The Inverting Incarnation

But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.

—Luke 2:1-20

Have you ever felt as though the world was upside down? In the reading for today, we begin with a decree from the most powerful person in the world. He wants to number all who live in his empire. People gather up their children and make arrangements to begin the journey to be counted. I imagine it was no easy task—especially for Mary.

Joseph and Mary are among the travelers. She is pregnant and about to give birth to her first born child at any moment. Can you imagine traveling like that? There is no room at the inn for them when they seek shelter for the night. Their situation is much different than Emperor Augustus, who compelled so many people to travel by simply saying a few words.

Some distance away, there were shepherds in the fields watching over their sheep. Perhaps they were keeping count of their flocks to ensure none were injured or strayed away. When the angels appeared and shared the good news, the shepherds were frightened. The angels told the shepherds to not be afraid because a savior is born. The phrases the angels use echo phrases often used to describe Emperor Augustus: “god,” “lord,” and “savior.” Can you imagine how upside down this might have seemed to the shepherds? How odd would it have been to hear that a lord and savior is coming as a baby, wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a dirty old manger. The angels describe a king born in a situation that is quite the opposite of the current emperor’s way of life. The angels were announcing the birth of one who would turn the world upside down with his teachings and way of life.

The shepherds found the child, Mary and Joseph and shared what the angels told them. The scene is full of meaning. The child was wrapped in bands of cloth—foreshadowing his death. He was laying in a manger, a food bowl for livestock, foreshadowing the spiritual food he offers both in his teachings and in the bread and wine we receive in remembrance of him. Everyone around was amazed that a king was born that night, but Mary’s reaction was different. She knew her son’s story would hold so much more meaning than they could comprehend in that moment. And our lives were forever changed.

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Angela Henderson, M.Div. currently serves as the Unitarian Universalist campus minister at UC Davis. She graduated with her Master of Divinity degree from Claremont School of Theology in 2010 and is a candidate for ministry.

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Divine Partnering

They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues, and to be greeted with respect in the market-places, and to have people call them rabbi. But you are not to be called rabbi, for you have one teacher, and you are all students.

—Matthew 23:1-12

What drives our actions? Jesus points to the scribes and Pharisees saying (paraphrased) “do what they teach and not what they do.” Jesus says that the teachings may be in the right place, but not their hearts. What compels them to share wisdom? In this text, we are introduced to people who do work for their own desires including taking places of honor and prestige in the community.

There are a number of actions we take to better ourselves. Giving our time, talent, and treasure to important causes feels good. There are also times we take action because it makes us look good or makes us feel better about ourselves.

I entered college and graduate school to strengthen some of my skills and increase my knowledge so that I could make a bigger contribution to the world—but that wasn’t the whole reason. I discovered that deep inside I was hoping that I would somehow attain deeper respect from others and feel better about my place in the world. I was also feeling a bit insecure about being a lesbian woman entering the ministry. My feelings became more apparent when I heard the story of a local college professor who was called an epithet based on his sexual orientation when all he wanted to do was share a drink with friends. I was saddened to hear of the event and realized that even if I had the letters “Rev.” or “Dr.” in front of my name, I would not be shielded from harm. I was going to school, in part, because I thought my education could protect me. The truth is that if I desire to do what is right and honor God, I am choosing a challenging path. The lives of Jesus and the prophets show us all too clearly how those who carry the message of love and peace are not always readily received.

We cannot do this work alone. Because of this, we cannot expect to take all the credit, either. This work of honoring God with our lives requires nothing short of the power of God acting in and through us.

God gives us a glimpse of the peaceable realm when those who wish to store up all the glory for themselves will be humbled and those who are humbled will be celebrated. It is when we are most humble that we are able to truly experience peace and witness the power of God.

Oh God, it is said that I must decrease in order for you to increase within me. I pray that desires for my own will may decrease that I may discover how the unique gifts you have freely given me can be fine tuned to live out your will to bring about the peaceable realm. Amen.

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Angela Henderson, M.Div. currently serves as the Unitarian Universalist campus minister at UC Davis. She graduated with her Master of Divinity degree from Claremont School of Theology in 2010 and is a candidate for ministry.