If you’ve driven down 114 in the past few weeks, you may have noticed the message on the sign board at Christ Community Church: Christmas is not a day; Christmas is God with us. We might expand on that thought: Christianity is not a religion; Christianity is God with us.
That’s an almost impossible idea for us human beings to get our minds around, and it must be said that in two thousand years we’ve never really succeeded. We want a religion. We want a God who is comfortable, understandable; a God who fits nicely into our lives, a system that suits us, that works for us; a church that meets our needs, that comforts us with certainties and never challenges us or confronts us with the awesome mystery of the living God.
We forget that the very essence of God is that God is not us, God is Other, God is beyond us. And yet, paradoxically, in God’s very “notness,” God’s very Otherness, God’s very “beyondness,” God is with us. We cannot escape God. When we try to box God in – reduce God to what we are comfortable with – God breaks free, if not in our lives, in our churches, then somewhere else, with some other people.
Let me illustrate: this celebration of the Baptism of Our Lord. We know this is historical fact, that Jesus was baptized by John in the Jordan River. All four gospel accounts include it, even though it was an embarrassment: why should the Son of God, the one without sin, need or want to be baptized by this lesser prophet? We hear that embarrassment in Matthew’s account of the baptism: “Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.” Somehow I doubt that Jesus actually put it that way – such a prig!
What I guess is that Jesus realized that if he did not join the sinful crowds coming for baptism, if he did not make common cause with them in the muddy waters of the Jordan, he would be guilty of sin – the sin of holding himself back, setting himself above. It was in his very plunging into human life, embracing all of the human condition, that he confirmed what we call his Sonship. It was in this act that God pronounced him “my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.”
And of course, once we realize this, we see that all the other beloved episodes in Jesus’s life are to the same effect. Born in a stable, no room in the inn – a story about God with us. Suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, died and was buried – a story about God with us. The message he preached in his earthly ministry, “the kingdom of God is at hand, the kingdom of God is among you” – a message about God with us. His special attention to the poor, the sick, the oppressed, the outcast – a ministry about God with us.
This has nothing to do with what we’ve been calling “religion.” Jesus offended the religious brokers of his time – the priests and the temple authorities who tried to stand between the people and God, who interposed their rules and rituals and made them ends in themselves. Jesus called God Abba – a familiar address, akin to Dad. Jesus insisted that the sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath. In the end it was the religious authorities, in league with the civil authorities, who put Jesus to death to get rid of the threat he posed to them. But then, of course, as I said always happens, God popped up again, invincible, outside the confines of “religion,” in what we call the Resurrection. God sent his empowering Spirit upon a tiny group of frightened losers, by whom the Message spread outward into the whole world. The Message which still spreads today, coming alive in unexpected ways even as today’s religious authorities try to channel and control it.
This is one of those Sundays in the Church Year – there are four or five of them – that are especially appropriate for Baptism. Baptism used to be a private thing, a nice little ceremony that provided an excuse to give a family party. A friend of mine is fond of recounting how he was baptized with water from a crystal punch bowl in his grandmother’s library, while guests stood around waiting to toast him with flutes of champagne. Baptism was regarded as a ticket to heaven; once it was “done to you” you were in.
In the reforms of the last generation we made an attempt to restore the power of this sacrament as one of union with God – God with us. The fusing of God’s life and our lives. We spelled out what Baptism means in the Baptismal Covenant, in which we make promises to live out our faith in God in particular, very difficult (if you think of them carefully) lifestyle ways: being faithful members of the community, repenting and returning when we fall into sin, seeking Christ in others, working for justice and peace. All these, when we look at them, are really promises to be as much like Jesus as we possibly can; to live lives that are as much like his as we possibly can. God with us. We with God.
And do we get it? Well, sometimes. A little bit. We are, after all, as they say, “only human.” We need religion, and it’s okay as long as it’s the means, not the end. But the important thing is that God gets it. God never gives up on us. God is always here and always will be, “with us” – calling us to live our lives in him through Jesus Christ our Lord.