The Risk (and Adventure) of Incarnation: an advent sermon

This is adapted from a message I gave at Jacob’s Well in Minneapolis (December of 2012)

I think one of the reasons I love this time of year so much is because Christmas has a way of making me feel like a kid again. I wonder if it has this effect on you as well.

Just think about all the sights, sounds, smells and tastes that are connected in your memory with this part of December. Music, food, movies, decorations, lights!, pictures, candles, and traditions that go back to before many of us were even born.

My earliest memory of Christmas is when I was two years old. My parents had been separated for a little while and my sister and I lived with my mom in an apartment while my dad lived in our house, but on Christmas Eve that year we moved back in with my dad and became a family again.

Isn’t that a great story? And to make it even better, it’s probably my earliest memory of anything, so it’s no wonder why it’s been the story I’ve told people for years when they ask me why I love Christmas so much.

Here’s the thing about that story, it’s not entirely true.

I didn’t make it up and I haven’t (knowingly) been lying to people when I tell it, but until just recently that’s how I remembered it happening. Let me explain. I was looking through old photo albums recently and I found a picture from the apartment where my sister and I had lived with my mom. There was a date written on the back of the photo, it was from March of that year, which is after Christmas, and after I thought we had already moved back in to the house with my dad.

As you might expect, the story of my parents’ separation is not something we talk about much (if ever) in my family, and I’m very happy to share that my parents are still together today, but as I looked at that old picture and thought about the implications of it having been taken after Christmas I knew that I had to ask my mom about it, even though it meant risking the existence of my earliest and most cherished memory. Before even asking her I had come to terms with the likely reality of it not being true, which is what my conversation with her confirmed. As it turns out, my memory was mistaken (not so much wrong). She told me that we did indeed celebrate Christmas together in our house that year but we didn’t move back in until about three months later.

It’s often more comfortable to remember things the way we wish they had happened.

It’s also easier to think about things from the same perspective we’ve always thought about them from, which is usually our perspective.

I do this with Christmas, not just my memories of this time of year, but the story of Mary and Joseph, the angels, shepherds and wise men and of course baby Jesus as well.

For so long I’ve been reading the Christmas story from only my perspective, but only recently did I recognize that it’s difficult to be affected – let alone changed – by a story you’ve heard before, especially if you’ve heard it many many times and know how it ends.

Advent is a season of preparing and waiting.

Waiting has never been a popular activity, especially when everything new seems to promise us the ability to do things faster (which is the equivalent of waiting less).

We live in world that, as one of my favorite lines from Shawshank Redemption puts it, has gone at “got itself in a big damn hurry,” which leads to Advent being the season that simply tides us over until Christmas, like the salad they bring out before your entrée at a steakhouse. It may be healthy, but it’s not really what we want.

We love Christmas for so many reasons, but how much deeper might we appreciate it if we actually prepare ourselves and take time to think about what it means (both for us personally and for the world where we live)? Might we journey through Advent, lingering in this season of anticipation, perhaps feeling a bit like a pregnant woman nearing her due date, filled with excitement but also wanting to just have the baby already!?

The Christmas story has become about so many things but primarily it’s the celebration of a birth, and through that birth, God entering the world to be with us. The theological term for this is “incarnation,” which comes from the beginning of John’s gospel, which says, “the word became flesh and dwelled among us.”

Those words sound pretty, but how does the incarnation change us? How does Christmas – not just the holiday but also the reality of God coming to earth – grow our hearts?

To begin responding to these questions, I’d like to introduce you to someone named Parker Palmer. (Watch this video but then come back to read the rest)

God took a huge risk by entering our world. From the beginning, Jesus was God. Fully human while still remaining fully God, which means God entered this world just like you and I did, as a baby.

Christmas was God going all in, taking an irreversible step toward us without a guarantee that things would work out. Life, as we all know, is an adventure, and God entered into that adventure with us. This is a loving and sacrificial action!

Becoming human was a risk for God but it was the only way forward, so if God is love, then the most personal way for God to express this was to become love, by entering our world and embodying the very nature of love…as a baby.

Babies are perhaps the most sacred form of life. Babies are adored (practically worshipped) because they represent the pure hope and possibility of a life just waiting to be lived. When we look into the eyes of a child we catch a glimpse of all their potential.

It is because of the potential we see in children that we are so sad, angry and confused when we hear about school shootings and priests abusing children.

But that’s why each year the story of a baby being born in a manger is a gift, because it reminds us that we too can be born into a life and into a world of new possibilities. As Parker Palmer suggested, Christmas invites us to embody what is most important to us…

Think about Christmas from Mary and Joseph’s perspectives as they found themselves in the middle of something they never would have imagined, it must have felt incredibly risky for each of them to trust God.

  • Risks for Mary: an angel tells her she’s pregnant and that it’s God’s kid. She then has to tell her boyfriend, hoping he’ll stick around and help raise the kid.
  • Risks for Joseph: his girlfriend tells him she’s pregnant even though they haven’t “been together.” She says it’s God’s kid and he chooses to believe her (rather than assume she cheated on him). They get engaged and later set off on a long trip by donkey (when she’s still pregnant and ready to give birth at any moment).

You can probably say a few things about the connection between adventure and risks in your own life as well, but the reality is:

Everybody wants to live an adventure but few people are willing to take risks.

It’s like the saying: “everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die.”

You can’t have one without the other.

Adventures are always full of risks; it’s the main ingredient. If you were to find a recipe for adventure it would list a bunch of different kinds of risks and then tell you to put them all in a bowl, add water and stir.

Yet because of our fear of taking risks, many of us are stirring bowls of water wondering why nothing cool has happened yet.

Did you realize the root word of “adventure” is actually “advent”? So there’s this connection between our waiting and preparing for Christ’s birth and the adventure we’re on as people trying to follow Jesus.

There’s a scene in John’s gospel when Jesus tells us he came so that we can have life in all its fullness, which is to say, he was born so we can be ourselves.

No one can be you except you. God has uniquely created you. You possess gifts and abilities that no one else has, and the amazing thing is, you probably don’t even realize it because they come so natural to you.

My friend Dave has a cool way of explaining this by suggesting that if you said to a fish, “hey, you’re a really good swimmer!” the fish would probably respond by asking, “what’s swimming?”

So, as another Christmas brings back memories from Christmases past, may it also draw us into the stable with all the characters from that old story, to remember –perhaps for the first time – that just as God took the risk of becoming human, we too might take a risk and accept God’s love for who we are, for our faith and even for our doubts; and amidst all the risks of doing this, that we might hold on to the promise of the angel who told Mary, “the Lord is with you…do not be afraid” (or as another translation says, “you have nothing to fear, God has a surprise for you.”)

God, thank you for Advent, a time for us to prepare our hearts and our homes for Christmas, a time when we also must wait. In our waiting for your son’s birth, help us remember that what happened in the stable was not a gift exchange but simply a gift given. Give us the faith and courage to believe we deserve this gift and live the adventure of being who you created us to be. We thank you for your son, and it’s in his name that we pray.

Amen.

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