Duke Memorial UMC
11 pm Service
A few days ago, this past Sunday, we had an Advent play here at the church. It was the fourth Sunday of Advent, a season in the church when we prepare and we long for the coming of a Savior, the coming of Jesus. And in that worship service our littlest children acted out the song “The Friendly Beasts.” It’s a song about the animals in the stable where Jesus was born. They prepare the stable. They prepare it when no one else was there to do so. They offer Jesus the gifts of their lives, of their bodies – the donkey gives hay for Jesus’ bed, the sheep gives wool for a blanket, the doves coo a lullaby from the rafters.
The children dressed as the animals from the song. They also brought their own gifts to prepare our little manger scene. I asked them, what would they bring to get a room ready for Jesus? What comforts you? What makes you feel safe? What do you need?
By the end of the song our manger was brimming with baseball trophies, bells on string, dreamcatchers, a football helmet, stuffed animals, a plastic worm, and many security blankets.
Jesus, the one who receives our gifts. It isn’t the image that I often ascribe to the King of kings and Lord of lords. Because for Jesus to receive our gifts, to truly receive them as a gift, Jesus must want. God must need.
Yet, the story of Jesus begins in want. It’s a story that begins with neediness. It begins in utero, Jesus infused with Mary’s blood, nourished through her body, connected by a cord of flesh as an utterly dependent fetus.
The story of Jesus begins in want. It begins in the body of Mary, her lungs breathing for him, protecting him with layers of her own flesh—her bones holding his, her skin stretched around his, her life his home.
The story of Jesus begins in want. It begins with an infant fed at Mary’s breast, a baby able to communicate only through cries, subject to the people who surround him, who feed him, who cradle him to sleep, who comfort him in the night.
The story of Jesus begins in want. A makeshift labor and delivery room in a stable, the gift of an innkeeper.
The story of Jesus begins in want. This is the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of God among us – with us and for us.
Without the incarnation, God experiences almost everything we can. In the Old Testament God weeps and fears. God loves and relents, cries out and punishes. But, without the incarnation, these stories about God are without want. They are stories of a God without need. It is only in being drawn into human life, dependent now on Mary’s body, that God becomes like us in all things. In Jesus God hungers in the wilderness. In Jesus God is tempted by power. In Jesus God longs for others to stay by his side in his time of need, to stay by his side, to stay awake.
At the first Christmas, what we see in the life of Jesus, here at the very beginning, will continue to reveal to us this God incarnate, made flesh among us. Jesus receives the gift of his disciples’ lives, of fish and loaves, the gifts of prayer and anointing with oil, the gifts of touch and tears, the gift of baptism, the gift of a cross carried by another.
At the cross, at the end of his life, Jesus will continue to be a body that receives. “I thirst,” he says from the tree. “I thirst.”
The God who nursed at Mary’s breast, who drinks in the waters of Mary’s womb, here at the end as in the beginning – here Jesus thirsts. Julian of Norwich, a fourteenth century theologian, is fascinated by this admission—that Jesus thirsts. This is a revelation for her. Julian envisions these words projecting back into time. Jesus thirsted before there was a beginning because God in Jesus thirsts for us. And until we have all been joined to Christ’s body, Jesus will still long for us. “And so, gathering his living members,” writes Julian, “always he draws and drinks, and still he thirsts and he longs.”
In her mystical visions, when Julian sees Christ’s body, she sees us–the members of this body, bound to one another. The church is a community of gifts, of gifts given and received. Tonight, here, as Christmas is about to dawn, we remember God as a child, someone utterly dependent on the people around him–dependent on their care, on their love. It is no wonder that this story, the story of the birth of Jesus, is paired with the prophecy of Isaiah. There is light. Light is coming. The tools of war, bloodied and broken, boots and bayonets, they are cast into fire. How can it be that a baby could usher in this kind of hope?
Isaiah imagines a new kind of power, an alternative to military might: the power of love. Our ability to receive one another’s gifts, the vulnerability of our lives before one another – this is “the power of grief and repentance, of the overcoming of pain and suffering, of neutralizing violence and death, and of transforming defiance and shame through the embracing of it – the risking of encounter with – that which threatens and frightens us in our very midst.”
We are in anxious times. In the air there is suspicion. Suspicion of hijabs, suspicion of the homeless, suspicion of refugees, suspicion of black men and boys. And into this world, into this suspicion, Jesus is born – wanting and needing.
The power of receiving a gift, the gift of the unexpected other is that it yields compassion. We begin to see that, as Julian of Norwich reminds us—we begin to see that Jesus thirsts for each of us, longing to receive the gift of our lives, to receive you, and for us to receive one another, to receive the gift of my life, to receive the gift of the life of your neighbor, your neighbor across the street and across town, your neighbor sleeping on benches downtown, your neighbor on the Greyhound bus, your neighbor in refugee camps.
On Sunday as I was watching our little ones, dressed as donkeys and doves, make their way to the manger, I remembered that each of the gifts they brought for Jesus was first a gift to them. This precious thing, this beloved plastic worm, this blanket that comforts through the night, this was first a gift bestowed and treasured. Our lives, like Jesus’ life, begin in want. And from the beginning they are bound up in grace, in gift-giving, of giving and receiving what is precious, of sharing it with others, of seeing this transformed again and again into the strength of love, a love that refuses to give up on one another, that refuses to give up on this world that Jesus loved and received as a gift.
This is the hope of this day, the hope of Jesus, not what we have to offer our world but what I have to give to you–our lives, the gifts granted to us. Our lives are gift. Your life is a gift. To follow after this Jesus is to do as he did, to follow after others, to receive the gift we did not expect, the gift we may not yet know how to receive. This body, this church–we are called to thirst for one another. To be like this Jesus is to need and receive, to see that your life is a gift, received by others.
Like Jesus, always we draw and drink, and still we thirst and we long.
 Rita Nakashima Brock. “A New Thing in the Land: The Female Surrounds the Warrior” in Power, Powerlessness, and the Divine, 158.