Before there were vast black holes sucking matter into the staggering abyss of interstellar space; before there existed stardust and subatomic particles forming matter and energy; before there was light or darkness; before there was time or space; before there was breath or beliefthere was only and always God. This God was and is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible without body, parts, or passions, immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute, infallible, independent, not standing in need of any creatures but only and always manifesting his own glory.
God's glory is beyond anything we can imagine
Although it remains to this day an almost mystery to us, the Bible teaches that this God existed and still exists as three persons of one substance, power, and eternity. This is what the Bible terms God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Ghost, and which the church has called God the Creator, God the Word, God the Holy Spirit. And it is impossible for us to understand what life is like within this . So much conflict, so much confusion, so much restlessness defines the life we lead that we can hardly begin to conceive of the absolute communion and contentment and joy within the life of God himself. Suffice it to say that if we were to taste it for even a nanosecond, it would be the most rapturous reality we had ever known. Think of chills running up and down the length of your body for all of eternity. Imagine all understanding and all beauty and all love suddenly and simultaneously filling every pore of your being, becoming your being in wave after wave of , sweeping shudders of bliss. And now realize that if you were to experience that for ten thousand years you still would not know a billionth of the glory of actually being God for a single instant.
Utter communion, absolute contentment, endless, perfect joy. This is something of the majesty and mystery the apostle John is trying to communicate in his version of the Christmas story when he says, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God." And it is only when we touch at least the hem of the garment of that glory that the thunderous reality of what happened at Christmas can start to come home to us, because what happens next is even more amazing still.
God stooped all the way down to take up life in our neighborhood
Eugene Peterson translates John's account of Christmas as follows: "And this sublime Word became flesh and blood and moved into our neighborhood."
I don't know about your neighborhood, but I will confess that the neighborhood in which I live, as lovely as it is, is not one of utter communion, absolute contentment, and endless joy. And the problem, of course, is the neighbors. There's that guy who runs his snow blower at 4 a.m. There's the woman whose driveway I shoveled out for two hours and never got so much as a thank you. There's the person who's so wrapped up in a divorce that she doesn't seem to have time to listen to my life stories and struggles. And there's the fellow whose politics runs 180 degrees contrary to mine. There's the teenager at the end of the street whose hair is purple and body is pierced. And there's that kid who nearly ran me down on his bicycle a few months ago. And for every story I can tell you about them, there are probably a couple more they could tell you about me.
But I don't usually think with such humility. Most of the time I wish these people would live up to my standards. I hold firm to my way of living, because I've thought it out and I've been living it a while. I cling tight to my course on the sidewalk. I hug hard to my schedule. I hold fast to my opinions. I cleave to people who are at least mostly like me. And when I'm criticized, I clutch my ego. When I'm given a chance to take credit, I often grab it. When faced with someone else's need, I frequently grip my own resources that much tighter. I do this because these things I'm holding onto are sacred to me. They give me a measure of stability and security in this crazy world. They're what keep me feeling a little bit superior to certain people and a little more in control, a little more, well, G, in a sense. When I manage to carve out a little bit of heaven on earth for myself, when I have the kind of companions with whom I'm comfortable, the sort of environment I like, I resist leaving that neighborhood. Moving from San Diego to Chicago in January was a challenge to me.
But the one whom we acknowledge at Christmas is strikingly unlike that. He doesn't hold on tight. Philippians 2 says that though he, unlike me, was in very nature God himself, the one to whose standards and to whose way of life and to whose way of thinking everyone ought rightly to seek to live up, he did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, says Saint Paul. Instead, he who was higher than the highest high, greater than the greatest concept of great, he stooped down, and I mean all the way down, to take up life in our neighborhood. And compared to who he really was and where he'd really come from, as the apostle says, he made himself nothing. He took off the robes of his divine majesty, bent down, took up rags and climbed into them, and took on the very nature of a servant, the Scripture says, born to a peasant girl and an ordinary tradesman in the armpit of the ancient world and in the dung of a stable. He stooped down to share the life of the least of humanity. And being found in appearance as a man he stooped even lower still, and he, before whose glory the purest, most radiant angels needed to shield their gaze, bent to embrace lepers, the AIDS patients of his day, and he stooped to take the hands of adulteresses and disabled persons and walk with them, lifting them up. He stooped to wash the calloused, stinking feet of fishermen and to pray for the souls of those who hated him and who hurt him.
And then he, before whose command worlds and winds and waves moved at instantaneous submission, stooped further yet, and he became obedient, obedient to death, even death on the lowest, scummiest criminal's cross. He bent all the way to the bottom, so that by the disfiguring of his noble body and the shedding of his precious blood we might be straightened out before God, washed clean of our sin, and one day actually be lifted up to that place from which he had come. God of God, light of light, very God of very God, who for us and for our salvation, came down from heaven.
And I struggle to imagine how I could rearrange my important schedule to go on a mission trip or to make myself available to somebody in desperate need. I debate whether or not to bend down from my lofty place of virtue and truly listen to someone I find boring and beneath me, or to leave the safe circle of my friends to reach out to that stranger. I struggle to discern how I could let go of my grasp on some of the comforts of my material heaven in order to give more to the work of the kingdom. I wonder how I could descend from my place of relative righteousness to forgive that sinner's offense or to work alongside some person whose party or preferences strike me as, frankly, unholy.
I need to take a better look at what happened at Bethlehem and the one who came there, and perhaps I'm not alone. Dr. Richard Seltzer tells of a moment when he caught a transforming glimpse, and it reoriented this surgeon's life in an important way. He tells this tale in his book Mortal Lessons:
I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted in palsy, clownish. A tiny twig of the facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed, and she will be thus from now on. Oh, the surgeon had followed with religious fervor the curve of her flesh. I promise you that. Nevertheless, to remove the tumor from her cheek, I had to cut that little nerve.
"Will my mouth always be like this?" the woman asks. "Yes, it always will be so. The nerve has been cut." She nods and is silent.
Her young husband is in the room, and he smiles and looks at his wife with a love so absolutely generous that it stuns the surgeon to silence. All at once I know who he is, and I understand and instinctively lower my gaze, because one is not bold in an encounter with the divine and unmindful. The bridegroom bends down to kiss her mouth. And I am so close that I can see how he twists his lips to accommodate hers.
Once upon a time, the God who bent down and took hold of a handful of dust and shaped humanity and breathed life into it stooped down again, and this time it was himself that he reshaped in order to kiss a disfigured earth with his grace and to breathe new hope into the life of the beloved. He showed us in that moment that it is not just the staggering height of God that displays his grandeur; it is how far he is willing to bend down that fully displays his glory.
The apostle John says this about that wonder: "We saw his glory with our own eyes." The glory, like Father, like Son, generous inside and out, and true from start to finish. Another of the apostles, shaped too by this sight, left some words for us to ponder:
If you had any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any fellowship with the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then[have] the same love, being one in spirit and purpose. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit, but in humilitylook not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others. Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus: Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to deatheven death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bowand every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.
This, my friends, is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Daniel Meyeris senior pastor of Christ Church in Oak Brook, Illinois.