Wednesday, January 12, 2011

December 26, 2010 God in the Flesh

It’s the day after Christmas Day and all is well with the world! Or at least we would suppose it to be so…We brought our gifts and that was all well and good. But is this day any different than any other?

There is no time of the year, no holiday, that is more over, more quickly…than Christmas.

After all the buildup, all the anticipation, all the silent nights, morning comes! We rush down the stairs and around the tree. We tear into the packages and spill out the stockings. Some treasures have been piled away for the future and we’ve eaten the traditional breakfast.

And it’s over.

I don’t know about around your house, but at ours, by 10AM Christmas is so over. No, I mean really over.

Psychologists speak of how over Christmas can be, of how there can be a significant psychological and emotion let-downs immediately afterward Christmas. Suicide rates climb, hospitalizations for depression increase. The joy we once felt quickly turns to sorrow.

Family and friends are no longer gathered round, they’ve just gone back to their places and routines.

And that Christmas spirit that seems to heal old wounds and cover a multitude of perceived sins, fades quietly but ever so quickly.

Christmas is so over. But is Christmas really so over?

The gospel writer of John doesn’t think so! Maybe you can guess where I'm going with this Christmas message. This is a season for great gift giving and I hope that you have given and received some wonderful gifts. But there is a greater giving than even our greatest gifts. It is giving that is personal, the present that is presence. Christmas can’t be over because the presence of Christ, God with us, is not over.

Our God is a giver of so many good gifts. We owe our lives, our families, homes, our gardens, our food, everything to this giving God. Yet, today we gather at our church (itself, a gift of God) to wonder at the glory of the greatest of God's gifts God.
Our gospel lesson says it most eloquently: The Word, the eternal Word of God, God from God, Light of all Light, the One who cast the stars in their courses at creation and flung the planets into being this God has "become flesh" and moved in with us. John does not say that Jesus was a messenger from God, or that the Christ was an ordained representative from God; rather, John says that he was God. The Word was God.

You see, that's what we wanted, even though we did not know that's what we wanted. All our restless striving, our rushing here and there, our grabbing and getting, our buying and accumulating, all was an attempt to find what we need to have light and life. There has been something just a bit too frenetic, a bit too driven and relentless about all of our preparations for the season. We have spent too much on ourselves and our children. We have expected too much of the holiday.

Yet this day, as John announces to us, in majestic cadences, “In him was life and the life was the light of all people true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world,” we realize that what we need and desire the most is God. What we need is a gift. What we need is not that which we can order through a catalogue or save up money and buy. What we need is that which must come to us as pure gift.

And this day it comes to us, He comes to us, the Word who was with God, and who is God, coming to everyone, enlightening a darkened world.

That's what John's gospel says. God came to dwell with us, literally in the Greek, “tented among us.” This is the wondrous opening hymn of the gospel. God with us.

Things between us and God were not good, and always have been bad. God tried. God sent us the prophets to tell us the truth, gave us the Holy Scriptures, the great stories of the faith. But now God gives himself. God comes to us as Jesus the Christ.

Before this story is done, we will see God with us, walking among us, speaking to us, teaching us, guiding us, forgiving us, raising us. God in the flesh will lead us down a path we could not, would not have taken by ourselves. Then the story ends with our coming to the God who has come to us. The last book of the Bible, Revelation, we hear the hosts of heaven sing, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them."

That is the end of the story, the point of it all God will be with us and we shall be with God. When Revelation says that God's "home" will be with us, it's the same word that John uses to describe the coming of the Christ. God will be at home with us, will tent with us, tabernacle among us. God with us. It's the whole point of the Good News. It's why today we sing the very best and most joyous of our songs.
"The word became flesh and dwelt among us". The creative power of God, the wisdom of God, the Holy One became a human being and dwelt among us. That is the central message of Christ ... the core mystery of Christianity ... what we Christians call, the "Incarnation" ... God with us, Emmanuel.

The first handful of verses, in John's Gospel, set the coming of Jesus in beautiful poetic verse ... John reduces the Gospel into profound prose ... yet in reducing, John does not diminish the Gospel. His introduction to it does not compress Jesus, but entices us to ask more ... who is this word of God for whom all things are made?

