And not only that, but we also boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us. For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly.
We are beginning this week with history, carried out through the mundane.
As planned and prescribed in the US Constitution, the electoral college meets to make official the election of a new president and vice president. This happens every four years, and until four years ago, the process was a little-known, virtually never watched, administrative duty that simply affirms what was voted on the first Tuesday in November.
And in hospitals across the country, people are getting vaccines. Now if the doctors had their way, most or all of us have already gone through this process this fall (or you should!), when you got your flu shot.
But through these seemingly mundane processes, we are witnessing two major pivots in the direction of the United States and the world.
If the electoral college acts as expected, the presidential election of 2020 will be confirmed. In Joe Biden and Kamala Harris, this nation will be led by a team who embodies a fundamental transition in the demographics of the nation: an older White man and a younger, biracial daughter of immigrants. To the extent they can model cooperation and mutual trust and shared leadership across differences of generation, race, gender, faith tradition and family background, this nation will follow a path that we Californians have for the most part already cleared. And to the extent that this team will prove that this kind of unity in diversity does not only prevent effective leadership but might even enhance their ability to address our many problems, they may secure a hopeful new chapter in our life as a nation.
Actually, we have seen examples of this in other countries. The other pivotal action being taken this weekend is the beginning of COVID vaccines being administered. The first vaccine was developed by BioNTech in Germany, a nation that has experienced conflicts with their growing Turkish-German minority. BioNTech is a biomedical company co-founded and led by CEO Uğur Şahin, a Turkish immigrant, and his Chief Medical Officer wife, Özlem Türeci, a German-born researcher of Turkish ethnicity.
As Christians, we remember another mundane process that started a major pivot in history. The birth of a baby, born to an unknown couple en route to reporting for a national census, signals the embodiment of God breaking physically into the history of the world.
I’ve often wondered about God’s intention in this act. We believe in an eternal God, who is not bound by time or space, and yet at one point in human time, God chose to enter into our peculiar, limited situation. And God chose to enter not as all that a human can be, not as a majestic emperor or ferocious military commander, but in the humility of the son of a craftsman in a small town far from the capital of a small nation that was under the rule of a foreign empire.
I confess that I’m most puzzled by the timing of this action. Why, of all the moments in the course of human history, did God choose this moment to break into our mortal existence to create something of a physical bridge between God and human, and then to send us the Holy Spirit to continue with us after the frailty of that mortal existence ended?
While I can only accept the timing as one of those many, many things that only God can know, my life depends on my belief that this Christmas action shows me the great love God has for us, and the lengths God will take to bring us back to reconcile with God. And that love has enabled me and countless Christians to weather the turmoil of our world. Through the grace of the Holy Spirit, we can see the trials that have confronted us in 2020 especially, and yet see the hand of God leading us forward, teaching us new things that we have resisted in our comfort, eliciting compassion and creativity that sometimes get covered up by self-centered inertia, and building us up with resistance exercises against tyranny, fear, and hatred.
There is one more facet that these historic actions have in common. All of these actions require collaboration with the human collective for the action to have meaning. We have seen multiple challenges to the election of Biden and Harris that have been resisted by individuals placed in various pockets of the American political and judicial fabric to uphold the laws of their state and nation.
Ultimately we all must decide whether to work with or against the presidency to come, and how our discernments help or hurt the response to the trials of the nation.
As some have commented, the miracle of the COVID vaccines only help if people take the vaccine. We must step forward, even with reports of unpleasant side effects and the residue of centuries of medical abuse against people of color and questions about equitable distribution, and demonstrate our faith that these vaccines, especially the first two coming from Pfizer/BioNTech and Moderna, are safe as well as effective. The faith in medical technology is required because this approach to vaccinology is new—which means that it is unknown, AND that if validated, if may open up an entirely new era in disease prevention.
And, most importantly, Jesus does not come and blanket us hapless humans with salvation. Jesus incarnates the call of God through centuries of prophets to turn back to God, and he promised us that through the Holy Spirit, we mere mortals would be able to reflect and channel God’s saving power to the world. And even this year, we have witnessed God’s power to work through us even when we try to do what we know nothing about, as we seek to be faithful in pandemic conditions. And the threads of human history can converge, as scientists are now asking pastors to encourage their people to take the vaccine, calling on churches to participate in the physical and spiritual healing of our people.
While we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. And yet, weak as we are, Christ calls us to respond and partner in this mission of salvation. As 2nd-century church father Irenaeus said,
The glory of God is a living person
and the life of each living person is the vision of God.
With the birth of Jesus son of Joseph and Mary, the history of the world changed forever. With the birth of every child who follows the will of God, that history of salvation continues. For this and every holy action, recorded and unnoticed, we give thanks, and we offer our lives in faith. Thanks be to God.