John 1: In the beginning was the Word. And the Word was with God; and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him, and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of humanity. And the light shines in the darkness; and the darkness understood it not….He was in the world, and the world was made by him, and the world knew him not. He came unto his own, and his own received him not. But to as many as received him, he gave the authority to become the sons of God, even to those that believe on his name, who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.
I. JESUS THE DOLL
Let me tell you about Jesus. Not Jesus of Nazareth, in First Century Palestine, but Jesus the doll, just very recently, here in the United States. A demonstrably female doll, at that. She belonged to a little girl, from her second month of life on, though in fact, the doll had first been given to her brothers, age 3 and 5, to get them ready for having a baby sister. But the boys soon quickly lost interest in this doll and went back to chasing each other with sticks and whacking each other with their teddy bears. Then came their little baby sister, and the fabric female doll with the smiling feminine face sat around, unused, unwanted, un-noticed among all the clutter of family life with three pre-schoolers.
But one night this doll ended up in the baby sister’s crib for reasons that no one in the family can remember. And there she stayed, because soon the youngest baby wouldn’t go to sleep without this doll. As this little girl grew through the stages of teething, crawling, walking and beginning to talk, this doll was her constant companion, awake or asleep. Sometime around the age of two, this little girl let it be known that her doll’s name was Jesus. No one knew where that came from either. Hers was not a religious, church-attending family at the time.
By the time she was four years old, her Jesus doll was looking mighty worn, ragged and dirty. In fact, by age five, there wasn’t much left to this Jesus except the plastic head, smudged but still smiling, half its hair, and a ragged collection of fabric, stuffing and string hanging down, where the body used to be. Still, the little girl was not to be separated from her Jesus doll. Or was it the other way around? That Jesus was not to be separated from her? When it was finally time to consign the meager remains of the Jesus doll to the trash bin, the post-mortem would read, “loved to death.” Or “loved unto death.”
II. Before there was Christmas, with all its Ho-Ho-Ho (Or is that the Jolly Green Giant?) and Jingle Bells, there was the Feast of the Incarnation. “Incarnation” is just the big word that Christians have used for “became flesh,” as in “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” we read in John 1:14. The Word was with God, and the Word was God,” we read in the first verses of John. So God cared enough about us and our fallen world to send the very best, not just another prophet, not just a principle, but himself, for God is “as good as his word.”
The Word that was with God, and which is God, is, of course, Jesus of Nazareth. And that Jesus didn’t fare much better than Jesus the doll. And for the same reason: love, being loved to death, even a love unto death. He wouldn’t be separated from us, come what may, no matter how we treated him. In Christ, God not only walked a mile in our shoes, but a lifetime in our skin.
I’ve tried reading some of the works of some of the earliest Christian thinkers about the Incarnation, the best and brightest of the Fourth and Fifth Centuries who first used that word, “incarnation,” like Athanasius, Augustine and Basil the Great. But I confess that I always get bogged down and confused over the big ticket philosophical words they use like “consubstantial,” or “essence” or “persona.” But I do understand this that they said: that the Incarnation of God in Christ is…
III …THE MIRACLE AT THE SOURCE OF ALL OTHER MIRACLES OF JESUS All the big ticket blockbuster miracles of Jesus, like walking on water, or raising Lazarus from the dead, or walking out of his own tomb alive, begin with, and are made possible by, a miracle so small, so humble, so vulnerable, so easily over-lookable, so like the little drop of water in an ocean, that the world didn’t notice it: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, as a babe just as dependent, helpless as the Jesus doll. This is, first of all…
A… the miracle of presence. Sorry, kids: not “presents” as a miraculous pile of packages under our Christmas trees, but the present of being fully present, available and vulnerable to one another. Just being present may not sound all that miraculous to us, not as miraculous as, say, when God split the Red Sea, or when Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead. We think of those as blockbuster interruptions of the natural order of things, like gravity or death. But they are also revelations of what God is already doing in the world, like bringing justice or defeating death, just in a momentarily concentrated form.
So it was with the incarnation of God in Christ Jesus. It wasn’t so much that God broke into his world anew and invaded it, and then retreated when Jesus ascended to heaven. Instead, the presence of God was concentrated and revealed in a unique way in the person of Jesus, in one unique place, one unique time. But he did so in such a way as to show us that he is always and everywhere still present to anyone and everyone. Even in a wide spot in the road at the far edge of the empire, like Bethlehem, to the unknown and overlooked lot like shepherds. That makes this a miracle of love.
B. The Incarnation of God in Christ is also a miracle of size and power, but not in the way we usually think. Because anybody’s God can be big. Anyone’s God can roll up stars and planets and fling them out as galaxies across the infinite light years of time and space. That’s what gods do. Whatever we encounter in life, whatever scares us or baffles us, we reach for a God who is bigger and more powerful than those things. But how about a God who makes himself little, powerless and vulnerable? As little and powerless and dependent as a baby? A God who makes himself humble and as vulnerable as that little girl’s “Jesus doll” to the very things we fear? To me, the idea of a God who would make himself so small as to enter not only our shoes but our skin enhances the grandeur and glory of God, because it is the grandeur and glory of love, not just of power. That makes the miracle of “the Word made flesh,” bigger in scope than any other miracle, precisely because it is so much smaller and almost un-noticeable.
