“How can this be?”
December 6, 2015
Imagine with me for a moment, if you will. Imagine you are having a conversation with a friend. Your friend is confused about this thing called Christmas and cannot understand why so many seem to be making such a big deal about it.
So you begin to explain that Christmas is the time when followers of Jesus celebrate his birth. And we celebrate and give thanks for his birth because in him something of God becomes incarnate, something of God takes on flesh. You pause for a moment and go on to say “in Jesus, we are able to see something of God and through Jesus, God is able to save us.”
At this point your friend looks puzzled. “How can this be?” he says. “Let me get this right?” she says. You are saying that God Most High, the Creator of heaven and earth, descended into this world, willingly limited Gods-self so as to take on flesh, willingly assumed the body of humanity in order to somehow save humanity?
Yes, you say, but there is more. Jesus it turns out, was born to this young woman Mary who with her husband Joseph were so poor that they barely two sticks to rub together and who shortly after Jesus birth became refugees fleeing to Egypt so afraid were they for their own lives and the life of this baby entrusted to them!
Now your friend is really confused, and asks again. “How can this be?” Why on earth would God come up with such a precarious plan? Why would God entrust God’s self to the weak? It is scary down here. Why in the world would God enter the world in a place of such vulnerability?
We cannot really blame your friend for being so confused, can we? It is a rather unbelievable story, isn’t it?
But perhaps we can draw some consolation that “How can this be” is not your friend’s question alone. It was first on the lips of Mary after hearing the proclamation from the angel telling her that she would conceive in her womb and bear a son, and that he was to be named Jesus for he will be great and will be called Son of the Most High. (Luke 1: 31-34). And this question was on the minds of the early church as they wrestled mightily with this question of the incarnation, of God taking on flesh.
And this question, “How can this be?” Why did God take on flesh, continues to be, at least for me, the central question, the central mystery in our Christian tradition.
So even as we decorate this house and our homes and even as share in the anticipation of Emmanuel, “God with us”, I hope you draw some degree of comfort from knowing that if you too are actually a bit confused by it all, well you are in very good company!
For me, however, as mind bending as the incarnation may be, the incarnation reveals quite clearly two important things about God and about our relationship with God. The first is encounter. As much as we may think of God as being out there, in heaven, beyond our reach and outside of our knowing, the incarnation insists that we must also conceive of God as one who can be met right now, right here. And, if we take that idea seriously than suddenly the world becomes a much more interesting place for the world holds within it the presence of God and every moment becomes much more precious for every moment has the potential to open to divine encounter.
And the second important thing about God and our relationship with God that the incarnation reveals is that of intimacy. The presence of God comes not as a powerful ruler but as a baby, a poor baby, a poor, refugee baby. One that needs to be held, loved, protected and nurtured. And that necessitates that our interactions with each other also be tender, for it is through holding, loving, protecting and nurturing the other that the presence of God grows and strengthens. Incarnation was confirmed, the promise that the angel made to Mary was confirmed for Mary there in that tender moment from the Gospel passage this morning when Mary and Elizabeth embrace and love leaps within them.
There will of course come that time when Jesus as a grown man will stand before the power of Empire and refuse to capitulate to its death dealing ways. And there are times when we too are called to do the same. But the source of our strength to do so comes, I believe in our ability to first know God’s love and to develop our capacity to be an instrument of that love through quiet tender moments of encounter and grace.
And what I find so moving about incarnation is that incarnation takes courage, because incarnation is risky. God risked by limiting God’s self so as to take on flesh and Mary risked by saying “Yes” to the indwelling of the limitless God within her. If incarnation is the doorway to salvation, than we too are called to have the courage to risk encounter and intimacy in the everyday moment of our lives.
Last week at our Council meeting, I asked those gathered to imagine with me for a moment. I asked them to imagine that there was a person named Joe and that Joe had a friend that said to him one day “The most extraordinary thing happened to me today, I had an encounter with the Union church in Waban and I left feeling …….” I told them I could have been any encounter with the Union Church. It could have been coming to our thanksgiving meal, or coming here to worship or it could have been meeting some of you at the Russell school or it could have been something as innocuous as greeting a passerby as you pulled weeds out front in the garden or shoveled some snow from the walk. Whatever that encounter was, it was extraordinary for Joe’s friend so much so that he could not help but tell Joe about how it left him feeling…. I asked the council then to fill in the blank. What would they hope that Joe’s friend felt? What do you hope Joe’s friend felt in his encounter with the Union Church? Loved, accepted, like he really mattered, alive, inspired were some of what was said.
I then asked council to reflect on what it was about that UCWer that Joe’s friend encountered that enabled Joe’s friend to feel this way. How were we being? What was present in that encounter? What would you say? Compassionate, really present and listening, fun, loving, approachable, accepting, warm.
And finally I asked Council, how is it that that UCWer was able to be that way that was so extraordinary for Joe’s friend. “Because we are in covenant with God,” one said. “Because of God’s grace, God’s love.”
And in that imagined encounter between Joe’s friend and something of UCW, we were able to see how we are to incarnate something of God’s love for all who encounter us because like Mary we are first the recipient of God’s grace and love. We were able to see that because we recipients of God’s grace and God’s love, our purpose, the mission of this church then becomes to incarnate, to reveal in time and space, that love — the love of God – our mission, as we say every Sunday, is to be “beacons of hope, sources of comfort, fonts of inspiration, and ambassadors of God’s love, in this beautiful but wounded world.” We are to love so that “all whose lives we touch may know the grace and power of God’s love.”
And at that council meeting we were reminded again and again clearly that the mission of the church, living God’s love, is not just lived out in our outreach and service work but that it is bigger than that and is lived out in so many quiet ways that we encounter with tenderness those around us with love. Our mission of incarnating God’s love is lived out in the embrace and warmth that greets all who come through these doors. Our mission of incarnating God’s love is lived out when we offer our love to those who are suffering loss or illness who do not have the strength to stand and so we hold them until they do again. And our mission of incarnating God’s love is lived out when we gather at this table to take the bread and the cup, into our being again.
So perhaps, it turns out that something about incarnation is really not that confusing after all. Something about incarnation is as straightforward as having the courage to say yes to love and yes to encountering another with love. So let us let God’s love live through us so that, God willing. all whom we encounter may encounter something of God’s love. And as we do, let us not be surprise if we too, like Mary, and Elizabeth so long ago, we too feel the leap of love within us. Thanks be to love incarnate. Thanks be to God. Amen.