[Manuscript from the sermon I preached for Advent from John 1.]
Recently, I stumbled again onto the argument that Christianity is just another cult. I was thinking this week what a poor job we do here. We gather here for some teaching, but we’ve got a group of preachers and you never quite know what they’ll teach. You get some instruction for your life, but then you’ve got the rest of the week and this book and you may have a small group but you’re all just kind of discussing the ideas and trying to make sense of what to do. Even if you’re a student at the Christian school here, you only have one Bible class three times a week, maybe a chapel, and half the time they don’t even tell you what to do, they just give you the words from the book and ideas on how you would make decisions for yourself.
We do a really poor job of being a cult. If we were going to do it well, we would need much more uniform instruction, starting at a much younger age, and with no variation or any encouragement for thinking for ourselves or for discerning our own “application” to this book. Speaking of uniform instruction, we’d need to be much more rigid about our uniforms, to keep us all the same.
But you know, really the failing of setting up an effective cult is in our framework. It’s in the foundational teachings we received from our founder.
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God
and the Word was God.
He was in the beginning with God.
All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Okay, so far, so good. Distant, mystical Creator that created everything and is far beyond our understanding.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.15 (John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.’”)16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
It all breaks down with He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth
Because if you’re going to have an effective cult, of course your leader turns out to be God and only the special people can recognize him, but then he has to tell everyone exactly what to do all the time and he has to be controlling. He needs power. That’s the point.
But this Jesus, he had power and he gave it away. He gave it up. He let it go. He set it aside and emptied himself, emptied himself of this immense power that he had so that he could be among us. He didn’t take over; he didn’t come and suddenly take charge. According to John he was in charge, he created everything, and then he came and joined the everything he created and the everything he created didn’t even recognize him! Didn’t even know he was around.
And yet, he lived among us, full of grace and truth, and, according to John, we have seen his glory.
Here’s the crazy, completely un-cult-like thing about that: seeing Jesus’ glory meant seeing his love, and then finally his love to the degree of giving his life, allowing his life to be taken by violence, by a hate crime, which turned everything on its head, which in the moment of hatred and darkness actually overcame hatred and darkness with light and love. This Jesus forgave the people who were killing him while they were killing him but not not just that, he gave his life not just as a symbol but as a act of power, he actually defeated the death and hatred through his own death, through becoming the ransom, the payment, for all the evil done by everyone he had created.
See, in a cult, the members have to earn their way to salvation by becoming more perfect, by obeying the cult-leader/God in every detail. But Jesus, fully aware that people would not obey what he told them, died for their failure, for their evil that they could not fix on their own. Because it turns out that even perfect-looking behavior doesn’t change people—the only real change in a person comes from the inside, when the heart changes first and the change works itself outward.
Okay, obviously we aren’t trying to set up a cult, so we haven’t failed. I was being facetious (one of my dad’s favorite words). The truth is, the belief we live by, is the God who created everything and then come unrecognized among the people who he had made—imagine that, walking down the street, passing people, no one glances at him, and for him, “I made you, I made you, I made you.” But more than that, “I love you, I love you, I love you.”
And really, it’s the opposite of a cult. It’s all personal. It’s all individual. You matter, as yourself, to God. The stupid mistakes and the small, unnoticed acts of love you did this week, they matter and Jesus the Incarnate God is working through them.
Because of this, I would say, it’s crazy messy. It doesn’t look all the same for each of us. We aren’t uniform. Each of us is on an individual journey with God, and sometimes it feels bewildering and other times we realize we are so utterly surrounded by God’s grace, sometimes we can’t see how God is present in all this and sometimes we realize that God is so committed to Incarnation, dwelling among us, that now he has made us his Incarnate Presence in the world, through his Spirit that dwells in us.
We have our different themes at Advent. We talk about Hope and Faith and Joy. Today is love. Because Incarnate Love is the greatest form of love. Jesus said, “
Jesus lays down his life for his friends. But Jesus was not mortal, he was not finite, he was the almighty, infinite God. So he first had to take on a mortal body, let go of his power, so that he could lay down his life. He had to let go of power even to make the sacrifice of his life.
14You are my friends if you do what I command you.15 I do not call you servants any longer, because the servant does not know what the master is doing; but I have called you friends, because I have made known to you everything that I have heard from my Father. 16 You did not choose me but I chose you. And I appointed you to go and bear fruit, fruit that will last, so that the Father will give you whatever you ask him in my name. 17 I am giving you these commands so that you may love one another.
This is how we become able to love one another. Not through cultic rituals, not through blind obedience, not through having a perfectly unified ideology and overpowering those who do not believe what we believe or whom we deem lesser human beings than we are. We learn to love by following Jesus’ example. Love other people as Jesus loves us. As the youth group wristbands say, “Love like Jesus loves.”
