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In May of 1998, I was preparing to graduate from high school and plans were already underway for me to begin engineering studies at the University of Pittsburgh in the fall. Finals were looming and my summer was crammed full of work in order to make as much money as possible, but there was something much more important on the immediate horizon. After nine years on the air, the hit NBC sitcom, Seinfeld, was going off the air. I can’t remember where we watched the final episode, but I do remember watching the 75-minute two-parter at someone’s house with a bunch of friends. The atmosphere was something akin to a Super Bowl party as we gathered, unaware that the Seinfeld finale would become the disappointment by which every other major television finale would be judged.
Don’t get me wrong, the episode was a perfectly acceptable way to say goodbye to the four friends from New York that we loved to hate or hated to love. After their plane made an emergency landing in the small town of Latham, Massachusetts, Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer witness an overweight man getting carjacked at gunpoint. Instead of offering to help in anyway, the foursome does what they do best, they crack jokes as someone else’s expense while Kramer films the whole experience on his camcorder. The victim of the crime tells the responding officer everything he saw, including the witnesses who failed to act, and the four are arrested on a “duty to rescue” violation that requires bystanders to help. Ultimately, the four are found guilty under the Good Samaritan law and sentenced to a year in the state penitentiary.1
As unfulfilling as The Finale was, it acted as something as a foreshadowing of the end of the ruggedly individualistic, self-centered, final few decades of the 20th century, though even now, we are still seeing its death throws as our government gets its third reference in a sermon of mine, acting like selfish children on this whole fiscal cliff deal. Following the world altering events of 9/11/2001, Americans seem to have begun the slow process of moving away from a me-first mentality, toward a more gentle, caring way of life, as seen in the out pouring of support following events like the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami, Hurricane Katrina, Super Storm Sandy, and Sandy Hook. This is, I believe, good news. The move away from thinking of self first and other second is an act of repentance, a changing of heart and mind, and helps to usher in the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven.
I am able to say this, in full confidence, because of the good news that John lays out in the prologue to his Gospel, “the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Or as Eugene Peterson translates John 1:14, “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.” The good news of Christmas is that God’s very self was born for us. He took on flesh to live as one of us. He entered the messiness of this world, to the point of being born in a barn and laid in a feed trough. God didn’t stand aside, cracking jokes at our foolishness. He didn’t watch through the screen of his divine iPad. He didn’t sit back and let us destroy ourselves. Instead, God moved into the neighborhood.
Over the course of our liturgical year, we’ll journey through Luke’s Gospel and find out what this Divine move means for the Word that John speaks of so eloquently in his prologue. After being born in a stinking cave, Jesus and his family are forced to flee, by foot, from Bethlehem to Egypt as a jealous and power hungry Herod slaughters all Hebrew children in the hopes of wiping out the newborn King. After several years as a refugee, Jesus and his family will return to Israel, this time settling into Nazareth where he will grow up, learning the trade of his earthly father, Joseph, a carpenter. When Jesus is twelve, the family will make the pilgrimage to the Temple in Jerusalem where Mary and Joseph will offer the sacrifices and pay the taxes that are required at the Passover. On the day scheduled for their return, Jesus stays behind and for three days engages in debate with the religious powers-that-be, going about his “Father’s work.” At about age 30, Jesus is baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan River and is declared as “beloved Son” by both a voice from heaven and the descending of the Spirit “as a dove.” Many miraculous events follow: turning water into wine, healing Peter’s mother-in-law, blind Bartimeaus, lepers, demoniacs, invalids, and even raising several people from death. Over the course of his three years of active ministry, Jesus, the Son of Man, will have no place to lay his head, he’ll be nearly crowned and king and nearly stoned as heretic, he’ll find comfort in friends, be anointed by a stranger, terrorized by enemies, and tempted by the devil. Finally, he’ll be handed over by a traitor, spit upon by his enemies, tried by a coward, and killed at the hand of Rome. Jesus, the Word of God that took on flesh and blood, will not stand idly by while real life goes on around him, but instead he experiences the roller coaster nature of human life, taking it all into himself, redeeming the good and bad, highs and lows, joys and sorrows.
As Luke’s Gospel told us on Christmas Eve, to us is born a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. This is the Good News of Christmas. God, who could have very easily sat back and watched as the creation he spoke into being destroyed itself by selfishness and jealousy, instead came to earth and lived and died as one of us. He was, as John writes, full of grace and truth and from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
Two thousand years later, the Incarnation still means that God is present in our joys and in our sorrows. God is present as we come to the end of 2012, whether we think back on it with a smile or hope to forget it ever happened. God is present as we prepare for what 2013 has to offer, whether it is the joy of a child or grandchild or the cold diagnosis of disease. God is present in the joy-filled songs of 9 and 10:45 and in the simple recitation of the liturgy at 7:30. God is present in traffic on highway 59, in the waiting room, in the shopping mall, and in school. No matter where we are or what we are feeling, the good news of Christmas is that God is here.
The challenge becomes whether or not we will a) recognize his grace-filled presence among us and b) believe in his name and become children of God. More simply put, the challenge of the incarnation is love. Will we accept the love of God that came down on Christmas? Will we accept the challenge to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind, and strength? Will we look beyond our own self-interests and seek to love our neighbors as ourselves? Will we take on the mantle of love that Jesus offers to us in the Word become flesh?
Back in May of 1998, thinking only about yourself was all the rage. It made financial sense in the free flowing days of the burgeoning dot-com bubble, it made Must See TV, and for me, as a high-school senior, it was the status quo, but now, nearly 15 years later: it seems to me that love is a much better way to live. As the calendar page turns to 2013, maybe we should all resolve not to lose 20 pounds or to quit smoking or to read a book a week, but instead, let’s resolve to shine forth with the love of the Word of God who took on flesh and blood and moved into our neighborhood. Let’s shine that light in our homes, in our neighborhoods, in our workplaces, at the gym, in our schools, and everywhere else where God is present, though maybe not always recognized. Let’s be living examples of that outpouring of grace upon grace that John promises.
Come Holy Word and move into our neighborhood. Fill the hearts of Your faithful and kindle is us the fire of Your Love. Send forth Your Spirit and we shall be created. And You shall renew the face of the earth. Amen.