A funny thing happened on the way to a memorial service. I don’t even remember what we were talking about, but a granddaughter of the deceased said, “well, it’s not written in stone….” In that moment, I made a connection that seemed so obvious I was at once wanting to think more about it and also wondering how I hadn’t thought of it before.
The idiom “written in stone” obviously refers to something written permanently; unchangeable.
The most obvious and best known example of which is, of course, the 10 Commandments. Think Charlton Heston or Mel Brooks, but we’ve all got imagery in our minds now, right? Those commandments were etched in stone. Literally carved. Permanent.
The 10 Commandments seem to be the go-to source for law and rightness. We’ve fought over putting them up on courthouse lawns and teaching them in public schools. Some people want you to think they are the foundation for western law.
All of this came flooding to me as we walked toward the sanctuary for the memorial service. All this was inspired by the simple phrase “written in stone.”
And then, just a split second later, I also realized this: Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was.
He didn’t cite any of those 10.
Jesus went to Deuteronomy 6:5, which says
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your being, and all your strength. (CEB)
and that wasn’t enough. He wasn’t going for 10, though. He added this, from Leviticus 19, saying this one “is like it:
you must love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18, CEB)
So, when Jesus was asked what the greatest commandment was, he didn’t go to something that was written in stone.
I am still wrestling with what this means, but I really felt I had to share it with you.
A long long time ago in a pastoral appointment far, far away….
There was a bible. Actually, there were a lot of bibles. That church, not unlike this church and almost every other church, had invested in a bunch of bibles. I don’t know if “bunch” is the technically correct group term for Bibles. You know, like gaggle of geese, pride of lions, congress of crows or committee of vultures (You gotta love those last 2!).
Anyway, this church had quite a few bibles. A pantsload of bibles. Maybe even a small boatload. You get the idea.
One of these bibles, at least only 1 to my knowledge, had an error.
I’m not talking doctrine here. Get your mind out of the theological gutter.
I mean the cover was put on backwards. And, therefore, upside down.
Which, I don’t mind telling you, was more than a little frustrating, at least for me, when I’d open it to read it.
I know, plenty of us read the bible on your phones now, and your phone has this little thingamabob called an accelerometer. The accelerometer is what turns the screen the right way when you, maybe, pick your phone up upside down to read the bible.
This bible that I’m talking about didn’t have an accelerometer.
So, you know how sometimes youth find things funny that other people might not think are funny? And you know how sometimes youth have this built-in alert system that catches all us adults when we do something that we would ordinarily tell youth they shouldn’t do?
Well, here’s how that works. With a totally hypothetical story:
Just say, maybe, you were the pastor at a church that had bibles. Bunches of bibles. Maybe even a small boatload of bibles. And 1 of those bibles had an error.
YES, I still mean that the cover was applied backwards. And upside down. Come on!
And just say that, as the pastor, you were, one night, leading a youth bible study, and happened to pick up this particular bible and open it to read from it.
And it didn’t have an accelerometer in it, so you opened it upside down when you thought it was right side up.
And then imagine, because, again, this is all hypothetical, that before you stopped to think about it, you slammed the book shut and tossed it across the table.
And then imagine you said something. Something you might regret as the words were coming out of your mouth.
Something like, “I hate this book!”
Again, this is all hypothetical. Except that it actually happened. I was there. I saw it.
Yep; that pastor? That was me.
Didn’t see that coming, did you?
So those youth had caught me, their pastor, saying, about a bible, “I hate this book!”
I am SO thankful I had enough of a relationship with those kids that they laughed it off. They knew I didn’t actually mean that about the bible.
And for the rest of my years there, they never let me forget about it!
And you might wonder why I would tell you that story tonight, on Christmas Eve.
I told you that story because I think it can help us understand the scripture for tonight.
The Christmas story. You might say it is Luke’s Christmas story, which would be true, but perhaps misleadingly so – Luke is the only one with an actual Christmas story.
Matthew comes close, telling us about how the angel appeared Joseph (we don’t get Mary’s side of the story at all), then skipping to “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem….”
Luke gives us the details. But do we really want details? I mean, we don’t need the bible for details; we make up our own! Many of us include the wise men in the story, though they appear in Matthew, not in Luke, and came looking for the babe as much as two years after the birth.
But, really: who wants a 2 year long Christmas pageant?
I worry that we make Christmas either a sappy, sentimental thing for kids or a anachronistic stepping stone on the way to something else. Honestly, I don’t think, and there is no indication, Mary felt very sappy. Giving birth is hard work – I’ve witnessed it! And when Rachel was about to deliver Eliza, one of our favorite songs came up on the playlist we’d curated for the morning.
I lovingly and gently pointed it out. Rachel, in the process of delivering her first child and having had no pain killer, wasn’t feeling “loving” or “gentle.” In retrospect, I can’t blame her.
Pretty sure Mary wasn’t in the mood for hosting a “live nativity scene” either. Doubtful that was a silent night.
Don’t get me wrong: I like Christmas Pageants. But, folks, This incarnation thing isn’t JUST that.
