Posts Tagged ‘incarnation’

The Incarnation Project

December 6, 2015

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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The voice

January 10, 2015

In this morning’s lessons, it’s all about the voice. You know what I mean – you’ve each had a moment when, while you read or listened to Scripture being read; or while you pray; or as the credits roll on your annual viewing of “The Ten Commandments” you’ve said to yourselves, “I wonder if that’s what God really sounds like?” We may always struggle with what we learn, and what we think we know about our faith – but it boils down to the voice of God; how can I hear it? Why don’t I hear it? What should God sound like? and more importantly, what if I’ve missed it, somehow…?
The lessons set for this day seem to suggest that God’s voice would be difficult to miss…or to mistake for anything (or anyone) else. Genesis offers a glimpse into the power of God’s voice; things happen; the earth – all creation responds to the call of God; “Light”, God says, and there is light. Order, life, the seasonal mechanics and the whole of the biological catalogue; all it takes is a word from God. Genesis does not offer us definitive proof of the origins of the Universe. This book of beginnings presents (with real conviction) the character of God. We are introduced to an active, creative, intentional God, whose impulse is to know and be known by all creation. Genesis teaches us to yearn for the voice of God.
The Psalmist learned this lesson well. Look at the ‘evidence’ of God’s involvement, says Psalm 29 – look at the power in this mysterious, heavenly voice; our only response is to “Cry Glory!” and expect that our devotion might somehow grant us access to this heavenly gift of power. For all that this psalm sounds like a description of an ancient storm – full of destruction and the potential for disaster, the Psalmist leaves no doubt (in the end) that this is a display of God’s will; there is a precision and a sense of deliberate control. The voice “over the waters” reminds us that creation came from chaos too, and God is the master of all of it…
It is a different kind of chaos on the bank of the river Jordan that Mark’s gospel describes. A strangely serious man named John – fresh from the ‘wilderness’ – is welcoming one and all to confess their sins and be baptized. There is an aura of power surrounding John, for all he is dressed like a first century hippy. Mark describes him as a back to nature, locust-eating stranger who speaks of repentance and the coming Holy Spirit. There are crowds of curious people, and then all at once, there is Jesus. This is not like any Baptism we have ever experienced; there is confrontation, and perhaps some confusion – John has been hinting at the arrival of someone special; could this be him? – and then, something happens that (for Mark) marks this as a clear sign that God is, once again, at work.
Just as Jesus comes up out of the water (by now we cannot fail to make the connection…) the fabric of creation is ‘torn open’, a dove-like apparition descends on him…and that voice. It is the voice of God that ‘settles the issue’ for Mark, as he conveys the scene, and for us. A voice from heaven assures us that this is legitimate; that this otherwise strange scene just might have some lasting importance in Jesus’ life, and in the unfolding drama of our collective lives. This is an echo of that same, creative thunder that declared all things “good” in the beginning. This moment imparts a different kind of authority to all that Jesus does. and once again, we are drawn to the voice of God.
God’s voice – audible and alarming – doesn’t feature in our thinking. We speak metaphorically, or of ‘the still, small voice’ of conscience or nagging doubt. But we cling to the belief that God calls the faithful. We are called to worship; called to serve; called to share in the gritty glory of discovering and revealing God’s promises. A kingdom is coming; repentance and forgiveness are the founding principles; love and grace the currency. And it is the voice of God that draws us into this project. Not a thundering, terrifying noise from above that leaves everyone trembling – and not always a gently personalized whisper either – no it is the same voice, modulated, transposed, and transmitted by the witness of Scripture and the revelation of Jesus.
The significance of ‘the voice’ at the moment of Jesus baptism is to focus our attention on this new and different form of revelation. God-with-us, the prophet said; hard to imagine, and harder to ignore. In this promise is the hope that, even in a week filled with death and destruction, God speaks comfort, consolation and once again wills grace into the man made chaos that was the city of Paris. We may have found a different explanation for the awesome forces of nature that play themselves out in all seasons, but we can still be overwhelmed by God’s commanding counsel – in the inexplicable sense of comfort that comes when we pray or mourn or work together for good; or in the urgency that draws us together to defend justice, or dispense mercy; in the peace that comes when grace is offered to us.
The ‘voice’ made flesh draws our attention even now, inviting us to the communion table; inviting us to discover grace and do mercy and walk humbly with the one who commanded order, light and life out of chaos. Let us continue to tune our ears to God’s invitation, and may we give thanks to God for that voice that calls us from chaos to something better.

