Not long ago I was flipping through a year-end gathering of cartoons and came across one from the New Yorker showing God sitting grandly on a heavenly throne with stars twinkling around him. You can see the planet earth in the distance. Beside him is God’s son looking down at the earth and saying, “Don’t make me have to come down there!” Which is of course exactly what this night is about: a God who sees the mess we humans have made of things and decides to come down.
“Don’t make me have to come down.” You may have heard that line at some point in your life. I happened to have been one of six kids and sometimes over the years, to put it nicely, we had our issues. We might fight in the basement over a TV channel, or whose turn it was to play Monopoly, and before you knew it voices would rise, a little shoving might begin, and a voice with an edge from upstairs would come floating down, “Don’t make me have to come down there!”
That line suggests that there is a powerful presence “up there,” and those who are down below feel as if they are left fending for themselves. You can hear that sense of confusion in some wonderful letters to God written by children in a little book called Children’s Letters to God.
Are you really invisible or is that just a trick?
Is Reverend Coe a friend of yours or do you just know him through business?
Thank you for the baby brother, but what I prayed for was a puppy.
Are you real? Some people don’t believe it. If you are, you better do something quick.
[Quoted by the Rev John Buchanan in sermon, Fourth Presbyterian Church, Chicago, December 7, 2008.]
Sometimes it would be good for things to be clearer. Sometimes we just wish God would take the plunge and come down.
That’s what Christians believe happened at Christmas. God came down. The Christmas story is a simple account of a young Jewish woman and her husband traveling for days to his ancestral home in Bethlehem, where she gives birth to a child in a manger. And far off in a field angels appear to shepherds to tell them the news, and they dash off to see the child.
It’s as beautiful a story as you can imagine. And it’s the way the gospel writers imagined and remembered Jesus’ birth many decades later—after the child had become a teacher, healer, and a prophet for a kingdom of peace and forgiveness and hope for the kind of world for which all human beings were made. And after he had been killed and gone through death to the other side, they were convinced that the Creator of the universe had actually come into their lives, that the Word had become flesh and dwelt among them.
The focus of Christmas is not on what we humans must do to care for our planet. Just look at the mess we’re making of things. A newspaper columnist two days ago wrote saying the first decade of the twenty-first century was not a good beginning, and that things are looking worse as we begin the second. What will happen to the climate of our planet, to the victims of our wars, to troubled economies everywhere, to those caught in the endless tension and bickering both around the world and in our own leadership? Left to our own devices, the prospects are not very good.
But Christmas tells us we can put our hope in God, the great mystery of Love who has called this vast cosmos into being, and who decided to take on flesh to live our lives with us.
In fact, all the players in the Christmas story we heard tonight are more receivers than actors—Mary, Joseph, the shepherds, the angels. They aren’t launching a program for turning the world around. There are no strategic plans here, no great personal goals. No, they are responding to a God who comes, a God who is seeking them out in the life of this child, who intends to bless the whole world by calling into being a people who are peacemakers, reconcilers, servants, people with hearts overflowing with generosity.
Years ago J.B. Phillips wrote a fantasy about a senior and junior angel travelling across space past billions of stars in their galaxies until they came to our star and what they call our “insignificant planet.” After all the grandeur they’ve witnessed flying through space, the younger angel wasn’t very impressed with our little earth. But the senior angel told him that he didn’t understand, that this was the Visited Planet—the one to which God had come and on which God had walked. “‘For strange as it may seem to us,’ the senior angel said, ‘He loves them. He went down to visit them to lead them to become like Him.’ The little angel looked blank. Such a thought was beyond his comprehension.”
That is the truth of this night. We are a visited planet. God has taken the plunge and come down to us and taken on our flesh. Of course, “coming down” is a metaphor. God isn’t up or out. God is the life within our lives, the power that sustains the galaxies, the breath within our breath and heart within our heart. That life took on flesh once. And we Christians believe that Christ wasn’t born just once, but comes again and again to be born in our lives.
The essential question is, will I allow the Christ who is in me to be born and grow? Will I make space and time this year for him to come alive in me?
And this Christ continues to be born in our world, too. Christ is born when communities reach out to families suffering in this recession, when peacemakers struggle to bring peace to the Middle East, so that the wall that cuts Bethlehem off from the rest of Israel can come down forever, when in countless ways children are loved and nurtured with the health and education they need.
Not long ago I heard an account of a remarkable rescue effort that sounds to me for all the world like Christmas itself. There is apparently a very high bridge over the river outside Kansas City. One day there was a traffic tie-up that went on for hours and had all the roads in the city backed up. When people arrived home later in the day, they learned on the news what had been happening.
A man had driven up to the middle of the bridge, stopped, gotten out, and then climbed down on the bracing underneath. He was intent on jumping off and ending his life. Things had gone terribly wrong for him, including the fact that his girlfriend had tossed him aside, and he saw no reason to live.
The rescue team had arrived quickly when they saw the stopped car. And a policeman climbed down on the beam. He and his team had attached a strong rope from the policeman to the bridge to catch him if he were to fall. He inched his way along the beam toward the man, very slowly, talking to him calmly. He said to the man, “I want you to know that not only are there hundreds of people who want to help you, there are hundreds who can help you.”
And so he inched closer and closer. But then the man panicked and jumped from the bridge, and when he did, the policeman jumped too. And he caught hold of the man in mid-air and down they sailed. The policeman wrapped his legs and arms around the man so that when the rope jerked, he wouldn’t lose him.
The policeman held on tight and blurted out, “I’m going to hold onto you until hell freezes over.” And he held on, and on, until they were able to get the man safely back to the bridge.
The mystery of this night, my friends, is that God has taken the plunge for us. We are a visited planet, and God has come to you and me and all this world, and will not let us go until hell freezes over. I hope you’ll think about that as you make your way home tonight.
“Don’t make me have to come down.”
God has come, and lives in us, and will keep coming again and again.
It’s enough to make you want to sing with the angels: “Glory to God in the highest, and peace to all God’s people on earth.”