The Rev. Brian C. Taylor
Not long ago, I was listening to an interview with a noted physicist who has written about the universe in a way that many would call “spiritual.” He spoke of how all matter is inter-related, and his attempt to understand what seems like an intelligence woven throughout. He called himself an agnostic, but when pressed, admitted that what religions have always called “God” did have some similarity with his research. But he was quick to add “I don’t, of course, believe in a personal God.”
That caught my attention. It is often what people mean when they say “I’m spiritual but not religious.” Believe me, I understand the rejection of a God who supposedly lives in the sky, who feels and decides and acts just like humans. I understand the rejection of a buddy Jesus who helps Tim Tebow make that touchdown pass, or more disturbingly, who decides to protect some children at Sandy Hook Elementary School and not others. However popular this idea of God may be, it’s a distortion of traditional religious theology.
So the physicist, along with many people today, entirely rejects a personal God who is involved with specific human circumstances and responsive to them.
And then we come here tonight. Here, we sing of a God who decides to appear on earth to save humankind from self-destruction. Here, a God takes on human flesh and lives among us. Here, on Christmas, at the very heart of the Christian faith, is a God who tenderly loves and reaches out to us in our need.
So which is it? A life-directed force woven through all matter, or a loving and responsive God? I think it’s both, but neither in a way we could ever possibly comprehend. That’s why we use story, myth - to express a mystery, not to explain it; to point towards an experience, not to define reality.
Maybe you know about fractals. Fractals are patterns in nature that are the same at every scale, small and large, near and far. Some ice crystals and types of ferns do this, and some kinds of broccoli. I think God is like this. God is the same whether guiding you - little old you - to an authentic decision at a difficult time, or as the force that renews a wilderness after a forest fire. God is fractal, the same both near and far, small and vast.
The 14th century English saint Julian of Norwich had a vision about the eternal God of heaven and earth in a hazelnut, in the palm of her hand. Or as the Buddhists teach, enlightenment is realized in chopping wood, carrying water. There is no dualistic distinction between a personal and a universal God. It’s all one.
That physicist being interviewed was right about a mysterious force that connects and guides all matter. But this divine intelligence is not vague, like a vibrating blue either, or abstract, like some mathematical equation. It is concrete, actual - here, in this room. It is in your heart. It interacts with everything else in creation. If you are in touch with it, it is in every decision you make, every prayer you utter, every time you reach out in love to another. It is everywhere. And it is always available, activating when you call upon it, healing and guiding and renewing us and the whole world.
So while God may not be a person, God is personal. For what could be more personal than a boundless wisdom and love that rises up in some hospital room between you and a friend who is nearing death? I’ve been there, and I know.
What could be more personal than the wind of truth and justice blowing through society, inspiring us to outlaw slavery and liberate people from their suffering? We’ve been there, and this wind still blows in this, and every, generation.
What could be more personal than a breakthrough of clarity and strength that makes it possible for a person who has hit bottom to transcend themselves, and rise, as it were, from the dead? Perhaps you’ve been there, and are only alive today because of it.
What does this have to do with Christmas? Well, in some people, it seems that God isn’t just personal as a helpful presence. In some, God seems especially potent, in a condensed personal form.
This is what we claim about Christ. It is what the Hindus have always claimed about various figures they call avatars, who appear in history at times when humankind has needed a push forward. In these people, in the saints, or in our case, in the person of Jesus Christ, the divine condenses into a particularly potent and visible form, radiating itself outwards.
This divine concentration of God in Jesus is how he could love the unloved - the woman caught in adultery, the unclean, even the one who betrayed him, Judas. This is why Jesus could heal - making a paralyzed man walk, a blind man see, and a dead girl live again. This was the source of Jesus’ authority and why, in a simple phrase, he could cut straight to the heart. It is how he rose from the dead.
Jesus is for us the human face of God. And Christmas is when we hold up this divine being on his birthday, this God condensed into flesh, and give thanks to God for manifesting on earth in him. And so, in the words of the old carol O Holy Night, we “Fall on our knees, and hear the angel voices. O night divine; it is the night of our dear Savior’s birth.”
Christmas also promises that this same God who was birthed as Jesus will be birthed in you and me. For God is birthing everywhere, all the time - in your sleepless nights, in your creativity, in your struggle to love, to be happy, to become. God is moving within you, responding to your call for help, nudging you to higher ground.
What difference does it make to know this? I don’t know about you, but I can’t get through this life without something else, beyond my very limited capacity. By myself, I can’t love the unlikeable; I can’t comprehend the evil of this world such as what happened in that classroom in Connecticut 10 days ago. By myself, I can’t sustain a clear and open consciousness; I can’t make myself become the person I feel called to be.
And so I open myself to the One who I know is everywhere, who is in the sky, yes, but who is also within me and you as the force of life and love, active in deeply personal ways. Knowing this, I can remember that not everything is up to me alone. I can relax my grip and float on the stream of life, trusting that it will take me where I need to go. In fact, I stake my life on this.
So be Bethlehem. Be God’s manger. Claim it as the locus of God’s birth. And take what is born here in this night of devotion, into your little old life in the days ahead, drawing upon this eternal, yet very personal Spirit that is incarnate in you. And stake your life upon it.