come from Godís throne, and in front of it burn seven torches, which are the seven spirits of God. In front of it all a glassy sea like crystal. The throne also has around it fantastic beasts with myriad eyes and six wings each. These impossible beasts continually praise God, singing: "Holy, holy, holy, the Lord God the Almighty, who was and is and is to come." And when they sing this heavenly refrain, the twenty-four elders fall down before God, cast their crowns before God, and sing their own praises. All this falling down and praising apparently goes on without ceasing, from everlasting to everlasting, so worthy is God to receive the praise of the saints and of all creation. Now thatís a description of God worthy of the divine majesty! Thatís God as we think God should be-all power and majesty, with appropriate pyrotechnics and sound effects-unapproachable, awesome, even frightening. Thatís a God Hollywood could do something with!
And isnít that how weíd really expect God to appear if God were to come to the world again in visible form? If Revelationís vision of God were suddenly to appear on earth, thereís be no doubt about what was happening. Such an apparition couldnít be anyone but God. Many Christians believe that the Second Coming of Christ, that is, of God in visible form, will be like that. Maybe theyíre right. Iím sure I donít know. I do know, however, that the first coming of Christ that we celebrate at Christmas was nothing like that. In fact, except for a star and some angels (that may have been added by a couple of the Evangelists for literary or theological effect), it was nothing like that at all.
It began, we are told, with an appearance of the Archangel Gabriel to Mary. Now, we know Mary as the Jesusí mother. We donít go in for Mary veneration the way Catholic and Orthodox Christians do, but we are part of the tradition that for something like fifteen hundred years has called her "theotokos," the Mother of God. So we probably donít think much of it when we read that the angel came to Mary with his astounding news. Of course he came to Mary. Thatís why Mary is Mary. But who was Mary before this happened? Nobody. Absolutely nobody. She was an utterly insignificant, unknown young woman, by our standards a child really, living in an obscure backwater town on the edge of a remote and backward province of the Roman Empire, far from the center of world affairs, by the standards of the world a cultural wasteland with absolutely nothing to recommend it to anyone. You can hardly imagine a scene less like that depicted in Revelation 4.
Then the angel told this utterly insignificant young woman-insignificant in the worldís eyes you understand, not in Godís eyes, where no one is insignificant-that something utterly impossible was going to happen. She was going to have a child. Now, our tradition tells us that this was impossible because she was a virgin. I suppose I could go on and on about how "virgin" here may be an English translation of a mistranslation into Greek of a Hebrew word from Isaiah 7:14 that really means only young woman, but letís forget all that for now. Because you see, whether you accept the notion of the virgin birth literally or not, it remains true that this birth that the angel told Mary was going to happen was utterly impossible. It simply was not possible that this insignificant girl from the sticks could have a child who would, as the angel said, be called the Son of the Most High, who would inherit the throne of David and rule over Israel forever. Things just donít happen that way in this world. They certainly didnít happen that way in the world of the first century, a world that had never heard of equal opportunity and would have thought idea absurd.
And yet thatís what we say God did in the birth of Jesus. Indeed, we say more than that. We say that this child, born out of wedlock to a woman of no earthly consequence whatsoever, was nothing less than God Incarnate, God in visible, human form, come to us to save us from sin, to restore the ruptured relationship between God and creation. We say that that child was Emmanuel, which in Hebrew means God with us. God with us! Think of it! How improbable! How impossible! And yet, there it is. And look at how it happened. No fantastic throne with a glassy sea, heavenly worshippers, and fantastic, winged beasts. No thunder. No lightning. A star maybe, and some angels. But thatís all. A baby born. An ordinary, wholly human baby to outward appearances no different from any other baby. And no royal baby at that. A poor, displaced baby born to an unwed mother at a time when that was an unspeakable scandal. By the circumstances of his birth, Jesus should have been a total failure, a child spurned by society without a chance of making anything of himself at all. The coming of God among us in Jesus was something utterly improbable, totally unexpected, indeed even by the worldís standards absurd.
Yet what wonderful good news that coming is for us! And it is such wonderful good news precisely because the way it happened is so unexpected. I mean, what would it mean for us really if God descended from heaven on a fantastic throne and simply overwhelmed the world? Itís hard even to imagine what it would mean because such a thing is so outside of our experience of earthly life. So thank God thatís not how it happened! God came to us at Christmas as one of us. As the UCC Statement of Faith puts, it, God came to us in the man, but before that the baby, of Nazareth and "and shared our common lot."
The great good news in this Incarnation of God in an ordinary baby, in an ordinary man, is that we can relate to him. We know what his life was like, at least more than we can know what the life of John of Patmosí "the one seated on the throne" would be like. In God become human in Jesus, we can see what God wants us to look like, or at least act like. We canít even try to act like Johnís one seated on the throne, or if we did weíd be institutionalized. We can, and should, try to act like Jesus, because Jesus was one of us.
Just as important, we know that God can relate to us because at Christmas God became one of us. In Jesus God was born (even if perhaps not conceived) like us. We know that Jesus lived, worked, suffered, and died just as we do. The details may be different, but the details donít matter. What matters is that God became human in Jesus, and that makes all the difference. The Incarnation bridges that gap that we so often feel between God and us. God crossed that gap and closed that gap in Jesus. We can now relate to God in a way that is possible and meaningful because we can relate to Jesus as our brother, one of us. And as we proclaim again every year at Christmas, Jesus is Emmanuel, God with us.
And itís all so impossible. How could God, about whom anything we say must necessarily be incomplete and inadequate because God so transcends our finite capacity to comprehend, become one of us? And not just one of us, but such a seemingly insignificant one of us, to the worldís eyes of illegitimate birth, poor, of peasant stock like, I suppose, most of the people who have ever lived? Well, it isnít possible. It just happened, thatís all. Because you see, as Gabriel told Mary, "nothing will be impossible with God."
If God can come to us as this insignificant, weak, squalling newborn, what can God not do? Nothing! God, in and through Jesus Christ, can and does do the impossible every day. God in Christ can and does renew our lives when to us they seem hopelessly broken. God in Christ can and does bring new life out of death, holding us, consoling us, carrying on our lives whether the death be that of a loved one or even our own. Thatís not possible, itís just true. Itís as impossible as the Creator and Sustainer of the universe being born as a human infant. Itís not possible, itís just true. It is the great mystery of the Christian faith, the most profound mystery we know, a mystery that sustains us and saves us.
It is that impossible truth that we celebrate at Christmas. And celebrate we should. We can and should make Christmas the time when Jesus comes anew into our lives in the Spirit just as he came into the world in the flesh two thousand years ago. So letís have a party. Letís open our hearts and minds, even our very souls, to the impossible things God does for us every day. Because of Jesus we know that the impossible is possible with God. And for that all we can say is thanks be, alleluia, and amen.