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Merry tenth day of Christmas! Lords a leaping, I believe. Forgive me for dragging us back to Christmas. You can put on your Christmas music if that helps.
Most of the time sermons don’t leave a memorable impression. That’s okay. Sermons are more weekly sustenance than enduring landmarks. Sometimes a sermon is so wonderful it leaves a lasting memory. Some are even life-altering. And sometimes a sermon is so bad, so disturbing, you can’t forget it either.
So it is for a Christmas sermon I heard years ago. I half wonder if my imagination has made it worse over the years, if I’ve only remembered the bad parts, distorted it into a bad caricature of itself. The preacher himself wasn’t a bad guy, if only a mediocre preacher.
As I recall the point was that while Christmas was celebrated on earth, it was a day of sadness and sorrow in heaven. The heavenly host grieved that the beautiful and eternal Word was sent off to this terrible, stinking, ugly place called earth. The Father took the Son out for a long walk, painfully explaining that “it was a tough job, but somebody had to do it.” The Son dutifully said, “I’ll go.”
I understand the point the preacher was trying to make. The incarnation involved sacrifice. Perhaps the earliest expression of the incarnation we have, the Kenotic hymn in Philippians 2, emphasizes Christ Jesus’s humility, self-emptying, becoming like a slave, and obedience unto death.
I don’t want to give short-shrift to Jesus’s suffering. To be human is to suffer. Jesus’s crucifixion is the focal point of the incarnation. I’m not opting for a shallow and sunny picture, where the incarnation was something like a long visit to a resort in the tropics.
Still…when we hit so hard the suffering and “born to die” themes of the incarnation, we give rise to that all-too-common notion that God may love us, but certainly God does not like us (to borrow from James Alison); the fussy God who endures us more than embraces us. God saves us, but not without a roll of the eyes and a deep sigh of disgust. God is a bit like the exasperated parent, yelling down the stairs to the rambunctious kids in the basement, “Don’t make me have to come down there!” Finally, Jesus, holding his nose and recoiling at the awfulness of it, groans with grim resignation. “Well, somebody has to do it.”
In the middle ages, scholastic theologians debated whether or not Jesus would have come to earth if there had been no sin. I realize that sounds only slightly more important than how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Debating hypotheticals tends not to amount to much. And I really don’t know the background or players in this debate.
But my sympathies are with those who said, “Yes!” Christ’s incarnation would have happened regardless. If we see the incarnation only as a makeshift salvage operation, God sending in the ultimate relief pitcher because the game seems to be getting out of hand, then we under appreciate God’s deep love and desire for fellowship with all creation. Yes, of course, Christ comes to save us. But doesn’t Christ also come because of a profound divine longing to be among God’s creatures? If we see the incarnation as the aim of God’s creation, what God, from all eternity, desperately wanted to do, then we are closer to the message of Christmas.
I’ve always loved the part of the creation story where God walks in the garden in the cool evening breeze. A passage from Revelation 21 is equally tender to me. I often read it at funerals. As the New Jerusalem descends from heaven, a voice booms from the throne, “Look, the home of God is among mortals.” In these passages don’t we catch a glimpse of the heart of God?
God’s loving desire is to be with us. That is how it began. That is how it will end. And in the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, that is what happened. Jesus loves our company and is eager to be with us. Good News of great joy!
Cover art: Manger and Cross, Beate Heinen