My recent diagnosis of cancer has given me the occasion to think concretely about God, and about how God is at work in our world- in our lives, and in my life… I believe it was the 18th-century British philosopher, Samuel Johnson who said, “The prospect of being hanged in a fortnight concentrates the mind in a wonderful fashion…” Let me take a few moments to share with you.

There are two understandings of God in our western world that seem most prevalent these days. And while I will take a moment to summarize them, understand that it is very difficult to do them complete justice.

One comes from the work of John Calvin, adopted by Jonathan Edwards and others in the colonial US, and it has been enormously influential in the lives of our Evangelical brothers and sisters. It begins with the assumption that God is sovereign- omnipotent. God sees everything, knows everything, and therefore, God is in control of every detail of our lives.

I have a friend who has said in sermons that “God knew a thousand years ago that you would be here this afternoon, and wanted to bring you this message…” That is, God steered you, whether that steering came from curiosity, desire, or you were dragged here against your will by members of your family… (Please don’t look at each other right now…)

You may have heard it this way: God has a plan for your life… You can miss it, but God has specific plans for you… There are songs that sing the praises of this point of view: “His (God’s) eyes are on the sparrow, so I know he watches me,” to name just one.

What’s more, Jesus’ most important role is to suffer death on the cross- take on our sins, and die in our place, to satisfy God’s anger for our sins, in order for us to be able to go to heaven when we die.

So Christmas is about getting Jesus to earth. So he can die… If you doubt me on this, there is a charming little video around right now (and it really is charming and well done), with a Christmas re-write of Bohemian Rhapsody, and every time the Baby Jesus is mentioned, his death is mentioned, too…

Now, I have all kinds of issues with this perspective- from the idea that God needed blood to satisfy his anger toward our sins, that a sinless, spotless lamb- Jesus- was necessary for this, to the minimization, really, of all Jesus said and did during his earthly ministry to show us how God wants us to live!

That is, caring for the poor, the outcast, the unloved, are not to placate an angry God, but because these are the people Jesus loved and cared for during his life! That is to say, Jesus’ life and ministry are incredibly important!

But here’s the biggest thing: if God is micromanaging; if God knows EVERYTHING, is responsible for all things good, then God is also responsible for all things bad: then God is responsible for my cancer. God is responsible for all the bad as well as all the good because God knew they would happen, and he allowed them anyway…

And while I may learn- and my family- and this community may learn some incredible things through this journey, if God gave me cancer so we could have this conversation, well, thank you, I’m not interested. How can I love a God who would “do this to me…”

The second perspective has also been evolving over the years and is far more culturally acceptable today than the one I just proposed. That is, God created the world, saw that it was (mostly) good, and then has stepped back. A good number of our Founders, again., back in the eighteen century believed this; they called themselves “Deists…”

The idea is that God is watching, in the words of the old Bette Midler song, “from a distance,” but really isn’t engaged in our world in any meaningful way… It’s up to us- to you and to me- to make this a better world. And we have been on that march for centuries…

Christianity is a good moral and ethical code, to be sure, and we live it, for the most part, because we want to be good and ethical people. We read the Bible for that very reason: to learn how to be good people…

And the role of Jesus is to be our teacher, because if there was ever a good man- great teacher, self-sacrificing, willing even to die for his friends, it was Jesus!

We celebrate Christmas to welcome that teacher. And because the birth of a baby is always a hopeful thing- it’s the hope for the future we see in a tiny baby…

By the way, there’s even a famous Christmas Carol that is a perfect example of what I’m talking about- one which I love, and love to sing! But look carefully at the words of “It Came Upon A Midnight Clear…” Show me, Jesus, in it!

And finally, at the end, God- or God’s angels swoop in and bear us all to heaven, and at last, we are in God’s actual presence…

Again, this is problematic… First, we would be hard pressed to demonstrate that the world is getting better… One word to start: Aleppo… those poor people, and we can’t help them. And there are people in awful places and conditions around our world tonight.

One number: 2016- it’s been a heck of a year, hasn’t it? And if things are getting better, I would sure hate to see things get worse…

And then, I need more than just me- I need more than just you on this new journey- this new battle I am facing. I don’t want- indeed, I don’t need a God who watches from a distance. I don’t want and I don’t need a Jesus who is a good teacher when it comes to facing suffering. It is not an example I can live up to- and I doubt you can either!

Let me propose a third way of thinking about/living with God- one which I have lived my whole life, one which this church (and others like us) have taught for centuries, going back all the way to Jesus, and one which

I’m talking about a God who neither watches from a distance, nor looms over us, but a God who engages in your life and mine.

A God who intimately knows what it means to be a human being and all the joys, sorrows and trials that you and I face- on a daily basis…

A God who participates with you in your daily walk, if you but open your eyes/ears to see God at work…

I’m talking about God become one of us in the person of Jesus, born in Bethlehem so long ago. God Incarnate: God becomes human. John’s Gospel says, “And the Word- GOD- became flesh, and dwelt among us…”

Don’t miss this: God’s love for you is so great, that in the baby in the manger, God chose to engage in human life- your life.

Think of it! Into our random, incredibly risky, dangerous world, God chooses to be born as a helpless, dependent, vulnerable baby- just like you were…

And God does it on purpose! With purpose! God uses angels to announce the arrival to the shepherds, sets the magi on the path to Bethlehem so the word of this miracle can get out… “Here I come! Here I am! For you!”

Jesus’ life shows us how God would have us live, to be sure, but it also shows us that Jesus is experiencing what you and I experience: joy, sorrow, betrayal, and pain…

And far more than being a sacrifice, or an example, Jesus’ death shows us those absolute lengths to which God will go to identify with us. Jesus died.

Every human being dies- we all do! God knows what it is like! God in Christ, God become a human being, has been there! And because Jesus was raised from the dead, we KNOW that death is not the last word for us. That Jesus will be there, in our deaths, and at our risings!

When you laugh, there is Jesus laughing with you. When you cry, there is Jesus crying with you. When you are in pain, there is Jesus comforting you, and when you die, there is Jesus holding you, loving you, wiping away your every tear…

That’s a God I can love- through everything because I know God loves me. That’s a God I can see in the actions of the people around me, caring for me.

That’s a God I can trust in every circumstance- even, or especially right now…

And so can you! In whatever circumstance you find yourself tonight, whether wonder or awful or anywhere in between…

Because he came for you and for me in that Baby in Bethlehem, so long ago. Because to you is born this day in the City of David, a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord…