First preached on December 24, 2019 at St. Luke’s Lutheran Church in Logan Square.
Merry Christmas! We are so glad to have you here at St. Luke’s tonight. Maybe some of you have been feeling the build up during Advent and this time of preparation, and you have butterflies in your stomach and your toes are tingling with anticipation and your heart is pounding with excitement. And maybe for some of you, your hearts are pounding too, but for a different reason, and there is a pit in your stomach. And based on your past experiences with church or your feelings about the holidays, you are feeling anxiety or even dread. Wherever you are in life and however you’re feeling in your body here tonight, rest assured that you are not alone. Many of us have been there, and all of us here tonight are met by God, who created us, who called our bodies good, and tonight is born among us, as one of us, in our midst, in the flesh.
The Christmas story for many of us is one of the better known stories in scripture. And because of that, in some ways it runs the risk of being so familiar to us that we become numb to what a complete and utter scandal it is. Like so many of our beloved stories, as the narrative becomes more well known it also becomes tidier, and more sanitized. We see ornaments depicting the Holy Family where a very European looking Mary smiles demurely at a quietly snoozing newborn, halo behind her head with not a drop of sweat on her brow, not a hair out of place. We have beautiful nativity sets that come with cute animals and completely devoid of the usual smells that accompany those animals. The angels in our pageants are these ADORABLE, sweet little cherubs and not the terrifying creatures that always require an immediate, “Fear not!” any time that they appear.
In reality, the story is much more stark. There is absolutely nothing neat or orderly or contained about the first Christmas. Unlike the presents under our trees, Jesus’ birth story is not wrapped up in pretty paper and festive bows. It is a story that takes place under the yoke of the oppression of Empire, a story full of grunts and cries and grit and dirt and earth and blood.
The truth in the stories we read tonight happens because the infinite chooses to become finite in a tiny child, the universal becomes particular in occupied Palestine, the mysterious and unknowable becomes so intimately known that it longs to be rocked to sleep in a mother’s arms. And all of it is much louder and messier than we could ever dare to talk about in polite company.
Because our story tells us that tonight the God of the Universe, present before the beginning, full of majesty and might, the creator of every amoeba and every quasar did not choose to remain loftily enthroned or separate from creation, but instead left that throne of glory to make Their throne in the fleshy womb of an unwed teenage mother who baptized God in her amniotic fluid long before Jesus was baptized in the River Jordan.
Instead of a grand entrance into the halls of power with trumpets announcing Their arrival, God preferred instead to make Their grand entrance through a birth canal with the symphony of the bleating of sheep and the labor cries of God’s mother and Joseph’s quiet, steady encouragement heralding the entry.
And instead of a pillow topped mattress to rest after a long journey or a cozy crib in a Pinterest-worthy themed nursery, God was lovingly swaddled and wrapped up and laid to sleep in a feeding trough meant for animals.
Instead of choosing the Mighty, God chooses to be in solidarity with us at our most small and vulnerable by coming to Earth in the infant we call Jesus, completely dependent on the adults in his life for survival. God doesn’t just merely appear to be human. This isn’t an elaborate hoax or a flashy illusion. Jesus, God incarnate, comes to earth with all the real human things; made up of millions of cells, held together with flesh and bone and muscle, with real organ systems and wrinkly toes and blurry eyes, crowned with little fuzzy baby hairs and a squishy fontenelle and tethered by an umbilical cord that needs cutting.
Not all of us have given birth. I haven’t. And among those of us who have never given birth, some of long to give birth so badly that we can feel our arms just aching to hold a child. Some of us have given birth, but the road to that moment was long and full of sacrifice and struggle. Some of us who have given birth have had our stories of pregnancy or childbirth overshadowed by loss or trauma. And still others of us have built families in other important ways, through adoption or blended families or families of choice, outside of biology in ways that may not have included literal birth but whose formation took labor nonetheless and whose process has given metaphorical birth to new relationships or ways of being. There are all kinds of pressures and emotions and pain that can go along with the desire or the expectation of giving birth, especially for women.
But whether or not we share the experience of giving birth, we all do have one thing in common; some way or another, we have all been born. God included. It is the most human of experiences, and God has been there. God is still there, right now, tonight.
God being born breaks all the rules. Somewhere down the line we got it in our heads that God and human beings were polar opposites, that God – a Spirit – was so holy and humans and our bodies were so sinful that the two could never go together. Where one could be, the other could never be. There was a strict dividing line, a deep chasm, a binary between godly and human, Spirit and Body. God is good, Spirit is good. But bodies? We were taught that we were to hate our bodies and see them as dirty and wrong. And corporations and systems of oppression, like slavery, like the beauty and weight loss industry, like conversion therapy, like purity culture, and even and especially the institutional church come up with all kinds of ways to leverage this self hatred for profit by punishing and controlling our bodies, to beat them into submission through shame and through violence.
Can you feel that? What messages of shame does your body carry? What violence has your body borne? I know I have stories I could tell you. I bet we all have stories we could tell each other. And none of this is anything new.
This same subjugation of bodies was present when Jesus was born into the world, where the Empire dictated that all people must go to their homelands to be accounted for so that they could have heavy taxes levied against them in order to finance the very military occupying their land. The Roman Empire and its military enforced its shallow view of “peace,” Pax Romana, through the subjugation and domination of bodies, repressing any uprising or liberation movement through ruthless brutality. Because Empire knew then just as Empire knows now, that if you control people’s bodies you control everything.
And if you liberate bodies? There is untamable freedom.
Because free people with free bodies no longer deal in fear, the currency of the Empire which strategically keeps us divided so that we cannot rise up and band together and claim our own God-given power. Free people seize their belovedness and put our bodies on the line to free more and more people, until everyone, everywhere is free, and the Empire of Death has no more authority here.
So in enters God the liberator of bodies, coming to us in a new and completely unexpected way, enfleshed. Somehow both wholly human and wholly divine, proving once and for all that because the goodness of God can and does exist as a human body of flesh and blood, that human bodies were not bad, or dirty, or sinful, or wrong, and instead of being sites of trauma or abuse or exploitation, our bodies could be sites of joy and redemption and instruments for the Good News that God is with us and for us because God is one of us.
This news of God as Embodied who frees our bodies by coming as one of us is so so crucially good to all of us with bodies, and it is especially Good News for people who have been oppressed because of our bodies. For any of us who have been taught that our bodies are wrong; that we are too Black or too fat or too femme or too disabled or too queer, that we didn’t have the right kind of body in the hierarchy of bodies, God in a body in the person of Jesus Christ tells us that our bodies are not at odds with our goodness but are indeed holy and beloved by God who chooses to dwell on Earth in a body and to set up camp in the messiest of places – like our unplanned crises, like birth, like mangers, like oppressed and divested communities – God chooses all of these things in opposition to Empire and in solidarity with all of us who are struggling to survive, to be free, in the midst of our unkempt, broken, messy lives.
Tonight and tomorrow, and through all of your celebrations, my prayer for you is that you might show the same tenderness and love towards your body that God has already shown you. That you might see the moments of literal and metaphorical messiness around you as the sorts of places that God would freely choose to dwell. And that this knowledge of your own belovedness, your own chosenness, might liberate you in a new way for the Revolution that God has already set in motion all around us, and that as the infinite cosmic God draws nearer and nearer to you, you might feel yourself becoming more and more and more free.