“We must learn to be still in the midst of activity and to be vibrantly alive in repose.” Indira Gandhi
John 1:1-14, 16 – In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth…. From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
John 3:16-21 – Jesus taught, “This is how much God loved the world: God gave God's own Son, the one and only offspring. And this is why: so that no one need be lost; by believing into Him, anyone can have a whole and lasting life. God didn't go to all the trouble of sending this Son merely to point an accusing finger, telling the world how bad it was. He came to help, to put the world right again. Anyone who trusts into Him is set free; anyone who refuses to trust Him has long sense lived a lost life without knowing it…. This is the crisis we're in: God-light streamed into the world, but men and women everywhere ran for the darkness. They went for the darkness because they were really not interested in pleasing God. Everyone who makes a practice of doing evil, addicted to denial and illusion, hates God-light and won't come near it, fearing a painful exposure. But anyone working and living in truth and reality welcomes God-light so the work can be seen for the God-work it is.”
Life lessons and values derived from human behavior in extreme situations are good teachers. We translate the lessons and values from the extremes into foundational principles that inspire and guide routine daily life. I offer you three modern examples of life in extremis -- great risk and with sacrificial love – and link those illustrations to a different extremis in which God modeled selfless, high-risk love. That linkage may help us focus our Advent preparation and give us a new angle on our Scriptures from John's Gospel. By Christmas we'll renew our commitment to risk holding faith, hope, and passion that inspire selfless love, day-by-day, and a lifestyle of loving-kindness, simplicity, and relational generosity.
First example: Herman Graebe hid 120 of his Jewish workers in several buildings in the Ukraine as a Nazi Mobil Killing Unit randomly slaughtered many Jews and detained most others for transport to death camps. When 7 of Graebe's workers were caught and taken to the train station, he confronted the S.S. officer-in-charge, revolver-to-pistol. The S. S. officer conceded to Graebe the fate of the remaining 113 Jews whom Graebe marched to safety from the murderous chaos, his revolver in the hand of his outstretched arm. From Graebe, who risked his life to protect more than two thousand Jews in the Ukraine and did not consider his efforts heroic, we learn the lesson of selfless, humble love. We learn that every life counts and acting in selfless love make a difference.
Last week the President awarded Staff Sergeant Salvatore Giunta the Medal of Honor for his valor in the face of profound danger, for his selfless and humble love when under withering enemy fire from an ambush in an Afghan pass he personally fought to save the lives of two fellow soldiers, Joshua Brennan and Hugo Mendoza, and to prevail against the ambush. Sgt. Giunta repeatedly said that he preferred to have his two men standing beside him than to receive the military's highest honor, insisting that, “I was only doing what I had to do.” From Sgt. Giunta we learn principled professionalism and deep humility. We learn that every life counts and acting in selfless love make a difference.
Selfless and humble love drive us to ask if we would rise to an occasion should circumstances demand. Anticipating such a moment, we picture it, explore its risks, measure our determination and skill, and examine our moral and spiritual values. We discover that great risk demands great hope and passion, danger demands deep faith and inner trust. Christmas, even more than Holy Friday and Easter, is the harbinger of the Divine hope, love, and passion that is selfless and humble.
Christmas was a radically different approach for God. It had some minor drama but no celestial theatrics like a burning bush or a chilling voice from heaven or a mountaintop tablet; it was not manna spilling from heaven, divinely ordained teachers, prophets, or ruling religious authorities. The world at the first Christmas was in extremis: occupying armies vying for global domination and control of commerce; political, economic, military, and social chaos; tyrannical kings and oppressed civilians, violent and willful Roman soldiers, and crime; and the religious strife of false messiahs, burdensome rules and minutiae, hidebound clergy, a plethora of unhelpful dogma, creed, and doctrine; and, generally, systemic cynicism, mistrust, and rebellion.
In the midst of all that, God had enough faith, hope, passion, and love to launch yet another initiative to move humankind closer to God's intention that people experience transcendent intimacy and live together in peace. God risked it all with a vulnerable infant born to simple, insignificant parents on a cold night in the barn of a busy bed and breakfast in a second rate town in the consistently troubled Middle East. For me, at least, the richest experience of Christianity, our faith's defining purpose is the Nativity because it holds in tension God's relentless faith, hope, passion –and- God's humble and selfless love.
In the months after 9/11 a couple I married several years earlier asked to meet and check-in. Over that summer they'd decided it was time to have children, but 9/11 changed all that. How could they in good conscience bring a life into a world of such threatening evil and danger? Their reserves of faith, hope, passion, and love were depleted. Near the end of our check-in I shared with them the time at the University of Oregon when one of my students asked Nobelist Elie Wiesel why he brought a child into the world after what he'd experienced in the Holocaust. Wiesel answered, “It was not an easy decision, but if only the killers have children we know what kind of world we will have.” Not incidentally, today, that couple has two children and together intentionally practice simplicity, compassion, loving kindness, and peace. They defeated terrorism with faith, hope, passion, and selfless, humble love.
So it was for God at the Nativity: the chaos and oppression then were answered by the incarnation of God in Jesus, Divinely Human, a small and defenseless infant, not an invincible warrior messiah. Chaos and oppression begat their own kind, while God's strategy selflessly birthed faith, hope, passion, and love.
I don't wear religious symbols, but if I did, mine would be a simple pot-metal lapel pin of a manger. It would symbolize how much God loves humankind, how God jettisoned the high-intensity celestial theatrics like burning bushes and opted for a show of relational intimacy and presence. It would daily remind me of God's deepest yearning that people be close to God, spiritually serene and relationally at peace in a world set right; a whole and lasting life filled with meaning and purpose, courage and trust, its path illumined by God-Light and Christ-Life.
Advent is the season in which we put our pre-occupations in perspective, open our hearts afresh and devote ourselves to God's intention for our lives. Inspired by the Divine risk of love in extremis, we renew our commitment to a daily way of life that is selfless and filled with faith, hope, passion, and love.
Christmas is the day to gift loved ones with something of ourselves: something intimately relational, simple, and gracious – as God did. Think about it: what is your best personal gift that unmistakably speaks the recipient's language of love?
Let us not kindle the final candle on the Advent wreath or arrive at Christmas afternoon surrounded by lovely, fun, generous material things and still the churning inner emptiness that tells us we missed what our souls long for on this holy day: a reason to risk being intimate with God and Christ, faithful, hopeful, passionate, loving, self-giving, relationally generous, simple, and humble. May that manner of risk and model of giving reflect the joy at the heart of the Nativity, the powerful presence of God loving us so much that God becomes one of us to put things right, to set us free, to bathe us in God-Light and Christ-life.
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