Sermon for the 2nd Sunday after Christmas by Fr. Brench, Grace Anglican Church
#1 – the road to the Incarnation
Part One of the Christian calendar is the season of Advent, which proclaims that Jesus is coming. Part Two of the Christian calendar is the season of Christmas, which proclaims that Jesus is here! The first proclamation carries the weight of a warning. The second carries the tune of celebration. But why – why do we celebrate this arrival of Jesus, this birth of a baby who would be known as the Christ? If he came solely to die for our sins, then why bother celebrating his birth? And indeed you will find that in many churches where the Gospel is boiled down his death and resurrection, the celebration of Christmas wanes and is overshadowed by the Cross. But the Bible – not to mention the traditional liturgy to which Anglicanism has access – forbids us from such a simplistic reduction. The incarnation of Christ is just as critical for our salvation as the death and the resurrection of Christ. Sure, you need the incarnation in order to have the God-Man who can worthily die and resurrect, but even on its own, the incarnation itself plays a role in the salvation of the human race.
Our Scripture readings this morning get us started on this journey, but then the collect really kicks us off. The beginning of Psalm 110 which we read together is a classic Messianic Psalm. It’s a weird one to read on its own, but its use in the New Testament makes it clear that this is about Jesus. The primary speaker in the Psalm is King David. He says “The LORD says to my Lord, sit at my right hand.” God is speaking to David’s lord! Who could that be? The New Testament assures us more than once that David’s lord is Jesus. The Psalm describes Jesus’ kingship, ruling with a mighty scepter in the midst of his enemies. And the Psalm also describes Jesus’ priesthood, “after the order of Melchizedek.” The Kingship and Priesthood of Jesus are aspects of his ministry that have to do with our salvation primarily upon the Cross and at the final judgment. This is what we perhaps normally think about when we ponder our salvation in Christ.
Next comes the Epistle reading. This little verse out of 2 Corinthians informs us that Jesus exchanged his riches for poverty so that we could exchange our poverty for richness! This is clever double-speak that St. Paul is working here, for on one hand he’s talking about material wealth and on the other he’s talking about spiritual wealth. He’s not just encouraging the Corinthians to be generous with their money even if they don’t have very much, but he’s also hinting at the idea that by becoming poor (moving from an invisible deity to a limited human flesh), Jesus has enabled us to become rich (moving from limited human flesh to something more). But what is that ‘something more?’
The Gospel reading picks this up and takes it a step farther. It declares that the Word was made flesh – the second person of the Trinity became a human. As a result of this, Jesus gives us grace in the same way that Moses gave us the Law. How does this parallel work, what does this mean? The final verse here points us towards the answer: Jesus has made the Father known to us. Just as the Law of Moses made known God’s word, Jesus made known God’s person. Or, remembering that the Word of God is first and foremost Jesus himself, you could say that that the Law made known the Word, and now the Word makes known the Father.
Two notes on that before we move on: the concept of truth and the concept of knowing. When we read that grace and truth came from the Word, we must remember that truth is not a simple matter of being correct about a piece of information. It’s a matter of perfection and completion. If you’re familiar with the older translation of the Nicene Creed you may recall the part about Jesus Christ being called “true God of true God;” it’s the same line which is now “very God of very God.” So when we read that grace and truth came from Jesus, and that it has to do with knowledge of the Father, we can conclude that Jesus’ communication of the Father to us is not just factually correct, but perfect and complete in its scope. This brings us to the other word, knowledge. Jesus didn’t come to give us trivial knowledge of the Father, but something more intimate. When Jesus prayed for the Church in John 17, it became quite clear that the relationship he had with the Father was one that he desired for all his people. In the same way here, making known the Father was not so we could win at Bible Trivia, but so we could have a functional, healthy, and life-giving relationship with him.
Finally, the Old Testament reading gives us an even longer sweep. Verse 2 comes in with a prophecy of the birth of Christ: “Out of Zion will go forth the Law and the Word of the Lord.” Jesus is the Word, the great upgrade from the Law of Moses. Verse 3 describes the judgment and peace that Jesus will bring about – again fitting very neatly in to our usual salvation scheme of the Cross and the empty tomb. But then the reading fast-forwards us to chapter 5 which contains the prophecy that the Pharisees cited when answering King Herod that the Christ would be born in Bethlehem. We’re brought back to the incarnation here. Jesus, this promised ruler of Israel, is “from of old” – the “Ancient of Days.” This is exciting stuff! The Ancient of Days is one of the many names for God, particularly known for its use in the books of Daniel and the Revelation. Once again we have a prophecy that clearly marks out the full and perfect humanity and divinity of Jesus.
