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The following sermon was preached at St. Matthew’s Anglican Church in Riverdale on Sunday, December 30th, 2012.

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A Sermon for the first Sunday of Christmas: Treasuring the Mystery of Christ in Your Heart.

Luke 2:41-52; Colossians 3:12-17

Prayer

Heavenly Father,

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.

Amen.

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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.

Theology is no end in itself. The End of theology is doxology, the praise and adoration of the Living God, three in one.

“What shall we say of the Trinity? How are we to approach this mystery? No manual, no book, no catechism lesson can “explain” the mystery of God in three Persons. There is too great a risk of deforming through words that which is inexpressible, of diminishing the eternal God through human categories of reason. Only prayer and worship can allow us to see even a small portion of the truth about the one God in three Persons,” (The Living God vl. 1, p.58-59).

rublevtrinity

Holy! Holy! Holy! Lord of Sabaoth!

There’s a passage in Luke’s account of the gospel where a group of men bring their paralyzed friend to Jesus. They’re carrying him on a bed, of sorts. They’re unable to reach Jesus because of the crowds so Luke tells us that they went up on the roof, tore through the tiles, and let him down through the roof right into the midst of the crowd, right in front of Jesus.

I thought of this today as I sat and watched an elderly gentleman and long time member of our church approach the altar rail to receive communion. The gentleman stays at a nearby rehab facility and rarely is able to come to church (although our priest typically brings him communion each Sunday after service, others visit him during the week). However, on occasion he is able to come on a Sunday morning and it’s always quite moving.

Anyways, this morning I watched as two people helped to hold him up and walked him up to the railing. He was entirely dependant on them to get up there. He looked almost like a coat draped over a hanger. Then he knelt. Ate the bread, drank the wine. I watched as they helped him to his feet again and then two others came along to help him down the steps.

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I had a brief conversation with a young woman recently who said she finds it hard to go to church these days because she’s not sure she believes anymore. She just can not seem to pray the prayers we pray with integrity and authenticity. “So what?” I said, “it’s not about you.” They’re not her prayers anyways, these are the prayers of the whole church so when we pray them we never pray alone, we always pray along with others even those saints who have gone before us. My faith may be weak, if that, but when I pray those words my prayers are taken up with the prayers of all the Lord’s saints, taken up into the eternal prayer of Jesus himself, even if I don’t believe them at the moment.

I should preface this entire post by saying there is no possible way to say what I’m going to say without bothering some folks. Furthermore, I’m not suggesting that everyone ought to do it this way, hell, I’m not even sure if my wife agrees with me or not as we haven’t talked about this (so maybe blogging about it isn’t the best, but hey). Also, these are not entirely complete thoughts, so I welcome dialog and push-back wherever you may see fit. OK, onwards and upwards..

I remember when I found out that the whole jolly-fat-guy-with-a-white-beard-and-a-red-suit thing was a hoax. Yeah, Santa. That guy. The guy upon whose lap your little children sit as they tell him all the shitty things they want for Christmas (God, it sounds pathetic, don’t it?). But anyways, if I’m remembering this correctly I think I was in about the 3rd or 4th grade and Ryan Neily told me it was all a lie. I went home that day and conned my mother into telling me the truth (i.e. “Mom, if I ask you something do you promise to tell me the truth?”). It worked and I never looked back, except for that time…

Christians understand time differently. Or, perhaps it’s more accurate to say that the Church understands time differently so Christians ought to do so. For example, the secular year runs from January though December and has something to do with the rotation of the earth around the sun, or the tides, or werewolves or something. In contrast to this, the Christian year begins with the season of Advent and culminates with the Feast of Our Lord Jesus Christ King of the Universe (in many Western churches, anyway). That is to say, the Church does not understand time in light of the rotation of the earth around the sun but in light of the redemptive work of God in Christ. We begin not with “January” but with eagerly awaiting the coming of Christ. We end not with “December” but with the proclamation that Christ is indeed enthroned in power and glory in this very moment. This is central to how Christians (ought) to understand time, and it is indeed central to our identity.

The Church Year is peppered throughout with various holy days and festivals. The two big ones are, no surprise here, Christmas and Easter. Christians understand these in light of how they understand time, that is, they understand these seasons in light of the coming of the Son of God to the world and so on and so forth. This is what seasons like Christmas and Easter are about. When we dumb this down, or remove it entirely, or remove just enough of it to make it non-sensical we are left with a vacuum. Now, I can’t speak to the origins of Santa Claus (rearrange “Santa” and you get “Satan”, just saying. Kidding.), and/or the Easter Bunny but insofar as they have meaning in Western society it is to fill the void that is left when we forget the story that we’re meant to remember. Now, this is to be expected of the world, of course…the forgetting of the story that is. Amnesia. Christians on the other hand, must not forget (though we often do and that’s another matter entirely). How the Church guards herself against amnesia is via anamnesis. You’ll notice the etymological similarity here (the words look awful alike!).

Anamnesis means to remember, but it’s more than that. It’s not simply a recollection of a past and distant event, rather, it’s the re-presentation of that event, it’s being-made-present. There’s a sort of defiance when it comes to anamnesis, I think. A sort of, “yeah, it might not appear to be so but it damn well is!”

Aside from the fact that Santa Claus is a bold-faced lie, I’m interested in the possibility of cultivating our children to see and understand the world rightly, in light of the in-breaking work of God in Christ. Maybe this means resisting the vampiric, soul-sucking, death-dealing consumerism that seems to be associated with Christmas (and, yes, Easter). Maybe this means forgetting about a fat guy that gives you everything your grubby, selfish little hands can grab at and remembering the Advent of the Son of God. Hell, St. Nicholas is where this mythological beast named Santa got his beginnings, and he’s certainly a fellow worth remembering. (UPDATE: Did you know that St. Nicholas allegedly punched Arius? Well, he did. Take that, fat man.)*

What do you think? Am I being a grump? Should I just back off and let my kids enjoy the magic of Santa and his gift-giving goodness?

Let me know what you think. And if you have kids or plan to I’d be interested in hearing what you’ve done or plan to do.

Postlude: I should say, in light of some expected criticism, that this all only makes sense when our lives are located within a particular story. That is to say, this post is addressed primarily to myself, and then to my Christian brothers and sisters.

*Thanks to Paul Lubberts for this tidbit.