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Powerless, powerful

December 25th, 2009 Posted in The Sermons

The writer who has inspired me more than any other, on the birth of the God-child:

“But if there is the beauty of what is majestic and powerful, there is the beauty also of what is humble and powerless. Like any child, Jesus as a child has one power only and that is the power to love and be loved which is of all powers the most powerful because it alone can conquer the human heart; at the same time it is of all powers the most powerless, because it can do nothing except by consent. It is of the very essence of love to leave us free to respond or not to respond because the moment it attempts to force our hand, it is no longer love but coercion, and what it elicits from us is no longer love but obedience. The greatest single argument against the existence of God is the presence of evil in the world, and to the degree that the Christian faith attempts to answer it, its answer is all tied up in this. The argument is simply stated: If there is a God who is both good and all powerful, why do terrible things happen in the world? Why does God allow us to murder and wage wars? Why does he allow us to remain indifferent to each other’s needs so that the poor go uncared for and children starve and in a sense all of us go hungry if only for the peace and understanding that the world cannot give? If there is a God, why did he not with his great goodness make things right in the first place, or why does he not with his great power intervene in the affairs of the world to make things right at least in the second place, now?

What Christianity in effect seems to say is that God could presumably do these things — could have turned us out perfectly as an inventor turns out a perfect invention or could step in when we get out of line and move us around like pawns on a chessboard. But as Christianity understands it, God does not want us related to him as an invention to an inventor or pawns to a cosmic kibitzer. He wants us related to him as children are related to their father. He wants us in other words to love him, and if our love is to be spontaneous and real, we must be free also not to love him with all its grim consequences of human suffering. Evil exists in the world not because God is indifferent or powerless or absent but because man is free, and free he must be if he is to love freely, free he must be if he is to be human.

Like any baby, Jesus as a baby does not judge or exhort or puzzle the world with his teaching. He makes no demands, threatens no punishment, offers no rewards. The world is free to take him or leave him. He does not rule the world from his mother’s lap but, like any child, is himself at the mercy of the world.

In trying to say too much, piety always runs the risk of saying too little or saying it wrong, and the great pitfall of Christian art, especially when it tries to portray the birth of Christ, is sentimentalism. The stable becomes a painted backdrop, the floor a carpeted stage, the manger a prop lined with artificial straw. Neither the holiness nor the humanness of the moment is rendered so much as the schmaltz, and the Incarnation becomes merely a Christmas card with all the scandal taken out of it instead of what St. Paul called ‘a stumbling block to Jews and folly to Gentiles,’ instead of the proclamation that the Creator of the ends of the earth came among us in diapers.”   (Frederick Buechner, The Faces of Jesus, 19-21)