For the Birds (Message for December 27th, 2015)

Scripture:  John 1:1-14

Six years ago, on December 22nd Connor was born.   We brought him home on Christmas day.   My family was at our home waiting for us, and it was a wonderful first Christmas together.  My parents even spent the night to help us out at home for that first twenty four hours at home with a new baby.   However, when they did leave and we were left with just the three of us I had that feeling that I am convinced every new parent has, “Now what do we do?”  It was a feeling on entering truly uncharted territory and having to do something completely new.  Before hand, we did all of the classes.  We bought and read a ridiculous amount of books, and we thought we were ready.   We were not.  Nothing can truly prepare someone for being a parent.  The answer to “now what do we do?” is we learn.   In the entirety of my life, I think I learned more in the first two weeks of January 2010 then I have learned at any other point.  I began to learn what it means to be fully responsible for another human being.   I learned, rather quickly, how to change a diaper.   I began to learn about being a parent, I learned a lot about myself, and I learned a lot about my faith.  

            One of the things I was told by an older gentleman leading up to the birth of Connor is that the first couple of months are easy, all they do is eat, sleep, and poop.  At the time I thought it was just kind of a crass joke, but it turns out it is true.   Along with crying because they want to eat, just pooped, or are not asleep those three activities more or less define a newborn’s existence for the first few weeks.   Maybe it was because we brought Connor home on Christmas, but I thought a lot about this during those pivotal first weeks.  I thought that Jesus, being born of Mary, must have spent his first weeks doing all the things that babies do in all the ways that babies do it.  I had never thought about it, but baby Jesus must have wailed like a banshee when he was hungry, and he filled his share of diapers with something that was less than holy.   Thinking about this made me realize just how truly scandalous the belief of the incarnation truly is.  

            The incarnation is the foundational Christian belief that Jesus on earth was God incarnate.   It is the belief that Jesus is fully man but also fully God.  This morning’s scripture puts it like this “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”   This is one of the most basic beliefs of our faith.  We need Jesus to be fully human so that he is a savior that can truly understand us and that we can follow, but we need Jesus to be fully God because only God has the power to save and redeem us.   One of the things that had longed puzzled me is why this belief was controversial in the early church.   We do not really formally declare beliefs to be heretical anymore, but when the church was young and was trying to really stake out what it means to follow the way of Christ, they were a bit quicker to declare something heretical.  This means the belief is outside of the belief, practice, and truth of Christianity.   For the first couple of hundred years nearly all of the beliefs declared heresies were related to the divinity of Christ.  When Christianity was young there were several people who advocated that Jesus was not fully God and fully human.  There were some who advocated that Jesus was fully God and only had the illusion of being human.  There were others who believed that Jesus was a normal man, who was possessed by the spirit of God at his baptism and this spirit then departed at the crucifixion.  Finally, there were many others who believed Jesus was the first of creation and God’s chosen savior, but not fully God.  The church fathers spent a lot of time hashing out and defending the concept of the incarnation.  There were severe disagreements, and in one infamous incident involving St Nicolas (yes, that St. Nicolas) it even devolved to a fist fight.

            Before being a parent I did not understand these heresies.  I thought it would be odd to oppose something that is so fundamental to Christianity.  I just did not understand why so many people were against the idea of Jesus being both fully God and fully man.    Part of my reason for feeling this way, is previously I did not spend any time with newborns, so when I thought of the baby Jesus my images were more along the lines of classic paintings.   These old works of religious art always picture baby Jesus as more a miniature adult than an actual baby.   I for example, never imagined, how much Jesus would have cried when we as teething.   When we get right down to it, this notion of the incarnation is scandalous.  Do we really understand what we are saying when we say Jesus was fully God and fully human?  This means that there is a time when God, the creator of all the universe, the God who is all knowing, all present, and all powerful lived in Judea as a helpless infant.  It is no wonder people were so quick to deny the incarnation in the early church, it is the ultimate insult to a Holy God.  Denying the incarnation was a way the early believers attempted to preserve God’s divinity.   However, if we look at the message of needed redemption that is built up in the Old Testament, and if we look at the way Jesus is spoke of in the epistles then when it comes to the incarnation, we must accept it is true.  All of it.  In order to save us from the depravity of our sin, God had to send a savior to redeem us and that savior had to be fully God and fully human.

            There is a story that was written by Louis Cassels in 1959, and then featured by Paul Harvey in 1960.   This simple story entitled, the Parable of the Birds, does a great job at explaining why we need the incarnation.   The man to whom I'm going to introduce you was not a scrooge; he was a kind, decent, mostly good man, generous to his family, upright in his dealings with other men. But he just didn't believe all that incarnation stuff which the churches proclaim at Christmas Time. It just didn't make sense and he was too honest to pretend otherwise. He just couldn't swallow the Jesus Story, about God coming to Earth as a man.

