30 December 2012

God With Us

Matthew 1: 18-25 & Colossians 3: 12-17

First Sunday After Christmas Day/ 30th December 2012                                                                                          
Emmanuel.  God is with us.  The heart of the Christmas message.  This is what theologians since the early church have referred to as the doctrine of the incarnation.  John’s Gospel is most explicit, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us…full of grace and truth.”  And the Word – the eternal divine Logos or Word, the creative language of the universe that is God – became flesh and lived among us, literally, “tabernacled” among us; or, to put it another way, with the birth of Jesus, “God pitched a tent” with us and invited us to live under it with God (John 1:1-5, 14).
Matthew’s Gospel makes a similar claim using different language.  Instead of appealing to Greek Logos philosophy as a way to make sense of Jesus’ birth, Matthew, writing primarily for a Jewish audience, drew upon Israel’s past, delved into the Hebrew scriptures and lifted up Isaiah’s promise that a young maiden shall conceive and bear a son and they shall name him Emmanuel,” meaning “God is with us.” This is the staggering, mind-blowing claim we celebrate and affirm this time of the year.  God with us.
On Christmas Eve last week, at the Candlelight Service, I built the meditation around a quote from E. M. Forster’s novel Howard’s End (1910), to express the core theme of the Gospel.  “Only connect.”  Forster (1879-1970) writes of the character, Margaret, “Only connect!  That was the whole of her sermon.  Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height.  Live in fragments no longer.  Only connect…” 

He, she, is talking about writing here, connecting prose and passion, but this wisdom speaks beyond the world of writing.  Words and emotions, bring them together and both will be exalted.  Bring them together and love will be seen at its height.  Enflesh the words with passion, with emotions, thought, purpose, and love will be embodied.  In many ways, this is what Christmas, the incarnation are all about, connecting prose and passion. 

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14).  Word embodied in human action, in a human life. Bring them together and love will be seen at its height.  The birth of Jesus the Messiah, Emmanuel, God with us, is the fullest expression of this truth – that God wants to connect with us and we really want to connect with God because we were created this way.  It’s all about connection.  This is the root and true meaning of the word religion.  It doesn’t mean being holy or following religious practices, it has little to do with belief.  Religion, from the Latin religare means, to make a connection.  Our words ligament and ligature come from the same root.  Religare. It’s all about connection – God connecting with humanity, humanity connecting with God, human to human, person to person, connecting with the depths of the self, connecting with creation, with the cosmos itself.  As Einstein (1879-1955) showed us, this entire universe – at every level, from the micro to the macro, including the properties of light – is all based on connections, relationships, making those links and realizing how we’re all connected.

And God is tireless in making these connections with us and to us and for us.  Incarnation. God taking on flesh in Jesus reveals to us something of what matters to God – God comes down and God comes in, God comes down and God gets close to us, takes up time and space, shares time and space with us, coming not as an idea or philosophy or a disembodied spirit, but as a person and a person has and is a body, with a face. We have to dispel the notion that Christian experience is something essentially “spiritual.” It’s more than that; it’s an embodied experience. 

This is really an extraordinary claim if you think about it. If you take this image of God born in a manger and let it dwell in you, let it sink down into your body, allow it to become enfleshed in your life, it will shape how you see yourself and your neighbor and the world around you.  The doctrine of the incarnation is almost too much for our minds to take in, but if we had embraced it, if we had allowed its images to shape us, the history of the Church would have been very different.  I believe that if we embrace this image, allow its images to shape us, the future of the Church will be very different.

The theologies we hold – or that hold us – always have consequences. Here are several implications of an incarnational theology.

·         That God would act in this way, affirms that God loves time and space, the birth of Christ means that God makes times and space for us. 

·         It affirms the gift that is our humanity.  Yes, we are fallen and broken by sin, but the birth of Jesus means that he has shared our humanity with us.  Yes, to redeem it, by showing us what a human being really looks like, what it means to be human, how to love as a human, how to suffer and die as a human, how to be relationship with God.

·         The incarnation affirms the value of embodiment; that bodies matter, it matters how we use them and care for them.  Embodiment includes the affirmation of emotions and feelings, as well as thought.  The Church’s centuries old, anguished frustration with sexuality would have been very different if we did a better job affirming the Incarnation.  We can embrace all aspects of our humanity.  I also think we would have been healthier as a people, emotionally, psychologically, if we welcomed and embraced emotions and feelings, along with beliefs and ideas and thoughts about God.

·         The incarnation also affirms the goodness of this creation; that God would become part of creation. The Creator takes up creation and incorporates it into Godself.  If we really embraced this aspect of the incarnation, we would honor and care for this earthly body. If we had, I wonder if we would be facing climate change and the destruction of the environment today.

·         The incarnation affirms the gift of history, that God wants to enters time and space embodied, which means that God cares deeply, passionate about how we live in time and space, about justice, about reform.  We’re more than just a passin’ through this weary world on the way to heaven, this world matters to God.  Heaven and earth need to connect.

·         Theologian Wendy Farley puts it this way: “The incarnation is the sign for Christians of the joining of heaven and earth, of Divinity and humanity. We are all embraced by that glorious ‘oneing’ as Julian of Norwich [1342-c.1416) put it.  …The incarnation is the unspeakable joyousness that we dwell in at the intersection of Divinity and humanity.”[1]

God with us, enfleshed in Jesus Christ. These are the staggering claims we affirm as Christians. And yet, as Christians and as the Church have yet to fully embody what this means for us over these 2000 years.  This is the ongoing work of the Spirit; the Spirit’s task is to embody the truth in us.  The enfleshment, the dwelling of God with us continues in us through the power of the Holy Spirit, when we let, as Colossians puts it, “the peace of Christ rule in [our] hearts” (Col. 3:15). The writer of Colossians, heavily influenced by Paul, affirmed the power and presence of the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of Christ, who is at work in our hearts and the world, continually engaging, connecting, embodying, enfleshing God’s redemptive love in our lives, in our souls.  This is the Gospel:  God is with us – not was with us or will be with us – in Christ, Emmanuel, God is with us – now and now and now, in this moment and the next and the next.  Forever and ever; Amen!

[1] Wendy Farley, Gathering Those Driven Away: A Theology of Incarnation (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 17, 14. Theologian Mark Jordan argues, “the history of Christian theology can be seen as a long flight from the full consequences of its central profession.  The big business of theology has been to construct alternate bodies for Jesus the Christ – tidier bodies, bodies better conformed to institutional needs.  I think of these artificial bodies as Jesus’ corpses, and I consider large parts of official Christology as their mortuary” (cited in Farley, 35).

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