Galatians 4:4 But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, 5 in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. 6 And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” 7 So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.
Before a child is born the baby is only a rumor. They give evidence of themselves in kicks and hiccups and in their mother’s constant discomfort, and in our world of high medical technology we can see their figures projected in ghostly outline, sound somehow made sight. But we can still only imagine who they will be, what their face will really look like, the way their brow will furrow when you hold them the wrong way or their arms will fly out to the sides when they startle. But to really know who they are, that they are, we need to hold them in our arms and encounter them face to face, skin to skin. When a parent meets their baby for the first time, the reality of a new world opens up. What you could only imagine and so much more than you ever could have imagined now has skin. So much hope and anticipation and longing all of the sudden have a little body, so that whoever you were before is now gone and you will forevermore be who you are with that being.
During the Christmas season, we remember and celebrate God’s own birth, that in little Jesus of Nazareth, God took flesh. The immortal, invisible God, silent for so long, known only by signs and rumors in so many of our lives, the God whose people hoped would come to their rescue, whose presence they anticipated and longed for, that God came and walked with us again as though we were back in Eden. Christmas is the season when we remember that God took on a body, and God’s presence in that person opens up a whole new world, God’s kingdom. All our hope and anticipation and longing all of the sudden have a body, so that whoever we were before is now in some way gone, and we will forevermore be who we are as members of that body.
As Christians, we call this mystery, that God came in the flesh, the Incarnation, and I want to dwell with this mystery today. We confess that in the person we call Jesus the Messiah is fully God and fully Human, not some hybrid mixture of the two and not two separate beings, but divinity and humanity joined in a kiss. Jesus is where the Eternal Word, who was present with God at creation, joins itself to flesh, flesh that weeps and laughs and bleeds, so that as Christians we cannot talk about who God is, or even what a god is, without talking about this person. It’s because the Word takes on flesh, it’s because “in the fullness of time, God sent his Son, born of a woman under the law” that we can be redeemed from the futility of this world.
One of the earliest theologians, Saint Athanasius put the mystery of the Incarnation this way: “God became human so that humans could become divine.” God takes on flesh for our salvation, so that we can become more than we are in our finitude and sin. Christ’s whole existence saves us. Sometimes we focus so much on the Cross as the place of salvation that we become deaf to the meaning of the Incarnation and the Resurrection. So the Incarnation, the fact that God took on a body is important because God needs a body to get to the cross, and then the Resurrection is important as evidence that the one who was crucified was in fact, still God. Now, the Cross is at the heart of how God saves, but the Incarnation has something to teach us about salvation apart from giving God a vehicle to get to the cross. Salvation isn’t just a matter of death, but life, as well. It’s not just a matter of resistance to sin, but of making good works possible. Salvation isn’t just getting rid of vice, but taking on holiness. Jesus comes to show us how to die, but before and after that Jesus comes to show us how to live. The Cross is bounded on either side by the life of God in flesh, and that has to make a difference for how we live our lives in the flesh.
We need God to take on flesh for us because in this world, we find ourselves “under the Law.” Paul describes what he means by “under the Law” in Romans chapter 7, when he agonizes over how he, and God’s people as a whole, “cannot do the good they want to do, but do the very things they do not want to do.” Being “under the law,” doesn’t mean the Law is bad or incorrect. It means that we lack the means or the `imagination to do what would be best a lot of the time. We find ourselves trying our best but our best is futile. I’m sure you’ve had the experience where you walk away from a situation, maybe a conversation or a conflict where you were surprised and had to think on your feet, and you find yourself saying, “I wish I’d done this instead…” Someone says something to you and you come up with the perfect come back an hour later. Hindsight is 20/20, but in the moment we often flail and say or do things that we wish we hadn’t afterwards, either overstepping or not pressing hard enough. It’s like the good is just out of our reach, just beyond our field of vision.
