The Sunday Sermon: First Sunday Advent – December 2, 2018
Scripture: John 1:1-5, 14, 18
Incarnation: The Word
And so this is Christmas … time. It’s here once again.
We have a very odd, counter-cultural tradition in the church during this time of the year. With absolutely everything else, every one else, around us screaming from every possible angle for us to “go, buy, celebrate” now, we in the church take one brief hour on one quiet morning of the week to say … (what?) … Wait. Just wa-a-a-it …
Pray with me …
Well, I’m going to take this one brief hour on this one quiet morning of the four weeks ahead. I’m going to take all I can get. You should, too. And you should invite members of your family or neighbors or co-workers to come join us during this brief hour. We’ve planned a few other hours this Advent, too. In the evenings on December 9th and 16th and, of course, Christmas Eve. We dare to carve out two and a half hours on Christmas Eve. Invite others to come consider, to come think, to come discover something new in these hours we allow ourselves.
Anyway, I’m going to take all I can get again this year. I need it. I am most certainly not “holier than thou.” I’ve done it for years. Some of the worst years have been as a Pastor, actually, so concerned am I with planning and then processing “Advent,” itself. I, too, rush right past Advent … regularly. But not this year. Not for this one brief hour on this one quiet morning of the next four weeks.
In this time together, in these four hours on these four Sunday in Advent this year, we’re going to explore the “Incarnation” in deeper, more provocative, and I hope (with all my heart) more transformative ways.
In a very real sense, this is what Christmas is all about for those who put their Christian identity ahead of any other in their lives. But, as each year goes by, I get more and more worried that we are getting further and further away from what “Incarnation” can truly mean for us – what “Incarnation” must truly do to us.
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 became human” in one human two thousand and eighteen years ago: Jesus of Nazareth, who would become “the Christ,” depending on which Gospel you read, at his baptism, at his birth, or before the world was even called into being.
And while we should continue to believe that God was incarnate in Jesus of Nazareth, 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!” 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 becomes human 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.
This is what Christmas needs to be about in the 21st century. Not packages, boxes and bows, certainly. And not just a story about long ago. It is, it must be, a story about now and about us. I am convinced that if Jesus were alive today he would be astonished by what we’ve done. He would point beyond himself, as he constantly did in our Gospel stories, and say, “It’s not about me. It’s about you!” Or more accurately, it’s about us.
So, this season of Advent we’re going to explore what incarnation can mean “beyond” the baby in the manger in Bethlehem or the young man in the River Jordan. Those people, too. We’ll sing and read and remember what was. But we’re also going to explore what is. Again, what must be.
We’re starting this morning in the Gospel of John: How are we, too, the Word of God made Flesh? Next week, reading from Matthew, we’ll explore how we, like Mary and Joseph, are “parents” to the Christ, giving birth, nurturing and growing strong, the Good News of God-with(and within)-Us? On the third Sunday of Advent, we’ll ponder how we are like the Shepherds, how we must hear, visit and see, and then return to the world to glorify this Good News? And in our final hour of Advent Sundays, we’ll turn to Mark, a gospel that doesn’t begin with a birth story. Or does it? We’ll see …
But first, it’s time to get to this mornings consideration: the Incarnate Word of God. Listen now, for that Word. Read John 1:1-5, 14, 18. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
We’ve heard that passage before. And honestly, to what can we compare the opening of the Gospel of John. It is a birth story all its own. And we begin this year with it. We’re going to move from the “outside, in” this year. From the Christ far beyond – the Cosmic Christ, the Word of God that was “in the beginning” and without which “not one thing comes into being” – to the Christ deep within. What can it mean to say that this pre-existent Word becomes incarnate – “into flesh” – into us? Not just him. But us.
That’s scary stuff. It’s not what we’ve learned, what we’ve heard all our life. We’ve been told over and over again that the Incarnation is not about us, that we’re the problem that Jesus solves. To suggest otherwise is unorthodox at best and heretical, at worst. That’s scary stuff and we’re silenced most often, before we’re able to consider the possibilities. Well, in the face of our fear at these potential charges of unorthodoxy and heresy, we may find some comfort in the Gospel of John, itself.
