A circle of friends on pilgrimage for the love of God

The Incarnation

Adoration of the Shepherds by Matthias Stomer (1632)

Christmas 2021
Rev. Doug Floyd

Merry Christmas. This is day two of Christmas. Many of the celebrations throughout Christmas time are Martyrs’ Days. We’re celebrating God’s faithfulness to his people; in Christ, Martyr’s Days become feast days. Today is St. Stephen’s day. There’s much to be said about St. Stephen, but this morning, I’m going to talk about our gospel, on the incarnation.

John 1 tells the mystery of the incarnation. So this is a theology of incarnation, but hopefully, we’ll put theology in a better term for most people. When many people hear the word theology, they expect something that’s going to be abstract. And often if you read some of the great theologians, they are in fact abstract. And so they can take, as a matter of fact, this passage from John this morning and spin out multiple books, trying to grapple with the mystery that John just talked about. John uses images of the creation, of life, light, dark, sacred, and common. All these communicate the mystery of God among us, entering the human story. The word became flesh and dwelled among us. What are the implications of such a large sentence in relation to humanity, and exactly what does it mean?

Some of the Church Fathers literally wrestled with the texts for years trying to understand what are the gospels saying specifically about Jesus Christ. Now, we read the gospel stories. We have a different approach to theology. It’s not filled with abstractions. The the gospels are stories about Christ. And so that raises a different set of questions. How do you read the stories? So that’s going to set the background for what we’re going to just think about here this morning. In John’s gospel, Jesus is often misunderstood. In fact, in every story He’s misunderstood. And yet, John is communicating something. Jesus shows up and this is key. He shows up in both sacred places and common places. He shows up. He talks, He does things. He enters into the story of the people. So many of you’re familiar with John’s gospel. He shows up at a wedding initially, one of the very first miracles in John’s gospel.

He shows up at a wedding, at a party, a common event, an event of the people. The even is common as in common as in the community. He shows up, and He turns the water into wine because they’re in need of wine. He shows up in the story of Nicodemus. And in this story, He rethinks the nature of human birth, that there is a different kind of birth, and that birth is only completed in Him. He shows up to a woman outside of Israel, the woman at the well, a Samaritan. In the dialogue with Him and her, we find that He makes claim that he is living water. Jesus calls Himself living water. He shows up at the temple and He makes claim to having fulfilled the temple. So we follow all of John’s gospel, He shows up at all the sacred places and all the sacred events. So all the festivals, He shows up. And He suggests that all the festivals point to Him, so everything in Israel’s story is pointing to Him.

So this is a theological act on His part, but it’s not rooted in abstract terms. It’s rooted in actual events that the people are familiar with, and it will take time in their lives to unpack what Jesus is saying about the meaning of these events. And it can only really be unpacked by the gift of the spirit. And so this is a different way to begin to think about theology. The way the east would speak of theology. It is teaching us how to pray. So it’s teaching us to rethink everything in life. Paul says, “Whatever you do, whether you eat or drink, you do it all to worship the Lord.” So every act in life becomes an act of worship. So in that sense, every act in life becomes a theological act, that Christ is revealing himself. He’s teaching us how to worship, how to pray, how to transform our desires and our longings in every aspect of life. So with that in mind, we’re going to think about the incarnation in light of our Christmas celebration.

We are at Christmas. We come to Christmas, there’s a theological way of reading Christmas that could be overly abstract, or we can just look at what we actually do, how we actually celebrate Christmas. Peter Leithart had a nice little quote recently where he says “To grasp for the Christmas gospel, to celebrate it well, we must become little children. After all, when God calls each of us to become like a child, He is not asking us to do anything more than he himself did.” So we come to Christmas like children, and this might begin to help us think about Christmas and how Christmas is opening up the way we celebrate it in our own 21st-century festivals and family events, what we might learn from that. Over a hundred years ago GK CHesterton had a wonderful quote about Christmas. He says, “The great majority of people will go on observing forms that cannot be explained; they will keep Christmas Day with Christmas gifts and Christmas benedictions; they will continue to do it, and some day suddenly wake up and discover why.”

Chesterton helped open my eyes. In fact, reading Chesterton in one sense was like going from blindness to sight. He helped me to see. In fact, reading Chesterton help me understand more about what Jesus says when he speaks of having eyes to see and ears to hear. We often go through the world and through our daily experiences, meals, family events like Christmas in a haze, blindness. Chesterton said, “The world does not lack for wonders, but for wonder.” We’ve lost the ability to see. And so we have no wonder in the world. So the child has to open our eyes back up. The child has to teach us how to see.

So we think about Christmas, and he had another quote, which I had to remember this one, because I didn’t write it down, but Chesterton says, “In one sense, every person enters Christmas with the hope of rediscovering the first sense of wonder when they entered into Christmas. Every child is trying to recapture a moment that happened in the very beginning when they first begin to understand the wonder of Christmas.” And so there is a certain wonder attached to it. And in that sense, and this seems odd maybe for some adults, but for children, Christmas is one of the first experiences of the sacred. It’s something totally other. When we think of the sacred or we think of the holy, we might attach any number of ideas to what holy means. Holy, obviously, the word itself has to do with being set apart. But holy has to do with that which is totally other. So for a child, Christmas is something totally other. The house has been transformed. And if we look in ancient celebrations or earlier celebrations of Christmas, it was often transformed by the children at church.

