December 25, 2019 – Jesus v. The Force

The Nativity of the Lord

Readings / Lecturas

Recording

Preached at Assumption Parish in Bellingham, WA

English

A college friend of mine used to tell the story of the worst Christmas homily he had ever heard. He shows up to church on Christmas (Christmas! You know, everyone’s favorite Christian holiday, associated with hope, joy, light, peace, and good cheer, whose central image is a baby and his mother); he shows up on Christmas and the homily begins something like: “The cacophony of sin surrounds us and threatens to envelop us like a dark cloud.” Joy to the World, am I right?

Of course, now that I am a preacher myself, I can see how this could have ended up being a good homily. Contrast the cacophony of sin to the silence of Bethlehem; talk about how the enveloping cloud is conquered by the star and the angels. It could work! But, given how my friend tells this story, I am fairly certain that is not where the homily ended up going.

Well, preaching is always a risk, and I am very aware that, if I am not careful, I, too, could someday become “cacophony of sin guy,” whose homily lives on only at family parties where they relate how, that one time, Father just did not get Christmas. And I am telling you this because this homily begins with some depressing statistics. But I want to assure you, there is a star at the end of this journey and we will finish in Bethlehem.


So, what are those depressing statistics? According to the latest Pew Forum Survey of American Adults, Christianity continues to decline in this country at a rapid pace. In the last twelve years, the number of Americans who call themselves Christians has dropped from 78% to 65%, while the number of Americans who claim no religion in particular has climbed from 16% to 26%. If these trends continue, in 15 years the United States will no longer be majority Christian and in 30 years we will be majority unchurched.

There is one bright spot, though. Even today, only 4% of Americans are atheists and only 5% are agnostic. That means that 91% of Americans still believe in God or some universal spirit.

This shouldn’t really surprise us. Regardless what certain corners of the internet would like you to believe, the existence of God is a universal human belief across cultures and eras. People pray when they are scared; no one truly doubts that they have free will or a soul; everyone who looks at creation feels a sense of awe and is aware of a connection to a force much greater than themselves. Every child I have ever worked with has an innate religious sense, an innate sense of God, that only leaves them when they lose hope and wonder and trust. It is not that we grow out of believing in God, it is that, for some of us, God is hidden from us by the cruelty of the world.

Nevertheless, even as Americans are rapidly abandoning church and creed and religion, they are not abandoning God. The vast majority of Americans still claim to be spiritual and still claim to pray, just not to a God that is defined by any institutional religion.


In light of this, we ought to ask ourselves if these trends really matter. If 9 out of 10 Americans still pray to some kind of god or universal spirit, does it really make a difference how many of them are Christian? In other words, is there anything better or worse about, say, “communing with the Force,” à la Star Wars, versus worshipping the God of the manger, as we do [tonight/today]?

I mean, obviously I am going to say, “Yes”, Jesus matters. This is a Christian church on Christmas. Duh. But why? Why does Jesus matter?

Today, in militant atheist circles, you will hear the argument, first made by Ludwig Feuerbach in 1841, that God is nothing more than human wish fulfillment. And Feuerbach is not entirely wrong. Again, we humans have an inherent sense that there is a God, but without more information about this God, the divine begins to look an awful lot like ourselves. We fill in the gaps based on the anxieties and desires of our own hearts. We are anxious about dying, so we believe in a god that provides us an afterlife. We are anxious about the chaos and randomness of the world, so we believe in a god that hears and answers our prayers. We are anxious about the injustices of society, so we believe in a god who rewards saints and punishes sinners. In post-industrial society, we feel isolated from the natural world, so we believe in a god that is akin to a nature spirit, who can be found most powerfully in the wilderness. In a social media society, we are anxious about isolation and self-conscious of our differences, so we believe in a god whose primary characteristic is affirmation and acceptance.

Like the atheists, I do believe that this tendency towards divine wish fulfillment exists, but unlike the atheists, I do not believe it tells us anything about the existence of God. It merely shows us that, whether God exists or not, if don’t know anything about him, we will form him in our own image.

And this, my friends, strikes me as a very dangerous tendency. Humanity is deeply flawed, so if we simply create the god we want, that god will be deeply flawed, too. If we begin to think that our own opinions, desires, and outlooks are not just our own, but also have a divine mandate, we take everything good and everything bad about ourselves and multiply it one-hundred-fold. We stop being skeptical of ourselves and start believing our own lies.

