December 6, 2009
It all starts with the news, when you first hear it. Everything about the “when” and “where” becomes sacred time and space. For me, it was at the old Schlotsky's Deli on Hanes Mall Boulevard in Winston-Salem. We had just eaten dinner, my lovely wife and I; prior to that we had seen, of all things, a children's movie – the very first Harry Potter flick. We were sitting in the car getting ready to leave when my wife asked if I wanted to go shopping. Sure, I told her, that'd be fine. Where would we want to shop? She said, “How about Babies 'R Us?” And that's how my wife told me that she was pregnant with our first child.
It starts with the news, but then it morphs into something else entirely. There's the process of deciding who you tell and when you tell them. Some are surprised, others say they knew it all along, all are overjoyed. There are numerous trips to the doctor – hearing the heartbeat for the first time, seeing whether the baby's a boy or girl (if you care to know that sort of thing).You read books. All kinds of books. What to Expect When you're Expecting Chicken Soup for the Expectant Mother's Soul. my personal favorite: The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips and Advice for Dads-to-Be. Second Edition. read these books and you either convince yourself that you're as prepared as possible, or that you have absolutely no idea what you're doing. Or both.
Your house undergoes radical transformation. There's an entire room that used to be a guest bedroom or a junk room or a music room that is now decked out with a crib, changing table, rocking chair, and some fancy wall border consisting of clouds, barnyard animals and rainbows. There's a pack-and-play in the living room. And there's an entire section of the fridge devoted to baby formula and little jars of baby food. Personally I recommend Gerber's Blueberry Buckle. For the baby, of course!You're treated to wonderful things called baby showers where they give you all kinds of stuff you never thought humanity could dream up. Take the diaper genie – weirdest contraption in the world, but thank God for it! There's the Baby Bjorn, the stroller that turns into a carrier, diaper bags and car seats and Exersaucers and baby monitors. You put it all in the nursery and wonder if you'll have enough room to eventually fit the baby in there.
You do all of these things, you put yourself through every bit of this madness, solely based on a promise, a hope; something that has not yet come to pass. It is the greatest act of faith.And then one day, she feels the baby move in a way he hasn't moved before. You break multiple traffic laws, at her urging, racing to the hospital; where a flock of medical personnel descend on her and tell her to do all kinds of things she absolutely does not feel like doing. Next thing you know, you are holding in your arms your newborn son, just minutes old. And he is no longer an idea, a concept, some future event. It is here and now, and he is a living, breathing human being – flesh and blood and bone. It is the ultimate fulfillment of the promise. It is your baby.
We call the act of childbirth a miracle – and rightfully so. Even though it happens some 350,000 times around the world each day, some 40 times a second, it still never ceases to amaze not only the new parents but everyone around them. You see that glow in the faces of those standing outside the nursery, as they gaze in at their son or daughter, their grandchild, their best friend's new baby. You sense not only their excitement but their hope – hope that is literally embodied, enfleshed in the tiny creature that lies on the other side of the glass.In the church we speak of the birth of one particular baby as the Incarnation– the Latin word “carna” meaning flesh - “in the flesh.” This incarnation is at the very heart of the Christmas season, as Christians around the world celebrate a baby born to a carpenter and a teenage mother in first century Palestine. We've surrounded this birth with scenes and stories etched deep into our psyche – stories like the one Holly read earlier, of an angel coming to Mary. We've heard this story a thousand times, and yet it never ceases to capture our imagination – Greetings, favored one! angel says. And I love the way Luke describes Mary's reaction: But Mary was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. Because when an angel pops into your life, with their greetings and flattery and such, you're not quite sure what to make of it, are you? In fact, I bet even the angel felt the same way too. In one of her books, author Madeleine L'Engle imagines an exchange the angel has with God before sharing the news:
Oh, no! No, God, please don't make me go. Don't send me back there again. It's terrible, I'm telling ya. What can I do with these people? They fight and argue and kill each other. There's no hope for them! Please don't make me go back again, please!.....What? You're not sending me by myself? I don't have to go alone? Oh, thank you, God, thank you!..... Waitaminute - what? What do you mean? You're serious? You mean – you're coming too?! (http://homileticsonline.com/subscriber/illustration_search.asp?item_topic_id=954, visited on 11.29.2009)
I mean, think about it. Since the beginning of time there had been this line drawn over and over again that separated the divine from the human. Moses went up on the mountain and the voice bellowed, “Take off your sandals, for the place on which you stand is holy ground;” and the line was drawn. The temple of Jerusalem was finally built, but only the high priest himself was allowed to ever enter into the Holy of Holies, where the Ark of the Covenant lay; and the line was drawn. Throughout their history the Hebrew people knew beyond a shadow of doubt their limits as frail human beings worshiping an almighty and perfect God. What more powerful way could God choose to cross that previously un-crossed line than in the birth of a child?
