The Sunday Sermon: Fourth Sunday Advent – December 23, 2018
Scripture: Mark 1:9-11
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Incarnation: The Beloved
I have had fun this week.
In the midst of my efforts to see our homebound members in the week before Christmas, the seemingly endless phone calls/emails and face to face conversations with all those responsible for the three worship services today and tomorrow (and there are many, from Ashia, Walter and Matt on staff through the families and youth who lead this service and tomorrow’s Christmas Eve services) to my own personal last minute Christmas preparations – in the midst of all of that last week, I had some fun.
I was moving shepherds around all week, ending up with them in the middle of our own simple metal Advent Wreath just yesterday. I even smiled at Katie’s eye rolls and grins and my children’s queries as to why the two shepherds from our crèche scene were out of place. Weren’t they listening to the sermon and charge last week? (I didn’t ask them that out loud. I don’t want to know …for sure.)
I had even more fun, however, hearing from some of you! You were listening. I got two texts, one with a picture, and an email telling me the shepherds were “on the move” last week. Jenny Williams said she had a welcomed replacement for that “Elf on the Shelf” phenomena. The “Shepherd on the Shelf” has a nice ring to it, don’t’ you think? I heard from a few others that they “noticed” the shepherds in pictures, on lawns, and even in songs more this past week. Jack Wood tagged me in a Facebook post on Friday evening that he was listening to “Rise Up Shepherds and Follow” and feeling like there was something he had to do. “Thanks, Joel Weible.”
Great fun. So, how many others of you had some fun? How many moved your shepherds around last week? Fantastic … how many thought about it, or noticed a shepherd or two in image or song? A bit more … fun.
We moved the one “piping shepherd” from our sanctuary crèche scene around a bit this week, too. It started with my charge last week, but he found his way to the piano later last Sunday afternoon and then the organ after last week’s Nightsong service. I placed him on the pulpit at some point in the week and Matt moved him around a bit, too. You’ve seen him this morning, in the first half of our Fourth Sunday in Advent worship service at the foot of the cross in the middle of the chancel. Proclaiming and glorifying. Fun … (BTW: If anyone here has no earthly idea what in the world I’ve been talking about for the last two or three minutes, I encourage you to visit the sermon archive page on our website, or just ask someone beside you who was here last week!)
Let us pray …
Fun, indeed. At least, I hope it is. I hope it was. Because, as I just noted, this is now the Fourth Sunday of Advent 2018, and we are two days away from the birth, away from Christmas Day. And so … it’s time to put the shepherd back, if only for these two days. (Move the Shepherd back to his place in the crèche scene.) It’s time for the shepherds, for us as the shepherds, to settle back into our place because the focus shifts, again, this morning. We’ve moved from the Cosmic Word that was before time itself, into Mary and Joseph as the parents of Christ on earth, through the most active characters in our Christmas stories, the shepherds, finding ourselves this morning, this last Sunday morning before Christmas day, focused on the center of every nativity scene ever pictured anywhere.
There’s someone in the manger. And even if you engage in the practice of keeping this physical someone out of the manger bed until Christmas Eve, this someone has been there all along – “in the beginning” John says in his gospel. And if you think you know who this someone is, you’re probably only partially right.
Now, I’ve had some other kind of fun for ten years reminding you, even surprising some of you, by telling you that there is no birth story in Mark. I’ve been wrong broadly speaking. There is a birth story in Mark. Several, I suppose, but one in the beginning of his Gospel like the ones in the beginning of Matthew and Luke, and even John.
Listen for the Word of God. Read Mark 1:9-11. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
If you think this birth story is about Jesus, you’re partially right. Because this birth story, like the ones in Matthew, Luke, and even John, is also about you, about us. How many of you remember your baptism? For many of us who grew up on the Reformed tradition, the vows at baptism were made on our behalf by our parents or other guardians. Theologically, the Baptism of infants and children witnesses to the truth we hold that God’s love claims us before we are able to respond in faith. Our response may come later, through our “confirmation” of the vows taken for us. So many of us don’t remember our own baptism. But all of us who are members of this church, or any Church, whether we remember it or not, are part of this birth story.