Now compare this to the God of the manger, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, who revealed himself to the Jewish people and then chose to be born into his own creation, at a time and place we can pinpoint with relative accuracy.

This is not a God we can invent to fulfill our wishes, because this is a God who exists outside of ourselves, with his own personality, his own teachings, his own plans. He spoke first to Abraham, then to Moses, then through the prophets. At every turn, his revelations to the Jewish people were recorded for future generations and compiled into the Old Testament, a collection of documents which is far more challenging to the human heart than affirming of it. This is not the God of wish fulfillment.

But then, far beyond anything humanity could ever have hoped for, God took upon himself a human nature and walked among us. No serious scholar doubts the existence of Jesus of Nazareth, but it would be pretty easy to say that Jesus did not fulfill any of the messianic desires. The Jews longed for a Messiah who would overthrow the oppressive Roman power, who would begin a definitive era of peace and prosperity, who would vindicate the long-suffering Jewish religion. But, only a few decades after his death, not only had Jesus not done any of these things, but Jerusalem and its temple were destroyed.  Jesus is clearly not the messiah of wish fulfillment.

Still, there is no doubt in my mind that I would rather worship Jesus of Nazareth than I would a generic world-spirit, because when I worship Jesus of Nazareth, I am certain that I am not worshiping myself. Whether I worship Jesus or not really does matter.


There is another, crucial way in which worshiping Jesus instead of a generic spirit makes a difference, and that is who drives the relationship.

I hear often from people that they do not go to church because they much prefer to find God in nature, or in family, or in friends. And I totally get it. I, too, have felt the spark of life in many of these activities. But the downside with this approach to the divine is that it always ends up being our responsibility to find God. We have to reach out, we have to search. And then, if we cannot find God anymore, if we become depressed or lonely or numb, we suddenly start asking whether it is our fault, whether we were not looking hard enough, whether we are being punished by God for some reason.

But this is not how God works, or at least not how the God of the manger works. The God of the Israelites, who also was born into time by the Virgin Mary, is always the one who drives the relationship. He does not wait for us to seek him, because he is always, always seeking us. Even when humanity sinned and abandoned him, God did not give up on us. From the very moment that Adam and Eve fell from the Garden, God initiated a master plan for our redemption and restoration. No matter how many times the Israelites abandoned their covenant with him, he always brought them back, he always restored them, he renewed his covenant. And then, when he was ready to carry out his plan on a universal and eternal stage, God took upon himself a human nature and became one of us. God chose to live our life, with all of the difficulties and weaknesses and flaws. He chose to live our death, even on a cross. God desired so deeply to be in relationship with us that he himself became a human being.

The Christmas images show us just how extreme God’s love for us is. He was not born in Rome, the center of government and culture, but in Bethlehem, a suburb of a backwater Roman province that no one in the Mediterranean world at the time had any respect for. Jesus was not born to a king or a governor, but to a blue-collar construction worker and his suspiciously pregnant wife. And he was not born in a palace, but in a cave where animals slept, a place where no amount of frankincense could compensate for the smell.

This God, the God of the manger, is clearly a God who will pursue us to the ends of the Earth. A God who never, ever gives up on having a relationship with us, a God who will make himself present in every moment of our lives. Are you listless and without direction? This God will pursue you and be with you even there. Are you depressed or isolated? This God will pursue you and be with you even there. Do you feel like you have sinned against God or your family or your friends? That you are too flawed to be loved? Our God was born homeless and immediately had to flee as a political refugee. He would never allow sin to be a barrier to a relationship with you. He already proved that in the manger and on the Cross.

Yes, it does make a difference whether we worship Jesus or a generic deity, because a generic deity is a black hole of love that sucks all of our energy and love, while the real God, the God whom we know as the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, this God is a well of infinite love who will fill us to overflowing if we simply open ourselves to him.


My friends, the reason so many people leave the Catholic Church but do not abandon their belief in God is because, at some point in their life, they looked for God and did not find him here. Maybe it was an ideological difference, maybe it was the scandal of clerical sexual abuse, maybe it was the hardheartedness of the priest or the community. We may never know. But my heart breaks for these people, because when they did not find God here, we effectively sent them out on an impossible quest, to find a God who cannot fulfill them or make them happy. We sent them into the arms of a God who is merely a mirror of ourselves, with all of our flaws and corruptions.

