Immanuel Lutheran, Chicago
“Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea roar, and all that fills it.” (Psalm 96:11) “To you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” (Luke 2:11)
The story of Jesus’ birth is about union with God, one another, and all creation. Emmanuel, ‘God with us,” or incarnation is the best and most important gift of the Christian story to the world. The fullness of God took on flesh and lived among us. This God is not content to dwell in you, or only in us, but the Spirit of God is being poured out to fill all things in heaven and earth with beauty and grace.
“All the earth” joins in a song of praise and declares God’s glory among all peoples. Scripture teaches us to listen for God in the roar of the sea, and all that fills it; watch for God in the exultation fields, and everything growing within it. ‘All the trees of the forest sing for joy’ at the Lord’s coming (Psalm 96:11-12). The earth and cosmos resonate as with music at the coming Messiah.
Somehow, we seem to have lost this sense of enchantment that came naturally to ancient peoples. The message of Christmas is the perfect antidote. Incarnation means everything sparkles with the fullness and presence of God. Matter is not empty, but everything speaks of the one life. Spirit and nature. Sacred and secular. Body and soul. Light and darkness. Insider and outsider. Saints and sinners. Life and death. In Christ we see these dualisms are illusions. God is in with and under it all. “That’s what Christmas is all about, Charlie Brown.”
But if you didn’t know anything about Jesus or this story and instead only listened to what many Christians in America say today, you could be forgiven for thinking the most important thing Christianity values is worldly power — the power to control and compel, to impose one’s will on others, to vanquish one’s enemies. Blessed are the politically powerful and the well connected, you might assume, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
The birth and life of Jesus shatter this narrative. When this broken world became God’s dwelling place, God stepped into human clothing, into history and into the world barely without a ripple of notice, without protocol, without pretension, without the most basic of creature comforts. It was an entrance characterized not by privilege, comfort, public celebration or self-glorification; it was marked instead by lowliness, obscurity, humility, fragility.
What is shocking is not just that God came, but how God came, and what God means to teach us through becoming incarnate among us. The savior of the world is born to a poor peasant woman in an occupied country in an animal stall because they were homeless at the time of his birth.
The unchanging character of God praised by forests, oceans, and Jesus Christ is revealed in flesh and blood through power made perfect in weakness –as St. Paul said to the Christians of Corinth so long ago. (2 Corinthians 12:9)
Most of us know we learn more in times of weakness rather than strength, in hardship rather than success. This is true for people of different faiths and people of no faith. It’s not that God intends for human weakness and suffering to be ends in themselves. Sometimes hardships and suffering simply overwhelm us and no good comes from them. But it’s also true that weakness can open the way for greater wisdom, self-reflection, and focus on what is essential rather than ephemeral.
“Our weakness finally opens our eyes to the need for a Savior. Nothing prevents that more than our strength. No one has ever said, ‘I was so successful I just had to come to Jesus.’” (Craig Barnes, Princeton Theological Seminary) Power understood through the prism of the incarnation is different from how the world generally understands power. It’s the difference between power over others, and the power of connecting with others, which requires us to be open and vulnerable.
Jesus continually turns the world upside down in regard to power, might, worldly success, and achievement. Jesus’ subversive challenges to human-crafted structures that oppress and bind others hold out hope that there is a third way — the Jesus way—that takes us beyond either/or and opens into both/and. This way of Jesus brings healing to individuals, communities and nations. (Pastor Renée Notkin, Union Church Seattle)
“What the incarnation represents is God entering history not as the screenwriter of the drama but as an actor within it. Jesus is the suffering protagonist. No one thought it would start quite this way, an infant placed in a manger in a troubled corner of a troubled world. You would have thought he [that baby] would be among the most inconsequential individuals ever. You would have been wrong.” (Peter Wehner, Christmas Should Humble Us, NYT, 12/24/19)
We wonder at these things. Scripture only says, ‘Mary treasured all the words people said about Jesus and pondered them in her heart’ (Luke 2:19). At the rail and the font, in scripture and in prayer, and wherever two are three are gathered in his name, we are midwives to the incarnation of grace God is bringing into being among us.
I leave you with a poem written by liturgical artist some of you know. Jan Richardson writes:
I cannot tell you how the light comes.
What I know is that it is more ancient than imagining.
That it travels across an astounding expanse to reach us.
That it loves searching out what is hidden, what is lost, what is forgotten or in peril or in pain.
That it has a fondness for the body, for finding its way toward the flesh, for tracing the edges of form, for shining forth through the eye, the hand, the heart.
I cannot tell you how the light comes, but that it does.
That it will.
That it works its way into the deepest dark that enfolds you, though it may seem long ages in coming or arrive in a shape you did not foresee.
And so, may we this day turn ourselves toward it.
May we lift our faces to let it find us.
May we bend our bodies to follow the arc it makes.
May we open and open more and open still to the blessed light
(How The Light Comes, Jan Richardson, printed in Circle of Grace, p.59)