“Christmas in July”

July 15, 2012


Isaiah 40:6-8

John 1:1-18

Well, we had a little break from the heat this past week. Those temperatures in the mid-80’s felt comfortable, if not almost cool, didn’t they? But now it looks as though we’ll be back in the 90’s for the foreseeable future. And no rain in sight.

“The grass withers, the flower fades,” Isaiah tells us. We see the same simply by looking at our lawns and gardens. And we are given a midsummer lesson in our own mortality: “The grass withers, the flower fades…surely the people are grass.”

If you’re wondering what all of this might mean, last week word came from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that the combined global land and ocean average surface temperature for May 2012 was 1.19°F above the 20th century average. This was the second warmest May since records began in 1880, behind only 2010. The last twelve months have been the hottest on record. And now we hear that climate change researchers have been able to attribute recent examples of extreme weather to the effects of human activity on the planet’s climate systems for the first time. The odds of this heat wave happening randomly are one in over one and a half million.

The children in my neighborhood cooled off in a small plastic pool and their parents dried the towels by laying them out over some bushes. It reminded me of summer scenes on the East Coast when we lived a block from the beach.

The major difference between people from the Midwest and people from the East Coast, as far as I can tell, is “beach mentality.” They have it. We lack it.

Maybe you know what I mean.

With the ocean looming so large, East Coast people think, quite naturally, about going to the beach. In the land of cornfields and prairies, well, the beach just isn’t part of our mental map. Sure, some will head up to Lake McBride, but we just don’t have the deep yearning for the beach that they do on the coast.

Once when we lived in Massachusetts, we got a ride back to Illinois with a man and a woman from Massachusetts. As we spoke about life in the heartland, the woman asked, somewhat concerned, “But where do you go to the beach?” To which I could only reply, “We just don’t think about it that much.” And I think the conversation stalled out after that.

I don’t know. Maybe it would help if we could spend more time at the beach.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Recall again those words from the New Testament lesson. John’s Gospel begins with that beautiful, poetic affirmation of faith: “The Word—God in action, creating, revealing and redeeming—the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

Maybe it would help if we could spend more time at the beach. Maybe we should charter a bus to take the whole congregation out to the Okoboji region.

Not for the cool water or just to get out of the heat.

For theological reasons.

The beach is one of those places where we are very much aware of both our own bodies and the bodies around us. It’s not necessarily in a self-conscious or leering way. It’s just that on the beach in the middle of summer our bodies are pretty obvious.

Let us give thanks to God for hot, humid weather. At other times we might care about how we look.

In the winter when it’s cold we can think about our bodies; we can exercise or diet telling ourselves that this coming year I'll be in shape, this year I'll be ready, this year I'll have the perfect body.

When the weather is moderate we think, “I’ll just not get into my swimming suit, I’ll cover up the scrawny arms, the weak chest, the flabby thighs.”

But when it’s really hot, who cares? It’s shorts and tanktop and swimsuit time no matter how you look. Your body—hot and sweaty—takes over, shows itself for what it is: young, perfectly sculpted and proportioned, well tanned—or, well, aging, out of shape and pale.

Either way it’s your body. And in the heat we all seem more willing to say, “Here I am. What you see is what you get.”

For better or worse the heat and the beach speak to us of the way that God works in the world.

Episcopal priest Barbara Brown Taylor says: “Long before Jesus came along, our God was a God who used material things to reach out to us: floods, rainbows, burning bushes, pillars of cloud and of fire, ravens and doves. God was present in them all, guiding and providing for us in tangible, visible ways. God sent flesh and blood prophets to point them out to us again  . . .

“Then the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, and God was no longer interested in flesh and blood but invested in it, smuggled into the world inside the body of a young woman in order to receive a body of his own . . . .God became incarnate and there was no turning back. The door between heaven and earth was blown off its hinges, and nothing was ever the same again.”[i]

John gives us a message of good news: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

We hear those words most often at Christmas, but in December they are often drowned out by the sound of angels and lowing cattle and our own. Maybe we can better grasp the significance of those words in the middle of a hot summer.

As John’s gospel begins, we hear of the creator entering the creation as a creature. God becomes incarnate—takes on human flesh, bridging the great chasm between the human and the divine. In this human being, Jesus, we come to see who God is. This is God with a body, God with a face. This is a Creator who relates to us creatures as one of us.

This Creator is one who understands what it is to be human, and understanding, forgives and calls us into the future. This is the God who speaks in a language that we can understand. This is the God who understands us—our hopes and fears, our dreams. This is a God who desires our good, who will be our strength.

Your hopes and dreams still count. They have not been forgotten by the God who gently breathes life into us so that we might hope and dream of something beyond what we can immediately touch and see.

Many people sense that there is a great spiritual crisis in the world. Men and women are looking for some meaning for life beyond what they find in their work or their recreational activities. They are looking for something that will sustain them in their relationships, something that will enrich their family life. Men and women are looking for God and trying everything—anything—that seems “spiritual” in that search.

In Jesus we discover a God who takes on sweaty human flesh. That might not be a very “spiritual” picture, but then God might not be as “spiritual” as we would like.

Spiritual hunger cannot be fed directly. What we call a spiritual experience is an experience we have as people with bodies. We are not spirits trapped inside this flesh, waiting to be released. We encounter God in very physical things: bread broken and wine poured. When we sing it is with lungs and tongues and mouths. When we pray it is with heads bowed or bodies kneeling.

So if you find that I’ve left my study and gone to the beach, well, I'm doing it for my spiritual good. At the beach—or just out in the heat of July—as a flawed body among other flawed bodies, I can remember that the God who gave us life took on just one such flawed body.

And if God can embrace flawed human flesh, so too God will embrace flawed human lives. That's good news. All the ways that we don’t measure up, all the ways that we have failed—God embraces them, embraces us with a forgiving love.

There are times, of course, when our bodies know human evil and human pain quite well. At such times, if we do not flinch, if we do not doubt in the face of pain and evil, we have forgotten what it means to be human ourselves. Isaiah's ancient words still speak of the frailty of our existence: "All flesh is grass . . . the grass withers, the flower fades."

This is the human condition that God embraces in Jesus. As Christians, we are those who affirm and follow the Word made flesh. We believe that the reality of God was embodied in a human being who surrendered his life for the life of the world, whose risen body is still at work in the world in our own bodies, which together somehow can be thought of as the body of Christ.[ii] When we speak from faith, we confess that in Jesus, God took on the suffering of the world and then called the followers of Jesus to carry on that mission: to find the lost and lonely, to heal the broken.

It is through our bodies that we can best understand the suffering of other people—the  weakness, the hunger and thirst, the decay. And a deepening spirituality should make us more able to respond to human pain.

And we begin to see once more that the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us loves not only human beings, but this earth, our home. We are still called to care for this earth, to tend it, to be stewards of the earth even as our very human actions imperil the well being of life on this planet.

I used to see T-shirts that proclaimed “Life is a beach.” I don’t know exactly what that meant. But that phrase always suggested something of the ease and grace, the warmth and refreshment that we long for in life.

In the hot days ahead maybe we can learn to accept ourselves and each other as God has accepted us. Maybe we can learn to embrace our humanity as it is embraced by God—and so find the grace and refreshment we seek.

[i].Barbara Brown Taylor, "Preaching the Body," in O'Day & Long, Listening to the Word, pg. 211.