On being liked
by Isaac Villegas
Dec 22, 2013
Not only does God love us; God also likes us. The story of Christmas tells us that we are not only loved by God, but that God actually likes us.
There’s a difference between loving people and liking them. I can think of people whom I love, but I don’t like very much. After all, I am supposed to love my enemies, but that doesn’t mean that I have to like them, that I have to enjoy hanging out with them, that we get together for lunch or meet for coffee. I don’t like my enemies, but I love them, or at least I try to love them.
I’m sure you can think of people in your life as well — people whom you love, but don’t particularly like. If you wanted a pleasant evening at home, you are going to try to spend it with someone you like, someone whom you actually enjoy being with, and someone who likes you, who likes to be around you.
Now, all of this has to do with Christmas, because the story of Christmas is about the God who not only loves us, but also likes us—the God who has always been finding ways to be with us, to draw close to us, to struggle with us, to rest with us. The One who shared divine breath with the first human being in the garden, who breathed into Adam’s nostrils the breath of life, is the same God who drew close to Mary, very close, being born as a human being, God in our flesh, Emmanuel.
“Look,” Isaiah says, “the virgin shall bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us’” — and not just with us, but within us, within a human body. In Jesus, God receives human flesh, a body, from Mary. I think we too easily forget the strangeness of all of this: that God is at the mercy of Mary, that the all-powerful God depends on a woman who is one of the poorest of the poor. The giver of life is completely dependent on Mary for life.
What kind of God does that? What does this story do to the way we think about God’s power? What’s God’s power for? Power to do what? And what does this mean for how we think about our power, about what counts as power? What does power looks like, what does it feels like? When we think of powerful people, I imagine we usually think of people who are invincible, invulnerable, independent.
But the God we know, the God with the power to save and liberate us, to redeem and restore us — this God becomes fragile, weak, dependent, needy.
Why? Because God not only loves us, but God also likes us. God wants to be with us, present to our lives, involved with us. Jesus is the ecstatic movement of God — a God who can’t sit still because God wants to get close to us, so close. God shows up in Mary’s womb for no other reason than because “God desires and loves and befriends human bodies,” as Eugene Rogers explains in After the Spirit (Eerdmans, 2005).
The incarnation is how God overflows into human life. The incarnation tells the story of the God who can’t help but want to be with us, to live with us, to get inside of us — not just our hearts, but everything else too, all the stuff that makes us who we are. All of it. God loves all of it. God likes it.
God doesn’t have to like us. God didn’t need to get so close. God could have brought us salvation through some other way. There isn’t a cosmic rulebook that explains the conditions — the rules, the strategy — on how to save human beings. There isn’t a rulebook on how salvation is supposed to play out. There isn’t a rulebook on how to win at the game of salvation.
When God becomes human, God isn’t doing something that God has to do, that God is forced to do, as if someone else or something else already came up with the rules, rules that God has to follow for the sake of our salvation. God becomes human through Mary for no other reason than because God wants to, because God wants to be close to her, close to us.
That’s it. That’s the meaning of the incarnation. That’s the meaning of what happened on Christmas day. The birth of Jesus is how we discover that God not only loves us, but likes us.
God likes us, not because of what we can do, not because of what we may become in the future, as if we were an investment, but simply because God enjoys being with us, around us, on our side, in our struggle — just because God wants to.
The Christmas story is about God getting closer and closer, to us. In Mary we see God’s nearness, that God is not foreign to humanity but inside human life, within our lives. Not the divine as separate from the human. Not heaven as divorced from earth. Not God above and us below. But God as transgressing those boundaries in order to be with us forever, which is our salvation: eternal life, the way God belongs with us, and us with God, as close to us as flesh and blood.
Emmanuel names the God who likes us, the One whose transgression of the boundary between the human and the divine makes possible our life with God.
The title of the sermon is taken from a book by James Alison: On Being Liked (Crossroad, 2004).