December 24, 2014 – Christmas Eve Worship
When Jesus was born, God entered humanity. The God of unmeasurable greatness, of knowledge so vast we cannot comprehend it, reduced God’s own self to a newborn baby. The theological word for this is incarnation. The most important moments in salvation history are the crucifixion of Jesus and then his resurrection. Neither matter unless the incarnation happens.
Pastor Jenny Warner of Oregon feels strongly about the importance of incarnation prior to crucifixion and resurrection. I had not really thought about the sequence or the idea of distinguishing among these theological treasures, but her words make it clear why thinking first on incarnation can be quite powerful. She writes:
Every year of my life, the sentiment goes stronger, the belief grasps tighter, that it is the incarnation that saves me, that incarnation is the germinating seed containing the healing of the world, that incarnation may be Christianity’s best hope for a relevant future. Easter is not possible without Christmas. In fact, Easter may be just one more manifestation of the incarnation.
Flesh infused with God. God encountering flesh. Holiness embedding itself into a human life and revealing itself with compassion, healing, truth-telling and relentless embrace. I want that.
Give me incarnation before you give me resurrection. The end of my life may be a long way off, but today my life feels like a Bethlehem barn. Hay is scattered everywhere. Children must be fed and nurtured. The list of things to do is longer than the hours in my day. There is no time for reflection. I need to know that mystery resides in the most mundane and profane realities of my life.[i]
Does life ever feel like a “Bethlehem barn?” It’s noisy. The other day, Candy decided to have some of Merone and Henry’s good friends over for decorating Christmas cookies. It was Candy and 8 children, 7 of them elementary school-aged. Igor, the 8th, was her helper. She said the two young boys in the crowd were a little jumpy. Noise. Cookie decorations everywhere. Eight kids bouncing off the walls because school is out and Christmas is almost here.
Does life ever feel like a “Bethlehem barn?” Some are spending Christmas far from family. Their kids are grown and it was too expensive to fly home this year. Every TV show has teary-eyed family reunions with heartwarming holiday music on. The list of who to shop for is lengthy. And the only emotions that won’t go away are disappointment and sadness. Christmas isn’t going to be quite what the Hallmark special makes it out to be.
I imagine Joseph and Mary had disappointment. After the trauma of birth without midwife or any help, they were out in the cold. No one in their family came. Except for Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, no one in their family approved. That noisy, stinky barn was the cradle of new life, the Son of God. But sadness crept from the dark corners.
The Bethlehem barn is not an easy place. Think of actual Bethlehem today and the Middle East in general. A few generations ago there were significant communities of Middle Eastern Christians – Palestinians, Syrians, Iraqis. Many have died off in the unending wars of religion and territory. Many Syrian Christ followers this year are spending their fourth Christmas in the Bethlehem barn – refugee camps.
Pastor Warner knows salvation is in the cross and resurrection, but she also know it is not only there. And sometimes those events seem so Godly, so out of reach and she needs something that feels real.
Today life feels like a Bethlehem barn. Hay is scattered everywhere. Children must be fed and nurtured. The list of things to do is longer than the hours in my day. There is no time for reflection. We need to know that mystery resides in the most mundane and profane realities of life.
We need the salvation we have in the living Christ and in the life Jesus led. It began at his birth. It began before his birth.
Isaiah 62 is originally a prophetic poem about God’s salvation of the city of Jerusalem. Jerusalem in both testaments represents that place where God is at home. In the Gospel of John, Jesus says true worship is not place-dependent but can happen anywhere people worship God “in spirit and in truth” (ch. 4). The New Testament and the church that grows out of it is a ‘sending out’ church. We are to spread out over the world proclaiming salvation in Jesus.
Still we have much to learn of God from the words about Jerusalem and in the end, we who have “gone out to tell” will be gathered to God, to God’s Holy City. We will be called home to rejoice in eternal life lived in God’s presence.
Before that eternal life, we live in this one. God stepped into humanity the way we all do, as a baby. And on the occasion that we remember his birth, the lectionary organizers have us read Isaiah’s words. “See, your salvation comes; his reward is with him, and his recompense before him” (v.11).
