a vast joke
Christmas Eve December 24, 2012
It was 1930 when the young Lutheran pastor Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a Cuba serving a German speaking congregation. Bonhoeffer was only 24 years old while on this visit to Cuba. Darkness has not yet descended upon his home country. Adolph Hitler had not come fully into power. Still the young pastor Bonhoeffer tried to speak to the varying emotions of his congregation as he preached awaiting Christmas. What he said is eerily apt for our hearing tonight as we celebrate the joy of Christmas, haunted by the dismal tragedies that weigh so heavily upon our hearts and minds. How does one celebrate when there are so many grieving? Dare we open our hearts wide enough to weep with those who weep, as Saint Paul said, even as we rejoice with those rejoicing; to embrace their sorrow alongside our gratitude for blessings beyond all deserving?
“We all come with different personal feelings to the Christmas festival,” said Bonhoeffer. “One comes with joy as he looks forward to this day of rejoicing, of friendships renewed, and of love. Others look for a moment of peace under the Christmas tree, peace from the pressures of daily work [or not work at all or work that brings no satisfaction.] Others again approach Christmas with great apprehension. It will be no festival of joy to them. Personal sorrow is painful especially on this day for those whose loneliness is deepened at Christmastime.” [Here, of course, we are acutely aware of the think of the families in Oregon, Connecticut, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Arizona, Virginia, Oklahoma and Colorado, along with so many others whose hearts are broken.
“Despite it all,” he continued, “Christmas comes. Whether we wish it or not, whether we are sure or not, we must hear the words once again: Christ the Savior is here! The world that Christ comes to save is our fallen and lost world. None other.”
We know the world is weary, broken, tattered and lost. Christmas remains astonishingly strange in such a fallen and lost world. One might imagine that God would simply clean up our messes one and for all. Like a mother who finally swoops into a child’s bedroom to pick up the scattered toys, toss out the broken ones and generally tidy everything up before she proceeds to pick the clothes off the floor and toss everything into the washer and clean up the rest of the house, we might imagine God would do the same for us in our wretched condition. Swoop in to clean up our oceans and rivers and lakes, fix our broken politics, repair all the damages of our temper tantrums and especially once and for all take away our proclivities to violence against one another.
Now, that’s a God we can understand.
Yet, that is not the God who comes to us in the manger. The great mystery at the heart of the Christmas story is that God chooses the most unlikely way to draw near to us. Rather than come in power, God comes in powerlessness. Rather than swooping in to do everything for us, God comes to us – to be with us – as one of us – in the most lowly way imaginable: to a poor peasant woman and her faithful fiancé who only obey the mystery that has been given to them. God in a manger, surrounded by the poor who adore him. This is the beautiful mystery that is God incarnate. Rather than change our humanity into something resembling robots who do as they are told, when they are told and never go astray, coercing our love by ruthless demands and robotic response; God freely chose to be one of us, to be fully human, that we might be fully and freely in loving union with God.
It’s a daring move on God’s part, don’t you think?
“The whole Christmas story is strange. Frederick Buechner describes the Incarnation as “a kind of vast joke whereby the creator of the ends of the earth comes among us in diapers.” And concludes, “Until we to have taken the idea of the God-man seriously enough to be scandalized by it, we have not taken it as seriously as it demands to be taken.”
This mystery called incarnation is a radical gesture that can only be perceived in faith and wonder. And for those who do perceive it, it is the most dazzling divine high wire act possible. There is no safety net for this God who comes as a vulnerable child to assume every thing about our humanity: all the sorrow, all the grief, all the pain, all the brokenness – even death on a cross as one of us! All of this for the sake of love – never coercive love – but love nevertheless that the world may one day be fully saved by this radical love revealed in the baby Jesus.
A friend of mine from Minnesota told me a story that tries to get at this mystery of God’s love for us. She said described the snow storms with fierce winds that roll descend on the Plains, probably like thunder snows of last week. On occasion, the snow comes fierce at a sharply horizontal angle. When that happens, the only way to walk is to get under the snow, almost crawling on the ground. She described a group of children returning home who got caught in one of those blinding snows, lost and unable to move toward home. One of the older brothers who knew what was happening, crawled across the ground all the way to them, holding them and guiding them home to safety.
This is what God has done for us: crawling all the way to us that we may be brought home safely.
Rejoice, for your Light has come! Immanuel – God with us!