Luke 2: 1-14
The thunderstorm rages ferociously outside her bedroom window. And no matter of hiding under the mass of stuffed animals on her bed makes her feel any safer. She is still quite aware of the wind whistling through the trees, the rain pounding on the roof, the loud booms of thunder and blinding flashes of lightning that make things outside look for an instant like daytime.
She has never liked storms at any point in her five years of life.
A knock at the door. In comes her mother for their bedtime prayers together. The little girl emerges from the stuffed animal pile and nestles up close to her mother, where she always feels safe. Together they kneel beside her bed, clasp hands, and thank God for family and friends and food and yes, even the rain.
Mother gives daughter a hug and a smile and gets up to leave. But the little girl reaches out and grabs her hand, and there is a sense of urgency in her grip; a look of anxiety on her face. Please, stay a little longer, she pleads. Her mother, knowing full well her fears as any loving mother would, smiles and bends down to reassure her: it is alright, the storm outside won’t hurt her or her stuffed animals, it is bound to go away soon.
A bright flash of lightning, a loud crack of thunder.
Mother thinks to herself, that really was loud! But she tells her daughter that she and daddy will be right downstairs, right in the living room if she needs anything, anything at all. And on top of that, she has all her stuffed animals all over her bed to keep her company.
The little girl listens patiently as her mother rattles off each talking point, as if she has heard them already, which she has. And when her mother is done, the little girl looks up at her with a wisdom that far exceeds her young years. She reaches out for her mother’s other hand and holds them both and speaks with an air of motherly-ness herself, I know, Mommy, I know. I know those things. But when it thunders in the sky and the wind blows and the sky lights up, a little girl like me needs somebody with skin on.
Somebody with skin on. Because that is where our hope comes from.
It is a hope that has brought us here tonight, whoever we are, wherever we come from. Whether this place is a place we’ve worshipped in Sunday after Sunday for countless years; or whether this is the first time we have set foot in this place, brought by the tug of the heart that comes from this most glorious of nights. We are all welcome here, all of us bound together by this hope.
And this hope finds its beginnings in the story of tonight, a story recounted in our scripture from Luke. A story of a baby to be born; a baby like any other but not like any other. A baby born into a world rife with discord, deep divides, painful injustices, saber-rattling from the powers-that-be, grand uncertainty for the future. Political powers at play: a census decreed by an emperor eager to stake out his domain, unaware of the ways in which it would utterly disrupt the lives of those under his rule – including a young carpenter and very pregnant wife-to-be from Nazareth.
It was as chaotic as chaos gets – for the last thing a woman hours away from giving birth needs to do is ride a hundred miles on the back of a donkey. It is Bethlehem they are heading to, where Joseph was required to register, and Mary with him. And when they arrive late at night, the baby is ready to come – and so Joseph, frantically knocking on doors trying to find some place to stay, any place at all. But they were by no means the only ones traveling to Bethlehem for the census that night. No room in the inn.
And so it was in a stable where Jesus is born. The first witnesses of the birth, barnyard animals; the first onesie, frayed bands of cloth; the first basinet, a manger that mere hours before contained slop for hungry livestock.
This is how Jesus was born: God becoming one of us, God becoming somebody with skin on.
Over the years we in the church have given this a name: we call it the Incarnation – from the Latin “carna” which means “flesh.” So literally, “God in the flesh.” It’s important to Christians, this incarnation, because it’s not just how we understand Jesus, but how that understanding of Jesus impacts and guides the way we live. Because God has come to be with us “in the flesh,” living into the hope of thousands of years, our lives can never be the same.
Although, truth be told, we struggled mightily with this incarnation. We wrestle with exactly how we are supposed to live as people of this holy and hopeful promise. If noted poet and essayist Kathleen Norris was correct when she describes incarnation as “the place where hope contends with fear” – then it seems clear that, more often than not, fear wins the day and hope is harder to get a hold of.
For we do live in a fearful and fear-filled world.
We struggle with holding on to hope when all hope seems lost.
We wrestle with the fact that the world does not always look as if God is active in it.
And yet: and yet, as the story of our faith tells us over and over again, God became that somebody with skin on – what the gospel of John proclaims with that familiar phrase: and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Sometimes the familiar has the effect of not really being heard, which is why I find myself drawn to the way The Message translation renders it. It says this:
And the Word became flesh,
and moved into the neighborhood.
Moved into the neighborhood. That’s incarnation. Not coming for just a little visit for the season. Not a rental; not a temporary stay-over. No, God is pitching a tent in our tribe; God is setting up shop in our presence; God is coming to be with us and among us for the long haul.
And thank God for that! Thank God, because we need God in our neighborhood. Right here! And we need more than a burning bush just symbolizing God’s presence. We need more than a cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night just showing us around. We need more than poets and prophets to speak God’s voice to us. What we really need is God with us, fundamentally, completely, permanently. For that is the real miracle of this night: not how Jesus was born, but the fact that he was – just to be with us.
Us! We imperfect people, we who fight and lie and cheat and steal, we who set our own agendas above others, we who are inclined to draw lines over skin color or political persuasion or religious beliefs. We who are eager to speak and less eager to listen. We who allow ourselves, more often than not, to be defined by our fears instead of our hopes, our languishings instead of our love.
In spite of all of that – or because of it – God comes to be with us. Here, right here: as a living, breathing, human being; born just as we are.
And that changes everything. For as theologian Henri Nouwen puts it:
God became a little baby because God wanted to become so powerless that the realization of God’s own mission became completely dependent on us. God became human, no different from other humans, to break through the walls of power in total weakness.
Do you know what this means – for you, for me, for the world? Do you know how astonishing this night is, astonishing in a way that beckons us to shout from the mountaintops when all we can muster is a breathless whisper? Taking all our brokenness, all our divisions, all our hurt and pain; and answering every one of them with the single sound of a newborn baby’s cry:
For we live in a world where fear trumps love – and God moves into the neighborhood.
We are disheartened and paralyzed by the discord in our discourse – and God moves into the neighborhood.
We are taught to mistrust or hate those who do not look, think, act, love or pray like us – and God moves into the neighborhood.
We sequester ourselves into our respective silos and echo chambers so the only voices we hear are our own; losing our collective ability, and even desire, to listen to one another and try to solve problems together – and God moves into the neighborhood.
We live in a world where there is genuine fear about the future, awash in uncertainty and hopelessness, where every day feels like an endless battle. And even then, God moves into the neighborhood.
God moves in, and there is hope for a fearful world, strength for the weak, sustenance for the starving, live-giving water for the thirsting. God moves in, and there is someone to love us no matter what, someone to bring wholeness and healing to our broken lives and broken world. God moves in, because God’s light always shines the brightest the darker it gets.
Is this a time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war & hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out & the sun burns late?
That was no time for a child to be born,
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome;
Honor & truth were trampled by scorn –
Yet here did the Savior make his home.
So when is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on this planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn –
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.
Let us greet with open arms and grateful hearts this somebody with skin on, this Jesus, moving into our neighborhood, bringing us hope, bringing us peace, bringing us love. He is here on this night. And he is here forever!
In the name of the Father and Son and Holy Spirit, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!