Sermon by Paul Santmire
The First Sunday after Christmas in Year C (January 3, 2016)
First Reading: Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm: Psalm 147:12-20
Second Reading: Ephesians 1:3-12
Gospel: John 1: [1-9] 10-18
Theme: Your God Isn’t Small Enough
Text: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18).
Sample sermon, creation-care theme, by the Rev. Dr. H. Paul Santmire
A dumb TV show I was watching focused on the baptism of a baby. Or, not actually a baptism. The couple wanted to be multicultural: to expose the child to many religions, right from the start. So in addition to a rather simpleton priest, the couple brought together a rabbi, a Native American shaman, and a woman who danced, presumably representing Wicca, the great goddess of the witches. That kind of multicultural approach to childrearing may be all the rage. It may even be politically correct. But the spirituality it suggests and the faith to which it attests fall far short of the witness of the Bible.
The TV show made me think of a book published many years ago by the English New Testament scholar, J.B. Phillips: Your God is Too Small. That’s where I want to begin today, as we ponder one last time this Christmas season the meaning of the Incarnation of the Son of God in the Child of Bethlehem, as it’s attested by John, the Evangelist. Consider this thought: your God is too small.
Many Americans these days are into finding a “god” that works for them. You know, a little bit of Christianity—maybe especially the story of Bethlehem, probably down-playing the story of Golgotha. You know, everybody loves a baby. Not many people are terribly interested in loving a man who died on a cross.
So a little bit of Christianity. Maybe throw in some Buddhism—watered-down Buddhism, no doubt, because, whatever else it takes, Buddhism takes discipline and sacrifice and giving up on the pleasures of this life, which most Americans don’t particularly want to do.
Some throw in a little spiritual tribalism also, to make the religious stew more palatable for them. For folks you and I may have known in our Lutheran past, this could have meant Scandinavian or German tribalism. You know, Jesus is the perfect Swede or the perfect German. These days, however, Jesus is more apt to look like the perfect American, whatever that may mean for one group or another.
Regarding the so-called “god” of American popular religion or any “god” of your own making or mine, the witness of John is precisely what J.B. Phillips said: Your God Is Too Small.
This is the testimony of the Gospel of John, chapter one, verse 18: “No one has ever seen God.” Which is to say, everybody’s in a permanent state of “Babble.” Everybody’s confused, even if they feel otherwise. Nobody, in this sinful world, really knows God as he is in himself. God’s purposes are higher and more inaccessible than you or I could ever imagine.
Let me give you an example of how this Divine inaccessibility works itself out in practice. For many centuries, humans lived in a fairly comfortable geocentric world. If planet Earth is the center of all things and we humans are king and queen of the jungle, so to speak, then there can be little doubt about the meaningfulness of our lives, and how the purposes of God can be understood. The whole universe finds its meaning in us. We’re at the center of things.
But then Galileo came along in the 17th century, and all bets were off. Darwin did the same kind of thing in the 19th century. In our time, cosmological physics has set before us a universe of incredibly awesome proportions, far beyond any human knowing. Planet earth, we now know, is an obscure speck of dust in a third-rate solar system in a galaxy that’s one of billions, in a vast and indifferent universe that’s heading toward oblivion. In all this, we humans appear to be a kind of strange cosmic accident, here for a cosmic instant, and then gone forever.
But we Christians still say that God is the Lord of all this: all the galaxies and all the creatures in the history of evolution. What an incredible God—God the Creator of all things! In fact, a much larger God than many Christians are accustomed to comfortably imagine. Surely a much larger God than many down-home, do-it-yourself, go-to-the-mall Americans chose to acknowledge these days, however “spiritual” they may consider themselves to be.
On the other hand, this same God, according to John, this absolutely incomprehensible God, also disclosed his purposes and his love for us when the Word became flesh, when God so loved the world that he sent his only Son to become one of us. Says John: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known” (John 1:18). To interpret the witness of John, I think somebody needs to write a companion volume for J.B. Phillips’ good book, Your God is Too Small. Somebody now really has to write a study entitled, Your God Isn’t Small Enough.
