By The Rev. Charles Hoffacker
One of the great questions of life is: Why is there anything at all? Or to put this question in religious terms, why does God create? Why should God bring about reality other than himself, reality in the form of angels and stones, people and plants, galaxies and atoms, animals and oceans? Why not leave well enough alone and simply have the blessedness of the Trinity, and avoid the messiness of creatures, especially human ones?
A starting point for an answer to this question is that the love of the Trinity is superabundant and overflowing. It looks to share the gift of sheer being beyond itself. The Trinity does not insist on having an exclusive on existence. No, far from it. It creates and sustains an unimaginable wealth of creatures. What God does, so to speak, is withdraw enough to allow the existence of these countless creatures. God not only launches these new beings, but sustains them in existence from one moment to the next in an exercise of profound and mysterious love.
We can say then that God humbles himself through creation. He surrenders his exclusive on existence in order that we and all other creatures may exist. This willingness is an indication of the divine humility.
The self-humbling of God continues in what we Christians call the Incarnation. The eternal Word of God, by whom all things are made and sustained, takes on human nature, that nature all of us share. The one by whom the heavens were crafted resides for nine months in a woman’s womb and then is born on a particular day and in a particular place. This Jesus is subject to the limitations of human existence. He plunges deep into our condition.
How hard it is to speak of this! The Incarnation lends itself less to analysis than to celebration. Rather than prose, it demands images and metaphors that belong to poetry.
Let me offer one approach to the Incarnation, an attempt to suggest dimensions of its mystery.
A few years ago, our family kept at home several small lizards called anoles. Each was less than three inches long. The face of any one of them was smaller than my fingernail. Yet, strange though it sounds, I felt like I had some relationship with them. They looked at me with their tiny eyes and silent faces, and I looked at them. I wondered what went on inside their heads. I wondered what it was like to be an anole.
Although the gulf between one of these lizards and me was great, the gulf between God and humanity is unimaginably immense. God is God. The anole and I are both creatures, though of very different kinds. Yet God bridges the gap that separates me from him. God becomes human in Jesus, and lives our life from the inside. This is something far more remarkable than if I managed to become an anole and lived a lizard’s life.
The God who humbles himself by welcoming into existence the universe with its countless creatures humbles himself still further by choosing to become human in Jesus, living our existence from the inside.
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That brings us to tonight. A further humbling takes place. It’s recounted in the gospel we heard. Jesus sets aside his role as teacher and lord and kneels before his astonished disciples to do the work of a slave. Into his open hands he takes their dirty feet and washes them clean again. By his own admission, Jesus does this to set an example for his disciples as to what they must do.
But there’s more to his action than that. By his washing of feet in the upper room tonight, Jesus uncovers the significance of what will happen to him tomorrow on the cross.
The Lord who makes room for creation by humbling himself, the Lord who enters our existence by humbling himself, now humbles himself still further. He dies in agony on a cross of shame in order to wash the world clean from the defilement of sin. The water in the basin tonight that cleanses dirty feet points to the blood shed tomorrow that restores a fallen world.
Creation. Incarnation. Passion. Each of these is a testimony to the humility of God.
We are given the gift of existence. God enters our world and unites us to himself. Jesus dies, and with him our sins are put to death. Jesus kneeling on the floor washing feet points to the humility of God made manifest up to that moment, and to how that humility appears again in an utterly unparalleled way: God’s lamb put to death to remake creation.
G. K. Chesterton said “Christianity is the only religion on earth that has felt that omnipotence made God incomplete.” A conventional all-powerful god may be what our desperate egos imagine. But divine truth shatters this idol and presents us instead with the God whose power is manifest in humility. This God’s omnipotence reaches its apex in an utter emptying of self, a free acceptance of an agonizing and painful execution.
Tomorrow’s torture casts its shadow back onto tonight. Jesus accepts the cross; he decides to kneel before his disciples. By these actions he indicates the terrifying depths of divine love.
Copyright for this sermon 2009, The Rev. Charles Hoffacker. Used by permission. Fr. Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals,” (Cowley Publications).