Baptism is not just, it isn’t even primarily, about joining a religious group, a church. Baptism is about being born. It’s about dying and begin re-born. I say it every time we celebrate the sacrament here. You heard it only two weeks ago as we baptized Kylie Summer Phelps, and you’ve heard it long before from me or in another Pastor’s words: In Baptism, we are united with Jesus in his death and his resurrection. In Baptism we die – as little babies, as young girls or boys, as teenagers, or as adults – and are born. This is Mark’s birth story. It is a story, in fact that all the Gospels tell.
Through this Advent we have read our Christmas scriptures from John, Matthew and Luke searching for ourselves this Christmas. But on this last Sunday of Advent, we turn to Mark who begins the Good News of Great Joy on the banks of the River Jordan, to find our place in the story. Our earliest gospel writer seems to be telling us from the very beginning that understanding the Christ of our faith will not happen by trying to explain it as something that happened to someone else two thousand and eighteen years ago. Rather, Christmas must be understood, or better yet experienced, by what happens today when we, like Jesus, accept our responsibility in this world.
The God-presence, the life, the courage, the love, in the historical human being who was Jesus of Nazareth must have been intense. He remains central to our Christian identity. He must. The God-presence in him must have been so intense, so perfect and spiritual, that to experience life with him was to transcend a superficial, mundane, predictable existence. How do you share that experience with others? How do you write about that?
Well, if you’re Matthew and Luke you use Angels, and brilliant stars, mangers and shepherds, Wise Men and wicked Kings. You write of innocent parents and divine origins. And you trust – you trust – that readers two millennia later will not take your writing so literally that they write themselves out of the story. That they, that we, don’t make it all about “him and them” and “then and there,” but find ourselves in the story.
I’m afraid we have written ourselves out of Matthew and Luke’s narratives, even as we’ve tried this year to see ourselves in the Mary and Joseph of Matthew and in the Shepherds of Luke. But with Mark, perhaps we have a better chance of finding ourselves. Mark never claims that Jesus’ role or identity or nature as God’s child implies anything genetic, or that Jesus and God are one in the same. Mark nowhere claims that Jesus is God in human flesh. He does make it profoundly clear, starting with his baptism, that God’s spirit is with Jesus and that God loves Jesus. But Jesus’ role as God’s son is not what makes him unique in Mark.
The Old and New Testaments, in fact, contain many references to God’s children. Jesus is one of them, along with all the others throughout history through whom people can see the image of God in clear and fresh ways. But our whole book of sacred scripture, first testament and second – old and new – makes it profoundly clear that we were all created to be images of God. The birth story in Mark, Jesus’ baptism, sets the stage for our own birth.
Here at the words used at the font still today: In our baptism God claims us, and seals us to show that we belong to God. God frees us from sin and death, uniting us with Jesus in his death and resurrection. By water and the Holy Spirit, we are made members of the church, the body of Christ, and joined to Christ’s ministry of love, peace and justice. In other words, at our baptism “the heavens are torn apart, the Spirit descends and a voice from heaven proclaims that we – you and I – are God’s children, Beloved.”
We have come to think of Incarnation almost exclusively as a Christian doctrine, or teaching, about someone else only, exclusively. We teach and learn and pass on the belief that a “pre-existent Spirit of God was incarnated for the first, and only, time in a human being,” in one human two thousand and eighteen years ago: Jesus of Nazareth. While we should continue to believe that God was incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth – he was, is, and must be special to us, central to our faith – we must expand our understanding of Incarnation to include ourselves, to consider that our belief in the Incarnation means we believe that the “pre-existent Spirit of God becomes human in us!” And, if in us, then also in others, perhaps even in non-human creation.
This is what Christmas is all about. Not just that the Spirit of God became flesh two thousand years ago, or even before Time itself, in one particular human or Logos, but that this Spirit was “in the beginning” of all creation and becomes human still, each and every day in each and every one of us when we, like Jesus, have the courage to be all we are created to be.
“In these days we come from out of our own lives to be baptized in the river of the life we were meant to live.” We are the ones we’re waiting for this Advent. The Beloved children of God. And we have work to do. We have “Christmas” to do.
See you tomorrow.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor / Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / December 23, 2018