|Polish Socinian medallion|
Right at the beginning of my own call to Christian ministry in the late 1980s I, like everyone who heeds it, I had to answer in some way the question John the Baptist asked two of his own disciples to put to Jesus "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?" (Luke 7:19). John was, of course, referring to the long expected Messiah or the Christ which, in plain English means the chosen and anointed one - a new King of Israel who would bring them salvation, not only of the spirit but also salvation from the imperial power of Rome. The Christian tradition in all its forms, including our Polish Socinian forebears, has always answered “Yes!” to this question and those of you who know me well will know that I always wear around my neck a copy of the medallion the Polish brethren struck by them in the sixteenth century upon the back of which is written in Hebrew their own words of affirmation: (Mashiah melekh ba besgalom wa’ Adam - Adam 'asui hai) which can be translated to mean "The Messiah of the Kingdom of Peace became a human being."
Today, of course, we are celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ, which is to say, Jesus the Messiah, and that means however you personally answer John’s question, whether with a yes, a no, or a don’t know, whether as a metaphor or as some other kind of more tangible, embodied reality, the question is necessarily put before us once again.
It is important to understand that no one else can answer this question for you and, in a liberal church such as this one, no one will ever demand from you a single, fixed and predetermined answer to it. The only thing I feel I have both a duty and a right to insist upon is that, together, we continue seriously to ask the question. I do this because it remains central in our own community's conversation together about what might be the best model to follow as we seek to encourage the creation of a genuine, flourishing, full and abundant life together.
As a pastor and preacher the most I can do, as I have said many times before, is to introduce you to a various viewpoints from where I feel able and confident to point to something and, "Look there, that is what I mean by God." All I can then do is trust that your own experience and evidence of those things will, in time, allow to make your own genuine decisions about them.
The viewpoint I want to introduce you to this Christmas morning is one that was of decisive help to me as I struggled to know how to answer my call to ministry. I stumbled across it in the conclusion of Paul Tillich's beautiful, short Christmas sermon called "Has the Messiah Come?" These words finally allowed me to find a way to utter some kind of “Yes!” to John’s question. I offer Tillich's words to you today as a small Christmas gift.
The presence of the Messiah is a mystery; it cannot be said to everybody, and it cannot be seen by everybody, but only by those like Simeon who are driven by the Spirit. There is something surprising, unexpected about the appearance of salvation, something which contradicts pious opinions and intellectual demands. The mystery of salvation is the mystery of a child. So it was anticipated by Isaiah, by the ecstatic vision of the sibyl and by the poetic vision of Virgil, by the doctrines of mysteries and by the rites of those who celebrated the birth of the new eon. They all felt as did the early Christians, that the event of salvation is the birth of a child. A child is real and not yet real, it is in history and not yet historical. Its nature is visible and invisible, it is here and not yet here. And just this is the character of salvation. Salvation has the nature of a child. As Christendom remembers every year, in the most impressive of its festivals, the child Jesus, so salvation, however visible it may be, remains always also invisible. He who wants a salvation which is only visible cannot see the divine child in the Manger as he cannot see the divinity of the Man on the Cross and the paradoxical way of all divine acting. Salvation is a child and when it grows up it is crucified. Only he who can see power under weakness, the whole under the fragment, victory under defeat, glory under suffering, innocence under guilt, sanctity under sin, life under death can say: Mine eyes have seen thy salvation.
It is hard to say this in our days. But it always has been hard and it always will be hard. It was and is and will be a mystery, the mystery of a child. And however deep the world might fall, even into utter self-destruction, as long as there are men they will experience this mystery and say: "Blessed are the eyes which see the things that we see."
As Tillich saw, for all kinds of reasons, it is hard to say this in our days. We tend to think that this is particularly characteristic of our own times but Tillich wisely reminds us it was always hard to answer. Our difficulties in answering yes may not be those of the first-century but difficulties most surely remain.
But the older I get the more powerfully I am persuaded of the truth proclaimed by Gospel writers and St Paul because I have come to trust their proclamation of such a weak Messiah and such a weak conception of God. As St Paul so movingly (for me anyway) says: “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men” (1 Corinthians 1:25).
Daily I look about me and see the immense damage being done to our planet, its peoples and its flora and fauna by those who wield immense and, for the most part, wholly unchecked power - in all their wildest dreams Herod nor Piilate couldn’t have dreamed of anything approaching the power available to the individuals and imperialistic corporations who rule 99% of us today. Their hubristic desire for control over human life whether this is played out through financial, political or theological systems or enforced by repressive legislation or at gunpoint simply seems to me to be wrong. I can do nothing but say “No!” to the 1%'s way of proceeding. But when I turn to the Christ-child in the crib I see something shining there that simply seems to me to be right - I look at that small, vulnerable and weak child and I find myself saying, “Yes, that is what I mean by God” and so find myself willing to affirm with my forebears: “Yes, the Messiah of the Kingdom of Peace became a human being."
This Christmas day I cannot make you see this salvation yourselves but I can encourage you all to stop, to find a quiet place in which to read or remember the nativity stories once again and then to look, really look, at the child lying in the crib and ask, really ask yourself, "Are you the one who was to come, or should we expect someone else?"
It's hard to answer yes, we all agree on that - but, thanks to Tillich, we do have a way to proceed. We can take time in our lives to seek out examples of power under weakness, the whole under the fragment, victory under defeat, glory under suffering, innocence under guilt, sanctity under sin and life under death. I have faith that today I am among a people who are sensitive and spiritually alive enough to see these things and, even if the wait is as long as that experienced by Simeon and Anna (heard about in our reading from Luke), they will one Christmas Day find they can say "Mine eyes have seen thy salvation."
A happy Christmas to you all.
“The Messiah of the Kingdom of Peace became a human being.” Time has contracted - a liberal Christian meditation on messianic time
The Messiah of the Kingdom of Peace - First Sunday in Advent