Monday, January 2, 2012

The Mystery of Both-And: A Sermon for 25 December 2011

St. Alban’s Episcopal Church, Monroe, La.

Babies are soooo concrete. They must be kept wrapped in some variation on bands of cloth to ease their transition to the harsher reality outside the womb. They sleep, cry, eat and need their diaper changed in a rather relentless cycle that demands our attention and action. 

"the word was made flesh" by Chris Shreve

Infants are utterly helpless, and caring for them rules the lives of their caretakers.

Nothing more dramatically transforms the lives of adults of all ages, then a baby’s birth into a family. For parents, the first baby is surely the most definitive and irrevocable element of passage into adulthood. ‘Children’ grow up when they have children.

But babies also help keep grandparents and great grandparents connected to this world. And they help survivors of inevitable human losses to carry on.

I clearly recall my family gathered in my parents’ living room, about to depart for the funeral of my youngest sibling, snatched from life at the tender age of 21. My nephew Clint, now married with children of his own, was a toddler at the time.

Clint knew at some level that we were gathered because Uncle Roger had died. But he also got that we were a captive audience. And he made it his responsibility to lighten our somber mood. We laughed in spite of ourselves at his bright-eyed, endlessly energetic 2-year-old antics.

One of us, I don’t remember who, commented that in such a moment of great loss and human tragedy, the living presence of the next generation in the form of a babe made it not only possible—but necessary—to go on.

Babies are concrete. They anchor us in reality.

In contrast, words are abstract. Virtually every one in most languages has more than one meaning. Their relationship to what they signify is typically arbitrary. We can trace the history of words, but ultimately learning a language is mostly an exercise in memorization.

Just last night, we gazed in wonder at a babe in a manger-cradle. Now this morning along comes the Gospel according to St. John (
John 1:1-14, NRSV). Every year we make this rather abrupt transition from a concrete, recognizably human scene, to this poetic.. and compelling, yet mysterious account of the Word…made flesh…to dwell among us.

Where, we might be tempted to ask, is the baby? Where is Mary, the blessed mother, Joseph, the faithful father? The awestruck shepherds? Indeed, not one human populates this account!

Here’s a Gospel trivia question for you: Where and how does Jesus the human first appear in the Gospel according to John? Not until verse 29 of Chapter 1, and then as a 30-year-old man, when he comes to the river Jordan to be baptized!

John’s account of Jesus the Christ begins with God, and with the unity of “the Word” with God. It echoes the creation story, and tells us again that God exists outside of time, and that even light and life itself are from God. And in so doing, it provides us with a healthy reminder of God’s difference… from humankind.

In John’s interpretation of Christmas, the babe in the manger is “the Word” that not only was with God, but was God, “the Word” spoken in an act of self-communication. It reminds us that we can know God only as God comes to us in self-revelation. Nothing we can do—not our most noble aspirations or our most dedicated acts of service—can earn or precipitate such an event.

From the prologue to John’s Gospel, we learn first and foremost that in Jesus Christ we meet nothing less than the revelation of God. Christmas is, first of all, the celebration of a gracious decision on God’s part to become human in the Baby of Bethlehem.

I myself have often wondered why the author of John chose to tell this story in quite such abstract words and concepts. Why didn’t he just come right out and say, in plain Greek, “Oh, and by the way, Jesus was God!”

I suspect it had to do with the fact that “plain Greek” is no better than “plain English” for talking about such things. How could any human language be up to the challenge of declaring and explaining something so utterly unbelievable, so preposterous, as God becoming human?

And yet again, there’s the babe in the manger. The boy who scares his parents when he goes to the temple... Jesus the man ministers to poor people and sick people. He is tempted; he walks the dusty roads of Galilee and grows weary of the crowds. He becomes frustrated with the religious leaders of his day, their attempts to trap him and their abuse of power.

And then, of course, there’s suffering. The horror of crucifixion. The grief of his mother. Death on the cross.

The events of Jesus’ life are so concrete. We see ourselves and the people we know in those stories. We don’t even like all of them because at times they are too real and they tell us things about our human world we don’t particularly want to know.

At times, they even make Jesus more human than we prefer him to be. And so we go back and forth between the concrete and the abstract, between Jesus the man and God Incarnate.

The Good News today is that we don’t have to choose between one and the other. We don’t have to choose between the babe in the manger and the Word made flesh. We don’t have to choose between concrete and abstract understandings of the One and Only God.

We are fond of saying that we can’t eat our cake and have it to. But that’s classic—and human—dualistic thinking. In the case of God we can. It’s the mystery and miracle of both-and: both God and human, both baby and the Word. Like death and resurrection, each is both question and answer to the other.

When I try really hard to wrap my mind around Incarnation, and all that comes with it, I am convinced it is utterly preposterous. Why would God do such a thing?

And at one and the same time comes the utter conviction that God Incarnate is the only thing that makes any sense at all. Otherwise, who are we? Why are we here? How can any of this be real, if not for God Incarnate? 

The Good News today is we don't have to choose or decide. If we accept the mystery and miracle of both-and, then we live in a universe of possibility we can scarcely imagine. For if the difference and distance between Creator and creature can be reconciled, even for a fleeting moment, whether at one of the mangers of our lives when God is revealed to us through other people or in an internal moment of awareness of the Spirit known only to you, then all of humankind, and all of creation can be reconciled as well.

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