John 1:1-18, I Kings 19:9-13
I have been a long-time lover of Science Fiction. One of the earlier episodes of Star Trek tells of Captain Kirk and the Star Ship Enterprise encountering the ancient god Apollo. (The episode was, “Who mourns for Adonis”). The star ship is grasped by a great green hand in space. The hand is not flesh and blood but pure energy. They have met the one that the ancient Greeks called Apollo. According to this modern myth, Apollo belonged to a race of god-like beings who were space travelers, who for a time had made Earth their home and had ruled humanity from Mount Olympus. Now Apollo is demanding obedience and worship from the crew of the starship. But Apollo is not a nice guy. He is coercive and seductive and violent, He appears to have ultimate power and is prepared to use it. The starship finally escapes the clutches of Apollo by destroying his temple on the nearby planet, and Apollo leaves them alone to continue his own galactic journeys.
The New Age Mythologies
Pure fiction! Pure fantasy! True! But wait. Thirty years ago such ideas were pure sci-fi, with little science and lots of fiction. But if you were to scan the last three decades, the creative inventions of people like Gene Roddenberry and Steven Speilberg have become a bit more believable. The line between hard-fact and soft-fiction has become blurred.
Our entertainment landscapes are now populated with Extra-terrestrials. Some of them are like the gentle ET. Most of them are variations of the Invasion of the Body Snatchers. We have lived through multiple versions of Star Trek episodes, Star Wars sagas, and Star Gate series. In recent years we got to watch “the X-files” with Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, and newer versions of Superman, Spiderman, Batman, X-men and H. G. Well’s War of the World. We have entered into a new age of the world where fantasy is becoming increasingly believable. Most of those stories tell us in one way or another, “We have been invaded.”
Now I would not want to infer that this kind of “escape literature” is bad. Some days I need to escape, and watching Star Gate re-runs is a nice and innocent diversion. As entertainment I think they are great fun.
But a few things bother me. When the super-natural is encountered it is almost always seen as evil, malevolent, and must be opposed at all cost. Those who come from beyond are out to experiment on humans as guinea pigs, or take over human bodies, or to de-humanize us into zombies.
When Captain Kirk and company seek to encounter God in the Star Trek movie, The Final Frontier, they seek a “God who is out there,” and find that God is absolutely evil and absolutely untrustworthy.
The Coming of God into our world
Well the Bible tells its own invasion story. It is the story of how God invaded our world in the person of Jesus Christ his Son.
There are a couple of things we need to understand about the Christian view of God. Part of our theology says, “God is immanent.” That means, He is here among us, around us, and some say within us. There has never been a moment of human history when God has been absent from any person or place. We say He is omnipresent in time and space. So when we say God invaded our world on that first Christmas, we are not saying that he ever left.
That is why there is a second part to the theology of God. It says, “God is transcendent.” This means He is also above us, beyond us, distinct from us. We use spatial language such as “God is up there” or “out there” or “in heaven.” We use such language to express an important truth. God is not trapped inside life as we are. He is not caught up in time and space and limited by it, as everything else is.
The Overly-Transcendent God
But two thousand years ago much of Judaism had come to believe that God was only out there, way out there. Like the Star Trek crews, they were always “seeking him” out there in some never, never land. But they thought that He was remote from them, unknowable and undiscoverable. Over time Judaism had developed an understanding that God did not communicate directly anymore. The prophets, who had spoken the word of god, had disappeared three hundred years earlier. The only way God spoke now was through the written book he had left behind. The feeling grew that God didn’t care and did not intervene any more. God had done all he was going to, except to close history down either with a bang or a whimper one day.
But that was not the truth about God. The prophets may have quit coming because they were no longer listened to. Religion had devolved to become little more that a recitation of history, rather than a relationship with the living God. The rituals of religion had slowly displaced the reality of religion.
But 2,000 years ago, God decided to contradict that message decisively. The God who had always been present, but had been ignored and pushed out to the edges of the galaxy, decided to push his way back into our lives. He decided to invade our thinking and our awareness. In the fullness of time God invaded our world, by sending his son. Declaring as he did so that He was not distant, nor aloof. One of the names of Jesus at the very moment of his birth was “Emmanuel” which means “God is with us”. He is not simply out there; he is down here. Jesus had come to make plain, what had always been true about God; He has always been with us.
The Untrustworthy God
But a second ancient misunderstanding needed correcting at the same time. Most of humanity had learned to distrust God. God might be with us, but was he for us? Was he the friend beside us, or the foe against us? Was he lovable or only fear-able? Did his demands exceed his promises? Could we trust Him?
