This sermon was preached at Grace Anglican Church on January 4th, 2015.
Let’s quickly take stock of where we’ve been thus far: Last month the Bishop talked about hope. Two weeks ago I told you story of the Maccabees. Last week we heard the story of the Holy Innocents. So this is my last chance to say something uplifting before Christmas is over!
So let’s talk about… presents. Everyone loves presents – or at least loves receiving presents. Some say Christmas is all about presents. Some might say it’s about the presents that Christ gives: peace on earth, good will toward men. But then someone clever comes along and says “Yes, but Christ is the greatest present of all!” And someone too clever for his own good comes along and says “It’s about Christ’s presence.”
In the daily offices of Morning and Evening Prayer, there is a beautiful prayer with a dull title: The General Thanksgiving. Some of you may know it, or at least recognize it from when we said Morning Prayer here.
Almighty God, Father of all mercies;
we, your unworthy servants, give you humble thanks:
for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us
and to all whom you have made.
We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life;
but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world
by our Lord Jesus Christ,
for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory.
Look at all the things it prompts us to thank God for: the fact that we were created at all, God’s preservation of us throughout our lives to this point, and all those blessings. Remember that lovely song from White Christmas, “If you’re up late and you can’t sleep, count your blessings instead of sheep.” Well it’s true! And this is how I think we are used to thanking God in our church culture: looking around at all the stuff we have, all the friends we know, all the comforts we’ve experienced, and thanking God for providing those things. This is all good, but there is more. The General Thanksgiving Prayer doesn’t even end the sentence there, but it continues “but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ,” and it spells that out with two specific examples: the means of grace and the hope of glory. How easy it can be even for long-time Christians to overlook the Gospel! It isn’t just good news for sinners who will repent for the first time, God has good news for all who trust in him. And no matter how long you follow Christ, his Gospel will never get any less good!
On this second Sunday in Christmastide, let’s take a look at some of the gifts that God has given us, not simply in terms of “the many blessings of this life” but in his “immeasurable love in the redemption of the world.”
Think back to the Advent season. We were preparing for the arrival of Jesus in three ways: first, Jesus born of Mary in Bethlehem all those years ago, second, Jesus entering into our hearts anew, and third, Jesus coming to judge the world at the end of this age. It would only be prudent to make sure all those Advent expectations be fulfilled before we wrap up this Christmas season.
#1 The Gift of Jesus’ Advent in the flesh
The juxtaposition of our Epistle and Gospel readings gives us an important picture of the arrival of Christ in this world. In 2 Corinthians 8:9, St. Paul wrote that Christ became poor so that we might become rich. Our Lord gave up something for our gain. St. John’s Gospel (1:14-18) says something similar: “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth… For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” Notice a similar dynamic here – Jesus came into this world to share his ‘fullness’ of grace and truth with us. So from God’s limitless riches, he made us rich by sharing with us his grace and his truth. This is a present given first, in the physical person of Jesus himself, and also continually within the Church in a spiritual manner.
When people met Jesus, they met God. This is Sunday School 101, but it’s always important to keep this reality firmly in mind. When people met Jesus, they were meeting God! Something very important that we learn from the Old Testament, and that the Jews in Jesus’ day knew full well, was that nobody could look upon the face of God and live. The bright-burning purity of God’s holiness destroys us in our sinfulness, so there had to be separation for our own safety. God could only be approached by certain high priests on certain holidays at a certain altar in a certain Temple. This was God’s grace: while direct access to him was impossible, he provided a way for his people to draw near to him. When God arrived in human flesh, he flipped that paradigm upside-down. No longer would people have to observe complicated laws of purification, God put himself into his own creation! This is grace upon grace. God had already been gracious to his people through the Old Covenant law and liturgy, but now he was giving even more grace.
Now, finally, God could be spoken to face to face. Meeting Jesus meant meeting God, and becoming his disciple – both a follower and a student – meant becoming a disciple of God. Jesus himself became the meeting place between God and mankind. In a sense, this is exactly what the human race was created for! Adam and Eve were made “in the image of God,” which meant that looking at a human was a window into looking at God. With Jesus, that was completely perfected: looking at him is looking at God. God, the inward spiritual reality that humans outwardly physically represent, was truly present in Jesus, who was himself also physically and completely human. This makes Jesus the ultimate sacrament – if God’s grace can enter the human race at all, it goes through Jesus. Jesus is the link between God and humanity – he fulfills the role of both. If you seek the grace of God, you seek Jesus.
