The Humility of God: A Christmas Sermon

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The Rev. Teri Daily

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Sunrise

I’m sure you’ve seen them—photographs of what nighttime on planet Earth looks like from space.  The distribution of light over the various land masses is representative of the distribution of wealth and development; the wealthier and more developed an area is, the brighter it glows with artificial light.  Thirteen percent of the world’s population accounts for 80% of the light, while 1.2 billion people live in places where no light is visible from space.  The light distribution corresponds not only to the economic inequalities between countries; it also highlights the political divisions.  While South Korea is well lit, North Korea is dark except for a small light that emanates from its capital.  A solid line of light delineates the border of Pakistan and India—a testament to the floodlights and barbed-wire fence that line the border of the two countries.  But despite the separation and differences between countries, there is an interesting finding:  even though some countries have a greater intensity of light than others, every country seems to have a similar pattern of light distribution.  In other words, each country has the same relative inequality between places that have light at night and places that don’t.  Maybe there is some cosmic light to darkness ratio that unconsciously guides our urban planning, our population sprawl, and even our inner life, too.[1]

Well, I don’t know if it’s singing “O Little Town of Bethlehem” a few too many times that has done it, or if it’s the picture books of Mary and Joseph in a warmly lit stable while outside all is pitch darkness except for a  brightly burning star.  Whatever the cause, I picture Jesus’ birth as taking place on the edge of town, down a dark, dead-end road with absolutely no through traffic.  In today’s terms, it takes place off the grid, in the part of the world where the 1.2 billion poorest people live in relative darkness.

I think this is how Luke the Evangelist wants us to picture the story.  Taking place in a dark back alley and not in a brightly lit square in the center of town, taking place in a washed up royal city that was now occupied and not in the great Rome itself, taking place in a stable and not in a palace, in the shadows of night and not in the blinding light of day.  And if we don’t grasp Luke’s point about a backstreet birth in the announcement itself—“you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger”—maybe we can glimpse it in the people to whom the Messiah’s birth was proclaimed.  The angels first announce the birth not to palaces, temples, or picture-perfect families, but to a group of shepherds on the bottom rung of the social ladder and who probably hadn’t had a bath in days if not weeks.  What Luke is telling us is that the light comes into the world in the places that need it most, in all the dark alleys and the dead-end streets and the fields outside the city walls.  That is the humility of God.  That is the scandal of the Incarnation.

The Church actually celebrates Christmas for a full twelve days; one night alone can’t possibly hold all the richness and fullness of the Incarnation.  These twelve days actually include not just the Feast of the Nativity that we celebrate tonight, but other feast days as well.  Not all of the feast days that follow tonight are full of cheer and light, but they are part of Christmas nonetheless.  On December 26th, there is the Feast of St. Stephen, one of the seven followers chosen in Acts to tend to the widows and the poor in the Church.  Stephen was imprisoned and ultimately stoned to death for preaching the gospel; he was the first martyr in the Church.  And then on December 28th, we remember the Holy Innocents.  These are the infant males under two years of age in Bethlehem and the surrounding region slaughtered by Herod the Great when he heard the Wise Men’s report that an infant King of the Jews had been born.  The Church has always honored these slain infants as martyrs, and this feast has become a way to remember all innocent victims of violence and all who die at the hands of injustice.  Just four days later, on January 1st, we celebrate the Feast of the Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ, previously called the Feast of the Circumcision.  As was customary under Jewish law, eight days after Jesus’ birth he was circumcised Luke tells us.  It was at this time that he received his name—Jesus.  In Hebrew, the name means “savior” or “deliverer.”  And so we are reminded of what it is that Jesus has come to do.

Here’s the thing:  the full observation of the Christmas season doesn’t let us stay in the warm, idealized glow of the baby in the manger.  We see in these celebrations that to become incarnate is to become vulnerable to suffering.  For Christ to become human is to open himself up to know all the pain and life that we know; for Christ to become human is an act of humility.

In an article called “The Challenge of Humility,” Frederic and Mary Ann Brussat tell this story:

… a man…asked his rabbi why people couldn’t see the face of God. What had happened that they could no longer reach high enough to see God?  The rabbi, a very old man, had experienced a lot in his life and was very wise. “My son,” he said, “that is not the way it is at all. You cannot see the face of God because there are so few who can stoop that low. How sad this is, but it is the truth. Learn to bend, to bow, to kneel and stoop and you will be able to see God face-to-face.[2]

If we want to see the face of God, sometimes we have to humble ourselves to look in the very places we need God the most.[3]  Jesus is born in the darkness of war-torn Syria and the over-crowded factories of Malaysia, among the unemployed in Detroit, the prisoners in our correctional centers, and EBOLA patients quarantined in tents.  God comes to those who wait for God, as well as to those who have given up believing.  And Jesus is also born in all the places within us where we need him the most—the off-grid, dark places within our psyche we’d rather not poke; the dead-end roads within us that we never choose to drive down; those places where we have to confront our own fears, our own regrets, our own addictions, our own loneliness, doubts, and confusion.  What the Incarnation tells us is that we don’t have to be afraid to go to these dark places—whether they be within or outside of ourselves—because we know that we won’t be alone; God is already there.  There isn’t a part of our humanity devoid of God’s presence.  There isn’t a place in this world that we or any part of creation can be separated from God’s healing love.  That’s the scandal of the Incarnation.

It is God’s humility in embracing every part of human life that gives us the courage to be humble, too.  Humility doesn’t mean that we are lower than others, or that we’re above them.  Humility simply does away with the scales that determine our worth; it ends all the striving to be worthy and perfect.  Maybe this is what Jesus means when he says, “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.  For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.”

Taking on the humility of Christ is rest for our souls.  It is pure freedom—freedom to see ourselves as we truly are, to be fully present to our own lives as well as to the lives of others, to show compassion for ourselves as well as for others, to embrace the dark places of the world and let the presence of Christ in us be a light that shines in that darkness.

It’s no accident that Jesus is born in a stable.  Luke is telling us that real power, real peace, and real transformation begin with humility.  Our own humility, yes, but first and foremost the humility of God in the birth of Jesus: God in all the vulnerability of a newborn, God in all the vulnerability of our humanity, God in all the vulnerability that is love.

The angel said: “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”  Jesus humbles himself to come in precisely the places we need him most; he comes as a light that shines in the darkness.  Thanks be to God.

 

 

[1] Nicola Pestalozzi, “Nighttime Lights as Proxy for the Spatial Growth of Dense Urbanized Areas,” a Master Thesis at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zurich, 2012.  Accessed online at http://www.worldatnight.ethz.ch/content/doc/Nicola_Pestalozzi_Master_Thesis.pdf

[2] From the Spirituality and Practice Website: http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/practices/features.php?id=16159

[3] I am indebted to Craig Satterlee’s 2012 commentary on Luke 2:1-14[15-20] at the Working Preacher Website for the idea that “Jesus is being born where people need him most.”  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1522.

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