Quite a few years ago I saw a cartoon in the paper around Christmas that stuck with me. Showed a young man standing outside a house, looking devastated. “I put so much thought into that gift,” he said. “It wasn't just a gift, it was a part of me, and she rejected it. How could she do that? I feel like she didn't just reject my gift, she rejected me.” And then a voice from the sky responds, “I know how you feel.”
I love that cartoon because it really makes you think, doesn't it? How often do we do that to God? How often do we treat Christmas like the girlfriend of the young man in the cartoon, yeah thanks, whatever.
We spend all of Advent getting ready for Christmas, then we have one nice Christmas eve service, a big celebration on Christmas Day, and then it's pretty much back to normal. By Jan 2ndthe tree is down, the decorations put away and the gifts have been packed up, including God's gift to us. That may sound a bit harsh, but after Christmas, isn't there always a bit of a let down – and a bit of relief? After the busyness and stress of Christmas, it can be nice to get back to life as usual, to turn our minds to other things.
But that begs the question, what difference did Christmas make? What's the point if nothing changes - in our lives, in our church, in our world? I know you may be thinking, what is she going on about, this is way too heavy for right after Xmas, but bear with me.
I have noticed that if I ask adults what Christmas is about, most will say the birth of Jesus because they know that's what you're supposed to say when the minister asks you that. But if I ask what else is Christmas about, most people will respond something along the lines of, togetherness and family.
Well, togetherness and family are nice, but they aren't what Christmas is about. And if we think that's what God's gift at Christmas is about, then we're basically rejecting it, just like the girlfriend in that cartoon.
It's not entirely our fault. It's so easy to be sidetracked by Christmas cards and movies and songs, which drill into our heads that Christmas is about family and snow and being happy with loved ones. It's no wonder that many of us think the gift of Christmas is family and togetherness. But if we read the Bible, we see something quite different. We see that the gift of Christmas is incarnation – God made human, living with us, among us.
And that's what we need to really think about during season of Epiphany. Epiphany means revelation, sudden understanding. Each year we are invited to think once again about what the gift of incarnation means in our lives. The nice thing about Epiphany is that it's meant to be a time of celebration. That's why it'ss also called the season of light.
Where Lent encourages us to deep, solemn thinking, to look at the deep questions of our faith, Epiphany is lighter and happier. It's a good time to think about God's gifts to us, specifically God's gifts to us in Jesus.
So, let's look at that gift of incarnation. Incarnation means God living among us. We tend to use it when speaking of Jesus, but God can be incarnate, God can be felt and heard and seen through all of us. What makes Jesus different is the degree to which this happened.
There are many points of view on exactly how God was and is made incarnate in Jesus. The official view of the church for many years was that Jesus was fully human and fully divine. I don't know about you, but the math in that is hard to work out.
Some of you may remember back in the '90's when the moderator of the United Church at the time, Bill Phipps, made national headlines by suggesting in an interview that Jesus wasn't divine, he was just an exceptional human being
There are no easy answers to the question of how God is incarnate in Jesus. In the United Church many perspectives are accepted, from very traditional through to Bill Phipp's suggestion and beyond. Personally I find that rather than focusing on the logistics of incarnation, it's more helpful to focus on what incarnation means to our daily lives and to our world. What difference does it make?
Although I can't work out the math, I do like the idea that Jesus was both human and divine. To me there is great meaning in the idea that through Jesus, God truly lived the full human life: messy birth, nagging parents, conflict at work, fear, uncertainty and even an ugly death.
This is not a God who stays far removed from us and says, love one another, do good, be patient and kind, with no concept of the daily hurdles we face in trying to do those things. This is a God who has lived through the same challenges and joys that we face.
Through Jesus, God knows that some people are hard to love and others can be mean and just plain annoying, that it's hard to be patient and kind, but Jesus did it anyway, and that means we can too. To me, that's the greatest gift of Christmas, that God is with us, among us, understanding us.
Sometimes we get caught up in the divine side of Jesus, was he perfect? Did everything he said and did come directly from God? Personally, I doubt it. If Jesus was perfectly divine, then there's no room for being human, because as we all know, being human means making mistakes, having regrets.
But again, logistics don't matter. The gift of Christmas isn't just that God is incarnate in Jesus, it's that God is incarnate in each one of us. God is present in each one of us, wanting to work through us, love through us, heal through us.
Jesus gave us the guidelines, and God wants to live in each one us and help us to live by those guidelines. At Christmas we celebrate that gift, during Epiphany we figure out what it means this year.
Because each year is different, isn't it. Each year we face different challenges, different joys, different situations at home, at work and in our families. So each year we need to look at incarnation and think, where do I need God's presence this year, and where does God need my presence?
Take a minute to think about where you were at this time last year. What was going on in your life? What were the big issues? What were the big joys? What has changed, what is different this year? How does that affect where and how you need God in your life? And how does it affect how God might need you?
Some years we need to receive the gift of incarnation. Some years life is difficult and we need to feel God's love, God's patience, God's strength and understanding in order to just keep going. Other years we are called to give the gift of incarnation, we are called to be presence of God to others, to support them through hard times, to help, to teach, to love.
We see this reflected in the readings for today, traditional Epiphany readings. In Isaiah the people are promised they will receive the gift of God's light and presence, that other nations will bring them gifts of gold and incense. But at the same time, it's clear that Israel is also called to belight of God to these other nations, to bring the presence of God to them.
There's a similar theme in Matthew. The Magi bring gifts to Jesus because Jesus himself is the gift of God to all humanity. This isn't about converting people to Christianity, it'ss simply about sharing the light of God's love and presence with all people who need it.
Where are you at this year? Is this a year when you need to receive receive the gift of incarnation, the gift of God's light and presence? I know that some people are facing serious illness, either their own or that of a loved one.
Others are facing life changes, family changes, work changes, or are feeling it's time to make big changes, but feel unsure and scared.
For you this is probably a year to focus on receiving incarnation, a year to focus on drawing on God's strength, God's understanding, God's love. What is it you need? Even if you can't name what you need, be assured that God understands and is willing to help you.
For others, this may be year to be incarnation to others. Some of you may be feeling pretty good about life, feeling secure in family and work and faith, feeling ready to look around and see where you can help others. This doesn't mean you have to be perfect! Being incarnation, being the presence of God to others can be as simple as being a listening ear for someone going through a hard time, as bringing food to family where someone is sick, as volunteering for something new at church or in the larger community, and feeling good about it, rather than feeling it's one more burden. And many of us are probably in the middle, feeling the need to receive incarnation in some parts of life, but feeling ready to be presence of God in other aspects.
We do this as church too. We need moments when when experience incarnation as directly as possible, when feel presence and love of God in a powerful way together, a way that helps us to heal, to grow, to live as family of faith. And there are other times when we need to get ready to get out and be presence of God in the world around us.
Epiphany is the ideal time to think about God's gift of love to us. What does incarnation, God living in and through Jesus and through us, mean to you? To us?Where do you need God's presence this year, and where does God need you?
May God give us all the courage and the faith to look honestly at these questions during this time of celebration and light.