UNLECTIONARY SAMPLE - Vital Vulnerability - John 1:1-5, 14-18 - Susan R. Andrews
Vital Vulnerability - John 1:1-5, 14-18
ENTERING THE TEXT
One of the joys of being a female preacher is the ex- periential connection to the Christmas story. My son was born on December 23rd in Bethlehem (Pennsylvania!). That year I had the privilege of preaching about Mary and Elizabeth, while my own child was leaping in my womb. It has always amazed me to imagine the soft vulnerability and helplessness of God in the manger—the astounding good news that God gives up power and distance, in order to connect with us and be with us in authentic relationship. But the consequence of this incarnational relationship is that this baby God needs us in order to survive. Yes, God chooses to depend on us for nurture, for growth, for life. Christmas is not just a mystery and a gift. It is a calling and a responsibility. SRA
PREACHING THE TEXT
At the risk of putting you to sleep, I’d like to ask each one of you to close your eyes. Right now, for just a minute, close your eyes. Now imagine with me…imagine that you are holding a newborn baby. Imagine how this baby feels, skin touching skin, curves touching curves, harmonious heartbeats as life surges between you. Imagine the smell—the earthy sweetness of breath and body perfuming the air. Imagine the sound—the silent melody of sighing, stretching, settling. Right now for just a minute, let your imagination go. Feel the baby. Smell the baby. Hear the baby. And rejoice! This very night the baby you hold in your arms is God.
Now as you open your eyes, as you come back to this warm womb of worship, let us think for a minute about the utter absurdity of it all. God—as a baby. Mighty, majestic God, powerful, passionate God, omnipotent, omniscient God—as a baby. God—giving up all the grandeur, coming down here and crawling inside our skin, vital but vulnerable, and resting in our arms. How can this be? It is a mystery. But it is God’s mystery, and it is God’s startling choice.
I was fortunate enough to give birth to my babies in the good old days, when mothers were allowed to stay in the hospital and recover. Since I had two Caesareans, my stays were luxuriously long—five days in each case. The first birth was a bit traumatic, so I needed all that time to medically heal. But the second birth was much easier, so I had five days to sleep, to eat, to ponder, and to hold my daughter. I just held her in utter wonder and amazement. The touch and the smell, the satin skin and the greedy mouth and the tiny toes—it was moment after moment of miracle. I agree with Anne LaMott when she writes: "This is in fact what I think God may smell like—a young child’s slightly dirty neck." My friends, holding a baby is the most human of activities, and yet it may be the holiest moment some of us ever get. Utterly ordinary, achingly awesome—how can such a paradox exist?
In her book, For the Time Being, Annie Dillard weaves an utterly bizarre collage of images. One image she keeps coming back to is that of Nurse Eisberg, an obstetrical nurse in a large urban hospital. Reminding us that 10,000 American babies are born each day, Dillard describes the nurse’s work:
Here on the obstetrical ward, is a double sink in a little room… This is where they wash the newborns like dishes… Nurse Eisberg lifts them gently, swiftly, efficiently… She holds one wormy arm and one wormy leg to turn him over; then she cleans his dorsal side, and ends with his anus. She diapers him…and gives the bundle a push to slide it down the counter….1
A baby assembly line, day after day and week after week. Babies processed like canned hams. I wonder, would Nurse Eisberg even recognize Jesus if he was born in her hospital and dunked in her sink? Probably not. When you’ve seen one baby you’ve seen them all. And so, either each baby is holy, or none of them are holy at all. I believe that the Christmas story proclaims loudly that every child is holy—that each one of us is holy.
The two ends of the Christian story are what set our spiritual saga apart from all other world religions. God as a tiny, helpless baby. God as a crumbled, bleeding corpse. God as utterly vulnerable. God as utterly helpless. God as one who embraces the fullness of human experience in order to sanctify it all. My friends, if you want an ethereal, otherworldly, cosmic religion, then Christianity is not your bag. Because if we don’t touch it, if we don’t smell it, if we don’t live it and experience it and become it—well, then, the Christian story is dead. God chooses to become like us so that we can become like God. The most amazing and distressing consequence of this whole crazy night is that God needs us. God cannot be God without us. Quite simply, without us this newborn baby God cannot survive.