IV. SO WHAT DOES THAT SAY FOR US? Is our response to such love incarnate limited to worship on Christmas Eve and giving each other presents on Christmas Day?
A. Gee, can’t we do anything more than that? Or bigger than that? More striking and awe-inspiring? How about big ticket items of big programs, powerful institutions and massive cathedrals, to make a big impact on the world, a gonzo great earth-shaking change on the world? A really big splash, instead of a tiny ripple? Isn’t that how we usually measure faithfulness and relevance? By the scope of our impact and our effectiveness?
B. If so, then God failed. Oh, a few shepherds heard the news of the Savior’s coming, and a few magii showed up with gifts. But no one else, not even a junior intern from the local news station was there to record and report on the miracle of the Incarnation, “the Word become flesh” to “dwell among us.” So, the very first Christmas would be judged by today’s standards a public relations bust, a failure of communication and publicity, a tragic and terrible lost opportunity. But what the Incarnation lacked in media saturation, it more than made up for in love, in what I’ve just called, “the miracle of presence. And that, again, is a miracle to beat all miracles.
C. If being present does not sound like much of a miracle, much of a present, then the next time someone talks to you, try listening in so fully and completely and for so long without being distracted and thinking about other things and wondering, “What am I going to say next that really impresses this person, that entertains him or her, or make me look smart and capable?” Or, “What am I going to say next to devastate his argument and convince this person that I’m right and prove my point? And how soon will he be done talking, take a breath and allow me to get a word in?” Or, “How’s my breath? Or my hair? Are my glasses clean? Will this conversation be done in time for me to catch Days of Our Lives?……… Did I leave the iron on back at home? ”
In other words, Is my encounter with this person more about me or about him or her? Or will all the chattering monkeys of my ego start jumping up and down again in their trees, screaming for my attention whenever I give it to God or to someone else? The longer and the deeper we can give anyone our full attention and be fully present to them, so that we’re all about them, the more that is truly a miracle. Now compare our capacity for such presence and attention to others with a divine love that was willing not just to walk a mile in our shoes, but a lifetime in our skin. The Incarnation of God is a miracle of presence.
V. And that’s what God asks of us: A) That we learn to be ever more present and attentive to God; and B) that we learn to get out of ourselves and be ever more present and attentive to others. In other words, that we too become “incarnational,” so that 1) God’s Word comes alive in us; and 2) through compassionate presence and attention we can walk a mile in other people’s shoes, even, learn to sense something of what its like to live in their skin.
As for the first, that we learn to be ever more present and attentive to God, that’s what we’re doing here in worship. Think of this gathering as a dress rehearsal for the New Jerusalem, as sensitivity training for the presence of God, as ear training for the still, small voice that is always saying to each and every one of us, “I have called you by name and you are mine,” or “Behold, I have loved you with an everlasting love.” Think of our Bible reading as grammar and vocabulary lessons for the language of heaven. And our prayers as the time when we not only talk to God, but when we put ourselves in the place where God can talk to us.
That’s what my spiritual director is always asking me. I tell him how I’ve been doing at keeping up my prayers, and how, or not, and he always responds with, “And what has God been saying to you?” I rarely have anything concrete to say, like “God told me to go buy a new pair of shoes.” But sometimes, something that someone says, or something that I read, or some words from a hymn will strike me with a power greater than they would normally carry on their own, and then I think, “Maybe God is trying to get through to me.”
As for being truly attentive and present to others, I would remind us that that is why we are here today, why we even have faith: because someone made us a present of their presence. By their interest and attention to us, they awakened something in us that made us more open to God and to others. That, after all, is how we grow and develop: that we only thrive and grow and change for the better whenever we are loved by a love that does not need us to grow and change in order to love us more. I call such love a “hospitality of the heart.” We always need to grow and change, myself included. But we tend to resist such growth whenever we think that someone is demanding it as a condition for loving us more.
I see such “hospitality of the heart” at work whenever people say, “Oh you’ve helped me so much,” and all that anyone did was to be still and listen to them. Whenever I am being distracted from listening by the chattering monkeys of my mind yelling things at me like, “Watch the time!” or “When are you going to get X, Y or Z done?” one way I tune them out is to turn people’s words to me into mental images, so that while I’m listening, I’m not only hearing words, I’m making a movie in my mind’s eye. Or I try to read the body language and the facial expressions along with the words I’m hearing. That distracts me from the chattering monkeys of my mind.
Such love, such intentional attention is not only good for communication and relationships, it communicates the kind of love that does more to change the world than all our projects and plans put together, if they are lacking true and loving attention to God and true and loving attention to others.
VI. AND THE RESULT of letting the Word take flesh in our flesh, and of putting ourselves into other people’s skin, will be that we too will follow Jesus, yes, Jesus the Savior, but maybe also Jesus the doll. Loving and being loved, until we’ve had the stuffing loved out of us. Loving until death, and being loved to death, through death, and beyond. For that is precisely the love that showed up and took on our own skin among us, in the miracle at the fount of all miracles, a love that not only walked a mile in our shoes, but a lifetime in our skin, a love unto death, through death and beyond.