Saturday, December 4, 2010

God Incognito (An Advent Sermon)

One of my favorite Shakespearean plays is Henry The Fifth. The last of his great chronicle plays or histories, Henry The Fifth represents the zenith, the pinnacle of this genre for the Bard of Avon. In many ways, the play is more epic than drama. England and France, ancient enemies, engaged in mortal combat for national supremacy, testing the mettle not only of men but nations. And in that great engagement England is led by her last great hero-king, Henry, Prince Hal of Henry The Fourth, Parts One and Two, now king, with the fortunes of his nation weighing heavily on his shoulders.

My favorite scene in that marvelous play is Act IV, Scene 1, the speeches at Agincourt on the night before the great battle. “If these men do not die well, it will be a black matter for the King that led them to it!” says Michael Williams, an ordinary private, sitting around the fire with three other soldiers, all musing about the battle first light brings. They don’t know it, but one of them is no ordinary private. One of them is King Henry himself, disguised as a common soldier so that he might pass among his men and talk with them of blood and battle, life and death – man to man, heart to heart without the constraint of office or ceremony to impede their candor.

It’s a powerful moment, and perhaps more than any other, helps to define the character of the King. Rex Incognitus, the King in disguise. Putting aside privilege and position, he moves among them as one of them, because they matter to the King. And though they don’t realize it at the time, these common soldiers have gained an access to the King that would not have been possible had he remained remote and distant from them.

Now I don’t know for sure, but I think that should the writer of the Fourth Gospel have had the opportunity to read that scene from Shakespeare’s play, he would have said: “Ah, that’s it!”
That’s his theology, Deus Incognitus – God in disguise – God walking among the troops bringing healing and hope and courage. He says it in a remarkable sentence right in the middle of an amazing poem that begins with the words: “In beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” But then, in verse fourteen, comes this startling sentence: “And the Word was made flesh and dwelled among us.” Deus Incognitus. God, Who is not what we are, became what we are, “pitched his tent among us” as the Greek puts it, sat down with us and warmed Himself by the fire. That’s a rather startling claim, if you think about it, God incarnate, the Word made flesh.

In the ancient world, there was much speculation about the dynamic principle behind life, the – what shall we call it? – impulse which began it all. Before the Big Bang “banged” and before the Solid State “stated” the ancients believed there was this dynamic, life-generating principle they called, for lack of a “better word,” WORD, logos in the Greek. Rooted in the idea that words are a form of power with a vitality all their own, quite apart from the speaker who gives them voice, it was common stock in the ancient world to identify this vital principle with the word, spermatikos logos, the Stoics called it, the “seminal word.”

And you can understand why, can’t you? To say a word is to create a world. Anyone who’s been around a child learning language knows what I’m talking about. For children, words still have mystery about them; square corners and rough edges and bright colors. They haven’t yet worn them smooth with overuse and undervalue. They haven’t yet learned that words are just…well, words. We’ll teach them that. Rather, the child points and says:
“Yes, very good! It’s a cow.”
“That’s right, Honey, it’s a cow.”
“Yeah. It’s a cow.”
“It’s a cow! It’s a cow, for heaven’s sake!”
They can drive you crazy learning to put words to things. Part of it, I’m sure, is that they’re fascinated with sounds; they like to hear the sounds things “make.” But in a real sense things don’t really exist for children until they can put a word to them.

Adam, in the Garden, is alone; really alone! And God says that it’s not good for Adam to be alone and makes helpers for him by forming every beast of the field and bird of the air. And then he does something amazing. He brings them one-by-one to Adam “to see what he would call them,” Genesis says. To see what word he would put to them. And Genesis pictures Adam standing before the mystery that is Creation, and pointing he says: “Cooooow!”

But then John says: “And this WORD became flesh and dwelled among us!” There’s the scandal of it! It’s one thing to believe that behind it all stands a cosmic, abstract, philosophical principle. “May the Force be with you!” “I’m not sure about this God-stuff; I’m into spirituality myself.” It’s quite another to believe that this WORD was born with a head so small you could crush it one-handed to a screaming woman squatting in a straw-strewn cave filled with steaming donkey dung. But there it lies, cradled in the middle of John’s poem. “And the WORD became flesh and dwelled among us.”

Deus Incognitus. And while we may never fully understand all that this startling revelation implies, of this much we can be sure. An incarnate God means that never again will there be any place safe from God. There is now no place to hide. The Hound of Heaven, as Francis Thompson once called Him, knows your name; knows where you live. Deus Prosecutus, the God Who pursues you. Moses, at the burning bush, was told to take off his shoes because the ground on which he stood was holy ground. Jesus of Nazareth means that all ground is now holy ground, because God not only made it, but walked, ate, slept, worked, and died on it. God is no abstract concept or philosophical proposition. He’s no “Unmoved Mover” or “Primary Cause” or “Ground of Our Being, or “May the Force be with you.” To the mystery of “Godness” Jesus gives Face.

