The Gospels tell us a lot of things about what Mary must have gone through because of her pregnancy. She left town and stayed with her Cousin Elizabeth for months, probably to escape public shaming for being an unwed mother. Matthew tells us that Joseph could have abandoned her, but didn’t.
And, shortly before Jesus’ birth, Mary and Joseph had to take a long trip. Mary, at full term, bounced up and down on that (d****d!) donkey all the way from Nazareth to Bethlehem. They hoped their poverty would discourage robbers. And when they get there, there is no room at the Inn, so they have to stay in a stable.
Then, after the birth, Herod wants to kill them! They had to flee into exile. They became refugees. Once it is safe to return, they settle in Nazareth. But, it is a hard life: many there believed Mary had been unfaithful. And, because of that “sin,” Mary and her son were not looked-on kindly or with compassion; and we see hints of that throughout the Gospels.
Joseph is said to have been a Carpenter, but a more correct term might be “Day Laborer.” He probably walked several miles every morning from Nazareth in the hills down to Sepphoris, a city being built as the new capitol of Galilee at the time. Once there, he hung out at the local equivalent of Dunkin’ Donuts: hoping someone would hire him to haul rocks and lumber, or perhaps saw wood for the day. It was a hard life: exhausting, dangerous work; harsh overseers; long hours; terrible pay andno job security. …Not unlike the lives of many of our friends and neighbors here and now.
Joseph was a good man, and like so many people back then (and now) he did what he had to do to survive and provide for his family. His grim situation was common throughout Galilee at the time. Rich foreigners were moving in: confiscating farms; forcing families like the family of Joseph and Mary into poverty. Their fields became vineyards. The people were being taxed beyond reason. Huge villas were being built on those country estates, their absentee owners were living in luxury in cities like Sepphoris, which were built on the backs of men such as Joseph.
There was no hope for the future. Rome and its vassals controlled Judea and Galilee; and the Jews, especially the people in the countryside, starved and suffered. Life for the poor was short, and painful, and brutal.
What does this have to do with Christmas? The Bible teaches us that Christ’s birth marks the moment when God manifested among us; becoming Emmanuel, “God with us,” walking the earth alongside us. It began there in Galilee among the poor and dispossessed. God became fully human; but was still, and at the same time, fully divine.
What does this mean for us now, in this world where nothing seems to be going right? We too are constantly battling to survive, and grieving our losses. We fight for a good life. Yet, no matter what we do, we know it will end in death: the death of those dear to us, the death of everything that matters to us, and ultimately our own death. How can we possibly be joyful when the end of our story is already known, and inescapable, and depressing, and futile? Why is it important that God became a human being?
The other day, while pondering this and sharing my thoughts with others, someone asked me “Why is it so important that God was not human [to begin with]?”
I’ll tell you.
Before Christ, the Jews thought of their God in one of two basic ways.
The first is the anthropomorphic God: the god who walks and talks and maybe even looks like us. The God in whose image we are created. The God who walked with Adam and Eve and spoke face to face with them. The God who knelt down and formed us out of the dirt, and breathed his breath into our nostrils, giving us life. This is a loving, nurturing god: the God who visited us daily in the Garden of Eden, that perfect place. But also the God who forever banished us from the Garden, and God’s presence, when we dared to eat of the Fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil.
The second image that the Jews had is the distant god: sitting on a mountain or maybe up in heaven, speaking to us only through intermediaries of one sort or another: prophets, angels, burning bushes, dreams, donkeys, or maybe even the smoke of a burning sacrifice. This is a God we never directly see, nor hear, nor touch.
Neither of these images of God work very well. Both of them live in a perfect place that we cannot enter. And so, God is untouchable: untouched by our loves, our losses, our victories, our joys, and our fears. Such a God does not live where we live, amidst the bustle and confusion and imperfection of everyday life.
That God is not a human god, but a perfect one: a god who did not experience the reality of our flawed and fatal humanity. Such a god can create us, command us; declare laws and demand obedience; but how can such a god understand us, be compassionate for us, or love us? We may fear and respect such a God, but how can we love such a remote Creator in return?
