Sunday, December 6, 2009

A Love That's Out of this World

18Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins’ (Matthew 1: 18-21).

Is there intelligent life beyond our world? The late cosmologist Carl Sagan pondered, “As long as there have been humans we have searched for our place in the cosmos. Where are we? Who are we? We find that we live on an insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in a galaxy tucked away in some forgotten corner of a universe in which there are far more galaxies than people” (Carl Sagan, "A Gift for Vividness," Time, Oct. 20, 1980, p. 61). Sagan believed our place in the cosmos was insignificant; and he wrote elsewhere that the only way to take away the loneliness of our meaningless existence, would be to find other lonely beings in the universe like ourselves.

As I said last week, I see no reason to deny that there may be other forms of intelligent physical life in the universe; but as a Christian I already know that there are other forms of intelligent spiritual life in the universe (as the angel sent to Joseph testifies); and that beyond all of this is the mind and purpose of the Creator who sent an emissary to explain to a frightened fiancé the lengths He was about to go to show his love for us....

Take the fact that to show his love, Joseph is told that God would become like us. “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit says the angel. Paul speaks of Christ "who though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited,but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness" (Philippians 2: 6-7). It has been the confession of Christ’s followers for 2000 years that in him the fullness of God was pleased to dwell…that in his love, his forgiveness, his kindness, his teaching and miracles, and above all his death and resurrection, he showed that he was and is the invisible God made visible. Jesus was from the Holy Spirit because he couldn’t have been from anywhere else!

But having said this, let’s not forget the other part of the angel’s message: that this Child was conceived; that he was from heaven but he was also human; further out than the outermost limits of the most distant galaxy, but as close as a baby held in his mother's arms. When the Messiah was conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary’s womb, it was God’s personal tribute to the miracle of human life, the dignity of human life, the value of human life from conception to life’s final breath.

In the first century infant mortality was 90%. Just to make it to your first birthday was considered a reason to celebrate. So Jesus’ birth reminds us that every life is precious to God…from the life of an unborn baby to the lives of those dying because of poverty and disease…or endless cycles of war and violence. It also reminds us that we do not have a Savior who is unable to relate to our weaknesses…but who became like us; that he might share God’s love face to face and with a full understanding of our weaknesses, fears, and failures.

The second thing Joseph learned from the angel was that to show his love, God (in Christ) would give his life for us. “You are to name him Y’shua for he will save his people from their sins” (21). Y’shua (Jesus) means “God is our Savior!” There are all kinds of debates about what humanity’s real problem is…global warming…economic instability… religious extremism, AIDS or cancer. But deep down, we know that the real ‘pandemic’ is human pride and selfishness. We have a sin problem above all, that needs to be addressed; a problem that separates us from God and and wrecks havoc on our relationships with each other...and with the creation.

Notice that the angel says Jesus will come to save his people from their sins, not from other people’s sins. Most of us have entertained the thought that life for us would improve markedly if that troublesome neighbor, nasty co-worker or difficlt family member would get straightened out. It’s always easier to contemplate the sins of others rather than our own…whether its Tiger Woods’ marital problems or that brazen couple who recently crashed a State Dinner at the White House. But despite my fascination with other people’s sins, Jesus came to save me from my own first, from the darkness that is in me. In a recent interview with the ABC news show 20/20, comedian Chris Brown said he was blindsided by his own brutal assalt of former girl friend Rihanna last February. “I never had problems with anger" Brown asserted. "No domestic violence with any of my past girl friends or altercations. I was never that kind of person…it was like, ‘How can I be that kind of person?’"

How, indeed...and yet the word of God says we are all “that kind of person”, that we are all capable of doing evil given the right conditions and situation; that we’ve all fallen short of God’s glory (Romans 3:23). This week, what may be the last Nazi war crimes trial in Germany began. A former SS guard was tried for his participation in the extermination of 29,000 Jews at the Sobibor death camp. How can we make sense of this human capacity to do evil? I have no easy answer…but as a Christian I can say this. My God did not avoid the pain and suffering of this world, but took the sin and evil of this world upon himself when he was crucified on a Roman cross. He was the innocent One who willingly bore the penalty for our guilty past. And when he died and rose from the dead, he proved that there is no place (no matter how dark or hopeless) that God is not willing to go to reach us.

The last word of God’s messenger to Joseph is a citation from the prophet Isaiah which the Messiah’s birth is about to fulfill: "Look the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,’ which means ‘God is with us’ (22-23). Several years ago, during a visit to Cairo, I was eating at a KFC of all places… seeing a horse-drawn wagon and a man, sifting through the garbage. Where was he going and where did he live, I wondered. I soon found out. It was a blistering August afternoon when I was taken to a garbage collection village in the outskirts of Cairo. I’ll never forget the sight of a five year old girl who suddenly appeared out of nowhere to smile at me. I thought to myself: this is the only world she will ever know; the only reality she will ever experience…IF NOT FOR LOVE. Because for love of Jesus, in the midst of that filthy dump where human beings lived off the garbage of the city, Christian men and women were building a church and doing life-saving mission. I remember the cool and even refreshing smell of wet mortar and cement inside the church and the sacrificial work that was being done by God’s people among these untouchables. Men and women, here is a picture of the incarnation, and the love behind it. Jesus moved from the glory of the Father’s presence, into our filthy neighborhood in order to show us that he is and continues to be “Emmanuel” – God with us

The angel’s message from beyond our world is that Christ became like us, to give his life for us and that he promised always to be with us. In other words, we’re not the insignificant planet of a humdrum star lost in some forgotten corner of the universe that Sagan described. We're the visited planet that God came to save through his Son. For, in the words of John 3:16, God so loved this insignificant world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him might not perish, but have eternal life! Now that's a love that's truly out of this world.

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