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Word Becomes Flesh

Listen to the recording of this sermon:

Luke 1:39-55

December 20, 2009

Sermon preached by Rev. Donald Ng at the First Chinese Baptist Church in San Francisco.

I’m 60. I can say that I have lived more years than the years that I may still have left. I’m not completely “over the hill” but I’m well on my way. I actually like being 60. I’ve got 60 years of experience and with experience come some degree of wisdom and respect. My children are grown and on their own, most of the time. That’s satisfying.

I can also take some degree of pleasure in my accomplishments. I haven’t done everything I’d like to do, but I’ve done much of what I wanted to do. One of the most fulfilling things that I have the opportunity in doing is to serve as your pastor for the past 10 years. I think I am getting more respect! There are some joys at finding myself at this advanced age.

The main thing wrong with being 60 is my body. Somewhere I read that many women experience aging as a change of appearance; men experience aging as the loss of physical power. Maybe that’s true. I’ve got a growing list of things that I once could do like carrying retaining wall stones or moving large pieces of furniture but can no longer do.

First it was eyeglasses, the thin ones just to give me a little help with my driving. By 40, I was in thick bifocals or I couldn’t read the small type in the Bible to write a sermon. I now have these newest optical technologies that help me to see both far and near without getting thicker lenses. Thanks to Dr. Lim!

Joy often complains that I turn on our home theatre system too loudly. I figure that a hearing aid may be in the future. Recently, I’ve taken an interest in cutting out coupons for hearing aid batteries.

The Psalmist says, “All flesh is grass” (Ps. 90). I’m proving that in my own body.

So are you. We are not created to be angels. We are finite, mortal, limited, or as the Bible says it, short-lived, terminal flesh. No matter what your age is, your body is heading toward where I am now. For some of you, my body is heading toward where you are now.

Have you noticed that when older people get together, they talk of nothing else but their bodies—aches and pains, latest physical troubles, our new meds and how they work. In this past week, I’ve attended a few church fellowship Christmas parties and all we talked about was what is ailing us right now. I talked about my frozen shoulder that has since thawed but now I have this bursitis on my left foot that causes me to wear insoles and so the conversation goes on for the whole evening. We may sing a few Christmas songs but once we have finished what we ought to be doing that whole evening, we drill Dr. Louie about his opinion on the drugs we are taking. We may want to wish each other a merry, little Christmas but my foot really hurts.

We praise our “higher nature” but when my left foot begins to hurt, the lower nature takes over. We’re all left foot and no brain, all flesh and no spirit.

Our Flesh

Down through the ages, the main agenda of most philosophy and religion has been “What’s to be done about our flesh?” Plato gave birth to the philosophy that you could think your way out of the flesh. With philosophy, you could rise above your lower nature. We think of ourselves as thinking, willing, rational creatures. I think, therefore I am. What is ideal is beyond our material world.

In a similar way, what is driving our generation’s infatuation with “spirituality” is this conflict we think we have with these two natures. One is physical, the flesh. The other is the higher, nobler nature—spiritual. Through certain spiritual disciplines or higher thoughts, or uplifting sentiments, you can climb out of the muck and mire of the earthly material, the physical and the fleshy and rise up to a higher, more spiritual realm.

This is a major reason why people come to church. We want to be less connected to the physical and more in tuned with the spiritual.

The Greek philosophers spoke about our bodies as prisons. Our higher souls were trapped in these degrading, deteriorating, ever-getting older cages. Through contemplation, philosophical debates, and spirituality pursuits, we might escape, at least for a time. We might rise up and out of our enslavement to the physical and be set free.

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Elizabeth and Mary

That’s what we thought until Jesus came. The Word—the eternal, divine, world-creating Word—became flesh and moved in among us.

Today’s Gospel, as we stand on the threshold of the nativity, features two pregnant women, “great with child” as the Bible puts it. When you think about it, it’s too much of a physical way to begin a spiritual text that serves as the beginning of our religious faith. Here are two women sharing obstetrical details with one another.

Elizabeth, an older woman, a “pillar of the church,” married to a priest, never had children. Today, we know that there could be any number of reasons for her barrenness, but in those days failure to bear children was entirely the woman’s fault. Barrenness was a disgrace for women whose primary role was mothering. Though, she had the status of being Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth would not have shared in the community’s favor or high regard.

Mary in her teenage years, who is promised to Joseph but not officially married, is pregnant. Probably confused and troubled by what has happened to her, she travels on her own to visit her much older cousin to seek advice and counsel.

When Mary entered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth, the fetus in Elizabeth leaped in her womb. Elizabeth was then filled by the Holy Spirit and cried out, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.” Elizabeth and Mary were not talking about philosophies or religious thoughts or practicing spirituality. They were two pregnant women talking about morning sickness, how their bodies have changed, whether they have the nursery set up yet, and the joys and fears of being first-time mothers.

The Word became flesh. Into a world of pregnant women, of wars and rumors of war, of the ordinary, human stresses of life in this world, God comes. Incarnation means that God “takes on flesh.” God does something about our humanity or finitude and our mortality by becoming human.

