Feasting on Incarnation

John Wilkinson Third Presbyterian Church
December 23, 2012 Luke 1:26-55


Again, perhaps it is good to pause for a silent moment or two…

Let us pray. We lift up, O God, in this holy season, those who grieve and those who mourn. We pray for peace this day in the world, in cities and neighborhoods and communities, in hearts and homes. Bring healing and hope where it is needed, and allow us to reach out as messengers and ambassadors to people and places in need, carriers of your message and vision. In Jesus’ name we pray, who is the bread of life and the Prince of Peace. Amen.

***

I do not know about you, but I have found myself on the verge of tears more than once this week. Some have been tears of joy and hope, of course, as I have witnessed or heard testimony of things that have given comfort or promoted healing or hope. Some have been tears of sadness, of course, and grief, not simply for what has happened in Newtown, Connecticut, but for many instances when the human capacity for harm overtakes our capacity for love. And I must confess that some have been tears of anger, indignation, perplexity, at where we as a culture find ourselves.

Your responses might not be mine, but my hunch is that wherever you have found yourself this week, you have sensed emotions a little more on the surface, a little extra tenderness in the air, a communal shaking of heads or eyes met in knowing solidarity as we as communities – and we as people of faith – seek how to live together in what our creeds call a “broken and fearful world.”

It has been good as well, and perhaps even a gift, to place all of that in the context of the story around which we gather – Christmas. Christmas may be more difficult this year because of the sadness – individual and collective – that we feel. But the good news is that we have good news around which to gather. As we pray more deeply, sing more soulfully, embrace our loved ones more gladly, give and receive gifts more mindfully, we do so not only against the backdrop of the world around us, but against the deeper backdrop of this story, with all of its epic elements and all of its flesh-and-blood elements.

It has been good to linger in Advent, perhaps more than usual, this year. We have needed a season of introspection, of anticipation and expectation and preparation, of minor chords and truth-telling prophets. But now it’s time, and thank goodness we are almost there.

Last week we began to encounter the unfolding of Mary’s story – the visitation of the angel Gabriel, her fearful and perplexed and ultimately confident acceptance of the news and her task. Today we encounter her response. It has come to be known as the “Magnificat,” Mary’s soul magnifying, making larger, the God who is working in her and that God’s work in the world and vision for it. To call her words the Magnificat is right, but to call them that as well almost allows them to be ossified, carved in symbolic stone to the point, like other famous words, where we think we know them but rarely consider them.

My soul magnifies God, she says – makes God bigger, makes God’s activity in the world bigger. And then Mary speaks of the attributes of God so worth magnifying. God’s mercy and compassion. God’s re-ordering of human relationships so that the lowly are lifted up and those with power and means are forced to examine their lives and living. What frames what we know as the Magnificat is Mary’s affirmation that God is a keeper of promises, for all generations, past and present and future.

This day, the last Sunday of Advent, which leads to tomorrow and the next day, Christmas Eve and Christmas, invites us to think about many things. What I have been thinking about this week is the role and interaction of message and messenger.

I had occasion to speak this week at a high school comparative religion class. Such an occasion forces one to work on sharing things simply and clearly and hopefully not embarrassing too much at least one of the students in the class. So I thought about message and messenger a great deal. It happens powerfully, first with Mary, then, of course, with Jesus, and then with us.

Jesus could have entered the world in all manner of ways, but God chose Mary. We Protestants have not always known what to do with Mary. Thankfully, though, and more recently, we have come to understand Mary better. She responded faithfully to what God called her to do. But more deeply than that, theologian Cynthia Rigby reminds us, she is a “God-bearer.” Rigby writes that “to recognize the sovereign activity of God does not mean we need to minimize or deny our own participation in the divine work…the story of Mary shows us that God’s work includes us – not as worker bees who are brought on the scene to bring to fruition the druthers of the master, but as God’s creative partners in the ministry of reconciliation. It is precisely,” Rigby writes, “Mary’s recognition of the impossibility of her participation in God’s work that gives way to her complete involvement. She know she is utterly incapable, but she is convinced that, with God, she can and will participate in this divine work.”

Rigby asks, “What would our lives look like if we were to live in recognition of our identity as genuine participants in the coming of the Kingdom, bearers of God to a needy world. Our lives would be marked not only by peace and joy, but by profound creativity.” (“What Do Presbyterians Believe about Mary?”, reprinted from the April 2004 issue of Presbyterians Today)

Message and messenger, we affirm. God calls ordinary and unlikely people to do extraordinary things. Mary to be sure and more than that.

What made me think of that high school class this week was a simple, little question asked by a student, to explain the Trinity. No problem! It is a message and messenger answer, that at one point in history, when our ancestors and forbears were unable to grasp God’s vision, we needed a different kind of messenger to carry the message, a flesh-and-blood, incarnate, human messenger. Not partly human, nor divinity hiding in human form, but flesh-and-blood, incarnate, human.

We have wrestled from the beginning about what that means. Fought wars. Labeled some as heretics. Divided churches. It is mysterious and confusing and often feels so preposterous. Incarnation, flesh-and-blood messenger to bear God’s message. And yet we know its truth, have experienced its truth.

God uses Mary. God uses a tiny, vulnerable little baby born into controversy, born at the fringes of society, who will grow to teach and heal and love, teaching and healing and loving that will ultimately lead to his death.

Incarnation is not a pretense. It is real, flesh-and-blood.

I had the privilege of being in another school this week as well, School #3, the Nathanial Rochester School, where, along with School #35, Third Church sponsors a tutoring program. I parked my car and entered the building through security and a metal detector, unable not to think about events of the Friday before. I met the principal and some students and teachers. I saw some of our wonderful tutors in action.

So along with Mary, along with the baby Jesus, here was another flesh-and-blood example of message and messenger, ordinary people like you and me bearing the message of God’s love to students, who in turn bear – even without knowing it – God’s message of love right back.

We felt that again yesterday morning in Dining Room Ministry, bearing in some modest way through a meal God’s message of love to cold and hungry beloved children of God, who in turn bear – without even knowing it – God’s message of love right back.

It is so easy to think of God as distant and detached. But simply and clearly and humbly and hopefully we know that God comes to us, to us!, like this, like us. Message and messenger all tied up in an unexpected bundle who will live human life fully to the point of it ending prematurely and vulnerably and sadly.

That same human life was borne by a scared and confused young woman who nonetheless mustered up everything she had to say “yes” to God, to take a risk.

Message and messenger. Incarnation. The preposterous idea that God comes into the world as a baby, to live fully with us. The preposterous idea that God calls ordinary people like you and me, young and old, male and female, gay and straight, rich and poor, of every political stripe and theological stripe and religious stripe and every other kind of stripe to enact a message of hope and mercy and justice.

Whatever else that Christmas does, it reminds us that we are not members of the audience, not passive bystanders, but actors in the drama, players on the field, called to embody and enact this very gospel, mercy and justice and compassion.

“We are all meant to be mothers of God,” Meister Eckhart said, “For God is always needing to be born.” That may be preposterous. But it is true.

Or as the poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti wrote: “Christ climbed down/ from His bare Tree/ this year/ and softly stole away into/ some anonymous Mary’s womb again/ where in the darkest night/ of everybody’s anonymous soul/ He awaits again/ an unimaginable/ and impossibly / Immaculate Reconception/ the very craziest/ of Second Comings.”

May our Christmas be merry, and so much more. And in a season where tears seem just below the surface, may some tears, at least, be tears of hope, and tears of joy, and tears of peace, and tears of love. Amen.

 

 

Return to Third Presbyterian Church