Thursday, December 23, 2010

Getting Under Our Skin

December 24, 2010
Christmas Eve, Christ the King Lutheran Church, Moorhead

While they were there, the time came for [Mary] to deliver her child. And 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. Luke 2:6-7

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

Christmas is about God getting under our skin.

God is getting under our skin.

Now, I know that saying someone is “getting under my skin” means that he’s irritating me…and if that seems like a puzzling, even crass way of talking about God, well then hang on to your hats!

Because what’s happening here on Christmas Eve, right under our noses, is pretty wild and disruptive. God is refusing to stay put where gods belong. God is moving in on us and invading our space--getting under our skin.

The 75-cent term for that is incarnation--a rough, jagged, scary word. Not the sort of thing we associate with God. We assume that gods are pure spirit-beings, but this God, our God, shows up in Bethlehem’s manger with meat on his bones, hair on his head, and blood coursing through his veins….and that is most un-god-like.

Incarnation is lowly, not lofty. It’s about flesh—meat, to be exact. That’s why we call it chili con carne—chili with meat in it. That’s why the big cats are called carnivores, meat-eaters. In Bethlehem we encounter the God who is con carne--fleshy, meaty, wearing our skin.

And that messes up everything.

Here we thought we had things figured out. We humans belong here on planet earth—that’s our place in the universe. And God’s place is up there somewhere, high above and beyond us, surely at a safe distance from us.

“God’s in his heaven and all’s well with the world….”

….until God messes that all up by traipsing into our territory, squeezing himself down into a baby, making that treacherous journey down the birth canal, and then bursting into our space in the midnight squall of a newborn who’s covered in the very same gooey stuff that covered each of us when we popped out of our mamas and into the world.

No self-respecting God does this sort of thing!

If this is how God is going to act—we’ll have to reconsider everything—all the assumptions we were making, all our strategies for keeping God at arm’s length—all of it goes right out the window in Bethlehem’s stable.

Those to whom God came in the flesh of the baby Jesus, they were pretty put off by it all--this scandalous meat-on-bones business. They (and we) didn’t want God to get that close. As it says in John, chapter 1, “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” (John 1:11)

We earthlings couldn’t handle God under our skin, so we tried sending God back where he came from. We edged God out of our world, up onto a cross, said “thanks, but no thanks,” and imagined that that crucifixion would put a stop to God’s invasion of our space.

But what a miscalculation that turned out to be! For, you see, incarnation wasn’t a failed science experiment God thought he’d try out.

Incarnation was and is God’s permanent, God’s only way of being God for us and with us.

Incarnation is how this God, the only God that matters, does business with us. As author and preacher Barbara Brown Taylor (An Altar in the World:  A Geography of Faith) has wryly observed, “our bodies remain God’s best way of getting to us.” (p. 42)

Even after his dead body was tossed into a borrowed grave, Jesus returned—not as a spirit or a spook—but in the flesh. “He came back wearing skin” (p. 36) and he journeyed down another birth canal, expelled from the tomb, with new resurrection skin on—scarred still by the marks of the crucifixion.

So now, what in the world are we going to do with a God like this?

He just keeps coming back, moving in on us, getting under our skin—there’s no stopping him. He won’t take “no” for an answer.

Truly Christ the Incarnate One has come for us, and make no mistake about it: he will have his way with us…and his way is pure, unadulterated love—not a fleeting feeling-love, not a lighter-than-air love—but love deep in the flesh, love that goes to the bone, love that revels in earthy, bodily life, right here, right now.

That’s what Christmas is all about. More than stringing lights on a tree or getting lucky at West Acres or baking the figgy pudding perfectly for a change.

It’s about incarnation, God’s disruptive way with us, God getting under our skin—and staying there.

And that simply upsets all our apple carts!

It changes everything we thought we knew about God and how God works. For we have a God on our hands who refuses to keep his distance from us, a God whose divine genome contains human DNA!

But the incarnation of God in the flesh of Jesus of Nazareth also changes how we view ourselves, how we look at our own bodily lives. We’re more than immortal souls temporarily imprisoned in lowly flesh and blood, longing to escape these shell-like bodies.

No—we are bodies and souls, intimately knit together. As BBT puts it, God “loves flesh and blood, no matter what kind of shape it is in” (p. 38). And what, my friends, could be better news than that?

I mean--have you taken a good look at your body lately? It can be pretty frightening, especially as we grow older. I ought to know: There’s an old geezer who steps out of the shower in my bathroom every morning—and the sight of him still shocks me when I gaze at him in the mirror—because this old geezer is ME!

If you know what I’m talking about…if you and your body aren’t always on the best of terms…I’m here to say that God loves your body, just the way it is. And if that makes you want to tend your body better, I say: go for it (though you may choose to start after the big Christmas dinner!)

God’s incarnation in the baby Jesus changes how we view our own bodies, even as it transforms how we regard all the other bodies Christ came to save.

Again, to borrow the words of Barbara Brown Taylor: “Wearing my skin is not a solitary practice but one that brings me into communion with all these other embodied souls. It is what we have most in common with one another. In Christian teaching, followers of Jesus are called to honor the bodies of our neighbors as we honor our own. In [Jesus’] expanded teaching by example, this includes leper bodies, possessed bodies, widow and orphan bodies, as well as foreign bodies and hostile bodies—none of which [Jesus] shied away from.” (p. 42)

The Christmas miracle of God getting down under our skin opens our eyes to see afresh all the bodies for whom Christ came: famished bodies, beautiful bodies, homeless bodies, pampered bodies, cancer-ridden bodies, just plain tired bodies…bodies that prefigure the resurrected bodies that will be ours some day, in the amazing grace of God our Savior.

The incarnation of God in the flesh of baby Jesus transforms everything—God, ourselves, our neighbors and all the ways we live out our days faithfully, through our bodily selves.

God’s incarnation launches us on a way of life that is always, somehow, embodied: in wheat and wine and water and word…embodied in cold water on parched tongues, feet lovingly washed, tears brushed away, hugs offered even to persons who’re as prickly as porcupines!

If God in Jesus Christ truly is making all things new, which means: making all bodies new—then we have plenty to do to keep us out of mischief, while we wait in trust for God to redeem our bodies—all our bodies—in and for the sake of the little Lord Jesus who was born for us in Bethlehem.

In fact, we might even find ourselves walking on the earth as if heaven were already coming our way….leaning forward as if God really does hold the future in his hands--a future that will completely embody the love that began in the manger and was poured out for us fully and finally on the cross.

God has gotten under our skin, my dear friends, and through us God’s going to keep getting under all sorts of people’s skins until, finally, God is truly all in all.

And it all began on Christmas Eve, in Bethlehem, when Mary gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger…

In the name of Jesus. Amen.

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