Tag Archives: Incarnation

Birth of Jesus (Nativity of Our Lord) – December 24, 2015

Thursday’s Reading:
Luke 2:1-20

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

Earlier this week, as I was preparing for tonight’s sermon – and by preparing I mean, of course, procrastinating, because like all of you I had ten thousand other things to do and I wasn’t yet ready to handle the big thing at the top of my list – a video came across my Facebook feed that stopped me in my tracks. Perhaps you’ve seen it, too. It was a presentation of a Christmas pageant that purported to be a realistic account of the nativity of our Lord, and it started out the way that many other Christmas pageants do. Mary and Joseph enter the stage and ask an innkeeper if there is any place that they can stay the night, because they expect the baby to be born at any moment. The innkeeper, of course, tells them that there is no room, and at that very moment the scene is rent by cries of pain from the young girl playing Mary. She is ready to deliver the baby, and the rest of the characters jump into action, spouting medical jargon that would be very familiar to anyone who has been in a birthing suite during childbirth. Concerns about hygiene and warmth and all manner of other things crop up over the remainder of the pageant, things that very infrequently make it into our presentations of that night, and frankly, the whole thing seems a little bit irreverent.

But why? Why does presenting this story in a way that more closely mirrors reality produce that kind of reaction in us? Why are we so averse to having that “Silent Night” disturbed by Mary’s pain or Joseph’s panic or the child’s cries? I don’t know for sure, but I have some guesses. One of them is that we have been raised singing songs that sanitize the night of our Lord’s birth. Our memories of this celebration are tied up with the sweet melodies of carols, and the beautiful words that attempt to describe an event that is so incredible that we continue to have trouble wrapping our minds around it. Another is that we have become so caught up in the trappings of the season and our own hectic lives that we yearn for a time of peace and quiet and calm, and the celebration of Christmas is perhaps the one time of year that our culture allows us to muse on those realities without mockery. The last, and perhaps the most significant, is that we seem to have this idea that because God’s ways are higher than our ways, the incarnation couldn’t possible have been as messy as our lives actually are.

If God chose to be born in our world, then it couldn’t have looked the same way as it did when ordinary folks like you and me were born. It’s inconceivable that Christ could have chosen such a birth, a birth that was accompanied by the fear or the anguish or the anticipation or the messiness of human existence. And yet, that’s precisely what happened, and that’s precisely what this event is all about. It’s about God making the choice to fully enter into our world, to leave the place where “all is calm and all is bright” to be present in a world weighed down by “the hopes and fears of all the years”.

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t sing our carols. I love “Silent Night” as much as the next guy, and I look forward to singing it by candlelight later in this evening’s service and adding another beautiful memory of this celebration to the ones of years past. But as a father of three young girls who has been kept up many a night by the cries of a sick or scared or restless child, I’m convinced that Christmas is about something more. It’s about the birth of God in Jesus, and the knowledge that Christ is just as present to us in all our not-so-silent days and nights as in those fleeting moments of peace and calm that sometimes descend upon our world. It’s about the birth of God in Jesus, and the conviction that the Christ who was attended by angels and shepherds is attended in our own day by the lonely and marginalized and hurting people of our world. It’s about the birth of God in Jesus, and the promise that in Christ the song of the angels continues to reverberate through our world, cutting into the songs of fear and anger and hostility that are playing on loop around us to sound a note of hope and joy.

Brothers and sisters, my prayer for you this night and throughout the season to come is that you would know once more the joy of Christ’s presence in your midst. May your gatherings be illuminated by the sun of righteousness. May your relationships be leavened by the peace that passes all understanding. May your travels be safe and your homecomings restful. But more than that, may you be reminded all year of God’s grace and love for you and for our broken world, grace and love that flow in and through us, so that every silent night and crazy day will find a measure of hope and peace. Thanks be to God, and Merry Christmas to you and your and to our whole world! Amen.


