“When things get messy” 12/18/2016 by Rev. Stacy Swain (Click on title for audio)

For most of the church year, it is clear.  “Do justice, love kindness and walk humbly with your God,” We say.  “Do your best to love each other and love God,” we teach. And that sounds pretty reasonable.  We can try to do that, right?  It can be hard for sure, but the instruction is at least comprehensible and clear

But there comes times in the church year when things get less clear and frankly, rather messy.   Advent is such a time.  In Advent, soon to be Christmas, things get complicated.  Things get complicated because at this time, we come face to face with a central mystery of our faith.  We come face to face with “the word becoming flesh and dwelling among us” – we come face to face with incarnation.  And while incarnation is the central, defining even, event of our faith, it is terribly difficult to comprehend.


In a few days we will gather around the manger and proclaim the good news of a helpless babe born into poverty, a soon to be a refugee, fleeing with his parents the violence of Empire.  And we may find ourselves wondering, “Why in the world would God want to start the story of God with us in like that?  Why did God allow God’s self to be so limited, so vulnerable, so helpless as to entrust God’s self to the poorest of poor?

And then of course there is the pressing question of how coming into the world with such fragility helps us with what we are trying to do now?  How does God taking on the vulnerability of  flesh have anything to do with the stress of trying to raise kids, hold a job, and still try to be involved in one’s community?  How does God taking on flesh have anything to do with the all too soon loss of someone dear, or the compounded losses of aging?  How does God taking on flesh have anything to do with the genocide in Aleppo or hate crimes or global climate change?  How does incarnation have anything to do with what we are trying to make sense of right here in our lives in 2016?

But before all of this tempts us to throw up our hands and walk straight on out of here, let us pray.  Holy God.  It is a good story. It may even be good news.  But the bad news of our time and the crush of our days all too easily bury the headline of your birth below the fold and below our ability to take it all in.  And so, we pray that you will help us try, not so much to understand, but to experience first-hand what it was you did so long ago and what you are wanting to do right now.  And may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable to you, our rock and our redeemer.  Amen.

We humans seem to have a unique capacity among all of God’s creatures, to be self reflective.  We are able to stand outside of ourselves and assess where we are and measure that against where we want to be.  The text from Isaiah this morning beautifully captures this and while it was written to a people who were literally far from their homeland, disheartened in exile in Babylon, it also speaks powerfully to us metaphorically as we look around at all that is wrong with where we are and long so powerfully for what is right and as it should be.

And this capacity to assess the gap between what  is and what should be and to organize and plan for how to close that gap is good.  It is very good.  It is powerful even. Last Sunday I was at an event along with many of you and 2,500 others at the Islamic Society of Boston Cultural Center where we took a hard look at where we are as a nation and to hold that up against the vision of who we wanted and knew ourselves to be. And then we pledged together, along with Senator Warren and Mayor Walsh, and leaders from Christian, Jewish and Muslim faith to close that gap.   And it was a power-filled evening on which I imagined God was smiling.

So it is no wonder then that one of the main ways that we understand what the incarnation is all about, what Jesus is about, is through the lens of this self-reflective capacity of ours.  We see Jesus as the one who comes to close the gap between who we are as a people and who God wants us to be.  Jesus is the remedy, the fix.  He came into the world to fix what was wrong in our relationship with God.  How many of you were taught that this is the reason for the incarnation? Jesus came into the world in order to offer himself up as an atonement for the sins of humanity thereby appeasing God, closing the gap as it were, and thereby redeeming us all.

The only problem with this explanation of incarnation, is that on the far side of the Jesus event (as it is called) nothing really seems to have changed at all. The gap between how things are and how they should be is as huge as ever.  If Jesus came to fix things, why then aren’t they fixed?

The institution of church, as need be, came up with an answer to that quandary and the answer, of course, was heaven.  We may not be able a difference here on earth, but Jesus did fix things for now we are able to go to heaven when we die, or at least that is our hope.  We ought to just trust in that we are told, and to some degree, I do.

