Sermon for our late Christmas Service January 1 2023 “Is God Too Human for You?”

Today we finally gather to celebrate the most holy and joyful feast of Christmas. The world outside is already working on clearing away the trash and trappings of the holiday, and moving back into Life As Usual. Our plans were delayed by blizzards last week, but by the Church calendar, we are still in the midst of the Christmas season. So we begin this New Year 2023 by observing the festival of the birth of Jesus Christ.

Our Friday Bible study watched a movie a few months ago called “Jesus of Montreal,” about a group of worldly young actors who decided to put on a Passion Play on the streets of the city. None of them were very familiar with the story, so they read the Scriptural accounts, and they studied the historical and cultural background, looking at the Passion of Christ with fresh eyes. What they came up with in the end was raw, and in parts questionably biblical, but it was intensely honest. Some people – notably the dignitaries of the Church – were terribly offended and angry, others found the presentation powerfully emotional, and some even found that it drew them into a closer, more tangible connection with God.

Most of us, I think, are so familiar with the Christmas story, having heard it every year from the time we were tiny children, that we automatically hear it in sanctified tones, with gold-haloed, Christmas-card images in our minds. We have imbued the story of Christ’s birth with so much sweetness and holiness that we no longer hear anything surprising or shocking or offensive. And so, I think, we are in very great danger of making the scandal of the Incarnation into nothing more than a pretty story. Like the young actors in the film we watched, we would do well to come to the story this year with fresh eyes, so that we, too, can be drawn into a closer, more tangible connection to God.

Luke sets the story of Christ’s birth in the context of the Old Testament prophecies about the Messiah. Joseph and Mary travel to the city of Bethlehem because Joseph is descended from “the house and lineage of David” Luke tells us. And this is important, because the Christ, the Messiah of God, it had long been foretold, would be the ancestor and heir of King David. But look how the reality unfolds. Joseph reflects not one tiny glint of the glory of his great ancestor. He’s no royalty at all; he’s just a common laborer with a pregnant fiance. If he is of the house and lineage of David – and he is – he’s just one of the “poor relations” of that clan. And not only that, but Joseph arrives in Bethlehem one among thousands of other descendants of David. Joseph is such a distant and insignificant scion of the royal family that he can’t even find a comfortable bed for his wife, who is about to give birth.

And about the birth, around which so much glory and wonder shines. It must be understood that the wondrous birth of Mary’s real human child was a real human birth. If you have ever given birth, or if you have been present at a birth, it’s hard to imagine an event that is less mystical, or more solidly physical. In fact, of all the human events I have had the privilege of attending, only death is as completely and physically human as birth. Like death, birth is hard work. At his birth, the Son of God was covered in blood and amniotic fluid. The Blessed Virgin Mary cried out in her pain. She probably wept tears of exhaustion. Weary, sweating and trembling with her labor, she bore down with all her might to bring her child into the world. It wasn’t just exactly like what we have grown up imagining, when we sing, “silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright”

And when the Messiah had come into the world at last, when God himself had been made flesh – when that miraculous, once-for-all-time event had come to pass, the angels of heaven came down over the city of Bethlehem to announce the news – but not to sweet, innocent children at play, not to holy men and women at prayer in the synagogue, but to a rough, unwashed, untutored bunch of men lying rough out in the fields watching over their sheep. We tend to romanticize shepherds, but shepherds were some of the least-respected members of society in those days. We romanticize sheep, too – we picture pure white, fluffy animals peacefully dotting the fields, but  these were real sheep, their wool more gray than white, full of burrs and twigs and who knows what else, rank and greasy with lanolin. Over these rough creatures, human and animal, God’s angelic hosts poured out their songs of ecstatic joy in a blaze of glorious light. 

We just read from the first chapter of John’s gospel: “He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him.” Eugene Peterson’s translation says, “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” But it wasn’t what we were expecting at all. God showed up in the sketchiest of places, among the commonest of people. His PR people were from among the lowest layers of the social order. Is it any wonder that the “nice” people, the religious people, the people longing and praying for the coming of God’s Messiah – is it any wonder so many of them missed the memo? Is it any wonder that when the Son of God was born into the world, so many people didn’t recognize him?

Isaiah foretold that the Messiah would be called Immanuel, which means “God with us.” And people were longing for his coming. They looked forward to the day when God would come and be with his faithful people, with his pure and holy people, with his respectable people. But no one expected that God would come and be with his common people, with his poor people, with his scruffy people, with his disabled people, with his outcast people. It was SO unimaginable – that when God was right there in their midst, they didn’t see him.

And that is both the scandal and the glory of the Incarnation: that when God became flesh, it wasn’t in a religious sense or a mystical sense or a metaphorical sense; it wasn’t spiritualized or sanitized or romanticized. God became real flesh and blood and moved into our utterly human neighborhood. He was born, he cried and slept, he ate and drank, he suffered pain and sickness, hunger and sadness and death, as one of us, as all of us, and most especially the ones we fail to notice, the ones we look down on, the undesirable and the unworthy.

The Christian writer Rachel Held Evans wrote this wonderful reflection on the mystery of the Incarnation:

“It is nearly impossible to believe: God shrinking down to the size of a zygote, implanted in the soft lining of a woman’s womb. God growing fingers and toes. God kicking and hiccupping in utero. God inching down the birth canal and entering this world covered in blood, perhaps into the steady, waiting arms of a midwife. God crying out in hunger. God reaching for his mother’s breasts. God totally relaxed, eyes closed, his chubby little arms raised over his head in a posture of complete trust. God resting in his mother’s lap.

God trusted God’s very self, totally and completely and in full bodily form, to the care of a woman. God needed women for survival. Before Jesus fed us with the bread and the wine, the body and the blood, Jesus himself needed to be fed, by a woman. He needed a woman to say: “This is my body, given for you.”. . .

…the true miracle of the Incarnation— is the core Christian conviction that God is with us, plain old ordinary us. God is with us in our fears and in our pain, in our morning sickness and in our ear infections, in our refugee crises and in our endurance of Empire, in smelly barns and unimpressive backwater towns, in the labor pains of a new mother and in the cries of a tiny infant. In all these things, God is with us—and God is for us.” +

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