Thursday, December 26, 2013

god’s little secret • the mystery of the incarnation

Year A • Christmas Day, Proper III
Isaiah 52:7–10 • Psalm 98 • Hebrews 1:1–4, (5–12) • John 1:1-14
(Scroll Down for the Texts of the Scriptures)
Sermon available on YouTube by clicking here.
Sermon available as a PDF by clicking here.

The Sermon
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet
of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news, who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
(Isaiah 52:7)

God Entered the World Quietly
Well, today is the day, the day we’ve been waiting for, the day we’ve been preparing for, the day we’ve been anticipating, the day of our Lord and Savior’s birth…. Well, not exactly, because the birth happened last night; it happened in the middle of the night while we were sleeping. We missed it; the whole world missed it, save for a few shepherds who received an angelic birth announcement while watching their flocks by night. You see, God entered the world quietly. God didn’t want the world to know he had arrived. But not even God could keep a secret, not when it came to the birth of his one and only Son. God just had to tell somebody, and look who he chose: some homeless guys who lived out of doors, who worked at a job that nobody wanted, and who nobody is going to believe anyway. And so, God’s secret is safe, at least, for the time being.
     But why would God want to keep his arrival on earth a secret? Because God didn’t want to frighten us away. You see, something is wrong with us, something inside of us is broken. And that something is something that only God can fix. But here is the problem. That something which is broken also makes us terrified of God, so terrified that God has a hard time getting close enough to us to heal us with his gracious and loving presence.

Original Blessing
It all began a long time ago with Adam and Eve, our first parents. In the beginning, God fashioned a man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and this man, this Adam, became a living being. And yet, though he was alive, he was not yet human, not fully, in any case. We know this because God says of him, “It is not good that the man should be alone; I will make him a helper as his partner” (Gen 2:15). God then fashions various animals from the same dust that the man had been fashioned from, but none of these are adequate. It is not until God forms a woman that a suitable partner is found. It is not until there is both male and female that there is humanity; for it is in our maleness and femaleness, in our interrelatedness and in our interdependence, that we human beings are able to fulfill our vocation to reflect the glory of God, for God himself is a community of interrelated, inter-dependent persons. Together Adam and Eve have been created in the image of God, together they serve as the image-bearers of God in creation. They are united to one another and to God. They are naked and unashamed. This is what we call, Original Blessing.

Original Shame
But then something goes wrong. Adam and Eve are in Eden, and the Lord God has given them all of the trees of the Garden for food, all but one. They even have access to the Tree of Life. Yet, in the end, they partake of the Forbidden tree, the tree that promises the Knowledge of Good and Evil. And something happens. Whatever it was that they ate, something about the fruit of that tree changed them, and not for the better. In an instant, their eyes are opened wide, and they become acutely, uncomfortably aware of their own nakedness—their vulnerability, their weakness, their dependence—and for the first time, they experience shame. They are naked and ashamed; they cannot bear to be in one another’s presence for the presence of the other simply serves to make them all the more aware of their own nakedness. So they attempt to cover their shame, but fig leaves can only do so much.
     At this point in our story, we must pause to make an observation. Notice, as of yet, God has not arrived on the scene. This is important because it suggests that the guilt and shame our first parents experienced was not the guilt and shame of being caught in the act. We all know what that feels like, to have our hands in the cookie jar, as it were, and to hear the voice, “What are you doing?” No, it wasn’t the shame of getting caught that Adam and Eve experienced, but something much, much deeper.
     When finally God does arrive, taking what appears to be his daily afternoon walk, he finds Eden empty, deserted. For Adam and Eve, upon hearing the Lord’s approaching footsteps, hid themselves. Their makeshift clothing gave them enough coverage so that they could stand to be in one another’s presence; it wasn’t, however, able to shield them from the shame they felt in God’s presence. And so they, like we, hide
Once again, let’s be very clear. Adam and Eve are not hiding out of a fear of being punished. It’s not that they heard the Lord stomping through the undergrowth, bellowing, “What did I tell you?,” and so hid to avoid his disappointment and wrath. After all, as the story goes, the Lord seems generally surprised to find his children missing. It is only when he discovers that they have hidden themselves in shame that he makes the connection that they must have eaten from the Tree of Knowledge. So once again, the guilt and shame of Eden goes well beyond the guilt of getting caught and goes far deeper than the fear of punishment. Whatever the Tree of Knowledge did to them, it rendered them incapable of being comfortable in God’s presence. For Adam and Eve—and for all of their unborn children—God’s presence was no longer a blessing, but a curse. This is what we might call, Original Shame; and it is this shame—a deep-rooted sense of our own nakedness, a debilitating sense of our own unworthiness—it is this shame that underlies all our human brokenness, it is this shame that lies at the root of all human sin and violence, all human suffering and death.

