The Incarnation Project

We are one week closer to Christmas – there is no turning back now – but the gospel lesson doesn’t give us Jesus; not yet.  John comes first.  The son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, born in a particular time and place into a timeless promise – one his father claims with the first words he is able to speak after a curious nine month silence.  Luke affirms that promise when the wild-eyed John emerges, fully formed, from his wilderness exile, in the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius.  Luke gives us John first – the forerunner of Jesus – because the story of John – the story of Jesus – our story as people of faith; all these are stories of preparation.

We don’t handle surprises very well – the thing that waits for us around the next corner, or past the top of the next hill is quite often dangerous, so we have learned caution; we are reluctantly patient; in life, we have learned that it pays to be prepared, and Luke’s gospel goes to great lengths to tell us what is coming.  He gives us John so we will think about Isaiah – who spoke of one who would “prepare the way of the Lord…”  Not so we could settle back into our former habits – this is no cry for “the good old days” – Luke’s treatment of the ancient story, with it’s ancient promises suggests that the “good old days” weren’t so great after all, and that the time has finally come for a new way – light in darkness, a way of peace – all images that John, and later Jesus, will claim – each in their own way.

When John first speaks for himself, he is abrasive and rude; this is no gentle teacher  He has no respect for the so called holiness of the curious crowds at the riverside.  Perhaps that is why Luke sets the stage with these particular words from Isaiah:

‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.  Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill made low, and the crooked shall be made straight and the rough ways made smooth…”

Does this “preparation” sound like a gentle process to you?

Over the last several years, I have encountered the massive construction project between Edmunston, NB and Rivière-du-Loup in Quebec.  A well-used two lane highway has been transformed over the last six or seven years.  Workers and their massive machinery have re-made the landscape; dust and dirt…and occasionally dynamite – barriers are forcibly removed so that the travelling public can have a better, and hopefully safer,  experience.  And in the construction process, while you may learn something new about the geography of a place,  what you learn most about is the stubbornness of the people in charge of the transformation.  Governments make promises, and they ensure that the people they hire for the job are capable, and if you look closely, you can see in the finished project a legacy – a statement about policy and perseverance and political will.

Isaiah’s promise – here claimed for John the Baptizer by the author of Luke’s gospel – works in a similar way.  Sure, you might learn something about John along the way –  him with his call to repentance looking forward to the “one who will come…”- but Luke means for us to recognize the power behind this transforming promise.  He means us to be dazzled by the glory of God.

For it is God, not John, who will be knocking down barriers; straightening crooked roads; levelling mountains. God has always promised that someday, the landscape would be radically altered; that every obstacle between God and humanity would be removed, and Luke’s gospel testifies that the time has finally come. In Jesus, the barriers are finally eliminated.

No more mysterious cosmic distance between God and humanity.  No more is God “up there”; God with us – Emmanuel, to borrow a word from Isaiah – is the new reality.  The theological term for this project is Incarnation: God’s self becomes flesh and blood.  This project began with a birth, which we will soon celebrate.  The final act – the point where the crowds gather and the speeches are made to praise those who ‘helped make this dream a reality – that is the real triumph.  For Incarnation is a larger than life idea.  As it turns out, Incarnation is a ‘stronger than death’ idea.  The last barrier to be destroyed is death, and praise God that Resurrection is part of God’s Incarnation project.  And that we should not be surprised, Luke’s gospel takes ancient promises and projects them into our future.  And to keep Incarnation before us, Jesus sets this table in our midst, so that we can tell the story over and over again, to the Glory of God.

We are that much closer now to the celebration of Christ’s birth.  May the Christmas season be, for us, an important reminder of the tireless work of God to remove every obstacle to our worship and devotion.  May we live as a people whose lives are informed by the Word made flesh.  Amen

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