“Who’s that on the beach…?” – John 21: 1-14

May 11, 2014

Once again, John’ gospel offers a different perspective on a scene that sounds familiar. Frustrated fisherman – hours on the water and nothing to show. Jesus on the beach; is it Jesus? They can’t tell – they are not fully convinced – but someone on the beach suggests they “shoot the net to starboard” suddenly, everything changes. More fish than they can manage. Shouts of recognition from Peter. The mood of the expedition is lifted, and they make for the beach – they are drawn to the presence of Jesus.
Luke’s gospel tells a similar story – the great catch of fish results in Peter, James, John and their companions “abandoning ship” and joining Jesus crowd of disciples. The impulse in John’s gospel is the same. Their loss has left them without purpose – they have, in their grief and confusion, returned to the sea (with no success) – but Jesus presence opens them to other possibilities.
I’ve often struggled with the idea of “Jesus present with us”. I’m a practical person who understands the theological principle of presence, but Jesus has never “taken me by the hand” or “carried me along the beach”. I accept that these are wonderful metaphors for a life of faith, but I am more often met with situations in peoples lives that suggest the absence of God. While it is true that often means we have turned our backs on God, or refused to recognize Jesus offer of companionship, far more often I am faced with the question “ where was God?” when tragedy takes centre stage, or hope seems all but lost.
Presence suggests touch and sight and sound – shared laughter; genuine tears – we want comfort and encouragement in the first person, not by proxy. And so these earnest fishermen find Jesus, making breakfast, offering suggestions, calling them back to the tasks his teaching had prepared them for.
What does it mean for Jesus to be present? How can we experience that same feeling – a sense of purpose and mission that comes from the conviction that God is in control; that God’s promises can be trusted; that the future is in God’s care? We can’t share lunch on the beach with Jesus. I can’t put my hand on his scars; I can’t tell the difference between my own determination and God’s promised strength when the going gets tough and the burdens of service are overwhelming. How can we know it is Jesus?
I expect it is different for each of us – as it was for his disciples. For Peter, Jesus is the guy that gets him out of the boat – even before the boat has made land. For me, Jesus presence is the thing that allows me to think differently – to see possibilities instead of problems. And those “thought problems” bring me into the presence of people (the church) whose experience of Jesus is different than mine; and together, we offer comfort and encouragement; touch and sight and sound – presence in the first person. And Jesus is among us.
In a tradition full of mystery, the mystery of our message is the most perplexing. We are given the Gospel – Good News that says Jesus reward for enduring a brutal death is somehow our reward too. Our message suggests that somehow, Jesus torture and death were necessary for our salvation, and that by the power of the Holy Spirit, the Risen Jesus is always present with us, helping us to untangle the knotty problems that come from pledging ourselves to God’s service. But the truth is that Jesus death and resurrection MUST CHANGE the way we see and experience the world around us. Jesus life and death stand as proof that hatred is pointless – that power is fleeting – even sacred institutions must be held accountable and occasionally challenged (or ignored). And Jesus death and resurrection teach us something else – that love activates life – enthuses and energized – leads us in new directions with clear purpose. Love becomes real, and present and eternal in Jesus Christ. God’s message takes flesh and walks among us, even now, two thousand years on. And that presence changes everything, every time. Amen.

question Incarnation…(John 1: 1-9)

January 2, 2014

The questions that follow our Christmas celebrations are quite often harmless –

“How were your holidays?” we ask when we meet;

or “Did you finish your left-over’s? (or start your diet)”

and (in the right company, some can be heard to remark.

“wasn’t that a good crowd on Christmas eve?”

(though there is nothing harmless about a rhetorical question, no matter what the subject)

 

 

 

December is not typically a time for deep questions in the church (or beyond the church) –

we shop without thinking, eat without a care for the consequence,

worship with a kind of frightening intensity

but we really don’t want our opinions challenged, or our traditions set aside.

Christmas in the church should leave us with a question, however.

One of the fundamental questions of our faith, in fact, comes directly from the story of the Nativity.

All our carols, our Scriptures, our sense of wonder at the arrival of God in the body of a child

(for that is what we proclaim with the Christmas Gospel lessons)

All these things should prompt us to ask why.

Why was this flesh-and-blood step part of the revelation of God in the first place?

What is the point of an “Incarnate Deity”?

 

We may be more inclined to ask this question at Easter –

when we have heard again the story of Jesus trial (so called),

execution, death and resurrection.

In those circumstances, it is only natural to ask why God couldn’t have found a better way.

At Christmas, the horrors of Holy week are not a pressing concern,

and Incarnation seems innocent,

but we know better.

What we call innocence – in the young and helpless Christ child – is really something else.

Newborn children are fully dependent on their parents –

and dependent is not one of the qualities that we associate with God.

 

To move and live among us, God has been given over to us –

Jesus is at the mercy of our humanity.

 

Incarnation leaves God vulnerable – Incarnation imagines a weakness in the character of God –

And in turn we are offered a chance to address our own weakness and vulnerability.

For you see, when God is no more than an all powerful, super-distant, dispenser of cosmic prizes

We relate to God in two ways: as recipients of God’s favour, or victims of God’s wrath.

You show no weakness to someone who has that kind of power over you.

 

 

But when “…the Word became flesh and lived among us…”

as John’s prologue goes on to say,

We see, not just God’s glory, but also God’s compassion.

John’s gospel speaks in mystical terms about life and light;

About the Logos – the word – that carries all the creative and redemptive power of God,

But in the end, John describes Jesus;

a flesh and blood representative of the whole divine package.