The Lord’s Dilemma
And there is only one remedy to our predicament. Only God’s loving and gracious presence can heal us of our sense of shame and alienation, but therein lies the rub. God cannot get close enough to his children to heal them. When God appears, his children head for cover. God’s presence holds the key to their deliverance, but God’s presence is too much to bear. We see examples of this throughout the Old Testament.
For example, after the glorious Exodus from Egypt, when the Lord rescued his people from their Egyptian taskmasters, he led them through the wilderness to Mt. Sinai. There he enters into a covenant with his people. “You will be my people, and I will be your God.” But the people are afraid. When they draw near to the mountain to ratify the covenant, they cry out to Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, [lest] we … die” (Exod 20:19). God’s people want a mediator; they want someone to stand between them and God. They don’t want to have to deal with God directly. They want someone to shield them from God, someone to shield them from the fear and guilt that are triggered when they are in the presence of God. Clearly they do not experience God’s presence as a blessing, but a curse.
As another example, take the prophet Isaiah. In Isaiah 6, the prophet is ushered into the heavenly temple, into the holy of holies. And there he sees the Lord sitting on a throne “high and lofty” (Isa 6:1). Angels of fire are in attendance, and they fly to and fro, calling out to one another”
          Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts;
          the whole earth is filled with his glory (Isa 6:3).
     It’s a glorious vision, but one that Isaiah cannot enjoy. For when he finds himself in the Lord’s presence, instead of reveling in the glory of God, all he can think about is his own sin and that of his people.
          Woe is me! I am lost, for I am a man of unclean lips,
          and I live among a people of unclean lips (Isa 6:5).
Once again, God’s presence is experienced as a curse instead of a blessing.
And so, God is faced with a dilemma. How can he draw close enough to his people, to heal them of their shame and guilt when his presence reminds them all the more of their brokenness, when his love and grace triggers their own deep sense of unworthiness? It’s a dilemma any parent can appreciate. You who are parents, how often have you gone to a child to love, to forgive, or to comfort them only to find that your presence seems to intensify their pain, their feelings of embarrassment, guilt, or shame? They need you, yet your presence is to much too bear. This is God’s dilemma.

The Mystery of the Incarnation
The Word Became Flesh
So how did God resolve the dilemma? By slipping into our world under the cloak of humanity. Our reading from John says it all: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us” (John 1:14a). The Word, who was with God in the beginning and who is in fact very God of very God, this Word became flesh. More precisely, this eternal Word of God—through whom all of creation came into being—this Word became a particular flesh-and-blood human being… Jesus of Nazareth… the son of Mary. This is the great mystery of the Incarnation. In Jesus, or better yet, as Jesus, God was able to draw close to humanity, close enough to heal us of our shame and guilt and to remove whatever we have placed between ourselves and God. Had God appeared in all of his glory, humanity would have scattered in fear. As it is, God’s appearing in the garb of humanity made it possible for God to operate undetected in his creation, long enough at least to set in motion the restoration of humanity.

The Word’s Flesh both Conceals and Reveals
But the mystery of the Incarnation is even greater, for the flesh that allowed God to get close to us because it cloaked God’s glory, also revealed God’s glory. “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). The flesh of Jesus served both to conceal and to reveal God’s glory. But how is that possible? God is the Creator of the heavens and earth. To become a creature within his creation, God had to empty himself, God had to humble himself. And yet, it is in God’s humility, in the humility of the incarnation that God’s glory is most fully revealed. When God—in the person of the Son—became a flesh-and-blood human being, this was something new for God, something God had never done before. Yet, in becoming a particular human being, God did not do anything that was alien to God’s character; for God is by nature humble; God is by nature self-emptying love. So the incarnation is an act of humility, but this is precisely what makes it an act of revelation.
This mystery is critical for our whole understanding of who God is and for the whole enterprise of human salvation. To say that God emptied himself is not to say that God had to leave some of his divinity behind. God did not have to abandon some of his Godness in order to become human. When the Word became Jesus, it did not thereby cease being the Word. Consequently, in Jesus, we are not getting some watered-down version of God, we are getting God in all of God’s fullness. So writes the author of Hebrews:
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being (Heb 1:1­–3a).
I will say it again, in Jesus, we are not getting some watered-down version of God. Jesus is the full and final and decisive revelation of who God is. In Jesus, we are getting God in all of God’s glory, and yet, that glory comes to us in a form that we fearful, shame-filled human beings are able to bear. For in Jesus, in the Word-become-flesh, God has come close enough to heal us with his loving and gracious presence.
From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known (John 1:16–18).

