Phenomenal Cosmic Power… Itty-Bitty Living Space (11pm)
I love our National Parks… but Yellowstone National Park legitimately unnerves me. Did you know that many of its beautiful hot springs and geysers are not only boiling hot but often chock-full of sizzling acid or deadly bacteria that predate the dinosaurs? Yet far worse is what lies beneath Yellowstone itself: a sleeping super-volcano one-thousand-five-hundred square miles in size. Standing there, surrounded by water that could cook me three different ways, atop a volcano that could end civilization as we know it… I felt so small. While I can read the scientific explanations in a book, the reality of Yellowstone is truly not something I can process. My mind cannot handle something so large, so indifferent to my existence, so powerful. When I stand on that volcano, my life feels like a small question: “Will you please not erupt?” To which Yellowstone only answers: “I will do what I will do regardless of you.” I don’t dislike Yellowstone: it’s not bad or anything. But its sheer scale and power fills me with terror and awe.
I get a similar feeling when I read John’s esoteric and abstract telling of Christmas. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him.” It lends an ancient gravitas to the baby born on Christmas Day: this is no child but the very Mind of God Almighty entering our world. Or perhaps it adds a bit of Lovecraftian cosmic wonder: a deity beyond our reckoning has taken on human flesh, so tremble mortals. After all, there’s a reason nearly every angel’s first words to mortals are: “Do not be afraid.” And if the presence of mere angels terrifies, how much more awe-inspiring is God Almighty? Jacob in Genesis is dumbstruck that somehow he saw God yet survived. The Lord warns Moses, perhaps the greatest prophet to ever live, that Moses cannot survive seeing God face-to-face. Isaiah’s first words in his vision of God’s heavenly throne are, “Woe is me! I am undone, for I am a man of unclean lips from a people of unclean lips, yet my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!” While often we talk about God being our friend, being kind, being near… we must never forget God is also cosmically different from us, wholly other, on a scale of power and goodness and knowledge we physically cannot comprehend. Just like standing atop Yellowstone was a healthy blow to my ego, a useful reminder of my tiny place in this vast creation… John’s gospel reminds us every Christmas that the Jesus may be a baby here… but the Person who is this baby was there at the dawn of time and the birth of the cosmos.
Yet even driving home the scale, the ancient wonder, the unfathomable reality that is Jesus’ divine nature… John’s gospel also adds, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” This entity beyond us in all ways conceivable and yet more inconceivable… this Word of God took on flesh—a body like yours and mine, with warts, pimples, and all—and lived among us in the limited scope, size, and strength of these bodies. In a weird way, the story of Christmas is perhaps best summed up by the Genie from Disney’s Aladdin: “Phenomenal cosmic power! …itty-bitty living space.” Already it’s impossible to describe God in isolation. How to describe an infinitely powerful, infinitely loving, infinitely wise being—when I don’t even know what infinity is—let alone what it would mean for something to be infinite at love, infinite at wisdom, or whatever? Impossible. But now the Bible is telling me this Being I already cannot describe has entered our world in human form? That’s even more impossible to explain, isn’t it?
But that way of thinking is all backwards. Quaker theologian Elton Trueblood explains, “The historic Christian doctrine of the divinity of Christ does not simply mean that Jesus is like God. It is far more radical than that. It means that God is like Jesus.” The story of Christmas is of an infinite Being who created everything we know and are… stepping into this reality, sharing in our ordinary small stories… that we might share in infinity forever: infinite joy, infinite life, infinite love. It’s the story of a God so devastatingly glorious that simply to gaze upon Him is death… instead taking on our human form, that we might not only see but know God at long last. Too often Christians get caught up in abstracted theorems and arbitrary rules. If you want to know who God is, if you want to understand God’s infinite glory, unquenchable power, and eternal love… then simply look at the person of Jesus, whom we can know, whom we can see, whom we can touch. What does the infinite love look like? It looks like Jesus. What does infinite power look like? It looks like Jesus. Jesus makes the infinite Almighty knowable to us at last.
I’ll share another time when I felt small, though not as terrifying as Yellowstone. As some may know, when I lived in DC I went to alternative rock concerts nearly every other month. While famous bands sell out huge arenas, in these smaller shows all us fans stood on the same tile floor. You’d dance, and your dancing could set the pace for everyone else in the crowd. Someone would stage dive onto me, and I’d put up my hands to help them surf atop the crowd. Someone would fall, and we’d form a human wall to help them stand up. The band would sing, and we’d sing along, sometimes even directly into the microphone. At one show, the band pulled out duplicate instruments and invited anyone in the audience who could play to join them up on stage. Looking back a decade later, I realize now what I loved about those concerts, why I risked my eardrums for them. At a good concert, I felt so small: I was one tiny person in a sea of people that surging back, forth, and all around me. Yet I also felt a part of that larger thing, was drawn up into it. Though I was small, the crowd around me made me feel bigger than I was, larger than just one person, more connected to everything. Those shows were still terrifying at times, lost in that sea of people. But that sense of my smallness always gave way to a feeling of being part of something far larger than I could ever be on my own. It was both humbling and uplifting.
I think that’s kind of what Christmas is like. The story of Christmas is that our lives are not made smaller by God coming near us. Quite the opposite: God-with-us at Christmas makes you and I far more important, far grander than we can possibly imagine. Or as John declares, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God… What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people… [and at long last at Christmas] the true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world… [and] to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” The story of Christmas involves a power more terrible and awe-inspiring than Yellowstone’s super-volcano: the Almighty Creator of everything is entering a world that cannot contain him. But this infinity now among us in the babe born on Christmas does not make people smaller. It makes the Virgin Mary into the most blessed of women. It makes shivering shepherds watching their flocks by night into the heralds of angels. It pulls pagan kings from distant lands into the hope of the people of Israel, spreading God’s kingdom now to all nations.
Between Covid-19 and all the other disasters of 2020, this has been an easy year to feel small. All the big events of the past year are so beyond us it’s tempting to feel like our decisions and lives don’t matter. I myself in recent times have felt swept along by forces beyond my ken and control. But the story of Christmas is one of infinity coming among us tiny, little people… that we might share in infinite grandeur and glory: then, now, and forever. The story of Christmas is that the God who was impossible for us to reach on our own has instead made himself known to us through Jesus, that when we look at the child born on Christmas we see what love, power, and glory are like: God setting aside all glory and honor to dwell among us as a tiny child… so that we might share in God’s glory forever. Praise God for the gift of Christmas. Amen.