"For thou art an holy people unto the LORD thy God, and the LORD hath chosen thee to be a peculiar people unto himself, above all the nations that are upon the earth." ~ Deuteronomy14:2

Saturday, December 20, 2008

When Christ Became Human, God Became What We Are

"Therefore, the great message of Christmas is that God became what we are, so that we could understand better what God is, and we could believe with all our hearts that God understands what we are, and this has got to be Good News", God Became What We Are by John Claypool (1994)
Many years ago now, someone gave me a little book by J. B. Phillips entitled, When God Was Man, for a Christmas present. This was written back in the 1950's. I am sure if he were writing it today, he would give it the title, When God Was a Human Being. At any rate, I was reading the book in the days that followed the holiday, and happened to leave it open on a chair in our den. We went out that evening. A lady in the community who had baby-sat for us was there with our little boy. When we came home about 11:00 o'clock, I could tell as soon as I entered the house that the baby sitter was very excited. She picked up my book, which she had found on the den chair, and began to wave it around, and said, "Is this true? When did it happen? What was He like?" Well to be honest, I was taken aback because I knew this person; I realized that she was very active in a church in our community; she even sang in the choir, and, therefore, I was surprised that title would have come as such a shock to her. But as we began to talk, I discovered that was, in fact, the case. For all her years of churchly activity, somehow the word had never reached her that, at one point in history, God did become a human being; that is, the One who is eternal entered time; the One who had always inhabited the heavens chose to come and live as a human being upon this earth. As we began to talk about this event, she began to ask all kinds of questions as to what it meant, and when I took her home later that night, we sat for almost an hour in front of her house talking excitedly about the implications of that event which, of course, is the very heart of the first Christmas. After that experience, I decided that I would never let an opportunity go by to communicate this truth, because it is possible to live in the confines of the kingdom and somehow never have heard the incredible news that the King himself did come among us once and lived as we live. As I tried to tell my friend that night, there are so many implications to this event. I believe with all my heart that it is true; that on the first Christmas, the human Jesus was just that - God come to us in human form. I tried to tell her something of what that means for the actual living of our days. I cannot begin in one short sermon to exhaust the subject, but let me simply suggest to you two things that are true if, in fact, God has come to live among us as a human being. First of all, it means if this is the case, that now we humans have a way of understanding what God is, that is, we now have a new access to understanding the mystery of the One who stands behind all reality. Now truth be told, we humans could never know this about God had God not chosen to come and place God's self in access to our senses. Most of the great thinkers of history have always concluded that there are finally just two forms of reality. There is the uncreated that has life in itself, the very fountain of being, and then there is the created order which derives its life from the uncreated. Only God belongs on the uncreated side of the line. Everything else belongs on the created side, and it is obvious that those that derive their lives from another do not have the capacity on their own to fully fathom what this mystery of life that we call God is actually like. There is a chasm of otherness between the One who makes, and those who are made, that no creature has the power to cross. Many years ago, I was walking in the farm that has belonged to my father's family in Kentucky for many generations, and I happened to looked down and I saw this giant anthill. There must have been thousands of these little creatures scurrying back and forth. It was a world unto itself. And as I looked down, I thought to myself, given the capacity of an ant, they have no way of understanding something as big and complex as a human being. If they were aware of me at all, I must have loomed over them as some kind of ominous presence. Then it dawned on me that if I had the power to somehow become an ant and yet take into that new condition as much of the reality of a human being as would be possible - in other words, if I could cross this chasm of otherness from my side - then it would be possible for ants to understand the human in ways that they could never have known before. As I walked away, I began to realize that the chasm between an ant and a human being, vast as it is, is nothing to compare between the chasm between a human being and this mysterious, divine reality that gives life. And I realized that we are as incapable of understanding God on our own as an ant would be incapable of understanding us. Then I began to think that this mysterious process I had thought about, this crossing the chasm from the other side, that really did take place in the event of the first Christmas, because God, for us humans and our salvation, chose to come across that chasm and put God's self in an image that we could understand. God took on visibility; God took on human flesh; God translated God's self, if I may put it that way, into the categories that are accessible to our human ways of knowing. And this means that we now have a chance to glimpse deeper into the mystery of God, not because of our powers, but because of the gift of revelation that comes at Christmas. When the little boy that this lady was baby-sitting for was about three years old, we had some friends come and visit us. They had a daughter about my son's age, and during the weekend visit, I realized that the little girl was very precocious and in many ways was far more developed, linguistically and perceptively, than was my little boy. Now I was very competitive at that time in my life, and after my friends left, I began to say, "I haven't been working enough with my son." For example, the little girl could distinguish the colors of the spectrum, and my little boy was blissfully oblivious to the difference between red and blue and green. And so I decided that I would sit down with him one afternoon and help him to master these distinctions. I was a graduate student at the time, very bookish, very given to abstract ideas, and so I tried to explain to this three year old the difference between redness and blueness and greenness and, of course, it was utterly futile. That did not begin to touch where he was. I realized if I was going to succeed, I was going to have to come down on his level and get in touch with images that he could