How does it all tie together? Why do present day scholars read a 5th century BC prophet who imagines a new Jerusalem and connect his promises to the birth of Jesus? Why does an Oregon pastor sometimes feel more hope filled by a powerless newborn than a courageous savior who embraces the cross? She still knows the cross and resurrection are the key events. But, for this night, she actually focus on the salvation we have in Jesus’ birth and life.
Remember, Jerusalem – the city of Shalom – that is where God is at home. If people want to be at home with God they need to be there. If one is not at home with God, that one is truly lost. Christmas like no other time can magnify an individual’s feeling of being abandoned, lost, alone, disappointed. If our hurts are blown up and made even bigger than they seem around Christmas it would appear that in such a state of despair we are farther from God than ever.
Ah, but then, don’t we see the genius of the incarnation. People who feel like their lives are a mess are the very people who can most easily identify with Mary and Joseph at their lowest moments. When they were ready to quit and the journey to Bethlehem seemed too much, Mary and Joseph epitomized human frailty. A person alone, sobbing in grief on Christmas Eve epitomizes human frailty. And that is where God appears.
The baby in the manger is God who can be touched. Jerusalem is the Holy City that is where God is at home and to be at peace with God we have to get there. But most people can never get there. The incarnation, Jesus in the manger, is God’s recognition that we cannot, try as we might, get there. The only way we can live in peace with God is if God will meet us in our own Bethlehem barn. The birth of Jesus is God’s statement that God is willing to do just that.
We have role in the story and that role is to recognize our own brokenness and from that place of brokenness to reach out to God. “Upon your walls, O Jerusalem” says Isaiah 62:6.” “Upon your walls, I have posted sentinels. All day and all night they shall never be silent. You who remind the Lord, take no rest, and give him no rest until he establishes Jerusalem and makes it renowned throughout the earth” (v.6-7). That’s right. Our job is to pester God!
Remind the Lord? Give him no rest? That is what it says. So, let this baby born Bethlehem remind us that God loves us so much God made God’s own self accessible. The holy God of the universe reduced himself so that humans could not just approach but embrace, eat with, laugh with, and cry on his shoulder.
Now, we get blinded by our pain, or the business and stress of life becomes all we see, or the bad things that go on like police officers being killed, like wars, and numerous other problems become obstacles – all of it obstructs our view of God. We forget about God to the point that we think God is gone and we’re on our own. God isn’t gone. But He’s out of our view. And we aren’t living in Jerusalem any more, in that place of being at peace in God’s presence.
It is then that we “remind” God of who He is – our Savior. In this reminder, we also reiterate what God does – saves us from lives of meaninglessness and pain. He gives us abundant life. Isaiah tells the sentinels to give God no rest, but to continue to pray day and night. Our job, in the depths of our depression, is to pray day and night, reaching out to God constantly until we have received His blessing.
We also do this on behalf of others. A part of our spreading out as New Testament people is we look around and see who is hurting. We reach to them with whatever help is needed – comfort, friendship, hospitality, etc. At the same time, we reach to God on their behalf. In their pain, they cannot see that God is as easily touched as a new born baby’s cheek is stroked. We reach to God for them that He might reveal himself to them that they would see His salvation.
In here excellent message this past Sunday, Heather made this point. She said even though Christmas falls at the end of the calendar year, it is the beginning of the lectionary year. Christmas is the beginning of the story.
At the cross, Jesus pays the ultimate price for sin. That is a dramatic, one-time event. That is the story for the ages. Christmas is the opening chapter in that story. Our Christmas salvation is the arrival of God in a way that we can see every day. It is the promise that God is not just saving for Heaven after we’ve trudged through the miseries of earthly life. God is trudging through the miseries with us.
God helps us host the 7 elementary school and we need that help when we do that having just gotten over a week of sickness. God helps those Syrian believer find joy even if their Christmas is in a refugee camp. Because He is with them, it can still be a celebration. God helps the lonely person for whom Christmas seems terrifying. It can have happiness too, because God brings that. God is in everything with us. God is in the Bethlehem barn and thus the Bethlehem barn becomes that place where God is at home and one can have peace with Him.
Wherever we are, we find that we can have “Immanuel,” God with us. That is our Christmas salvation.