Thursday, December 24, 2015

Christmas Eve - God is with you

There is something truly sacred about Christmas Eve - something set apart and special and holy about gathering together in this space to praise God for sending Jesus into our world. Something about the lights and the music, about going to church in the dark, about everybody being especially nice to one another, that makes it seem like God truly is here in our midst. Christmas Eve is the one night when it is easier to believe that God is with us than all the other nights.

Because it isn’t always easy. It’s not always easy to *feel* that God is with us. Frequently, the pain and loss in our lives can make it seem as if God is very far away indeed. When we or a loved one are experiencing chronic pain that makes every day exhausting, when we are experiencing the dull nothingness of depression, or the chest-tightening grip of anxiety, God can seem like a stranger. When we are experiencing the loss of someone we love, whether through death or just estrangement, when it’s hard to wake up and hard to go to sleep because that person is no longer with us, God can seem very far away. What does the great, almighty, transcendent God have to do with our mundane and yet overwhelming everyday pain? What does the quiet beauty of this evening have to do with the ugliness of our everyday lives? When family gatherings mean arguments and too much drinking and ugly behaviour and even violence, how on earth can we feel God’s holy presence in the midst of such unholy relationships? Here in this quiet space, with the candles and the flowers and the smiling faces, it might be a bit easier to believe that the God who created the world, who caused the mountains to rise and the vast starry sky to spread above us, who caused carbon to become the building block for all life on earth and mitochondria smaller than a speck of dust to power our bodies, that this God is somehow with us in our lives. Here it is a bit easier to believe that God is with us.

Because tonight is the night that we proclaim most clearly that our great and mighty God is also a weak and powerless God. As Christians, we believe that God became Incarnate - in-carn (which means flesh, like carnivore)-ate. God became fleshy, meaty, human. God took on a human body. For those of us for whom our bodies are a source of pain and weakness, this seems preposterous. Our God voluntarily took on this meat-encased set of bones that is the source of both sleeplessness and fatigue, that gets sick and is humbled by the common cold or a stomach bug? Our God took on this hormone-driven body whose brain chemicals determine its moods and whose DNA passes on damage from one generation to the next? Why? If the mechanism of God becoming incarnate seems hard to believe, that God would *want* to do such a thing seems even harder.

But the truth is that God loves us. God loves the creation that God has made - all of it, always. And, as happens when you love someone, God desires to be with us at all times, and most intensely when we are in pain and when we are suffering. Our God is not a dispassionate God sitting on a throne far away watching as we bumble about here on earth. Our God is love, and love means getting down in the dirt with us and sitting with us as we experience joy and sorrow, beauty and ugliness, life and death. God’s love means being with us no matter what we are going through or what we have done, so that we would not be alone. God’s love means being present with us so that we might feel that we mean something to somebody. A far away God can’t do that. A disembodied God can’t feel these things. An un-human God can’t experience what it is to be human and be truly with us.

And so, Christmas Eve. The Incarnation. God become flesh. Immanuel - God-with-us. The Christmas story is the story of God choosing to take on our human existence so that God might truly experience what it is to be human, and so that God might walk with us and have compassion for us, and by truly knowing what it is that we’re going through, both the good and the bad, both the beautiful and the ugly, give us the strength to get through it. God became incarnate and we came to know him as Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem.

Except, of course, that Jesus of Nazareth, born in Bethlehem, isn’t really very much like us at all. Yes, he was human, but when it comes to the details of our lives, he was very, very different. For one thing, Jesus never got old. He never married. Never had kids. Jesus never drove a car, wore sneakers, or checked his email. He never even heard of a phone. He didn’t know there were countries on the other side of the world from Israel, that there were planets in our solar system, or even that the earth revolved around the sun and not vice versa. Jesus didn’t know what it was like to get cancer, to go through a divorce, to lose a child. Jesus never voted in an election. He never celebrated Christmas or Easter, actually. He wasn’t even Christian. There is really nothing about his life that we know about that was in any way similar to our lives today. So how could God becoming human in Jesus help God to understand us in our own particular situations?

Well, Jesus, like each of us, was unique. He was formed by his own particular situation and historical context, and he had his own unique set of relationships that helped shape who he was. His life, like ours, was singular and unrepeatable. And that means that his foundational experience was that of being alone. What I mean is that, because nobody could ever have exactly the same experiences and relationships as him, nobody could ever completely understand him. That’s what it is to be human. To be so individual and unique that nobody can ever completely understand us. Of course we try to understand one another, and sometimes we even have flashes when someone truly “gets us,” but complete and total understanding is impossible. Humans just aren’t wired that way. We are, each of us, ultimately alone.

And *this* is the experience that God had in Jesus that allows God to enter into our own lives and to have compassion with us. In the Incarnation, God came to know what it is to be alone. God came to know what it is to be unique and in relationship with others and yet still be an individual. And God, who knows what it is to be isolated like this, also knows what we need in those moments when we are feeling most disconnected from the world. And so God, who has experienced the isolation and loneliness that we all do, comes to be with us. In those moments when you feel ugliest, and most unlovable, and most ashamed, and most alone, God sits with you and walks with you and loves you. God knows how hard real and meaningful connections are, and so God connects with you.

And in this connection, God makes our lives sacred. God makes your life sacred. When God became incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, God made all of human life worthy of being in the presence of the divine, including yours. All human life, because God has taken it on, is now holy. Not only does God walk with you in your pain and loneliness and ugliness, but God’s very presence with you makes your life holy. And that is why, when we gather in church this evening, we sense something sacred. It is because our encounters with one another are encounters with the God who has chosen to be among us. No matter what you did yesterday or today or will do tomorrow, God has chosen to be with you, and with your neighbour, and with everyone around you, with every single human being on earth, so that no one might be alone anymore. Immanuel - God-with-us. Glory to God in the highest heaven and on earth. Peace to all. Amen.

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