incarnation

The Glory of His Work

Sixth in the Advent/Christmas series, “What Has God Wrought?”

Hebrews 1:1-13 (NRSV)

Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.

For to which of the angels did God ever say,

“You are my Son;
   today I have begotten you”?

Or again,

“I will be his Father,
   and he will be my Son”?

And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says,

“Let all God’s angels worship him.”

Of the angels he says,

“He makes his angels winds,
   and his servants flames of fire.”

But of the Son he says,

“Your throne, O God, is forever and ever,
   and the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom.
You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has anointed you
   with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”

And,

“In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth,
   and the heavens are the work of your hands;
they will perish, but you remain;
   they will all wear out like clothing;
like a cloak you will roll them up,
   and like clothing they will be changed.
But you are the same,
   and your years will never end.”

But to which of the angels has he ever said,

“Sit at my right hand
   until I make your enemies a footstool for your feet”?


God came down. That is the essence of the Christmas story—God came down among us from an infinite place and situation we can barely imagine to save his creation from sin.

It’s a beautiful story. Do you want to hear the Christmas story one more time this Christmas Day? It’s always worth hearing, even if you heard it last night, on Christmas Eve.

The author of our Hebrews text this morning evoked that Christmas story, and he wanted us to remember God came down in all his glory, despite God voluntarily reducing himself to be among us. By glory, we simply mean that his perfect holiness was shining through, even at moments when human beings dulled by sin could not always see the glory.

The Hebrews author reminds us that yes, this Jesus is God among us. Through him, all things were made, an assertion echoed in the first chapter of the Gospel of John. Yes, this Jesus is eternal, and life is rooted in him.

Yes, this Jesus is worthy of worship. This expression of God as Son shares the throne in heaven with God the Father and God the Holy Spirit, three in one. Even the angels in heaven bow down to the Christ, and when he was born to a human mother in this world, the angels came down, too, visible to shepherds as God’s divine messengers.

God’s glory shines all around us even today. We simply have to remember to look for it, to ask God to remove the scales from our sin-dulled eyes, and the glory is there.

There is the glory of creation. We like to cite creation as evidence of God’s presence here in Ten Mile, particularly when I ask during prayer time where we’ve seen God. There’s nothing wrong with pointing to nature, even though it often continues to be red in tooth and claw. We’re just echoing Romans 1:20:

“Ever since the creation of the world his eternal power and divine nature, invisible though they are, have been understood and seen through the things he has made.”

We see God’s glory in each other, too. You hear people from other religions talk about the “divine spark” within humans. We have notions along those lines in Christianity, too. We know from the creation story that we were made in God’s image, although we quickly became cracked, distorted reflections because of sin.

Jesus came among us to be the perfect reflection, the exact imprint, and when we accept that truth and profess our belief in him as Savior, we begin to do a better job day by day of reflecting God’s glory to others. As Jesus rose from the dead, resurrected, we rise above our own dying each day and are transformed, knowing that we also will be resurrected in full.

In our worship services on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day at Luminary UMC, we have had the joy of taking some of our brothers and sisters through baptisms, confirmations and reaffirmations of faith. We believe the “divine spark” was visible at those moments. As each formally accepted Christ as Lord and Savior, we believe the Holy Spirit began to work in the person in new ways.

Who knows what God will do through them? An act of re-creation, I am sure. These new Christians are being remade, just as the world is being remade, and as the church of believers grows, God’s glory should become more evident.

Let’s pause now and once again glorify God.

Like your angels, Lord, we bow our heads to you. We lift our hands and voices in praise. And yes, we even dare to look upon your beauty and majesty, our hearts filled with hope and joy, knowing you accept our praise and rejoin us to you despite our sin.

Inspire us this day with a new sense of your glory. Let us reflect your glory to others, that they may know the truth of who you are, and your kingdom may grow.

Thank you for the birth of Jesus Christ. Thank you for his life perfectly lived, and his perfectly obedient death. Thank you for the glory of the resurrection.

