(This is the text of a sermon which I delivered this past Sunday at Long Green Valley Church of the Brethren. My text was John 1:10-18, yet you’ll notice that i referenced the nativity stories of Matthew and Luke, as well as the covenant stories of the Hebrew Bible.
For those new to my blog, I’m a theologian whose faith informs everything that I do, especially my radical anarchist, anti-racist, and queer politics. I’ll be posting on those things again soon, I swear!)
In today’s gospel reading, we are presented with a contradictory vision of God. First, there is the Word, the second of the Trinity, the very God who has been ever since the beginning of time through whom all of creation came into being and upon whom lays the foundation of our reality. This vision of Jesus is very prominent in the Gospel of John: the God in human form who is completely certain of his mission, who never doubts his role and purpose. Yet, inherent in that vision is its contradiction, for this is still a human who, as verse 14 claims, ‘became flesh and lived among us’. No matter how much John wants to stress the glory, the grace, and the truth of the Incarnate Word, that Word is still Incarnate, and is thus bound, and shaped, by the limitations and unique beauty of human creaturehood.
In Quaker theology, this is called ‘that of God within’, or the ‘Light of Christ within’ the human person: all of creation is marked by God’s presence as a product of their creation. We are capable of being in relationship with God not only because God made us, but also because God desires it to be so. We all share our lives with a constant companion: the spark of the divine within us. This spark calls upon us to live into our divine selves, to become, both through faith AND works, the kind of people who are can live into the promise of this intense relationship with God. This is not unique to Quakers, though. The early church spoke about the Incarnation bridging the gap between human and divine, bringing humans more fully into the divine life. The Eastern Orthodox church has long termed this process theosis, while the Roman Catholic church calls us divinisation. There are even connections with Anabaptist and Wesleyan theology. The Christian tradition teaches us that we discover who God is by looking towards the human Jesus, and that we discover who humans are by looking towards God and God’s actions in the world. And when we do, we discover something unsettling and surprising: humans are NOT meant to be powerful.
The Christmas season reminds us of this inescapable truth: God entered the world in the most vulnerable way possible, completely powerless. We can sometimes forget the harsh reality of God’s birth in the sepia tones of our domesticated vision of the quiet stable. Yet, the ever-existing Incarnate Word of John’s Gospel was born to an teenage mother hiding under the crippling social shame of having become pregnant while not being married. This woman came from an oppressed and completely powerless class and race, and was forced to make an incredibly dangerous journey in the midst of an exercise designed to demonstrate the complete dominance and power of her colonial overlords. She was subjected to discrimination based upon her class and poverty, and was forced to birth her child in a filthy parking garage without any privacy or medical help of any kind.
As soon as her child was born, she was visited by the filthiest and lowest class of people. Shepherds did the most physically demanding, most unappealing, and most dangerous work of the day, and as a result were forced to live on the margins of society, suffering significant prejudice and discrimination as a result. Therefore, the very first people to visit God, to recognise that God was living amongst us, were day labourers and sanitation workers. Within days, this oppressed family was forced to flee for their lives to a foreign land due to the fear of impending government-sanctioned violence. Yes: the Holy Family were Middle-Eastern political refugees. We should bear that in mind in our contemporary situation.
God therefore entered the world in the most vulnerable way possible. God took the most profound risks to fulfill the promise of the Messiah. This is NOT a God of power and glory, as we understand it. Is this really what God promised us, so long ago? Is this the savior, the Messiah, who would break us free from sin, death, and oppression? Is this really the model for how God desires us to fulfill our promises? If God was made one of us, and we are thus reciprocably brought into the divine nature, then we are irrevocably shaped by God’s nature and must then take very careful notice of what that nature is…if we are then to live truly human lives. This is the key question, then: how are we to make and keep promises in light of the absolute vulnerability of God’s promise?
This is the season for making promises, isn’t it? How many of y’all made a New Year’s Resolution a few days ago? How many of y’all have kept your promise? Now, here’s the really interesting question: how many of y’all have already broken that promise? I’m sure that there are a few! We make these promises in the flush of a new year, a time that seems pregnant with opportunity for birth, and rebirth. Every year, so many of us tell ourselves, and our communities, that we will exercise more, eat better, serve our community more (or less, as the case may be), yell at our kids less, and the most elusive of all: find contentment with the bountiful blessings which have been so graciously given by God. Yet, how many years have we found ourselves in mid-January quietly laying down the promises which we took on with such sound, fury, and fanfare…yet which, in the end, seemed to signify nothing? We see the hard evidence of our inability to keep our promises, for years, and then proceed to ignore all of it. Why?
Because we actually ARE capable of keeping promises! Thankfully, New Year’s Eve is not the final word in human commitment. All of us have made truly significant promises in our lives, such as marriage, parenthood, or baptism, promises which through the daily challenge of their maintenance define our lives, and give meaning and structure to our identities. We make sacrifices, both significant and seemingly insignificant, in order to keep our word, and through the continual, daily, boring choice to sacrifice we are transformed into the kinds of people who can maintain a promise.