In addition to grace, remember that that Jesus is also the Truth. Later in John’s Gospel, Jesus declares himself to be the Way, the Truth, and the Life. The Greek word for Truth is a rich word, referring not just to facts that are correct, but also to fullness, to completion, to wholeness, to perfection. To say Jesus is the Truth is not just to say that his teachings are true, but also that everything about him is right and perfect. You know in that famous quote, chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians, talking about how love is patient and kind and never-failing and all that, there is reference to Jesus. In verses 8-10, it says, “Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away.” Jesus is the perfect one. When he returns to us in person, we will be filled with his perfect love, and all the temporary blessings of this life which weren’t meant to last forever will no longer be needed. Jesus will be our All in All.
#2 The Gift of Jesus’ Advent in our hearts
The second Advent anticipation is fulfilled with the gift of Jesus in our midst spiritually. Let’s keep the same “grace and truth” dynamic that today’s Gospel reading got us going on.
Jesus knew that he would not always be with us physically in person; he knew that it was better for us that he go away and leave the Holy Spirit with us. Because with the Holy Spirit dwelling within us and building up the entire Church as his Body, we’re able to receive Jesus more deeply than if he were still walking around in our midst today. And so Christ, being himself the perfect Sacrament, left for us two Sacraments in particular: Baptism to bind us to himself, and Holy Communion to nourish our growth in him.
I read an article about this the other day, which bore a title that just grabs your attention: “Jesus Wants You To Eat Him.” It was written by a fellow Anglican minister named Fr. Jonathan, who also runs an excellent blog. He started out by describing how Adam and Eve “wanted to be like God, so they ate something which they thought would give them a piece of God’s power. They ate the fruit because they wanted to become God. They wanted to take God into themselves, to have His knowledge, to steal His mojo.”
Fr. Jonathan continues, “In many ways, this is still how we approach the world. In our day and age, we no longer believe in the One True God, or even in the idea that there could be a One True God, but we have many gods to take His place — gods of entertainment, power, politics, sex, you name it. We worship them because we want to be them. We attempt to consume them, to take them into ourselves so that we might have what they have so that we can then be done with them. This consumption takes many forms, of course, not all of them literal. We consume ideas and products just as adeptly as we consume pastries and pasta. We get outraged at the stuff we’re supposed to get outraged at, depending on which set of gods we wish to ingest that day. We buy whatever has been endorsed by our favorite celebrities, because if we use his toothpaste or her lip gloss, we might just become the gods we’ve always aspired to be.
“And then the One True God comes along and spoils the fun by becoming incarnate of the flesh of the Virgin Mary. While we are busy consuming in order to become gods, God is busy self-emptying in order to become us. All this time, we’ve been trying to eat our way to the top, and then Jesus stands before us, God in human flesh, and offers us Himself to eat, His own flesh and blood. And we don’t want to eat Him. We turn our noses up like children presented with vegetables.
“Jesus fed the multitudes bread that they could consume. When He did that, they followed Him because they wanted to see what else they could get out of Him. But He rejected their consumerism. “Truly, truly, I say to you, you seek me, not because you saw signs, but because you ate your fill of the loaves,” says Jesus (John 6:26). The kind of eating that we want to do and the kind that Jesus wants to give us are totally different. We want to have Him as a possession, to keep Him handy like a genie in a bottle, to use Him and then spit Him out. We want Him to do whatever it is we need Him to do–to comfort us, to make us happy, to entertain us, to give us a “spiritual charge,” to give us a sense of identity, to tell us that we’re just fine the way we are–and then we want Him to be gone until we need Him again. We want Him to be our comfort food, totally filling, totally designed to make us feel good, totally disposable and forgettable. We want to rot our teeth on Him, but that is not what He is offering. He wants us to eat Him, but in a totally different way and for a totally different purpose.”
The point that Fr. Jonathan comes to here is the classic catch-phrase “You are what you eat.” If you consume junk, junk consumes you. If you consume the life of God, you are consumed with the life of God. One of the Communion hymns that we might have sung today expresses this quite beautifully:
Shepherd of souls, refresh and bless Thy chosen pilgrim flock
With manna in the wilderness, With water from the rock.
