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Monday, December 12, 2016
The Incarnation - How to Incarnate It
Scripture readings: Isaiah 7:10-16; John 1:6-9
Christmas celebrates the most important thing that has ever happened since the creation of the universe. In a sense, it’s more important even than the crucifixion and resurrection, because these would be impossible without the greatest miracle of all.
Christmas celebrates God becoming human. The God who made all things, the God who keeps all things in existence became one living cell in a woman’s womb. The God of heaven and earth was happy to become what some people refer to as a fetus, and God made that fetus as holy as any human life, by his making it his own.
The God of the universe was born in the same ordinary way as any other human baby, in order to save the world, in order to save us, in order to make us into new people: born again, born spiritually, to become his everlasting family. God became a human being.
If all the other religions of the world are supposed to lead to the same place, no other religion on earth leads you to this. It has nothing to do with how we arrive at the divine. It has to do with what the divine has done to arrive at us; to do something for us, to do something with us and in us.
And yet, when we say this, we’re not claiming to be wonderful, ourselves. We are not claiming to be the center of the universe. We are only claiming that God is love, and that God acts on that love; and we are glad.
This is the greatest thing that has ever happened.
Now the amazing thing about God’s greatest work is not only that he has done this for every human being. The amazing thing about God’s greatest work is that he has made us to be a part of it. God’s greatest work requires human beings to point it out. It requires human witnesses: if anyone is going to believe it, if anyone is going to benefit from it.
God’s greatest work requires people to listen to other people, in order to benefit from it. But, if that’s true, then his people will know how to listen to everyone else in order to know how those other people will hear the message best.
“There was a man sent from God whose name was John. He came for testimony, to bear witness to the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but he came to bear witness to the light.” (John 1:6-8)
Now when we read the words, “There was a man sent from God...” it puts John the Baptist in the same line as all the other people sent from God: prophets, ancient forefather and foremothers, judges, leaders, kings; all of them called by God; all of them sent with a purpose; to share in God’s work, to be witnesses, to speak for God and point people to God, to point people to the light. These words also put us in line with John, if we believe that this is how God works.
There is a long, long line of such people (including us) because this is the way God works. When God is working, God calls and sends people to get to work in order to be his witnesses. The story line of the whole Bible teaches us that it only takes one God to get his intended work done, but that his intended work also requires countless people, working together, over time, with that one God, to get God’s intended work done.
When the Lord started laying the foundation for his coming in Bethlehem (centuries before it happened) he started at the very dawn of history. The Lord called and sent a human family. That was the family of Abraham and Sarah.
Truth be told: it was a dysfunctional family; that family of Abraham. They must have been chosen and sent to show how imperfect people can walk with God by faith. They show how imperfect people can have a living, true relationship with God, by learning to trust God.
Abraham and his family (which became the people of Israel) were not great or impressive to those who knew them. But they were still sent from God.
When God wanted to create a perfect, written word he, involved people. To some of them, the Lord said, “Do this! Be this!” To others the Lord said, “Remember this! Pass this on! Speak this! Write this! Copy this down!”
The people who “Spoke this and wrote this” were often prophets who spoke and wrote for God. Isaiah is one of those great prophets who pointed to the Light that is Jesus. He wrote, “Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Emmanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14) Emmanuel is a word that means that there would be a child born of whom it could be truly said that he was, “God With Us”, because that is what Emmanuel means. It tells us that God recognizes no limits to his intention to be with us.
The Book of Isaiah is an example of God using human words in such a way as to make them his own words. First of all, God’s word is the message Isaiah hears. But then Isaiah questions and complains to God lots of times, and that also gets written into the book of God’s word. Isaiah tells us about the hypocrisy, and doubts, and sins, of the faithless people who are in conflict with Isaiah, and with God. It all goes into the book. It all becomes God’s word to us.
The Old Testament books of Proverbs and the Song of Solomon come from King Solomon, who started out well enough. As a young man, he started to rule by seeking wisdom from God.
