A Word from your Pastor
Rev. Dr. Jonathan Eric Carroll
Soon, the wait will be over and we will settle into a mystery, gaze into a night sky and follow a strange and inexplicable light and join a crowd of believers and skeptics and disinterested ones alike, all of whom will gather around a feeding trough whether they know it or not. Because soon comes the night when even the cynics among us take a sabbatical from our doubts—we all suspend our disbelief, believing again, if only for that moment, that God is born among us and that anything is possible. Soon will come the night where, with all of our singing, and praying, and hoping—we will celebrate Emmanuel—which means God with us—and we will claim him as Lord of our lives. Soon comes the night. And everything is nearly in place.
We know the carols, we know the readings, we know the whole story so well we can tell it by heart: the star, the shepherds, the sheep, the angel, the baby—a pastoral picture so still and serene and scandalous all at once—taken down year after year from the highest shelf of your imagination, dusted off, placed on the mantle with care, candles lit, music playing softly in the background, “Joy to the World. Peace on Earth. Good will toward men.” God with us. And nothing is ever the same.
Well, soon comes the night to do him a favor, and to do yourself a favor, too. Then you will have the indescribable opportunity to reach again into that picture, to reach into that mangy feeding trough, and to take him into your arms, a bundle of new life about as heavy as a sack of self-rising flour, his head bruised and misshapen from his rough entrance into this rough world. Examine his tiny fingernails, count his little toes, smell his sweet breath, and feel the warmth of his swaddling clothes and whisper to yourself, “I am holding God in my arms, a baby, all for the love of me.” Shocking, isn’t it? To behold the King of the Universe with a speck of cow manure on his cheek, unable to turn over on his stomach without some assistance, utterly dependent on the kindness and sensitivity of his own creatures. Sure, we know the story by heart, but do we have any earthly idea what it means? What child is this? What is God’s message for us this night?
In the first place, a baby is—in the best of worlds—evidence that a love affair has taken place, and that is certainly the case here. God has loved humanity from our beginnings, but the relationship we’ve shared has always been a rocky one. From the start God figured paradise would be a nice gift for us, and God gave us everything and held his breath and hoped for the best. We had everything. But we wanted more. We wanted to possess everything, including God, and we wound up homeless. “All right,” God said patiently, “you need something a bit more concrete. Let’s make a deal together, a covenant. You and Me. I’ll be your God. And you will be my people. You’ll be faithful to me, and I’ll be faithful to you.” But we weren’t faithful. We doubted God at every turn, protested his promises, and proclaimed with each breath that we didn’t understand what he wanted from us. “All right,” God said, “you need some guidelines. Here are ten; it would please me for you to follow them. But more than that, they’re for your own good. If you choose to ignore them, you do so at your own risk. But if you keep them, you’ll be happy.” But we broke them, again and again, in more ways than one. “All right,” God said, “you need for me to simplify. How’s this: Love me, love each other…just those two, never mind the complicated stuff.” But even that was not enough, and the history of our love affair with God is the repeated story of a dysfunctional relationship marked by our infidelity and his forgiveness. And every time the distance between us threatened to do us in, or to bring our love for one another to a crashing halt, it is God who has stepped across the gaping hole left by our illusions of independence and self-sufficiency; it is God who has taken on more and more of the burden, until with the birth of a baby he accepted every bit of it, once and for all.
Soon comes the night when, through the helpless whimpers of a newborn baby, God says, put that old agreement on hold, I have something new in mind, harder for me, better for you, and that’s a price I’m willing to pay to have you back in my arms again. From now on, you do not have to come to where I am, however much I would love to have you. I am so crazy in love with you that I will come all the way to where you are, to be flesh of your flesh, bone of your bone. I will do it all, every bit, and all you have to do is believe that I have it in me to do this for you, that I really do love you, love you exactly the way that you are, love you enough to become one of you, love you to death, and that all of this is from me to you as—gift.
We look everywhere we can in this crazy world for something scandalous enough to catch our attention, and to hold it for a while, so we can talk about it, form opinions around it, and craft a response. We need to look no further. Immanuel – God with us. It is a scandalous move on God’s part. Where is God’s majesty, now? Where is God’s pride? What makes God believe that we will respect him after he has made himself vulnerable, laid himself bare like that? God is shameless and persistent, willing to be reduced to a helpless thing in diapers if it will help us love him the way he loves us.
This is the mystery we come to worship come Friday then Sunday, the mystery of incarnation, the mystery of God becoming flesh, of a God so in love with us that he came to be one of us, and it is something that we know so well we are apt to forget that we do not understand it at all. If we did understand it for what it really is, we would probably behave more like Hannah, a five year old girl who ended her own version of the Christmas story by asking her listeners this question? “Then the baby was borned,” she said, “And do you know who he was?” “The baby was God,” she whispered, and leaped into the air, twirled around, and dove into the sofa, where she covered her head with pillows. It was the only proper response to the good news of what this Christmas story is all about, and those of us without pillows over our heads may wonder if we have ever really heard it at all yet.
So that is the first part of this message. This baby is a love-child, in whom God shows us just how far he will go to be held in our arms. The second part of the message is that in doing so, God has forever blurred the distinction between the holy and the human, the sacred and the ordinary. God could have come among us as some mighty emperor, a victorious warrior, clearly superior and beyond our reach and that way he would have been more easily recognizable and we could have kept our distance from him. But God chose to come among us as a child, and a poor child at that. Choosing flesh, God chose the lowest common denominator, and left us no room for escape. That is why it is so important tonight to let the light of that star show us a real child, to believe that what Mary and Joseph were holding was no Hallmark baby, but a belching, squalling infant who kept them up every night for weeks, and eventually got into everything that wasn’t locked shut or bolted to the ground, and that in choosing to make his entrance in such an ordinary way, God showed us that blood, and flesh, and dirt, and sky, and life, and death were all good enough for him. More than that, God made those ordinary parts of life holy by taking part in them, by being attentive, by being involved, and he left us nothing on earth that we can dismiss as trivial, unimportant, or unknown to him. So that now, the whole world is alive to his grandeur, and nothing remains untouched by the hand of God, so much so that there is gold in the straw and myrrh in the dung on the floor, and the donkeys smell like incense, and the dogs bark hosanna, and the star shows seekers and skeptics from every corner of the world where to look for God—not up in the heavens, but down in the gorgeous muck and mud and the beautiful hubbub of the everyday world in which we live.
For this week, at least, let us revel in the light of that star under which the ordinary becomes holy and the holy ordinary, under which it becomes exceedingly clear that there is nothing more we must do or be to be loved and held and rescued by God. We are already loved beyond our wildest dreams for being exactly the way we are. Let us believe come Christmas Eve and Christmas day and on every day of our lives—let us believe that what our true love sends us is God’s own holy self, in skin around bone like ours, and if we have the wisdom and the courage and the sense to embrace the everyday stuff of the goings-on of our lives, then let us believe that it is God himself who is born in our arms, and who lives and dies and lives again in our hearts. And may the star shine on for those with eyes to see. When once we had waited, soon we will wait no more. He has come among us. It is the Resurrection and the Life she holds in her arms, come down for us and for our salvation. Amen.