I preached this sermon in a joint Morning Prayer & Holy Eucharist service. The readings from the Morning Prayer portion were Isaiah 9:2-7 and Hebrews 1:1-12. The readings from the Holy Eucharist portion were Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Galatians 4:1-7, and Matthew 1:18-25.
The Mystery of the Incarnation
The mystery of Christmas is one of the richest mysteries of the faith. It is the mystery of God – who created all things, all the universe – somehow becoming a human. It is the mystery of God – who is unbound by space and time – becoming bound to space and time. The invisible heavenly Father suddenly revealed himself to be a more complex being than previously thought. Not just a singular being, but a three-in-one being. And one of those three, known relationally as The Son, somehow became a human just like you and me.
Indeed this very concept of God-made-flesh is abhorrent to almost every other religion in the world. The Jewish authorities at the time (and to this day) largely rejected the claim. Muslims would find the assertion that Allah manifested himself in human flesh to be utterly blasphemous. Hindus and Buddhists, too, would think that such an action from the divine would be utterly backwards. They (like the ancient Greeks, and also many people today) believe that the invisible spiritual world is good, and the visible physical world is bad. The real you, your soul, is trapped in a physical body, and death is the release of the soul from this evil trap, and heaven is an ethereal existence safely apart from the sufferings that come with physical existence. But Christianity stands up against these trends and says no: physical existence is good. God does not dirty himself by becoming human; rather, he sanctifies humanity. Where most religions would think that God becoming human is like ruining clean clothes by throwing them into a pile of stinky laundry, Christianity proclaims that God becoming human is like throwing a some detergent into the laundry.
Something particularly special about the mystery of Christmas is that it was in God’s heart to do this from eternity: God created the universe for the sole purpose of sharing his love with it. As Trinity (Father, Son, and Holy Spirit), he already knew perfect community, and wanted to expand it. Even without sin coming into the world, Christ would still have been born to bring about that more perfect union and communion between God & mankind.
But sin did happen – Adam and Eve rejected God in the garden by rejecting the one rule they had. This rule wasn’t legalistic – we know from marriage that love requires mutual submission. And so the Christ, this God-Man, had to come not only to perfect the union but also to rebuild the relationship that had been damaged by sin. This is what we call making atonement. Now, sin is like a child spilling paint on a beautiful painting. It’s a ruinous mistake that can’t be undone by the child. And God’s solution wasn’t to throw it out, but paint over it something better! This second painting is the New Creation. The first creation, entrusted to Adam and Eve, was ruined by sin. The new creation, entrusted to Jesus, is the re-painting of the old messed-up picture.
What many preachers and Christmas songs often do is jump straight from “Christ is born today!” to “Christ was crucified for us!” But Christmas is a special mystery in the course of the history of the universe that I think merits some special attention on its own before we run off to other pieces of the Gospel or good news of Christ.
The Mystery Promised
The first two readings we heard this morning are two of the readings appointed for Christmas Day itself. Together they point us toward God’s intention from the beginning to become human and perfect the connection between deity and humanity. The famous words from the prophet Isaiah (in chapter 9) describe a “great light.” Those who dwell in a land of deep darkness, “on them has light shone.” Isaiah prophesies that they will rejoice before God as if the harvest had just come in or as if they had just won a fantastic victory and gained a hoard of treasure. They will rejoice because God will have removed that which was oppressing them. The soldiers of their enemies will be gone. How will this come about? By the birth of a child. “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given; and the government shall be upon his shoulder, and his name shall be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and of peace there will be no end, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and to uphold it with justice and with righteousness from this time forth and forevermore.” Right there the God-Man formula is required in order to make proper sense of this. When Isaiah says “a child is born,” the promised leader who will rise and save them must clearly be a human. But when he goes on to say that one of his names or titles is “Mighty God” and that he will reign as king forevermore, clearly this person must be God himself. The one who comes to save the world from all its problems is to be a human who is also God!
The second reading, from the Letter to the Hebrews, looks back on the whole story of Jesus and gives a different style of explaining him. It starts by reminding us that God spoke to his people through prophets in the past, but finally he spoke through his own Son. The author of this letter emphasizes very strongly that this great man is not just some demigod, nor is he an angel, but he is a man who was completely God. We’ll hear more about this theme next Sunday, in how God became flesh.
The Mystery Expressed in a Family
Today’s theme, however, narrows in on the family of God that results from this incarnation. The Gospel reading tells us the basic familiar story: St. Joseph is visited by the Archangel Gabriel, and told that his fiancée is to give birth to the Son of God. So he keeps his promise to be wed to Mary, and names the son Jesus, as instructed by the angel. And so Joseph becomes part of this unusual family, serving as a sort of guardian for Jesus, or a sort adopted father.
