“Scandal of the Incarnation”

When his parents saw him they were astonished; and his mother said to him, ‘Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.’

The prescribed readings of the lectionary not only challenge me as a preacher to reach into texts I would not ordinarily choose to proclaim on a Sunday morning, but I also marvel at the way theologians and scholars who paired them had a realistic understanding of the rhythm of faith communities and families. Our Gospel reading for this first Sunday in Christmastide – the season of Christmas – has us jump from the manger, with Jesus as a newborn, to Jesus as a pre-teen in the temple, offering one of the only glimpses we have of Jesus as a youth. The lectionary will go back and reclaim Jesus as a baby, but right now, this gospel story allows us to name the challenges we face directly following Christmas in our homes, churches and in ourselves, by showcasing family arguments, disappointments and misunderstood expectations. Please listen for the word of God as I read Luke 2:41-52. Several members inquired if my first Christmas at Kenilworth Union was what I had expected, given all of your tradition and build-up. Honestly, Christmas Eve is the Super Bowl of church; I expected my feet to hurt and they still do. More importantly, I am grateful with the outpouring of hospitality to all the visitors and casual attenders at Kenilworth on one of our most sacred and hope-filled nights. For me, it was inspiring and I’ll go out on a limb but I believe we worshiped in a manner pleasing to God. So often times we can lose sight of the purpose of services, that is not to entertain us, but to worship God.

In reality, you can expect the worship experiences at churches across the land on Christmas Eve rarely vary from year-to-year if they heed the sage advice from tenured pastors who say; “don’t mess with Christmas Eve. Read the story, keep the sermon short, sing the hymns and light a candle.” So, we can expect certain things here and in most other sanctuaries on Christmas Eve. What makes Christmas Eve unique and different from family to family are the expectations we create.
When we gathered in this sanctuary, we spoke and sang of the “hopes and fears of all the years” in the hymn O Little Town of Bethlehem. Well, did your holiday fulfill your hopes or deliver another round of disappointment or frustration? Christmas carries weight far beyond the advent of Jesus’ birth.

In the past few days, I’ve had a number of conversations about the Christmas experience and family gatherings. Some people seem to have enjoyed an idyllic holiday vacation or homecomings that were directly out of a made-for-TV Hallmark movie. I heard sighs of gratitude. I’ll also admit these were the exceptions and not the norm.

I also heard others lament that they expected to be disappointed and were disappointed by the lukewarm reception from in-laws or that the economy stifled the typically generous gift-giving and receiving. Although, if one expects to receive a generous gift, does that imply the bar is raised from one year to the next before it becomes just an average gift? What kind of welcomes do we offer to relatives? We can get ourselves in knots that sometimes are self-fulfilling.

On the flip side, I had one friend stress over a family gathering, expecting the annual strained conversation and arguments, only to enjoy dinner, linger with in-laws and laugh. This was truly a gift.

Each one of us shows up at Christmas with expectations, born from a personal history, shaped by media fantasies of “keeping up with the Jones” notions of what is appropriate in our current economic climate. We expect a certain turn of events, whether we desperately want to sustain a routine and tradition or we dread the inevitable – we have expectations for not only Christmas, but much of life.

This is where the gospel story parallels our own worship experience. Mary and Joseph, and the entire clan, had journeyed to Jerusalem for the Passover celebrations. We have no insight as to whether the experience was unusual, but given our knowledge of temple rituals and the embedded traditions, we can imagine they were celebrated just as prescribed. The crisis emerged when the family was returning home and their eldest son, Jesus, was missing. In the entourage of a now growing and extended family, all the noses were not counted or Jesus was thought to be with another group. This is one more family – dysfunctional or shall I say normal – as compared with our families.

No doubt some preacher has enlisted the movie Home Alone as a modern day example of Mary’s experience when discovering her first-born son was missing. The story lends itself to comedy with a caravan of animals and people, but it explicitly names anxiety. Mary and Joseph were frantic to find their son, just as we would be.

When they got back to Jerusalem, it took them three days before they found him in the temple. Three days. Now, some students of the Bible may immediately jump to the symbolism of a three-day sojourn as endured by Abraham and Isaac in the Old Testament book of Genesis, or the prophet Jonah’s experience in the belly of a whale, or Jesus in the tomb.

Since three days is a long time, you may begin to wonder where they were looking. Had they expected to find him in the market, the house of friends where they had stayed, or who knows where else? Only after exhausting the usual suspects, they found him in the temple.

In the days following a high, religious holiday, the temple was quiet and ordinary…kind of like our sanctuary today. The music is subdued and the pews rather roomy. Then the exchange between Jesus and Mary is what we might expect from a pre-teen and his mother. Although the Greek texts do not have punctuation marks, let alone indicate the tone-of-voice, there is enough in the exchange to hear Mary scolding her first born, with “child, why have you treated us like this” whereas Jesus ignored her parental authority and identity by rebutting “of course I would be in my father’s house.” Mary and Joseph were like any other parents, in any other age, and did not understand why their son would be so insolent and wondered just who he thought he was.