I mean a baby, for God’s sake! The incomprehensible Lord of this universe, of all the galaxies and all the ages and of every creature, this God became a baby on planet earth?! The omniscient and omnipresent and omnipotent God, born in the form of an infant, on this cosmic speck of dust! But still, as the Nicene Creed confesses, this is who this baby is: “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.”
For this reason, the shepherds, those who represent all the hopeless souls of this world, those who have longed forever for justice and peace in this world, but who in one way or another have always been denied the peace and justice for which they had so deeply yearned: they were sent to see this baby, the Lord of lords and King of kings.
For this reason, likewise, the wise men, those who represent all the wisdom of the ages, which finally leads the wisest of all—the magi of every age—into a quiet despair, as they contemplate the eternal, impersonal fate of the heavens above, and end up seeing only question marks: they were guided to see this baby, the Lord of lords and King of kings. The absurdity of it all, on the face of it! A baby!
Did you ever think how odd a baby is? I’m not talking about looks now. I’m talking about vulnerability. Babies’ heads weigh too much, to begin with. So they can’t even sit up, for a long time. Quite different from a baby fawn, which in a very short time is scampering around. And so vulnerable to injury from the elements or by accident, too! Even the baby’s skull isn’t finished when it’s born. Its head has to be carefully protected. Of all the animals of God’s creation, the human infant is in many ways the most vulnerable.
For such reasons, obviously, we grown-ups are genetically programmed to want to care for babies. And they’re programmed, in turn, to get our attention. Did you ever wonder why, when you’re sitting in a crowded, noisy waiting room at the airport, and a baby cries way over in the corner, that everybody turns and looks? Some years ago a sound-wave study showed that the vibration patterns of a baby crying are the same vibration patterns as when you run your finger nails on the blackboard. Those babies know how to get your attention!
I mean, who won’t pick up a baby when the opportunity affords itself, whether crying or gurgling? Something deep inside us makes us do it. Witness otherwise distinguished citizens of this world making fools of themselves, when an infant gets wheeled by in the park.
Now God became a baby! God became one of the most vulnerable of all creatures. Why? Do you think God would do anything to get your attention? Do you think God’s heart was aching for you so much and saw how you had no idea of who he is and how much he loves you, so he put himself on the line for you in precisely this most vulnerable of ways, so that you’d be driven to come to him and hold him in your arms and take him into your heart?
This is the biblical story. In eternity the Son of God lays down His almighty power and His omniscient mind and his eternal glory, so that he can humble himself and be born as one of us, as St. Paul says in his letter to the Philippians: “though he was in the form of God, [he] did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Phil. 2:6f.).
Maybe that dumb TV show I was watching was wiser than its creators knew. It was about the Baptism of a baby.
But the story of the baby we’re concerned with today changes everything around. The whole point of life isn’t your spiritual quest or mine or anybody else’s. The whole point of life, at least according to the witness of John, is not how you find a spirituality that works for you. The whole point of life, according to the witness of John, is that God is looking for you, urgently and desperately, and that he’ll do whatever it takes to touch you and to claim your heart for himself: even if it means becoming the most vulnerable of all creatures, a human baby. The Word became a baby and dwelt among us, praise God!
So never mind your own spiritual quest, to begin with. God’s far too large for you to comprehend anyway. You’re never going to grasp the purposes of God yourself in any satisfactory way. “No one has ever seen God,” says John. Likewise, never mind your own spiritual quest—to begin with: because God is far too small for you to comprehend anyway.
As a matter of fact, the incomprehensible God of this vast universe, whose heart nobody can know, has himself poured out his heart for you: He’s decided to come searching for you, and has done so in the most vulnerable way of all in order to reach out to you: He became a baby, for your sake and mine.
This is John’s witness to the Incarnation of the Word. God’s purposes are higher and more inaccessible than you could ever know. God’s purposes are nearer and more accessible than you could ever imagine. That’s why somebody else has to tell you this plain and simple truth: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made Him known.”
So as the Christmas Season now draws to a close, “come to Bethlehem to see” one last time. Come one more time with joyful expectation, like the shepherds. Come one more time with sober adoration, like the magi. And come as you are. Don’t delay. For unto you a Savior is born. And “this will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger.” Amen.