December 30, 2012
John’s gospel offers us a strange portrait of incarnation. There are no shepherds, angels, stables, or animals. It would be difficult to create a pageant from this rendition of the birth of Christ. It has been less than a week since we heard the angels singing “Glory to God in the highest heaven.” This story has captured imaginations for generations and no matter what age you are, it is easy to see all the characters taking their place in the nativity. Today we hear John’s poetic, yet mysterious take on this and we wonder if we are talking about the same thing.
The incarnation changed everything. The gospel says that the “Word became flesh and lived among us.” Those words literally translated say, “God pitched tent” and moved among us, or as Eugene Peterson paraphrases, “The word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” (The Message, John 1:14)
It is one thing to worship a God who is far away. We make a long distance call; we cry out in the wilderness; we can’t fathom God noticing our unique situation. And today we hear of a God who moves in next door. That’s different. Suddenly, we are going over to borrow a cup of sugar, we talk outside as we water our flowers, we find ourselves eating on the patio at the same time and we greet each other casually. This is a different kind of God. This God is accessible. This God is very near and notices when we are in pain. It doesn’t take some grand intercessor to call on this God. This God is present to each of us here and now.
God didn’t stay distant from the human family, but chose to live among us. God chose to become human knowing that would mean weakness and strength, confusion and wisdom, joy and pain. We are no longer left to speculate about God. God comes to us - up close and personal. We can see, hear, and know God as never before. I was reading a description of a retreat at Ghost Ranch that said, “there is a difference between knowing about and knowing.” Before the incarnation, people knew about God, but when God came in human form, people knew God in ways that weren’t possible before.
The prologue of John that we heard this morning is a threshold poem. It offers us a glimpse of a God who brings light into darkness. This God is life. This God is hope. This God is joy. This God is love.
In the business world, there are three questions that are used to move through an issue: What? So What? Now What? Year after year we hear the birth narrative of the one who was sent to bring light to the darkness. There is a time of joy and then let down as we put away the decorations for another year. It is then that the so what and now what questions emerge. What was this about? What are the implications of a God who dwells among us?
Wouldn’t it be great if we could turn the incarnation into a western about a town that has been dominated by the bully? Suddenly the hero rides into town and announces, “Things are gonna be different now!” Everyone cheers for the hero as a beautiful sunset announces that there will never be problems in this community again.
But that isn’t the message of the incarnation. It isn’t about one who cleans up all the messes, creates order and gets rid of everything that is less than perfect. The incarnation is about a God who steps into our own lives, just as they are. Rather than erase what is, God steps into it and breathes life and love into the places of darkness and confusion.
Kathleen Norris reflects on the scandal of the incarnation and the way it resonates with her own life:
“When a place or time seems touched by God, it is an overshadowing, a sudden eclipsing of my own priorities and plans. But even in terrible circumstances and calamities, in matters of life and death, if I sense that I am in the shadow of God, I find light, so much light that my vision improves dramatically. I know that holiness is near.
And it is not robed in majesty. It does not assert itself with the raw power of empire…but waits in puzzlement, it hesitates. Coming from Galilee, as it were, from a place of little hope, it reveals the ordinary circumstances of my life to be full of mystery, and gospel, which means ‘good news’.” (Amazing Grace: A Vocabulary of Faith p. 31)
I love the way she describes incarnation not as raw power, but as hesitation casting light into the shadows and showing the goodness that is there. It gives us a new lens to view holiness – not separate from our lives, but in the midst of it all. This happens on the other side of the solstice as the days begin to lengthen. We see God not just in the Christmas decorations, but in the empty place that emerges when the decorations are put away for another year. We hear God not just in the hymns of birth, but also in the silence as we get into our cars to drive away. We feel God, not just in the warmth of the gathered community, but also in the cold that strikes our face as we step outside and we remember that God is there. We taste God in the bread and wine and we remember that God is in the world’s hunger calling us to share the goodness we have tasted.
God’s goodness has moved into the neighborhood, our neighborhood, and invites us outside to see the light dance among the shadows, to notice the pain of those around us, and to be Christ to one another. This story calls us into the world to bring hope into the shadows and love into the loneliness.
We open our eyes and our hearts and we see that God is here in this room in this moment. We see that God is in the world. We proclaim the powerful story of God who comes to live in our neighborhood, of God who lives in Newtown, CT, of God who lives in Syria, in Libya, in Palestine. We tell it on the mountain, over the hills, and everywhere. We shout, we whisper, we sing that Jesus Christ is born. We don’t offer the last word. We don’t proclaim the happy ending where all loose ends are tied up, but we announce that we have crossed the threshold. The journey together begins. God comes to us and together we step through the threshold into the world. Together, we step into the mess and fear and violence. With God walking beside us, we become light and hope for the world. As God’s beloved, we become love for the world. God’s love for the world is poured out through us and the healing begins. God’s son Jesus lives among us and shows us the way. God’s light shines in the darkness and the darkness will not overcome it.
One of the most beautiful descriptions of the meaning of the incarnation comes from theologian and civil rights leader Howard Thurman. It’s called “The Work of Christmas”
When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:
To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers [and sisters],
To make music in the heart.
May it be so…