Our image of God needed to change. In fact, God needed to change. God’s love could not live in a perfect place that was inaccessible to us. For God’s love to be real and meaningful, God had to be present in our lives and experience what we experience. God had to leave the unreachable realm of perfection and become subject to our reality. And, that reality had to become inescapable for God. God had to become human. God had to become one of us.
But, suppose God didn’t give up that perfection. Suppose God takes on the form of a human being without becoming fully human. If so, then God is not truly “with us” or one of us. And, to answer my friend’s question, if God was human before being made manifest through Christ, then God was never the infinite, omniscient, perfect Creator we imagined. Being made manifest through the Christ Child would have been a case of a human God being something God already was. Or else, suppose we had a nonhuman God. If so, that God would be playing games with us. In either case, God would not be doing anything new. God would be appearing to us in human form without risk or cost. The birth of Christ would have been meaningless.
As I said two weeks ago, God’s love is offered freely to us, but accepting that love has a cost. And likewise, for God, Love is not free either. God cannot offer us love without cost to himself. Otherwise, the love of God would have no value. So, to be human, to really love us, means God must be willing to take on all of what it means to be human, not just look like a human. There couldn’t be an escape clause or a “get out of jail free” card when things get tough. It couldn’t be safe. God had to be vulnerable, like a child: Failure had to be an option.
And God did do exactly that, out of love: “For God so loved the world,” says that famous scripture, “that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.”
God does not want our lives to be filled with loss: of those dear to us; of all that matters to us; and most especially not the ultimate loss, of ourselves.
This is why we celebrate the birth of Christ: because of that birth God’s Love became real. Joy and hope became available to us. Christ’s birth, then death, then resurrection, tells us that our story will not end as we were once certain it would. We are not doomed to death, but are promised life. God paid the price for this to happen. God understands who we are, the path we walk, what we feel, and fear, and love, because God walks with us every step of the way through life. God is no longer isolated in a perfect garden; or sitting on a distant throne. God is no longer unreachable, but is right here next to us. God with us. Emmanuel.
And, we can love God right back: through Christ, God became approachable. We can reach out and embrace God. The love is real. We are not alone, we are not unloved, we are not hopeless.
We are no longer creatures who are merely created in God’s image. We are now Creatures who share all that we are, all that we have been, and all that we shall be, with our God. We are loved by God even when there is no other love in our lives. We are loved by God even though we are not perfect: we always have been, and we always shall be, loved.
On Christmas morning Mary will cradle that baby. And Joseph will hold both of them in his arms, his eyes filled with love and joy as the babe nurses at his mother’s breast. A happy and content baby, unaware of all the fears and problems and losses and threats that his parents are facing. Unaware of what the future will bring. And this is as it should be.
This is why we know God was not human, but became human. This is why we celebrate the birth of the Christ child, who brings hope into a hopeless world.
I’d like to share with you this poem, written by my friend and fellow minister, Laura Stone, and shared with her permission…
Don’t give me your “It’s okay” ’s
your “Everything happens for a reason”
your “All turns out well in the end”
and “We’re never given more than we can handle.”
I don’t know if they are true,
but I know
where HOPE is.
HOPE is “I see you”
“I love you”
“I don’t know what tomorrow will bring,
but I will be there with you”
“Hold on. There’s still something worth fighting for,
worth living for,
worth dreaming for.”
Blessed be and Amen.
Mary’s babe, and the Love and Hope he represents, cannot thrive, or even survive, unless nurtured: unless we set aside our own concerns and fears and priorities to love and care for this child. God’s love works only when we accept and then return that love. Hope grows out of that love. That hope is ours because God is a human being, walking with us, Emmanuel.
May your Christmas be richly Blessed: filled with Joy and Hope and Love!
Delivered at ARK Community Church, Dalton MA, Sunday, December 18, 2016 (Fourth Sunday of Advent).
Copyright (c) 2016, Allen Vander Meulen III, all rights reserved. I’m happy to share my writings with you, as long as proper credit for my authorship is given. (e.g., via a credit that gives my full name and/or provides a link back to this site – or just email me and ask!)