The Book of Hebrews: Week 2 – August 16, 2015

Sunday’s Reading:
Hebrews 2:10-18

+ Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, in the unity of the Holy Spirit. Amen. +

At one time or another, you’ve probably heard the old saying, “‘Tis impossible to be sure of any thing but Death and Taxes.”  (Christopher Bullock, 1716) With apologies to the famous thinkers who have repeated this axiom – or something like it –  throughout the centuries, including such bright lights as Benjamin Franklin and Daniel Defoe, I’d like to suggest that there is at least one other aspect of human experience that is universal, and it is a prominent theme in today’s reading from Hebrews. As I’ve said before, it’s not one that we like to talk about, but it is one that we can’t avoid. Suffering, broadly understood, is an inescapable reality for us; it surrounds us like the air we breathe, and permeates our existence in so many ways that we are incapable of comprehending it in its entirety. This recognition – that suffering is part of the human condition – has been around for a long time, longer even than the letter to the Hebrews. We find it recorded, for example, in the Old Testament book of Job, which precedes Hebrews by some seven to eight hundred years, and echoed by philosophical giants like Schroeder from Charles Schultz’ “Peanuts” comic series: …people are born to trouble as surely as the sparks fly upward. (Job 5:7, NET)

Though suffering is universal to the human experience, it is difficult for us to comprehend what it would mean for God to suffer. The Church’s hymnody is full of reflections that suppose that God is distant from the reality of human suffering Hear, for example, the words of this classic hymn:

Immortal, invisible, God only wise,
in light inaccessible hid from our eyes,
most blessed, most glorious, the Ancient of Days,
almighty, victorious, thy great name we praise!

Unresting, unhasting, and silent as light,
nor wanting, nor wasting, thou rulest in might;
thy justice like mountains high soaring above
thy clouds which are fountains of goodness and love.
(Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise – Evangelical Lutheran Worship, #834)

When we think about God like that, the first words in today’s reading sound strange to our ears: It was fitting that God, for whom and through whom all things exist, in bringing many children to glory, should make the pioneer of their salvation perfect through sufferings. (Hebrews 2:10, NRSV) For most of human history, it has seemed far from fitting to imagine divine beings suffering anything, and much less so to think that they might be made more perfect through suffering. Yet this is precisely the argument made by the author of Hebrews. The same Jesus who was described in chapter one as the “heir of all things”, the one through whom the voice of God speaks, the one who radiates God’s glory and reveals God’s being and character, is now described as sharing our flesh, our blood, our life, and our death, and more, that as the pioneer of our salvation, he is made perfect through his participation in the life of this suffering world!

That seems like a nice thought in the abstract, but what does it really mean for us as we live life in this broken world, surrounded by the inescapable reality of sin, suffering, and death? Well, at the risk of putting too fine a point on it: it means everything! It means that the one whose name we bear, the one who has called us into relationship is intimately aware of what it means to be human. Indeed, the Gospels describe Jesus in ways that relate directly to our own experience. He knew hunger and thirst. He knew the difficulty of being homeless and poor. He knew anger and sadness and grief and loss. He knew joy and pain, friendship and abandonment, love and hatred, confidence and fear. For this reason he is not ashamed to call [us] brothers and sisters, because our fleeting and fallen existence is not beneath him, but part of his own eternal existence (Hebrews 2:11b, NRSV) When we call upon God in Christ, then, we invoke the most excellent name of Jesus with the knowledge that he has shared in our lot completely, and that he came to help [us], the descendants of Abraham in times of trial and testing. In the words of Biblical scholar and preacher Thomas Long, Jesus’ experience of being human enables him to be our hero, our liberator, and our priest.* The Word became flesh to blaze a trail through the muck and mire of the world to God’s own heart, and by his victory over sin, death, and the devil, fans the flame of hope in our hearts when we face those same realities day in and day out. The Word became flesh so that he could blaze the trail to freedom, not from somewhere else, but from within this world of groaning and pain, still ensnared by the fear of death. The Word became flesh so that he could blaze the trail between earth and heaven, stand before God as one of us, and bring our hopes and dreams and fears directly to the one we call Father.

This is a great mystery, brothers and sisters – a mystery that defines our relationship with God and the way that we approach each new day. Because of what God has done in Jesus, we know that the trials and tests that we face are not unconquerable, because we have been filled with the same Holy Spirit that strengthened Christ on his earthly journey. Because of what God has done in Jesus, we know that our cries for help will be heard from heaven – even if the answer to those cries is not always readily apparent to us. Because of what God has done in Jesus, we know that suffering and death do not have the final word, because Christ’s victory means that their days are numbered.

The saying is still sure: …people are born to trouble, as surely as the sparks fly upward (Job 5:7, NRSV) But this saying is also sure: In Christ, God was born to suffer alongside us, so that we might know God’s presence with and among us in suffering. In all our trials, may we stand firm in the knowledge of God’s love for us, God’s solidarity with us, and God’s gracious will for us and the whole world.

* Thomas G. Long, Hebrews, Interpretation, John Knox Press (Louisville, KY: 1997), 39-45.