If you are one of these people, who have walked away from weekly Mass and are only back today because you are with family, or because you figured you should at least come for Christmas, I am sorry. I am sorry that you looked for God and did not find him here. That is our fault. There is nothing wrong with Jesus, only with his followers. Jesus continues to pursue your heart and continues to do everything in his power to have a relationship with you. I hope you will give him another chance, whether that is here at Assumption or another Christian church.


My brothers and sisters in Christ, it is indeed a Merry Christmas. No story could bring us more hope than the Christmas story, in which we see once again the extremes to which our God will go to show us his love. I do not need a God of wish fulfillment. In the manger, my every wish has already been fulfilled.

Español

Este noche, en el festival de Navidad, parece apropiado preguntarnos si importa que Jesús haya venido, o si podemos continuar adorando a alguna deidad genérica sin referencia a Jesús.

Hoy en día, en círculos ateos militantes, oirás el argumento, formulado por primera vez por Ludwig Feuerbach en mil ochocientos cuarenta y uno, de que Dios no es más que el cumplimiento del deseo humano. Y Feuerbach no está completamente equivocado. Los humanos tenemos la sensación inherente de que hay un Dios, pero sin más información sobre este Dios, lo divino comienza a parecerse mucho como nosotros. Completamos los vacíos basados ​​en las ansiedades y los deseos de nuestros propios corazones. Estamos ansiosos por morir, por lo que creemos en un dios que nos proporciona una vida futura. Estamos ansiosos por el caos y la aleatoriedad del mundo, por lo que creemos en un dios que escucha y responde nuestras oraciones. Estamos ansiosos por las injusticias de la sociedad, por eso creemos en un dios que recompensa a los santos y castiga a los pecadores. En la sociedad postindustrial, nos sentimos aislados del mundo natural, por lo que creemos en un dios similar al espíritu de la naturaleza, que se puede encontrar con mayor poder en el desierto. En una sociedad de redes sociales, estamos ansiosos por el aislamiento y conscientes de nuestras diferencias, por lo que creemos en un dios cuya característica principal es la afirmación y la aceptación.

Al igual que los ateos, creo que esta tendencia hacia el cumplimiento del deseo divino existe, pero a diferencia de los ateos, no creo que nos diga nada sobre la existencia de Dios. Simplemente nos muestra que, si Dios existe o no, si no sabemos nada de él, lo formaremos a nuestra propia imagen.

Y esto, mis amigos, me parece una tendencia muy peligrosa. La humanidad es profundamente defectuosa, así que si simplemente creamos al dios que queremos, ese dios también será profundamente defectuoso. Si comenzamos a pensar que nuestras propias opiniones, deseos y perspectivas no son solo nuestras, sino que también tienen un mandato divino, tomamos todo lo bueno y todo lo malo de nosotros mismos y lo multiplicamos por cien. Así que deja de ser escéptico de nosotros mismos y comienza a creer nuestras propias mentiras.

Ahora compare esto con el Dios del pesebre, el Dios de Abraham, Isaac e Israel, quien se reveló al pueblo judío y luego eligió nacer en su propia creación, en un momento y lugar que podemos identificar con relativa precisión.

Este no es un Dios que podamos inventar para cumplir nuestros deseos, porque es un Dios que existe fuera de nosotros, con su propia personalidad, sus propias enseñanzas, sus propios planes. Él habló primero a Abraham, luego a Moisés, luego a través de los profetas. A cada paso, sus revelaciones al pueblo judío se registraron para las generaciones futuras y se compilaron en el Antiguo Testamento, una colección de documentos que es mucho más difícil para el corazón humano que afirmarlo. Este no es el Dios del cumplimiento del deseo.

Pero luego, mucho más allá de lo que la humanidad podría haber esperado, Dios asumió una naturaleza humana y caminó entre nosotros. Ningún erudito serio duda de la existencia de Jesús de Nazaret, pero sería bastante fácil decir que Jesús no cumplió ninguno de los deseos mesiánicos. Los judíos anhelaban un Mesías que derrocaría al opresivo poder romano, que comenzaría una era definitiva de paz y prosperidad, que reivindicaría la sufrida religión judía. Pero, solo unas décadas después de su muerte, Jesús no solo no había hecho ninguna de estas cosas, sino que Jerusalén y su templo fueron destruidos. Jesús claramente no es el mesías del cumplimiento de los deseos.

Aún así, no tengo dudas de que preferiría adorar a Jesús de Nazaret que un espíritu mundial genérico, porque cuando adoro a Jesús de Nazaret, estoy seguro de que no me estoy adorando a mí mismo. Si yo adoro a Jesús o no realmente importa.


