The Vulnerable God

“This is going to hurt me more than it’s going to hurt you.”

This is a phrase only a parent could utter. And a phrase no child could ever really understand. Certainly, when I heard it growing up, I was sure my parents had finally gone all the way off the deep end.  Just how was my punishment going to hurt them?

But then, if by chance you become a parent, you begin to understand how your child’s hurt – her physical, mental, emotional hurt – causes you hurt.  Not metaphorical or symbolic or even empathetic hurt, but real, genuine, true hurt.

One literary image of this can be found in Konstantin Levin, who is the co-protagonist in the novel Anna Karenina.

Konstantin’s wife Kitty gives birth to their first son Dmitri and when the child is born Konstantin is not happy to witness the birth – he is not proud or bursting with joy – he is terrified.

He is terrified, because, he says, he knows instantly that his heart is no longer safe behind the ribcage in his own chest, but now is vulnerable to the world.

This child who has been born is his heart and his heart will now grow, and learn to walk, and go running about out in the world, surrounded by the constant possibility of any number of threats, dangers and hurts.

Leo Tolstoy, the author of Anna Karenina, had a deep faith in Jesus Christ, which pulses all through the novel, and his description of Konstantin’s feeling at seeing the birth of his child must surely help us imagine how God our Father must have felt to see his Son’s birth.

In the Incarnation, God’s Son, God’s heart, is no longer safe with God but sent into the world, vulnerable to what our sin would do to him. God’s heart has come into the world to die, but to die for a purpose: to draw the entire world back into the heart of God the Father.

Like a single grain is buried in the earth and therefore becomes a stalk of wheat producing many, many grains, Jesus’ one life will be given to produce life and health and salvation for many.

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He will die and be buried to bring the abundance of eternal life to us, showing us the deep love God has for us and the deep love God has for the whole world.

And the whole world is just what this twelfth chapter of the Fourth Gospel is all about.

Until now, Jesus the Perfect Israelite has lived and ministered among fellow Hebrews – he has shown them he is from God in terms they can understand.

He has shown himself to be a kind of Prophet, like Moses, leading God’s people to Freedom.

He has shown himself to be a kind of Priest, like Melchiezedek and Aaron, making intercession for the people.

He has shown himself to be a kind of King, like David, anointed by God and chosen to be the head of God’s people.

But now Jesus begins to show he is also more than these archetypes from Israel’s history.

The signs Jesus is performing demonstrate that there is more to Jesus than anyone had suspected.

These signs are a part of God’s plan to translate his love so that everyone can understand it – not just the Israelites – not just people living in the time of Jesus’ earthly ministry, but anyone with ears to hear and eyes to see.

And so now, it in addition to attracting the attention of his Hebrew brothers and sisters, he is also attracting Greeks.

These Greeks have come to see the signs Jesus is performing. Specifically, they have come because they heard about the sign performed in Bethany, when Jesus raised Lazarus from the grave after the man had been dead for three days.

This big news traveled fast and now Jews and non-Jews alike have come to Jerusalem during the Passover to see for themselves what all the talk is about, and to get as close to Jesus as they can.

And they arrive just as Jesus is getting very close to the heart of the matter.

Jesus says, “Those who love their self, lose their self…and those who hate their self in this world, keep it for eternal life.”

Some may have found this confusing and some might still find this confusing.

But we might also be confused by the behavior of Narcissus, the character from Greek mythology who was so proud; he scorned those who loved him.

One of his enemies noticed this behavior and attracted Narcissus to a pool, where he saw his own reflection in the water and fell in love with it, not realizing it was merely a reflected image.

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Unable to leave the beauty of his reflection, Narcissus spent the rest of his life by the pool gazing at himself. He loved himself so much he lost his life, or as Jesus might say, “Those who love their self, lose their self.”

And then from our Christian tradition we remember Mother Teresa and Francis of Assisi who gave away their earthly wealth to serve the poor, Dr. King who led our civil rights movement in spite of threats on his life that would be made good on.

And we might also remember Father Damien, a Roman Catholic priest from Belgium who went to minister to people exiled with leprosy, people who had been placed under a government-sanctioned medical quarantine on the island of Molokai.

After sixteen years caring for the physical, spiritual, and emotional needs of those in the leper colony, as he knew he eventually would, Father Damien contracted leprosy and died of the disease.

