This holy night we call to mind with fervent devotion how the almighty and immortal God who lives in the splendor of eternal light and peace, and who solely by the power of his mighty Word brought into being the universe in its entirety, set foot in time and by the power of his Holy Spirit clothed himself in the likeness of our flawed and finite nature. God was born a tiny and helpless child, the only son of a lowly virgin from Nazareth, in a place where animals were sheltered because there was no room for them at the inn, surrounded by beasts of burden, visited by shepherds, as the weary world slept in darkness and ignorance. God clothed himself in the nature of his own flawed and finite creation, that same creation God made in his own image and likeness. It is an awesome mystery come full circle. No wonder God felt right at home among us! God created us in his own image and likeness, and in the mystery of the Incarnation, God clothed himself in that same image and likeness to bring about our salvation.
In continually favoring these flawed and finite creatures, God appears fascinated, obsessed, even infatuated with us. Now that would be totally creepy if it were Uncle Ralph or some stalker on Facebook. But this is the God who formed each of us out of the dust of the earth, loving us into being, cradling us in his boundless mercy, heaping upon us grace upon grace, ever desiring our highest good and the fulfillment of our noblest aspirations. And despite our inattention sometimes, our ingratitude, and even our insolence, God continues to seek us out and offer us reconciliation, friendship and peace. This cannot be a God who creates the universe and then goes on an extended vacation without a care what becomes of us. This cannot be a God who sits on the sidelines to watch us like some science experiment content to meddle in our affairs only for his own amusement. This cannot be a God who is so insecure, petty and vindictive as to be annoyed and threatened by our ignorance, indifference, or obstinacy.
Some among us might recall a time in our youth when our elders admonished us for our carelessness and our misguided zeal alike with threats of God’s disappointment and anger. But that was not how Jesus approached the broken, the poor, the sinful, and the flawed. Instead he offered them God’s compassion and friendship. If Jesus ever used harsh words, they were reserved for the “smarties” who studied the Law and should have known better. For everyone else, he had only mercy, patience, forgiveness, and encouragement. If by his own words and actions Jesus has shown us what God is truly like, then we cannot put faith in those who would offer us a frightful image of God, a God whom they seem to have created in their own image instead – arrogant, petty, vindictive, fearful, angry, unforgiving.
Instead, the mystery of God-with-us convinces me more than ever that God is so unlike what we sometimes think of him. For starters, when we celebrate God taking on our nature, we can be confident God truly desires to be with us, even taking delight in us, despite our mean self-image sometimes. We see in Jesus’ own words and actions proof of God’s tremendous love and care for us. He made it his mission above all to extend to us God’s gracious hospitality, God’s deep and abiding friendship, the healing of our weary bodies and broken spirits, and a most generous measure of forgiveness for our sins. God is more aware of our faults and failings than we are. St. Augustine said, “God knows us more intimately than we know ourselves.” And God is not threatened by our childish disobedience, our petty insolence, nor our hardness of heart. Our moods might influence what we think of God, but they have no effect on what God thinks of us. St. Paul writes to the Romans, “[NOTHING] will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (8: 38-39). Expanding on that thought, we can also add that there is nothing we can ever do to make God love us any less. Remember when it took so little effort to secure a place with those condemned to eternal horror and punishment? An unkind word, a little white lie, an immodest thought, a piece of meat on a Friday in Lent? It is the height of our arrogance and self-importance to think we have any power to override the merits of Jesus’ own passion, death and resurrection, and everything else that God has done and continues to do to bring about our salvation. We have no such power.
Then when we take God up on his offer of hospitality, friendship, healing, and forgiveness, we cannot also stubbornly hold on to our favorite obstacles to God’s love, like our pride, our resentments, our habits of sin. It is a simple proposition. God is willing to give, but we need to empty our hands to receive what God offers. God also asks of us some participation in our own healing, like a willingness to forgive those who have offended us, to undo any harm we may have inflicted on another, to be more compassionate, to sincerely give up sin, to be transformed by grace. God chooses to dwell with us and is ever hard at work to save us. God desires our cooperation and participation as well. If we can’t lend him a hand, the least we can do is get out of the way.
And while God works to accomplish our salvation, the church extends a hand in God’s name. Jesus entrusted to his church on earth his ongoing mission of hospitality, friendship, healing, and reconciliation. It then becomes our task as members of his body, to continue extending the fullness of God’s love to all God’s children. That said, the church and her ministers sometimes need to be reminded of the mission Jesus entrusted to her, because you and I know of and have all met priests and bishops and otherwise dedicated church leaders who can be a little cranky and cynical and abrasive, and sometimes a lot. We are human, and some even more human than others. And sometimes we can get in the way of God’s work with our self-righteousness and our lack of compassion. I can assure you this is not what Jesus intended. And I ask your pardon if I or others in the church have acted contrary to Jesus’ mission of hospitality, friendship, healing and reconciliation. If any of us get in the way of that mission, I plead with you to find another with the heart more like that of the Good Shepherd. If Jesus is to continue to save us through his church, we can never knowingly send anyone away because we can do nothing more for them.
When God came home to be among us, it was not an isolated event. God is still with us, still hard at work. When Jesus healed the broken, he would ask them some token gesture, as when he sent the blind man to wash the mud off his face, or the lepers to report to the temple priest after they were healed, or the paralyzed man to stand up, pick up his mat and go home. So when we come to him for healing, we will have to share some of the work, like being less self-absorbed, less judgmental, less demanding. And when the root of their infirmity was more lethal to their spirits Jesus would warn them to sin no more. So we cannot expect to return to our selfish ways either, our jealousy, our dishonesty, our lust, our anger.
On this holy night, God came home to be with us. He came as a child so we can wrap him in our arms. But the child was sent to repair the breach between us and God, to make us whole once again. God is always the first to reach out. God came home to us a child weak and helpless. God calls us home to him that we may be strengthened, and that once again we may be made whole.