John 1:(1-9), 10-18
There was a minor brouhaha last week when White House chief of staff designate Reince Priebus appeared to proclaim President-elect Donald Trump as the new king of kings.
“Over two millennia ago,” Priebus wrote, “a new hope was born into the world, a Savior who would offer the promise of salvation to all mankind. Just as the three wise men did on that night, this Christmas heralds a time to celebrate the good news of a new King.”
Since this may be my last chance to jump to Priebus’ defense, let me suggest this is a case of careless rhetoric and not – as we have often seen in Trump circles – deluded hagiography to uphold the boss’s borderline narcissism. But even Priebus knows it is beyond laughable to compare the Donald with a god-king. Reince’s grasp on reality is firm but he needs an editor.
Besides, the deluded-god-shtick was already perfected in the 1976 BBC miniseries I, Claudius, performed by two legends of the theater: Sir Derek Jacobi and Sir John Hurt.
Sir Derek has the title role of Claudius, a real life emperor portrayed by sympathetic historians as a humane and just ruler who masked his cleverness beneath a veneer of twitching and stammering.
Sir John is Caligula, also a real life emperor who, depending on which historian one reads, may have been mad or misunderstood. Hurt brings the emperor to life with magnificent malignancy. Indeed, he chews up the low-rent scenery on the BBC set.
As the scene opens, Caligula, who has seized the throne by murdering his predecessor Tiberius, collapses into a deep sleep. When he awakens, he summons his Uncle Claudius to his bedchamber.
Only too aware of Caligula’s murderous lunacy, Claudius approaches cautiously.
Caligula informs Claudius that he has undergone a great transformation.
Guardedly, Claudius asks the nature of the change.
“Isn’t it obvious?” Caligula asks.
Sensing his next words could cost him his life, Claudius’ lips twitch silently. Abruptly, he makes a calculated guess.
“You – you’ve become a God!” Claudius shouts. He falls on his knees and raises his arms in obeisance. “How could I have been so blind? Let me worship you.”
Satisfied, Caligula dismisses Claudius with a wave of his hand. “I was going to murder you,” Caligula says, “but I changed my mind.”
Throughout the rest of the series, Caligula’s delusions of godliness produce some bizarre twists.
He turns the palace into a brothel and forces highborn and noble ladies to serve as whores.
He declares war on his fellow god, Neptune, and seizes a treasure trove of seashells to humiliate his immortal rival.
He appoints his favorite horse, Incitatus, as a senator of Rome.
Fearing that the baby in his sister’s womb will be more powerful than he, Caligula murders her.
He casually orders the execution of everyone whose views differ from his own.
The reign of terror ends with Caligula’s assassination, an actual event which took place 1,973 years ago this month.
It’s hard to know whether Caligula was truly schizophrenic or merely the victim of spiteful historians.
But the very idea of Caligula raises frightening notions of what happens to any one, god or human, whose absolute power is unchallenged.
There are other examples, in fiction and in reality, of godlike powers run amok.
Almost everybody remembers six-year-old Anthony Fremont, the mutant monster in the Twilight Zone who has godlike mental powers.
Anthony is also a spoiled child who punishes persons who scold him by removing their mouths. To entertain himself, he creates a three-headed gopher and kills it when he becomes bored. Even more dastardly, he controls what shows his family must watch on the television. When one of the adults around the boy attempts to kill him, Anthony turns him into a jack-in-the-box with his human head.
Finally, because he feels it is too warm, Anthony causes snow to begin falling outside. His father observes that the snow will kill off at least half the crops and as he is about to confront Anthony about this, his wife and the other adults look on with worried smiles on their faces. The father then smiles and tells Anthony in a horror-tinged voice, “...But it’s good you’re making it snow. A real good thing. And tomorrow... tomorrow’s gonna be a... real good day!”
Of course, Anthony is only a figment of Rod Serling’s imagination. But we cannot doubt that if he were real, he would devolve into a destructive fiend. Everything we know about beings with absolute power is that they become corrupted absolutely. Benevolent dictators and innocent children, when there is nothing to stop them, quickly become monsters.
Nor are any of us immune to this corruption of godlike power. We tell ourselves we are we are created in the image of God, but we distort that image to suit our basest human whims. Just three centuries after Jesus came to model a God of peace and unconditional love, the Emperor Constantine slaughtered thousands of his enemies under the sign if the Cross.
In the name of Jesus, Christian kings led crusades into the Holy Land to kill Muslims.
For centuries, Christians jailed, tortured and burned other Christians whose creeds differed from established dogma. King Henry VIII ordered the execution of those who did not believe the host was transubstantiated into the actual body of Christ.
It goes on and on. The members of Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kans., follow a deranged god who hates his own creation, namely gays, lesbians, bisexuals, and transsexuals.
Fundamentalist extremists of all religions, most famously the jihadist hijackers of 9/11, follow a psychotic god who orders the violent death of infidels, defined, of course, as everyone whose faith differs from theirs.
How incredibly fortunate that the Creator of Everything is light rather than darkness.
How marvelous that the Author of Life is grace and truth rather than deception and lies.
How fortunate, indeed, that the Ground of All Being is love rather than hate.
What were the chances of that?
What if God were darkness, hatred, and evil?
It could have happened. There is, after all, no way to control an all-powerful God. God can be anything God wants to be. And that is a horrifying prospect. It is far too easy to imagine what an evil God could be like.
And, equally disquieting, what would the scion of an evil god be like as he walked the earth? In contemplating that horrible reality, it’s tempting to think of presumed antichrists - Hitler, or Stalin, or Osama bin Laden.
Fortunately, though evil fairies danced at their births, none of these miscreants were god. Can you imagine bin Laden with omnipotent powers?
When the Magi came from the east to witness the Christ child, there was much to celebrate.
Isaiah anticipated it:
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her?that she has served her term, that her penalty is paidthat she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out:“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up,and every mountain and hill be made low;the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.” A voice says, “Cry out!”And I said, “What shall I cry?”All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand for ever. Get you up to a high mountain, O Zion, herald of good tidings; lift up your voice with strength, O Jerusalem, herald of good tidings, lift it up, do not fear; say to the cities of Judah, “Here is your God!”See, the Lord God comes with might, and his arm rules for him;his reward is with him, and his recompense before him. He will feed his flock like a shepherd; he will gather the lambs in his arms,and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep. (Isaiah 40:1-11)The mighty God comes to us as unconditional love, eager to forgive and eager to welcome us into his realm of light and joy. And his scion comes to us as a good shepherd, a model of the creator’s love.
Thank you, God, for your gracious love and care for each of us, and thank you for the Lord Jesus who you sent to us in that same spirit of goodness and love.
God is love.
Any lesser god is too terrible to imagine.