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Or as Jesus might say, “Those who can see beyond themselves…find themselves…for eternity.”

All of these followers of Jesus Christ hated their self in this world for the good of their neighbor – or to put it another way –they chose to love others more than themselves as a witness to the one who loved them first.

Each one of these men and women, rather than overtaking others with power, sought how to come to their neighbor in humility with the heart of a servant – and in doing this they walked in the way of God.

Each one of these saints made themselves vulnerable as God has made himself vulnerable time and again throughout the ages.

Again and again, rather than demanding the allegiance of his people, God has invited us into mutual relationship, offering to enter into covenants with us, in the time of Noah, in the time of Abraham, in the time of Moses, and even though we broke all these covenants, God never gave up.

God remained vulnerable. God never quit loving us. God didn’t stop trying to reach us.

Finally God says, through the prophet Jeremiah, “The Days are surely coming when I will make a new covenant with my people, not like the covenant that they broke. No, this will be a new covenant and I will write my law, not on stone tablets, but I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God and they will be my people.  I will forgive their sin and I will remember it no more.”

It’s as if our sin, our war, our racism, our poverty, our hunger, our greed, our grief and suffering was hurting God more than it was hurting us.

It is as if God was watching his heart, out from behind his ribcage, hurting and being hurt.

And so with the determination of a Father God promises a covenant, again.  But this time God plans a new strategy.  This will be the final perfect covenant, the final perfect sign, the final perfect gift.

In Jesus, on the cross, God becomes completely and totally vulnerable.  He comes among us himself, as one of us, and offers up the flesh of his wrists and his feet to be pierced through with nails; he offers up his side to be run through with a spear; he offers up his head to be crowned with thorns.

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Jesus says, “This is going to hurt me a lot more than it will hurt you…but I do it for you with love. I do this for you to bring you a new covenant, a new promise – the promise of forgiveness, the promise of eternal life, and the promise of God’s unending acceptance of you.”

Now, Jesus shows us just what he meant about seeds dying to produce a great harvest and just what he meant about choosing others over one’s self.

Jesus leads the way, making it possible for us to live this way too, writing this covenant on our hearts.

We are baptized into his death and resurrection and this is God’s greatest covenant with us.

We are joined to him forever.

And because he is with the Father, we are with the Father too.

We eat at the Father’s table and we are able to forgive one another with the forgiveness that comes from God, because we are able to be vulnerable with one another too.

We have nothing to prove. God has declared us welcome in his family, precious in his sight, forgiven by his mercy.

We have seen the cross of Christ and so we have seen the glory of God.

God’s mercy has been given to us.  God gives his mercy to us today.  And God promises his mercy to us forever.

THANKS BE TO GOD.

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Glory

It might be the second Sunday of Lent, but for millions of basketball fans, today signals the coming of the madness.

Yes, it is March.  And March Madness has reached such a frenzy that filling out an NCAA Final Four bracket has become a yearly ritual even for many people who don’t consider themselves sports fans, probably, at least in part, because there’s huge prize money very publicly offered to anyone who beats the incredible odds and craft a perfect bracket.

64 teams enter the tournament but only one wins, and every team, every coach, every alum, dreams of their team cutting down the net and lifting the trophy high as confetti flies.  The dream is to be number one. No one wants to fail, to choke, to come up short.

Except for Jesus. Jesus says, “You must lose. You must lose for my sake and the sake of the gospel.”  But he’s not talking about a game that we’ll have a shot at again next year…He tells us we are to lose our life…to lose our very self…for him and his dream.

No wonder Peter calls a time out and asks to run another play!  How and why would Jesus be talking about losing to the elders, priests, and scribes? He clearly has a power and authority that they don’t have…he can heal blindness, sickness, and deafness; can feed 5,000 people with 2 fish and few pieces of bread and have lots of leftovers; he can defy physics by walking on the sea and stopping storms in their tracks.  What does he mean when he says, “I must undergo suffering, rejection, and death?”

But he does say it all quite openly. And he says, if Peter and the rest want to continue to follow him, they should get ready to lose too.  Whatever else it might mean to carry the cross, certainly part of what it means is that we must let our Lord be number one, in our life and in the world, and to put ourselves second…we are called to deny ourselves… and to follow behind him.

