Archive for January, 2011

Turning Points

Sunday, January 2nd, 2011

Today we read two very different scriptures, one from the Gospel of John and the other from the Gospel of Matthew, that describe the Incarnation, the coming of Jesus to earth.  If we were to take our image of Jesus solely from the first chapter of the Gospel of John, we’d get a picture of Jesus as a divine spark or creative force.   John beautifully celebrates God’s deep Wisdom which spoke the entire universe into existence.  This is Jesus as Word, as light, as power, as beauty; not a human being born of woman, but pure energy that existed from before the beginning of time.

Although John says that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, there’s not much “fleshy” about this description; instead, we hear about Jesus’ glory, and his grace and truth.

Moving as these words are, they don’t say “Incarnation” to me.  It’s hard to imagine this Jesus soiling his diapers or talking back to Joseph or Mary!

To be fair, there’s not much in Matthew’s verses about Jesus’ growing up, either.  I love the grandeur and beauty of John’s words.  But what strikes me about Matthew’s storytelling is the reality, the “truthiness”[1] if you will, of the political situation in which Jesus, Mary and Joseph found themselves.  Jesus was born into a poor family; Joseph’s income as a tecton or rough carpenter must have barely kept them.  We know that they were poor not only because of Joseph’s occupation, but because when it came time to present a thank-offering to God, they could only afford doves, the cheapest sacrificial animal that could be purchased in the Temple marketplace.

Besides being poor, Jesus was born at a time of crisis—the mad Herod, King of the Jews and pawn of the Roman Empire, was clinging to his throne by murdering his wives, children and other family members right and left.  On his deathbed, worried that the world would not mourn him sufficiently, Herod even left instructions that his heirs were to assemble a large number of famous men and assassinate them, so as to create the proper amount of grief!

Times were tough for the poor in many ways, as they are today.  We enter the story at Mary and Joseph’s point of decision.  An angel has warned Joseph in a dream to go to Egypt to save Jesus’ life from Herod.  How frightening to be refugees in a foreign country, far from home and extended family.  But still, they went, and stayed there until further notice from the angel.  Foiled, Herod reportedly massacres all the boy children around Bethlehem that were about Jesus’ age.

We don’t know if the details of Matthew’s story are factually true or not.  Scholars still debate the actual year of Jesus’ birth.  Some say Herod never murdered the children of Bethlehem; it was the awful fact of murdering his own children that became conflated into the story of the Massacre of the Innocents.  Others say that just because the Jewish historian Josephus did not report it, doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen.  In a time of great violence and oppression, one small slaughter or another often goes unreported or is deliberately whitewashed.  Unfortunately, it still does, even with modern media.

Mary and Joseph’s lives have just been one decision point after another:  starting with Mary’s choice to accept her role as God-bearer:  get married, or break the betrothal contract.  Flee to Egypt, or risk staying in Bethlehem.  Remain in Egypt, or come home.  Go to Judea, or go to Nazareth.

At each turning point they could have chosen to follow their own way or to trust in God speaking through dreams and angels.  Or they could have stayed frozen in fear, trusting only to fate and indecision: deciding by not deciding.   Each time, the turning point takes them forward into the unknown; over and over again, they choose to trust in dreams and visions.  Imagine the courage that must have taken!

The sad but interesting fact is that things haven’t changed so much, on the macro or the micro level, despite the thousands of years in between Jesus’ time and ours.  We still have mad rulers in this world; and forms of Empire oppress their countries and even other cultures.  Families today are caught up in the madness and forced to similar choices.  Latino men often have to choose between staying at home with family and no job, or taking the risk and huge debt required to sneak into the U.S. and work illegally in order to send money back.  Refugees from Zimbabwe and other countries can never go home again, even if family members remain, or they will be killed.  How many working people in the U.S. have to choose between rent and medical care, or senior citizens choosing between food and utility bills!

Even the comfortable are faced with difficult decision points.  Hopefully they will not all be so dire as those faced by refugees or the extremely poor, but it is all part of the human condition to be faced again and again with choosing between the lesser of two evils.  Should I place Mom in a home, where she will feel a loss of dignity, or should I allow her to remain at home and risk her falling and breaking a hip?  Should I allow the doctor to pull the plug?  What if my loved one could have woken up if we’d just waited a month?  It’s so hard!  Life is full of suffering, as the Buddhists say.   Actually, I prefer the Unitarian Universalist hymn which goes, “Life is full of joy and sorrow mixed…”

That’s what I find so marvelous about the Incarnation or “God Con Carne” as I saw in a blog the other day.  God in the flesh.  Jesus as friend and brother.  He knows what we’re going through!  He knows our common plight, because he’s been here.  When he was an infant, his parents made the tough choices for him.  When he grew up, he chose to follow God, even to death on a cross.

God made flesh, God in humankind, however you understand that to be, is no stranger to life and its many hard decisions.  He knows what it’s like to get tangled up in Empire, and to die a painful death.  And yes, Christmas isn’t officially over yet and I’m already talking about Good Friday.    I’m not trying to rain on your parade, just acknowledging that many of our parades have a lot of rain already.

There’s a reason that I always display a cross with my nativity set.  But don’t worry, I don’t believe that Jesus went to the cross as part of some peculiar substitutionary atonement scheme involving blood for sin, or as a result of divine child abuse or anything like that!

To my mind, the incarnation means one thing:  God loves us so much that God came to earth to fully participate in all of human experience, from beginning to end; to show us how to live a God-filled life; to suffer with us and rejoice with us.  Jesus came to take on all of our joy and even our pain; to make risky decisions that got him in trouble, and yes, to die.  Because if he hadn’t died, then what’s the big deal?  How does a partial incarnation prove anything?    Without death on the cross, Jesus would have just been God in a human skin, ready to fly back to heaven the moment things got tough.  But he stuck it out.  He chose to live a fully human life, which always ends in death.

Wherever we find ourselves in body or in mind, God has been there; and God is with us still in spirit.  So remember that, when you are stuck between a rock and a hard place.  God has been there, and God is with you still.

I’d like to close with two great poems about the Incarnation.  The first is  “The Risk of Birth” by Madeleine L’Engle[2].

This is no time for a child to be born,
With the earth betrayed by war and hate
And a comet slashing the sky to warn
That time runs out and the sun burns late.

That was no time for a child to be born
In a land in the crushing grip of Rome
Honor and truth were trampled by scorn—
Yet here did the Saviour make his home.

When is the time for love to be born?
The inn is full on planet earth,
And by a comet the sky is torn –
Yet Love still takes the risk of birth.

The second is by R. S. Thomas, a Welsh poet and Anglican priest.


And God held in his hand
A small globe. Look, he said.
The son looked. Far off,
As through water, he saw
A scorched land of fierce
Colour. The light burned
There; crusted buildings
Cast their shadows: a bright
Serpent, a river
Uncoiled itself, radiant
With slime.

On a bare
Hill a bare tree saddened
The Sky. Many people
Held out their thin arms
To it, as though waiting
For a vanished April
To return to its crossed
Boughs. The son watched
Them. Let me go there, he said.



[2] The Widening Light: Poems of the Incarnation editor- Luci Shaw (Wheaton, Illinois: Harold Shaw Publishers, 1984) 13

[3] “The Coming,” by R.S. Thomas, from “Collected Poems 1945-1990″ Phoenix Press.