May the hope and glory of Christmas sustain us throughout the year.

Amen.


The featured image is “Glory of the Newborn Christ,” ceiling painting by Daniel Gran, 1694-1757.

Advertisements

A Strange Work

Fourth in the Advent/Christmas series, “What Has God Wrought?”

Isaiah 7:10-16 (ESV)

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz: “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” But Ahaz said, “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” And he said, “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.”


People who want to show how the Old Testament predicts the coming of Jesus Christ often cite this prophecy, but without some background, it can be a little confusing.

In short, Ahaz, king of Judah, was being threatened with invasion by two other kingdoms, and being relatively weak and faithless, he was afraid. God had told the prophet Isaiah to go and reassure the king, and also told the prophet to take along his son, Shear-jashub. Through Isaiah, God went so far as to graciously offer Ahaz a clear sign he had nothing to fear.

Most of us would love to have a clear sign from God. Ahaz, however, rudely declined the offer in words masked in false politeness. Most likely, the king was concerned he would look too aligned with the God of his people as he tried to curry favor with surrounding kingdoms, particularly the powerful Assyrian empire.

In response, God did a surprising thing. He offered a sign pertinent not just to the immediate situation, but to all situations, to all problems in time.

A virgin shall conceive. The child shall be called Immanuel, an allusion to the fact that the child literally would be “God among us,” the meaning of the name. And despite the child’s glorious, divine status, he would eat not the food of angels, as Matthew Henry so eloquently put it, but the same milk products and honey on which the children around him would rely.

The last part of the prophecy, with its “before the boy” reference, can seem particularly confusing. We have to understand that God had moved back to the immediate situation, and was referencing not the messiah, but Isaiah’s boy, present in the room with the king of Judah. The land of the two kings who seemed so threatening would be deserted in just a few years, the short time it would take for the boy to begin to think and act like a man.

But back to that big-picture intervention, that strange prophecy of a virgin birth and God walking among us. It is as if God, having been insulted by the king, for just a moment caused the prophet to ecstatically anticipate the great power and control God would demonstrate one day. The prophecy was in some ways a most magnificent pearl cast before a most ignorant swine, but it was recorded in a way so that it has lasted to our very day.

In hearing this prophecy one week before Christmas Day, we as Christians are reminded just how strange our religion is.

We believe, we really believe, that the God who made all things—the one who stands outside space and time, the being who is infinitely larger than the universe we cannot even see in fulll—chose to come among us and live first inside a woman’s womb? God decided to reduce himself to a tiny fetus, then grow to the size of an infant, so he could be born to mewl and suckle and have his diaper changed?

Really?

And when God came among us, we believe he decided to do it as ingloriously as possible, arriving not in a royal household, but in one of the lowest, poorest places on earth? To a poor, unmarried mother, one more a girl than a woman?

The story only gets stranger. It appears this God in flesh, Jesus, started out working with his hands. And when he did finally go to preaching, he relied neither on royalty nor educated clergy to absorb and carry his message, but instead the working people of his day, many of them diseased or disreputable.

Really? That was God’s plan? To get down in the dirt?

We might as well look forward in the story even further. The child is born, becomes a man, and yes, he dies, suffering a most horrible public death. Do we recognize how strange it is to say that a holy, perfect God can not only die, but be humiliated in the process? Beaten, cursed, spat upon? That somehow in doing so, he took on all the punishment for sins we committed?

All that considered, resurrection of the messiah, as strange as it sounds, was the only logical occurrence in this chain of odd events. How could shame or even death expect to hold God? The badly unbalanced scales of the universe had to right themselves.

All of that strangeness results in blessings, of course. The Really Good News: Death can no longer expect to hold us now that we are reconciled with our holy maker.

Clearly, we believe in a special, strange kind of love, the remarkable unmerited grace poured out on us from God. I wonder if the vision puzzled Isaiah as he prophesied.

