The Incarnation of Our Lord: Christmas Day
25 December 2014
A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Dr Philip H. Towner
In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
In the beginning, Mary and Joseph did not know what to think of all that was being told to them about this child. Shepherds with their revelations; and, twelve years later, Jesus’ sharp response to Mary as to why he stayed behind in Jerusalem—such things pointed in a direction, but needed time and pondering to fully understand. Then, when the theologians first began to write, they did not know what to say. The writer of Hebrews tells us that God himself said of the Son: “Today I have begotten you.” Paul takes another tack, referring to “the firstborn of all creation.” And in each case, the firstborn, the only begotten, is instrumental in the creation of all that is. And in each case, the full deity of Christ is surely implied, but each writer dances all around the idea, unable or unwilling to find the precise words to draw back the curtain: one says: “He reflects the glory of God and bears the very stamp of his nature”; the other: “He is the image of the invisible God; for in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” Finally, John, employing yet another strategy, says: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” It was hard to get one’s mind around the person and work of Jesus Christ; and even harder to put this into human language. The best attempts resorted to poetics; the creative use of language in which old rules are broken, and new rules are made.
It won’t surprise you if I say that one of the chief characteristics of the ancient Hebrew faith was monotheism and the worship of the One God. Of course, from the time of Moses to the Babylonian exile, one of the ancient Hebrews’ most destructive tendencies was to drift from exclusive worship of YHWH-Adonai into the tricky waters of idolatry. In the period that followed the Jews’ return to the land, following the Babylonian captivity, and marked by the rebuilding of the temple and the resumption of temple worship and sacrifice, the Hebrew faith underwent a series of changes, and something called “Judaism,” which we call Second Temple Judaism, began to emerge. In exile, the Jewish faith came to revolve more around the Torah. And for the most part, idolatry was a thing of the past. Second Temple Jews were self-consciously monotheistic.
The evidence for this is their use of the two key monotheistic texts. One was that text from Deuteronomy 6:4-6 called the Shema (lit: “hear”). “Hear, O Israel, YHWH our God, YHWH is One.” This continues with the requirement of total devotion to the One God: “You shall love YHWH your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” The other key text was the Decalogue, the first two commandments of which forbid Israelites to have or to worship other gods. Both these passages were understood to assert the absolute uniqueness of YHWH as the one and only God. “All Jews who were concerned to practice Torah faithfully recited the Shema twice each day, morning and evening, since it was believed that Torah itself specifically commanded this twice-daily practice.” The Decalogue was also recited on a daily basis. Jewish teachers and theologians in this period were not interested in abstract philosophizing about the nature, essence or substance of the divine—matters that consumed the early Christian Fathers. In fact, if asked, “In what does this uniqueness of the one God consist, what distinguishes God as unique from all other reality, including beings worshiped as gods by Gentiles?,” the answer given again and again in a wide variety of Second Temple Jewish literature is that the only true God, YHWH, the God of Israel, is the sole Creator of all things and sole Ruler of all things. This is the core of ancient Judaism. However diverse Judaism would become—remember during this time we also see the emergence of Sadducees, Pharisees, Zealots, and sectarian Jewish movements such as the Qumran community—this core was held in common. Only the God of Israel was worthy of worship because he is the sole Creator of all things and the sole Ruler of all things. These two claims become the supporting pillars of Deutero-Isaiah’s assertions of God’s unique deity, which God will demonstrate to the ends of the earth in the future. And so the insistence in our OT lesson: “Our God reigns.” But listen to the words of God in Isaiah 44: “I alone stretched out the heavens and by myself spread out the earth” (44:24). As the only Eternal One, God alone brought all other beings into existence. God had no helper, no assistant or servant in the work of creation. God alone created. This was axiomatic for the Judaism within which faith in Jesus Christ would spring to life.
