John 1:1-18 (Lectionary’s Emphasis is on John the Baptist.)
So, I’m sitting outside terminal E at the Philadelphia International Airport, waiting for my mom’s plane to arrive. They stopped the flight before take off in Minneapolis to check a mechanical problem, which was just fine with mom, and with me, but that means that now I had 2 hours to kill.
One of the irritating things about Homeland Security is that now almost all the restaurants at the airport are on the ticketed side of security. I walked through terminals D, E, and F looking for something moderately cheap. I had two choices- either a Krispy Kreme and coffee place with no tables, or Duggan’s Pub. Duggan’s Pub had tables, but it was one of those places unique to airports where there are three TV’s on, all silent and with the closed captioning on. The channels they have on are the Holy Trinity of airports-CNN, The Weather Channel, and ESPN. Also typical is that there is music playing from a 4th source. Those suitcases that have wheels on them seem to be pretty universal now, and sure enough, everywhere there were tables, there was a rolling case or two. (Wouldn’t I have loved to be the guy who invented those!) It was an airport bar, so of course there were a few beers on the tables, along with some sandwiches- lots of bread, two or three slices of meat, cheese extra. Sandwich and drink, with a bag of pretzels, $12. Ah, airport food. There was a big picture window, looking out into the harbor-shaped set of buildings that makes up D and E terminals. Beyond that were the refineries that separate the airport from the Delaware River, and beyond that you could just see New Jersey.
I gave up and decided to not waste the time, ordered a sandwich and a Diet Coke and began to think about Jesus. Odd place, I know, but Jesus goes everywhere we do. Since this is Advent, I thought about the birth of Jesus, who he was, and why he came. I had with me a book that friends had highly recommended, called Generous Orthodoxy, by Brian McLaren. It is indeed a fascinating book, a book whose purpose is to try to feel the way to be Christian in a way that isn’t rigid and mean-spirited, but neither is it reflexively open-minded and colorless. It seems that the modern church has polarized into one or the other of these extremes, and McLaren, with others, are finding both ways unsatisfactory when compared with the Bible and the greatest parts of the Christian tradition.
So, there I sat, small Peterson’s “Message” translation of the New Testament, journal, and McLaren’s book out on the table, at Duggan’s Pub. I’m sure it was a sight. Anyway, McLaren had an interesting thing to say about the purpose of Jesus. As he grew up, he was told again and again, that Jesus was born to die. The purpose of Jesus, the Word of God and the word that was with God, was to come to earth to die. A simple sacrifice, similar to the doves and sheep and bulls that were sacrificed on the altar in Jerusalem in Jesus’ time. A sacrifice that exercised no free will, and was therefore less that human. McLaren said that he no longer believed this, and it resonated with me, because I have always had difficulty with that belief, myself.
Let me explain what that rub is for me. The mainstream of Christian tradition states that Jesus was fully human, and fully divine. And for me, there is no way that he could have been fully human unless he had the exercise of free will. What makes sense to me is that Jesus had to choose to go up on that cross, he had to choose to stay there, and he had to choose to die. If there was no free will, Jesus would not have needed to be baptized. He would not have chosen to disobey his parents and stay behind in the temple with the religious leaders. And if he didn’t have free will, there would have been no need for him to say “Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me, yet not my will, but yours be done” in the Garden of Gethsemane. Yes, there are plenty of places, especially in Matthew where Jesus does this or say that in order to fulfill this or that prophecy. But there is more to Jesus than the coming to earth to fulfill prophecy, even in Matthew.
And when I read back through the Gospels, I can see time after time that Jesus made choices. And I start to see a pattern. When Jesus made those choices, he always made them in favor of the people. He chose to feed the five thousand rather than make them go into the villages to buy food. He had pity on the people who had followed him around the sea, and healed them, cutting short his own prayer time. He chose to heal the Syro-Phonecian woman’s daughter after the woman argued with him. He says I am thirsty, John says, so that a prophecy will be fulfilled. He does it because the definition of Messiah he is requires it of him. He chooses to do it.
For Jesus to truly have saved us on the cross, he needed to have chosen us. If he didn’t, it is God sending a sacrifice that cannot choose for itself, much like a ram or a dove. And to me, that is rather less.
So, here at Advent, the announcement John makes in today’s Scripture passage is the announcement of a fully divine being choosing to become human. John points the way to the one who makes God plain as day. And this fully divine being chooses to live the full life of a human from a natural birth, through puberty, to adulthood, and all the pain and joy that that entails. And his pain is increased because time and time again, he chooses not to exercise his divinity to protect himself, but to love the people he was sent to save.
The people he was sent to save include the disciples, the crowds, everyone throughout history, and down through the ages to you and me. It means that he was sent to save everyone in Duggan’s Bar, too.
We know that Jesus came before us all. John tells us that the Word was in the beginning, with God. What came into being with him was life. And he chose to be born into our lives, into human life. Paul says that Jesus emptied himself. The only way I understand this is to say that he put his divinity into some cosmic double blind trust, and healed only through the faith of others. When the people had no faith, he had no power. What he didn’t put into trust, though, was the memory that he loved us, the same way God did, because he was God, and he was with God. He chose to show us God in a way we could grasp because he hadn’t forgotten that love. He chose to be baptized by John because the people needed some sign of his belonging. Can you imagine someone coming to us and telling us about God when they hadn’t been baptized, themselves? How much would we trust them? John knew who he was, and resisted the responsibility of baptizing God. Jesus said to him, “let it be so for now”. That was a choice, and it was a choice for us.
Jesus chose to accept the cup given to him by God. He chose to accept the cross, and I believe that he was given the choice, by God, again and again. Because Jesus’ ultimate choice for, us, to die on the cross, would be less, I think, if it wasn’t done purely out of his love for us, otherwise.
Today is the Christ Sunday of Advent. The pink candle on the advent wreath is the Christ candle. We light it for the choice God made, for me, for you, for everyone down at Duggan’s pub. Jesus, I believe, was not born to die. He chose to. He chose us. That baby came, grew up, became fully human, and chose us. So we light the candle to remember that.