Sermon: Vulnerability

12.29.2013  Preaching Text: “[An] angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, ‘Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you, for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.’” (Matthew 2:13)

At the conclusion of my Christmas Eve meditation, I lifted up the image of a newborn baby as hope personified, as pure potential, the possibility for new life and new beginnings, something our world could use a bit of.

I also pointed out that new life is nothing if not vulnerable. A newborn baby is virtually helpless, requiring considerable parental protection, care, and nurturing.

Every Christmas we are reminded that God continually offers us a fresh start. Every year, liturgically, the Christ-child comes again, reminding us of this basic fact.

In addition, given that Christmas falls at the end of the calendar year, it’s natural to consider the grand sweep of the year now waning and to anticipate the one soon to be. It’s a poignant time, a reflective time, a time to reassess our lives and, often, resolve to chart a new course. Christ offers a fresh start.

There is many an exercise bike currently serving as a clothes rack in our basement or bedroom that attests to this fact, of New Year’s resolutions come and gone, in this case unsuccessfully. The initial burst of enthusiasm at the start of the New Year soon hastens a return to our erstwhile sedentary ways.

This phenomenon is perhaps especially common as it relates to our faith lives. The initial burst of hope and enthusiasm born of our Christmas celebrations soon hastens a quiet return to life as usual, along with its familiar, accompanying habits.

If the Christmas story announces that the separation between humankind and its Creator is overcome, it is logical to deduce that our prior state must have been one of alienation. Our old habits, then, are characterized by a certain distance between us and our Creator.

What has created this distance, biblically speaking, is our unwillingness, or inability, to make ourselves available to God. We have closed ourselves off, invulnerable to the Source of life.

That said, vulnerability is an especially difficult state to achieve. Seemingly everything in our world argues against it. Rather, we are judged wise in keeping our defenses up. After all, there’s a lot to protect ourselves from!

Even more than this, we are, in fact, constitutionally self-centered. Becoming less so is a mark of maturity, and remains a lifelong project. Our more natural state is to consider only what’s best for me, myself and I. Selfless, sacrificial, agape-style love is mostly a learned phenomenon, one requiring tremendous willpower and internal fortitude.

If, then, the birth of the Christ-child implies the opportunity to reconnect with our Creator, relationally, it also implies great struggle.

Giving up old habits, by definition, requires thinking and acting differently. The comfortable old shoes may have holes in them, yet, alas, they remain ever-comfortable.

Embracing new objectives, and living moment to moment in the service of those new objectives, is, as I say, a considerable challenge. The initial burst of enthusiasm when embarking upon a new life-path is soon confronted with its implicit challenges and impediments.

It’s no accident, then, that today’s gospel reading from Matthew features a reactionary, oppositional response to Jesus’ blessed birth. No sooner have the angels departed from the manger than this new life is threatened, in this instance by Herod.

Matthew’s account of the “flight into Egypt” is a testament to how vulnerable new beginnings can be, how they threaten and challenge the status quo. Thus, in order to protect their newborn child, Joseph and Mary travel far from home, into unfamiliar territory, to thwart the inevitable backlash from the ungodly, alienated forces within our world.

I have a painting of the flight into Egypt that shows the holy family traveling through mountainous terrain, Mary and her newborn child sitting on a donkey and led by Joseph. In the background one can see a group of pursuers some distance back. As I say, the powers-at-be do not take kindly to God-centered threats to its supremacy.

More generally, God often requires that we make big changes in our lives, moving out into territory we find strange, unfamiliar, and, perhaps, even dangerous. I’m reminded of the call of Abraham.

While minding his own business one day, Abraham, then living in his native Ur (in what is modern-day Iraq), hears God suddenly call, urging him simply to follow, Abraham knows not where.

Acting on nothing but trust, Abraham does just as God requires. He allows himself to be open to the places God would take him, despite his likely fear, uncertainty, and lack of understanding. He acts based solely on the belief that what God has promised – a better life for him and for his people – is trustworthy and good.

Of course, there are other occasions in the Bible, and in life, where standing firm, rather than leaving, best suits God’s intentions. Consider Jeremiah, who purchases a plot of land in his native Jerusalem just before that city’s destruction. Against all odds, in other words, Jeremiah believes that he is best serving God by holding fast.

In each case, Abraham and Jeremiah reject mere human-centered thinking, basing their lives solely on the promises of God. They allow themselves to be open and vulnerable. They trust that God will do something new, something better, though they haven’t a clue as to how this will come to be. They trust in the mystery of things not yet seen. They live in hope.

Mary and Joseph’s flight into Egypt symbolizes the inherent difficulties of embarking on a new, God-centered life. Along with its shining moments of promise, of peace and joy, it also faces the unavoidable challenges all new life, itself small and vulnerable, must face.

Such a life is opposed by the sheer gravitational pull of old habits, and by the threat it forces upon the status quo. Which is why we must guard such new life as carefully and selflessly as any parent protects and nurtures his or her newborn child.

The promise of Christmas, again, is born of its potential, the potential to transform and redirect life towards its source, the only true means of genuine peace and enduring joy. Such requires all we have in making ourselves vulnerable and open to the mystical urgings of God, and choosing to act in ways that make a godly difference. Amen.