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The Messy Moments of the Incarnation

Luke 2.41-52

One of my favorite Christmas movies is National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation – the one with Chevy Chase starring as Clark Griswold. If you haven’t seen it before, you must be working pretty hard to avoid it, because it is all over the place this time of year. If you have seen it, you will remember one of the most iconic scenes, at the end of the movie. The turkey has been charred. The cat has been electrocuted. The squirrel and the dog have sprinted through the house, destroying everything in their wake. Cousin Eddie has kidnapped Clark’s boss, tied him up, and proudly put a bow on his head to present him to Clark. And in that moment of chaos, the SWAT team busts into the house and tells everyone to freeze, creating a perfectly frozen picture of complete disaster.

I want you to picture this scene as we dig deeper into today’s passage. Here we are, on the heels of Christmas and the beauty of the angels and shepherds and Christ child. And we read today’s passage: frantically panicked parents rushing around looking for their son, a teenager giving his parents just a little too much lip in response to their concern, confused and astounded teachers raising their arms in shock at what they are hearing. It is a picture of chaos!

I think the reason that I like both of these moments of chaos is their accurate portrayal of life. OK, so perhaps none of us have had a Christmas as bad as Clark Griswold’s. But most of us could probably tell a story about losing a child or a niece or nephew or maybe our memory of getting lost from a parent or adult. But my point is bigger than that. The accuracy of this chaotic portray of Jesus and the Holy Family speaks to nothing short of the very nature of messiness of the Incarnation.

Let me pause on that word. Many of you will know “Incarnation”, others may not. Basically, incarnation is the theological term for what God did coming to earth in the form of the Christ child. Jesus was God incarnate – made real, become flesh, come to dwell among us. And so the Incarnation – with a capital I – is the concept of what happens with Christ being born as a baby, living on earth as a man, co-existing as both divine and human. But incarnation – with a lower-case i – is the general term for any time when God becomes real on earth.

When we talk about ways that God speaks to us through our lives – God becomes real to us through the words or actions of another, or the power of Creation, or a holy moment of worship or prayer – we are talking about that which is incarnational. Jesus is THE example, but there are hundreds if not thousands of examples that we can point to from our own lives that represent this incarnational understanding of the world.
So, here in our passage today is Jesus as THE example, the Incarnation with a capital I, the Word incarnate, the perfect revelation of God on earth, shown to us as a snotty teenager talking back to his parents! Luke has some guts showing us such a picture, doesn’t he? Maybe there is a reason none of the other Gospel writers include this story. It is a little messy, isn’t it? In fact, William Danaher calls this one of the “messy moments” of the Incarnation. He goes on to say:

The incarnation teaches that God can be found even in difficult familial circumstances. It teaches that God’s wisdom is available to the young as well as the old, which means that we must make room for God to surprise us with unexpected revelations given by unusual messengers…The incarnation represents the moment in which this wisdom enters the human sphere in all its contradictions, so that nothing is left without transformation and transfiguration.

So, he says, Luke is reminding us that these messy moments are inherent to the way that incarnation works. God comes to us, not always in the serene and perfect and quiet moments, but in the messy, chaotic, unexpected moments as well. I think that we owe Luke a measure of gratitude for showing us this picture of Jesus. In it, we understand more deeply who God is – to become not only a child in the manger, but a teenager telling his parents to get off his case!

We should be thankful that Luke had such courage to share such a story. Very few of us like talking about those uncomfortable years, do we? How many of you all enjoy going back and looking at pictures of when you were 12 years old? Or reading your journals or diaries or writings from that age? It feels a little weird, doesn’t it? Feels awkward and embarrassing. There is a reason why the Gospels avoid this time of life. It’s always messy. Our bodies are changing. Our minds are changing. Our relationships with our parents are changing. Our relationships with our peers are changing. Look at all the ways that this passage is a perfect portrayal of Jesus’ humanity as a preteen. How easily we can identify!
1. Jesus’ very earliest recorded word in the Gospels is the question “why?” How similar is that to the teenage or pre-teen questioning that many of us engaged in. Why do we do it that way? Why I do I have to? Why should I listen to you?
2. Jesus responds to his parents with words that are just a little snotty, don’t you think? It won’t be the last time that we cringe over Jesus’ words to his mother or family, but this is obviously the first. His response is all too familiar to many – “Come on, mom and dad, don’t you know that this is where I want to be? Am supposed to be?”
3. Jesus is testing and trying out his identity, even his vocation, in the Temple. Just like preteens who dress one way and hang out with one group one month, and then dress another way and hang out with another group the next month, Jesus is discerning his own identity. All healthy adults have had to go through that process of differentiation, or distinction from our families of origin. Luke makes this point clearly by differentiating between these two ideas of “father”. Mary tells Jesus, “your father and I have been searching for you with great anxiety.” But Jesus response to them is “did you not know that I would be in my Father’s house.” He is trying to figure out the difference between his earthly father and his heavenly Father, and in the process, trying to make sense of his own identity as both divine and human.
If this feels a little uncomfortable to talk about Jesus in this way, then perhaps you understand why most of the Gospel readers avoid Jesus’ teen and preteen years like the plague. It smacks a little too much of humanity in ways that feel like it takes away from his divinity. But again, it’s William Danaher that reminds us to hang onto that apparent ambiguity. He reminds us that in the Incarnation, “the divine completes, but does not obliterate, human nature in all its fullness and complexity.”