As any parent sitting in this sanctuary knows, vulnerable babies drastically change our lives. They disturb; they delight; and ultimately they demand. Sleep is disrupted forever, anxiety develops angles never before imagined, feelings of inadequacy become daily companions, and waves of sadness can, at times, overwhelm us. We become totally, completely enmeshed in the fabric of a baby’s life and we are changed forever. Babies are gifts, but they are costly, exhausting gifts.
So it is with the baby God of this night. Tonight God chooses—purposely chooses—to come in simplicity and vulnerability to disturb us, to delight us, and to make strong demands upon us. God comes to enmesh us in the sacred story. If we choose to pick up this baby Jesus, our lives will never be the same. Self-absorbed ambition and success can never again be our main reason for being. The world is no longer just a backdrop for our own personal agenda. When this baby interrupts our lives, we must begin to think about someone, something, some purpose beyond our own.
Thus, when all is said and done, what is being born this night is not only a new image of God, but also a new image of our own self; one that is more mature, more responsible, more compassionate, more emotional, more physical, more ethical, more spiritual than any self we have ever known. Yes, this baby God has come to disturb us and to delight us, and to make demands upon our very souls. If we fail to respond, we will be neglecting—even abusing—this God whose survival depends upon us.
The great writer Martin Buber believed that God gives each one of us a speck of the world to redeem—an infant spark of creation to nurture into fullness of life. My friends, the baby God who is being born this night within each one of us is a fragile burst of creation that is only ours to redeem. What is the particular spark in you? Is it a relationship that is ripe for commitment? Is it a vocational dream that is waiting to be realized? Is it a moral decision that is ready to be claimed? Is it a creative instinct waiting to be expressed? What is the holy in you—vital and vulnerable—yearning to be born? This infant holiness, gestating with your soul, will come when it is time to come—and then you and I must respond. This God spark within you will be totally dependent upon you to survive.
The writer Max DePree tells of an early experience with his granddaughter Zoe. She was born prematurely; weighing only 1 lb., 7 oz. Zoe was so small a wedding ring could slide up her arm to her shoulder. Her doctor said she had a 5 to 10 percent chance of living for three days. When Max visited Zoe, she had two I.V.s in her navel, one in her foot, a monitor on each side of her chest, and a respirator tube and a feeding tube in her mouth. Zoe’s biological father had left. Consequently, the nurse told Max that he must come to the hospital every day and rub her body, her legs and arms with the tip of his finger. While doing that, he was to say to her how much he loved her. It was essential that his voice be connected to his touch.2
Tonight God comes to us as a vital, vulnerable child—perhaps a bit premature for automatic survival in our secular world. With lusty voice we sing the carols, we read the story, we proclaim the joy and hope of this season. But if our voice does not connect to our touch, if our singing does not connect to our service, then this fresh presence of a fragile God may not survive the night.
The Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem is the traditional site of Jesus’s birth and will be the destination of many millennial pilgrims in the year ahead. There is only one door into the church—only one way to get inside this holy spot. This door is so low and so small that each visitor must bend low—in some cases, even crawl—in order to enter. Such is the story of this night. God bends low to come as one of us, a baby who blesses us and calls us to be nurturers of life. If we have the courage to respond, the courage to stoop low and pick up the child, this baby will fit perfectly into our arms. We can become participants in God’s maturing presence in the world.
Can you feel the baby? Can you smell the baby? Can you hear the baby? This is Emmanuel, God-with-us.
May it be so, for you and for me. Amen.
Susan R. Andrews
1. Annie Dillard, For the Time Being (New York: Vintage Books, 2000), pp. 36-38.
2. Source unknown.
CONNECTING TEXT, SERMON, AND CULTURE
Open up any dictionary of the- ology and you will find long, passionately-argued paragraphs on the Incarnation. It has been one of our most embarrassing doctrines through the years, this idea that "the Word became flesh," and most preachers and teachers spend their time trying to defend it, trying to explain how such a thing could be.
