Narratives of a Vulnerable God

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December 24, 2018

Narratives of a Vulnerable God

Passage: Luke 2:1–20

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to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.. —Luke 2:11

There are days when I think that the most resilient creature God ever created is a human child. Children are tough. Children are flexible. Children bounce. They hit the wall and bounce. They hit the floor and bounce. They crash their bicycles into trees and bounce. Their bones are soft, and they mend, right before your eyes.

A long time ago, I belonged to one of those fitness centers with 50 treadmills and a two-acre weight room and ten tennis courts and five racquetball courts, and when my son was about six I took him there to teach him to play racquetball and we had the greatest time; he was pretty good, and when we were done with our hour we were walking down the aisle between the tennis courts to get back to the locker room and Michael was so happy and eager to tell his mother that at the age of six he had defeated his father at racquetball, and he was running on ahead full blast and yelling back at me over his shoulder when he ran square into one of those 30-foot, steel I-beams that hold up the roof, and hit the sharp edge straight on with his forehead.

There was a lot of blood, and we ended up in the emergency room but a couple of stitches later he was like new, and actually I think the building got the worst end of it. The whole place shook. Before the scar disappeared, we called him Harry Potter because he had a lightning bolt in the center of his forehead.

But then, of course, you walk into the Intensive Care Unit at the Children's Hospital, and you visit a two-year-old girl with meningitis and she hovers between life and death, and you realize how fragile young human life really is.

They are so vulnerable, and I marvel that God came to earth in just this kind of fragile package. In the end, distilled to its essence, that is what Christmas is all about.

If you’ve been to Bethlehem, you know that winter in Palestine is not as threatening as winter in Chicago, but at 2:00 on Christmas morning, it was 42 degrees in Bethlehem, and there he is, wrapped in rags, laid in a feeding trough. If our contemporary creches are to be believed, the stable didn’t have walls. Could they build a fire?

We've seen so many Christmases, we get used to it. We miss the scandal and the shock of it.

We forget that until the Christian Gospels, no one had ever dreamed of seeing God in quite that way. We forget that until the Christian Gospels, for all people of every language and every religion in any color or corner of the globe, the word 'God' referred to that being than which none greater can be conceived. God was omniscient, omnipotent, unchanging and incapable of suffering.

God knew everything, did everything, felt nothing, and dwelt distant behind a wall of perfection—tranquil, serene, unrattled by anything which happened beneath the stars.

God was the Caesar Augustus of the heavenly spheres, enthroned in splendor, majestic in power, insouciant in passionlessness.

That was the way it was. Everybody thought so—Plato, Aristotle, Aquinas, Calvin. But Luke upends our image of the Creator of all the burning suns and spinning planets.

When he was a theology professor at Wabash College William Placher wrote a book with a provocative title: Narratives of a Vulnerable God."[1]

For millennia, human beings thought the essence of God was power and strength and might, and the ability to do impossible things, like making a rock so heavy God himself can't lift it, or making a square circle, as little Catholic boys used to say to their nuns, trying to drive them insane.

Luke is trying to tell us that God is not power but love. God's essence, center, character, and personality are not defined by the love of power, but by the power of love. And love is largely powerless, right?

As soon as you love something, you have sacrificed your power over it, because lovers always give freedom to the beloved. Lovers never come to crush, overrule, or compel. Love only persuades, cajoles, begs, asks, submits.

It's like in Disney's Beauty and the Beast. While he has her imprisoned, Belle can never belong to the Beast, but as soon as he lets her go, it is then that she becomes his, and it is then that he is transformed into a prince.

Paraphrasing William Butler Yeats, "when we love someone, we have not only placed our hopes in her hands, we have spread our dreams beneath her feet."[2] We can only hope that the beloved will tread softly then, because she treads on dreams.

My best friend in high school got utterly smitten with the homecoming queen/valedictorian/all-state soccer player/Eliza Doolittle in the school play. “Smitten.” That’s an apt image, isn’t it? “Smitten.” She smote him. It wasn’t her fault. She was nice enough. He did it to himself. He was simply not in her league. He was completely helpless in her presence.

Once upon a time there was a church in conflict. I know, I know, it's hard to believe, but it's true. The Christians split up, over something really important like the color of the carpets in the Fellowship Hall.

In a meeting one guy who wanted blue rugs took off after someone who wanted green rugs. This guy was so nasty he was famous.  He was mean, even by church standards. And the things he said about her? I was speechless. And I asked myself, "How does he get away with it, over and over and over again? How come he has so much power?" But then I answered my own question. He has so much power because he doesn't care, he doesn’t love, and this gives him absolute power.

And that’s what Christmas means. God relinquishes the power of a hundred billion stars in a hundred billion galaxies, and places God-self in human hands, to see what might happen, and look what did. Because God loves us, God does not want to win over us; God wants to win us over. This is the narrative of a vulnerable God.

Captain Ahab puts it so eloquently when the Pequod is struck by lightning: "I know thee, thou clear Spirit, and I know that thy right worship is defiance. I know thy speechless, placeless power; but to the last gasp of my earthquake life I will dispute its mastery. Come in thy lowest form of love and I will kneel and kiss thee; but come as power, and though thou launchest whole navies of full-freighted worlds, there's that in here that will defy thee."[3]

God knows how the beloved responds respectively to speechless power vulnerable innocence. At Bethlehem God gives us a spectacular redefinition of what it means to be strong, what it means to be God. In the Gospels we learn that the character of God is at its most powerful, most undeniable, most winsome, and most irresistible, not in the parting of the Red Sea or in a cataclysmic flood, but crying in a manger, washing a fisherman's feet, eating at an infidel’s table, embracing the least, the last, the lost, the lonely, the lame, and the leper. It might be the greatest story ever told.

[1] William C. Placher, Narratives of a Vulnerable God (Louisville: Westminster-John Knox Press, 1994).

[2] William Butler Yeats, “The Cloths of Heaven,” 1899. The great Irish-Canadian preacher Maurice Boyd quotes this poem in the sermon "Strong Love,"  Running to Paradise (Burlington, Ontario: Welch Pub., 1990), 28.

[3] Herman Melville, Moby Dick, chapter cxix, “The Candles,” slightly adapted for brevity and clarity.  Quoted by Boyd, op. cit.