Saturday, December 24, 2011
Why Did God Show Up? (Christmas 2011)
Christmas Eve, 2011, St. Albans
Readings: Isaiah 52:7-10; Ps 98; Heb 1:1-4; Jn 1:1-14
How many of you have been present for the birth of a child? Do you remember what it was like? Of course you do. The excitement, the nervousness, the sounds and smells of the birthing place. The overwhelming sense of joy when the child is born. Hearing those words, “it’s a girl” or “it’s a boy”. For those of us who have had the privilege of being there, it is a peak experience, an event that fills us with joy and sends us running to tell the good news, by phone and email and facebook, in words and in pictures, with friends, family and even complete strangers.
We use the image of the birth of a child each year as a way of capturing the joy and wonder of Christmas, the good news that was proclaimed by the angels to the shepherds in the fields near Bethlehem, the good news that was proclaimed by the prophet Isaiah so many years before that. For 2000 years we have proclaimed that the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger was the Word who was God, who became flesh and lived among us.
When you think about it, that’s a big claim. And there have of course been those who have disagreed with that claim over the centuries. One of the objections voiced by those who call themselves philosophers is this: Why would God, the almighty creator of the heavens and the earth, why would this God want to be born, choose to be born as a tiny, vulnerable human being? Whatever it was that God hoped to achieve, peace, forgiveness, reconciliation, renewal, whatever it was, if God really is God, couldn’t he have done it some other way, perhaps in a way that was a little more dignified, a little more, well, more God-like?
When I returned to school to study theology a few years back, I put this question to one of my professors at the university. “Why the incarnation?” I asked him. “Why did God become human in the person of Jesus and dwell on earth with us? Couldn’t God have just done things long-distance?” My professor was an older man, past retirement age but still teaching. And he looked at me with the experience and wisdom that comes from all those years, and he said quite simply, “Son, it matters where you put your body.”
“It matters where you put your body.” His words reminded me a little bit of another pearl of wisdom once spoken by another sage named Woody Allen, who once said, “80% of life is just showing up”.
On that first Christmas Day, God showed up. He took on a human body and put that body on this earth and was born a babe in Bethlehem. Does that make a difference?
I think it does matter where you put your body. It matters to people whether you show up or not. In my life, I’ve experienced this most clearly at weddings and funerals. I’ve found that really matters to people whether you show up, whether you put your body in that pew or chair. I’m not sure I understand why. But even if I hardly get to talk to anybody, even if I don’t get to express my congratulations or condolences, the very fact of showing up matters, more than sending gifts or flowers. There is no substitute for being there.
During the March break of this year, I took a group of high school students from my previous parish in Carp to Nicaragua to build a school in a rural area. We spent a year preparing for the trip, fundraising, learning about Nicaragua, learning about poverty and issues of development and social justice, learning about how all of this fits with our faith.
When we arrived in Nicaragua, we were met by Tom, the president of SchoolBox, the NGO that organized the school build and the trip. And during that initial briefing, Tom told us something very valuable. He said to us, “you think that you’ve come here to build a school, and you have. We’ll be spending a week in the village, on the construction site, and you’ll mix concrete and haul gravel and bend rebar and do all the hard work required to finish the school. But never forget, the main reason that you’re here is to love the kids of the village, the ones who will be going to that school. You’re here to care for them and to inspire those children.”
And so, during that week, our teenagers worked hard, but they also took time to play with the children of the village, to talk to them with fractured Spanish, to see their homes and play their games, and when we worked, the children of the village worked alongside us.
At the end of our trip, the school was built. And we gathered as a group, and we had a bit of a debriefing. And I said to the teens, during this past week we built a school. But you know, we could have done that long distance. We could have stayed in Canada, and sent the money here to Nicaragua, and SchoolBox could have hired local labourers to do all the work that we did. But instead we chose to come here, to show up, to put our bodies here and do it in the flesh. Did that make a difference?
And here’s what those nine teenagers told me.
They told me that being there had been our way of showing the Nicaraguans that we cared, that it was an expression of love and solidarity. They told me that it allowed them and the people of the village to get to know each other, to play, to work and to laugh together. They told me that we’d built trust together. They told me that they thought they had inspired the Nicaraguan children to continue with their schooling and that the Nicaraguan children had inspired our teens to make a difference with their lives. They told me that they had built relationships, relationships that taught them things, relationships that transformed how they saw themselves and the world.
It matters where you put your body. It’s important to show up. I think that’s why the Word who was in the beginning, who was with God, who was God became flesh and dwelt among us.
God showed up.
Why did God show up at Christmas?
God showed up at Christmas so that we could see and know him. As John wrote, the Word became flesh and lived among us and we have seen his glory. No one had ever seen God. But we have seen Jesus, the Word become flesh, the one who is the very image of God, and it is he, God’s only Son, who has made God known.
God showed up at Christmas so that he could speak to us. As the writer to the Hebrews tells us, for thousands of years, God had been trying to communicate with humanity, with our ancestors, in many and various ways with limited success. But in these days, God has done something new: God has spoken to us through a Son.
God speaks, in a way we can understand, in human language, in word and action, with facial expressions and hand movements and bodily gestures. But of course for communication to actually take place, we have to hear, we have to listen, we have to receive what is said. And when we do, then we enter into relationship, a relationship with someone we know we can trust because he cared enough to show up. To all who receive the Word, he gives power to become the children of God.
A few years ago I spent three months in the Seychelles Islands as an intern as part of my theological training. To get ready for that posting, I took part in a 10 day orientation program in Toronto. That program was for people from all over North America who were going overseas to do various types of work for the church. It was a great group of people, with a lot of different backgrounds and interesting stories to tell.
And I remember in particular one man from Texas. He was tall and slim, and he had the usual Texan accent, greeting us with a “Howdy y’all” when he entered the room. Now my Texan friend didn’t talk a lot, he was a fairly quiet guy. But as we were going through the sessions and various exercises, whenever he did speak, he almost always said the same thing: “It’s all about relationship”. If we did a Bible study, invariably at some point he would chime in “Well, ya know, it’s all about relationship.” If we did a session on how to work in a culture we weren’t familiar with, he’d say, “Well, it’s all about relationship”. If we were getting training on issues of poverty or justice, same thing. And y’all know what? My Texan friend was always right.
And if he’d been sitting here with us today, and he’d heard today’s gospel being read, and if we could ask him what he thought about it, I know what he would say. “It’s all about relationship.” And once more, I’m pretty sure that he’d be right.
God became a human child so that we could become children of God. Christmas is as simple and as mysterious and as wonderful as that.
Unto us a child is born. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us so that all who receive him may become children of God.
May this Christmas fill your hearts with peace and joy.