The incendiary prospect of proclaiming the Incarnation
Circle of Mercy, 26 November 2023
Invocation. “Not Dark Yet,” Bob Dylan
I’ve selected a number of texts that use the word “world” or “flesh.” If you are able, please stand for this reading of Scripture.
• On the one hand, 1st John’s epistle, we are admonished to “Love not the things of this world. If any love the world, love of the Abba is not in them” (2:15).
• But on the other hand, says John’s Gospel: “God so loved the world that he gave God’s only begotten child.” (3:16).
• One the one hand, God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence.” (Genesis 6:13).
• But on the other hand, Isaiah wrote, “Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken” (40:5).
• On the one hand, John wrote, “If you belonged to the world, the world would love you. . . . [B]ut I have chosen you out of the world, therefore the world hates you.” (John 15:19)
• But on the other hand, says the psalmist, “The earth is the Lord’s and all that is in it, the world, and those who live in it” (24:1)
• On the one hand, God declares in Genesis, “My spirit shall not abide in mortals forever, for they are flesh (6:3).
• But on the other hand, Luke declares “all flesh shall see the salvation of God” (3:6) and Revelation announces in the end that “the home of God is among mortals” (21:3).
• On the one hand, Jesus, while being interrogated by Pontius Pilate, the Roman ruler of Judea, said “My kingdom is not of this world” (John 18:36).
• But on the other hand, in his vision of the end of days, John the Revelator writes, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Messiah, and he will reign forever and ever” (11:15)
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Hymn of lament. “Broken bottles, broken plates, / Broken switches, broken gates, / Broken dishes, broken parts, / Streets are filled with broken hearts. / Broken words never meant to be spoken, / Everything is broken.” —“Everything Is Broken,” performed by R.L. Burnside
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I could go on much longer with these examples, but I think you my meaning.
To understand the cascade of brutal circumstances in which we live, we need to dig deep into our texts. And in digging into our texts, we need to interrogate how they have been interpreted.
When Scripture speaks of the “world” or “flesh,” sometime it is speaking of creation; but sometimes it is alluding to the corruption infecting God’s good creation.
The distinction the “world” and the “earth” is subtle but crucial. In fact, “the world”—in the pejorative sense—means that complex system of animus, corruption, and violence that confronts us at every turn.
There is a major flaw in English translations of what is meant by the words “world” and “flesh.” In the formation work most of us have experienced, disregard for “worldly” or “fleshly” things has been drilled into our imaginations, which has pushed behavioral implications toward an orientation to the afterlife.
As James McClendon puts it so succinctly in the first volume of his systematic theology, “We do not believe that the God we know will have to do with THINGS. Yet this biblical materialism is the very fiber of which the first strand of Christian ethics is formed.”
The greatest failure in the history of Christian thought is the separation of souls from bodies, spirit from soil, the wrenching of hearts from habitation—all representing the abdication of the realm of Earth from the rule of Heaven. It is the great anthropomorphic heresy: that redemption is for humans alone, and then only for some ethereal essence in the realm beyond the sky: no bodies, no biology, no hills or dales, neither minnows nor whales.
I have a story to tell, but first let’s do a quick opinion poll. I want you to raise your hand if you have ever taken part in “Baptist Training Union.” [allow time]
Ah, the rest of you don’t know what you missed! (And just as well!!)
Training union was the Sunday evening educational event parallel to the morning’s Sunday School. Instead of Bible study, it was when we learned about everything from Baptist history and theology all the way over to warnings about the slippery moral slope of drinking, dancing, smoking, cussing, and communism.
In my Training Union class, we started with singing. We had our own youth hymnal with a lot of up-tempo tunes. One of favorites was a lively song called “This World Is Not My Home.” Our choir is going to offer you a flavor.
“This world is not my home I’m just passing through
my treasures are laid up somewhere beyond the blue
the angels beckon me from Heaven’s open door
and I can’t feel at home in this world anymore.”
That sentiment is behind much of the church’s vision and mission. And it is an apostasy.
The believing community’s message has been something like this: Believe in Jesus, do the right things on earth, be overtly pious, be nice (unless it’s inconvenient), then you will be rewarded in heaven. The thrust of this message is that fleshly life is at best a prelude to the real thing; at worst, breathly life is a testing-ground filled with temptations; we grit our teeth and make down payments on our heavenly mansion to come. [summarizing John Douglas Hall in “Christian Mission: The Stewardship of Life in the Kingdom of Death”]
I have six brief conclusions drawn from my own spiritual journey, for your consideration and correction.
1. Early in my post-adolescent faith journey, I came to realize this core truth: God is more taken with the agony of the earth than with the ecstasy of heaven. And that’s what the Christian doctrine of the Incarnation is all about—a topic we will focus on starting next Sunday with the beginning of Advent.
2. Heaven and earth are not spatially segregated realms of existence, with heaven “up there” and the earth “down here”; rather, heaven and earth are relational and intersecting realities. Ours is a bodified faith. Living “in the Spirit” results in the flourishing of both human and ecological life.
3. The Holy Spirit always traffics in human affairs. But the tidings she announces are not disclosed in the seats of legislative power, in corporate boardrooms, to the Joint Chiefs of Staff, or in celebrity ballrooms. She always moves to the margins, to the refugee camps, to the wrong side of the tracks, wherever the disposable are gathered.
4. A few decades ago I realized that there actually is a truth in the old hymn “This World Is Not My Home,” when you understand that “home” is not a welcoming place when you live on the street; when you lack food, clean water, and health care; when your voice is silenced in public policy councils, and your zip code predicts your family income and educational opportunities; when you realize the world is segregated between makers and takers, when the rules of the game mean “eat or be eaten.”
Oppressed people have—and do—speak and sing of “heaven” not as pie-in-the sky but as a coded act of resistance to repressive rule. Doing so keeps alive the memory, and the anticipation, of freedom. Such memories are like banked fireplaces, hot coals buried and kept alive within the ash, awaiting the opportune moment of new kindling.
5. Figuring out ways to accompany those with no access to earth’s table of bounty, in a multitude of ways, is a core part of our mission. But another core part is more important: Living in compassionate proximity to the least, the last, and the unloved is where we clarify who we are and what we are to do. In other words, there is a geography of faith, because what we see depends on where we stand.
6. Finally, as he often does, Clarence Jordan says it with brevity and imagination: “God is not in the heavens and all’s well on the earth. [God] is on this earth and all hell’s broke loose!” Incarnation unleashed, igniting Gospel goodness in the oddest of places: Our job is to spot those times and places and people, and join in.
May it be so with us—here and now—as we continue leaning toward the time when all Heaven’s gonna break out: growing in God’s disarming grace, in the Spirit’s disruptive and reconstructive Incarnation, in joining the incendiary walk with Jesus.
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Benediction. “Lord, dismiss us with thy blessing; / Fill our hearts with joy and peace. / Let us each, thy love possessing, / Triumph in redeeming grace. / Oh, refresh us, oh, refresh us, / Trav’ling thru this wilderness.” —“Lord Dismiss Us With Thy Blessing,” performed by the Mormon Tabernacle Choir
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