The grace of God has appeared
Isaiah 9:2-7, Titus 2:11-14, Luke 2:1-14, (15-20)
Christmas brings to mind many images. One such image for me is literally a photograph. In this picture there are four people. It’s me and Jenn and my two brothers Phil and Zach. The four of us are in the basement of my parent’s house dressed in wildly bright and outlandish clothing looking rather enthusiastic. My brother Phil is wearing a one-piece jumpsuit that is such a bright red that it was actually difficult to look at. We had just finished a Christmas dress-up contest that my mother had contrived.
The second such image is more a series of Christmas’s that included a specific tradition. When my cousins and I were young my mother’s siblings began having us kids act out the Christmas story. Early on this was a fun but somewhat under control event. As we got older and got past our begrudging compliance of middle school we began to embrace this practice with zeal and maniac energy. This came to a climax a few years back with my wearing floppy ears and being one among a growing herd of animals and my now 6 ft bearded brother being baby Jesus.
These images are deep with meaning. The first picture includes my memories of this basement being unfinished and my riding around as a small child running my little car into the Styrofoam on the walls so that I would leave prints of the headlights. It includes memories of meeting Jenn and her eventual becoming part of my family. Memories of my little (now bigger than me) brother needing to be carried out of the Grand Canyon on my shoulders.
When we re-read the Christmas story of Jesus’ birth we may think of earlier Christmases– We think of our own experiences—we think of Christmas story which is after all a story. The Christmas story is the birth story of a person. In the same way my pictures carry histories of families so to the original Christmas story carries histories behind the individuals and communities who are part of this story. Of Mary and the nation of Israel and Mary’s mother or uncle or grandmother. Through our texts—through the scriptures—we have a basic picture of this story of Jesus’ birth.
We, however, not only know that this baby is Jesus—we know the rest of the story. It is hard for us to see the story as it is because we know the rest of the story. When we read at Christmas it is hard not to see Easter. Actually the lectionary—the calendar of scriptures to be read each Sunday that the church has compiled—seems to encourage us to take the view of Jesus outside what we read today in Luke—that of Mary, Joseph, Jesus, the shepherds, and angels.
The Isaiah passage, written long before the birth of Jesus is now understood to be speaking of the coming of Jesus.
2 [a] The people who walked in darkness
have seen a great light;
those who lived in a land of deep darkness—
on them light has shined.
……6 For a child has been born for us,
a son given to us;
authority rests upon his shoulders;
and he is named
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
Similarly, the inclusion of the Titus reading brings an understanding of Jesus’ purpose to bear on the birth narrative.
11 For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all,[a]12 training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, and in the present age to live lives that are self-controlled, upright, and godly, 13 while we wait for the blessed hope and the manifestation of the glory of our great God and Savior,[b] Jesus Christ. 14 He it is who gave himself for us that he might redeem us from all iniquity and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.
Reading this along with the birth changes things. Apparently this ain’t a normal birth.
What if, however, we forgot what happened to this baby and assumed that it was just a story of a baby that is born in the unsterilized setting of a barn? What if we didn’t expect redemption and thought just of the 1000s of children and mothers who die in similar inadequate situations? The People’s commentary notes that important thing for Luke is that Jesus who we eventually know as the Christ was born. The wonder working death overcoming Jesus, the Messiah, the one who comes to be called “the Christ.” The Salvation of the world—This same one was born. This third person in the Trinity was born. As a theologian has written “God was in the belly of Mary.”
In the early years of the Church it was decided that the four Gospels we now have in our New Testament would be accepted as the Cannon–the authoritative texts in our thinking about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.
There are four Gospels which tell the story of Jesus. Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. Mark doesn’t even mention Jesus being born but jumps directly to his third decade when he appears on the scene beginning his ministry. John talks of the Word coming, that this Word was Jesus and that this Word relates to light coming. The first chapter of John deals in poetic theological reflections on the coming of Jesus but omits the logistical details such as birth. Matthew tells of Jesus’ birth and early years. This birth narrative is where we see the wise men.
Luke, where our text comes from gives something. In our passage …..
Mary is pregnant. There is a census which is set by the occupying force to control the people. The birth of Jesus occurs but with minimal details—in a barn because the hotel was full. Angels appear to the shepherds—the uncouth looked down upon somewhat transient laborers. The angels then come in force proclaiming “Peace on earth.”
Jesus was born–The grace of God appeared.
We began to call this the incarnation. The coming of Jesus, the incarnation, is an affirmation of our humanity. We are not merely souls trapped in bodies. We are these bodies. These bodies are part of our redemption.
