The incarnation. This season is a celebration of the incarnation, of God who became flesh in Jesus Christ. These stories about the advent of Jesus, the stories about his birth and life and death—all of those stories are glimpses of God, they are announcements of what God’s presence looks like in our world and in our lives.
Advent and Christmas announce that this world will the place where God will dwell, that God will live with us, with you. That the home of God is here, on earth. That our lives are not foreign to God, that earthly life is not alien to God’s life.
Karl Barth summarized the meaning of the incarnation as God’s yes to creation, a pledge of solidarity to human life. The incarnation of God in Jesus Christ is God’s affirmation of humanity, that God has taken our side, that God is for us, that God will live God’s life for the sake of ours, to sustain us, to nurture us, to help us grow into the fulness of life, the fulness of God’s life, the fulness of God’s love.
I think Irenaeus of Smyrna, a bishop in the second century, said all of this better than anyone else: “The glory of God is the human being, fully alive,” That’s how Irenaeus talked about the significance of the incarnation, of God becoming human.
We are living testimonies. With our love we testify to what God is about, to what God does, to who God is. Our life is a kind of worship, the exaltation of God manifest in our daily acts of love, our ordinary and extraordinary care for others. All of this as God’s love incarnate in us.
This doesn’t mean that everything we do is good for our world or good for us. That should be obvious, I guess, especially as we come to terms with the environmental destruction our species has caused. The world as it is, is not the way things should be. Our lives as they are, are not necessarily the way they should be. To proclaim the truth of the incarnation is not to say that everything is good the way things are, that our lives are fine the way they are. God’s affirmation, God’s yes, as Barth would say, is not a commitment to the status quo, to life as it is.
I just read a book about how French theologians, in the early twentieth century, when their government became complicit in the Nazi regime—these Christians made the case for obedience to Hitler by means of arguments about the incarnation. Basically, according to these theologians with power, they said that the new pro-Nazi French government was ordained by God because God’s life participates in the social structures of a nation. They believed in a kind of national incarnation of God’s presence, that God was with the people through their leaders—that the leadership of their government participated in the authority of God, their power as derived from God’s power.
That way of thinking is not too far from our situation here in the United States, where nationalism and Christianity seem to go hand in hand. We are witnessing the confusion of right-wing Christians as they sort through Trump’s attempts at a coup, his scheming to keep the presidency despite the results of the election. Law and order Christians have always had a tough time sorting through which laws and which orders are legitimate—which laws of the land and which political orders are there because God put them there, and which are there as a result of the devil’s schemes.
The incarnation is God’s commitment to us, that God will be with us, that God will never leave us nor forsake us, because God has made human life part of the divine life, our lives as now part of God’s life. But that still leaves us to sort out what it means for us, for each of us, to commit our lives to the incarnation, to the incarnation as a way of life—to commit to God’s incarnate presence in our world. Incarnation not as submission to life as we know it, to life as we want it, but as a commitment to the reign of God’s love, of God’s peace, of God’s fierce mercy.
That’s why these words from Mary are so important—this story from the beginning of Luke’s Gospel. Mary’s words are here at the beginning of the story of Jesus as a framework to understand everything else that happens. Mary tells us what this Jesus, what the incarnation of God, will mean for our world—and not just for the world out there, but for each of our lives.
She rejoices in the promises of God—God’s promises to save her, to look with favor upon her lowly status, for God to be on her side. And this hope in God’s affirmation of her life is also a word of judgement. God’s mercy involves judgement. The incarnation won’t reinforce the way things are. Instead, the presence of God in Jesus will shake the foundations of the world. The powerful will be brought down from their thrones, Mary prophecies in her song, and the lowly will be lifted up. The hungry will have enough to eat, and God will banish the wealthy (1:52-53).
Last week I preached about Jesus as the fire of God, a purifying fire, according to John the Baptist—affirming what is good, and condemning what is evil. John prophesied that the presence of Jesus will burn away all the systems and structures, all of our attitudes and ways of life that set up walls and fences and borders that obstruct God’s love for the world.
Now, this week, we hear Mary’s fiery words. She gets a bit more specific about what this child will mean for the world, that God’s mercy, Christ’s salvation, will involve judgement—a decisive “no” to all the ways we harm each other, a pronouncement against the evils of this world that sneak into our lives.
That’s the call of the incarnation. The birth of Christ is a commissioning to belong to the world of Mary’s song—to belong to her prayer, her dream, her vision for a world turned upside down, turned right-side up: all things restored to God’s justice, to the goodness of creation renewed for all of us, where there will be no more rich or poor because no one will have too much, which means everyone will have enough.
The presence of God means peace. Jesus will be the one of peace, we heard in Micah’s prophecy. This peace of Christ will be a fierce peace, because we’re stubborn creatures. We have a hard time giving up what’s bad for us, what’s bad for the world.
That’s what we offer each other here, as a community, as a people committed to the healing power of God’s peace. The incarnation is God’s promise to be with us, to transform us, to lead us into God’s life—a life which, for us, as we look towards the manger in Bethlehem, is a vulnerable life, a dependent life, a fragile life. If that manger is what God’s presence looks like, then what does it mean for us to be present to each other?—to be present as a sign of God’s presence, for our presence to be a reminder of God’s presence, of each of us to confirm the peace of God for one another.
I think that’s the question for us during this season—what does it mean to be present to each other, to be reminders of God’s love, even if the most we can offer is our fragile little lives.
The gospel, as we approach Bethlehem, is this: to know again, this year, with all that has changed in us, with all that has changed in our world, to know again that the one who created us also loves us, that love has been made flesh, that we will know that love when we love each other, that we will be transformed, we will become the glory of God, fully in love with God’s world, fully in love with God’s people, when we love our neighbor as God loves us.
The gospel of the incarnation is this: To behold a neighbor, a stranger, an estranged friend, as alive with God’s love, as a sign of the glory of God.