Those uncomfortable stories of Jesus in his preteen years, or of his less-than-cozy conversations with his family, or of his hard sayings and tough teachings, are all teaching us the true power of the Incarnation. If we apply this story of the “big I” Incarnation of Jesus to the “little I” incarnation of our own lives, then we start to have a primer on how to watch for those incarnational moments in our own lives.

First, embrace the messy moments of your life. How often do we tend to gloss over, at least when we get to church, the messiness of our own lives? I read in the USA Today this week that 41% of Millennials on social media get jealous of other’s “happy” posts. I have talked before about the “Facebook effect,” where folks see everyone else’s cleaned up and perfected and “happy” lives on social media and get jealous, depressed, or even suicidal because they feel like their own life doesn’t measure up. And it’s not just social media – we can have the same effect by reading those Christmas card updates that only tend to tell the good things that are happening. What would it take for us to “embrace the messy”? Our passage tells us that the incarnational moments in our lives are not just the clean and “Christmas-card-ready” or “Instagram-ready” ones. In fact, we can probably look back on some of the darkest, hardest moments of our lives as those that God has been most present to us. So why don’t we embrace those moments more? Share them with others? Even count them as blessings? I can imagine Clark Griswold looking back on that chaotic scene from the movie as one that proved how much his family loved him, and how blessed he is even when the house is a disaster and the Christmas bonus doesn’t come through. Embrace the messy! Brene Brown says “The magic is in the mess:”

Every year as I think about my own life and reflect upon what my family and what many of the people around me are going through this Christmas, it’s clear that struggle doesn’t take off for the holidays.

The gremlins don’t go on vacation. Checks bounce, chemotherapy appointments are scheduled, interventions are planned, relationships keep unraveling, being alone feels even lonelier, parents negotiate who will have the kids on Christmas morning, and the “never enoughs” are in full swing.

As I prepare to spend the next few days with my family and friends I come back to this: I will find my holiday magic in the mess. I will practice love and gratitude with the special group of folks who keep showing up and loving me, not despite my vulnerabilities, but because of them.

Great words. Embrace the mess…God’s holiest moments of incarnation live there!
Second, embrace the messy conversations in our life. Jesus and the teachers of the law were engaged in a conversation that anticipates a lot of uncomfortable conversations between he and the scribes and teachers and Pharisees. Jesus never ran away from those hard conversations, even as a twelve year old. Likewise, I have said before how important it is for us in the church to not run away from those hard conversations. Where we don’t necessarily agree, but still love each other enough to enter into and stay engaged in the conversation. Now, I am not talking about bringing up whatever presidential candidate that you know will set your uncle off at Christmas Dinner. That is not a messy conversation, at least not a helpful one. But entering into a conversation in which you truly yearn to hear and learn from another, even be changed by the hearing, that is another matter. And those who listened to Jesus in that way went away changed and transformed.

Finally, embrace the messy characters in our life. Look at your life and ask who it is who might teach you about the messiness of life, including and maybe especially teenagers. Instead of avoiding them, afraid that they will remind us of our own awkwardness and identity confusion, why don’t we embrace those individuals in our lives? If the “big I Incarnation” began with an unwed mother, and smelly shepherds, and a snot-nosed teenager, then perhaps the moments of “little i incarnation” might give us a similar motley crew of characters. Embrace those in your life who frustrate you, embarrass you, confuse you, taking the attitude that they might be the very ones who God might be using to teach and transform you. That doesn’t mean that you have to agree with their every decision, or follow them into dysfunction, or fail to set boundaries especially if you happen to be their parent or authority figure of one of these characters. But even then, you can still look at them as children of God, as agents of God’s incarnation. Embrace the messy characters of your life, and see what happens.

The Christmas Vacation movie – of course – ends up happy and cozy and Christmas card perfect, with no more chaos or messiness. But rarely do our lives end that way. But this Christmas season, and into a new year, may we see that it is the messiness and craziness and chaos that so often gives us opportunity to see God at work. Embrace the mess, and find yourself being embraced by the transformative love of God on earth.

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