Staying on this theme of God loving us individually, Jesus’s incarnation also teaches us that God’s love for us means that each of us has a different route to know God more intimately. Jesus doesn’t treat all his disciples exactly the same. When people think about a big, scary, unknown God in the sky, with people trying to appease him and deflect his anger, it doesn’t matter who each person is individually, what matters is that deity and staying out of his way. God’s incarnate love has shown us that God Himself, the Almighty and beyond comprehension God of our universe and all Creation, knows that Peter needs different encouragement than John, and Peter, to experience his fullest life in God, will have a different calling than John. Mary and Martha both need Jesus but he knows they need different instruction to be able to receive what he wants to give them. Zaccheus needs to be called down to have Jesus for supper, while Nicodemus the Pharisee needs to have a secret conversation by night to ask his questions, while the Saul the Pharisee needs to be knocked off his horse and temporarily blinded, and when Saul asks, “Who are you, Lord,” God answers, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.” God is not some distant, grumpy, capricious deity. God is fully revealed in Jesus Christ who loves people, Peter, John, Mary, Martha, you and me, individually, specifically, and leads each of us a different path because we are different, he made us unique. How do you know that God cares about you, individually, personally? Jesus showed us that. And then said, “It’s better for you if I go, so that the Comforter, the Spirit of God, can come, and we—“God is one, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit–”will make our home with you.”
The Incarnation is that God made his home with us, “The Word became Flesh and Blood and moved into the neighborhood” as the Message translation puts it. And the Incarnation continues because God still makes his home with us, but even closer now: within us.
Back in the 90’s there was a song by Joan Osborne called, “One of Us,” the chorus of which is, “What if God was one of us?” I really like the song, though it asks more questions rather than strongly affirming who God is. But in my opinion there are plenty of songs that affirm God is Jesus, and it’s great to have a song that raises questions for people who might not believe in God or Jesus and who aren’t listening to those other songs. But being the grammar enthusiast that I am, here’s what I love about this song:
when you say, “What if God was one of us,” that implies God actually was. If you were asking this question but suggesting that God was not one of us, You would say, “What if God were one of us.” When you use were, it implies a hypothetical situation contrary to reality. “If I were a bird, I would fly.” I’m not a bird; I don’t fly. “If I was Irish, I would have a bad temper.” I am Irish; I do have a bad temper.
What if God was one of us? Well, he was. God was one of us, and that makes all the difference.
Without incarnation, we would still say, as the Psalmists did, “Have mercy on me, O God,
according to your steadfast love;according to your abundant mercy
blot out my transgressions.
2Wash me thoroughly from my iniquity, and cleanse me from my sin.”
We might believe in God’s forgiveness. But Jesus forgave the very men who crucified him, the ones who spat on him, the ones who mocked him from the below the cross. He forgave them, personally. This week, like most weeks, I was reminded how I am not like Jesus. I did what I thought was a gracious gesture, and, in my opinion, was not repaid in the same way. I did something I thought was kind and when I got treated poorly in return, I got angry. Like actually really angry. And not hidden angry. Out in the open angry. Now, it was a tough week, there are some major things going on for us, yada yada. But as I was praying about it afterward, what really appeared clearly to me is how incredible Jesus’ love is, that when he extends kindness to me and I do not respond, he does not get angry. What is God’s love like? How does God forgive? Jesus forgives the people who crucify him! While he’s being crucified. And it’s more than that they committed this atrocious act of violence, more than that they murdered him, he was doing good to them. “10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” They killed him.
How did he not respond in anger? How am I ever going to be like Jesus?
The answer to the first question is,
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
This is who God is! God not only forgives our sins, he shows us grace–and truth–while we reject and murder him. Can God, the abstract deity in the sky, actually forgive me? Do you know who God is? What if God was one of us? What if God was one of us who forgave us for our worst actions, before we asked forgiveness?
And how am I ever going to be like Jesus? Well, though it feels a long way off some days, like an infinite distance, the answer is:
This beautiful prologue of John’s Gospel ends: No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
Jesus became incarnate, he became a man, so that he could atone for our sins, so that he could take our sins, my sins, into himself and–beyond my capacity to grasp but I believe this by faith—forgive us and make us like him. But we have not understood our Bible or our own theology if we think the incarnation was solely for atonement. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
Incarnational love, love of God to become a baby, a poor immigrant refuge child, a young man growing in wisdom and favor with God and man, the adopted son of a carpenter–or builder–named Joseph, and then to become a rabbi in order to make God known.
How do you know God loves you? This is what Jesus is like.
How do you know how to love others? This is what Jesus said.
What do you mean I’m supposed to love my enemies? That’s what Jesus did. In these specific ways. We love like Jesus.
Merry Christmas. Merry “Now we know what love is because God himself showed us.” Merry “you are loved specifically, individually, infinitely, by the God who knows you.” And Merry “We’re not ever going to be a good cult, but we are becoming the Body of Christ together.”
Merry celebration of the ongoing Incarnation of God.