When our son was small, I tried to help him learn his colors. I was teaching in seminary at the time and thought I’d dispatch this one rather quickly. I mean I was teaching graduate students; how hard could this be? His problem was that he could not seem to grasp that colors – like blue, red, or green – were portable qualities that did not reside in just one item. A toy could be blue and a crayon could be blue at the same time. He thought that if a certain toy were blue, nothing else could be blue also because “blue” was already “taken,” so to speak, by the toy. And so, I decided to employ one of the techniques I used to teach the concept of philosophical Idealism to seminarians. I told him about Plato’s famous “Allegory of the Cave” and introduced him to philosophical concepts such as “blueness” and “redness” and “greenness.” Of course, what I was really doing was engaging in parental “out-of-touchness!” Mercifully, my wife realized that I wasn’t getting anywhere and took a different tact. She went and got some things with which our son was already familiar – a red ball, a blue book, a green toy, and then, pointing to each, said: “See, red; blue; green.” Then, she went and got three other items from his room that were red, blue, and green, and pointing to each said: “See, red, blue, green.” Well, you could see the lights go on almost literally as what had been a mysterious reality to the child – color – gradually began to make sense. When she’d finished, she looked at me and said: “Idiot.” But on reflection, it occurred to me: this was precisely what God was doing in Jesus of Nazareth. You see, what the red ball was to redness, and what the blue book was to blueness, and what the green toy was to greenness, Jesus is to God. You see, now we can point to Jesus and say: “Goooood.”

But while God Incognito means that there is now no place where we can hide from God, it also means that there is now no place where God can hide from us. Deus Vulneratus, the God you can get your hands on. Accessibility and vulnerability always stand in a one-to-one relationship. The more accessible you are, the more vulnerable you are. A thief can break into your home and steal your stuff, but your husband, your wife, your children can destroy you, because they have access to places the thief can’t go. “And the WORD became flesh and dwelled among us.” He comes to us in such a way that we can always say “no,” a baby with a head so small you could crush it one-handed, or nail him up to a cross if He gets too big for his britches, as Frederick Buechner put it.

In Guenther Rutenborn’s play, The Sign of Jonah, he tells the story of the Third Reich and the terrible desolation that ravaged Europe at the hands of the Nazis, and specifically, just where God was in all this destruction and death. The play opens with a group of persons standing around debating just who was responsible for the Nazi atrocities, trying to “fix the blame” for it all. Some said Hitler was singularly responsible; others argued for the German state itself; others said the world community was to blame for not acting soon enough to avert the tragedy. Then, someone gets up out of the audience and walks to the stage and says: “All this is pointless. You want to know who is really responsible for all this? I’ll tell you — God! Isn’t he the one who began this whole miserable experiment called ‘creation?’ Didn’t he turn all this awful power over to irresponsible humans and permit them to use it to perpetrate all kinds of evil on their fellows? The real culprit here is this irresponsible Creator who just doesn’t care what happens to his creatures!” It’s decided that this man’s argument has merit, and that God must be put on trial for his irresponsibility. The evidence is heard, and it’s compelling. Quick as a flash, God is found guilty of irresponsible and uncaring behavior by a Creator. And so the sentence is passed. The judge says: “The nature of the crime is so great that the punishment should be commensurate. I hereby sentence God to the worst of all possible fates — he must come and live in this miserable world he’s created as a creature himself.”

The three archangels, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael, are given the task of carrying out the sentence. Gabriel turns to walk away and muses to himself: “I’m going to see to it that God knows what it’s like to experience obscurity and shame. He’ll be born in a cave on the backside of nowhere, with a peasant girl for his mother. There will be suspicion of shame about his origins, and he’ll have to grow up in a Jew-hating world! That oughta’ do it.” Michael turns to leave and as he walks away, he too muses: “I’m going to see to it that God knows what it’s like to experience frustration and insecurity. He’ll undertake a task he can’t possibly complete. No one will understand him, not even his own kin. His closest friends will turn on him. He’ll wind up isolated, alone, with nothing and no one. That oughta’ do it.” Raphael turns to walk from the stage and says to everyone and to no one: “I’m going to see to it that God knows what it’s like to experience pain and death. He’ll be falsely accused, lied about, tried, convicted, and sentenced all unjustly. And then he’ll die like a common thief! That oughta’ do it!”

And then the house lights go out, and as you sit there in the dark, it suddenly hits you: God has already served that sentence.

And gazing up at a lonely figure, stretched out between heaven and earth as if neither wanted Him, we stand and stare and stammer: “Goooood?”

And so we gather here in Advent and behold in bone and blood and bile the “Word Made Flesh,” God Incognito, a God Who stretches out His arms to His creatures and says: “I love you this much.”

Merry Christmas, God. Welcome to our world.

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