Never get used to the wonderful strangeness of what we believe. Let’s celebrate it today and in the coming weeks of Christmas with new eyes and a deep appreciation for the work God is doing through Jesus Christ.


The featured image is of a 17th-century Russian Orthodox icon, “Christ-Immanuel.”

Upcoming Series

After a couple of weeks off, I’m looking forward to beginning a sermon series for Advent and Christmas. Here’s what I have planned:

What Has God Wrought?

Nov. 27: Isaiah 2:1-5. “A Universal Work”
Dec. 4: Isaiah 11:1-10. “An Ancient Work”
Dec. 11: Isaiah 35:1-10. “A Work Within Us”
Dec. 18: Isaiah 7:10-16. “A Strange Work”
Saturday, Dec. 24 (Christmas Eve): Luke 2:1-20. “The Beauty of His Work”
Sunday, Dec. 25 (Christmas Day): Hebrews 1:1-13. “The Glory of His Work”

In the Beginning

John 1:1-5, 9-14

This time of year, Christian minds quickly go to a baby in a manger. But we also are invited to contemplate an astounding idea: The true nature of what is within the child.

Last week, I mentioned that if you accept that Simeon saw the face of God when gazing upon the baby Jesus, then you understand a central tenet of Christianity. Jesus is God among us, God taking on flesh in order to be among his creation and, ultimately, to save his creation from sin and death.

The opening of the Gospel of John takes this idea and runs with it. As we read it, we are asked to put aside notions of time and space and understand the godly essence of Jesus has always existed and always will exist.

We are told there is an an aspect of God we can think of as “the Word.” When we see God as creative, as life-giving, we are seeing the Word. In Greek it is logos, which we also might translate as “truth” or “reason,” if we trust some of the meaning ancient Greek philosophers read into the concept.

This high-minded notion of creativity, truth and reason existing beyond space and time—indeed, making space and time—is overwhelming to try to grasp. My head hurts just trying to think about it. And yet, in all of this, there also is love. And God loves his little human creations so much that this endless aspect of God, this Word, concentrated and shrank himself enough to inhabit flesh.

That is what Christmas is about, by the way. The Word inhabited flesh.

When you begin to get this notion of the Word walking among us, a lot of Jesus’ miracles make more sense. Of course the loaves and the fishes were superabundant; the aspect of God that made every fish and every grain of wheat that ever existed was present.

Of course he could heal a man born blind, even though no one had ever heard of such a miracle. A little spit and dirt mixed into a mud, and voilà, new eyes. The aspect of God that made every eye that had ever existed was present.

Of course Jesus rose from the dead, made indestructible. The battered body contained the inventor of life, and he would not be restrained.

To ease the theological headaches we sometimes get from such big thoughts, we also have this notion of Jesus being the “Son of God,” an idea we also see reflected in the Gospel of John. I’ve seen people struggle with this, taking the phrase too literally, saying, “No, Jesus isn’t God, Jesus is the Son of God.” But we have to remember, we call Jesus “Son of God” as a reminder that a new being was created in Mary’s womb, one fully divine but bearing human flesh.

Saying “Son of God” also makes our lives a little easier; the idea is simpler to grasp. It is hard to talk about Jesus in the high-flying language of John’s first chapter all the time.

The beauty of Christianity is that while we’re invited to stretch our minds, to exercise our imaginations, no great leaps of thinking are required for a relationship with God. Theologians can spend a lifetime studying Christology, but at the same time, a child, through simple belief, can be saved and brought into a relationship with God through Christ.

John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.” Belief is enough.

As you contemplate the baby in the manger this year, may your Christmas be merry, and may your visions of God be magnificent.

Flesh Like Ours

First Sunday of Christmas

Hebrews 2:14-18 (NRSV): Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

______________________________________________

‘Tis the season to remember God behaving strangely.

