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Monday, December 31, 2007

The Incarnation: Jesus and vulnerability



Isaiah 63: 7-9 Psalm 148 Hebrews 2: 10-18 Matthew 2:13-23


Preached by Rev John Simpson, St Thomas Anglican Church, Upper Ferntree Gully, Victoria

Author Peter Lord, was skiing in Colorado and saw some people wearing red vests with the words ‘BLIND SKIER’ on them. He thought, ‘I have a hard enough time skiing with two good eyes, how can they ski successfully with none?’ The answer was – they had a guide whose instructions they totally trusted and followed! As the guide skied beside them, he’d tap his ski poles together to assure them he was there. Then he’d say, ‘Go right! Turn left! Stop! Slow! Skier coming up on your right!’

What a picture. Life is like skiing downhill blind. We can’t even see five seconds into the future or the struggles to come

Following Jesus is like that. It is like skiing blind with only him to be alongside of us, to guide us. When Jesus was born, Mary and Joseph were living like this; new borns revolutionalize parent’s lives. And he did this to them. Then it was not long before they had to go with Jesus to Egypt to protect his life, the fragile and vulnerable life of an infant. Following the visit of the wise men to Jesus, Joseph is told to take him away, because Herod was seeking to kill him.

Herod was known for his ruthlessness and murderous acts. He had three sons killed to keep his crown. The Roman masters were equally as ruthless. They were known to raze a whole town and kill all that lived there, to warn other local towns. So for him to spill blood to keep power, did not bother him. It’s estimated that twenty children died within days. Matthew seeking to understand this by quoting an Old Testament passage of Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, Rachael weeping and sobbing and loud lamentations.”

Often these ‘fulfilments' of the OT were allusions to already fulfilled prophecies, more like a poetic reflection. Then Joseph has two more dreams in which he is told to return to Israel, which he does. But on learning that one of Herod’s sons is ruling there, he takes the family into Galilee and the obscurity of Nazareth. Again Matthew sees in this an OT fulfilment, “He shall be called a Nazorean.”

He is trying to make sense of what this means if you follow Jesus the Christ. Basically I think he’s indicating to us: that God’s plan to restore us to himself will not be thwarted by evil.

As present day followers of Jesus, when we are confronted by evil, such as we’ve seen in this century, we are to “hold fast to our confidence in God and not give it away” (Hebrews 10 my paraphrase). To follow Jesus Christ we will have to go through the minefields of life, knowing that Jesus can show us how to negotiate our way, without loss of compassion; and actually doing something to help. Jesus, like the skiing instructor, will be alongside of us as we walk ‘blind’, by faith in him.

Following Jesus in vulnerability

Joseph and Mary were the equivalent of modern day refugees seeking safety in Egypt, from Herod’s cruelty. He takes his family there in obedience to the angelic message. Then again he is told to return; this time however he finds that one of Herod’s sons is ruling. So he goes to little known Nazareth, out of the way of Herod’s spies. Jesus coming was not free from the evils and heartaches that assail us. He, like us, is a vulnerable human being.

God did not give a special kit of things to protect him in his vulnerability – for that would have meant that he was not fully human. Instead the writer to the Hebrews tells us that:

Since the children share flesh and blood, Jesus himself shared the same things
Through death he destroyed the one who has the power of death…and freed all who all their lives were held in slavery, by their fear of death
Although he was a Son, he learned obedience through what he suffered.

This is a very different Lord Jesus to the one I was raised on – the One who appeared in those lovely pictures with him surrounded by adoring children. God took an immense risk in making Jesus to be fully human. He did not come protected by special influences emanating from his Divinity. Rather he meets the times of trial, the force of evil; with the same help each of us now have.

Think on this, The Christ of God was vulnerable because he shared in our flesh, flesh that had become so connected to sin. God lets him feel the full force of trials and suffering. To follow him means we have to hold fast to him in faith, and not be discouraged by evil, like the killing of Ms Bhutto, nor shrink back when the going gets tough. The late John Macquarrie, an Anglican Theologian of great note, speaks of Jesus facing the full force or brunt of human life, as “God’s letting-be”. Parents come to this, when they know they have to let go and let their young ones, meet their own challenges and live with them. God’s letting-be is not a passive thing. Rather it is God giving us the room to find and live out our life. God does not crowd us with good advice or keep trying to persuade us to do things his way! By giving us room, we find our true selves – warts and all!

Following Jesus is to let this vulnerability be, to follow its way, and so mature. It does not mean that I will not grieve or not ask him, “How come, God!?”

Following Jesus in the struggle

An article in the Age last Monday, headed ‘A man worth emulating’ was by a secular Jew, Leslie Cannold. In looking at the Jesus story she ventured that he was an outsider, one of the poor of his day, and considered illegitimate. Leslie sees Jesus as there for the needy, suffering, and lost among his own people. Others try to re-write the Story according to their culture. Often this reduces Jesus to a nice guy. The South American liberation theologians rightly see in Jesus, one who comes to liberate people from all that oppress them. He was on the edges of his society, considered from the point of wealth and power.

Yet this was and is his strength – his ability with the struggles of people, to fight against the temptation of the quick fix, to refuse the satan’s offer of quick power by worshipping it. He tasted all that is human, so that he could renew our human-ness. God plunged him into non-religious life, as a child with suspicion that he was born the wrong side of the bed sheets; the religion of the poor was looked down upon by the religious leaders. And they were powerless in the face of Rome. However he starts his ministry with the declaration that challenges religious protocols – “I have come to bring good news to the poor, release for the captives, to set at liberty those in darkness….” I wonder what Jesus would say about the dark episode in Australian politics, of the treatment of David Hicks?

Jesus struggles with these issues and had obviously thought them through. Full humanity for him meant:
Going to the unclean, lepers and tax-collectors; having women disciples including his mother, and some women who supported his work; going into pagan territory, healing many there, and finding more faith in them than among his own people. Some even suggest that he married that woman – Mary Magdalene!

Following Jesus has taken me out of my religious world. A friend remarked to me, after I’d been ordained some years, “john, you now swear, go to the pub for a drink and even tell risqué jokes!” I did not take this negatively! It was a part of my tasting the full humanity, following Jesus had shown to me.

Some years ago Chris and I were on holiday in Cornwall. We were walking down a country lane towards a bus stop; the wind was so strong you could lean into it. We stepped out of the wind’s force and sought relief. That was good. However we never moved…..forward. To grow like Jesus we have to meet the full force of the winds of life.

Conclusion: Following Jesus asks no more than that I love him with my all
Be vulnerable to all that is human
Be a struggler in the way of Jesus so as to minister to others

Another way of saying this is this prayer:
Day by day, Dear lord, three things I pray:
To see you more clearly;
To love you more dearly;
To follow you more nearly, Day by day.

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