Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Incarnation - Stooping Low to Meet God

Preached on the Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 18, 2016

Scripture readings: Isaiah 53:1-6; John 1:9-13

The word incarnation is a big word. It’s an old word from the Latin language. It means “embodied in flesh”. It means made flesh and blood. It means made human.
Around Home and Desert Aire/Mattawa WA
December 2016
It describes what we celebrate at Christmas. God came to earth in the flesh: God himself became a human being: a human baby, like any other baby. Like any other baby: except God was a baby who would grow up to give his life for the sins of the world; and to give us light and life; and to give us himself.
The Gospel of John calls Jesus the Word: God speaking himself. The Word is God making himself into a message. It says, “The Word was with God and the Word was God.” (John 1:1) The thing about Christmas is that, when God became a particular human baby, in Bethlehem, God was speaking himself in that life he had taken into himself.
The story of the first Christmas is God describing himself. God is living out who he really is and what he wants for himself, and for us, in that manger, in that stable, in Bethlehem.
John says, “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world knew him not (did not recognize him). He came into his own, and his own received him not.” (John 1:10-11) And this perfectly describes what we see in Bethlehem.
Now Jesus was born at a time of great spiritual discontent both for the Jews and the pagans. There was a lot of searching, and praying, and questioning going on. But, when God’s answer arrived, nobody seemed to notice.
Well, some noticed. But John is pretty clear that the normal thing was not to notice, not to receive, not to be open to what God was doing. That is the human condition. That is the way humans are. It’s the way we are, if we are normal humans.
So when you are discontent, or questioning, or searching, the lesson is that God is there speaking to you, shining his light on you, and you just don’t see it. And you don’t receive it: that is, if you are normal; because that’s the normal thing, according to the Bible. At least that’s that state of our being normal that God wants to overcome.
The pagan Greeks and Romans were discontented with the old paganism. They were looking for newer answers among what they called “The Mysteries”. In the Mysteries, there were special places you could go in order to be initiated into hidden truths that would give you a new spiritual life. Stories of the gods and the great heroes would be acted out in gorgeous pageants, as if it were theater, with music, and singing, and dancing, and art, and special staging affects.
Those who attended the mysteries would experience inspiration and ecstasy. They believed that this experience was their spiritual rebirth and the promise of everlasting life. But their inspiration was mere excitement.
The Jews were waiting and searching for a great warrior king to lead them to victory over their enemies; and to bring the Lord’s people to power, and success, and glory.
The pagans and the Jews were looking up; looking up to hear a divine message, a spiritual message: God’s word to them.
But the lesson which was made flesh in Bethlehem is that you don’t look up to find the spiritual truth. In some strange way, you have to look down.
This is hard for us, if we are normal human beings. The Old Testament prophet, Isaiah, said it. This is how the Lord, the Savior, would come. “He had no beauty or majesty to attract us to him, nothing in his appearance that we should desire him.” (Isaiah 53:2)  
You look down into the messes and weaknesses of this world, and of your own life, and that is where you can hear the Lord speaking to you. If the Lord loves you just the way you are (and he does) you will never know God, or hear God, unless you know what he sees when he loves you just as you are.
There was a girl I was in love with, when I was twenty years old. I even asked her the question: “Would you ever consider marrying a guy who was going into the ministry?” But, even though she didn’t want to do that, the great thing about her was that she could see right through me, and laugh at me, and still like me, even though I might not deserve it.
One of my problems was that I didn’t always want to admit that I was the guy she liked just as I was. I wanted her to look at me as if I were someone she knew I wasn’t. But she even saw through this, and she still liked me, and she could make me laugh at myself.
I was a very serious Christian and, as such, I would have been much better off if I had known how to deal with myself just as I was. To really know God, and know one’s self, one must be able to look down to the struggles and the weaknesses of one’s own life, and hear what God is saying just there, in his infinite love.
We want to look up for peace, and joy, and fullness, and love. God is full of peace, and joy, and fullness, and love. When we experience these things, we experience the presence of God. These things are heavenly, but they were meant to be found on earth too. God means for us to find these blessings in our deepest and greatest needs.
The heavenly things became rare, and almost disappeared, when sin and evil came into the world. When peace, and joy, and fullness, and love disappear, we have trouble believing that God is present. We don’t know where God is, or what God is doing.
So God became flesh and blood in order to be in our world, such as it is. He became a baby in a town where King Herod ordered all the baby boys under the age of two to be killed in order kill the baby king.
We hate this about the world, and God agrees with us. But God became flesh and blood in order to be wherever peace, and joy, and fullness, and love are absent, so that we can have him especially there. We have a lot of trouble recognizing this and receiving it.
