December 10, 2017

Christus Paradox, III: The One We Both Scorn and Crave

Passage: Luke 1:26–38

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Here am I, the servant of the Lord;
let it be with me according to your word.'
—Luke 1:38

 

So this Advent we’re preaching a sermon series entitled Christus Paradox, based on a provocative hymn by Canadian prison chaplain Sylvia Dunstan, who was inspired by Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard.  Christus Paradox—the Paradoxical Jesus.

Paradox, said Kierkegaard, is the attempt to discover something that thought cannot think, and paradox comes in handy when we try to make sense of the unique life of Jesus of Nazareth. So the Reverend Dunstan describes Jesus in this series of tensive polarities. “Jesus is,” she says, “defeat and victory, peace and strife, death and life.”  “Jesus is,” she says, “the One we both scorn and crave.”

The whole world craves a life like his.  We know his immaculate innocence is just what we need to show us how to live.  And yet we also know what the world will do to such defenseless innocence. The world scorns him.

Think of Mother Mary.  There she is, just home from registering at whatever passed for Williams Sonoma in first-century Palestine. She’s assembling her trousseau; she’s tasting wedding cakes; she’s planning her honeymoon at a resort on the Dead Sea.

And then standing there in her bedroom beneath her Zac Efron poster surrounded by a pile of adorable stuffed animals is a lucent vanny envoy from the great blue beyond telling her not only that she will have a child but the most anticipated child in the history of her kinfolk.  Mary pushes back against this improbable message.  “How can this be?” she protests, quite reasonably.  “How can this be, since I’ve never...well, you know.”  In the dictionary under “mixed emotions,” it says, “See the Virgin Mary.”

He is the one we both scorn and crave.  Even if you doubt the historicity of the annunciation and nativity, you must admire Luke’s narrative ingenuity, because it is irresistible, and every time we try to retell the Christmas story, we retell Luke’s very story, the story of a shining innocence threatened by sinister malice.

This infant is no match for Caesar’s disruptive census or Herod’s slashing sword.   Tiny Tim is no match for the indifference of a penurious banker.  In Bedford Falls, George Bailey is no match for the squeezing, wrenching, grasping, scraping, clutching, covetous Mr. Potter.  A possibly demented senior citizen who likes to play Santa Claus at Macy’s on 34th Street is no match for a legion of skeptics. Little Kevin McAllister is no match for the craven Sticky Bandits.

The other night a few of us went on one of those patented Adult Education expeditions we’re always taking at Kenilworth Union.  We went to dinner and then saw this movie called The Man Who Invented Christmas.  It’s a guess at how Charles Dickens might have come up with such unforgettable characters like Jacob Marley and Ebenezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit.  Go see it; you’ll have a blast and it will put you in the Christmas Spirit. We’re always retelling this story of shining innocence threatened by sinister malice, because it tells us something about what we want to become but also what we now are.

And surely he is right.  Instinctively we know how much we need him.  He turned water into wine and a little lad’s lean lunch into a banquet for five thousand.  He treated women as equals and not objects or inferiors and befriended the friendless and embraced the unembraceable.  He made lame beggars walk and blind men see.  He welcomed every lost and lonely leper into his loving embrace and mended every broken heart that came his way.

Malcolm Muggeridge was a renowned British intellectual of the twentieth century who all his life was attracted by the Christian religion but rejected it for most of his life.  His sophisticated erudition prevented him from embracing the mysteries and superstitions of an otherworldly faith like Christianity, and he was convinced that only secular humanism could save the wrecked world from itself.   In 1958 he wrote in his diary: “Christianity, to me, is like a hopeless love affair.  It is infinitely dear and infinitely unattainable. I . . . look at it constantly with sick longing.”  He says that he was enchanted by a religion he could not believe.

But then he visited a hospital for lepers founded by Mother Teresa of Calcutta.  And as he was strolling through the leprosarium, built with love for those whom no one wanted, he came to realize that such selfless compassion requires more than mere humanity.  It dawned on Mr. Muggeridge that secular humanists never founded a single leper hospital.[1]  It’s only the Christ-like life that does that sort of thing.  Only the followers of Christ lift up the lowly, fill the hungry with good things, and refuse to bow before the powerful on their thrones.

We know he is precisely what our wrecked world is waiting for.  We crave his coming into our lives once again every Advent.  On the other hand, isn’t his coming into our lives something which, as Sylvia Dunstan puts it, we both scorn and crave?  Perhaps a little like Mary herself?

Because, after all, what did Mary the teen mother gain when this child came into her life?   Everything.  What did she lose?  Everything.  Her reputation, because unwed pregnancy was more scandalous then than it is now.  She lost her youth, she lost her innocence, she lost control of her own existence.  Because like every child, but especially this one, he means to stake his claim to everything we are and everything we have.

When Jesus came into her life, what did Mary lose?  Everything.  What did she gain?  Everything.  So it is with us.

[1]Dave Armstrong, “Malcolm Muggeridge and Mother Teresa,” a blog posted to patheos.com, September 6, 2016. Also Thomas Cahill’s book Desire of the Everlasting Hills (New York: Doubleday, 1999), pp. 304-305.