January 8, 2017
Union University Church
Reverend Laurie DeMott
Don’t kids grow up fast? Last week, it seemed like Jesus was just a baby and today, here he is, fully grown and stepping out of the water after his baptism. The gospels don’t spend a lot of time on Jesus’ childhood and of the four, Mark is the least sentimental: he doesn’t even have a birth story to tell. The gospel of Mark literally plunges right into Jesus’ ministry here at the River Jordan. Jesus is baptized by John, emerges from the waters, the heavens are torn asunder, and God says to Jesus, “You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased.” Mark offers no explanation of how Jesus got to this point in his life; like everything else in his gospel, Mark is brief and quickly moves on.
Nevertheless, even though Mark doesn’t have a birth story, theologically, he begins in the same place as the other three gospels. They all tell it differently but each gospel opens the story of Jesus with the same proclamation: Jesus is God’s son. Luke tells it with angels and prophetic declarations; Matthew with a star leading magi to Bethlehem; the gospel of John opens with the poetry of the Word made flesh; and in Mark, Jesus stands on the banks of the Jordan River and is anointed by God’s declaration that this is God’s beloved son. All four gospels start out with the same testimony that in Jesus, God is incarnate and dwells among us.
That statement — that Jesus is God incarnate — is the foundation of the Christian faith and it is also the cause of more head scratching, argument, discomfort, debate, scholarly pondering, and even in some of the worst times of the church, bloodshed, than most anything else we might claim about our faith. Granted, there are some Christians who simply accept the statement that Jesus is God incarnate without worrying about the hows, the whys, and the wherefores of it, and if they have doubts, they counter them by saying that faith means putting aside your doubts and accepting the doctrines of the church without question. If you are one of those people, feel free to doze during the rest of this sermon because this sermon is for those of a more ornery bent who are reluctant to accept that 2000 years of church orthodoxy might be wiser than their own single brain. In other words, this is for those who have the ego to say, “If I can’t understand this doctrine — if I personally can’t make it work in my own mind — then I don’t care what the rest of the church and the rest of history has said about it. I just ain’t gonna believe it unless I can make sense of it.” And before you think I am judging those ornery egotistical people harshly, you should know that I consider myself one of them! Although I concede fully that there are many mysteries about the world and faith and God that I will never be able to understand, at the same time, I want my model of God to fit with my experience and my 21st century knowledge of how the world works because it seems to me that if our understanding of who God is can’t coexist with what we know today about the nature of reality, God is no longer truly a living God but is just an interesting historical artifact.
The gospels, however, all assert that God is alive and present among us, that God is not a museum piece but is involved in our lives, cares what happens to us, directs us to the good, and draws us toward the possibility of wholeness in God’s very presence. In fact, before we talk about the how of the incarnation, we have to understand the why of it, the reason for it. The reason for the incarnation, the gospels say, was so that God could reveal God’s self to us and we could understand both the nature of the divine God and the kind of people that God intended for us to be.
God’s involvement with us wasn’t a new idea for the gospel writers — Abraham and Sarah heard God’s voice calling to them, Moses encountered God in the burning bush — time and time again, there were what I would call incarnational moments when God revealed God’s-self to the people and in these glimpses of God, the people came to see that God is a God of loving kindness, justice, and mercy. We are so immersed in this tradition that we forget that people have not always automatically assumed that the word “God” goes hand in hand with benevolent sovereign. The word “God” in fact doesn’t communicate much at all except to say that we believe there is something greater than the human mind that exists beyond the limitations of our physical experience. That something, however, could be a dictatorial cosmic tyrant, or an impersonal energy field, or some kind of cosmic software running our lives, the stuff of Sci-Fi. Physicists have even used the phrase “mind of God” as a shorthand for the traces of energy left behind from the Big Bang, a use of the word God that bears little relevance to the way most of us sitting here in these pews think of God.
So how do we know what this thing we call God is like? We, as Christians believe that the character of God is fully expressed in the person of Jesus. We can be confident that God is not a dictatorial tyrant because we have seen God’s love, mercy, and justice acted out in real world situations by the man Jesus. And we know that God is not some impersonal force that cannot understand human pain or struggle because we believe that in Jesus, God experienced fully what it is to be human. The doctrine of the incarnation says that God and humanity met in Jesus and that testimony it is the foundation for everything that follows in the Christian faith.
There was once a little girl who was awoken in the night by a thunderstorm. She was very afraid and started crying so loudly that her father came in to see what had happened.
“The thunder is so terrible,” she weeped. “It’s scaring me.”
“It’s OK,” her father said. “It’s just a rain storm. Close your eyes and say a prayer. God will be with you.”
The thunder clapped again and the little girl said to her father, “I know that God is with me but could you stay with me too because right now I need someone with skin on.”