How cool is that! God is not just coming to pay a little visit for the season. God is actually moving into the neighborhood, pitching a tent in our tribe. God is setting up shop in our presence. And it's not just a rental, folks. Not a temporary stay-over. God has made a purchase on some living quarters, paid in full, and will be in our neighborhood permanently. God has come to be “with us.”
And that's the real miracle of the season, don't you think? There's always a lot of emphasis placed on the virgin birth in the Christmas story, and certainly that's an amazing thing. But the more I think about it, the more it seems to me that the real miracle is the fact that God came to set up residence with us in the first place. Us –we imperfect people, we who fight and lie and cheat and steal, we who set our own agendas above all others, we who take a holy season like this and adorn it with consumerism and overpacked schedules. In spite of all of that – or because all of that – God came to be with us. And not as some sort of spirit, not as a burning bush like Moses or a pillar of fire guiding the Israelites. No, we have God with us as one of us: a living, breathing, human being; born just as we all are. And that makes all the difference. All the difference.
I love the story about the little girl going to bed one night, her mother tucking her in as a huge thunderstorm raged outside her bedroom window. The wind was whistling through the trees, the rain pounding on the rooftop, thunder was booming and lightning flashes illuminated the outside. The two said their bedtime prayers and the mother kissed her daughter on the forehead, and then got up to leave. But the little girl reached out for her mother's hand, grabbed it, and asked her to stay “just a little bit longer.”
The child nodded her head patiently as her mother rattled each excuse off, as if she had already anticipated them. I know, Mommy, I know, finally said. I know those things. But when it thunders in the sky and the wind blows and the sky lights up, a little girl like me needs somebody with skin on.
I was reminded of that hope on September 11th, 2002 – the one-year anniversary of the 9-11 attacks that still shape the mindset of our country. It was also the day of fulfillment for the news that had been shared with me in a Schlotsky's Deli parking lot nine months before. And after all that time of preparing and planning for the promise, it was time to take the promise home. And I'll be honest – I was terrified at the thought of leaving behind the legion of angels known as doctors and nurses, who had cared for him and his mother and had tended to their every need.
I was also overwhelmed by what I saw on the television screen that morning – an emotional memorial at the site of the 9-11 attacks, where exactly one year before a team of men had flown airplanes full of people into buildings full of people. I was sitting there in that uncomfortable hospital chair with my two-day old son sleeping peacefully in my arms, watching the ceremony as the torch was lit, the wreaths placed on the ground, the names read. I was sitting there in the protective feel of that hospital room, an hour or so away from discharge, and wondered what in the world had possessed us to bring a child into this madness. Where would we find the courage to raise our son in this kind of world? Where would we find our hope?
Isn't it a wonderful thing that the hope I was looking for that morning – the hope each one of spends our lives looking for – is found in the new life itself? Isn't it amazing that this hope reminds us how nothing will ever be able to tear us apart from a God who moved into our neighborhood and forever lives among us, as one of us? Doesn't it take our breath away, knowing that the incarnation – the Word becoming flesh – is the way our God has chosen to be with us?
God became human, to be with you, to be with me. To live with us in our neighborhood; to be that special somebody with skin on. This is the source of our joy this season; this is the destination of the beautiful journey of Advent we embark on together. This is where our hope comes from! Thanks be to God! AMEN.