Who is this true light? Why would God wish to become a human being?

It is a good question. Why would God become a human being in Jesus? Why would God enter into this world and live among us ordinary people? Why would God not stay outside of human reality ... away from the mess and the muck, the suffering and the confusion? Because human living is certainly a challenge ... and the older a person gets the more one realizes that most people are really just flying by the seats of their pants. I know I am.

What is the right thing to do? What is the best course to take? Or maybe we don't even ask the question and just let life carry us along from this thing to the next, with no rhyme nor reason. Amid all of life there seems to be confusion ... often we just don't get it ... we walk in the darkness more than we think.

This one born in a stable, who walked among us, healing the sick, casting out the darkness, sharing meals with the outcast, and showing us the way. In the end, he was abandoned on a cross. Amid human folly and human failure, we tried to extinguish God. Darkness, our darkness, makes every attempt.

Yet, the darkness could not and has not overcome it. God's glory would not be reduced by human pride nor human folly. On the third day, the tomb was found empty, the light of God had overcome the darkness of humanity on that cross. Even the darkness of death could not overcome the light of God's love through Jesus Christ.
And that is the glory we have seen and many have experienced, in follow this crucified God. People who have walked in darkness, who have seen the light of Jesus Christ. Amid the foggy and confusion of life, people who have glimpsed the light of God in their lives.

And at those time we know, that amid the mystery, God's creative plan is at work in the world. Through following in the way of Jesus we come to see who God really is. This God who's home is a stable ... whose throne is a cross ... this King of the Universe who stoops lower than a slave, to wash his followers feet. This God who is willing to go to a cross ... to redeem the world. This Jesus Christ who feeds us with his body and blood. This God of love who is willing to call people who have walked in the darkness ... and claim us as children of light ... this God who is beyond our comprehension, but ever willing to call us friends. This is the God we see ... and because of this Christ child, we see that God's glory is with us ... we are not alone.

Sometimes I need to be reminded why we celebrate Christmas over and over again. After all, didn’t we do this last year? So I read again the Christmas story, and think about Mary and Joseph, angels, shepherds, and wisemen, wonder as they wondered, and ponder these things in my heart.
Christmas can be over if we choose, but instead I wonder if something else can happen.

One of my favorite books this time of year is to read from poet Ann Weems in her “Kneeling in Bethlehem.” (1)

In one place she writes,
I must admit to a certain guilt about stuffing the Holy Family into a box in the aftermath of Christmas. It’s frankly a time of personal triumph when, each Advent’s eve, I free them (and the others) from a year’s imprisonment boxed in the dark of our basement. Out they come, one by one, struggling through the straw, last year’s tinsel clinging to their robes. Nevertheless, they appear, ready to take their place in the light of another Christmas. The Child is first, because he’s the one I’m most reluctant to box. Attached forever to his cradle, he emerges, apparently unscathed from the time spent upside down to avoid the crush of the lid. His mother, dressed eternally in blue, still gazes adoringly in spite of the fact that her features are somewhat smudged. Joseph has stood for eleven months holding valiantly what’s left of his staff, broken many Christmases ago by a child who hugged a little too tightly. The wise ones still travel, though not quite so elegantly, the standing camel having lost it’s back leg, and the sitting camel having lost one ear. However, gifts intact, they are ready to move. The shepherds, walking or kneeling, sometimes confused with Joseph (who wears the same dull brown) tumble forth, followed by three sheep in very bad repair. There they are again, not a grand set surely, but one the children can touch and move about to reenact that silent night. When the others return, we will wind the music box on the back of the stand and light the Advent candles and go once more to Bethlehem. And this year, when it’s time to pack the figures away, we’ll be more careful the Peace and Goodwill are not also boxed for another year!

That’s why several years ago I decided not to pack up the nativity anymore. The temptation is great, to box it all up and say Christmas doesn’t matter until the stores start playing the music again and weather turns cold. But I just can’t do that anymore. I need Christmas and the presence of the Christ child all year long.
That's the difference. That’s why these days are different. That's why we sing. And why Christmas is most definitely not over. God has moved in very close to us. Christ is born!

(1) Kneeling in Bethlehem, Ann Weems, 2004.

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