December 29, 2008

Sermon for 1 Christmas, Year B

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.
Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou Romeo.
Quothe the Raven, Nevermore.
One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish.

There are pieces of literature that carry with them all sorts of memories; of childhood, of memorizing outdated plays, of great books, of all sorts of things. Sometimes others have said things so well that they need not be rewritten or rephrased, but instead translated into every language so that they might be heard by as many people as possible. This, I think, is true of the first half of John chapter 1 verse 14 - perhaps the most significant statement about God ever put to paper.

The Word became flesh and and lived among us... (NRSV)

The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us... (Milne)

This word which created the world, this reason which controls the order of the world, has become a person, and with our own eyes we saw him... (Barclay)

The Word became flesh and set up his tent alongside us... (Milne)

The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood... (The Message)

"The greatness of this truth assaults the mind and staggers the imagination..."(1) Remembering that we are strong Trinitarians this first Sunday of Christmas we must hear what John is really saying. The Word that became flesh is God. It is not a piece of God. It is not the essence of God. It is not the littlest bit God could give. It is all of God. God became flesh and moved into the neighborhood. That singular fact is the Good News of Christmas. Our foolish God risked everything by taking on flesh to live among us. Emmanuel, God with Us, in a very real sense abandoned the heaven that sits apart from the created world to bring heaven into the created world. It was the last ditch effort of a wildly imaginative God who, to a fault, wants us to love him and be in relationship with him.
John is saying something very radical about God. Something that even this morning you might be uncomfortable hearing. God changed. And so, God, was made man - He became flesh. "This verb, "was made" expresses that a person or thing changes its property and enters into a new condition, becoming something new that it was not before. The tense is aorist, imply a definite and completed action; there is no going back upon the incarnation. The act of self-humbling on the part of God is irreversible; he is eternally Emanuel, God with Us." God chose to change his very being; to risk everything and permanently pitch his tent alongside us. In God's opinion his Creation was so worth fixing that even he would change to make it so. The enormity of this fact is almost too much to bear. That God - all of God - would choose to value his creation even over himself. "For all our sin and all the world's brokenness, God 'abhorred not the virgins womb'" (3) but instead made his home in the very flesh that appears to be so weak.
And while it is for us that God would change that is most difficult, it is that God would take on the weak flesh of humanity that made John's message so hard to hear for the Greco-Roman world. That God would become flesh and blood - "the whole person - human existence in all its frailty, vulnerability" (4) and utter messiness was an entirely new concept when it first appeared in the fourteenth verse of John's first chapter. Never before had anyone claimed that any god, let alone the God of all Creation, had become flesh.
"This was an impossible thing. The one thing that no Greek would ever have dreamed of was that God could take a body. To a Greek, the body was an evil, a prison house in which the soul was shackled, a tomb in which the spirit was confined... It was nothing less than blasphemy to involve God in the affairs of the world...
And yet John makes clear that "God could and would [and did] become a human person, that God could [and did] enter into this life, that eternity could [and did] appear in time, [and] that somehow the Creator could [and did] appear in creation in such a way that he could actually be seen." (5)
In the Incarnation, God broke out of two very strong boxes built by human hands. He changed his very nature and he was made flesh and blood. He tore down walls and moved into the neighborhood in order to invite us back into relationship with him by asking us to get out of our own boxes. He changed and he calls us to change. He shone a light on the messiness of human existence so that we could see the inherent goodness that comes from the Creator. He risked it all to be in relationship with us so that we might risk it all to be in relationship with him.
I think God ultimately decided to pitch his tent alongside us because he knew that it would be the best way to reach us. He realized that a personal relationship was a lot easier to nurture. Mormon men when on their two-year mission have a conversion rate that is said to be something like 5 converts to Mormonism per missionary per year. So, on average, each missionary will convert 10 people in their two years of mission. In those two years, however, they become so accustomed to talking about their faith and doctrine that when they enter the real world and live in neighborhoods and work in offices their conversion rate is much higher because it is based on a relationship, not a cold call.
God moved into the neighborhood to enter into relationship with you. He risked it all just to have a conversation with you. This Christmastide will you risk it all? Will you break down the barriers you've set up between you and God and restore the relationship he came to fix? As impossible as it may sound, God is alive and living in our neighborhood. Come, let us adore him. Amen.

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