Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. - Matthew 5:17
We begin this morning the Advent season, the time in which we are encouraged to prepare our minds and our hearts for Christmas. In one sense, there is not a lot that we need to learn, since we probably know the Christmas story better than we know any other. But on a deeper level, we are to be focusing where our need for learning is greatest, on the meaning of the story, and on our relationship to that meaning. We will close our worship with the hymn, “O little town of Bethlehem,” and we will sing the words, “O holy child of Bethlehem! Descend to us, we pray; Cast out our sins and enter in, Be born in us today.” If Nicodemus wondered how anyone could be born again, surely there is a greater mystery to having someone else born in us, especially someone as special, as different, as the child of Bethlehem.
The question is, though, just how different is this child? The main stream of Christian doctrine has insisted that Jesus was both fully human and fully divine, though through most of its history it has had a hard time keeping the two notions together. The pendulum has swung, so to speak, from emphasis on the human, which makes Jesus the accessible example for our lives, and emphasis on the Divine, which makes him the cosmic redeemer. In the one case, he lived the kind of life we are supposed to live. In the other, he changed the fundamental relationship between the transcendent Divine and the human race.
It is the radical claim of our own theology that these two roles are in fact one, or more precisely, became one--that the human was “glorified” or made divine. Swedenborg interprets our text, the words from the Sermon on the Mount about fulfilling rather than destroying the law, to mean that Jesus accomplished this glorification by his obedience to the law. There is not time to go into detail on this, so I may only mention that he is not talking about the laws of ritual and sacrifice on the literal level, but the law of love of which those laws are images. Faced with choices between self-preservation and self-giving, he made the decisions which transformed his character. Grasping the essential truth about divine love, he embodied that love in his life.
How different is this from what we face in our own lives? We certainly shrink from any suggestion that we are called to become divine, but I am more and more convinced that we shrink for the wrong reasons. We resist the idea, that is, because it strikes us as representing the essence of self-inflation. But as stated, this is not a claim that we are divine, only a claim that we are called to become divine. Far from being self-inflating, this could only be profoundly humiliating, making us painfully aware of how far short we have fallen. We have not only failed to become divine, we have failed even to try. In this sense, we have not wanted the holy child to be born in us. We have set our own limited goals of spiritual growth, goals we thought we might be able to attain, and have kept our spirits up by keeping our ideals down. We have not liked the verse that comes just a little later in the Sermon on the Mount--”Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.”
Before I go any further, I want to make it clear that I am not arguing that we are called to be divine. I am simply asking that we look clearly at what we mean by our answer to this question. Is our response one of genuine humility, or is it an avoidance of responsibility? Does it truly glorify the Lord, or does it just remove the Lord to a more comfortable distance?
There is a simple logic to the call to absolute perfection. If something is evil, it is not to be done. We may not like the command, “Be perfect,” but we would have little respect for the command, “Be pretty good.” We tend to compromise on “Do your best,” which sounds fine but evades the issue. Once we start making excuses for our evils, where do we stop?
You may recognize in this the tyrannical logic of the perfectionist. Perfectionists are people who can never relax, who cannot leave off being self-critical even for a moment. No matter what goes wrong, they know that they should have foreseen it, that if they had done or said exactly the right things, everything would have turned out all right. They are stressed, driven, tense folk; and when we look beneath their logic, there is a surprise. That is, underlying their frustration is an unrecognized sense of omnipotence. “No matter what happens, I should be able to handle it.”
We are indeed human. There are a great many things that are beyond our control, far more than there are within our control. “Which of you, by taking thought, can add a cubit to his stature?” We are granted our little areas of freedom, and the boundaries of that area are also the boundaries of our accountability. We can observe as honestly as possible, but we cannot see through walls or around corners. We can evaluate as honestly as possible, which means recognizing that we never have all the facts. We can speak as constructively and act as diligently as possible, but we cannot control how others will react. Whatever happens, though, we can learn from it.
