Sunday, December 27, 2015

What Happens When Christians Abandon the Incarnation?

December 27, 2015 – The First Sunday after Christmas Day
© 2015 Evan D. Garner
Audio of this sermon can be heard here.
The message of Christmas is a radical message. It’s more than just a story of God choosing to come and live among us. In Christmas, we are asked to believe that God would stop the usual order of things and break through in a real, meaningful, history-altering, earth-shattering sort of way. Christmas is the story of the immutable God uniting himself to humankind so that humanity might be forever changed. It’s a moment from the past, but it’s a moment that is still real here in the present and that calls us into a new and different future—one that we cannot take for granted. Christmas is dangerous, and I don’t want it to come and go without urging you to take it seriously.

Every year, as I prepare a Christmas Eve sermon, my belly turns yellow, my feet get cold, and I chicken out. I read those profound lessons of the prophet Isaiah’s vision of the peaceable kingdom and Paul’s clear word to Titus of how Jesus Christ came to “redeem us…and purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.” I watch as Mary and Joseph huddle in a lowly stable where, of all places, God chooses to show up and enact his transformation of the world. And, emboldened by those words, I want to climb into the pulpit and say that we cannot let Christmas go by without allowing our hearts to be caught on fire with the passion that God has for the poor and weak and downtrodden and those who advocate for peace and justice and tolerance. But then I remember that half of the congregation we see on Christmas Eve is unfamiliar to us. They come to church just one time each year, and they yearn for a message of hope and comfort and peace—not the fiery words of an impatient prophet. And I give in and chicken out.

But guess what! Christmas isn’t over yet. And today, just two days after we all tore open our presents and warmed our hearts with good cheer and filled our stomachs with good food and good wine, the only people who come to church are the die-hard faithful. Pat yourselves on the back. You’re here; well done. And you might appreciate that affirmation in a few minutes because this is going to be a Christmas sermon that doesn’t hold anything back.

We live in a broken world. We live in a world where children are starving while the rest of us indulge our appetites for excess. We snuggle on the couch and watch the Christmas special while, on another channel, unseen images of violence unfold in a far-away place. We inhabit a society that abhors mass shootings but refuses to do anything about it. We sleep comfortably in our homes while refugees are being turned away in droves. And what have we done about it? What have you done about it?

I think that most Christians have forgotten to take the Incarnation seriously. We’ve fallen into the trap of failing to distinguish between the doctrines of our faith and the wisdom of the secular world. Jesus has become to us a great teacher and a wise leader and a holy example. We teach our children to “be more like Jesus.” And even though the phenomenon has faded—and thank God it has—we still navigate our lives with the false moral compass of “What would Jesus do?” But Jesus isn’t your eighth-grade history teacher or your grandmother or your Cub Scout leader. Jesus did not come to earth to teach you a better way to live. He came to earth to show us who God is and what God’s dream for the world is really like. And, until we remember what it means to worship the God-become-Flesh, the precepts of Christianity will continue to be “wise words” that sound like a good idea but never get any traction in our lives or in the world…because, let’s be honest, what does it matter if we disappoint our Cub Scout leader or ignore our grandmother’s good advice? Until we stop thinking of Jesus as a moralistic teacher and recognize him as the Incarnate Son of God, we’ll continue to shrug our shoulders and think, “Oh well, maybe things will get better tomorrow.”

As John wrote with no small sense of irony, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” Two-thousand years ago, when Jesus was a walking, talking, breathing, preaching missionary, very few people wanted to hear his message. Those who did were those who had already been rejected by people in positions of power and authority—the poor, the outcast, the downtrodden. Jesus taught that God’s way was to take the weakness of the world and raise it to strength while scattering the haughty and pulling the lofty down from their seats. And, if you’re sitting on a high-perched throne, that’s not good news. So, as John wrote of Jesus, “He came to his own, but his own people did not accept him.” To the people of his day, Jesus was just a radical with a radical message. He was a threat to the status quo, so the religious authorities did what anyone with power would do when that power was threatened by an illegitimate upstart like Jesus. They got rid of him. They rejected him and his words and got rid of him once and for all by executing him on the cross.

But Jesus wasn’t an illegitimate upstart. He was God in the flesh. He was and is the Incarnate Son of God. And God cannot be defeated—not even by the tragedy of the cross. In response, God showed forth his true power by reversing the tide and raising the dead and thus revealing to us that Jesus is more than a preacher worth listening to. He is God. And his vision for the world is God’s vision for the world. And those who reject it or ignore it or shrug their shoulders and brush it aside are not only dismissing the wisdom of a sage but are turning our backs on God himself. And that is precisely what we as the religious establishment have done. Our apathy when it comes to making the kingdom of God a reality in this world is our indictment. My cowardice, when it comes to preaching the prophetic message of the gospel, is my own. In our inaction, we are no different from those who nailed Jesus to a cross two thousand years ago.

And we’ve done so for the exact same reasons: because we don’t like what Jesus has to say and don’t think it really matters. We think that, if we just ignore the parts of the gospel we don’t like and water down the rest, we can still call ourselves Christians. But we cannot pick and choose when it is God himself who is speaking to us! By letting go of the fullness of the Incarnation, we’ve stopped being Christians. Instead, we’ve become Jesus-minded moralistic deists—those who think that God exists and that Jesus of Nazareth taught us some important things about how God wants us to live. We have abandoned the Incarnation. We have given up on Christmas. We have stopped believing that who Jesus was—what he taught and how he lived and died—is more than just a godly example worth learning about; it is who God is and what God wills for our lives and for the world…without exception.
So what will we do about it, you and me? What will we do about gun violence and poverty and addiction and war and disease and police brutality and pollution and greed? What will we do? Will we accept that Jesus Christ—the Word-become-Flesh—is the fullest revelation of who God is and what God desires? Will we acknowledge that we cannot ignore God who is with us as if he were merely the teacher du jour? If we believe that Christmas is worth celebrating, we must allow the Incarnation to grab ahold of us and change us. We must see that who Jesus is is who we must become. He is the light that shines in the darkness. Our hope, as Queen Elizabeth said in her Christmas Day speech, is found in our ability to see that the darkness has not overcome it. Will we walk in the light, or will we stumble in darkness? What will we do? For my part, I have decided to start allowing the sharp edge of the gospel to come through in my sermons—even on Christmas Eve. What about you? What will you do to make Jesus the Incarnate word the light of your life?

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