GOOD NEWS OF THE INCARNATION
While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, 7 and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. (Luke 2:7, NIV)
Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.” (Luke 2:11-12, NIV)
My friend Chris Altrock in his new and highly recommended book, NEWSWORTHY, says the birth of Jesus calls the church to be a community of good news in some very specific ways.
First, Chris points to the risks and intimacy of Jesus being born into the world. Luke 2:7 shows at least three perils Jesus endured:
- "She gave birth to her firstborn son"--Jesus endured the hazards of birth, and anyone who's given birth knows them, not to mention babies were being killed as a political expedient by King Herod because he'd heard a prophesy that a new king was being born about the same age.
- "Wrapped him in swaddling clothes"--Jesus endured helplessness.
- "And laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn"--Jesus endured homelessness.
The author of Hebrews helps us understand why it's important that Jesus endured these perils: Chris says, "Jesus' hazards in birth mean he sympathizes with our hazards in life . . . And this makes our gospel very good news to the world. Our message to the world is not that we have an emperor who sits protected behind closed doors. We have a Savior who chose a path to intimacy with us that left him open to disease and discomfort. In this world of attacks and accidents, of wounds and weariness, we present a message to the world of a Savior who knows the same. That's good news.
Chris concludes with a story about Gregory Boyle, a Jesuit priest, who decided not just to present a message of birthing newness but to be that incarnational (enfleshed as God in Jesus the Son). In the 1990s nearly 2,000 people were dying each year from gang violence and 90,000 were gang members. Gregory Boyle entered the lives of gang members and started a program to provide job skills and employment opportunities.
Boyle raised millions of dollars for the program and had great success, but he also buried more than 200 gang members who were his friends, and the offices of what became known as "Homeboy Industries" received bomb threats and targeted attacks. But he and his congregation continue to draw near to the gangs in spite of the hazards, because that's what Jesus did.
At one point, the church began to second guess the wisdom of this ministry and called a parish meeting. The hall was packed, and this was an opportunity to support or reject Boyle's leadership. Then two parish members, Teresa Navarro and Paula Hernandez, stood up and invoked Jesus life as their model: "We help gang members at this parish because it is what Jesus would do." People applauded and never looked back.
"Jesus' birth calls the church to be a birthing community--a community that faces peril in order to draw near to others. This makes us good news in a world so desperate for it," Chris said.
Next Chris says Luke 2 shows us how Jesus was swaddled, a real sign of helplessness. Babies don't warm or care for themselves. They are swaddled, warmed, and protected by their mothers and other caretakers. The image of childbirth and swaddling was used in Job 38:8-11 and Ezekiel 16:4-5 to show Israel how helpless they were as God chose to covenant with them as their God and they would be His people. Now Jesus comes into the world and is swaddled. The Messiah enters the world as a helpless baby, swaddled.
Chris asks, Why does Jesus embrace helplessness? "Jesus embraced helplessness so that the church would embrace the helpless. Because the church follows a Savior who chose to be helpless and in need of swaddling, we must now choose to become a community that swaddles all who are helpless. The church enacts the good news of Christmas when it becomes a swaddling community--a community who takes in and upholds the helpless. The nativity challenges the church to be a community where it's OK to say, 'I need help. I need swaddling; I don't have it all together; I'm cold and need warmth."
Chris quotes Rachel Held Evans from her book, Searching for Sunday, about what happens when people start bringing their pain, doubts, or uncomfortable truths into the church:
. . . someone immediately grabs it out of their hands to try and fix it, to try and make it go away . . . Convinced the gospel is a product we've got to sell to an increasingly shrinking market, we like our people to function as walking advertisements: happy, put-together, finished--proof that this Jesus stuff WORKS! . . . 'The world is watching," Christians like to say, 'so let's be on our best behavior and quickly hide the mess. Let's throw up some before-and-after shots and roll that flashy footage of our miracle product blanching out every sign of dirt, hiding every sign of disease.' But if the world is watching, we might as well tell the truth. And the truth is, the church doesn't offer a cure. It doesn't offer a quick fix . . . The church offers the messy, inconvenient, gut-wrenching, never-ending work of healing and reconciliation. The church offers grace. Anything else we try to peddle is snake oil."
Chris closes this section of the book telling a story on himself, about how once he changed his Memphis church yellow pages ad (back when churches placed such ads!). It had said, "Sinners and downtrodden welcome." That didn't sound like the successful church Chris wanted as a young preacher. After erasing those words from the next year's ad, Chris later realized that if there's anything that makes the church good news, it's that very thing: sinners and downtrodden are welcome . . . "The most helpless are welcome, because the church is a swaddling community."
After giving birth and swaddling the baby Jesus, Mary "laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn." Chris says, "In the nativity, Jesus not only faced hazardousness and helplessness. He faced homelessness. Newborn Jesus was homeless."
"And the one who was born in a manger calls his people to be a manger community--a home for those who seem to have none."
Several young adults at The Journey have led our church to be friends with homeless neighbors in downtown Tulsa, and a group of our retired ladies have led us to be friends with homeless and hurting people in East Tulsa. The ladies pray with people who are experiencing financial, family, and spiritual difficulties, and this time of prayer, conversation, and shared humanity is very important to who we believe God to be: a God who chose birth into our world, helpless swaddling, and the experience of homelessness. The ladies help discern if helping the person with a bill is empowering or enabling an unhealthy dependence, but mostly we side with mercy and the realization that we're all helpless and need the help of others. The young adults who help lead "Night Light" in downtown Tulsa serve our neighbors who come for food, drink, conversation, prayer, foot washing, books, haircuts, and love and broken down walls between rich and poor.
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, You are community! You have changed our perspective of the Trinity because we've come to see you as a loving fellowship wanting to give birth to humanity, to Jesus into humanity, and to experience what we experience and surround us with your love in all creation. We want to be a birthing, swaddling, manger community. Please help us learn what that means and to take next steps to become that kind of community.
Join us Tuesdays 9-11 am at The Journey Outpost or Thursdays 6:30 pm behind David L. Moss Tulsa County Jail under the bridge for Night Light.
Greg Taylor preaches for The Journey. Greg's wife, Jill, teaches math at Broken Arrow High School and Tulsa Community College. Greg and Jill have three adult children, Ashley, Anna, and Jacob. Greg is the author of many books, including his latest co-authored with Randy Harris, Daring Faith: Meeting Jesus in the Book of John.