During this same period, however, in the Psalms, Proverbs, in Jeremiah and in the wider wisdom and apocalyptic literature, there emerges a growing reflection on this solo act of creation, reflection which maintains the uniqueness of the One God but which nevertheless begins to drop hints, rather tantalizingly, that the work of creating involved a kind of collaboration. For example, Isaiah 40:13 asks, “Who has directed the spirit of the Lord, or instructed him as a counselor?” expecting the answer, “no one.” Yet 2 Enoch, as if in dialogue with Isaiah, answers that God’s Wisdom was his advisor. Then, Sirach, whose writing we call Ecclesiasticus, engaging in his own word dance, calls Wisdom “the first of all creation,” but then adds that the Lord himself is Wisdom. Others will say that Wisdom, like no other created creature, may sit on the great divine throne beside God, sharing in his rule. We also find the very work of creation attributed to God’s Word. God’s Word and his Wisdom, personified, have become participants in God’s own identity. The unique oneness of God remains intact, but the language of reflection reveals that the Judaism of the Second Temple Period has creatively opened a conceptual and linguistic space, had begun to imagine the identity of God as a “complexity.” It was into this space of Wisdom and Word of God that John and his colleagues stepped.
And with language of the highest Christology, John depicts the Christmas event as a replaying of the Genesis 1 account of creation, in which God transformed primordial chaos into order—but John’s script includes a fuller cast and develops another theme. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God; all things were made through him, and without him was not anything made that was made.” In this retelling, the creation of Light and Life are relocated in the Word. And at this juncture, eternity and temporal human history come together and a portal is opened. What was created and called Good is slipping back into chaos: darkness has crept back to cover the world, calling for a new creative act. The allusion to John the Baptist signals the transition from the Genesis creation to Incarnation and the new creation coming to pass in the midst of human striving. The image of the Word gives way to that of Light, and the entire life of Jesus is compressed into a few statements: the true light that was coming into the world, was in the world which he had made, he came to his own people, who would not receive him. But Light coming into chaos planted the seeds of the new creation . . . those who did receive him, who believed in him, became children of God. Taken as a summary, the concluding verse of our Gospel text describes Creation’s rescue from destruction and chaos: the penetration of Eternity into human history. The birth of God’s son was the beginning of a human life in which the invisible God would become fully visible, the Word of God expounded, expressed, articulated in the life, teaching, suffering, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This expedition into the Jewish world of theology may seem superfluous to some—after all, we have the New Testament writings and surely their authors processed this stuff sufficiently for us all. Others may find it tiresome; a pedantic luxury. But, while one does have to weed out the crackpots from among these Second Temple Jewish thinkers, what emerges most of all as their exercises in theological speculation are explored is their unquenchable thirst to make sense of their faith in the invisible God for themselves. It was not enough for them that their founder, Moses, spoke with God face to face (literally, mouth to mouth), that he saw God’s glory as it passed in front of him. That was centuries earlier than their time, and the intervening episodes of civil war in the land, oppression and exile out of the land, and return to the land now in the hands of Gentiles set them in their times to reading their Scriptures like a code to be cracked; and then to rewriting them to make meaning of God now, inventing metaphors, composing songs, crafting poetry, short stories, sagas in which they imagined what Enoch, the Twelve Patriarchs, and other ancient heroes of the faith would have said about God in their times. And as they wrote and reflected, tried out novel approaches, they rediscovered, they reimagined God for their times.The birth of the Messiah, God in the flesh, had the same effect on Saint John. John 1:14 is the last use of “the Word” to describe the Son of God. As Jesus mounts the stage, this fundamental communication of God, God’s productive intention, comes to expression in and through a life, a death, and a resurrection. Christmas is but a launching pad for our own renewed search to make sense of the incarnation for ourselves. God has reached out again to us; in the last days he has spoken through his Son; the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. What more we might know of God in the flesh who came into the world for our sakes is limited only by our imagination. It is time for reimagining, rethinking; a time for inventing new metaphors, writing new poetry, composing new music, dreaming new dreams of the creator God and the incarnate Son. Who knows? It may be time for us to catch our very own glimpse of his glory, his grace and truth.
© 2014 Philip H. Towner