Friday, January 1, 2010

A Messy, Risky, Dangerous Business

Calvary Lutheran Church, Bemidji, MN
January 3, 2010/Christmas 2/Installation of Pr. Andrew Ronnevik
John 1:1-18

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

The geniuses who have put together our lectionary want to make sure that we ponder this first chapter of St. John’s gospel….not just once, but 2-3 times every Christmas season.

So pastors need to keep coming up with fresh language to unpack this ancient, venerable text.

This past week, as I realized it would be my turn to preach once again on John chapter one, a phrase popped into my head: Think globally. Act locally.

If you’ve been paying attention, you’ve probably heard that phrase before—maybe even used it. “Think globally, act locally” has been around for some forty years—applied to realities as varied as urban planning, environmentalism, education, business and even mathematics.

Think globally. Act locally.

Isn’t that what God was doing when the Word became flesh and lived among us? Wasn’t God “thinking globally and acting locally?”

In a way, that’s true of course. God had a global purpose in mind when God sent his Son down, down, down to the manger in Bethlehem—when God “acted locally” for us and for our salvation.

But as I pondered this popular phrase, I realized that while it “sort of” speaks to what God was up to, it is nevertheless inadequate for describing, let alone defining what we Christians mean by the Incarnation--not because this phrase says too much, but because it says too little.

God does more, after all, than “think globally.” God thinks, God dreams, God imagines cosmically….God’s horizon is so very much bigger than ours here on planet earth.

God imagines things cosmically, God envisions everything in the universe—“seen and unseen,” as we confess in the Nicene Creed….

….and when God imagines the whole created order, God acts, but in the most amazing of ways, in the small backwater locale of Bethlehem, in the baby, in the tiny son born to Mary and Joseph.

God imagines cosmically, but acts locally….and more than that. God invests himself, God places himself at incredible risk, God opens himself up to being changed by humanity, God becomes incarnate, intervening personally in all that has gone awry. God takes on sin, death and evil personally in the flesh and bones of Jesus of Nazareth.

God doesn’t just think globally and act locally…..God imagines cosmically, envisions a New Heaven and a New Earth, and God intervenes in all that stands in the way of that vision. That is: God takes matters into his own hands, rolls up his sleeves, squeezes himself down into Mary’s womb--intervening personally, for us and for our salvation.

Imagine cosmically, intervene dangerously, personally, at great cost to God’s very being. Now that gets it even better than the old environmentalist slogan!

The incarnation of God in human flesh, in the birth of Jesus, is something that can’t be reduced, really, to any slogan…no matter how fine-tuned it might be.

And that’s because the incarnation is an inherently messy business…and you and I can’t begin to imagine all that it has meant for God to become human, in Jesus. Our best efforts to describe that miracle will always fall short, especially because we have only an inkling of how much God has set aside, how much messiness God has embraced, how much risk and vulnerability God has taken on, to be born among us, as one of us.

It’s a messy, risky, dangerous business…this “Word becoming flesh” move that God has made.

It’s messy because it means that God lets himself get close to all manner of human beings, God hobnobs with a whole astonishing cast of characters, God opens himself to all sorts of folks you and I would never on your life get close to, if we had a choice in the matter.

Incarnation is such a wide-open, no holds barred, strategy for God to adopt. I could see God maybe getting close to some people--good and decent people, like you and me (!)--people who would be properly grateful for such a gracious intervention in their lives.

But instead God has gathered up in himself the whole sorry human family. It’s a mess, really, this whole teeming mass of humanity, but that’s where God in Christ chooses to be.

The incarnation is also a terribly risky venture. God set aside all his divine prerogatives, God made himself amazingly vulnerable. Think of how high the infant mortality rate must have been in the 1st century A.D. Imagine God coming to that pre-scientific age, before childhood diseases and communicable illnesses had been cured. Picture God descending into a subsistence society like Judea, under Roman rule—a time and a place where just staying alive was a daily struggle.

Count up, if you can, all the risks God took on when God took on human flesh, in the fullness of time, when Jesus was born.

It was, it is, a messy, risky and downright dangerous decision—for God to become incarnate. God came among us with absolutely no guarantee that he would be welcomed or appreciated. John the gospel-writer puts a sharp point on this element of danger when he says of Jesus, the Word, that “he was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (John 1:10-11).

No guarantees of success. No safe bets. God has extended himself, risked himself, put it all on the line in this amazing strategy of becoming incarnate, taking on flesh and blood and bones, in Jesus, for us and for our salvation.

And—wonder of wonders—God has determined that this is the way it will be permanently. By becoming incarnate, by the Word taking on flesh, God has opened the door to a transformation in God’s very being. Since the birth in Bethlehem, there has been some human DNA in the divine genome. The God we know in Jesus Christ has human features, human substance, forever, at the heart of the divine essence. This is God’s way—the way of always coming to us, descending into our lives, embracing all the messiness of human existence,, not merely to commiserate with us, but to rescue us, and to renew the whole creation.

That, my dear friends, is more, so very much more than “thinking globally and acting locally!”

And, even after saying all of this, we have still just scratched the surface, still barely begun to understand the miracle of Christmas, the wonder of the Incarnation.

But it is enough for now…enough to keep us going…enough to realize that Incarnation is God’s way, and because it is God’s way, it has also become our way.

I’ve come to think of the Incarnation not just as a one-time miracle of astounding proportions…but rather as God’s mission strategy for all the ages. And as God pursues this mission strategy of coming to, coming down, embracing the messiness of all creation…God catches us up in the act, as well.

Your life, your following of Jesus the Word made flesh, your mission and ministry here at Calvary is a continuation of God’s astonishing incarnation strategy.

Your words, spoken in Jesus’ name, deliver Jesus’ goodness to the whole messy bunch of sinners that come through these doors, week in and week out. The Word that is at the center of your life, incarnates God, here and now, for whoever happens to show up!

Your way with water, bread and wine….in the baptismal bath and the nurturing meal….continues God’s incarnation strategy….revealing how God keeps squeezing himself down into H2O, wheat germ, the fruit of the vine, and the promises that enwrap those physical elements.

Your way with one another, your bearing of one another’s burdens, your embracing of the stranger, your nourishing of little ones in the faith, hope and love of Jesus….this too reveals God’s incarnation strategy still playing itself out.

Your welcome, this morning, to a new servant of the Word, Pastor Andrew Ronnevik, is also a working-out of God’s incarnation strategy. Pastor Andrew may not be God (though little children may at times think so!)…he may not be God, but he does and he surely will join Pastor Genelle in bearing God into your midst…reminding you, again and again, how God has wrapped his arms around the whole human family, around the whole created order, in Jesus, in order to make you and me all things new.

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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