There is none of the new-born innocence found in Luke,

But there can be no doubt that John believes

God has made a statement of solidarity with us by choosing ‘frail flesh’.

And when we consider what this might mean – that Jesus is not just the gift of God, but “God with us” – we must make a choice.

Can we offer our own weakness to the One who put strength and power aside?

Can we trust the God who stoops to serve?

Dare we put ourselves at the mercy of God, who trusted himself to us in Jesus…?

I believe – especially at Christmas –

with the image of God as a child fresh in our minds –

that the only answer is yes.

 

For it is clear that he did not come to help angels,

 but the descendants of Abraham.  (Hebrews 2: 16)

Easter 2 C – Incarnational

April 10, 2010

This week, my status as a technological dinosaur was confirmed.

While replacing my cell phone, whose contract had expired, I made the mistake of asking for “just a phone” – not a camera – not a mini computer with a full ‘texting’ keyboard not a combination GPS – web-browsing – book-reading smart phone – just a phone.   The sales rep gave me a look of combined shock and sympathy.

I don’t mind being a dinosaur – it doesn’t mean I’m anti-technology; (I have a cell phone, don’t I?)

I can run a computer, and I appreciate the internet for what it is – a big distraction with occasional bits of useful information, through which I can do my banking, order books and book flights and hotel rooms and rental cars.

No, my resistance to a technological takeover is theological.  I don’t believe God is anti-technology either – any more than God is anti-industrial, or anti-recreation – my theological argument boils down to one word – Incarnation.

Incarnation is a big deal as far the Christian Church is concerned- you might say it sets us apart from the crowd – for God chose to appear – in the flesh, as we understand it – in the person of Jesus, whom we call The Christ.

Having tried several other applications – burning bush, pillar of fire, thunderous heavenly voice, badly dressed desert prophets – God ultimately chose to ‘take a meeting’, and that has made all the difference for us.  Incarnation is what makes the church different from the culture – especially this culture, that has come to believe that technology can make everything (including relationship) simpler and better.

Now, I have encountered people in on-line forums with whom I have had meaningful dialogue.  I have reconnected with classmates, caught up on the news, discussed and debated the state of the church.  But none of these things, in the end, are as satisfying as a meeting over lunch, or a conversation shared in the course of an otherwise tedious road trip.

Nothing beats seeing the look of discovery on a friend’s face when you tell them your good news; there’s no gift like an encouraging smile when you share your dreams, or confront your fears with someone you’ve come to trust.

That is the gift that the disciples receive on this day, in that locked room.  The technology of their world, rough as it might seem to our advanced eyes, has been turned against them.  They are no longer welcomed in the usual social circles.  In the eyes of the world they are accomplices, not apostles.  They are isolated and afraid, and rightly so, when Jesus comes into their midst.

Yet He would banish their fears by being with them.  He will set their minds at ease by showing them his reality – letting them touch and wonder.  He will do this as long as it is necessary – one week later, for Thomas, he offers the same solution.

That personal contact and gathering together – to share the good news that all is not lost – to remember the world has not conquered – becomes the hallmark of the followers of Christ – the backbone of the Christian church.  The church remains different because we share this passion for personal contact.  Because we insist on gathering together, sometimes in fear (though rarely with the doors locked these days) so that we might see and believe that Jesus is raised – that hope is not lost – that God is with us.

In an article in the Christian Century (discovered on-line) on the importance of Incarnation throughout the story of Jesus, Margaret Geunther writes:

“Jesus’ appearance in the midst of his frightened friends is a story of incarnation, and reminds us that God came and comes among us, experiencing and loving our humanity. We are aware of this at Christmas, when we hear that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” Then the churches fill, and even nonbelievers are drawn instinctively by the powerful image of God coming among us in the perfection, loveliness and vulnerability of a baby. Yet Good Friday is about the incarnation too. Jesus on the cross is an icon of suffering, a powerful statement about the flesh and particularly about its terrible vulnerability. His Passion reminds us of our almost infinite capacity to inflict and suffer hurt. Easter comes as a real relief from the uncomfortable physicality of Good Friday…He still comes in everydayness. He still says: see my hands and my feet. Don’t avert your eyes from my wounds out of politeness or disgust. Look at them. Put your finger here. Don’t be afraid. Remember the incarnation. I came among you first in human flesh–flesh that can be hungry and fed, flesh that can be hurt, even killed. Flesh that can embody God’s love.” i

We can’t have this experience on-line.  There is no application – no phone smart enough – to convey that sense of peace and assurance that we get when we gather together, to remind one another of God’s activity among us.

Gathered as a body of believers, the wounded, risen body of our Saviour is made real to us.  Only then can we find the courage we need to face the world for whom he died and was raised.

Amen

iMargaret Guenther “Mediated through the flesh – John 20:19-31 – Living by the Word – Column“. Christian Century. FindArticles.com. 10 Apr, 2010. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m1058/is_n12_v112/ai_16847106/