TEXT: John 1:1-5, 14, 16-17
In 1995, singer Joan Osborn released a song called, One of Us. The lyrics to the chorus said, “What if God was one of us? Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger on the bus, trying to make his way home?” And the beginning of John’s Gospel answers the song’s question. Because John’s prologue combines poetry, philosophy, and scripture to beautifully describe just how abundant God’s love is for us. God’s love for us is so powerful, so abundant, that God became one of us for the sheer purpose of giving us redeeming grace.
Some of you may be saying, “I don’t know Pastor Josh. Those lyrics sound a little offensive towards God. Just a slob like one of us? Just a stranger on the bus trying to make his way home? Is that an appropriate way to talk about God? Is that a respectful way to talk about Jesus?” Such questions arise from the sanitized, whitewashed image of Jesus that saturates American Christian Religion. This perfect, squeaky-clean, Jesus that is always nice to people. The Jesus with all the clear-cut, black and white answers about right and wrong. The Jesus who always there to makes us feel good because Jesus only wants us to be happy and safe. Even when life on earth is difficult, we just look to the future when we get to escape this “God forsaken world” and live with Jesus forever. And yet, for many people, this perfect personification of Jesus can feel so beyond us, so unattainable, so inhuman, that it’s really easy to doubt the love and grace of Jesus, especially in the darkest depths of our lives. It’s hard to see the light in the darkness, when your religion teaches you that the light is only found in cheery, well-lit rooms, full of polite people who always say “Please” and “Thank you.” But if we believe the Gospel – we discover find that Jesus, truly is “Just a slob like one of us. Just a stranger on the bus, trying to make his way home.”
God is love. And, Jesus is God incarnate. Therefore Jesus is Love incarnate. And that incarnate love is defined as “grace upon grace.” John’s gospel uses the word “grace” four times in this prologue – but then never uses it again because Jesus, love incarnate, is grace. Everything about Jesus’ very identity is about grace. So for the rest of the Gospel, grace is lived out in the incarnate of love that is Jesus. As one scholar put it, Jesus is “what grace looks like, tastes like, smells like, sounds like, and feels like.” But when we only view Jesus through the sanitized, idealized, nice and neat lenses of American Christian Religion, instead of the deep, earthy, messy, Middle Eastern, spirituality of the Gospels, we completely misunderstand what grace and love truly are.
This grace, this love, is not always pretty. Is often not nice. And is rarely safe. In fact, as we look at the life of Jesus, we find that the fullness of grace is always intertwined with the ugly, messy, and risky. This grace is so risky that it got Jesus killed. And this grace is so messy that Jesus is born into poverty to teenage refugees in a filthy barn. This grace is so ugly that Jesus is rejected by those he came to save. Yet this ugly, messy, and risky grace is at the center of the incarnation of God in Jesus Christ. And it all starts at the nativity.
We talk about the birth of a child as a beautiful, wonderful, blessing. I’ve experienced this myself, being in the room as each of my boys were born – weeping tears of joy upon beholding each of them for the first time. What we do NOT always talk about, especially in connection with the birth of Jesus, is the ugly, messy, and risky side of birth. We don’t talk about all the blood and bodily fluids that are expelled when a child is born. We don’t talk about the violent shock the child experiences as it’s suddenly taken from a warm, quiet, safe womb and delivered into a cold, loud, and violent world. We don’t talk about the excruciating pain of labor and the amount of effort and energy necessary for birth to happen. The sweat and tears that are shed in the birthing process. The risk involved with every birth – to both mother and child. And that’s if you give birth in a sanitary, modern, hospital! Not in a barn surrounded by filthy animals, flies, and feces! None of this messy, ugly, vulnerability gets talked about with the nativity. Yet it is all a part of the fullness of love and grace found in the incarnation.
Even if everything with the birth is perfect, there is life with an infant. Now all babies are beautiful. We love babies. But babies come with their own ugly, messy, risks. There is all the pee and poop and puke to be cleaned up. All the snot and ear wax and crusty cradle cap. And that’s if everything is going well. If it doesn’t, and the child contracts some illness, then things get even messier, even uglier, even riskier. I’ll never forget when Joey contracted RSV at less than a year old. We had to give him breathing treatments every four hours for three months straight. So many nights at 4:00 am I sat there holding this wiggly child – because he really didn’t like the breathing treatments – trying to keep this mask over his face and hold my own eyes open at the same time while the nebulizer hummed. All while knowing that in two more hours, I have to get ready to teach middle schoolers all day. But we did it – we struggled through the messiness for our child. Yet, we never talk about how Joseph and Mary were up all night with a sick, puking, baby Jesus. We just stick to the parts of the nativity story that are nice, pretty, and safe. Yet that is all a part of the fullness of love and grace found in the incarnation of Jesus.
Then there’s the relationships themselves. We romanticize relationships so much that the idea of love and grace within a relationship becomes this idealized, one-dimensional, impossible perfection that no one can achieve. And I’m not just speaking about romantic relationships between partners, I’m also talking about family relationships, friendships, and even relationships between church members and their pastors. We’ve developed this idea that in a loving and grace-filled relationship there will never be messiness. There will never be ugliness. There will never be vulnerability. Yet the very act of love and grace requires you to risk those things. The only way to avoid messiness, ugliness, and vulnerability in a relationship is either NOT to have one or to lift up the other person to a position so high that they are expected only to give, and you are expected only to receive. But relationships run both ways. And people who love each other will hurt each other because hurt is caused when love and grace are violated. And reconciling that relationship requires messy risk. To risk being vulnerable again to the person who hurt you. To opening yourself to both giving and receiving love and grace from them again. Otherwise there is no reconciliation. Love comes with pain – just ask anyone who has lost a spouse, a parent, or a child. The only way to avoid the pain of losing someone, is to avoid loving them. Yet, we never talk about the fear and hurt of Mary and Joseph as they fled to Egypt to save their child from being murdered by King Herod. We skip over those uncomfortable parts in our nice, pretty, safe children’s Christmas pageants, so that we can “OOOOhhh” and “Awwwwh” over how cute the children are in their costumes. Yet the messiness, ugliness, and vulnerability of relationships is all a part of the fullness of grace found in the incarnation of Jesus Christ.