There’s one thing that probably did happen that first Christmas that I’ve seen at most live nativity scenes. At least the one with animals. Instead of just standing there like a petting zoo, the donkey, or one of the sheep,, will likely relieve itself just when you don’t want it to.
Hey, donkey, that wasn’t in the script!
Which brings me to another point. We tend to read the Christmas story like it was a stage production. As if Luke’s gospel had been written in heaven from the foundation of the world, and finally, here and now, Mary, check, Joseph, check, Bethlehem, check. Places, folks – and – action!
Luke is telling the story after it unfolded, not writing the script for how it was to unfold.
Which leads me to George Washington in the Dodge Challenger. That’s a different kind of in car nation.
We tend to tell the story of Jesus’ birth as though it only really happened so that he could die on the cross about 33 years later.
That’s getting the story out of order and reading something that happened later in history onto an event that happened before it.
Yes, Jesus is the Lamb of God who was slain from the foundation of the world. But that “slain from the foundation of the world,” a phrase we get from Rev 13:8, is more a reference to the character of God than to an event that happened.
In other words, Jesus’ crucifixion isn’t a story about what happened to Jesus, but about who Jesus is.
Jesus, God incarnate – that is, in human flesh, is a God who suffers at the hands of the powers of the world.
Jesus, born an innocent, fragile baby, is another picture, at the other end of his earthly life, that tells us the same thing about God. That God comes to us, that God’s hope for saving the world, come powerless, vulnerable, and at the mercy of those created in God’s very image.
At this end of the story, vulnerable, powerless God receives care and love and attention. Born to a lowly woman – a woman who has powerful introspective and reflective thoughts. If you doubt it, check back into 1:46-55, or you catch it here in verse 19: “Mary committed these things to memory and considered them carefully.”
What God was doing in that first Christmas God has been doing since the creation of the world, and God continues to do today. Tonight. In the morning.
You remember, don’t you, after Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the ONE TREE God had told them not to eat? God comes walking in the garden (do you worship a God who takes walks in a garden?), and they hide because they are “naked and ashamed.” God calls out, “Adam, where are you?”
Like God didn’t know?
No: like God is a god who comes to us, a god who came to the world God had created, as humbly and vulnerable and powerless as possible.
Because you love someone, you don’t approach them in power. You approach them humbly and with vulnerability and powerless as possible.
And that’s the way the Bible actually tells the story. My prayer is that tonight, and in the morning, you and I will hear it that way.
Maybe a better question would be, “Mary, what did you know, and when did you know it?”
I mean, really: dare we think that Mary could have possibly imagined thinking about Jesus the way we think about Jesus?
When you think about thinking about Jesus this time of year, you likely think of donkeys and camels and angels blowinghorns.
Have you spent much time thinking about how you think about Jesus?
Please notice: I’m not asking if you think about Jesus. I’m asking if you ever think about how you think about Jesus. Because this 4th Sunday of Advent,which also happens to be Christmas Eve, is a really good time to think about how you think about Jesus.
But asking you to think about how you think about Jesus might get you defensive, so, instead, I’ll tell you a couple of stories. The first one I got from sunday school or confirmation literature at least 20 years ago. The second story is still going on today.
The first story starts with the challenge of explaining the incarnation to a child (or youth – I can’t remember which). In case you’re not very churched, or just not in the mood, I’ll also give you a heads up on incarnation.
Incarnation is a big word that describes someone who lives in the United States. We love our automobiles. The average American spends 101 minutes per day driving. This means we are an “in car nation.”
Dad Joke for the morning.
Incarnation is actually a word to describe or explain what happened in Jesus/birth. Jesus was, according to Christian understanding, God in human flesh. “Incarnation” is another way to say “in human flesh.”
Sounds way more theological, too, doesn’t it?
So, the first story is this. A person was sitting at her front window, looking out at the falling snow. In her driveway, she saw a bird. A tiny dove, that she imagined must be feeling awfully cold.
“I wonder if birds enjoy watching the snow fall the way I do,” she thought.
Realizing that snow falling is beautiful – perhaps especially from the warmth of one’s bay window, she suddenly began to wonder if, maybe, the bird was cold. Too cold?
What could she do to help? If she went outside, no matter how slowly and carefully, the bird would fly off. Maybe if she went around through the kitchen and opened the garage door from inside, then the bird might not get scared away.
But how could she be sure the bird would recognize the safety and relative warmth of the garage?
Then it struck her. If she could become a bird, she could fly out there, and land alongside that little bird, and share the good news of the warmth of the garage.
If she could become a bird, the bird could better understand her efforts to communicate.
We aren’t birds, and God isn’t a person sitting by a window watching snow fall, but I think you get the picture.
Jesus came to us – emmanuel, God with us, God as one of us, to better communicate with us and live among us and show us with more depth than we could have grasped before, the good news of God’s love for us.
Most of us get that aspect of incarnation, I think.
Which brings me to the second story. This one is about a guy named Mark. Well, it’s about me and a guy named Mark.
God’s been on me lately about the incarnation. Trying to help me understand it in a deeper way.
And when I say “God’s been on me,” I don’t mean in a nagging or mean or bullying way. One consequence of trying to follow Jesus a bit better today than yesterday is that God gives you opportunities to put your life where your mouth is.
