"And she gave birth to her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn."
We live in an age of incessant surveys and opinion polls. You name the subject, and somebody has the latest polling data on it. I can’t spend a night in a hotel or take a ride on an airplane without being asked to complete an online survey about two days later. Only earlier this week a survey-taker approached me in an airport terminal and wanted to ask me my opinions about … the terminal. An airport terminal, no less! Our theological opinions and religious practices, while perhaps not as interesting to pollsters as our sexual attitudes and habits, are nevertheless frequently surveyed. The data, in recent years, are trending in some rather interesting way. The vast majority of Americans, somewhere over 80%, but gradually declining, tell the opinion surveyors that they believe in a supreme being of the sort that most of us would call God—a god who is responsible for creation and to whom we, as human beings, are in some sense accountable. True atheism, it seems, is still not really a very popular ideology, though it’s been steadily on the rise. At the same time, however, well less than half of us are what could be described as religiously observant—members of and actively participating in the life of a church or some other kind of faith community—and among adults under the age of 30, this percentage is significantly lower.
Now, the 11% or so—higher among young people—of our society who are professed atheists are at least being consistent with their convictions by not being religiously observant. And, the 30 percent who are active in a faith community are also behaving consistently with their professed beliefs. But what of that vast number—the majority of our society, actually—who say they believe there is a God, but who do not do anything in their lives to express that belief, or to show that it makes any difference at all? Why such a paradox? What is it that keeps these people from reconciling their religious behavior with their professed convictions? Why is it that so many avowed believers are functional atheists?
Part of the answer, no doubt, lies in simple dishonesty. There is still some social stigma attached to public atheism, so, even in the anonymity of an opinion survey, some will say they believe in God when in fact they don’t. But I doubt there are really very many in this category. Ironically, though, even though it still may not be socially fashionable to openly profess atheism, neither is it socially fashionable to be religiously devout. Here’s a test. When was the last time you saw a practicing, praying, every-Sunday-church-going Christian portrayed on TV or in the movies as a psychologically healthy, loving, happy, all-round normal individual? Except for the characters in Call the Midwife, perhaps, I can’t think of any! So it’s no particular wonder that there are many who, in their heart of hearts, believe not only in a general supreme being, but in the particular God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, but who shy away from implicating themselves with that belief because they fear being socially marginalized, fear being type-cast by friends and family and co-workers as “religious,” or even a fanatic. Peer pressure is powerful no matter what age we are, and there is tremendous peer pressure in our society to nibble around the edges of religious practice, but to not take it too seriously.
Then again, there are those who believe in God, and who have healthy enough egos to resist social pressure, but who are concerned about the practical consequences of opening themselves up to God. They realize, and correctly so, that putting things right with God will probably involve owning up to some mistakes, past and present, and making some changes, present and future. How am I going to explain some of those stupid things I did when I was young, or not so young? What is God going to want me to give up? What will God ask me to do? I like my life the way it is; I’m not ready to do anything different. Intellectually, of course, we know that God can see all and knows all, but, we nevertheless try to fool ourselves into acting like if we ignore God, he can’t see us. We can’t bear the shame of facing him straight on, or we can’t bear the pain of amending our lives such as we imagine he might require of us, so we don’t answer when he calls and we don’t respond to the messages he leaves.
Fear of our neighbors, fear of God—both can motivate us to keep God at arm’s length. But the biggest reason, I suspect, that so many theoretical believers are functional atheists is not fear, but indifference. God does not employ an army of angels bearing machine guns to force us to worship and obey him. There are signs of his presence all around us, but we have to want to see them; they’re invisible, as it were, to the naked eye. The reason so many of us act as though God doesn’t exist even when we know he does, is that it’s so easy to do so! We can get away with it. There are no readily-apparent short-term consequences. Our attention is easily diverted by concerns that appear to be more pressing, issues that do have short-term consequences, issues like pursuing career advancement, wealth, influence, sex, amusement, health, family relationships, political action, public service, and the list could go on. Some of these are harmful and dangerous things, some are good and wholesome things, some are both, but all make poor substitutes for God. So whether it’s fear or indifference, there are powerful forces conspiring to prevent us from expressing in our practice what we know to be true in our hearts and minds. Practicing Christian faith does put us at some risk. The question is—is it a risk worth taking?