"I'm truly sorry to distress you," he told his wife, "but I'm not going with you to church this Christmas Eve." He said he'd feel like a hypocrite. That he'd much rather just stay at home, but that he would wait up for them. So he stayed while his family went to the midnight service.

Shortly after the family drove away, snow began to fall. He went to the window to watch the flurries getting heavier and heavier and then went back to his fireside chair and began to read the newspaper. Minutes later he was startled by a thudding sound, then another, and then another — sort of a thump or a thud. At first he thought someone must be throwing snowballs against his living room window.

But when he went to the front door to investigate he found a flock of birds huddled miserably in the snow. They'd been caught in the storm and, in a desperate search for shelter, had tried to fly through his large landscape window. Well, he couldn't let the poor creatures lie there and freeze, so he remembered the barn where his children stabled their pony. That would provide a warm shelter, if he could direct the birds to it. Quickly he put on a coat, galoshes, trampled through the deepening snow to the barn. He opened the doors wide and turned on a light, but the birds did not come in. He figured food would entice them. So he hurried back to the house, fetched breadcrumbs, sprinkled them on the snow. He made a trail to the brightly lit wide open doorway of the stable. To his dismay, the birds ignored the bread crumbs, and continued to flap around helplessly in the snow.

He tried catching them. He tried shooing them into the barn by walking around them waving his arms. But they scattered in every direction, except into the warm, lighted barn. And then he realized that they were afraid of him. To them, he reasoned, I am a strange and terrifying creature. If only I could think of some way to let them know that they can trust me…that I am not trying to hurt them, but to help them. But how?

Any move he made tended to frighten and confuse them. They just would not follow. They would not be led or shooed because they feared him. "If only I could be a bird," he thought to himself, "and mingle with them and speak their language. Then I could tell them not to be afraid. Then I could show them the way to the safe warm barn. But I would have to be one of them so they could see, and hear, and understand."

At that moment, the church bells began to ring. The sound reached his ears above the sound of the wind. And he stood listening to the bells pealing the glad tidings of Christmas. And he sank to his knees in the snow. "Now I understand," he whispered, "now I see why you had to do it."

Like the birds, all of humanity is shivering in the cold.  Our sin has cut us off from the warmth, light, and love of God that we were created to experience.  Only God is big enough to save us from ourselves.  Yet we are not big enough to understand God, and only another person can lead us to the warmth, light, and love of God.  To be saved from our sin we need both God and human.  We need the Incarnation.  We need Jesus.

            For those of you who have grown up in the church and come to worship every single Sunday, you know all of this already.  However, I think there is a difference between head knowledge and faith practice.  It is possible to believe something but not have that belief fully expressed in our lives.  It is one thing to believe that Jesus is Fully God and fully human, but it is another thing to live in that reality.

            Some people swing too far to emphasizing the divine nature of Jesus.  In this view, Jesus is the divine judge.  This divine emphasis of Jesus paints a picture of a Jesus who is a little bit capricious.  Jesus will save those who say a prayer, recite a creed, or are baptized a certain way.  Yet everyone else, the heathens, are doomed to burn.  The divine Jesus is powerful, mighty, and condemning.  This viewpoint removes the humanity of Jesus.  This Jesus is not a Jesus who would laugh with friends, eat with sinners, or could have lived as infant.  Overemphasizing this viewpoint rightly realizes that Jesus has the power to save us, but it loses the fact that we need to relate to Jesus.  The grief, fears, frustrations, and temptations that come with being human were experienced by Jesus as well.  When we overemphasize that Jesus can save us we forget that Jesus also understands us and we can understand him.

            On the other side, is the more dangerous temptation to overemphasize the humanity of Jesus.  It is this thinking that lead people to conclude that Jesus was just “a great moral teacher.”  This is why 39% of people who consider themselves Christian believe that Jesus sinned while he was alive.  When we overemphasize the humanity of Jesus, he becomes a sort of every man:  a likeable, relatable, person who wants us to feel loved and be nicer people.  The problem with this is that Jesus did not leave us this option.  Jesus never backed away from claiming his divine heritage.  A famous quote by C.S. Lewis puts it best:  A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic - on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg - or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.

            The other problem with overemphasizing the humanity of Jesus, is that while we gain a likeable role model we lose a savior.  Jesus’ act on the cross was the ultimate act of sacrifice.  Romans 5:7-8 states: Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous man, though for a good man someone might possibly dare to die.  But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.   When we leave out the divinity of Jesus, then his crucifixion loses its power.  The beauty, power, and truth of the crucifixion is that God loved us so much that God himself took the penalty that we deserve so that we may have eternal life.  That is not something that a mere man or a great moral teacher could accomplish.  That requires God.

            In many ways, Christmas is the celebration of the incarnation.   We celebrate that the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.  We celebrate that God is no longer a distant deity in a heavenly kingdom, but that God is with us, that God lived with us in the flesh.  We celebrate that we have been forgiven and that we have been saved because a little child would grow to become the savior of the world.    That is something truly worth celebrating, so Merry Christmas.