This seems a long way indeed from becoming divine. It leaves us seeming very small indeed, and the divine is infinite. The Gospels indicate, however, that the question of size is not particularly important. “Whoever is faithful in that which is least is faithful also in much: and he that is unjust in the least is unjust also in much.” We are not talking about managing the universe, we are talking about washing the dishes. We are not talking about saving the human race, we are talking about comforting a friend in distress. We are talking always about the task that lies to hand, and specifically about what we have to bring to it and are to receive from it.
This is a particularly appropriate message for Christmas, because it is at Christmas that we turn our attention to the tiny beginning of the divine presence. The infant Jesus was no more capable of feeding himself than any other infant. He did not start with “all power in heaven and on earth.” He started in that utter dependence which is common to us all, and he grew as we do--in the words of Luke, “And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favor with God and man.”
We have no particular reason to think that we have grown at the same pace. But the message of Christmas is not about the pace of growth. It is about the possibility of growth and the fact of growth. However small may be our devotion, however infant may be our understanding, there is something good and beautiful there than can increase. It needs attention, it needs care and nourishment, but it holds within itself the promise of growth to eternity.
Think not that I am come to destroy the law, or the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfil. Whatever we decide about the differences between ourselves and our Lord, this statement needs to be taken into account. That is, the Lord did not break the rules that we are to follow. To the extent that we do exactly as he did, both inwardly and outwardly, exactly the same results follow. The rules were not skewed in his favor, and are not skewed against us.
There does, of course, seem to be an immense difference between us and our Lord. We really do not want to take on responsibility for the whole human race. He did. We rather like the feeling that our spheres of influence are limited, that there are points in every day when we can say, “That’s it for me; the rest is up to someone else.” We like having some time for ourselves. Perhaps--just perhaps--there is a difference between us and the Lord because we want there to be that difference. Perhaps--just perhaps--it is not a gulf willed and enforced by the Lord, but a distancing initiated and maintained by us.
Think of it for a moment. Could Lord who is perfect love withhold that love? Is not the Psalmist teslling the literal truth in saying, “ . . . The Lord will give grace and glory: no good thing will he withhold from them that walk uprightly”? In other words, if there is anything of the divine that is kept from us, it is not because it would not be good for us--that is absurd, unthinkable. It is because we have not reached the point where we want it.
In the eighteenth century, Jonathan Edwards became discouraged about the lack of results from his preaching, and in an effort to rouse his congregation into some awareness of the vital issues of spiritual life, preached a sermon entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” From all reports, he delivered it very quietly, and was astonished at its effectiveness. In fact, he preached also on the beauty of the divine in nature, and the bulk of his message is affirmative. He may be best remembered for his vivid portrayals of the nearness and horrors of hell, but he himself regretted having had recourse to this device.
Is there a way we can be wakened to the vital issues of spiritual life by realizing not the nearness and horrors of hell but the nearness and the beauty of heaven and the divine? The beauty is surely there in the Christmas scene, but how close is it? There are the antique figures, clothed in antique robes. There are the kinds of animals we have almost nothing to do with nowadays. There is a manger, and many people would be surprised to discover what kind of “crib” it was. It is temptingly easy to romanticize the scene so thoroughly that we become merely spectators, with no realistic thought of participation.
But the human and divine qualities have not changed over the centuries. The divine in particular is no farther away from our hearts and minds today than it was to a Mary or a Joseph or a shepherd then. Every once in a while, we catch a glimpse of it in someone else. We realize that there is a very special tenderness, a quite astonishing sensitivity, in this individual. EVery once in a while, we catch a glimpse of it in ourselves. We find ourselves moved to care more deeply than we thought we could, we find ourselves seeing more deeply and cleary than we thought we could.
When it happens to us, we are perfectly well aware that we did not make it happen and that we cannot make it happen. It was a gift. And that is where we may close--”How silently, how silently, The wondrous gift is given; So God imparts to human hearts The blessings of His heaven. No ear may hear his coming, But in this world of sin, Where meek souls will receive him still, The dear Christ enters in. Amen.