(Click on the above image to see it fully)
The following sermon was preached at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Riverdale on Sunday, December 30th, 2012.
A Sermon for the first Sunday of Christmas: Treasuring the Mystery of Christ in Your Heart.
Luke 2:41-52; Colossians 3:12-17
Open my mouth, that I may proclaim your Word
Open our eyes and ears, that we may see and hear you
Open our hearts and minds, that we may joyfully receive you.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Over the past few weeks I have found myself, quite by accident, meditating upon some wonderful pieces of artwork. I came across one online gallery that was a collection of images of Mary, the Mother of God, breastfeeding the infant Jesus. Another painting that I found interesting was “Christ in the House of His Parents (‘The Carpenter’s Shop’)” by Sir John Everett Millais. In it Millais depicts a scene from the boyhood of Christ. We see the Holy Family set in a small and cramped carpenter’s shop. The image is one rich with all sorts of Christian symbolism. Public reaction to the painting at the time was one of horror. Indeed, Millais was viciously attacked by the press. The Times described the painting as “revolting” and objected to the way in which the artist had dared to depict the Holy Family as ordinary, lowly people in a humble carpenter’s shop “with no conceivable omission of misery, of dirt, of even disease, all finished with the same loathsome minuteness.” Charles Dickens was one of the most outspoken critics, describing the young Christ as “a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed gown.”
I think the reason that these images struck me so deeply is because it’s easy to lose sight of just how human Jesus was/is. The Christmas season is a time when we reflect upon and celebrate the mystery of the Incarnation of the Son of God, God in the flesh. Immanuel, God with us! Jesus Christ, fully God and fully man. Fully man. The gospels obviously focus mostly on Jesus’ ministry, the last three or so years of his life. But here, in our gospel reading today Luke gives us an important glimpse of Christ, that is, of Christ as a boy. A boy who in his infancy fed at his mother’s breast. A boy who was born into a poor family, son to a carpenter. A boy who had family and friends and may even have scuffed his knee every now and then. Now, if this is beginning to get somewhat offensive for your liking, my response to you would be, “yes”. Yes, indeed, this is what Paul means when he speaks of the foolishness of God, the weakness of God. As one Christian thinker has put it, “Until we’ve taken the idea of the God-man seriously enough to be scandalized by it we haven’t taken it as seriously as it demands to be taken,” (Frederick Buechner).
The Incarnation is a mystery. This is not to say that we cannot speak about it. No, we can and we must speak about it. We must further still be caught up by it and transformed in our very being (more on that in a moment). To say that the Incarnation is a mystery is to say that there is a certain unfamiliarity with the God whom we Christians say we worship and thus our attempts to domesticate or sentimentalize Jesus are misplaced if not idolatrous. To say that there is a level of unfamiliarity is to say that we are talking about God becoming Incarnate, the Creator entering creation in the form of a helpless babe. This God is not some sort of trinket we keep in our coat pocket for safekeeping, no, this is the Creator God, the God who is before all things and in whom all things hold together. This God is distinct from creation, He made it all but He is not part of it. To use a technical term, it is to say that God is transcendent, He is over and above all of creation and all of our speech about Him. To push the mystery a wee bit further, during Christmas we remember that this utterly distinct, wholly Other, transcendent God, descended to immanency with His creation in such a way that everything was forever changed.
The Incarnation is the union between God and man. This union that is Christ Jesus is central to the work of God. There is a saying that was attributed to many of the Church Fathers from Irenaeus to Augustine and which has worked itself out in different fashions in Catholic, Orthodox, and Protestant churches. The saying goes, “God became man that man might become god.” This is an attempt, I think, to flesh out (pun intended) what St. Peter meant when he wrote, “Thus he has given us, through these things, his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may escape from the corruption that is in the world because of lust, and may become participants of the divine nature,” (2 Peter 1:4). Which sounds an awful lot like what St. Paul meant when he wrote, “Listen, I will tell you a mystery! We will not all die, but we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed. For this perishable body must put on imperishability, and this mortal body must put on immortality…” (1 Cor. 15:51-54). For this perishable body must put on imperishability, that we may become participants of the divine nature. On Christmas Day Catholics all over the world pray, “O God, who marvelously created and yet more marvelously restored the dignity of human nature, grant that we may share the divinity of Him who humbled himself to share our humanity.” In Christ Jesus, our human nature, that is our entire human nature, was united to God, and when Christ enters our hearts, he brings us into that union.