In any number of books, movies, and TV shows, the climactic scene of the story takes place on a bridge. Two parties who do not trust one another nevertheless want to communicate. They want to exchange money, information, prisoners, hostages, or whatever. But there is risk involved. They try to minimize that risk by creating a safe environment: a definite time, a definite place—one where everyone’s actions can be seen, where there is minimal possibility for treachery and betrayal. So the classic strategy is to spread the risk evenly, to meet the other party at the middle of the bridge, transact the necessary business, and move on. My friends, the good news of Christmas is that God is willing to meet us, not only in the middle of the bridge, but to come all the way over to our side, to allow us to frisk him for weapons and look into the whites of his eyes. God is willing to assume all the risk in his relationship with us, and the token of that willingness is that he meets us as a completely vulnerable infant wrapped in a blanket and resting in a feeding trough.
He doesn’t have too, you know. After all, God is God. He could have come to us as a mysterious charismatic figure emerging out of the wilderness, from nowhere in particular and everywhere in general, and drawing an immediate and massive following. But he didn’t. He came at a definite time—in the days of Caesar Augustus—and at a particular place—Bethlehem of Judaea—and was born to a real woman with a real name—Mary of Nazareth. We know who he is, we know where he’s from, we know who is people are; it’s all above board, no secrets. God could, we must presume, have taken a position of power and prestige, surrounding himself with armed guards and timing his arrival to coincide with a solar eclipse or the appearance of a comet that all would see. But he didn’t. He was born in a barn, as a regular baby dressed in regular baby clothes—a barn, moreover, located in an obscure little town in an obscure province of the Roman Empire, and with such accompanying astrological signs as only some unknown foreigners from who-knows-where were able to interpret. God took a great risk in consenting to be born this way. He risked being rejected on account of not seeming worthy of respect. Little babies are cute, but we don’t worship them as God, nor, for that matter, do we worship as God anyone who ever was a little baby. That isn’t God-like. In being born in a barn, God also risked being trivialized and sentimentalized. Little babies are cute—like bunny rabbits and puppies and pink ribbon.
Does it jar you to hear me say Jesus was born in a barn rather than in a stable? Or that he was placed in a feeding trough rather than laid in a manger? Or that the Wise Men were obscure astrologers from an unknown country? It jars me to hear me say those things! We have, in our imaginations, from generation to generation, taken what had to have been a traumatic and frightful experience for Mary and Joseph and their young son and turned it into something cute. And in so doing, we trivialize it and tame it and rob it of its power. Look what we’ve done to the supposed “meaning” of Christmas. Instead of the scandal of God taking human flesh, we get sentimental platitudes about love and tolerance and patience and warm family feelings. Now, I’m not knocking any of those things; don’t hear me wrong. They’re good things. But they’re not even remotely what Christmas is about. Yes, God took a risk by being born in a barn. He not only risked rejection and trivialization, he risked indifference and marginalization. His coming was not a public spectacle that impressed itself on the collective human consciousness in such a way that it can be neither avoided nor forgotten. It was accomplished in a way that allows us to ignore it with impunity. God incarnate is not forced on us. God took the risk of not only meeting us halfway across the bridge, but of coming all the way on to our side and revealing himself in complete vulnerability, wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger.
Was God’s great risk worth it? Our response is alone the answer to that question. This Christmas is an opportunity, an invitation. It is another chance to respond—to cast off that shackles of social pressure, to to go ahead and meet Jesus on our end of the bridge, realizing that getting right with God is the pearl of great price that is worth sacrificing anything to have, to admit that we cannot hide from God, that he is looking on us in love every minute of every day, in the person of Jesus, one with us in our humanity. O come, let us adore him. Amen.