A sermon preached [remotely] by the Reverend Michael Anderson Bullock
on 24 December 2020: Luke 2:1-20

 

Emmanuel: God with us

I want to begin by retelling a story that I have shared with you at a previous Christmas celebration.  I do so not only because it is a good story worthy of repeating; but I retell it because this story has the capacity to lead us more deeply into what God has done this night.  Here is the story.

It was Thursday night, which meant that the mother of the house would be attending choir practice.  Leaving an infant and a five year old at home, albeit with the father, was never easy for her.  She especially missed sharing the bedtime routine.  But on Thursdays, the father easily and eagerly stepped in, first feeding the baby his bottled breast milk and gently putting his sleeping infant in the crib.  Then, he would turn to attend to his five-year-old.

Of course, the routine for his first- born required strict observance.  First, there was potty time, followed by the vigorous brushing of teeth.  Then it was trundling off to put pajamas on, hopping into bed, and reading a story.  All this reached completion with the saying of the bedtime prayers and a kiss “good night”.  With the reading light turned off and the bedroom door closed, the day’s ending was formally and officially reached.

With calm satisfaction, the dad walked to his living room reading chair to finish the day’s newspaper, when he heard a cry.  His five-year-old was whimpering.  Approaching the bedroom door, he listened carefully, hoping his first-born would settle down and fall asleep.  But the child’s whimpering only increased, to the point that the father cracked open the door to reassure his offspring.  “What’s the matter?” he asked.  “I’m afraid”, was the reply.  “Oh,” the patient dad said.  “Everything is ok.  I am right here.  There’s nothing to be afraid of.  Now just close your eyes and go to sleep.  Mom and I will see you in the morning.”

He closed the bedroom door gently and went back to his newspaper, when he heard another cry from the bedroom.  Rather than risk starting a revolving scene of complaint, the dad simply spoke from his chair, “What’s wrong?”  The same reply emerged, “I’m afraid,” to which the father repeated his reassurance: “Don’t worry; I’m here and I love you.”  And then he added a post-script: “And God loves you, too.”

To his surprise and fatherly amusement came his child’s transcendent retort, “Yes, but I want someone with skin!”

Christmas.  The Nativity of our Lord Jesus Christ.  This birth is the point in time and space, the event in human history where God meets that child’s plaintive need.  God loves us with skin.

“Incarnation” is the name that formal theological reflection provides for what happens at Christmas.  Incarnation is what makes Christianity unique.  Incarnation is Christianity’s unparalleled storyline that says that the spiritual life and nature of deep reality and the material life and nature’s reality are intimately and irrevocably connected.  Ultimately in God’s eyes, they are one.  And with the birth of Jesus, God has “skin in the game”, intimately and fully so.

Reliable teacher and spiritual guide, Richard Rohr says that “matter has always been the hiding place for the Spirit.”[1]  From the biblical perspective, creation has always been the Divine Artist’s showcase.  At Christmas, in the Incarnation, God’s profound artistry moves to the point where the inner reality of God’s life and life’s outer manifestation are fully met, one with the other – undiluted, distinct, and yet eternally one.

Jesus, fully human, yet fully divine, is God’s Incarnate “blueprint”.[2]  When we ask (as I hope we frequently do) “What is the God-life?” our answer comes to us not as an idea or abstraction but personally, intimately, completely in Jesus.

As we all know from our own lives, intimacy is not an abstraction; nor is intimacy an automatic occurrence.  Being present, being close-at-hand, heart-to-heart and mind-to-mind is our deepest need and even our deepest desire.  Yet, as we also know from our own lives, such closeness comes with a great risk and an expensive cost.  Intimacy’s loving presence entails great vulnerability; and with such unguarded exposure comes the possibility of deep hurt.  This is true for God being with us intimately in Jesus.

In the Incarnation, in God’s life, expressed fully in human life, the Holy One risks what we fear the most: a broken heart and rejection.  But this is the price for loving – for God just as it is for us.

While it has been a long time since we used the parish hall space, perhaps you recall the sign that is posted on the front wall, near the door; or perhaps you recall me calling your attention to that posting.  On it are listed four faith-orienting questions, the first of which asks: “What is the nature of your God?”  In the Incarnation, in “the Nativity of Jesus Christ”, in Christmas, we gain an astounding answer.  “Emmanuel: God with us – not an idea or a wish but in the flesh.  And this is the Good News.  God shows up – fully on our terms – no matter what!

I referred earlier to Jesus as God’s “blueprint” of life.  If we want to see and hear and touch and taste and smell what the God-life is like, we look to Jesus: Son of the Father; God from God; light from light; God fully on our terms; Emmanuel – God with us fully.

God shows up!  God show up in the most surprising and intimate of terms.  And yes, Christmas in its unbridled form is outrageous, scandalous because what the Christian faith proclaims is that out of all the grains of sand there are in the world’s beaches, one grain makes all the difference.  The “blueprint” emerges in our midst, fully human as we are, fully divine to reveal our purpose and destiny.  Made irrevocably in God’s image, we also now have an example of what it takes to become God’s image.  Incarnation.  Christmas.  Emmanuel: God with us.  God shows up! – irrespective of how messy this gets.

One closing observation: Everything that happened that birthing night was not normal, not expected, and at times not wanted.  From Mary and Joseph’s wanderings and near-homelessness, to the quiet shepherds being overwhelmed by the angels’ glory, “God with us” contained more interruption and disruption than it did “silent night”.  Yet, bidden or not bidden, God showed up.

This year of 2020 has contained a great deal of disruption and, truth to tell, fear.  And so, I remind you as I remind myself, amidst the turmoil, the confusion, the gnawing uncertainty that God continues to show up.  With this faith and the hope our faith provides, can we continue to help one another in remembering the truth this night proclaims?  Emmanuel: God with us” still hides in plain sight among the details of our lives?  Will we keep Christmas close to heart in the joyful and in the hard times?

I ask this because God has skin in the game.  Christ is born.  Merry or not, it is Christmas.

Thanks be to God.  Merry Christmas.  Amen.

——————————————————————————

[1] Richard Rohr, “Daily Meditations”, “Incarnation”: 12/21/20.

[2] A term offered by Richard Rohr in his writings.