These ideas of guardianship and adoption repeat themselves in the epistle reading. In St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians we are given a theological version of the same story. First, we all are naturally enslaved to the “elementary principles of the world,” which is a fancy way of saying that we are all touched by sin and unable to escape the problems it creates – the serpent that deceived Adam and Eve has left its mark on all of us. Second, it says that in God’s good timing he sent his Son into the world so that “we might receive adoption as sons.” Just like Joseph got to be involved in the family with Jesus & Mary even though he wasn’t directly related to them, we also get to be involved in God’s family even though we aren’t directly related to them! We’re adopted into God’s family, making God our own Father, making Mary our own mother, making Jesus our own older brother. And because we get to be sons of God alongside Jesus, that makes us heirs along Jesus too. Remember the promises we heard from Isaiah a few moments ago that would be applied to Jesus: he would be a great leader who would overthrow the oppressors and bring about everlasting peace. So the way that promise is theologically presented by St. Paul to the Galatians is that we get to participate in his victory and eternal kingdom. It’s not just an esoteric relationship, but one that will be made very real even though we can’t see it now.
The Mystery Unseen
But let’s be fair, there are many times that Christianity seems like a pretty esoteric religion. We pray to a God we can’t see, but who we proclaim was made man thus becoming visible in a way that is pretty unique among world religions. We pray to this man, Jesus, who’s the son of Mary and the son of God, who lived, died, resurrected, and ascended into heaven where we can no longer see him until he comes back. This can feel very unreal at times, whether you’re a veteran Christian, a new Christian, a cultural Christian, or not a Christian at all. How we long for something tangible, some hard evidence to remind us or convince us that these strange and mysterious claims are legitimate.
Trouble is, there is no hard evidence. Just like everything else we know about history, there’s nothing we can do to go and verify the existence and accomplishments of Julius Ceasar, Alexander the Great, Napoleon Boneparte, or Abraham Lincoln. We have histories, pictures, and contemporary accounts of these people, just like we have with Jesus. All history comes down to a “remembering community.” We cannot scientifically prove the life and ministry of Jesus any more than we can scientifically prove the life and presidency of Abraham Lincoln. We either trust the surviving documentation or we do not. They’re either accurate or inaccurate. The issue isn’t a matter of proof, but of perspective. There is no missing piece of evidence that can convince or reassure us of the reality of what has taken place in the past; it all comes down to a sensible balance of Reason and Faith.
As the famous author C. S. Lewis once put is, “I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” The Gospel that the Church proclaims is not a matter of evidence and proof alone, but a matter of vision and mindset. Most of us don’t watch the sun rise every morning in order to make sure that it’s morning. Rather, we see daylight all around, and therefore discern that morning has come.
The Mystery Discerned
In the same way, we don’t have to pay a visit to the heavenly throne room of God to find out if he’s real, if Jesus really was the God-Man, and if we really can be adopted as God’s sons alongside him. Rather, we discern that these things are true in that they make sense of the rest of the universe. The human condition, the question of good & evil, the purpose of our existence, together form a puzzle that many religions have tried to reassemble. Many people today have given up, asserting that there is no solution and everything is just random. This is still a new phenomenon, however, and has been received with no small confusion and concern by those who do particularly hold to a religion or philosophy.
So for those who seek to piece together this puzzle of existence, I would put to you this mystery of the incarnation – of God become man. Because it is only in this connection between the perfect and the imperfect, the good God and the sinful humanity, that a solution to fixing our imperfection and sin can be found. If we’re imperfect and sinful then it stands to reason that we can not solve our problems. It would be like trying to add negative numbers together to get a positive number; it just doesn’t work. We, in our finite negativity – our sinfulness – can only be corrected by a God who is infinitely good. When Jesus was born, when God became man, the solution to this equation had finally presented itself.
Let’s go back to our original analogy: the one where sin is like a child spilling paint on a beautiful painting. Adam, as the first man in the first creation, messed up the universe by sinning, and, like paint on a picture, the problem seemed permanent. But now Jesus, as the first man in the new creation, being born and living and dying and resurrecting as only a God-Man can do, has proven himself to be just the artist we need to re-paint the old picture. Because God loves this universe, he loves us, he loves you and me. He doesn’t want to throw it all out and start over. He’d much rather fix what he has got. Everyone who joins God’s family gets to participate in the re-painting.
Church isn’t for “good people;” it’s for broken pictures like you and I. It’s not always easy to see, and I certainly can’t prove it to you by any hard scientific evidence, but the truth is that God is at work, painting away and fixing all the problems that we make. The new creation has begun. Jesus is the spot in the picture that shows us what it looks like when it’s fully fixed. All you have to do is keep handing that paintbrush back to God saying yes, I would like to be restored, and I need you, God, to be the one to do it, because no one else can.