Hay otra forma crucial en la que adorar a Jesús en lugar de un espíritu genérico marca la diferencia, y es quién impulsa la relación.

A menudo escucho de personas que no van a la iglesia porque prefieren encontrar a Dios en la naturaleza, en la familia o en los amigos. Y lo entiendo totalmente. Yo también he sentido la chispa de la vida en muchas de estas actividades. Pero la desventaja de este enfoque de lo divino es que siempre termina siendo nuestra responsabilidad de encontrar a Dios. Tenemos que llegar, tenemos que buscar. Y luego, si ya no podemos encontrar a Dios, si nos deprimimos, nos sentimos solos o entumecidos, de repente comenzamos a preguntarnos si es nuestra culpa, si no buscamos lo suficiente, si Dios nos está castigando por alguna razón.

Pero no es así como trabaja Dios, o al menos no cómo funciona el Dios del pesebre. El Dios de los israelitas, que también nació en el tiempo por la Virgen María, es siempre el que impulsa la relación. Él no espera que lo busquemos, porque siempre nos está buscando a nosotros. Incluso cuando la humanidad pecó y lo abandonó, Dios no se rindió con nosotros. Desde el momento en que Adán y Eva cayeron del Jardín, Dios inició un plan para nuestra redención y restauración. No importa cuántas veces los israelitas abandonaron su pacto con él, siempre los trajo de regreso, siempre los restauró, renovó su pacto. Y luego, cuando estaba listo para llevar a cabo su plan en una etapa universal y eterna, Dios asumió una naturaleza humana y se convirtió en uno de nosotros. Dios eligió vivir nuestra vida, con todas las dificultades, debilidades y defectos. Él eligió vivir nuestra muerte, incluso en una cruz. Dios deseaba estar tan profundamente en relación con nosotros que él mismo se convirtió en un ser humano.

Las imágenes de Navidad nos muestran cuán extremo es el amor de Dios por nosotros. No nació en Roma, el centro de gobierno y cultura, sino en Belén, un suburbio de una provincia romana atrasada que nadie en el mundo mediterráneo en ese momento tenía ningún respeto. Jesús no nació para un rey o un gobernador, sino para un obrero de la construcción y su esposa sospechosamente embarazada. Y no nació en un palacio, sino en una cueva donde dormían los animales, un lugar donde ninguna cantidad de incienso podía compensar el olor.

Este Dios, el Dios del pesebre, es claramente un Dios que nos perseguirá hasta los confines de la Tierra. Un Dios que nunca, nunca renuncia a tener una relación con nosotros, un Dios que se hará presente en cada momento de nuestras vidas. ¿Eres apático y sin dirección? Este Dios te perseguirá y estará contigo incluso allí. ¿Estás deprimido o aislado? Este Dios te perseguirá y estará contigo incluso allí. ¿Sientes que has pecado contra Dios o tu familia o tus amigos? ¿Que eres demasiado imperfecto para ser amado? Nuestro Dios nació sin hogar e inmediatamente tuvo que huir como refugiado político. Él nunca permitiría que el pecado sea una barrera para una relación contigo. Ya lo demostró en el pesebre y en la Cruz.

Sí, hace una diferencia si adoramos a Jesús o a una deidad genérica, porque una deidad genérica es un agujero negro de amor que absorbe toda nuestra energía y amor, mientras que el verdadero Dios, el Dios a quien conocemos como el Padre, Hijo, y Espíritu Santo, este Dios es un pozo de amor infinito que nos llenará a desbordar si simplemente nos abrimos a él.

Featured Image

Gerard van Honthorst 001

2 thoughts on “December 25, 2019 – Jesus v. The Force

  1. Thank you for posting your sermons Father Moore!
    I teach children’s liturgy of the word each Sunday and miss the homily.
    I have made it a habit of reading yours.
    I appreciate your humor, wit, statistics, biblical and historical research, and life applications.
    I can tell you have prayerfully and thoughtfully prepared each one.
    Your efforts aren’t wasted.
    Thank you for giving your life to bless the Church and draw all of us lost sheep to the Good Shepherd!
    Merry Christmas!

  2. Christ Jesus born in our hearts again, this Christ’s Mass, thanks to this homily, heard as we travelled. The arc, sin to manger, apt of The Incarnation. Grateful to Father Moore. — One family and many families of this parish and past parish.

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