The only way we could know God’s heart, God’s love, is by meeting God in the flesh; this is still the only way the world will know, as we enflesh God’s love in the world.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Eve of the Nativity of Our Lord
Texts: Luke 2:1-20; John 1:4, 14, 18; Isaiah 9:2-7
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made God known.” (John 1:18)
We have come to this manger tonight, and to this baby, as we always do, through Luke’s eyes. But John tells us what this baby, this manger, means.
God the only Son, who is close to God the Father’s heart, makes God known to us. Like so many, we have longed for God’s coming, for God’s hope, for God’s light, especially in our world that careens ever more wildly toward darkness. But none of us has ever seen God. None of us can know God. Anything we imagine about God is a reflection of our own heart and mind, not of God’s true heart and mind.
Unless God comes to us. Unless God’s true heart is revealed to us, in the flesh. Then we could know.
This is the great wonder of this moment in Bethlehem. Not the familiar elements, animals and straw, angels and shepherds, tired young couple. No, the wonder is that in this baby we are told we see God. This baby, this Son of God, who is close to the Father’s heart, came to make the heart of God known to us.
This baby came that we might know God by heart.
When we are people walking in darkness, it’s hard to understand this.
There is a beauty and sentiment that appeals to us on Christmas, that moves us in music and word, through the light of candles, the smell of pine. Much of this, in the moment, brings peace.
But beyond this moment tonight, it’s a hard world, with frightening things. We will awake with the same problems the world faced before, the same concerns about our lives, about our neighbors’ lives, the same fears. All that makes tonight special can seem just decoration, fluff, in the light of day.
The darkness in which the world walks is real. If God is bringing light into that darkness through this baby, we need to look much more closely at what John says, not simply having a momentary basking tonight in Luke’s manger scene.
If this baby is truly God-with-us, how is that real for tomorrow, not just tonight?
If this birth is God coming to be with us so that we can know God by heart, how is that real right now, in our lives?
The truth is in the baby, but it began centuries before, almost from the moment of creation.
God’s great dilemma with humanity is that love, which is the reason for God’s creating the universe, cannot be taught. So these people on this planet God loved, when they did not live and act in love toward anything – God, the creation, each other – we became a challenge for God.
Given the call to nurture and care for this creation, we disrupted the harmony of nature instead. Given hearts to love each other, we sought our own good above all, to the destruction of our neighbor. Given spirits to reach into the loving life of the Trinity, we placed ourselves as gods.
How could God break through to us? Love was what we were designed for, but love can’t be taught. The Ten Commandments are beautiful teachings on love and how to live in love with God, nature, and each other. We made them an enemy, we treated God’s law as punishment. We wouldn’t listen to the heart behind the teaching.
The Spirit of God was always moving in creation, and through that, throughout human history, God was moving and drawing us to love. But eventually this truth stood out: the only way we could know God’s love is if we met God in the flesh.
Love can only be received, met through the love of another, their grace, their compassion, their embrace. If this world was going to be shaped and moved by love as God intended, God would need to come in person.
We needed to learn God’s love by heart.
When we learn something by heart, it’s embedded in us. We act and operate without thinking, it is second nature. This is how deeply God wanted us to know God’s love. So that we had it by heart. So that it was the fuel for our spirit, the shape of our mind, the purpose of our hearts.
This is why there is a baby in a manger we need to see as God. When God contemplated coming among us, showing us God’s true heart, the answer was obvious to God. God would be born among us as a child, dependent upon human beings for everything. Because for God, the heart of love is vulnerability. Love at its heart is willing to be wounded in order to love, willing to risk all to be open to the other, to God, to the world. Love doesn’t build walls or weapons arsenals. Love doesn’t protect itself.
This is what we know about God by heart. Vulnerability is the way of God’s love, of God’s life, of God’s peace. There’s no need for an artist to draw the shadow of the cross over the manger for us to learn this, either. At the cross we see God’s utter vulnerability, yes. God’s willingness to let us kill rather than to overpower us with might. But we need only see this baby in a manger to see this truth about God’s love already.
God comes to us utterly vulnerable, dependent on us just to live. “Take up your cross,” Jesus said. He could just as easily have said, “Get into your manger.” The love is the same.
And we learned it from this baby.
We can’t teach this love, either. Now we know why God has called us Christ.
If the witness of this baby, who grew to be Christ Jesus, died, rose, and ascended, was the end of God’s plan, the world would be back in the same mess. For the years after this birth, stretching now to 2,000, God would be back to trying to teach us how to love each other, the creation, and God. If it didn’t work before, it’s not likely to now.
The only way to know God’s heart is to meet God in the flesh. That’s where we come in. God’s heart will not be known through doctrine or teaching, through us telling people things. But if we are, as Scripture tells us, God’s enfleshed Christ in the world, well then. Now God’s plan, begun at this manger, can continue to work God’s love in the world.
We cannot tell someone “be not afraid,” and hope it will stick. But we can stand with them as God’s vulnerable love and ease their fear.
We cannot preach to someone “God loves you,” and hope they believe. But we can stand with them as God’s embracing love and show them in person.
We cannot talk about light shining in the darkness and hope people will see it. But we can be God’s light in our lives and our love and it will shine in the deepest night.
The only way we could know God’s heart, God’s love, was by meeting God in the flesh.
That’s how any of us came to faith. We came to faith through the love of God enfleshed in another, begun in this baby whom we worship tonight. When vulnerable love opened to us, embraced us, brought us undeserved forgiveness, unexpected hope, unfamiliar welcome. When one of those who are Christ was love to us, then we knew.
It’s still how we learn God by heart. It’s how the people in darkness still see a great light. When we climb into our own manger, open our lives and hearts to love as we have been loved, when we risk all to be grace, to be love.
Now we know God by heart. Now we can love others that they might also know God by heart.
And so the light shines. And the darkness cannot overcome it.
In the name of Jesus. Amen