“Incarnation and the Sixth Sense”
Jonesborough Presbyterian Church
Christmas Eve Service
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. 2This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria. 3All went to their own towns to be registered. 4Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he was descended from the house and family of David. 5He went to be registered with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.6While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. 7And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.
8In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. 9Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified.
10But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people:11to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.12This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”
13And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying, 14“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!”
15When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.”
16So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger.17When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child;18and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 19But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. 20The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.(NRSV)
Only Luke writes an infancy narrative. And he sets the scene with a poet’s craft: An unusually crowded inn in the backwater, everyone-knows-your-business town of Bethlehem. A manger with wood rubbed dark and smooth by the moist, leathery snouts of livestock. Sweet-scented hay, and the pungent warmth of manure. A rag-swaddled newborn. A mother trembling from exhaustion. Curious shepherds creeping in from the dark, as if they, too, are some kind of livestock. And Joseph.
Luke places the hearts, minds, and bodies of his readers in a particular place, and in a very specific, yet eternal, moment. In this transforming moment, what could beis stronger and more compelling than what is, or at lease what seems to be. In this moment, one is enlivened by wonder and possibility.
Life is full of such moments. Imagine standing on a beach with the sun slipping behind sand dunes, sea oats, and a stand of gnarly-branched maritime oak trees. At the same time, in front of you, a full moon rises over the darkening waters of the ocean. Everything you can see, the moon, its long, tinseled reflection glittering on the waves, the light rising softly from the sand and off the face of the person you love next to you, everything, every bit of it, is the gift of that one star disappearing below the horizon. You don’t just see your surroundings in the light of the sun. You are alive to see them, and they are alive and present to you because of that one sustained, thermonuclear explosion 93 million miles away. Without thatsun, you would not exist, nor would the sea oats, or the sandpipers, or the nightmarish dragonfish prowling the cold and lightless depths 4000 feet below the ocean’s surface.
Let the mind-bending possibility of non-existence draw you into the reality of yourself in that moment. Feel the sand. Taste the salt spray. Smell the fertile rot of seaweed. Hear the waves breaking. Look out at the ancient ocean teeming with billions of years of life and death. Add to that ocean a million bodies your size, and the tide wouldn’t rise any higher than it does right now. And in every direction from which you might look from anywhere on earth, the infinite universe surrounds you. In the midst of that incomprehensible expanse, there you are. And as tiny as you may feel, you do exist. So, call it what you will, but some Reality has given you form and consciousness. And since you and all you can see exists, what else is possible?
In his book Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Richard Louv quotes a rabbi named Martin Levin, who says that “to be spiritual is to be constantly amazed.” Levin says that the renowned 20th-century Jewish teacher Abraham “Heschel would encourage his students to get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually.”1
Part of living in a state of amazement is a personal and un-mediated awareness of our whole selves and the world around us, and an intentional receptiveness to possibilities that lie beyond the mundane – and even more importantly, within it. To those who are willing to be amazed, willing to live in states of wonder and delight, even something as common as a sunset, or as simple as the graceful dance of sea oats in the evening breeze holds marvels by which to be inspired and renewed.
The Spirit dangles Luke’s infancy narrative in front of us like the proverbial carrot. It’s a teaser that appeals to the fundamental reality of our physical existence, because the story Luke is telling is the story of the Incarnation – the enfleshing – of God. In Jesus of Nazareth, God – who is the Love, the Energy, the Substance, the Breath out of which existence arises – declares that God not only creates all that we see, hear, touch, smell, and taste, God personally participates in the Creation.
Paradoxically, the Incarnation is also a transcendent reality. It’s more than any single event, and it’s more than any human language can describe or define. And yet our faith claim declares that God is as real as a child—in a manger—in Bethlehem—in a harried, crowded, Caesar-smothered world.
It’s fitting, then, that in Luke the announcement of Jesus’ birth comes not to wealthy and powerful people, but to shepherds. Shepherds may have been an uneducated, coarse, and crude lot, but because they were also people who lived close to the earth, they represented those whom the world often avoids and forgets – the poor, the sick, the grieving, the abused – all who live inseparably connected to and aware of physical reality and all its challenges and injustices—and beauty.
Maybe the shepherds also represent not just certain individuals, but some essential, God-imaged part of each of us, that self who will stand beneath a night sky, watching and listening, and embracing the possibility that there is more to experience than reason acknowledges.
The Incarnation of God in Jesus “stories” us into to us a kind of sixth sense – a spiritual perception, the knowing of that which cannot be known except through speechless wonder and awe.
Herein lies our wholeness, our holiness, and our hope: Declaring God’s immediate presence in the created order, the Incarnation reaffirms the fundamental goodness and Belovedness of all things. So, Jesus redeems not because he mollifies an angry God, but because he restores our physical, spiritual, intellectual, emotional, and perceptual wholeness.
To celebrate Christmas is to stand on this earth, as it spins around the sun, at some random place the midst of the universe, and hear God saying, in thoroughly incarnate language: I created you. I love you. I love all of you. And I love all of each of you.
1Richard Louv, Last Child in the Woods: Saving our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 2006. pp. 285-286.
*To read sermons, newsletters, and other posts from earlier years, please visit: https://pastorallentn.blogspot.com