Seward United Methodist Church
Tuesday, January 18, 2022
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A Vulnerable God?

Matthew 2:13-23 and Hebrews 2:10-18
            How often do you feel vulnerable? I know we’re not supposed to feel vulnerable. That’s for children. We’re grown-ups, we’re adults, we can handle whatever happens.   But honestly, do you not feel vulnerable more often than you’d like to admit? How could we not feel vulnerable with all the craziness of the world around us? 
            I thought of two times in my life when I really felt vulnerable. The first, I think, is kind of amusing. It’s a funny story now. It happened twelve years ago, the first year that Sharon and I were married. I’d been going on the Algonquin Wilderness Canoe Trip for many years by then, and I wanted her to experience it as well. So she agreed to come along. Hasn’t been back since….
            On that trip we went to a lake called Eustache. It’s off the beaten path. It’s not along a well-traveled route, and if you want to go there, you have to hike in more than a mile-and-a-half, uphill from the river. We were the only people on the lake, and we had only seen one other person in the previous two days, so we really felt alone there. 
           And then we heard wolves howling. Now if you’ve ever had the chance to hear wolves howling, you know it’s magical. It’s a wild and untamed and beautiful sound. It’s also a little unnerving. We heard them three times that evening. First they sounded far off. Then they sounded closer. It was getting on to bedtime, and Sharon asked me to take her back to the tent, but first she needed to make a stop at the outhouse. As we were walking, we heard them again. Not howling, but barking and yelping. And they sounded like they were right there, like if it had been light out, we could have seen them. 
            Sharon turned to me, eyes as big as saucers, “Are they here? Are they close?” So I did what every good husband does in a situation like that: I lied. “Oh, no, they sound close, but they’re a mile away.” “Okay, you wait here.” And she went up the trail and I was alone in the dark with a pack of wolves somewhere close by. 
            It was as vulnerable as I’d ever felt as an adult up until that point. Logically, I knew that wolves very seldom attack people, but logic wasn’t foremost in my mind. 
            Sadly, it’s not. The other time I thought of was last December, after the Sandy Hook school shootings. I think we all felt a little more vulnerable in the world after that. Similar events had happened before, but it really hit me, having a child in school now. 
            The shootings were on a Friday morning. Sunday night, I was putting Joshua to bed, and I asked him, “Do you know what to do if someone ever points a gun at you?” That’s not a question I ever expected to be asking to a five-year old. The next day I took him to school to drop him off, and it was all I could do to keep from crying as I did. I left him at the door, turned around, and all I could do was pray, “Lord, keep my child safe because I can’t.” That was a vulnerable feeling.
            I found it was much easier to feel vulnerable about myself than it was to feel vulnerable about my child. If I would have gotten torn apart by wolves, that would have been okay. I mean, I’d get to heaven, and people would say, “How did you check out?” And I’d say, “I got eaten by wolves.” Honestly, how many people get to say that? But feeling vulnerable for someone else, especially for my child was an altogether different experience. It gave me a new understanding of what God must have felt when he sent his Son to this world, where people would try and eventually succeed in killing him.
In Matthew’s telling of the Christmas story, we find a God who has entered into the vulnerability of this world. He tells us of the “flight to Egypt,” what could be rightly called the very first war on Christmas. 
            In a dream, Joseph is warned of the intentions of King Herod, who was well known for his paranoia about his grip on power. Joseph is told to flee to Egypt, which was a place where God’s people had fled in other times of danger, and a nation that in the first century era had a large Jewish population. Jesus became part of the great number of human beings who have become refugees. 
            I have an uncle from Cambodia. He and his brother left their home as refugees when the Khmer Rouge seized power in the 1970s. The rest of their family was killed by the Communist regime. It’s a terrible thing to have to leave one’s home for fear of one’s life.
            In his anger, Herod killed all the baby boys of Bethlehem under two years old. Some historians doubt this part of the story, saying that it’s not mentioned outside the Bible and it’s simply too horrible to be true. Unfortunately, it was not at all out of character for Herod, who murdered three of his own sons to keep his grip on power.
            In time, Herod died, and Joseph brought his family back, only to find out that Herod’s son Archelaus was in power. He was even worse than Herod. So Joseph went back to Nazareth in Galilee. 
            A tricky question for theologians is, “If God could warn Mary and Joseph of Herod’s intentions, why did he not warn all the parents of Bethlehem?” I don’t think we can really answer that question. We know that God allows free will to operate in this world, and we know he sometimes intervenes in the midst of circumstances to accomplish his purposes. Some have pointed out that if God warned all the parents to flee, then Herod would have become even more suspicious, knowing that somehow they had been tipped off, there must be a conspiracy against him, and much greater bloodshed would have happened. That’s not a bad theory, but it’s still just a theory. Some things are just left as mysteries. 
            But what we do see as a fact in this story is a Savior who has entered into and participated fully in the vulnerability of the human condition. And that’s very important as we see in Hebrews.
Hebrews tells us something that seems a little strange; that Christ was made perfect through suffering. It seems strange to think of Christ becoming perfect. He’s God; isn’t he already perfect? It depends on our understanding of perfection. The Greek word for perfection was TELEIOS, and it meant fully prepared for the designated function. It was a functional perfection, not an abstract perfection. 
            Through suffering like us, Christ has become a perfect leader. The Greek word here is ARCHEGOS, and it’s a tricky word to translate. It can mean leader or pioneer or founder or forerunner. The idea is someone who begins something so that others can follow along the same path. It’s not just going first, but blazing the trail for others. Jesus has walked a path ahead of us, the way of the cross. The way that says, “Deny yourself. Give up your life in order that you might find true life.” 
            Jesus became like us to show us a new way. He is a new Adam, a new Son of God, just as Adam was. But rather than choosing the way of Adam, of self-centeredness, Christ showed us the way of self-denial. Theologians call this idea recapitulation, from the Greek meaning, “A new beginning; a fresh start.” 
In order to do this, Jesus had to become like us in every way. He had to take on flesh and blood. Only then could he die as a perfect sacrifice and rise again victorious over the power of sin, and death, and Satan. 
            In this way, he has delivered us from the fear of death. The fear of death, of course, is the most common and most profound fear that we have. But in Christ, death, the great enemy, becomes a friend. It ushers us into the eternal presence of Christ and into new life in him. We don’t need to fear death. We’re usually still apprehensive about it, even as believers, but we don’t need to fear it for ourselves. And it should also be a motivation for us to be diligent about sharing the good news of Jesus Christ so that we don’t need to fear death for those we love either. 
            I think it is very encouraging for us to know that in Christ we have a Savior who knows our vulnerabilities so intimately, because he experienced them personally himself. It’s when we share in an experience that we gain a new sense of empathy and compassion for those who go through it. 
Christ even shared in our vulnerability to temptation. He was tempted just as we are, so he is able to help us when we are tempted to stop trusting God. 
            God does not promise to protect us from every evil that could befall us in this world. They only way that he could do that would be to take away our free will, and God values our free will enough that he will not do that. But he does promise to be with us in the midst of our vulnerability. And he has already provided a way to deliver us from the greatest evil, death. 
            As people of faith, we can come to God and pray for him to be with us in our feelings of vulnerability, knowing that he has experienced the same fears and doubts himself. And I find that to be very good news.

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