This is not just a night for sentimental visions of a baby being born in a tidy stable, the center of attention of ox and lamb and his parents. This is not just a night for hearing angles singing in the skies. This is not a night to be mesmerized by a star stopped over a stable. This is not just a night for a romanticized visions of shepherds hastening to see a newborn king.
This is the night when Jesus the rebel rabbi was born, the rabble-rousing preacher who, as author Catherine McNiel says, “delivered the good news in a rough, messy, hands-on package of donkeys and dusty roads, bleeding women and lepers, water from the well, and wine from the water. Holy work in the world has always been like this: messy, earthy, physical, touchable.”[i]
This is also the night God stepped outside the box and became incarnate, when God shattered the boundaries men had erected and remade the world, when God started the Jesus revolution. After this incarnation, nothing could ever be the same.
The Greek and Roman gods were said to impregnate mortal women. But that was different – those gods only sought sexual gratification. Other gods – and more than a few emperors of Rome – were said to be virgin born. But this legend was intended to bestow divinity upon these men – and that is not what happened on Christmas.
For what God did on Christmas is to take a part of God’s own self and cause that part to be born in human form: God chose to become incarnate as a human being, as a human being who – like you or me – feels joy and pain, knows success and disappointment, feels pleasure and pain.
Why would God do such a thing? Why would God start coloring outside the lines and reconfigure our world? God became incarnate because God loves us. The incarnation is God reaching across the lines and borders of our lives to gather us in a cosmic hug of forgiveness and continual love. God loves us – each of us – more than we can possibly know.
It doesn’t matter if we have been naughty or nice; if we are tall or short; straight or gay or lesbian or; of color or white; woman or transgender or man. God loves us. To meet us on our own terms, God came down on Christmas.
The theologian Karl Barth tells us the incarnation “means, that God became human, truly human out of his own grace…Jesus Christ is not only truly God, he is human like every one of us. He is human without limitation. He is not only similar to us, he is like us.”[ii]
And that is what makes this incarnation is different from stories about Greek gods or the claims of Roman emperors. This incarnation is an intentional act, a stepping over the boundary between Heiman and divine. This incarnation is an act of unending love, for this incarnation continues.
Jesus is born to be Emmanuel – a name which means “God with us.” Jesus is born to be here with us right here at Turk & Lyon; with us in hosptial beds where someone is dying; with us in immigration detentions centers where undocumented parents ache at the loss of their children; with us in countless homes where loneliness will be the only guest this Christmas; and with us on the cold streets where people sleep on this most holy night. Why?
“Christ…has become like a man, so that men should be like him,” theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer tells us. “And in the Incarnation the whole human race recovers the dignity of the image of God. Henceforth, any attack on the least of men is an attack on Christ.”[iii]
By becoming incarnate, God gives us a guide to find our way back to God: a guide who helps us find our own spiritual path through 21st century San Francisco. Yet there is still more to the Jesus Revolution and Christmas. For it is not just that God became incarnate: we have to remember how God stage-managed the incarnation.
The savior of the world was not born in a palace or even in a comfortable house. He was not born to a position of power or prosperity. Instead, Jesus is born to a working-class family who are travelers in a strange city. Soon Jesus and his family would, some scriptures say, become refugees, undocumented aliens in a strange new land. Why? Because the king felt threatened by the birth of a baby boy to a working-class family.
King Herod was the first political leader to correctly sense the danger Jesus posed to the status quo. Matthew tells us “When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.”[iv]
Herod knew trouble when he saw it. Jim Wallis tells us “Herod was the king assigned by Rome to rule over the Jews. And when he heard about the birth of Jesus he was “frightened” or “disturbed” or “worried” or “troubled” or “terrified” as different gospel translations report.”[v]
How different are today’s politicians in America: they feel comfortable with a kind of Christianity which centers on handing frozen turkeys to poor people after passing the most regressive tax law in American history. Perhaps they have been lulled into complacency by a form of Christian belief that offers blind and witless support in exchange for political support of a Puritanical purity code that seeks to take us back to the 1920s. Theirs is not the Christian path we follow here, they do not know the Jesus we follow in this community. Ours is the Jesus of the wounded spirit and broken heart; the aching body and the lonely soul. Our Jesus offers compassion and healing in places of judgment, hellfire, and damnation.
Our Jesus calls us to love others as we wish to be loved. The incantation means God is no longer distant or detached by fully present and always available, with rod and staff to comfort us in our affliction.
On this Christmas Eve, as we retell and remember the folks stories surrounding the birth of Jesus, remember that God chose to become incarnate – to become fully human – because God loves you and wants you to become the person God created you to be, too become someone who brings the Kingdom of God a little closer to your time and your place.
What happens next is foretold in the ninth chapter of the Book of the Prophet Isaiah:
“The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
… For all the boots of the tramping warriors
and all the garments rolled in blood
shall be burned as fuel for the fire.
For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
His authority shall grow continually,
and there shall be endless peace
for the throne of David and his kingdom.
He will establish and uphold it
with justice and with righteousness
from this time onward and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will do this.”[vi]
For Emmanuel: God is with us!
Amen. And Merry Christmas.
Let us pray: God of glory, your splendor shines from a manger in Bethlehem, where the Light of the world is humbly born into the darkness of human night. Open our eyes to Christ’s presence in the shadows of our world, so that we, like him, may become beacons of your justice, and defenders of all for whom there is no room. May the people of God say Amen.
[i] Catherine McNiel, Long Days of Small Things: Motherhood as a Spiritual Discipline
[ii] Karl Barth, Dogmatics in Outline
[iii] .” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, God Is in the Manger: Reflections on Advent and Christmas
[iv] (Matthew 2:3-4)
[vi] (Isaiah 9:2, 5-7)