Under the influence of the one who, throughout the Gospel, is called “the beloved Disciple,” the community that shared this gospel developed a very “high anthropology” themselves – a very high potential for humanity, for you and for me. And these “Johannine” Christians almost certainly experienced rejection from the local synagogue late in the first century and early in the second, charges of heresy, or at the very least unorthodoxy. And not just for claiming that this Jesus – a convicted, executed criminal – was the Messiah, but for calling Jesus “God Incarnate” and offending Jewish monotheistic sensibilities.
John clearly did not share this fear. And neither will we this year as we explore the incarnation of the Word in us, humans, like Jesus in every way except … we separate. We distance. We refuse to believe in, let alone allow, our own divine potential. We “sin,” to use the most customary word, in a most ignoble way, denying who we are. Not this year.
The Word becoming flesh is a decisive event in human history, in the history of creation, in fact, and an event that only Christianity declares: God revealed primarily and most decisively in a human being. The Incarnation means that human beings can see, hear, and know God in ways never before possible. No one has ever seen God, verse eighteen tells us. Until now ..
That verse, eighteen, concludes the prologue we are so familiar with … and from which we are so detached. But it is also the introduction to the rest of the Gospel narrative. It is central to understanding the Fourth Gospel , because it lays out explicitly John’s understanding of what the life, vocation and saving work will look like to anyone with “God-in-them.” Again, we need to allow that, to at least consider that this passage like the others we’ll examine more deeply this year, is about us, too. When we do, we realize that the claim here is that the children of God share in the fullness of God, have an intimate relationship with God and are make God known to the world. And we are the children of God.
This, then, is the final topic of our exploration this year, on this morning, in this first brief hour on this one quiet morning in early Advent: Taken most literally, we are to be the Word that makes God known to the world. You’ve heard me use a quote attributed, probably inaccurately, to St. Francis of Assisi that goes something like “preach the Gospel always, and if necessary use words.” In other words, proclaim the gospel in action, as well as with words. The quote actually suggests that the later may be more virtuous – action over words. I never mean to set up a useless separation of the two, but as Presbyterians we’re probably comforted by the idea that we don’t have to “speak our faith” as much as live it out. The “E” word challenges us.
And that call “to live the Gospel” is profoundly Jesus-like. Even as seek to not allow Jesus to claim the fullness of God alone, we do follow his lead. He did it better than we do. He did it perfectly, we say. Getting a quick glimpse into the Gospels of the weeks ahead, there is a story in Matthew and Luke of John the Baptist sending two of his disciples from prison to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we expect someone else?” It seems as though John wasn’t hearing what he wanted to hear and he was growing impatient because the political breakthrough he was waiting for was not happening as fast as he had hoped. Jesus, himself, was not railing against the oppressive systems of his time. He wasn’t trying to claim political power with provocative rhetoric. He wasn’t confronting Herod. And he certainly wasn’t adopting or even supporting a violent attack on Rome. What was he doing?
Jesus was spending time with the poor, marginalized and destitute people. He was teaching them about God’s Love. He was healing and restoring their broken lives. He was preaching the Gospel “without a word.” The blind are receiving sight. The lame are walking. People with leprosy are being healed, and the deaf can hear again. The “dead” are actually experiencing life. Jesus tells John’s disciples to go and tell John what they are seeing.
What does anyone observing our lives hear and see? What are they going back and telling others about us? Especially in this season of Christmas, in this season when we celebrate Incarnation – God with us and God within us? Are we preaching the Gospel in any way? I think so. Don’t go away feeling too guilty. But we can do more. We must do more. With the Word Incarnate in us, we must do more. And we’ll keep unpacking what more we can do this Season.
So, come to worship and come to the evenings being prepared for you, for us, this year, not simply to remember what happened long ago, but to celebrate what is happening right now. Incarnation: The birth of Christ in every one of us! Come and see the Good News of Great Joy which is … all the people.
Pastor Joel Weible, Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / December 2, 2018