Sermon by Rev. Deborah Hannay Sunoo
In this season of the church year, the whole thing – the glory of the angels, the shepherds abiding in the field, the greenery and banners, the candles and carols – all of it comes down to one miraculous event. One outrageous claim.
Over the centuries we’ve invented so many theological words to talk about it, composed so many beautiful songs to sing about it, that sometimes we forget how wild it is.
The Creator of the Universe, the Lord of Heaven and Earth, chose to put on an earth suit. Chose to live a human life. Seriously? What was God thinking?
If you’re a fan of the Netflix show “The Good Place” you may be familiar with their take on this. Maya Rudolph plays a character called Judge Gen who, while she may not fit the Christian understanding of God, exactly, is in that fictional world the Judge of the Universe. In one of my favorite scenes, human characters whose eternal fate is on the line have been pleading for mercy, trying to convey to her how hard it is to be human. One of them argues: “You can’t judge humans, ‘cause you don’t know what we go through.” To which she replies: OK. “I’ll give it a shot. I’ll go down there. See what you guys go through.” With a nod toward heavenly timelines being vastly different from our own, she’s back in a flash having circled the globe and taken it all in. Her verdict? “That was roouugh! Sheesh! Earth is a mess y’all… Also, I guess I’m Black and they do not like Black ladies down there.” Asked where she went, she replies: “Tanzania, Paraguay, Vietnam, Denmark… It’s terrible everywhere and always in a different way… Earth stinks, y’all. It’s hot and it’s crowded but also somehow cold and lonely. I thought it was going to be so easy.”
We could get into some fascinating conversations about the theology of “The Good Place.” The writers clearly enjoyed both borrowing from major world religions and adding in twists all their own. We could also debate whether Judge Gen’s assessment is entirely correct – at least whether earth “stinks” to the degree she concluded. But it’s hard to argue that human life isn’t difficult, and complicated, and messy.
I highly recommend a healthy dose of author Anne Lamott’s candor when you’re feeling the weight of it all. “Being human can be so dispiriting,” she notes. “It is a real stretch for me a lot of the time.” “It is ridiculous how hard life is,” she says elsewhere, and “this business of being issued a body is deeply confusing – another thing I’d like to bring up with God. Bodies are so messy and disappointing.” (I should perhaps also point out that these observations come in books with words like Hope and Grace in their titles. It’s well worth dipping into Lamott’s wisdom now and then to see how she gets from here to there.)
Between my own recent foot surgery and my husband’s recent cancer diagnosis, certainly we’re in the middle of our latest round of bodily mess and disappointment this year. But I know enough of your stories to know you have vastly more experience than you’d like with the challenge of living in human bodies, too, and having your loved ones do the same. What the heck with all this pain and illness and tragedy? Frankly flesh and blood can take a decent amount of work to maintain even on our best days, and that’s without a global pandemic reminding us constantly of the fragility of this “mortal coil.” Doesn’t it almost make you wonder sometimes if the Gnostics were onto something? At least their belief in matter being bad and spirit being good? I mean, wouldn’t it be nice every now and then to be able to kind of float above all of this, leaving the messy bits behind? But, of course, that isn’t at all how life works. Nor is it particularly biblical to try to separate body from spirit. We are designed to be a single unit: heart, soul, mind, and strength together. (e.g. Mark 12:30)
Let’s remember, too, that all humans face physical challenges – not just those of us living in comfortable homes who are comfortably privileged. If we find the limitations of our own bodies rough, armed with decent health insurance and good doctors and sufficient funds to feed ourselves and warm homes in which to catch up on needed rest, how much harder must it be for those in more difficult circumstances? Those walking around in differently colored skin than mine, for instance. Those born into places or circumstances or bodies that make life enormously more challenging than my own. Life in any human form can be tough at times, but we also know life is significantly harder for some of us than for others.
Somehow for all of us in every circumstance comes this same gift of the incarnation. God taking on mortal form. Stepping into a body of flesh and blood that presumably did the kinds of things flesh and blood does in our bodies. So that – whatever else may be the case – we don’t find ourselves in the position of saying to the Judge of the Universe: “you don’t know what we go through.” The miracle of the incarnation means God knows.
And because God chose to be born into a specific family experiencing poverty, into a specific birthplace occupied by colonizers, into a specific human story that included the terror of fleeing violent soldiers in the middle of the night, and gruesome executions for protestors the powerful found troublesome, there’s still more God knows about the heartbreak and pain that a human life can bring.
