Below is an exerpt of a sermon that I preached during Christmas season a few years ago, which is relevant to the #progGod conversation about incarnation, so I thought I'd share it.
One common lament during the Christmas season, particularly as preached from the pulpits of Christian churches, and even at the heart of the classic Charlie Brown Christmas special, is that we’ve made Christmas too materialistic. And of course that’s true, in that we spend much too much of our time using the celebration of the birth of Christ as an excuse for the buying and spending. But in another sense, our celebration of Christmas is not materialistic enough! We dwell on the angels and the miracles, the flash, the splendor, and the lights, while forgetting that here born to a young woman in poverty, surrounded by livestock, was a small, vulnerable, and very human baby. This is how God chooses to appear to us – not clothed in glory and coming on the clouds, but swaddled in rags, born in fear and pain and blood, as all infants are. God con carne, in the flesh, the King who was promised, yet born in anonymity, obscurity, and exile. Martin Luther put it this way:
I have said this often enough and I say it again: 'Whoever would recognize God and speculate about Him without danger, should look into the crib and take good note of the Virgin Mary' son, who was born in Bethlehem. See how He lies in His Mother's lap. See how He is sucked.' Such a man will then come to realize who God is. And this realization will soon cease to be terrible, but will be precious and a source of consolation. Therefore you must beware of exalted, high-flown thoughts. Beware of using them to climb into Heaven without this ladder, that is, the ladder of Christ's humanity, as it is so simply described in the Gospel. Hold fast to this and do not allow reason to bring you away from it. This is how you will truly apprehend God.
God comes to us, in our sin, in our alienation, in our loss and grief and fear, not as a Superman, bulletproof and invulnerable to harm, but as the weakest, most vulnerable, and neediest of beings – a baby – and in coming in this form, in sharing our lot as human beings to the very smallest detail, Christ overcomes our sin, alienation, and loss. To those who grieve he says, “be comforted.” To those who fear, he says, “I am with you.” And to all of us he says, “I have come to walk with you on your journeys, to share your burdens, to be your companion – literally to share your bread; and in accompanying us in every facet of our humanity, Jesus Christ lifts from us the burden of sin, of guilt, and of death, replacing them with the knowledge that we are loved by a loving God, chosen as members of a new family, a new community, rooted in friendship and self-giving love.
The baby in the manger has come to bring us a message, a message of freedom and hope, the knowledge that God does not want to live apart from us, but longs to share with us, and in sharing, to heal the breach of sin, drawing together the bonds of reconciliation, so that we may live lives of fearless love. Bound to God, we are no longer slaves to violence. Bound to God, we are no longer slaves to consumption. Bound to God, we are no longer slaves to the principalities and powers of the world, which seek to transform us from the image of God into their own distorted image. And this is why Luther says that, in gazing at the baby in the manger, we come to realize who God is, and not to fear. In Christ, God does not negate our humanity, but fulfills and perfects it, so that we may share in the Grace of God toward all of creation. Truly the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light, the light of Jesus Christ! In him, the rod of every oppressor is broken, in him, every promise is fulfilled, through him, every yoke is lifted, and by him, the chains of hatred, war, and violence are broken so that all humankind may become one family.
There is a well-known story, about a night, a Christmas Eve, in 1914, in the first year of the First World War, when during a lull in the fighting, the German troops began decorating their trenches for the holiday, and began singing: “Stille Nacht, Heil’ge nacht,” and, from the other side of No Man’s Land, the British troops picked up the refrain, “All is calm, all is quiet,” and then the French: “Le saint couple seul veille/ Sur l'enfant qui someille.” Soon the song had been picked up and carried across the trenches throughout the battle zone, and troops began singing more carols, and shouting Christmas greetings to one another across the battlefield. Eventually, soldiers stood up, and ventured into no man’s land, to shake hands, exchange gifts, and celebrate Christmas together. As one soldier reported the event:
"I wouldn't have missed that unique and weird Christmas Day for anything. ... I spotted a German officer, some sort of lieutenant I should think, and being a bit of a collector, I intimated to him that I had taken a fancy to some of his buttons. ... I brought out my wire clippers and, with a few deft snips, removed a couple of his buttons and put them in my pocket. I then gave him two of mine in exchange. ... The last I saw was one of my machine gunners, who was a bit of an amateur hairdresser in civil life, cutting the unnaturally long hair of a docile Boche, who was patiently kneeling on the ground whilst the automatic clippers crept up the back of his neck."
The sad reality, however, is that the truce didn’t last. When the officers in the rear got wind of the truce, they sent word to both sides demanding that they begin killing one another again. And so, with final embraces and words of farewell, the soldiers returned to their trenches, and their commanders fired their pistols in the air, signaling that once again the bloodshed should commence.
It’s easy to romanticize a story such as this, just as it’s easy to be cynical about it. Our human capacity withstand the lure of evil has not expanded significantly since that night, long ago, when Mary sat suckling her newborn infant. The sad truth is that there is plenty of sin still to go around in this world, and try as we might, we are not an the road to perpetual moral and spiritual improvement.
Yes, there was a truce! But it ended. But there was a truce! For a brief moment, the soldiers on both sides saw that in Christ, there was more that bound them together than drove them a part. For a moment they saw that they were joined together in the common Christian family, sharing the same celebration, and even singing the same songs. Perhaps, limited and fallen creatures that we are, it is too much to hope that those moments might flower forth into a genuine and lasting peace, but those graced moments are glimpses of a larger truth, if only we have eyes to see it, that we are not only fallen and limited creatures, but are also children of the living God, created for love and community, destined not for the darkness, but for light.