This is surprising, this is offensive, this is strange and alien. In the words of a great Catholic theologian, “there can be intimacy with God but no getting used to him,” (Hans Urs von Balthasar). Luke gives us a glimpse of this in the gospel today. When Jesus’ parents finally make it back to Jerusalem and find their son in the Temple after three days their anxiety is palpable: “Child, why have you treated us like this? Look, your father and I have been searching for you in great anxiety.” The calmness of the boy’s response is a stark contrast to the anxiety filled question posed by Mary: “Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be about my Father’s business?” Note what Luke tells us next: “But they did not understand what he said to them.” For although the angel Gabriel had shown up and let them in on the uniqueness of this child that would be born to Mary, they still did not understand just how this would shape up. This “failure to understand” is thematic for Luke. Maybe Luke is wanting to tell us something about his gospel as a whole: maybe he is writing, at one level at least, for people who have some idea of Jesus but find he is more elusive than they had imagined (N.T. Wright). Perhaps there is also something here for those of us who are too familiar with Jesus and need a gentle reminder of his strangeness, and the foolishness of God’s love in Christ. Finding Jesus, of course, normally involves a surprise. Jesus doesn’t do or say what Mary or Joseph were expecting. It will be like that with us, too. Every time we relax and think we’ve really understood him, he will be up ahead, or perhaps staying behind while we go on without thinking. Following Jesus always involves the unexpected.
Yet, Mary kept in her heart those things which she did not fully understand. Let us learn from this, “to receive with reverence, and to lay up in our minds, (like the seed, which is allowed to remain for some time under ground) those mysteries of God which exceed our capacity,” (Calvin). As with Mary, so with Luke’s sensitive reader: “these things” are to be kept inwardly and pondered in the heart. Hear, likewise, the words of St. Paul from this mornings epistle reading: “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly; teach and admonish one another in all wisdom; and with gratitude in your hearts sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God,” (Col. 3:16).
What is it for us, floating here in the 21st century, to do as Mary did and treasure the mystery of the Incarnation in our hearts? What is it for us to heed St. Paul’s exhortation to “Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly”? It is at least two things. It is on the one hand to remember and on the other hand to anticipate. It is first to remember the story that makes sense of our lives and of the whole world. The Christian theologian Stanley Hauerwas said something somewhere to the effect of, “I hope to have lived a life that were non-sensical should the God Christians worship not exist.” The story of the relation between the world, human creatures, and God as revealed in Holy Scripture, the story whose fullness is most clearly expressed in the person of Christ Jesus, this is the story that makes sense of our lives and it is the story which we must recall and tell to one another and we must do so over and over and over again so that our very selves may be shaped by the Living God. There are many and varied ways by which we remember this story, from your own personal encounter with the Scriptures tucked away in your bed at night, to the proclamation of the gospel in Word and Sacrament when we gather together on mornings like this one. Secondly, to treasure the word of God in our hearts is to anticipate the coming again of our Lord who will judge the world and set it aright. We anticipate this not in some sort of half-hazard waiting about, waiting on the world to change as it were. No, we anticipate this in that when the Holy Spirit comes upon us and dwells within us and makes us new creatures in Christ Jesus God’s future is opened to us in such a way that we are invited to participate in the continuing work of Jesus in and for the world. For the church, there is a world which is truer than the world we presently experience and so the way is opened for us to live by another set of rules. Thus, St. Paul in our epistle reading is not being some sort of nagging moralist when he exhorts the Colossians to bear with one another, to forgive one another, to be patient and thankful and so on. Notice what Paul said before he said all those things: “As God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved…” (3:12). A few verses earlier Paul says of the Colossians that they have been “raised with Christ” (3:1). Paul is working from the premise that in Christ, in the mystery of the Incarnation, we have already been raised to new life, we are already God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved. Therefore, it only makes sense that we live the sort of lives together that anticipate the coming of the kingdom of God into the world because this is the truth of the world.
And so, at the beginning of this new year, may the unfathomable mystery of the reconciling love of God in Christ Jesus dwell deeply in our hearts, and may we treasure these things as we remember the story that makes sense of our lives and of the whole world. Amen.