But you may have noticed I’ve left out something rather important so far, and that is the tremendous beauty and joy that we can experience in these bodies of ours too. The love and the laughter. The hugs and the hikes. The music we get to enjoy and the food we get to taste and the amazing sights and smells and textures of the world around us – what a gift to have eyes that allow us to take in a spectacular sunset, for instance, a nose that can appreciate fresh bread in the oven, fingers that can experience the softness of a puppy’s fur, taste buds that can enjoy a delicious holiday pie. Not to mention, for all the challenges they bring us, human bodies really are designed in miraculous ways to work as well as they do most of the time. Every heartbeat pulsing blood through our veins. Every breath giving us life. All the messages constantly being processed in our brains. So many things we take for granted.
Jesus would have experienced these good things as well.
The temptation through the ages has been to soften the rough edges around this scandalous teaching of the incarnation. Perhaps Jesus wasn’t really human; he just appeared human. Or maybe he was just an incredibly admirable man, and not really God. But on the whole Christian tradition has stubbornly clung to his both-ness. To Jesus being fully God and fully human. If that doesn’t make sense to you, it just shows you’re paying attention. It doesn’t make sense, at least not in the same way we’d normally wrap our human minds around something: a math equation, for instance, or a logic problem needing to be solved. But much as I prefer to understand things thoroughly, I take comfort in the fact that anything or anyone I could wrap my human mind around fully would not be worthy of my worship. That’s the God part. It seems to me that if we eliminate mystery, we sacrifice divinity. And without the divinity, where would we be?
It’s precisely the absurdity of the incarnation that gave us Immanuel, God with us, in a whole new way in the person of Jesus. Into this remarkable-yet-complicated, amazing-but-messy human existence, God chose to be born. Our Creator could have chosen to stay far off and removed from it all. But God so loved this beautiful-broken human world that God came and lived and died as one of us in the person of Jesus. In a body that was susceptible to sickness and injury but also enjoyed a good meal with his friends. In a body that could wield a hammer, tell a good story hug a child on his lap… a body that also experienced physical danger, torture and execution.
Fortunately, the execution of that human body wasn’t the final chapter. As people of the resurrection, we know the story that begins with creation and takes a decisive turn with the incarnation also includes Jesus walking out of his own grave. We know that story continues with the living presence of Christ in the world even now, God’s Spirit blowing breath and life into places we’d be tempted to call godforsaken. We know, too, that the story won’t end until God wipes away every tear, and death is no more and mourning and crying and pain is no more. (Revelation 21:4)
In other words, we are people of hope who believe there are limits to the limitations of human bodies. That even when this mortal flesh of ours comes to an end, it isn’t really the end.
Samuel Wells puts it this way:
"In the kingdom of God, nothing bad lasts forever. It may be terrible; it may last a long time. But in the kingdom of God, nothing bad lasts forever. Or to put it another way, for Christians, the future is always bigger than the past. However much we suffer, however much we hurt, however much we regret, God will always be able to take our fragility, our failure, our foolishness, our grief, our bitterness, our sorrow, and gather it into the kingdom. The past is limited; the future is eternal. The past is flawed; the future is beyond bounds. For Christians, the future is always bigger than the past."
He also reminds us: “Because you know this suffering will end, you can say how bad it is right now and name your worst fears.”
That’s the power of lament, right? A lesson we’ve learned over the last couple years from the book of Job and from the Psalms. It’s ok to “say how bad it is right now and to name [our] worst fears.” God’s listening. God can take it.
What’s more, the beauty of the Incarnation is that whatever you’re going through, whatever joy you’re experiencing today and whatever mix of messy human complications is weighing you down, God knows. The God who is there has also been there. God knows. God sympathizes. God cares. And God stands ready to transform even your darkest moments with the gift of God’s light.
The absurd truth we celebrate this time each year is that God so loved the world that God wanted to get it, really get it, about what this human life is like. To experience it fully, both the good and the bad. To address, if you will, that “Good Place” character’s lament: “you don’t know what we go through.”
Friends, God knows. For Immanuel has come.
Borrowing the words of Samuel Wells again, “We’ll never be ready, and some of us are in a real mess. But here’s the good news: Christ is coming anyway.” Amen.
 “The Time Knife,” season 3 episode 11 of “The Good Place”
 Anne Lamott, Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace, p. 185.
 Anne Lamott, Almost Everything: Notes on Hope, p. 98.
 Lamott, Small Victories, p. 227
 William Shakespeare, “Hamlet,” Act 3, scene 1
 Samuel Wells, “Coming, Ready or Not: The Character of Advent Hope” in Journal for Preachers, Advent 2021, p. 10.
 Wells, p. 12.
 Wells, p. 13.