Not so with Susan Andrews.
In her sermon, Vital Vulnerability, Andrews spends her time talking about the "what," rather than the "how," of the Incarnation. She does it with such skill that we feel the weight of the baby Jesus in our arms, we smell his "slightly-dirty neck," we hear the "silent melody" of his stretching and sighing. "Feel the baby. Smell the baby. Hear the baby," she urges, at the beginning and end of her sermon, calling forth the witness of our senses in support of the Incarnation.
In my preaching experience this has been one of the most successful ways to approach difficult doctrines and "unbelievable" texts—to bypass the brain and enter into the experience of the thing. Not every truth can be grasped cognitively. Some things we know by feeling. In her recollections of the experience of childbirth, Andrews helps us sense the miracle of life in the flesh, and to move from that miracle to the miracle of God’s life in the flesh. In no small measure because she is a woman and a mother Andrews is able to speak of that miracle in ways that a male preacher never could. She has conceived a child (as one speaks of conceiving a plan) and given birth to it. She knows precisely how that dream becomes a reality. She speaks with some authority about how God’s dream has become a reality in the baby Jesus.
She also speaks with authority about the vulnerability of that dream: born as a helpless baby and dead on a cross at 33, the vulnerability of Jesus emerges as the great risk of incarnation. Yet in that risk is the opportunity Andrews holds out to her hearers—the opportunity to cradle the Christ in their arms, to shield the baby Jesus from the slings and arrows of unbelief, to let him grow to full maturity within each one of them. The promise of such preaching is that people will walk away from the sermon, committed not so much to the idea of incarnation as to Christ himself.
I am indebted to a number of excellent seminary professors, especially R. Alan Culpepper, for the idea that the prologue of John’s Gospel can be understood as a kind of pendulum swing in which the Word who is "with God" in the beginning becomes flesh and dwells among us before returning to the "bosom of the Father."1 The purpose of his mission falls somewhere along the arc of that pendulum swing, and when I have preached from this passage I have focused not so much on the Incarnation as on its goal.
Culpepper and others have argued that the midpoint of that pendulum swing is John 1:12b, "But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God" (NRSV). The purpose of the Incarnation, therefore, can be understood as giving to those who believe the power to become children of God. Others, most notably Gail R. O’Day, have argued that the important place along the arc of that pendulum swing is not the midpoint but the endpoint, where John tells us "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 (1:18, NRSV). O’Day believes the purpose of the Incarnation is revelation, making God known.2
Either of these ideas could fit comfortably into Susan Andrews’ sermon as preached. Having made the Incarnation such a palpable reality she might simply add, "The baby you hold in your arms is a gift, and if you can receive it you can also receive the power to become, like him, a child of God" (John 1:12b). Or, "The child you hold in your arms is the spitting image of his father. Take time to get to know him, and in doing so you will come to know the one who sent him." The question that remains in an attempt to connect text, sermon, and culture, is the cultural question: will any of this make any difference to the people who sit in our churches on Sunday and live in the world the rest of the week?
I think so.
There is a reason I read Psalm 23 at every funeral I conduct. It is that one line, halfway through, that says: "Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of Death, I will fear no evil, for Thou art with me." The presence of God is powerful medicine for those who are grieving, for all those who are walking through the frightening, shadowy places of life. The idea that God would want to be present among us in some lasting way is the best kind of good news. Whether the purpose of Incarnation is to make of us children of God, or to reveal to us God’s own truth, or to be among us the powerful, comforting Presence, it is a welcome word in such a place and time as this, a merry Christmas truth that can be carried—like a newborn baby—from the sanctity of Sunday worship to the madness of Monday morning.
First Baptist Church
1. R. Alan Culpepper, Anatomy of the Fourth Gospel: A Study in Literary Design (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1983).
2. Gail R. O’Day, Revelation in the Fourth Gospel: Narrative Mode and Theological Claim (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1986).