Emmanuel Baptist Church

275 State St.  Albany, NY 12210
(518) 465-5161

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A Welcoming and Affirming Congregation

Minister:  Rev. Kathy J. Donley

This Will Be a Sign

Rev. Kathy Donley

Advent Week 4 - 12/24/17


Scripture Lesson:  Luke 2:1-20


If you were God about two thousand years ago and you were planning the Incarnation, how would you do it?  I mean, God came in the form of a human baby to communicate with human beings, but what if that was not God’s first idea.  What were some other options?

I wonder if God considered coming as an alien.  I’m serious.  If there is sentient life on other planets, I wonder if God thought about visiting earth as some other species.  Surely that would have gotten our attention, wouldn’t it?

Or what about a non-human earth creature?  Most of you know that I am fascinated by whales.  I like some human beings, but I have never seen a whale I did not love.  So what if God came as a whale? Whales are highly intelligent.  What if God came as a whale who could have communicated with people who live on coastlines and go out in boats.  Don’t you think that the a whale with a message from God would have had an impact?

Maybe God had other ideas before settling on a human baby.  If it had been my plan, and I had decided on coming as a human being, I would have tried for the biggest impact, like someone with a big platform to spread the message far and wide.  Maybe someone with economic power, a billionaire with business connections all over the world.  Or someone with political power, a recognized world leader.  Or maybe a scholar, a widely published, but accessible university professor or Nobel Prize winner.  Maybe even a Hollywood celebrity, but that really doesn’t seem like God’s style. 

Obviously, it was not God’s style to come in any of those forms.  Instead, God’s choice was consistent with the God of Scripture, who tended to choose the outsiders, the foreigners, the folks associated with some scandal, those who no one really expected to succeed. 

God chose Zechariah and Elizabeth,  two ordinary old people, who were not defined by their infertility, even though it was an important part of their life story.   God chose Mary, who as far as we know, was an ordinary peasant girl in Nazareth.  She was engaged to Joseph, who was descended from royalty, but that did not seem to put him among the rich and famous. 

And then, according to Luke, God chose the shepherds. “By the time of Jesus, shepherding had become a profession most likely to be filled from the bottom rung of the social ladder, by persons who could not find what was regarded as decent work. Society stereotyped shepherds as liars, degenerates, and thieves. The testimony of shepherds was not admissible in court, and many towns had ordinances barring shepherds from their city limits.”[1] 

Shepherds were not well regarded by religious leaders either.  Their tending of sheep kept them from observing the Sabbath.  The Pharisees classed shepherds with tax collectors and prostitutes.[2]  Sending the angels to the shepherds with a mission is entirely consistent with the God of the Hebrew scriptures who worked through Rahab the Prostitute and Jacob the Trickster and Ruth the Foreigner, all of whom were in Jesus’ family tree. 

The angels appear to the shepherds out in the fields with the flocks, and after their usual “do not be afraid”, the angels say “a baby is born to you.”  Not a baby is born to Mary.  Not a baby is born to the house of David.  But a “baby is born to you”.   Born to you shepherds, born to you who are usually shunned and unvalued.  This baby is born to you and God has sent the angels to you to tell you about it.

The shepherds talked it over and then went to find this baby.  The only reason we even know this part of the story two thousand years later is because these anonymous shepherds were obedient.  So much for my ideas about needing to get the message out through a big and influential platform. 

This leads me to an idea that is so contrary to my usual expectations that I can only hold it in my mind in little pieces.  I tend to think of the Incarnation as the great God of the universe being reduced, stripped of power and shrunk to human size.  But perhaps I don’t have it quite right.   In Philippians 2, Paul refers to Christ who was equal with God but emptied himself to be found in human form.  In 1 Corinthians 1 Paul writes, “God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; God chose what is low and despised in the world, things that are not, to reduce to nothing things that are,”

Perhaps it is not that God is huge and powerful on a cosmic scale.  Perhaps the nature of God’s power is fundamentally what we see in Jesus – vulnerability, courage to risk, self-giving love.  If that is the nature of God’s power, then perhaps it is the definition of all true power.  Perhaps the power at the heart of the universe is actually love.  Not sweet sappy, flowers and unicorns love, but vulnerability, risk-taking, courageous love.

John Buchanan was the pastor of Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago for 27 years and he was editor of The Christian Century for many years also.  In a sermon shortly before he retired, he said this,

“You know, there is a sense in which we still want a God who will powerfully intercede in human affairs and our personal affairs, to put things right, to bring peace to the world, to establish justice in our city, to heal our diseases and make us whole. We still, some of us at least, want a practical God, a useful God, a God who is good for something, a divine intercession that will help us with our career, sell our condo, or find a parking place. And the stunning assertion of Christmas is that God does come to help us, save us, set us free—by calling love out of us. The stunning assertion of Christmas is that God does come to establish justice in our community, fairness in our economic and social structures, even peace in the world, not by an iron fist, not by imperial fiat, not by a list of rules, but by love, by giving us the gift we truly need, the ability to love and to give and then to do it—work to establish justice and fairness and peace, you and me, because we know ourselves to be loved and called to live out that love every day of our lives.”[3]

How does God change the world?  By calling love out of us, in small places and big places, in ways that are known to many people and almost not known at all, over and over again, from one generation to the next.  This is so not the one epic event of world transformation that I keep wishing for.  But I think it is true.

Let me remind us about some people we know about.   For today, I am going to call them Mary and Joseph.  [What followed was a story about a husband and wife facing difficult circumstances in another part of the world. Their story is not shared here to protect them.]

I am calling them Mary and Joseph to protect their identities and because there are some parallels with the Biblical Mary and Joseph, but I am really thinking of the ways that they are like the shepherds.  We would never have heard of them,  except for this plea that came to us from a mutual friend.  But they could be stand-ins for many other anonymous unpublicized faithful disciples who serve God in places on the margins, like shepherd’s fields or urban street corners or refugee camps.  They are not business tycoons or Nobel Prize winners.  They do not have a big platform.  But they have made a difference among hundreds of refugees because of the love God has called out from them. 

It’s the same kind of love that was called out from Emmanuel’s leadership when you decided to wire $1500 to a foreign bank to help them.    As their baby announcement letter said, “You have shown compassion to a little baby for whom there was no room in the inns of the conflicted inter-religious politics of the Middle East.  God has a purpose for this family, and you have helped shelter them in a time of need so they can step into their future with more confidence.”

If you were God about two thousand years ago and you were planning the Incarnation, how would you do it?  Let me offer a contemporary parable as one last possible answer.   This is Josh Lyman, the White House Deputy Chief of Staff on the TV show, The West Wing. This is his boss, Leo McGarry, White House Chief of Staff.  Leo is also an alcoholic in recovery.  In a previous episode, Josh was shot in an assassination attempt on another member of the staff.  He was traumatized and is suffering from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, but he has been trying to hide that from the rest of the staff because he thinks that if they know, he will be removed from his job.  This clip starts after he has spent several hours with a therapist who specializes in PTSD. 


At Christmas, we remember that Jesus became human to jump into the hole with us.  And Jesus the human being has experienced what we have, he has been in the hole and knows the way out.   Jesus jumps into whatever hole we are in, to help us, to save us, to set us free, by calling love out of us.  Because the truest, strongest, most enduring power at the heart of the universe is actually love.   And the sign of that powerful love is a vulnerable baby wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.  Thanks be to God.   Amen.

[1] Craig Satterlee at  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1522

[2] Craig Satterlee at  http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=1522

[3] http://www.fourthchurch.org/sermons/2011/121811.html