Have you ever met a word nerd? You know who I’m talking about. I’m talking about those annoying people who almost always manage to find the most complicated way of saying the simplest thing. They would rather say, “I would like to annunciate my most sincere benevolent aspirations for your fecundity and longevity in this season of the remembrance of the birth of Christ” when a simple “Merry Christmas” would do just fine.
What do you call that? “Syllable envy?” If one is good, then six is better.
I readily confess that I am one of those people. My name is Barrett, and I am a word nerd. I use this on my students at Utica College all the time. I get a kick out of talking about “inductive teleological arguments for classical theism” and “epistemic circularity in the evaluation of sense perception.” Yes, I am a word nerd. But, as bad as I am, I don’t hold a candle to my wife, who was an English major in college. Whenever we play games like Boggle or Scrabble as a family, Sarah and I have a house rule that I win whenever I manage to get half her score.
It’s no coincidence that word nerds like Sarah and me also happen to be ministers. There’s something about this job that attracts word nerds. Going almost all the way back to the very beginning of Christianity, we ministers have had a knack for taking something very simple and attaching some kind of multi-syllabic monstrosity to it. Being a word nerd is lots of fun and it makes us sound smart, but it can also cause problems. We’ve started arguments, split churches, and even fought wars over words.
If you look at tonight’s sermon title, you’ll notice one of those big nerdy words: Christmas and Reincarnation. “Now, wait a minute,” you might say, “’Reincarnation’? Isn’t that something that Buddhists and Hindus believe in? So, why would we be talking about that in church at Christmas?” Well, you would be right. Reincarnation, as it’s typically understood, is not a Christian idea. It typically refers to the belief (often held by most Buddhists and Hindus) that human beings are born over and over again in different bodies throughout human history. It’s part of their beliefs about the afterlife. It’s not a belief that has typically been part of the Jewish and Christian religions. In case you’re still confused, let me put your mind at ease: I’m not using the word “reincarnation” in the Buddhist or Hindu sense of the term. I’m not talking about the afterlife; I’m talking about this life.
Let me unpack this word in order to explain what I mean:
We start with the prefix Re-. We all know what this means. When you “redo” something, you do it again. TV networks show “reruns” when there are no new episodes to broadcast. You “repeat” yourself whenever you have to say something for the second time (or third, fourth, or fifth time… for those of us with toddlers or teenagers). Re- means “again”.
Next, we come to the really meaty part: Incarnation. Now this is a very Christian term. It’s one of those nerdy words that ministers came up with in the early days of the Christian church. The prefix In- is just like our English word “in”. It means “into” or “inside”. The next part, Carne, literally means “flesh” or “meat”. Have you ever had chili con carne for dinner? It’s chili with meat, right? So, Incarnation literally means “in the flesh” or “in meat”.
Tonight, as we gather to celebrate Christmas, we are celebrating the Mystery of the Incarnation. Incarnation is the nerdy word that Christians use to describe how special we think Jesus is. When we look at him, we something special. To us, he’s more than just a philosopher or a hero. He’s not just another person. He’s not even our favorite person. Christians believe that, somehow, in a way that we will never understand, the great divine and eternal mystery that we call “God” was present in this flesh and blood person, Jesus of Nazareth. That’s what we mean when we talk about the Incarnation: God “in the flesh”. Christians have this two thousand year old hunch that something about the mystery and meaning of life itself was making itself known through this Jesus guy. We can’t quite put our finger on it, but we can sense it in the things he said and did. For us, he’s like that missing puzzle piece that makes all the other pieces of life’s puzzle fit together. When we look at and listen to Jesus, we feel like we can finally see things clearly and make sense of the universe. That’s why we like to call him “The Light of the World”.
Light is an amazing thing. Without it, life would be impossible. The light of the sun warms our planet to the point where organic life can exist. Plants feed on sunlight through the process of photosynthesis. Animals eat those plants. Further up the food chain, humans are nourished by both animals and plants. So, in an indirect way, we eat light. Obviously, light also helps us to see clearly and make sense of our surroundings. We are dependent on light as a basic natural resource. From Christians, Jesus makes life possible, he nourishes our life, and he helps us to make sense of life and see things more clearly.
There’s a lot of talk about light in the passages from the Bible that we read tonight. In the beginning, God is present in the darkness and says, “Let there be light.” In the second reading, Jesus was described as “The true light, which enlightens everyone” that “shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” In the third reading, we see Jesus in action as “the light of the world.” What is he doing? He’s healing somebody! That should give us a big clue about what it means to be “the light of the world.”
Finally, in the last reading from Matthew’s gospel, Jesus gets really interesting. He takes this idea of the eternal mystery and the light of the world and turns it back on us. He says, “You are the light of the world.” And then he tells people, “let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
The really neat thing about the Incarnation is that it’s not just something that happened with one guy two thousand years ago. It happens again and again and again. God didn’t just happen to pop on down for a visit during Jesus’ lifetime. God is still here with us. The light of the world continues to shine. In the midst of the brutality, chaos, and darkness of this world, the words of John’s gospel still ring true: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
There is still darkness in this world, yet the light of the world continues to shine. Where? We don’t see Jesus physically hanging around anymore. Where is the light of the world? It’s you. The light of the world shines in you. That’s what Jesus said. “You are the light of the world… [so] let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father in heaven.”
When we live as people of love, committing “random acts of kindness and senseless acts of beauty”, the light of the world “takes on flesh again” in us. Did you hear that? “Takes on flesh again”: Re-in-carnate.
I’m not talking about reincarnation because I believe that people come back to earth again and again after death. It’s not about life after death; it’s about life before death. And you don’t get reincarnated at all. It’s Christ who gets reincarnated in you whenever you love. Jesus is the light of the world. You are the light of the world. That’s what reincarnation has to do with Christmas.
Here’s a cheesy song, but what the hey: It’s Christmas.