The grace of God appeared
We typically think of the life of Jesus as significant for how we live our lives. We note his teachings about loving enemies, and giving without bragging, and the need to have pure hearts in our worship of God. The Church of the Brethren has summed this up in “Continuing the work of Jesus: Peacefully, simply, together.”
What however, is the practical—or lived significance—of Jesus coming?
We could spend from now until Christmas Day trying to describe the incarnation but I want to ask the perhaps more difficult question—how does the incarnation practically affect our lives. We talk of following Jesus’ way, following his teaching and life but is there any practical implication for us from his coming—from the incarnation?
As most of you know I work in the Church of the Brethren’s Washington DC office…we have named the office the Office of Public Witness—many offices in DC traditionally are primarily concerned with legislation and the government. We however, perhaps primarily because we are such a small denomination with such a small budget and such a small staff, have discerned that I should not focus exclusively on what is happening on the Hill or at the State Department but that our public witness must entail all aspects of what it means for us to “seek to live the peace of Jesus publically.” More specifically our public witness is not just me running around talking to people or doing good things.
We advocate for policies to address poverty and hunger while on the Hill. We also feed hungry people as a church. We also eat with hungry people.
The theology of the incarnation says that the divine has come to us in human form. This is true human. In the book of Philippians we read that Jesus emptied himself by taking on human form. Though taking a human form was an addition it happened as an emptying or perhaps a limiting. Jesus, the incarnate, got hungry, tired, ended up killed on a tool of torture—the cross. So the incarnation for us sounds like the showing up of God—In John 1 in the Message translation it states that Jesus “moved into the neighborhood.”
In 1 Corinthians we read that we, the followers of Jesus, are the Body of Christ. After Jesus’ departure we become the Body of Christ.
We are now the body of Christ.
We now bring the grace of God. The grace of God appeared. If the grace of God is going to continue to appear it will be through us. We may certainly be confronted with the grace of God in others—we will be confronted with the grace of God in others but we cannot rely on this, thinking that someone else will take care of the grace-manifesting. Our responsibility is for ourselves, for our community. We are called to make this grace manifest. The Apostle Paul states that we are the Body of Christ. In Christ’s absence we are Christ—we are God’s grace.
This Christmas let us not only give gifts which were made in a factory far far away– let us give ourselves.
I am going to end by suggesting three ways for us to begin imagining and acting out incarnational ministry in the New Year.—I don’t typically make New Year’s resolutions but it felt like a good thing for us to do. As we celebrate 120 years of existence as a particular manifestation of the Body of Christ in District Jeff has noted that this is a good time to both celebrate and renew ourselves. These suggestions may seem outlandish—in the face of aging building and 10 to 20 people here this might seem like too much. We however, are called to be a hopeful people so here goes…
Resolution #1 Get to know immigrant sisters and brothers.
As many of you know, I had the good fortune to represent the Church of the Brethren at two major international events this fall—The World Council of Churches General Assembly in South Korea and the Religions for Peace World Assembly in Vienna, Austria. At the first of these events I bought a book “From Times Square to Timbuktu.” In this book the author laid out the dramatic shifts that have happened in world Christianity. Not only has the weight of the global Church shifted south and east but much of the church in the west and north is now in close proximity with immigrants and immigrant churches. The greater DC area, for example, has 250,000 Ethiopians—that’s the highest urban concentration of Ethiopians outside of Ethiopia’s capital Addis Ababa. To live the incarnation we should know these folks.
I personally commit as a member and minister of WCCOB to seek out and get to know some of these immigrant brothers and sisters in 2014 as an act of incarnational ministry.
Resolution #2. Hold a Love feast at this church —on the last evening that Jesus spent with his disciples he shared the Passover meal with them. We do this as a way to live out Jesus fellowship and example of service through washing feet and eating a meal together.
Resolution #3—Begin to think about planting a Church.
Earlier this year Jenn and I attended an interfaith Iftar at the US Department of Agriculture. An Iftar is the meal after sunset during the Muslim observance of the month of Ramadan. We were at a table with a number of USAID employees who happened to have grown up in church. They began asking about the Church of the Brethren—as we described the main features of the COB one of them said—“your church must really be growing.”—your church must really be growing. We have received a gift. The gift of Jesus coming to be with us. We have received the gift of this heritage and church that seeks to follow this Jesus.
I believe we should not just think of our small numbers. I believe we should not just think of surviving and maybe gathering strength. I believe we should also have the audacious vision to think about planting a second church in the District of Columbia where we can make the grace of God manifest to even more people.
Now I know we get tired and many of you have given more than your share of life and energy to making this church continue on. These suggestions are not for the purpose of making us feel guilty or adding yet one more burden to the overburdened. These are for the purpose of considering what does it mean for our congregation to live incarnational ministry—to help the grace of God to appear in our community.