Monday, December 29, 2014

Take What Is Yours

“Christ is born—give praise! Christ comes from heaven—rise up to meet him!  Christ is on the earth—be lifted up!  ‘Sing to The Lord, all the earth!” Or, to speak of two places together, ‘Let the heavens rejoice and the earth be glad,’ because of the heavenly one who now lives on earth! Christ is in the flesh—rejoice with trembling and joy; with trembling, because of sin; with joy, because of hope…Once again darkness is put to flight, once again light comes into being, once again Egypt is punished by darkness, once again Israel is illumined by the pillar of fire.  Let ‘the people who sit in the darkness’ of ignorance see ‘the great light’ of divine knowledge.  ‘Old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new.’ The letter gives way, the Spirit gains ground, the shadows disappear, the truth takes their place.  Melchisedech finds his fulfillment: the one without mother comes into being without father—motherless first, fatherless next! The laws of nature are shattered; the world above is fully realized.  Christ is in command—let us not resist him! ‘All nations, clap your hands,’ for ‘a child has been born for us, and a son given to us, whose rule is upon his shoulder’—for he is the counsel of the Father.  Let John cry out, ‘Prepare the way of The Lord!’ I shall cry out the meaning of this day: the fleshless one is made flesh, the Word becomes material, the invisible is seen, the intangible is touched, the timeless has a beginning, the Son of God becomes Son of Man—‘Jesus Christ, yesterday and today, the same also for all ages!”

So begins one of my favorite sermons on the birth of Jesus, "On the Theophany", preached by Gregory of Nazianzus, a fourth century bishop who has captured my imagination since before even my time in seminary.  His writings, both here and in other places, are filled with such rich imagery that I can’t help but get excited when I read them.  I imagine what it must have been like to hear this sermon delivered.  To have heard St. Gregory shout aloud, ‘Christ is born—give praise’ and then to crescendo like a symphony into the phrase, ‘The fleshless one is made flesh, the Word becomes material, the invisible is seen, the intangible is touched, the timeless has a beginning, the Son of God becomes Son of Man’…to cross the ages and hear St. Gregory deliver this sermon with my own ears would be an experience incomparable to anything else.  What fills me with such delight about this sermon is the way in which it drives home the celebration, the feasting, the absolute joy the Incarnation brings to us.  It’s filled with the kind of conviction I remember hearing when I played music at a Pentecostal church: “Give praise…Rise Up to meet him…Be lifted up…Rejoice with trembling and joy!”

And is there anything worth praising and rejoicing over than the meeting of humanity and divinity, two lovers divided for so long but brought to perfect intimacy in the birth of Jesus those years ago? We are here today, as we were just three days ago, to remember and celebrate the Son of God mingling with human flesh, without confusion yet without separation.  This isn’t God putting on a human mask.  To quote John’s Gospel: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth.” We keep a nearly two-week season of Christmas because this mystery cannot be exhausted in just one night.  And so, here we are, acclaiming once again our God made visible, being ‘caught up in the love of the God we cannot see.’ It’s a paradox, surely.  The invisible made visible.  The unbound God bound up in swaddling clothes.  The never-born Son being born of a woman.  It’s a paradox, but it lies at the heart of humanity’s redemption, for the Gospel writer continues: “From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”

From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.  The glory, the truth, and the grace of the Father’s only son, now not only the Son’s but ours as well.  Better than anything wrapped in cellophane and under the tree.  What is the Son’s, having come from the Father, is now ours.  Paul echoes this when he said, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.”  We are redeemed, saved, possessed by One greater than any evil, any shortcomings, any failures that we can imagine.  Adopted as children of God, having within our hearts the same Spirit of Christ that cries out to God in language a child uses to call a father.  Intimate.  Familial.  A sense of dependence.  A deep sense of connection, deeper than even the human relationships from which that word ‘abba’ derives.  But even more than a child, we are heirs to all that God has given to the Son.  Think through that for a moment.  Not a stranger.  Not a slave.  Not a distant relative.  Not just a friend.  A beloved child of God.  An heir…a co-heir with the Incarnate Son…rightfully laying claim to that glory, truth and grace made flesh and blood in Jesus of Nazareth.

And yet, there is something that cellophane-wrapped presents have that these lofty ideas don’t: they can be seen and touched.  Even as I wrote this sermon, even as I am preaching it now, I am fully aware that there seems to exists a gulf between the truths of Christmas and our lived realities.  It isn’t the case that every time I’m frustrated by one of my son’s meltdowns, I remember the grand truth that I am a co-heir with Christ and suddenly enter into a zen-like euphoria.  Or worse yet, when I’m not being my best self towards my wife, when I’m failing as a husband, or failing this congregation as a priest, I am acting in a way that stands against God’s hope for humanity living after the Incarnation of the Son.  Perhaps we all have these moments we can point to, where we know that we are not living fully into the potential God has given to us through the birth of the Son.  Perhaps ‘moments’ would not be a good word.  Maybe your whole life feels far-removed from this grand vision.  We can certainly survey the world we live in and see that this hope for humanity hasn’t been fully embraced.  And yet, borrowing a phrase from our rector, I still believe that this ‘2000 year experiment in the transformation of human consciousness’ matters.  And for me, it begins with a confession.

A confession not of my own sinfulness.  A confession not of my own brokenness.  A confession not of my failures.  But rather, a confession of my absolute beauty in the eyes of God, a claiming for myself of what God desires I claim.  That I am a child of God.  A co-heir with Christ.  A man who has received grace upon grace.  Subtle shifts begin to happen when I focus less on my failings and more on what God has envisioned I become.  “My whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”  And I confess this not just of myself, but of all God’s people.  Friend and enemy.  Stranger and sibling.  All people whose flesh has been taken up and given life through the paradoxical mystery of the Incarnation…all people everywhere are beautiful in the eyes of God, recipients of grace upon grace.  Though we may not see at all times and everywhere just how wonderful and mighty the Incarnation of the Son truly is, perhaps as we claim for ourselves this ‘grace upon grace’, and extend the same dignity to those around us, we will begin and continue to make good on what God has done for us in Christ Jesus.  “For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”

*A sermon preached at St. Andrew's On-the-Sound Episcopal Church in Wilmington, NC on December 28, 2014, the First Sunday after Christmas.  The texts were Isaiah 61:10-62:3 , Galatians 3:23-25;4:4-7 , and John 1:1-18.

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