The Rev. Ryan Slifka
This sermon was preached as part of our Christmas Day Service, which included carols, communion, several new members and a baptism.
“I believe in God,” he said. “I just don’t believe that Jesus was God.”
It wasn’t the first time I’d heard these words. Nor would it be the last time. It’s a phrase I hear often, and though the words may be different, the sentiment is the same. For many of us, the idea of a Creator of the universe, a source of all life, a ground of all being is something we can get on board with. That seems to make sense. The idea of Jesus as God… that seems like a bridge too far.
It could be that the idea of Jesus as God seems exclusive. I.e. why would God only come to a single people. It seems to exclude the majority of the human race, in the present and in the past. Whether religious, agnostic or no religious sentiment at all.
It could be that God just seems too specific. That God would come at a single place, in the form of a single person. If God is the God of everything everywhere, a universe billions of years old with no discernable limit. A Jewish rabbi from Galilee seems restrictive. Quaint. Unable to contain that awesome mystery.
I say all of the above because these are things that I, too, have believed, at one time or another. In fact, I was the person I cited at the beginning who said “I believe in God. Just not that Jesus was God.” These are all reasonable, well-thought-out objections.
As time’s gone on, though, I’ve been able to come to terms with these intellectual problems. And it all has to do with understanding today. It has to do with what the coming together of the human and divine, it has to do with what Christmas means.
And our passage from Hebrews says it best:
“Long ago,” it says. “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”
According to the author of Hebrews, God has spoken in many different ways in the past, through prophets and others means. God is the God of the universe, after all. God can and does speak to us in many different ways. And in Jesus, the author says, God has spoken yet again. The only difference, he says, is that in Jesus, God has spoken more decisively. In Jesus’ life, his earthly ministry, his death, and rising again, we have had the heart of the universe, “who created all worlds,” we have had the character, the essence, shown to us with clarity. In Jesus we not only hear God speak, we see the “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” In this brief flash of a life, the veil of the universe has been pulled back. And we’ve caught a glimpse of the truth, goodness, and beauty of eternity.
In the end, the question at the heart of the Christian tradition has been less “is there a God?” Or “Is Jesus God?” Rather the question is, what is the mystery that has created us, continues to create us, upholds us, and reaches out to us, what, or who, is that like? As our other reading from John 1 says, “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.” As one of my favorite preachers, Brian Zahnd likes to say: “God is like Jesus. God has always been like Jesus. There has never been a time when God was not like Jesus. We have not always known what God is like—But now we do.” The point isn’t that Jesus is God, as if that’s enough. The answer is that God is like Jesus. In him we have come to peer in to the heart of all reality. That’s what Christmas is all about.
That’s what Christmas is all about, and it’s not the bad news we may think it is.
If Jesus shows us the heart of all things it means that Christians are not the only ones who can expect mercy. Jesus not only showed love for his friends, but he pronounced blessing on his enemies, let alone our friends and neighbors who wish us no harm. Even those who called for and perpetrated his murder on the cross, he returned their violence and hatred with nothing short of love and unconditional forgiveness. God sends the rain on the just and the unjust alike. The good and the bad. It means mercy for us all.
If Jesus shows us the heart of all things it also means that love is not abstract. Not a concept, or idea. Yes, God is bigger than any single place and time, beyond any box. But God’s love comes to us concretely, in real ways in human life. Jesus’ ministry was spent reaching out, healing, touching, praying, feeding. God comes to us in the flesh, in acts of self-giving love and compassion. God is beyond out total knowing, but God not absent, God is not elsewhere. But as close to us as our own breath. We are not alone, and nothing, not even death, can rip us from the grasp of love.
If Jesus shows us who God is, it means that God comes to us where we are, as we are. God comes to us even in the broken imperfection of our bodily existence. Meaning that God is not just for us in our perfection. God comes not only to judge and destroy us, but God is on our side. God is with us and for us in all the ways that we suffer, fall short, hurt each other, and comes to feed us, challenge us, and ultimately heal us for good.
If Jesus shows us who God is, it means we’re forgiven. It means that we’re free, and it means that wherever sin abounds, grace abounds even moreso. That there is justice for the oppressed, and hope, even for the hopeless. In to death and beyond. If Jesus is what God is like, it means that love beats strong at the heart of the universe, and this love is greater than anything in its way.
None of these things, of course, provide us with airtight scientific evidence, a knockdown, drag-out argument for Christianity. Instead, it represents the wisdom of the ages. And this wisdom comes to us as a defenseless, new born baby, one that draws us in with its beauty, and draws out of us unconditional love. And if it’s true, it says that life is beautiful. Because if Jesus is what God is like, it means that all life finds its source in a self-giving love that will never run way, run out. And will never run dry.
Is Jesus God? I’m not sure I even know what that means. But if God is like Jesus, then I know that it’s good news for us all. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever. And thank God for that. Amen.