I can talk a good game about incarnation. But can I live it?
I met Mark a couple months ago. Like many other people, he found our church office looking for help.
Unlike when those other people find our church office, I was really the only one there to help.
I kinda went Peter and John on him. You know, from Acts 3:
Peter and John went to pray, and the met a lame man on the way. He sheld out his palm and asked for some alms, and this is what Peter did say: “Silver and gold have I none; but such as I have give I you: In the name of Jesus Christ of nazareth rise up and walk.”
That’s how I learned the song in youth group, anyway.
So, I told Mark, after listening to a little of his story, that I didn’t have any money, which was kinda true (I rarely have cash on me).
I was a bit thankful he wasn’t lame, because I’m not sure I would have had the courage to dare to tell him to rise up and walk.
But then this is where God and incarnation kick in.
As I said, I’ve never been in such a situation where I was finding church offices in bank buildings because I needed help. So I don’t know how I would present the story. My story.
I’m pretty sure I would tell it in a way that would elicit help. If I need money, or food, or clothing, or shelter, and I think you have these, or the resources to help me get these, then I’m going to tell the story in a way that will, hopefully, get you to want to help me.
But, I don’t know about you, I’m usually a little leery of people telling that kind of story.
I’m one of these, “can we cut to the chase – where you tell me what you want, I tell you ‘no,’ or ‘I’m sorry,’ depending on your presentation, and we move on?”
I get to remain here. Holding all these resources – a pocket full of credit cards, a house on which I am up-to-date, and even a little ahead, on the payments. I’ve got family who could, if I needed, who have, when I needed, come to the rescue when I had made poor decisions or just wasn’t quite able to make things work on my own. I’ve got a church family – dozens, maybe hundreds of people I could approach, if I needed, to help out in a bind.
Not to toot my own horn, but in this comparison, I’m like a king with a crown and he is subject to my benevolence
Or, to put it differently, I might as well be telling Mark that I’m the girl sitting in the bay window and he’s the bird out in the snow.
Wouldn’t it be kind of me to find a way to help him?!
Wouldn’t I be such an awesome person?! I could really make Mark think I’m an awesome person, too.
But it’s going to cost me. I have to open my Hearts.
Here’s the tricky part of the incarnation: I don’t really want Mark to think I’m an awesome person. I want Mark to believe the things I tell him about Jesus are true.
And I’m going to have a hard time convincing him of that as long as I stay up here, in the place where I’m the one who helps him. If I help him now, he can come back to me again. As long as he knows that how he gets help. He comes to me, and I am the help dispenser.
When I think about how I think about Jesus, I have to admit: sometimes I think about Jesus as the help dispenser.
But that’s not how Jesus came to us. If I want to be part of Mark meeting and knowing Jesus, I have to give up being the help dispenser or the Jesus dispenser and be a friend.
I am going to have to give up my place, my privilege, my easy access to resources, my presumption that I can or should help him, and be a friend.
God didn’t send the angel Gabriel to a young woman to say, “God would like you to be the help dispenser dispenser.” Mary was more than just the baby mama!
God, through Gabriel, invited Mary into an awesome partnership that would offer us the presence of God in human form.
And this isn’t just God the almighty poured into a human shell; no; this God incarnate came just as he would live – humbly, powerless, at the mercy of others.
This is how God comes to us. It’s God saying “I can’t get close enough.”
This is how Christmas Eve invites us to think about thinking about Jesus.
In 1982, I made a conscious decision to move away from a dorm with semi-private bathrooms to a dorm with community bathrooms on each floor.
And I never looked back. Ok; the bathroom set up wasn’t the reason I chose the other dorm (It helped they had installed air-conditioning over the summer).
Community was different in dorms with community baths. Not in a creepy way, but in a way that comes sui generis from sharing tiolet, shower, shaving, washing space with a larger number of people.
We had challenges from time to time. I don’t actually remember having my stuff stolen while I was in the shower, but it may have happened. I also don’t remember stealing anyone else’s stuff while they showered. That may have happened, too.
But what I do remember happening was the shared vulnerability of such common spaces had the effect of each of us treating one another with at least a modicum of respect.
So, as a few of us chatted over coffee this morning, and remembered the days of community-bathroomed dorms, someone said, “I bet they don’t have those any more.”
Oh, but we do.
I don’t know if colleges do, but I contend that social media is the community bathroom of 2017. Except that, not realizing it, many of us have not yet learned to treat others with the modicum of respect deserved when an eclectic and random (you might have chosen your roommate, but you didn’t chose who got to live on the floor)
It took us some time to adapt to sharing the space of the community bathroom.
If you know me at all, you can imagine how confused I was to hear this yesterday at our church’s Veteran’s Day Luncheon:
Note the order here: the nation was telling the churches to celebrate this day.
I reacted, but controlled it. Someone else had the floor. This gave me time to figure my response.
The State doesn’t tell the church what to do! How dare they? Who do they think they are. The wheels of thought spun inside me, measured by the knowledge that I was surrounded by people, many of whom had served in war, and at least some of whom don’t have exactly the same ecclesiology I do.