When Paul talks about life “under the Law” he’s talking about the futility and frustration of the kind of life we desire always being out of reach. Paul talks about the Law as a teacher and if you’ve ever had a good teacher you know that one of their jobs is correction. The best teachers critique. So whether they’re teaching writing or how to read the Bible or hit a baseball or play an instrument, a good teacher will never let you be too satisfied with yourself for too long. Which is good when it comes to learning a skill. But if that is the nature of your entire life, that everything you do is marked with red pen so that you know it needs correction, and you’re not quite sure what to improve, that is maddening. That’s life “under the Law.” Things are never quite right and we’re not sure how to fix them and even when we have an idea, we’re not able to execute it. And if that’s the situation, how do you fix it?
Another way to think about this is that life in the world is like going on a journey but you’ve fallen to the side of the path and when you get up, you find that you’ve gone blind. You have a vague sense of where you’re supposed to go, but you’re not exactly sure where you are now or how to get back on the path or which direction is the right way. And people can tell you “Go that way, I’m pointing the way for you” all they want to, but that doesn’t help at all because you’re blind.
This is what sin does to our vision. In Genesis 1, God made a world where people lived in harmony with God and with each other and with creation. They walked with God as with a friend, they were naked before each other and did not do one another harm, everyone had everything they needed from the fruit and the shade of the trees and no one did the work of death. They saw God, the saw each other, the saw creation. But the first people turned their eyes away from that vision. They took for themselves, and they protected themselves from each other, and they hid from God. They sinned and their sin brought upon all of us a confusion, a drowsiness, a stupor. They couldn’t see God, the couldn’t see each other, they couldn’t see what they needed to see in the world. You can say to us, “just live how God told us, too,” and we’ll say, “Yes, that sounds good” but what does that kind of life actually look like? How do we get back to the path when we’ve gone blind and all the directions we have rely on sight? How do we figure out the right way to go when the very problem is that we’re confused about where we are?
On Christmas, God solves this riddle. God meets us where we are. God doesn’t keep talking and pointing in ways we cannot see. On Christmas, God comes near to us in our blindness and puts a hand on ours to leads us back onto the path. We could not see, we could not hear. All we have left is touch, and so God makes it so that God can touch us. The Devil and the Powers do not want God to lead us back onto the path, and so the path will lead to the cross, for Jesus and for us, but it’s in coming near that God saves us; veiled in flesh that we can see and feel and touch, God comes to us in ways that we can find God. God opens our eyes again to the things we’d not been able to see in the double darkness of ignorance and sin. I once was lost but now I’m found, was blind but now I see! God comes in the flesh so that in the flesh we can see the invisible God, so that in our flesh we can become like God.
The incarnation saves us by joining God’s life to ours so that when we could not get out of our own way, God comes and makes a way from our life into God’s. We were slaves to sin but heirs before God, and Jesus comes to call us home, and our home is in his Body.
In Jesus, the stuff of this world can become a way into God. When we are hungry, the bread and Wine can become Christ’s Body and Blood; when we are at the end of ourselves, water can become a womb of new life; when our flesh fails, oil can anoint the sick. Because in the Incarnation God comes to meet us where we are, we, as Christ’s Body, are called to meet each other and our neighbors where we are, to let Chris play in 10,000 places. Salvation can meet us in the material details of our lives: our money, our healthcare, our politics, our homes, our cars, our food can all be places where we slip into the confusion and futility of life “under the Law” or we can ask how God might meet us in those places. The nitty gritty details of our lives can be the site of a glorious exchange where God takes on flesh and from God’s touch we take on godliness. The Incarnation means that as Christ’s Body we are called to live the life of God now in the world.
That is the gift of Christmas, my friends, that in taking on flesh, God makes it possible for us to meet God not just in our intellectual or spiritual capacities, but in the material stuff that shapes our days. God is not on the borders of existence, always and forever beyond, but in Jesus God came into the middle of our lives, even the boring details where we might not assume the God of the Universe would reside. God is with you in the little (or maybe the big) stressors and demands that don’t seem remotely “spiritual” at all, and that is precisely where God wants us to figure out how to live a different kind of life together.
That might be difficult for us to imagine now. We hear only rumors and whispers of the kind of life God wants for us. God’s life kicks and hiccups and we’re awfully uncomfortable while we wait for it. But new life is coming. May we welcome it for the gift it is. May we start preparing for that kind of life now. May we be saved by the life of Jesus, to live as Christ’s Body. Amen.
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