In this way, keeping a promise is a discipline which requires continuous effort, often quite strenuous, which is rarely ever rewarded in the short term…and sometimes not even in the long-term, at least in a way which we can understand as ‘reward’. Keeping a promise is something which must be seen as having value in and of itself, done for its own sake and because we refuse to accept that we will ever be the kinds of people who cannot keep promises.
This applies even more in the cases where the promise is small, for our inability to keep the small promises undermines our ability to keep the big promises. Now, this doesn’t mean that if we can’t keep our promise to hit snooze ‘just one more time’ that we will never be able to hold to our marriage vows. If that were the case, then I’m certain that a good number of us should just take our wedding rings off! Yet, the principle applies when we accept that the big decisions are just a long succession of small decisions made over, and over, and over again. Our commitments to each other are actually these multi-faceted collections of daily, tiny, boring promises made, kept, and hopefully not broken very often. The promises made that really matter are kept in the quiet moments when it would be far easier to break them, those thoroughly banal and boring times when it seems like a small deal to let up our commitment to being the kind of person who the commitment is making us into.
Yet, it is in these quiet, boring, seemingly invisible moments that we demonstrate the mark which God’s creation has made upon our souls. God continually makes promises to the creation. They flow out from God’s very essence, and are the foundation of our reality. They are the covenants which give the world structure, and through their gradual flowering, the hope needed to sustain us through the pain and sacrifice of waiting: the rainbow, the stars in the sky, the land of milk and honey, the Messiah. It is one truth about God which we can be absolutely certain of, and depend upon: God will always make promises to the creation, which God will always keep, no matter the sacrifices required. Jesus was tempted, in very human ways, in both the desert and the garden (interesting contradiction, no? maybe shows that Jesus can be faithful in all circumstances?), and kept his promise. The lesson here is that if we share in the divine nature of God through the Incarnation, we also have the capacity to keep our promises, in times lean AND fat, chaotic AND boring, in the significant AND the banal.
God shows humility by shedding power, safety, and economic security, and commitment by continuously shedding the same. God shows determination by continually holding to God’s promise to Noah to never again destroy the earth, even when we seem hell-bent on doing it ourselves. God shows courage by being naive and vulnerable in the face of what seems like certain danger. God shows a willingness to take risks by engaging in the extremely vulnerable work of embracing humans, both despite and because of the risk involved.
Finally, God shows a willingness to have hope. God knows how often humans fail to uphold their promises by either breaking them or by failing to even make them in the first place. In the terms of the market, humans are very risky investments. Yet, by making such risky promises, God demonstrates a profound willingness to have hope in humanity.
How can we respond to this unbelieveable, and seemingly foolish, hope which God continually shows in us? We must reflect our divine nature, and have hope as well. We must accept that to be truly human is to live into the promise which God made to us at creation, when God created us in the divine image. If God hopes, we MUST hope, and never lose hope. I admit, this sounds both impossible, and impossibly naive. The world is not lacking plenty of good reasons to lose hope. Yet, hope must be our last reserve of strength, our final defence in the face of impending defeat. We must show an intense stubbornness, and absolutely refuse to concede hope, no matter the circumstances. We must consider hope to be our most precious possession.
All of this strong talk is not hyperbole. Every day, before I even rise out of bed, I make a promise to retain my hope: in the day, in God, in my marriage, in my career, and in the potential for love and beauty to win the argument against hate and cruelty. I firmly believe that this decision, this continual commitment to hope, is one of the most important spiritual practices that I have ever encountered. It’s really the only practice that has been able to sustain me through every challenge in my life. My vision of hope is not a greeting-card platitude; it’s absolute, mad courage, staring despair in the face and, with a smile, saying ‘try and get a piece of me’.
Please do not mistake me, however: none of us will ever be blessed with superhuman powers of hope. I have found myself clinging to hope as if my life depended on it. There have been days when my hope has been the only reason dragging me out of bed in the morning. I don’t view hope as a special ability reserved for those with greater spiritual and mental strength. Hope is often the only option left for kids trying to make sense of a world where a parent can treat them as if they are subhuman. Hope is the last reserve for parents who, when looking at their sleeping children, have no clue how they will make it to the next paycheque. Hope is the last line of defence for families dealing with chronic illness. Hope is the reserve of the dispossessed, the poor, and the marginalised.
Hope isn’t a luxury when you are faced with the struggle to retain your dignity and all that makes you human. This is a robust, stubborn hope that can overcome all of the voices telling you that you will fail. This is the only hope that will ever sustain us in the face of the profound forces of disillusionment and despair which demand our fear, especially durnig this past year. Our hope must be the hope of a completely vulnerable God, entirely dependent upon us for care and love. The infant made a promise to us, and renews that promise every second. Will we reach out in complete, naked vulnerability and take the risk to keep the prom