But what the next verse (verse 3) goes on to say is even more important for us today: “the rest of his brothers shall return to the people of Israel.” This is a classic example of prophetic double-speak. Remember how our Epistle reading contained both a physical and a spiritual meaning? Many Old Testament prophecies work the same way. The language of Israelites returning to Israel from foreign lands is a language of restoration. But as you know, the Kingdom that Jesus inaugurated wasn’t a temporal country like Israel of old. Rather, he founded a kingdom that was spiritual in nature but also encompasses this world. So when the prophecy speaks of restoration, we’ve got to look past the physical interpretations (such as the ability of Jews to live in their homeland during Jesus’ lifetime) and discern the spiritual interpretations. What, then, is being gathered in and restored here by Jesus’ incarnation and birth? In a word, EVERYTHING. As Jesus proclaims in Revelation 21:5, “Behold I am making all things new!” Or, as our Collect of the Day puts it: Almighty God wonderfully created us in his image, and yet more wonderfully restored us. We beseech him that as Jesus was made in the likeness of man, so we may be made partakers of the divine nature.
#2 – the road from the Incarnation
This Advent and Christmas, we’ve walked down the road to the Incarnation. But now, on the last day of Christmas, we have an opportunity to explore down the road from the Incarnation. “Jesus is here!” the theme of Christmas reminds us. But how is he here right now? Jesus told us that he would surely be with us always even to the end of the age. But how is that true? The Word made flesh was a major break-through for the intimacy between God and man. For the first time ever, God and man could speak face to face! What a beautiful thing that the Old Testament believers could only dream about! But now that Jesus has ascended into heaven, have we lost that opportunity, only to regain it upon his return at the end of the age? The Christian proclamation says no. Not only have we not been downgraded by his ascension, but we’ve been drawn into even closer intimacy. During Jesus’ ministry, God and man could directly interact. But now in the present age, God and mankind can directly interact. During Jesus’ ministry, this special personal access to God was limited to the location of Jesus’ person. But now this special personal access to God is fostered in the body and soul of everyone who puts their trust in him.
Let us turn to Hebrews 2. There we read about the subjection of the entire world under the rule of Jesus, leading to this statement: For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering. For he who sanctifies and those who are sanctified all have one source. That is why he is not ashamed to call them brothers, saying, “I will tell of your name to my brothers; in the midst of the congregation I will sing your praise.” And again, “I will put my trust in him.” And again, “Behold, I and the children God has given me.” Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things (Hebrews 2:10-14). Two key phrases stand out here: “he who sanctifies [God] and those who are sanctified [us] all have one source,” and “he himself [Jesus] partook of the same things [human flesh and blood].” This is Incarnation Theology; it can be a little tricky to get the head around at times, but let’s dig into this together now.
At Christmas, his birth, the incarnation, Jesus took on human flesh and blood. Not only does this mean that he was a human, and therefore able to relate to our sufferings and sympathize with our painful temptation, but deeper than that, it meant that he, the sanctifier, was from the same “source” as us, the sanctified. Simply by becoming human and taking on the human nature, God perfectly bridged the gap between God and mankind. Oftentimes we’re encouraged to think of the Cross as a sort of bridge from the world of sin and judgment into the world of forgiveness and righteousness. That’s a useful metaphor at times, but the real bridge between the fallen creation and the new creation is the incarnation of God-made-man.
With this bridge built, by God becoming human, it now becomes clearer to us that our salvation involves us crossing that bridge. The incarnation wasn’t God becoming like us we could relate to him. Too small! No, the incarnation was God becoming like us so we could become like him! The Word of God was humanized so that humans could be divinized. This is what St. Paul means when he talks about “Christ living in me” or “dying to self and living to God.” This is not like the Mormon belief that salvation results in each of us becoming gods ourselves. That’s an affront both to monotheism and to humanity. The Christian doctrine of divinization is not that we become gods, but that we take on the life of God in our own selves.
How does this work? Something about the Holy Spirit, you might ask? Certainly the presence of the Holy Spirit within each of us is key to this process. But the present gift of the Holy Spirit is a deposit, not the final balance. The Holy Spirit is with us to transform us, to work on us, to work with us, to work despite us, towards the goal of divinization, of theosis, of being fully clothed in Christ, of becoming as pure and spotless as Jesus, and of becoming as radically Spirit-empowered as Jesus. So if the Spirit is an actor in the process of making us Christ-like, what are the actual ingredients? How we do actually receive the divine nature of Christ?