We would not live by bread alone, But by the word of grace,
In strength of which we travel on To our abiding-place.
Be known to us in breaking bread, But do not then depart;
Savior, abide with us, and spread Thy table in our heart.
The second verse there notes that we do not live by bread alone, but “by the word of grace.” This is a hint toward another important point: the Sacraments of Christ do not exist in a vacuum. Rather, they are in an unbreakable unity with the Scriptures – the word of God written. Different Christian traditions sometimes tend to gravitate toward one or the other – Word or Sacrament – when really the relationship between them is mutual. The Sacraments are empowered by the Word, and the Word is embodied in the Sacraments. Together, they communicate Jesus to us more powerfully and completely than either of them can on their own. So we not only receive the grace of Jesus in the Sacraments, we also receive the truth of Jesus in the Bible. Thanks be to God for such beautiful gifts!
#3 The Gift of Jesus’ Advent for judgment at the end of the age
Thirdly, and finally, there is the question of how Jesus’ return to judge the world is a gift. Although we normally speak of God’s judgment taking place at the end of this age, the Scriptures also give us clues that our human perception of time is inadequate to understand God’s judgment. In 1 Peter 4:16-19, we are told, “If anyone suffers as a Christian, let him not be ashamed, but let him glorify God in that name. For it is time for judgment to begin at the household of God; and if it begins with us, what will be the outcome for those who do not obey the gospel of God? And “If the righteous is scarcely saved, what will become of the ungodly and the sinner?” Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good.”
Did you catch that? Judgment has already begun with “the household of God.” That’s us! Glimpses of the future judgment of the entire world can be seen even now, in the present. When someone is Baptized, and puts their faith in Christ, seeking his life over their own, there is an echo of judgment saying “Your sins are forgiven.” Every time we confess our sins to God and ask for forgiveness based on the sacrifice made by Christ on the Cross, God makes a judgment, “Your sins are forgiven.” On the other end, when someone stands up and says “Jesus is not Lord, and his sacrifice means nothing to me,” we know from the Scriptures that a judgment of condemnation awaits such an attitude. That final judgment hasn’t happened yet, but here in the household of God, the Church, we are given glimpses of that end, and have the privilege and responsibility to let the world know!
Not only in the Scriptures, but also in the Sacraments do we find glimpses of judgment echoing down. Regarding Holy Communion, St. Paul wrote, “Anyone who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment on himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died. But if we judged ourselves truly, we would not be judged. But when we are judged by the Lord, we are disciplined so that we may not be condemned along with the world” (1 Cor. 11:29-32). So not only is there the final judgment that separates those who love God and those who hate him, but God also gives us the gift of smaller judgments – disciplining us for our own sins so that we might learn to recognize those sins and repent from them more fully, and thus reach ever more heartily for the perfection of Christ himself.
In short, God loves to give us gifts; it’s practically in his nature to do so. In the second or third generation of Christians, St. Irenaeus of Lyons wrote, “God commanded us to follow Christ, not because he has any need of our service, but because he wants to give us salvation. To follow the Savior is to share in salvation, just as to follow the light is to gain the light. People who are in the Light do not themselves provide the light, but are illuminated and made bright by it; they do not contribute anything to it, but, by being illuminated by it, they receive the benefit of the Light. Similarly, to serve God does not mean giving him any gift, nor has God any need of our service. On the contrary, it is He who gives to those who serve him: life, immortality, and eternal glory. He rewards those who serve him, without deriving any benefit himself from their service: he is rich, he is perfect, he has no needs. God requests human obedience so that his love and his pity may have an opportunity of doing good to those who serve him diligently. The less God has need of anything, the more human beings need to be united with him. Consequently, a human being’s true glory is to persevere in the service of God.”
Look at any saintly Christian, especially Jesus himself, and you will see that indeed the true glory of a human being is to persevere in the service of God. For God is the giver of everything: our creation, our preservation, all the blessings of this life, and above all, Jesus Christ: our source and means of grace, and our hope of eternal glory. All praise and thanks be unto him, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit forever, one God, in glory everlasting. Amen!