A Sermon for Christmas Day
Isaiah 52:7–10 • Psalm 98 • Hebrews 1:1–4, (5–12) • John 1:1-14
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’s 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.
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 this secret, not when it came to the birth of his 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 was going to believe anyway. And so, God’s little secret is safe, for the time being at least.
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 only God can fix. But here’s the dilemma. That something which is broken in us also makes us terrified of God, so terrified that God has a hard time getting close enough to heal us with his gracious and loving presence.
It all began a long time ago [in this galaxy], in Garden far, far away. God created a man and a woman. He created them in his image; he created them to be the bearers of his image, to be the creatures who would reflect the glory of God in creation. In the beginning, this man and this woman are one flesh. They are united to one another and to God. They are naked and unashamed. This is the Original Blessing.
But then something goes wrong. Adam and Eve eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the tree that God had warned them about and something happens. In an instant, their eyes are opened wide, and they become acutely aware of their own nakedness—their vulnerability, their weakness, their dependence—and for the first time, they experience shame. They are naked and ashamed, so much so that they cannot bear to be in one another’s presence, for the presence of the other person 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.
And it gets worse. In the afternoon, they hear the sound of God in the Garden. They hear his approaching footsteps, and they hide themselves. While their makeshift clothing provided enough coverage that they could stand to be in one another’s presence, it couldn’t shield them from the shame they felt in God’s presence. And so they, like we, hid themselves from God. Something about the fruit of that tree had changed 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 sense of our own vulnerability, a debilitating sense of our own unworthiness—it is this shame that underlies all our human brokenness. It is this original shame that lies at the root of all human sin and violence, all human suffering and death.
And there is but one remedy. Only God’s 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 for them to bear. We see examples of this throughout Scripture; and we might even know of such examples from our own lives.
So God is faced with a dilemma. How can he draw close enough to his people, to heal them when his presence reminds them all the more of their brokenness, when his love and grace triggers feelings of unworthiness? It’s a dilemma any parent can appreciate. You who are parents, how often have you gone to a son or daughter in order to love them, in order to forgive or comfort them only to find that your presence intensifies their pain, their feelings of embarrassment, guilt, or shame? They need you, yet your presence is too much too bear. This is God’s dilemma.
The Mystery of the Incarnation
The Word Becomes Flesh
So how did God resolve this dilemma? By slipping into our world in the dead of night 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 very God of very God, this Word became flesh. More precisely, this Word—through whom all creation came into being—this eternal Word of God 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, close enough 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 appeared in the garb of humanity, which 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 conceils 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 to both conceal and reveal God’s glory. But how is that possible? God is the Creator of the heavens and the 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—in the person of his Son—God 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 of the Incarnation is critical for our 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 left some of his divinity behind. God did not have to abandon any of his Godness to become human. When the Word became Jesus, it did not cease being the Word. So with Jesus, we are not getting some abridged or 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, with Jesus, we are not getting some truncated, diluted 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. 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 gracious, loving presence. As St. John writes:
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).
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 without shame or fear.
Now I don’t know how successful you were this holiday season in drawing close to God. This time of year, our world makes this very difficult with all of its busyness, which is simply the world’s way of distracting itself from the pain of the 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.
And 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 another little secret. You haven’t missed Christmas at all; 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. Plenty of time to enter the Mystery of the Incarnation.
So rejoice for today “breaks a new and glorious morn.”