But to be honest, there is much I do not understand.   Why would God go to all the trouble of taking on flesh, and going through all that Jesus went through here on this earth if the purpose of his living was to only to impact Gods eternal realm?  Seems to me like God could have very well sorted that out without needing to go through the trouble of taking on flesh.  Seems to me God could have figured that out without the “scandal of the incarnation” as it is sometimes called.


We can draw some comfort in knowing that we are not the only ones having a hard time understanding who Jesus is and what he is all about.  In our scripture from the New Testament this morning, John the Baptizer is in prison. He sends disciples to Jesus asking if Jesus is the Messiah that they have been waiting for. Is he the one?  But instead of pulling out his ID and showing it as proof positive to John’s disciples, Jesus points to what he has been doing as that which defines who he is?

Here, I believe, is a powerful clue to what incarnation could mean.   Could it be that who Jesus is, is inextricably linked to how people experience him?  Could it be that God is more of a verb then a noun?  Someone to be experienced instead of something to be known? Jesus always pointed not to himself as the revelation of God, but saw himself as a kind of window through which God the power of could be glimpsed.


Jesus came into the world as a tiny, fragile little baby.   As Karen Weisgerber in her reflection in our Advent booklet put it, Jesus coming as a tiny baby would have seemed like a “cruel joke,” if God had in fact intended Jesus to be the fixer of things.  What can a helpless little baby do? But something else comes into view when we are able to set aside this view of Jesus as the fixer, the change agent that would get us from where we are to where we want to be.  Something else comes into view when instead we look on Jesus with the eyes of Mary and Joseph so long ago.


For that first gaze, I believe contained the most pure and exquisite revelation of God’s self.  For in that first gaze, as Mary and Joseph held that child in their eyes, they saw love.  They looked at that little baby and they were filled body and soul with love, all they could see when they looked on him was love.  Love, is what was revealed in that manger.

I have become increasingly convinced the incarnation is about the revelation of the essence of God’s self which is not a superhero ready to fix whatever is wrong, but instead which is love.  Mary and Joseph looked on the baby with hearts overflowing and eyes filled with love and in doing so they saw God.   When we do the same, when we look with the eyes of love we too see God. And I am becoming increasingly convinced, when we see in this way, the fix we need and corrective we desire begins to emerge right out of that place f love.

For I am coming to know God, not so much as a being out there, but as a presence right here. Less of a  noun and more of a verb.   A life force that moves among and within all that is.  A powerful, redemptive life force that words strain to describe but that which we can know as love.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his book “Life Together” says that what turns a group of people into a community, what turns a church into the body of Christ, is our capacity to see with the eyes of love.  To see each other through the lens of Christ.  To actually imagine that it is Christ standing between us and the other person and to therefore see that person through the prism of the transfiguring power of love.

So what if what happens on Christmas Eve is not that “a fixer” of all that has gone wrong is born into our midst but a birthing of a new way of seeing each other — a very real power of seeing each other through the presence of love. What if what enters our world in that gaze of love is the very real presence of God?  And what if Jesus spent his entire life, and his death and resurrection showing us is that seeing through this presence of love is in fact what we need the most in order to  fix the very real problems, the very real sins of our day?

So this Christmas, I invite you to look at yourself, each other the world through the lens of Christ.  Look at the each other and the world the way that Joseph and Mary looked so tenderly with such love at the infant Jesus on that first night, a look full of love.   Look with eyes that do not see just problems that need fixing, but that instead see promises worth honoring.  Look with eyes that invite not judge, encourage not distain, for the salvation, the healing, the liberation, the transformation of reality itself, (this amazing transformation of which Isaiah speaks) comes not from our ability to fix but God’s power to transform through love what is into what is yearning to be.

And as a final thought, to love in this way.  To see ourselves, each other and the world through the eyes of love, is to put ourselves, like the infant Jesus in a place of vulnerability.  To love is to be vulnerable.  To love is to be unguarded, open, receptive, giving.   It is to set down our defenses and to come outside the fortress of our egos.  It is to be open to others, ready to receive what others have to give.  It is to place ourselves too in the manager, so that the power of love, that life giving, world healing, transformative power of love may more enter the world through us as well.  Thanks be to God.  Thanks be to love.  Amen.