Perhaps you know the story of the death of Socrates. He was forced to drink hemlock to end his life. One of the charges against him was Atheism. He didn’t believe in the gods. If I had been alive at that time, I hope that I would have had the courage to be an atheist too.
The gods of his world were an affront to reason and decency. The gods were childish and petulant; they were debased and depraved. They supposedly had great powers, but they used them only to cause chaos in heaven and earth and hell. The gods of the Greeks were barbarian, and hardly worth believing in. They were comic-strip gods that no rational person could truly believe in, and no decent person would want to emulate.
Homer’s Odyssey & Iliad and the recent TV series on Hercules, and Zena and the Beast Master, reveal the pettiness of the Gods of the Greek and Roman world. Better to be an atheist than believe that such demonic deities should be worshipped, respected, or imitated.
In Judaism the portrait of God was seen differently. God was perceived to be the great King of the Universe, coming in judgment, impossible to please, who kept his kids cowering out of fear, who only behaved themselves lest his irritability erupt on their heads. So many saw God as the thunderbolt hurling god, whose preference was judgment and who handed out mercy only if He could be cajoled into granting it.
That kind of a God was a good one to push to the edges of space. It was preferable that that kind of God be distant. Better to take our chances with an absent God than one who was that temperamental. So God was pushed away, and fences were built to keep him out, and sacrifices were offered to keep him happy. Anything to keep God off our backs!
The Correctives of the Incarnation
That is why the message of the Apostles’ Creed is exhilarating. Listen to its ancient words again.
“I believe in Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.
He descended into hell”
The New Testament is aflame with the message that when God made himself known to us, he made himself known to us in Jesus of Nazareth. And when he came, he did not come in a space pod crashing into our lives. He did not beam down from some celestial Star Ship with his laser weapon drawn in self-defense.
He was born “a six-pound, twelve-ounce baby” to a peasant couple, in a dingy stable, in the middle of a taxation takeover. He came with such little fanfare, that only a handful of local peasants and foreign travelers ever had a chance to notice his arrival.
Then for 30 years he lived life in quiet obscurity. And when he is ready to begin his divine work, his power is used not for self-protection, but for our protection. His abilities are not directed to his own comfort, but to comfort those who mourned. He did not take a throne, demanding that the world come to him to do obeisance. Instead, He put on his backpack and made house calls across the length and breadth of his nation. When he came into the towns and villages, the little children gathered around him. Young parents trusted him. The common people heard him gladly. The marginalized found freedom and dignity. Only the power brokers of the world found him to be a threatening presence. He came in meekness, and then died the victim of a violent death, like too many who had died before him.
That is the way God chose to invade our lives. But why did God choose this way of doing it?
- Perhaps to persuade us to stop pushing him off to the edges of our lives.
- Perhaps to help destroy the lie that says, God doesn’t really care about us.
- Perhaps to counteract the lie that says God can never be trusted.
So he came by cradle and by cross, to declare beyond all doubting that there was nothing He wouldn’t do to earn our trust.
He came by cradle and by cross, to let us know that He is not like the charactatures of all the other gods we have heard about, who usurped human freedom and dignity.
The story is told of a man who skeptical of most things, had been arguing with his wife about the impossibility of God becoming man. During that evening the weather turned bitter cold and a blizzard set in. As he sat by the fire he heard a bang on his window, then another and another. He got up to see what it was and discovered a bird was trying to escape the storm into the warmth and brightness of the house. But the glass stopped it in flight and it simply banged into the glass on its repeated attempts. After some time of watching this futile effort, the man decided to let the bird into his garage, so opened the garage and tried to wave the bird in. But the bird was as frightened of this strange human waving his arms, calling, and pointing, as it was of the blizzard, and finally it was grabbed by the wind and the man lost sight of it. “I wish I was a bird,” he said, “then I could tell him that this was a safe place. If I could only talk his language, or look less threatening, he could be safe and warm.” Then suddenly he realized that that was what the story of Christ was really all about. God for millennia had talked and gesticulated but we had not believed that He meant us no harm. So he became man, to share our life, to live along side of us.
And that is precisely what the great creeds tells us.
The Great and Mighty God
Constricted Himself to the womb of a young woman,
Confined Himself to a 30-year experience of poverty, and
Committed Himself to be crucified on a cross.
No wonder the ancient and modern world has tried to come up with alternate ideas. The real one is unbelievable. That God should do that is incredible. But, the Church said, “That is the way it happened. That is what God is really like!” And we say, “Yes!”