Jeremiah 31:7-14 and John 1:[1-9], 10-14
Here we stand, on this second Sunday of Christmas, on the far side of the manger, looking back over the expanse of this remarkable Christmas story that has unfolded over these many weeks.
This remarkable Christmas story of the meeting of heaven and earth flows like a song with alternating refrains. Heaven assuring, “Do not be afraid:” “Do not be afraid, Mary for you have found favor with God!” (Luke 1:30). “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” (Matt 1: 20). “Do not be afraid [shepherds], for see – I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people.” (Luke 2: 10).
And Earth’s responds to this heavenly assurance with an affirming
“Yes!” “Let it be with me according to your word”(Luke 1:38). “When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her has his wife” (Matt 1:24). ” “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place” (Luke 2:15).
What a remarkable Christmas story – this story of “fearing not” and of saying “Yes!”
Usually this Christmas story is enough for me. Usually as the story unfolds I feel hope and inspiration and am ready to follow this newborn, soon to be man, without hesitation, right into the walk of Christian discipleship.
But this year, I heard in my heart not so much an affirming “Yes!”, but instead a rather disconcerting “Why?!” As I waited for the baby Jesus I felt not much hope and expectation but instead a tinge of fear and worry. This year, I found myself hanging back a bit from the manger’s glow wondering “Why?” Why come into the world as a newborn? “Why risk the danger, the exposure to cold, violence, and all cruel vicissitudes of childhood poverty. “Why risk the vulnerability of putting one’s life in the hands of such young and inexperienced parents? The world is a very scary place. What was God thinking taking such a chance? Why not play it safe and have Jesus walk over the horizon line as a powerful young man ready to start his ministry?
The exquisitely beautiful passage from the Gospel of John with its “in the beginning” reads like a cosmic Genesis story, doesn’t it? Power and presence becoming flesh, being from nonbeing, pure energy into form. A cosmic big bang of light and love cooling into form and substance. So why dilute all of that power by winnowing it down into a human being let alone into the frail little body of a baby?
In a passage from one of Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth, Paul writes that as he was wrestling with his own weakness and powerlessness he heard the Lord say to him “My grace is sufficient for you for power is made perfect in weakness.” (2Cor 12:9)
“Power made perfect in weakness.” It is such a counterintuitive statement until one begins to realize that power made perfect in weakness was exactly what Jesus was all about. Power made perfect in weakness was what Jesus was up to not only in his own life but through his ministry in the lives of everyone he touched.
The Gospel accounts are chock full of example upon example of God’s power transforming weakness into strength, want into abundance. Remember when the hour had grown late and the crowd was hungry? Remember how the disciples wanted to send them all way to fend for themselves but Jesus said no, “you give them something to eat?” and when the disciples protested that did not have enough to feed such a large crowd, Jesus stepped into that place of sacristy and want and transformed it into abundance so that there was enough food left over to fill 12 baskets? (Luke 9: 10-17).
Remember when the disciples were crossing over to the other side in that boat and a storm came upon them. Remember how afraid and helpless they felt in the face of the raging winds and waves. And do you remember how Jesus transformed their fear into wonder by calming the seas? (Luke 8:24) .
And then there was Bartimaeus sitting by the road side, weak and broken by his blindness and poverty. With whatever shred of hope he had left in him he calls out to Jesus and Jesus stops, and turns and not only restores Bartimaeus site but gives him new found strength to live!
Want, fear, weakness turned inside out by the perfect power of God’s love. Seen in the retrospective of his ministry, having Jesus come into the world as a newborn in a manger makes perfect sense. Having God be made manifest in the most lowly of places, in the most vulnerable of bodies is perfectly consistent with Jesus’ life and ministry.
In a way that manger scene is the first century equivalent to a bill board that reads “Power is made perfect in weakness” get your’s here!
But that is all well and good for Jesus and those who shared their life with him. But really what about us? Is there power in weakness, abundance in want — for us?
The beautiful passage from Jeremiah promises the people of the northern Kingdom of Israel, that
their life shall become like a watered garden,
and they shall never languish again.
Then shall the young women rejoice in the dance,
and the young men and the old shall be merry.
This passage comes from a section of the book known as the Book of Consolation. And its words speak to the people of the Northern Kingdom of Israel during a time of great weakness, during a time in the eighth century before the common era had been swept away and forcefully repopulated by the Assyrians. But the problem is that these words never took on flesh for them, for these people never knew the promise of which these words spoke. The people never were to return to their homes and find the strength and joy of being as a well watered garden again.
And yes this is an example of long ago but there so many among us today as well. Do we see God’s power being made perfect through weakness or do we see the powerful of this world continually preying on the weakness of others? Do we see the weak delivered or do we see the weak cringing in fear, and insecurity, doubt and despair?
Power is made perfect in weakness? That may be true of the Christmas story and true of the life and ministry of Jesus but is it true for the rest of us?
I know now that it is.
Three weeks ago, I was walking down the sidewalk a few doors down from my house when my feet flew out from underneath me and in a heart beat I was lying broken and unable to move on the icy sidewalk.
For the next several hours I would be lifted and turned and touched and held by people I did not know. And through it all, I could do nothing but breathe. I was completely helpless, weak, powerless to do anything to help myself.
But through those first several hours, through that first day or two, through that first week and into the second, I have to say I felt power. I felt absolutely swept up in the arms of something so powerful that through it all I felt no fear. Instead a felt a deep “Yes” rise in my heart and heard words of gratitude on my lips.
And you all were there, so much a part of that powerful wholeness that I was experiencing in the midst of being so badly broken. By noon on that first day, while I still lay in the hospital, people here in the church had come forward volunteering to lead the services that I would not be able to lead. I could feel a surge of care but also confidence that the church was strong. I knew in my brokenness that I was a part of a body that was strong and vibrant, a body that is not just us here but a body that pulses with the heart beat of God, alive with the hope and wonder that silenced the shepherds that night and filled the sky with heavenly song.
But lately something strange has begun to happen. As I physically grow stronger, and as I am able to do more for myself, I have strangely felt more vulnerable. More afraid that I may fall again. I feel more tentative and less sure. As I grow more self-reliant, that powerful sense of being held by and belonging to a powerful loving body is strangely fading.
So what is the learning here? For me it has everything to do with self reliance and God reliance and how I hold the two. I am finding that when I feel that tinge of fear or vulnerability creeping up on me, I must stop and very intentionally open again the doors of my heart. And when I do that power again is there.
Why did God come into the world as a helpless, vulnerable baby? Well maybe to broadcast to the world that in our interdependence, in our mutuality, in our care and holding of one another in strength and in weakness there is released a power beyond our imagining: a power that flows right out of the heart of God and right into the heart, body and soul of every creature that lives. Weakness is a doorway to this power, not because weakness is to be glorified, but because in our weakness we no long have the strength to keep the doors to our hearts barred. In our weakness, sometimes we are able to throw open those doors and let the sweet and perfect power of God’s love rush in.
The people of the northern kingdom in Jeremiah’s time were not restored. The destruction was not undone. But I trust now that God was in the midst of their brokenness and is in the midst of our brokenness. And I trust now more than ever that as we participate in the life of God so too do we, all of us together participate in the healing, life giving, hope kindling perfect power of God that is moving in the world.
I may be on crutches with a long way to go still, but I have to say, as part of this beloved body, as part of the body of Christ alive in the world, with the power of the love of God moving through me and through all of us, I am feeling and you are looking like a well watered Garden! And I would not be surprised if more than one of us feels like dancing!
Thanks be to God. Amen.