Princeton University Religious Life

A Child Born for All

The Rev. Dr. Alison L. Boden
Princeton University Chapel
December 24, 2014

J. Robert Oppenheimer once said, “The best way to send an idea is to wrap it up in a person.”  I don’t know if that theoretical physicist, leader of the Manhattan Project and, later, director of our Institute for Advanced Study would ever dream that words of his would headline a Christmas Eve sermon, but there you go!  I don’t know what he was actually referring to when he uttered those words, but he could not have captured better the essence of Christmas, the holy miracle of Christmas: “The best way to send an idea is to wrap it up in a person.”

Since the dawn of humanity, God had been trying to send us ideas - to get us to understand – that God had created the universe from a first impulse to love, that a joined ethic of love, mercy, and justice is the only way for people to live (Micah and other prophets tried to tell us so), that the only acceptable use of power and wealth is to share them equally with those who have less of them, that love of neighbor is not just a fruit of kindness but the source of happiness, that the greed at the heart of all our violence, warfare, and discrimination is what rots our souls and grieves God’s heart – it is our spiritual and physical undoing, and that love of God in the midst of complicated lives is not about being shackled to old rules but is actually truefreedom: the life that really is life.

God kept trying to send an idea – its manifestations were massive but its essence was so small: love.  God islove.  We are to love.  William Blake said, “[We] are put on earth a little space to learn to bear the beams of love,” the love of God for us, our love for others, theirs for us, the cross-beams of a love we may never have asked for but yet are servant to.  And God thought, “Well, nothing I’ve tried thus far has worked.  What dohumans love?  What can teach them love?” And God had a divine light-bulb moment… a baby!  Humans love babies.  Humans stop their craziness to pause and just love a baby.  Humans will even stop hurting other people in order to help one baby, whom they love, to thrive.  I’ll come to them myself in the form of a baby.  After all,“The best way to send an idea is to wrap it up in a person.”

But God didn’t come to us in any old baby, God came to us in the person of a refugee baby, a poor baby, a technically illegitimate baby, a baby born in the area of a stranger’s house where the animals were kept.  This isn’t a baby with a wonderful registry of gift items – a handsome crib, the softest blankets and college savings already begun – but a baby born into desperate circumstances as so many were then, and are today.  God said,“They’ll understand better the love that I am, and the love that I want, when they see me born there.  They’ve been thinking that the Messiah, the king of love, the Savior, is a prince.  But he’s among the poor.”  The best way to send an idea is to wrap it up in a person.

That little person was and is the incarnation of God – God born among us, God inhabiting our very human form.  God is the creator and redeemer of all things… and is poor and powerless.  God is love… at its most vulnerable.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor and member of the Resistance, who lost his life to the Nazis just days before the Capitulation, wrote of the Incarnation, “God is not ashamed of the lowliness of human beings.  God marches right in.  [God] chooses people as … instruments and performs … wonders where one would least expect them.  God is near to lowliness; [God] loves the lost, the neglected, the unseemly, the excluded, the weak and broken.”  Oppenheimer was right!  The best way to send an idea is to wrap it up in a person.

So – you get it, and I get it: on Christmas, God took human form, came to dwell among us, to save us, to set us free.  If a single one of us leaves this Chapel tonight with that affirmation, all well and good.  But what moremight there be for us in the message of this silent night, this holy night, on how to live and even die to new life?  How might we inhabit the incarnation?

Let me share a story called “The Box” that I recently heard from a friend:  A woman moved to another country for a time to work with a famous spiritual teacher.  When her studies were over, she returned home.  Several days later, she received a package in the mail from her teacher.  It was a carved box so beautiful that she was left breathless.  The teacher’s note said, “All I ask is that you place the box so that it faces east.”  The woman placed the box on the mantle in her living room, where it fit nicely and faced east.

The woman admired the box often, but as she did she began to notice that the room that it was in was seriously out of order – everything suddenly looked wrong and out of place in relation to that beautiful gift.  So the woman spent a full day rearranging her living room so that everything was in harmony with the gorgeous box. 

Next, however, she was struck by how wrong the dining room seemed – it was now out of harmony with the living room.  So, she rearranged the whole dining room, and then, room-by-room, she reoriented the house so that everything somehow complimented that beautiful box.  It took some time, but she did get everything in order.

Eventually, she went outside to take a break, but immediately she went back inside her home to write her teacher.  She said, “I think I might need to return your box!  I’ve rearranged my entire house to be in harmony with it, but now when I look outside my house I realize that my neighborhood might be next!”

This, I think, is the way it should be for us with the Incarnation.  The Incarnation is God’s inhabiting of the person of the baby Jesus, but also God’s inhabiting of us, mere mortals.  God takes on human form – ourform.  If we let the Incarnation take hold of us, make a home within us, we will find ourselves dissatisfied with the furnishings around us.  We will find that we don’t like the way things are – they are simply wrong.  We will want to change things – to move them around – so that they are harmonious with the world of God’s order.  We will no longer be able to make our comfortable peace with suffering and violence, injustice, exclusion, racism, poverty, elitism. We will want to rearrange a lot of things, and our homes and lives and world will look a lot different for it.  We will hear at last – and from inside ourselves – God’s instruction that loving our neighbor is the source of our joy, that love of God is the way, not of bondage, but of freedom, that what’s killing us is our violence, warfare, discrimination, and greed.

A few minutes ago, my son read from the prophet Isaiah the announcement that, “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light.”  That people lived in deep darkness indeed – they feared being sacked by neighboring armies, and the destruction of the places and people they loved most.  I’m not sure that their hopes for deliverance were in seeing a “great light” – how about a great weapon, a great political maneuver or victory, a great financial windfall – most of us would think these to be the answer to our problems as well.  But a great light?  That’s what they got instead.

And they got what they’d needed.  On Christmas Eve, so do we.  The answer to all of our yearnings is God’s incarnation, not victories, money, personal influence or global power.  The answer to all of our yearnings is God’s inhabiting of us, being present in our world in our own humble spirits, and as the Messiah in a tiny newborn.  That baby is “a child born for all” as the angels said because, regardless of whether any other individual believes in the incarnation, what matters is what we do because we do believe.  We are the bearers of God’s love to all the world. The incarnation only starts on Christmas, it doesn’t end there.  It lives through us.  So many people are walking in darkness and it is the privilege of our lives, in infinite ways, to point them to God’s great light.  Christmas doesn’t end at midnight tomorrow or even after 12 days, the incarnation lives perpetually through you and me.  After all, as God knows well, the best way to send an idea is to wrap it up in person. 

Merry Christmas to all the world!

Amen.


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