understand. So what I did was to take a red ball that he loved very much; I took a blue book that he took to bed with him every night; I took the little green chair that his grandmother had given him and in which he sat, and I very patiently began to say, "This is red; this is blue; this is green." And through those concrete images with which he was already familiar, the mystery of color began to dawn on his little consciousness. Let me say with great reverence, but also with deep seriousness, that what a red ball is to redness, what a blue book is to blueness, what a green chair is to greenness, the man Jesus is to God. He gives visible, tangible ways of understanding the invisible and the intangible. God became what we are so we could have a better glimpse into what God is, which means that to the question that has haunted humanity from the very beginning, namely, what is God like, the Christian faith answers, "God is like Jesus, because miracle of miracles, the Man who walks the pages of the New Testament, that man was God, God come to us, God in a form we can understand, God accessible to our ways of knowing." Therefore, to believe that at Christmas time this really did happen is a way of coming to see that we have been given a vision of God that we could never have earned, could never have come to on our own. It is gift. It is the essence of grace. But the other implication of the Christmas event is that if God has, in fact, become a human being, now it means that we humans can understand more fully that God understands us. What I mean is that God has come out of remoteness and come into closeness. You know as well as I that people who have shared the same experience have a kind of bond with each other that makes them feel that they do understand, and they can share with each other. When I was a very young minister and had not yet myself been initiated into the fraternity of grief, I remember being called once to minister to an old farm widow. Her husband had just died, and I went with all my earnest intent to be as much comfort as I could to her, but I had never lost a significant person in my life. Most of my knowledge of grief was abstract and academic, and so I went and said the best words I knew to say. I tried to convey my care, but while I was doing that, there came into the room where we were another older woman about this widow's age. She walked across and without hardly a word, she embraced the grieving person and all she said was, "I understand, my dear. I understand." Someone told me later that this second person had just lost her husband six months before and, therefore, she came out of a shared understanding of what my friend was experiencing. And I could almost see the bridges of understanding coming to exist between them. That woman who had shared the same experience as my grieving friend had a way of connecting, had a way of making clear that she understood, that I was not able to because I had not walked in her shoes. Let me suggest that if God, in fact, has come to this earth to live as we have to live, if God has experienced life the way we have to experience it, then it means that we can believe that God understands, that none of our experiences are strange to the Holy One, because God has chosen to share the human condition with us. There is no longer a remote sense that God is above and outside us, but there is this incredible sense that God understands from within what it's like to be a human being, to struggle as we have to struggle and, therefore, can give us grace to help in our times of trouble. The most powerful expression I've ever seen of this particular aspect of Christmas is a play that was written by a German Lutheran minister. His name was Guenter Rutenborn. The play was written in 1945 as Germany was reeling from the impact of the terrible World War II, and the Pastor Rutenborn is trying to struggle with the question that was on so many people's minds back in that day, namely, who was responsible for the terrible agony that the world had experienced through World War II. And so the play begins with a group of refugees, displaced persons, milling around, asking who's to blame, and the various answers that were in the air were voiced there. Some said Hitler was to blame; others said, "No, it was the munitions manufacturers who financed him." Others said it was the apathy of the German people, but then suddenly a man comes up out of the crowd and says, "Do you want to know who is really to blame for all the suffering we've been through? I'll tell you. God is to blame. He is the one that created this world. He is the one who has let it be what it is." And everybody catches up the chorus. They turn with one voice to say, "God is to blame. God is to blame." And so in the play, God is brought down on the stage and is put in the dock, and God is tried for the crime of creation. He is found guilty and the judge says, "The crime is so severe that there are going to have to be the worst of all sentences. I hereby sentence God to have to live on this earth as a human being." And the three archangels are given the task of carrying out the sentence. The first archangel walks to the end of the stage and says, "I'm going to see to it when God serves His sentence that He knows what it's like to be obscure and to be poor. He will be borne on the backside of no where with a peasant girl for His mother. There will be a suspicion of shame about his birth, and He will have to live as a Jew in a Jew-hating world." The second archangel starts out and says, "I'm going to see to it when God serves his sentence that He knows what it's like to fail and to suffer disappointment. No one will ever understand what He is trying to do." The third archangel said, "I'm going to see to it when God serves His sentence that He knows what it's like to suffer. I'm going to see to it that He has all kinds of physical pain. At the end of His life, He's going to be absolutely executed in as painful a way as possible." And with that the three archangels disappear. The houselights go down, and it suddenly dawns on you that God has already served that sentence. He knows what it's like to live as a human being, which means there's nothing you face today that is going to be strange to God. Therefore, the great message of Christmas is that God became what we are, so that we could understand better what God is, and we could believe with all our hearts that God understands what we are, and this has got to be Good News! Amen.
Father, thank you for the perfect savior, Jesus Christ. Named Jesus because he would save his people from their sins. Jesus means Jehovah saves. We thank you that you gave us a savior. The Savior. The only Savior. Apart from whom there is no salvation. We pray that every heart will be turned to him today and acknowledge him as Lord and Savior. To that end, we pray for his glory. We have seen the future and it is eternal! Amen.

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