And so they come home and everything is transformed. And so it’s another place, suddenly. The place that was commonplace every day has now become something other. So Christmas is pushing close to this something holy other, something sacred. They don’t have those terms to use about Christmas, but it is something that is beyond their grasp. And so all of our festivals actually are rooted that way. We usually have food. We might have clothing. We might have rituals, services that only happen during those festivals, whether it be Easter, Christmas, even Halloween. These are all times when everything is changed and they’re pointing to something else. And so the child is experiencing this sense of wonder. They don’t exactly know what it is they’re experiencing, but it is beyond what they can understand. Chesterton tells us a story to help us understand this. He talks about the man who lives on the gray farm. He says there’s a man who lives on the gray farm.

One day, he gets up and he tells the lady, he says, thank you so much for hosting me this time, but I must go home. The lady and the children are saying, what are you doing? Where are you going? He says, I must leave. It’s time for me to go home. He puts on his hat and his scarf and heads out the door. He walks across the farm to the edge of the property, crosses through a forest, walks through the forest. Eventually ends up in another town, travels across the town. Eventually makes it to the seaside. And he gets on a boat. Rides the boat all around the world. Someday he comes back. He arrives back in the town. The seaside, crosses through the town, comes to the forest, walks through the forest and he steps on to the gray farm. And he walks up to the house. He says, I’m finally home. And you think, why is Jessica telling such an odd little story? He says, because we’ve lost the eyes to see where we actually live, the wonder of it. It’s commonplace to us.

So in this story, he has a character that has to leave in order to understand the treasures, where he lives. And Chesterton takes this very simple story, makes a pretty profound argument about the nature of the west and how the west has failed to understand the inheritance of the faith. And so it has to get outside itself so it can rediscover the treasures that have been given to us. So in that sense, Jesus is doing the same thing. He’s opening the eyes of the people to the goodness of God, and the people cannot see how this world points to God’s grace. So what does John tell us in our reading today? That all things were made through Him. So there is nothing that was made that was not made in it through Christ. So when we speak of this creation, we are speaking of a world that is all gift. Everything is all gift. It’s all gift given to us in and through Christ. We understand it in and through Christ. We raise it up to Him.

We invoke His name when we eat a meal because it is a gift in and through Christ. We invoke His name. The idea would be we would invoke His name in all things we do because life is a gift in and through Christ. And so we think about this in relation to back to Christmas. Let’s think of the idea of presents. So a present, of course, children wait excitedly to receive presents and sometimes even want to peek in the presents and see what they are or try to shake them and guess them. So what are these presences speaking to us? In one sense, they’re physical objects that communicate relationships. So they communicate relationship. I have heard people say, “It’s the thought that counts,” but actually that’s not the shape of the gospel. It’s not the thought that counts. This is Jesus came and he laid down his life. So that’s not just a thought. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “It’s costly. It’s a costly grace because it costs the son of God’s life.” So this is a gift that costs everything. So actually gifts do mean something and they communicate something.

In medieval times, Christmas gifts often had a meaning. They gave gifts that were discipline gifts, and they also gave gifts that had to do with a person’s vocation, that would form their vocation. And then there was also the gift of more play or something that had to do with just fun. So all the gifts meant something. So we think of gifts and you might think there’s much to meditate on it and the gifts you’ve received in your life if you just spent time. What has stood out? Not necessarily Christmas, but at other times. I wrote down two or three gifts that I had received. And as I was meditating on these gifts, I thought as we grow up, become adults, and also as we grow up in Christ, we reinterpret our own life. So the same event, gift, dream, whatever it is, can take on new meaning as we grow up in Christ. So I was at a little children’s choir, Christmas party, where there’s an exchange. And this is one of the earliest gifts I remember. Everybody’s opening their gifts.

People are getting all sorts of… Girls are getting dolls and different various things. I open the gift I get and it’s a truck that’s broken. The wheels are broken on it and it’s all scarred up. I was rather an overly sensitive child, I was known to cry at my own birthday parties if I didn’t get great things. So I immediately began to cry about this broken truck. I thought, this is what I get? Something that somebody’s getting ready to throw away? And of course, my sister, who often came to my rescue somehow raised some money and went and bought me another present. But the broken truck became an image in my mind of, as I grew older, I tried to think back to the person who gave it, who I had no idea, but maybe that’s all they had. So it was precious to them. I don’t know. So I could count it that way. But I could also think of it this way; that it can become an image of what maybe sometimes we think God has given us is less than sufficient. It’s easy to find complaint in our lives.