When we sanitize the harsh reality of the incarnation, skip over the brutal authenticity of the nativity, avoid the hard truth of the Good News of God becoming flesh and blood with all of its ugliness, messiness, and risk – We forget how vulnerable God became for the sake of all of us. How much of the messiness and ugliness we created that God was willing to enter into in order to redeem us from it. We forget just how abundant God’s love and grace truly is. And if we don’t truly know how abundant God’s love and grace is, then we don’t know who Jesus is. And if we don’t know who Jesus is, we don’t know what Christmas is. And when we don’t know what Christmas is, we reduce it to a meaningless holiday about celebrating American commercialism and buying unnecessary gifts to fill the void within our souls that should be filled by the fullness of love and grace in the incarnation of Jesus.
Jesus is God incarnate. The fullness of God’s grace. Love made real. And in John’s prologue we discover just how much God was willing to risk so that we might know true love and experience grace. God’s beautiful, perfect, and all-powerful glory becomes ugly and messy and vulnerable, as it enters into the midst of our own uglier, messier, and more vulnerable lives. And God does this not ONLY to know what it means for us to experience struggle, suffering, and sorrow – but so that God also knows what it means for us to experience grace and love in the midst of it all.
When Jesus’ Good News threatened the religious people because it didn’t fit their idea of God – Jesus experienced physical, emotional, and spiritual rejection. Yet, Jesus also experienced love and acceptance from the poor, the oppressed, and the outcast – those who were hungry to receive this Good News and its promise of life lived to the fullest in there here and now.
When Jesus’ Kingdom of sacrificial love and peace threatened the violent, self-serving Roman Empire – Jesus experienced physical, emotional, and spiritual suffering in the crucifixion – even the experience of God’s absence. Yet Jesus also experienced God’s grace and resurrection.
Jesus is the fulfillment, the completion of God’s love and grace because he has experienced love and grace in all its fullness – from rejection to acceptance. From crucifixion to resurrection. Without messiness, without ugliness, without vulnerability, love and grace will always be incomplete. If you ignore the messy, ugly, and risky parts of the Gospel – because it makes you uncomfortable or doesn’t fit your way of life – your relationship with Jesus will always be incomplete. Your relationships with others will always be incomplete. You will always be incomplete.
At the beginning of the service, I asked, “What would the world be like if ‘love’s pure light’ was at the center?” If love and grace – in its fullness – were truly at the center of our lives? What would that be like? How would we do it? How would Jesus do it? Well, Jesus could have chosen just to “keep the peace.” Jesus could have chosen not to upset the religious leaders and the political authorities. Jesus could have chosen to try and keep everyone happy. But keeping everyone happy only focuses on the nice, pretty, and safe side of love and grace – therefore no one is truly happy. Instead, Jesus called them to transform their lives. To turn away from the nice, pretty, safe lives they made for themselves to live a new, fuller life that God is calling them into – complete with all its messy love, ugly grace, and risky vulnerability.
The incarnation of Jesus, the story of Christmas, the beginning of the Good News, shows us that true love and grace – especially in our relationships with God, with others, and with ourselves – must include messiness, ugliness, and vulnerability – for that is life lived to the fullest. Anything else, any attempt to keep everything nice, pretty, and safe – whether it’s by making religious rules or social regulations that keep out those whose lives are too messy, by sanitizing and whitewashing the ugly parts of Christmas for the sake of our own comfort and privilege, or by only living a shallow, one-dimensional life devoid of risk – to do any of that, is not to live as God intended us to live. Is not to live life as God lived it in Jesus Christ. Is not to know the redeeming grace we sing about in Silent Night.
Where is the messy situation that you are dodging in your life? How are you hiding the ugliness within your own life? Who are you avoiding so as not to be vulnerable? What do you need to do in order to experience love and grace more fully in your life? In order to have a fuller relationship with Christ, with others, with yourself this holiday season?
I’ll tell you a secret. You will never get there by dodging the messy, hiding the ugly, avoiding the other person and just praying about it. That’s a classic Christian cop-out. That’s not even biblical. At some point, you must enter the midst of that messy situation, uncover and confront the ugly within yourself, become vulnerable to that person – just as God became a vulnerable infant, through a messy birth, into the midst of an ugly world. At some point you must incarnate love and embody grace – in that situation, for yourself, to that person. It’s uncomfortable and difficult. And you even run the risk of being hurt.
But if we truly believe in Christmas. If we are to sing about “redeeming grace” in Silent Night with any credibility, the incarnation must be more than something we believe in. The incarnation must also be something we live out.
God became incarnate in Christ so that Christ might become incarnate in us. The incarnation is not just about who God is, the incarnation is also about who God’s people are called to be. God’s people are the incarnation of Christ in this world today – called by the Spirit to embody the messy grace of God and the vulnerable love of Jesus Christ, in the midst of the ugliness of this world.
And Christmas comes around every year to remind us of that call.