Incarnation (Luke’s Version)

Fairplain Presbyterian Church
Fairplain Presbyterian Church
Incarnation (Luke’s Version)

For God to become human would mean God learned, and not only that, but God learned from people – and from people who didn’t have perfect theology.


Sermon manuscripts represent the preacher’s plan for what the sermon is going to be before they preach them. Actual sermon content may differ from what appears below.

I stole the idea for this series from a series Rev. Laurie Hartzel, formerly of First Pres BH, did – “Christmas At Matthew’s House,” “Christmas At Mark’s House,” etc. The title format (Luke’s Version) I borrowed from Taylor Swift, who re-recorded all of her albums so the master recordings would belong to her – to make them her own.

We normally think of the incarnation stories – God becoming human – all mashed together – The angel appears to Mary in Luke’s gospel and Joseph in Matthew’s; they go to Bethlehem for Luke’s census and the baby is born in Luke’s manger and visited by Luke’s shepherds, who are brought by Luke’s – and only Luke’s – heavenly hosts. Matthew’s magi arrive, led by Matthew’s star, and the holy family flees to Egypt in a story only recorded by Matthew.

This morning we’re doing Luke’s Version.

Luke’s version gives us the most setting. Matthew just drops Jesus in Bethlehem like this: “In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea…” For Matthew, there’s no explanation of how Jesus comes to be born in Bethlehem. It’s barely there as an aside, mostly just to explain why the chief priests and scribes sent the magi to Bethlehem.

In Luke, the story feels… more human. In Luke, they get shuffled off to Bethlehem because Caesar Augustus has declared that it must be so. There’s background given on Mary’s relative Elizabeth and her silenced husband Zechariah, shushed by an angel because he didn’t believe in the impossible.

In the passage I just read, Mary is “perplexed” and “pondering” what sort of a greeting this may be, and wrestling with biological questions of how babies get made, and then she ends the conversation with, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Mother Cynthia Carusa is a retired Episcopal priest, and she’s been coming to our Tuesday Bible studies for the past few months. I’ve heard a lot over the years about how Mary can’t give real consent to this because, well, it’s God and there’s a huge power differential between God and human beings, but Mother Caruso read this story differently. The idea that Mary might not have had a choice never even occurred to her.

She imagined the angel Gabriel appearing to dozens of women throughout Judea with this offer, and all of them turning him down, until he got to Mary – not Mary, full of grace, but Mary full of questions – What kind of weird greeting is this? How EXACTLY is this going to work? and then ultimately, Mary claims power by consenting. She imagines this as no mere acceptance of the inevitable, but a situation where she believed herself to have a real choice, and made it.

Luke’s version is the only one with the census, the only one with the guest room (“inn” is a poor translation, unfortunately – but I still love the image of the kindly innkeeper giving them the stable). It’s the only one with the babe being wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, which is probably why Luke’s Version is the central part of most Christmas Eve services.

Luke doesn’t give us the full details, but it got us close enough for modern women poets to re-imagine the story through women’s eyes, the night as loud, not silent, complete with labor pains and transition, that point in the process where you feel like you just cannot possibly get this baby out and you want to give up… Your pastor is married to a doula, so I know more about this than the average man haha.

They’ve written in blood, and labor pains, and trouble latching, and is it really a pregnancy if you don’t have at least a week where you just tell everybody exactly how ready you are for this baby to COME already? (I did a wedding for a close friend a couple years ago, and she had a baby last week, but she’d been saying that for weeks).

Can you imagine the stress of being the mother of God?

When Ryan was born, Kristen and I bought a copy of the Mayo Clinic’s “Guide to Your Baby’s First Year,” back when we were first-time parents and had no idea what we were doing at all and, more importantly, terrified by that fact 🤣. When you’ve already got a kid, you know how rarely you ever had the time or energy to crack your book about how to handle your baby’s first year.

The book of Hebrews, chapter 4, is where we get the doctrine that Jesus lived a sinless life, but even allowing for a sinless life, that’s not the same as not living a developmentally appropriate childhood.

Kristen and I say “Child of Heaven!” to Micah, but I imagine Mary meant it more literally when the baby Jesus refused to fall asleep, wouldn’t nurse, and screamed when she tried to burp him in the middle of the night.

It’s not a sin to wake your parents up and refuse to go back to sleep, or finally fall asleep and then wake up the second they try to lay you down, but I’d bet anything the baby Jesus needed fed multiple times a night. Of course, back then you could co-sleep with your baby without the American Pediatric Association getting mad at you.

Before we could take Ryan home, we had to watch a 4-minute video about the importance of not shaking your baby when you get angry. They said “It’s better for them – SO MUCH BETTER – if you just leave the room for five minutes. They’ll recover from that, but they won’t recover if you shake them.”

Kids are curious, too – I bet Jesus spilled a whole lot of water or milk, and experimented with gravity and fluid dynamics, and practiced telling Mary “No!” and finding his own personhood and probably dumped olive oil on the floor like Micah did a couple weeks ago.

I learned at our doctor’s office a couple years ago that at a certain age, it’s developmentally appropriate for kids to answer questions their parents ask them with the answers they think their parents want to hear rather than what actually happened – that is, lying – and that they don’t understand what lying is.

Can you imagine Mary, Mary, frustrated Mary, wondering why the son of God told her that no, he didn’t eat those cakes that were meant to be for later?

And then of course Luke tells us Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem to ask the rabbis questions. I think when I was that age, I got lost in a church my mom visited one time. Well, I wasn’t lost; my mom just didn’t know where I was. I was in the library and I knew exactly where I was. And when my mom found me, she realized that yeah, she probably should’ve seen that coming, just like Jesus said to his exasperated parents, “Wait, didn’t you know I had to be about my father’s business?”

I don’t think Mary put up with less than we have – and the stress modern parents have of trying to make sure we don’t psychologically damage our children – imagine if it was GOD INCARNATE.

You have to wonder how often Mary didn’t feel at all up to the task, like every other responsible parent throughout history hasn’t felt up to it.

I think it’s something incredible that God became one of us, that Jesus experienced stages of childhood development, that he learned – that shows up later in Luke’s Version, that he grew in knowledge and favor with God and people.

I still remember being shocked in a conversation in seminary where a professor said Jesus would have believed the things the people of his day believed. It rattled my faith for a few days, which is something seminary is supposed to do, I think, to realize the human, incarnate Jesus might have believed things that today we know to be false.

Later, in an incident recorded by Matthew and Mark (but not Luke, strangely) Luke, Jesus implies that a Syrophoenician woman is the equivalent to a dog, and she surprises him by saying “Even the dogs eat the crumbs that fall from their master’s table.”

I’ve long said that God can’t be surprised… but in spite of that, we see Jesus being surprised. In Luke 7, Jesus is amazed by the faith of a centurion.

It’s stunning to imagine God as human, to realize Jesus was human like we are. It’s challenging to the way we want to treat the Bible, as though the Bible – or, come on, at least the words of Jesus! was something handed directly to us by God, with no human interaction or mediation.

But the Christian faith gives us a God for whom being right was not as important as being with us, a God who gave up omniscience and perfect theology to be among people whose theology wasn’t right and whose parenting styles were anything but modern and up-to-date – and to learn from them.

O the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are God’s judgments and how inscrutable God’s ways!

“For who has known the mind of our God?
    Or who has been God’s counselor?”
“Or who has given a gift to God,
    to receive a gift in return?”
36 For from God and
through God and
to God are all things.

To God be the glory forever. Amen.
[Romans 11:34-36]