St. Paul gave an answer to the Corinthians: “The cup of blessing that we bless, is it not a participation in the blood of Christ? The bread that we break, is it not a participation in the body of Christ?” The word participation is the same word for “sharing” or “fellowship.” It involves an intimate mutual exchange… an exchange not unlike what we saw regarding God taking on human flesh! Just as God drew near to us by taking on human flesh and human nature, we draw near to God by taking in Jesus’ flesh and divine nature. Holy Communion really is a holy communion! It literally is the chief means by which we come to “dwell in him and he in us,” as we will soon pray. The mutual exchange is astounding. Jesus took our flesh, and offered us his, enabling us to offer ourselves back as living sacrifices. St. Peter opened his second epistle on a similar note: “His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature…”
Our own Prayerbook tradition continues to uphold these very themes among the Communion prayers. We pray that receiving the bread and wine according to Jesus’ institution will make us partakers of his Body and Blood. We offer ourselves, our souls and bodies to be a reasonable, holy, and living sacrifice, humbly pleading that we may worthily receive his Body and Blood to the end that we might be filled with his grace and be made one body with him, so that he may dwell in us and we in him. We pray that our sinful bodies may be made clean by his body and that our souls may be washed through his most precious blood. The intricate tapestry of these prayers weave together all of this Incarnation Theology straight from Scripture so tightly and beautifully, not to mention so many other things like the Cross, Christ’s death, sacrifice, atonement, resurrection, and so much more. But this glimpse of the Incarnation for our salvation is enough on its own to impress upon us just how much God has done for us in his Son our Lord Jesus Christ.
#3 – Devotional Pointers
This is not a sermon, or indeed a subject, that lends itself to direct exhortation. It’s not like a sermon on wisdom, wealth, and riches, where I can conclude with some steadfast words from God about tithing, generosity, and greed. The incarnation of Christ and our reception of his divine nature in Eucharist is more fundamental than that. It’s a message that points us to devotional practices, to states of mind. It stirs up the soul more than the “life application.” And so I’d like to speak to some devotional insights that the two-way road of the incarnation leaves for us.
First of all, it highlights both the amazingly complex beauty of Holy Communion and the grave importance of our participation in it. It is not simply a matter of “Jesus said to do it in memory of me, therefore I’m doing it memory of him.” No, it’s so much more than that – it’s a real instrument by which we receive Christ in bodily form. In so doing we come into direct contact with the divine. For those who seek Christ and live for him, this contact is a source of real transformative spiritual life. And, as you may recall from the writings of St. Paul, this divine contact is also a source of destructive judgment for those who oppose Christ. It’s like how chocolate is fine for us, but dangerous for cats and dogs, except on a much more cosmic scale.
Second, the movements of the Communion service mimic, in a way, the movement of the Incarnation. The mixing of water and wine symbolize the now-inseparable mix of humanity and divinity in Christ. It reminds us that we are being changed from the inside out, even if we can’t see the difference or taste the difference just yet.
Thirdly, finally, the incarnation of Christ reminds us that God is restoring us, and our receiving of his divine nature in Eucharist is an actual step down that road. That’s why many of the early Protestant reformers pushed for more frequent celebration of Communion. Sure, we’re all sinners unworthy of God’s grace, but it’s exactly God’s grace that gives us life and draws us out of our sinful ways, and restores us. Thus, the weekly Communion service isn’t just a matter of style, but a matter of actual Christian growth. As John Wesley once put it, “ Let every one, therefore, who has either any desire to please God, or any love of his own soul, obey God, and consult the good of his own soul, by communicating every time he can; like the first Christians, with whom the Christian sacrifice was a constant part of the Lord’s day service. And for several centuries they received it almost every day: Four times a week always, and every saint’s day beside. Accordingly, those that joined in the prayers of the faithful never failed to partake of the blessed sacrament.”
Allow me end with these words from Psalm 43 (verses 3-5).
Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me;
let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling!
Then I will go to the altar of God, to God my exceeding joy,
and I will praise you with the lyre, O God, my God.
Why are you cast down, O my soul, and why are you in turmoil within me?
Hope in God; for I shall again praise him, my salvation and my God.