In John’s Gospel, we read that the Word became flesh. This is God’s glory in Christ. We need something done about our flesh, our decaying, limited, and short-lived, terminal flesh that no philosophy or spirituality can address. So on a starlit night, God Almighty slipped in among us, assumed the very flesh that we would like to shed, and was born among us.

Body of Christ

Have you ever noticed that the Apostle Paul’s favorite term for the church is the “Body of Christ?” We don’t call the church an academy or a corporate office or a secret hideout. The church is the Body of Christ where the Word is made flesh again. It takes on flesh, our flesh. We, as the flesh of the Body of Christ become a living, breathing reality within this world.

For this is the reason why we bring babies into the church to dedicate them to be part of the Body of Christ. Babies can be messy and crying and downright fleshy as we all know. But they are, as much as you and I are, part of this living, breathing Body that makes it a reality that Christ is in the world.

Some people find this incarnate, fleshy quality of the church to be ugly and difficult that they can’t identify with it. They want a faith that is all “spiritual.” They don’t like the fleshy form, the church that Christ has brought into the world.

But I believe this is the very reason why our church is thriving and growing today. We have not thought about faith as exclusively spiritual but we have seen it lived out in the streets of San Francisco Chinatown. I can just imagine how tempting it can be to go to church in some picturesque Thomas Kincaide setting and have no reminders of beggars, homeless and street people. But every time we come to church, we become this incarnate, fleshy quality of the church. We are never too far away from the world that Jesus Christ came among us to save. As the Body of Christ, we as the church may at times be ugly and difficult to live with but those are precisely the reasons why the Word became flesh and moved in among us.

Word Became Flesh

For those of us who believe in the truth of the incarnation, we believe that the fleshy quality of the church is part of our salvation, a way God gets to us in this world, in this life.

Read Related Sermon  Christmas Adoption

Once upon a cold Christmas Eve, a man sat in reflective silence before the flames flickering in the fireplace, thinking about the meaning of Christmas. “There’s no point to a God who became human,” he mused. “Why would an all-powerful God want to share even one of his precious moments with the likes of us? And even if he did, why would God choose to be born in a stable? No way! The whole thing is absurd! I’m sure that if God really wanted to come down to earth, he would have chosen some other way.”

Suddenly, the man was roused from his musings by a strange sound outside. He sprang to the window and leaned on the sash. Outside he saw a gaggle of snow geese frantically honking and wildly flapping their wings amid the deep snow and frigid cold. They seemed dazed and confused. Apparently, due to exhaustion, they had dropped out of a larger flock migrating to a warmer climate.

Moved to compassion, the man bundled up and went outside. He tried to “shoo” the shivering geese into the warm garage, but the more he “shooed,” the more the geese panicked. “If they only realized that I’m trying to save them,” he thought to himself. “How can I make them understand my concern for their well-being?”

Then a thought came to him: “If for just a minute, I could become one of them, if I could become a snow goose and communicate with them in their own language, then they would know what I’m trying to do.”

In a flash of inspiration, he remembered it was Christmas Eve. A warm smile crossed his face. The Christmas story, no longer seemed absurd. He visualized an ordinary-looking infant lying in a manger in a stable in Bethlehem. He understood the answer to his Christmas problem: God became one-like-us to tell us, in human terms, that we can understand, that he loves us, that he loves us right now, and that he is concerned with our well-being.

It was a peculiar, unexpected thing for God to do. After all, we think of God as anyone but fleshy. Godly is what we are when we are spiritual, when we rise above the decadence of this world and these bodies of ours float upward.

No, says Bethlehem and the manger and the real, natural birth. No, says the Word made flesh. As frail, enslaved, finite, and limited creatures, we cannot come up to God. Therefore God comes to us. Incarnation literally means “enfleshment.” This is what Christmas means.

If you are going to meet this God, you’ll need to do it here, now, in the flesh, because that’s where God is. If you are going to worship this God made flesh, you’ll need to do it here.

That’s why you are here on Christmas Sunday. You came thinking that you want to be more spiritual, to sense the spirit of the season. You would like to get closer to God.

And here at church in its wisdom says, “Here. Have some bread. Drink some wine. This is as godly as we get.”

The Word came to us not to deliver us from our flesh and all that flesh demands, but to redeem us in our flesh, to ennoble our fleshy, frail, faulty existence by his presence. He makes our flesh a sacrament, a means of grace, an outward and visible sign of his inward and spiritual power.

The baby in Mary’s womb is the Mighty One who

            shows strength with his arms to scatter the thoughts of their hearts,

            brings down the powerful from their thrones,

            lifts up the lowly,

            fills the hungry with good things,

            sends the rich away empty,

            is our salvation and

saves a 60-year old man like me. The Word becomes flesh for you and for me.

Let us pray.

Lord Jesus, in your incarnation you took on flesh, our flesh. Give us that grace whereby we might live our lives each day convinced of your indwelling with us, assured that you love our world enough to enter into it and to share this life with us, that you love us enough even to die for us so that we—finite and mortal though we are—might live for you. Amen.

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