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The good news is that the grace of God comes first. Before we were even invited to put ourselves second to God, God puts us first. We are God’s number one priority. We are God’s first love.

We can see that we are God’s priority the covenant that God made to our great-grandparents of the faith Abraham and Sarah.

God is thinking of us, and of all who are a part of our family by virtue of faith, when God touches Sarah’s 99-year-old barren womb and brings life where there was none, making her exceedingly fruitful – giving her not only a child, but a sea of children, a multitude of nations, all who will come to know the Lord and share in his covenants, children like the sand on the shore, the stars in the sky; each one precious and numbered like the hair of our head.

Not only will Sarah give rise to nations; but also to kings – a king named David, whose great-great grandson will be born when God again touches a womb – this time the womb of a young girl.

And the One born to this young girl, named Mary, is born of the Holy Spirit and is God himself in the flesh.

Like God, Jesus will put us first. We are his priority. Like David before him, he will sit on the throne of Israel, but his crown will be of thorns.  His throne will be the cross, where he dies for our sins and trespasses, only to be raised to new life so that we may live with God forever.

One of the most celebrated films this year has been Selma, about Dr. MLK, Ralph Abernathy, the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, and the 1965 marches of men and women from Selma to Montgomery in support of Civil Rights.

In 1965 some of us here today were already alive, and its hard to believe that only fifty years ago, in large part due to the events depicted in the film, was the Voting Rights Act of 1965 passed, so that people of all colors and backgrounds could actually vote in our nation’s elections.

The film’s soundtrack includes a song entitled, “Glory,” which was written for the movie by John Legend, Common, and Che Smith, and chronicles the struggle and suffering not only of the Civil Rights era in our country, but the struggle and turmoil of Ferguson, Missouri in our own time.  And yet the song is not called “Struggle,” or “Suffering,” but it’s called, “Glory.”

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The song means to communicate that the fullness of Glory has not yet come: Part of the lyric is, “When the glory comes we will see it together,” but the way in which the gospel choir sings, ”GLORY!” its clear that some of the glory is already being experienced.

To my ear it even sounds like the song means to communicate that only in God’s coming will we see the fullness of Glory but it also communicates that there WAS GLORY in the struggle on the 54-mile stretch of highway between Selma and Montgomery as ordinary men and women put their safety and their lives on the line for the good of others, for the good of the generations that would come after them, and for the good of our country.

There can be glory in suffering if it is suffering chosen for the good of another. There can be glory in humility and putting oneself second if it is chosen for the good of another.

In and among our life together we see people carrying the cross anytime we see someone put their own wants, desires, and even needs aside for the other.

Parents put their wants, needs, and even dreams second for the sake of their children. We see children do this for parents, friends for neighbors, and many other examples.

A friend of ours named Steve* has been here in town worshipping with us nearly every Sunday since Dec 21, because his wife was at MCV. That was the day his wife fell, hit her head, and sustained an injury called aphasia, in which all her words are tangled and she’s unable to communicate for the most part.

He has no idea how long it will be until she can communicate, or if she ever will and everyday he is at the hospital, worn out, tired, suffering with her, hoping that she will get better, even though there is no promise that she will improve. His love and devotion for her is an example of the glory of the Lord.

And he would want me to thank you as a congregation for being here, for welcoming him, for offering him a place to worship.

Each week, with tears in his eyes, he would receive communion and look at that bread in his hand as as glimpse of the glory that is to come as he was encountered by the Christ of God who suffers with us and for us and promises us that we will see the fullness of God’s glory when every tear will be wiped away and all will be made well.

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Steve found a community of Jesus Christ here, because our Lord is present among us. The Holy Spirit has helped to create this community.

Community takes sacrifice, putting ourselves second for the neighbor, and the giving of friendship and love in the way of Jesus.  Community is a gift given by the Holy Spirit to us so that we might follow together.

Not everyone is mad to tune into this kind of life…in March or any other time of the year… becasue Jesus’ words are difficult.  And yet, Jesus promises that we will also see his glory, and his glory will be the glory of the Father.

We will inherit the promise given to Abraham…through faith, not through works that we have accomplished or good deeds we have done, but because of the faith that rests on God’s grace.

God continues to be at work in this community enabling and enlivening us to be what we are – the Body of Christ.