We don’t know the actual date, or month (and we’re not even sure of the year), when Jesus was born. We only know that he deliberately came down from light into darkness in order to shine in the darkness.
This is why ancient Christians chose the idea of Christ being born in the winter, near the winter solstice, in the cold and dark. Knowing this, we add their wisdom to what the gospels tell us about the beginnings of his life in this world: on a straw bed, in a feed trough for livestock, in a stable, in the cave, under an inn, in an obscure village of an occupied, defeated country, in a violent corner of the ancient world.
The novelist Taylor Caldwell wrote this about a dark period of her life: “I am not alone at all, I thought. I was never alone at all. And that, of course, is the message of Christmas. We are never alone. Not when the night is darkest, the wind coldest, the world seemingly most indifferent. For this is still the time God chooses.” (Taylor Caldwell, “Family Circle”, Dec. 24, 1961)
When we look down to where we really are, we can find God there with us, working for us, working for our new life.
If you’re lucky, you can look back and down, into your childhood, and remember the faith of your parents, or your grandparents, or Sunday Schools, or Vacation Bible School teachers, who taught you things that you once knew to be real, when you were ten and much closer to the ground. But now you are tall, and you look up when you should be looking down.
Or you should look down to see the people who are doing justice, and loving mercy, and walking humbly with their God. Or you should look down, in love, and see the people who need justice, or who need mercy, or who need to walk humbly with their God.
There are people around us who are living demonstrations of the grace of God, or the need for grace, but we want to look up to better people, smarter people, cooler people. We spend our time looking at famous people and thinking about them.
The normal thing is to look up. You may very well find something when you look up, and call it Jesus, and call it God. But it won’t really be the real Jesus, who chose the feed trough of a stable for his first bed. You have to look closer to the ground to truly find Jesus as he wants you to know him, and to know yourself as he knows you.
Excitement is a high. Repentance (which means adjusting your life to the real truth) is a low. But Jesus is with the low. We think inspiration comes with excitement, but it really comes with repentance: with a kind of looking down and turning around.
Sometimes we think that faith means looking up to receive God’s blessings, God’s help, God’s strength, God’s mercy. But, in a way, faith is looking down, looking low, because it means trusting. It means letting the Lord be God. A preacher asked a child, “What does Lord mean?” And the child answered, “He’s the boss!”
John wrote “But to those who received him, who believed in his name...” When you receive someone, they may be the guest and you are the host, but the host is the servant. You look low to serve the one you have welcomed. Jesus did this for us. We look low for Jesus.
“But to those who received him, who believed in his name he gave power to become children of God.” God became a child to make us children. It means knowing our dependence; knowing who to listen to. It means imitating and following. We aim high, but we start low.
The wife of one of my cousins posted on Facebook ten “Perks of Being Sixty and Older”. One of them was “People no longer view you as a hypochondriac.” I could see that one. The one I disagreed with was: “There is nothing left to learn the hard way.” I commented that I’m still learning plenty of things the hard way.
Children start out wanting to be like their dads and moms. We want to be like Jesus. And we know that this means learning to do what the child in Bethlehem grew up to do. We aim high, but we start low.
There is one way we don’t look high enough, and that is to see what the Lord wants to do with us. We are not usually very ambitious about letting God have his way with us. We have plans of our own, and we are more than happy if God cooperates with our own ideas and plans. God doesn’t usually do this.
C. S. Lewis wrote about God’s high plans: "Imagine yourself a living house. God comes in to rebuild that house. At first, perhaps, you can understand what He is doing. He is getting the drains right and stopping the leaks in the roof and so on: you knew those jobs needed doing and so you are not surprised.
But presently He starts knocking the house about in a way that hurts abominably and does not seem to make sense. What on earth is He up to?
The explanation is that He is building quite a different house from the one you thought of - throwing out a wing here, putting on an extra floor there, running up the towers, making courtyards. You thought you were going to be made into a little decent cottage: but He is building a palace. He intends to come and live in it Himself." (CS Lewis, “Mere Christianity”, Chapter 9)
If we look low enough at ourselves, we’ll understand why we need the gift of freedom that comes from the humility of God in the manger, and on the cross. God came low to make us capable of something beyond our wildest dreams, and hopes, and ambitions: something beyond our deepest desires.
God came low to pay the price for our entry into a new life as the sons and daughters of God. Some translations say that he gave us this as a right. Others translate the gift as “the power to become children of God.” Both are correct.
We need both: the right and the power. We need the right and privilege of entry; the open door and the greeting. And we need the power of God. We need what it takes to grow up into that privilege; that new life.
Christmas first tells us to look low. When you look low, you will hear the Word and his message to you where you are. The Word made flesh (Jesus), the Word of God, will find you and make you his child.

1 comment:

  1. Been listening to a song by T, Graham Brown called "Mary Had A Little Lamb". I really like it. Look it up, I think you will too.
    Merry Christmas.