For thousands of years, humans thought of gods as peculiar, distant beings. They were demanding, capricious things to be appeased.

If you were particularly lucky, the One True God, the Creator God, revealed himself to you in obscure ways: a voice, an impulse, a burning bush. But to see his face was to invite death. For sinful humans, a full dose of holiness was poison.

The One True God did eventually tell us his name, “I Am,” hinting that greater intimacy was possible. The great I Am also made promises. You turned away from me, and now pain and death are your chosen portion. But one will come to deliver all of humanity.

Imaginations reeled at the possibilities. Perhaps I Am would raise up a mighty king, one swift and terrible in his power, destroying all who failed to swear allegiance to the One True God. God’s people, the Israelites, would rule the world. And I Am would smile on them in what the prophets called The Day of the Lord.

That’s the kind of messiah the human imagination creates—a mighty man, a prince of fire, a holy Rambo for the ages.

A show of power was standard operating procedure for any god. And certainly, the One True God had revealed his power before. What else should humanity expect of God Almighty?

“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn.”

God in squirming baby flesh? God in poverty, born in a barn? That’s strange.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”

God as the loving peacemaker, offering grace to his enemies and exhorting us to do the same? That’s stranger still.

“And when they came to the place that is called The Skull, there they crucified him, and the criminals, one on his right and one on his left.”

The Son of God nailed to a cross? The sinless God-man dying for our sins? Bizarre.

Once you accept those ideas, the mystery of the resurrection begins to make sense. If the Creator God wrapped himself in humanity only to be vanquished by death, wouldn’t the universe dissolve? Jesus had to walk out of the tomb.

Let us revel in this strange time of year, when we remember God doing the unexpected and anticipate the promised return of Jesus Christ, Lord of all.

‘Tis the season of the flesh and blood God.

Giving Up on Perfect

Second in a sermon series, “A Different Kind of Christmas”

The fact that Martha Stewart maintains holiday checklists on her website for us to follow frightens me just a little.

According to the one that amounts to a Christmas checklist, I already am way behind. In late November, I did not plan a “Secret Santa” gift swap with my friends. I also do not have my gift lists and recipient addresses organized on my PDA.

In the first week of December, I failed to drop off a few festive outfits at the dry cleaners. And this week, I seriously doubt if I’ll get around to polishing the silver and hand-washing our stemware.

Come Dec. 25, it may not be a perfect Christmas, but that’s okay. The first Christmas tells me as much.

Take for instance the Christmas story as described in different ways in Matthew and Luke. Jesus entered the world through the womb of a poor Jewish girl living in one of the most ignoble places you could find. She was a virgin. We know her husband-to-be had a lot of problems with her claim of angelic intervention, until an angel convinced him otherwise. Undoubtedly, the people around her struggled even more with the idea of a Holy Spirit-inspired conception.

The story is messy.

Or look at the genealogy of Jesus in Matthew that references tales of seduction, adultery, prostitution, faithlessness, and other scandals most of us would not emphasize in our own family histories. Jesus came into a broken world. Again, messy, the way our lives can be messy, particularly during the fall and winter holidays.

But here’s an idea to ponder, an idea that excites me: In the midst of an imperfect world, the perfect God appeared.

That notion alone should be enough to adjust our thinking as we approach Christmas. Despite the messy imperfections sin causes us to carry, the sinless God pursued us anyway, loving us so much that he would die on the cross to free us from sin. We even look forward to a day when all is set right, when evil and all its effects—pain, suffering and death—are cast away from us forever. Regardless of our situation, we have much to anticipate as we think about Christmas, the celebration of God’s big intervention in history.

This truth also should change our approach to all of life’s imperfections, be they found in ourselves or others at home, work, or church. Having been forgiven much, we are called to forgive just as much. It helps to remember that no one around us is perfect, but at the same time, God can shine through any one of us at any moment.

Look for those moments. When you notice them, it really won’t matter whether the silver is polished or the stemware is spotty.