From the very beginning of the church, Christians proclaimed that Jesus was God “with skin on.” To look at the face of Jesus is to look at the face of God, and in Jesus we can experience the fullness of the divine self. They also agreed, however, based on the memories and testimonies of those who knew him, that Jesus was in every aspect a very real human being. This conundrum of how Jesus could be both human and divine at the same time didn’t consume a lot of the church’s energy for the first couple of hundred years because those first Christians were too busy trying to live out Christ’s call in an often hostile society to spend too much energy debating the “how” of the incarnation. Certainly people puzzled over it but it wasn’t until the 300s when the “how” of the incarnation became a focus for the church. (One could say that it was only when the persecutions by the Roman authorities finally stopped that Christians had the time to start persecuting one another over theological formulations.) Whatever the reason, in the 300s, church officials began to debate how Jesus could be both God and man, and at the Council of Nicea they developed a model of the incarnation that used the language of matter and substances. Jesus was a 100% bona fide human being, they said, but he was constituted with the same substance as God making him also 100% divine. They knew that created a paradox, but it was the best they could do with the knowledge of the time which was all based in the properties of matter, and so they developed their creeds accordingly, creeds we still say today: “I believe in one Lord Jesus Christ… consubstantial with — of the same substance as — the Father.”
Science has moved on in the last 1700 years, however, and we now know that reality is more than just matter and substance. We have learned about quantum systems in which something can exist as both a wave and a particle at the same time. We have seen the dynamic interconnections in nature and energy systems that are interdependent in ways that transcend material location. And you don’t even have to be a physicist to understand how identity can exist beyond the substance of the body. Today, philosophers describe our identity — our selfhood — not as a physical body but as a series of experiences. If you think about who you are right at this moment, you will realize that you are not just a physical body sitting in a pew but you are the summation of all of your experiences of the past, what you are experiencing in the present moment listening to me (or maybe dozing off by this time), and even your hopes for what will happen in the future (what you are hoping will be served at coffee hour when I finally stop preaching.) You are at the very same time, in that one body, sitting in that particular pew, your past, your present, and the potential of your future. You are also at one and the same time many different relationships: I am standing here in this moment as a preacher, but that doesn’t mean that my preacher self is negating in any way my self as a mother: it is still there co-existing with this minister in the pulpit. Even the death of my parents didn’t negate my identity as a daughter — those identities are all there continuing to create my selfhood and thus create the reality of who I am. Your selfhood then, isn’t locked in a substance. It isn’t defined or limited by the physical matter of your body but who you are is in a very real way — not just in an abstract metaphorical way — a dynamic flow of experiences and relationships that constitute your selfhood.
This is how I understand the incarnation. Jesus’s selfhood was fully constituted by the experience of God’s self while at the same time co-existing with the experience of being human. While we may all have moments of coming into such perfect sync with God’s will so that we experience the world momentarily as God experiences it — what we call moments of revelation or mystical union — Jesus never stood apart from God’s experience. His very selfhood was organized around that divine flow of experiences and relationships so that there was never a hiccup in the stream. Did that perfect union begin at birth as Matthew and Luke attest? Did it begin at his baptism as Mark seems to imply? Was it due to God’s choosing Jesus or was it a result of Jesus deciding to choose God? Was it something about Jesus’ brain that made him more receptive to the divine experience than any of us are capable of being — was he the Einstein of spirituality — or was it his upbringing by the faithful Mary and Joseph that opened his heart to the fullness of God’s presence, or was his soul created before time itself as the gospel John attests, making the person of Jesus a perfect coming together of God and human in time and space? I haven’t worked that part out yet! For me, however, I find a description of the incarnation grounded in the flow of experiences and relationships to be more meaningful than an insistence on a union of substance. It fits our 21st century knowledge about the world and it opens up the possibility that each of us might enter, even momentarily, that same experience of union with God’s very self. My incarnational moments will always be partial and fleeting while Christ’s incarnation was complete and perfect, but in Christ, we see the promise that God can come into our world and our lives in real ways, and in Christ, we hear God’s call to give ourselves to the presence of God, aligning ourselves with the divine experience of a holy love for others, a shower of mercy toward the lost and hurting, and grace for our own wounded souls.
I’d like to end with a poem about the incarnation that I asked Amie Acton to read at the Christmas Eve service. It’s by Godfrey Rust and it’s called, “Word.”
Sometimes words are not enough for everything we have to say.
Words can’t beat like a heart.
A verb won’t sweat or bleed.
A noun doesn’t get thirsty.
An adjective cannot feel pain.
Something gets lost
in translation into words.
So when God needed to express a love deeper than words God used body language
of a kind not known on earth before.
“And as Jesus was coming up out of the water, the heavens were torn apart and the Spirit descended upon him like a dove. And a voice came from heaven saying, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.”