But, with years of experience, Solomon went from good to bad, and from bad to worse. He mistreated his own citizens. He put his own power, and luxury, and sensuality, and his relationships with other nations, ahead of his faithfulness to God.
And God judged him. The Lord split up the kingdom of Israel because of Solomon. But Solomon, during his life, collected the sayings of people who were wiser than the man he became, and God made them scripture in the book of Proverbs.
Solomon had a harem that was a sea of sex. But God drew out of Solomon a love song that has been used to represent God’s love for his people, in the Song of Solomon.
That’s is the way God is. God can do that. Normal people, imperfect people, sinful and doubting people, all become a part of what God is doing; willingly or unwillingly. They all become part of the message which is God’s word to us. In that sense, they all become witnesses.
So, it isn’t strange that, when the word became flesh, when God became human, he kept working the same way. Imperfect people, people with messy lives, who knew how much they needed God, recognized this about Jesus, and they wanted to be with him. They liked to be with Jesus, even though they didn’t understand exactly who he was.
But they knew that Jesus had a place for them. Jesus made room for them. He told his stories to them. And his stories (his parables) were about them. Stories about people like them could be stories that told the truth about God. Our stories can tell the truth about God.
God became flesh. God became human, because he loved us. And it was the people who knew their imperfection who loved him best, and understood him best.
The self-righteous people (who didn’t want to see themselves as they truly were) found his light confusing and dangerous. But the people who had no illusions found his light to be safe, and healing, and saving. They were the ones who could bear witness to the light best.
John the Baptist, the man sent from God, was a man on a pedestal, in many ways. A lot of people hoped that he might be the Messiah, the Christ. A lot of people hated him because they thought he was setting himself up to be the Messiah, the Christ.
But John, the gospel-writer, writes about John the Baptist and makes it plain that John was only a witness, only a pointer, and that John the Baptist knew this. When important people paid attention to him and asked him who he was, John mostly told them who he was not.
The gospel says this about the first witness to Jesus: “He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.” I think that when we try to serve the Lord, or share who he is with others, or to share his love with others, the first thing we need to do is remember who we are not, and what we are not. We are not the light. We don’t need to pretend to be what we are not.
It’s the same with us as a group, as a fellowship of Christians, as a church. We don’t need to claim the church to be what it is not.
Even together, we are not the light. It’s true that the baby Jesus would grow up to tell us: “You are the light of the world.” (Matthew 5:14) But I believe it’s best for us to remember that we are not the light, except when we let Jesus live out his own life through us.
We can say that there are people here who have seen the darkness, and now they have seen the light. That is what we all are. And we are thankful, truly thankful for the light.
We can say that Jesus is here, helping us. We can say that we are amazed and saved by the humbleness of God loving even us, and sharing himself with us: sharing himself in that amazing baby who grew up to die, who grew up to give us a new life based on his faithfulness to us on the cross.
The Lord’s Supper is about this God who is so humble that he came to be witnessed by people who knew far too much about the darkness. He came to be seen, and heard. God came, in Jesus, to be touched by us, and to touch us. In Jesus, God became flesh and blood.
In the Lord’s Supper, Jesus wants us to remember, to see, to hear, to touch. He wants us to be in touch. He wants us to be in touch with something real, something that has made us new people, with something worth sharing: as simple and as solid as a loaf of bread.
Even such a humble, real thing as a meal of bread and grape juice is not too strange a place to make Jesus real. Jesus comes to us through words in a book. Jesus comes to us through prayer. Jesus comes to us through others. Jesus comes to us through his calling to serve, and through his calling to be his witnesses. Jesus comes to us through every meal we eat. And Jesus comes to us through this sacrament.
It’s not only the idea or the thought of him that comes to us in all these ways. Jesus is better than that. Jesus is here: God with us.
To be a Christian is to know who we are not, yet still bear witness to the one who has given us light to live by. We can do this because this is what God wants.
This is the way God works. Because no one who thinks he has enough light of his own can ever say anything worth saying about Jesus, the light of the world.