Maybe because of the struggles we’ve suffered or maybe because we didn’t get the job we wanted. We lost the person we were in love with. I don’t know, any number of things. And it might seem as though God gave us something less than sufficient. So in the Christmas story, we’re going to come think about this more deeply in a moment. But the gifts He gives sometimes don’t seem like the gifts we want. We want something else, something that satisfies us in the moment. We want something for a desire that maybe is not the desire that will ultimately fulfill us. It’s the desire that will maybe lead us a different way. So the idea that God actually meets our needs sufficiently. So He comes into our own brokenness, because we’re the broken truck in one sense, our own brokenness, our own need, and He is raising us up. He is making us full. And sometimes that looks like it’s wrapped in a package that is not the package we want, but it is the package that will transform us. So He is transforming us, entering fully into this human story.

So we read off of the Bible all these different stories, that God is present. He’s there. He’s actually doing something in the midst of the people. So I think of another gift I’ve received is my priestly stoles. I never bought one. I was given most of them, and this particular one I was given by my sister. But I’ve getting most of them from my friend who was a retired priest himself, a retired Lutheran priest. So there are certain gifts that carry a weight to them because they carry the weight of the relationship. And because he gave me those stoles, I decided I wouldn’t buy any. I would carry his covering.. And so there are gifts we give to one another that are transformative gifts, that have to do with the very heart of who people are. And that’s exactly what, of course, Christ does to us. He is distributing gifts, we are told in Philippians. Or in the Ephesians, we’re told He’s given us all good gifts and these gifts are transformative gifts that are who we are.

We certainly see it in the gospel as he gives the gift of naming people. And He gives provision, but the provision always points to something even bigger than the moment. And so our lives are constantly being showered with gifts. And this is where the idea of our eyes being open to wonder is that we are receiving gifts continuously every day, but most of the time we’re blind to them. And this is where Chesterton is trying to get us back to seeing things again, because things that we don’t think about, Chesterton says, that Santa fills our stockings with two strong legs. Can we give thanks for them? The very things that in our body are gifts, the hands, the eyes, the mind. These are all, if you think about it, the incarnation. Christ is blessing each aspect of who we are. So when we think of the gift of the legs, our gift of hands, eyes, we’re getting close to something that happens in the incarnation. And that is the notion of the sacredness of the human body. He has given us a human body and He’s blessed it.

And by entering into that body and living as a human, He has raised up the human body. So if we go back to ancient Rome at the time of Christ, when a person died, they’re taken outside the city. That body was considered unclean. It was considered, it could be the inhabitant of sickness or even demons of the body, was unclean. But once Christ comes, the church recognizes the body is sacred. So the body is brought back into the city. And they begin to that’s where we have the catacombs and the bodies are buried underground. The church is recognizing the sacredness of the human body. And still to this day, we recognize the sacredness of the human body, which was distinctive from Christianity because Christ himself has raised up the human form. So another aspect of the mystery of the incarnation. So we get to all these different kinds of gifts and different ways of thinking about what Christ has brought.

And each of these gifts, as I said, a gift represents an image of a relationship, even for a child. The gift may be very inexpensive, but it still can become a symbol of, their mind is not thinking in terms of symbol, but a symbol of the sacred love between them and their parents. And this gets us to an aspect of incarnation. That in one sense, is what is leading toward, is we could use a term that the Eastern Church uses called sobornost. It is the communion at the heart of all things that Christ has come to restore, that we live in a world of communion. A world of love. In Christ, we are being called to love one another, to love his creation, to worship God properly. So in Christ now, every act is whether we eat, whether we play games, tell stories, play; these are all ways that we are participating in the goodness of God, because he has poured out life into us. So our desire to tell stories, our desire to play, our desire to work. These are all gifts from God, the way He made us.

So I read a quote from Gregory of Nazianzus. He was thinking about, what does it mean that Christ has come? And he says, “Christ is born. Let us glorify Him. Christ comes down from heaven. Let us go out to meet Him. Christ descends to earth. Let us be raised on high. Let all the world sing to the Lord. Let the heavens rejoice. Let the earth be glad for his sake, who was first in heaven and then on earth. Christ is here in the flesh. Let us exalt with fear and joy. With fear because of our sins, with joy, because of the hope that He brings us.” So if we think about the mystery of incarnation, we don’t always have to understand every detail, but we are called to worship. We are called to rejoice. So in this little meditation from Gregory of Nazianzus, he is talking about Christ descending to us and Christ raising us up to the Father. And so if we just take those two thoughts, Christ is descending to us in the incarnation, simultaneously He’s raising us up to the Father.

He experiences every aspect of what it means to be human. So there’s nothing we experience that is outside his experience. So God descends into our midst. That is sacred that sends into the common. Comes into the common, into family, into feasting. And when he descends, something happens. Things happen. People are transformed. He comes into our weakness, into our creativity, into our study and every aspect of what needs to be alive. And so we rejoice that we are not alone. We have not been forsaken. Simultaneously, he raises us up so that our prayer is not simply a prayer that is sounding out into the world. Our prayers are raised up before the Father. He’s taking all of our needs, all of our wants, all of our up before the Father. And so then our spiritual life and our common life are the same things. We are always living in the presence of God. He’s raising us up.

He’s transforming us into His image and He’s transforming our relationships so that we become people who learn what it means to live in the communion, who learns what true friendship means, who learns to abide in the way of Christ and so that would become instruments of His love and always. So I’ll stop there. In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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