Christmas Has Just Begun
The Mystery of the Incarnation is the remedy to all that ails us. In Jesus, God in all his glory has drawn close to us, and in Jesus, God makes it possible for us to draw close to him. I don’t know how successful you were this holiday season in drawing close to God. Our world makes it very, very difficult with all of its busyness, which is simply the world’s way of distracting itself from the pain of shame that it clings to. And unfortunately, even we Christians can get caught up in it all.
But let me leave you with a word of encouragement. God knows how hard it is for us. God lived as one of us. So God understands.
Let me say this as well. If in your busyness and distractedness, you feel that you missed Christmas this year, I will let you in on a secret. You haven’t miss Christmas; you only missed Advent. Christmas has just begun. Today is the first day of Christmas, and there are Twelve more days of Christmas to come. So rejoice, for today “breaks a new and glorious morn.”
Happy Christmas!

In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Scriptures
RCL, Year A, Christmas Day, Proper III
Isaiah 52:7–10 • Psalm 98 • Hebrews 1:1–4, (5–12) • John 1:1-14

O God, you make us glad by the yearly festival of the birth of your only Son Jesus Christ: Grant that we, who joyfully receive him as our Redeemer, may with sure confidence behold him when he comes to be our Judge; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
or this
O God, you have caused this holy night to shine with the brightness of the true Light: Grant that we, who have known the mystery of that Light on earth, may also enjoy him perfectly in heaven; where with you and the Holy Spirit he lives and reigns, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen.
or this
Almighty God, you have given your only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and to be born [this day] of a pure virgin: Grant that we, who have been born again and made your children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by your Holy Spirit; through our Lord Jesus Christ, to whom with you and the same Spirit be honor and glory, now and for ever. Amen.

Isaiah 52:7–10
How beautiful upon the mountains
are the feet of the messenger who announces peace,
who brings good news,
who announces salvation,
who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices,
together they sing for joy;
for in plain sight they see
the return of the Lord to Zion.
Break forth together into singing,
you ruins of Jerusalem;
for the Lord has comforted his people,
he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The Lord has bared his holy arm
before the eyes of all the nations;
and all the ends of the earth shall see
the salvation of our God.

Psalm 98 • Cantate Domino • (BCP 727)
1      Sing to the Lord a new song, *
               for he has done marvelous things.
2      With his right hand and his holy arm *
               has he won for himself the victory.
3      The Lord has made known his victory; *
               his righteousness has he openly shown in the sight of the nations.
4      He remembers his mercy and faithfulness to the house of Israel, *
               and all the ends of the earth have seen the victory of our God.
5      Shout with joy to the Lord, all you lands; *
               lift up your voice, rejoice, and sing.
6      Sing to the Lord with the harp, *
               with the harp and the voice of song.
7      With trumpets and the sound of the horn *
               shout with joy before the King, the Lord.
8      Let the sea make a noise and all that is in it, *
               the lands and those who dwell therein.
9      Let the rivers clap their hands, *
               and let the hills ring out with joy before the Lord
               when he comes to judge the earth.
10     In righteousness shall he judge the world *
               and the peoples with equity.

Hebrews 1:1–4 (5–12)
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
[For to which of the angels did God ever say,
     “You are my Son;
     today I have begotten you”?
Or again, 
     “I will be his Father,
     and he will be my Son”?
And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,
     “Let all God’s angels worship him.”
Of the angels he says,
     “He makes his angels winds,
     and his servants flames of fire.”

But of the Son he says,
     “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,
     and the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom.
     You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
     therefore God, your God, has anointed you
     with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”
     “In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth,
     and the heavens are the work of your hands;
     they will perish, but you remain;
     they will all wear out like clothing;
     like a cloak you will roll them up,
     and like clothing they will be changed.
     But you are the same,
     and your years will never end.”]

John 1:1-14
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

Delivered on Wednesday, December 25th, a.d. 2013
at St. John's Episcopal Church (Wichita, Kansas)

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