Almost exactly fourteen years ago, I relaxed at home with my family on my Christmas break. My plans for seeing family and friends stopped short when I woke up one morning with what I thought was stomach flu. I called a friend to cancel our lunch plans even though, as the day progressed, it became very clear it was something worse. Even though the pain localized to my lower right abdomen and demonstrated rebound pain, both classic symptoms of acute appendicitis, I didn’t go to the doctor. I waited until the next morning, when I was in such pain that I couldn’t stand up straight, and my mom had to drive me to the closest emergency room over 45 minutes away while I slowly stopped responding. I had emergency surgery that night and spent my first day in a hospital.
The next morning, my friend called me in my hospital room. He asked how it felt to know I would have been only another victim of a lack of modern medicine. As it turns out, the only person to die on the Lewis and Clark expedition died of appendicitis.
What on earth does this have to do with Christmas? Well, first of all, let me remind you that it’s not Christmas. Not yet, at least. From the perspective of the church calendar, this very moment is Advent four, the last Sunday of the Advent season where we prepare ourselves for the newborn Christ child. But it’s okay to think about Christmas, since most of you are anyway, and this congregation will move directly from Advent to Christmas in about an hour. Right now, we stand on the hinge between waiting and arriving. We have a unique opportunity this morning to pause, to consider what comes next, and to pray and reflect on what it means that Jesus is born.
And that’s why I’m telling you about the time my own body revolted against me. Because we will be tempted today to think of the coming of our God as something glorious, something sparkly, something perfect and shiny and slick. But that’s not the Christmas we get. Instead, we get the reminder from the gospel of John, which tells us who our God is and how our God arrives in our world. “…the Word became flesh and lived among us”.
The Word became flesh. The Word – God’s own promise for us. The Word – God’s love and grace spoken throughout history. The Word – Jesus himself. The Word became flesh. God became a person. God entered into creation as one of God’s own creations. God became human, the infant Jesus, with baby acne and acid reflux and a vestigial organ that might someday revolt and require surgery.
Okay, I don’t know any of those things. I don’t know if Jesus had colic. Or slept through the night at eight weeks. Or experienced debilitating migraines. Or was lactose intolerant. Or maintained a perfect BMI. What I know is that the Word became flesh, and I know what it means to be flesh. I know that God chose this human body and all its mess and brokenness and fallibility and decided that this flesh, this body, this way would be how God would come into this world. Not only that, but this flesh, this shape, all its lumps and scars and failings, this is how God would redeem this world. The salvation of our Lord comes not in power and dominion, but susceptible to infection, prone to twisted ankles, and with a crick in the neck.
The Word became flesh. Think of all those times you’ve cursed your own body. The time you got a cold right before your concert. The time you blew out your knee after the second game of the season. The time you got a zit the day before picture day. The time the test came back positive. The time the diagnosis looked bad. We know how these bodies of ours can ache, break, and take up all our energy. Sometimes we’re tempted to think that these bodies don’t mean much at all.
But they do. The Word became flesh. This body – your body – it means so much that God not only made it, but God became it. In the body of Jesus Christ, the one who comes, God declared that what you are, ingrown toenails and crows feet and ashy skin and all, it is good. It might not always be comfortable or pretty or strong, but it is always good. God knows how you feel – God knows what you feel – because in Jesus Christ, God has felt it, too.
The Word became flesh. And because of the Christmas cards arriving at your house or the ads on TV or the decorations that even I have dusted off and given places of honor all around my house, we want to think it was clean and sweet. But that’s not what it’s like to become flesh. We’ve all been through it, the process of becoming flesh, of being born, and thanks be to God who in great wisdom decided we would not remember how messy, difficult, frightening, and intense that experience was. And I was born in a hospital, under sanitary conditions, with a doctor presiding, although as my mom tells the story, he was barely in the room because he was at the Christmas party down the hall – yes, I was born just three days before Jesus.
But sometimes I have to remind myself: when the Word became flesh, it wasn’t like that. I look at my nativity set with a beatific Mary and a calm Joseph and a chubby, smiling Jesus and I remember. Mary was young, too young, as most women were married off as soon as they could have children. Mary’s relationship with Joseph was scandalous, as they were not yet married but she was pregnant. There were no experts, no nurses, no clean towels – just Mary and Joseph, hoping it would be okay. Newborns need help with everything – breathing and eating and staying warm, and they would have to try to do it alone, with no family nearby, huddled in the hay with the cows.
The Word became flesh, and it was scary. It was hard. It was cold. It was exactly what God chose. Because God chose this. God chose you. You are not perfect and neither was the first Christmas. We prepare our hearts for Christ’s coming when we realize that this broken, roughed-up life is exactly what God claimed. This is how your God comes. Homeless. Alone. Cold. Forgotten. Fragile. Weak. Flesh.
I have a scar now. Thanks to the tiny hands of my surgeon, it’s not a big one. But it’s there, and it’s an inch and a half of reminder of the time that my messy body couldn’t even keep itself working without major intervention. But my scar does more than that. Nearly two months ago, my own daughter had surgery. It was minor, but as friends remind me, no surgery on your own child is ever minor. When I first started talking to her about the upcoming surgery, she cried. A doctor would have to cut her, and it would hurt. So I told her about how I had surgery once. How a doctor cut me, and it hurt, but in the end, it hurt less and less. I have a scar now, but it doesn’t hurt anymore, and it saved me.
My daughter wanted to see my scar. So I showed her. That is what calmed her down: knowing that someone else had done what she would soon do. I had the scar to prove it. Soon enough, we’d both have scars – but we’d also both feel better.
The Word became flesh and lived among us. God’s incarnate Word took on wounds and scars to show us – I know how it hurts. I am here with you. And to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.