Mary and Joseph expected their son to be obedient as so many parents expect of their children. But, Jesus is not just their child. Luke’s Gospel paints a portrait of Jesus as both human and divine when he speaks of his growing awareness of his life and divine place in our world, exhibiting wisdom beyond not only parents’, but also humans’ grasp of religion, and coming
from the body of a youth.

The reader of Luke’s gospel had been told of the divine incarnation, Emmanuel translated as “God with us,” Jesus’ conception as human and divine. The theological concept of the incarnation is tough to comprehend since it presumes we can fully grasp what it means to be human and at the same time understand what it means to be divine. We don’t. Jesus in the temple offers a real-life experience of the consequences of dual identities and those closest to him are oblivious.
Incarnation. It is heady stuff.

Incarnation theology is found in many religious traditions pre-dating and beyond Christian traditions in which a divine being is revealed in worldly, embodied forms, usually human, so that the divine nature and will are conveyed in ways that are meaningful and intelligible to humans.

One of the revered, non-Christian representations of a divine as human is in the epic Hindu poem, The Bhagavad Gita in which a divine charioteer, Krishna, teaches and serves the warrior Arjuna, who is on the way to battle. Krishna, speaks of wisdom, the path to devotion, and of Arjuna’s life in the world order as Arjuna confronts the demand to potentially kill another human. In this poem, you can hear echoes of the Old Testament. It influenced the thinking of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau and inspired an imprisoned Ghandi into the non-violent movements.
There are other examples in religious texts of our human thirst to grasp divine insight, to make sense of the conflicts and misery we create in the world. These also confide our human limitations to make sense of life or comprehend the mind of God.

Incarnation’s common thread is that God makes God’s own self known to us, not exclusively through angels or fantastic creatures – winged seraphs – but as a human, putting a divine stamp of approval on humans and displaying to us the good within this human form we embody. But there is more to our Christian theology of the incarnation.

William Willamon, former Dean of the Divinity School at Duke University and United Methodist bishop, notes: “the most disturbing quality of the baby Jesus, the mystery of his advent that scandalizes even as it inexorably beckons, is the vulnerability of his incarnation. Nothing is so helpless,
so dependent, so fragile, so frail, as a baby.”  
Williamon goes on to note he “knows of no other religion so bold as to admit to the possibility of its God appearing in so vulnerable a form.” He believes it is scandalous for God to meet us as a baby, threatening our human desire for an aloof, Platonic deity who lives in the realm of the abstract, self-contained ideal, rather than in the stable out back, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. (“Unto Us a Child” from On a Wild and Windy Mountain.)

God incarnate as a baby, growing into youth and adulthood, also contradicts our expectations of a savior. How could a baby overthrow the corrupt Roman rule or impoverished conditions of the first century? Our human constructs have always been flawed, and too often we abdicate our responsibility to resolve our own problems and instead hope for divine intervention. It is hard to accept that Jesus did not come to fulfill our expectations. Perhaps it is because we have wanted too much from God and expected too little of ourselves.

God’s crossing the divide between divine and human existence represents God’s willingness to be in every part of our messy material world and no longer be confined to the realm of transcendent mystery. The incarnation is invested in restoring the dignity and worth of every mortal created by God, and restoring our eternal relationship with God. These are tasks beyond our individual capabilities and, thank God, God intercedes.

Jesus came to go about God’s business by teaching inclusion, love of neighbor and serving the lost, least and lonely; human and divine work. Jesus was incarnate as a baby to be a part of our complete human existence, to live in our bodily form, grow within our tradition, and thrive in a family, showcasing God’s approval. From this birth through childhood, Jesus shares our experience and shows us how to create a new future.

God came down at Christmas. God has gifted us with the spirit of Christ in our current lives to continue Christ’s work. We have choices to make about our future in serving God.
Kenilworth Union stands on a solid foundation, but we are at a point of departure with Andrew’s tenure closing and 2013 ushering in an interim period.

We can rely upon our history, confident of God’s calling the universal church into being, to comfort, minister and guide us in faith as Christ’s body on earth. God called this particular church into being in this community, called each of us into membership and service. We have a promise before us as a church that God will be with us shaping our future through Don Dempsey’s experience and wisdom as an interim leader, our collective commitment to discern new paths, and our patience for God to work in God’s time.

We have many similarities to Mary and Joseph. They had a large and growing family, traditions to maintain, and lived in a culture that was not supportive of their faith. What we can learn from Mary and Joseph is to not dwell exclusively on what we want but to be open to God moving among us and taking us into the unexpected. We can learn to lean into the world of new relationships, welcome strangers, take bold risks, and go about the business of being a church. As Mary, we can treasure in our hearts God’s love for us is so great, God came to meet us, just as we are.