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First Sunday after Christmas - 2008
Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 3:23-25 + 4:4-7; John 1:1-18
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us...
Incarnation is the theme central to Christmas. God becoming man, God in the flesh. But we think of God coming from heaven to be incarnate down here on earth. We think of heaven as "up there" and earth as "down here". And, of course, there is truth to that image. But it can also be misunderstood and distort the Biblical meaning of the relation between heaven and earth.
God comes to earth to draw us to Himself. But God comes to earth also to fill the earth with His presence. God is not trashing the earth as though it were a bad thing, to make us "spiritual", without taint of material. He is rather redeeming the earth in all of its physicalness -- so that it can fully and honestly reveal Himself. Heaven and earth were both created to be sacraments of the life of God -- outward and visible signs of His personal presence.
The Fall was the tragedy of our world, our earth, our time and space -- rebelling against God, receding from God.
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C. S. Lewis story of The Great Divorce, the divorce between heaven and hell, tells of a visit by some folks from hell to the outskirts of heaven to investigate what it might be like. There occurs an astonishing passage in which the narrator describes a woman coming along --
I cannot now remember whether she was naked or clothed. if she were naked, then it must have been the almost visible penumbra of her courtesy and joy which produces in my memory the illusion of a great and shining train that followed her across the happy grass. If she were clothed, then the illusion of nakedness is doubtless due to the clarity with which her inmost spirit shone through the clothes. For clothes in that country are not a disguise; the spiritual body lives along each thread and turns them into living organs. A robe or a crown is there as much one of the wearer's features as a lip or an eye.
Or, as we read in Psalm 19, "The heavens declare the glory of God, and the firmament proclaims His handiwork..."
The physical cosmos is a sacrament of the life of God. In like manner, our bodies are sacraments of our souls. Outward and visible signs.
But no longer with clarity. As the title of another of C. S. Lewis's books, Out of the Silent Planet, tells us, at least one planet was no longer declaring the glory of God or proclaiming His handiwork. On at least one planet, bodies did not shine through their clothing with the glory of whole and holy persons.
The place was not the problem. The problem was rebellion, ignorance, broken spirits -- who were no longer capable of shining with the glory of God, or did not even want to. The problem was relationship.
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However, one of the implications of both the Creation itself and of the Incarnation is that heaven exists on both sides of the death divide. We can begin to experience heaven here and now, in the flesh. We need not wait til after death. But that requires a Biblical understanding of what heaven is.
Typically, we think of Peter standing duty at the Pearly Gates, holding the "key" to heaven, the key of which Jesus speaks in Matthew 16 when Peter blurts out, "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God!"
Jesus replies, "I will give you the keys of the Kingdom of Heaven..." So we think of a Pearly Gates (as described in Revelation, 21:12, "each gate made of a single pearl..."). That makes powerful imagery which has informed the Christian mind for nearly two millennia.
But the essence of the Kingdom, though it occurs in & through physical places, is not itself physical. The essence rather is captured in the two highest laws in the universe, the laws to love God and one another. The laws of love are about relationship, not about physical places. You can be in heaven anywhere at all, and at any time at all. Time and space are not "the problem", as they were to the pagan mind almost universally. Plato thought of the body as the prison house of the soul, not as the revealer of the soul.
To the degree that you are in a persistent and enduring love relationship with God and your neighbor, you are already partaking in heaven. Jesus said that the Kingdom is "among you". In your midst. What else could that mean but relationship?
The notion of heaven as a place with an entry gate and gate-keeper can feed the notion that one buys a ticket to get in.
An Egyptian mythological scene depicts a last judgement, similar to that with Jesus in Matthew 25 with the sheep and goats. In the Egyptian scene, however, people are judged by a balance scale, with their good deeds on one side and bad on the other. If your good deeds outweigh your bad, you are a sheep, and go to the land of life and light beyond the Western Sea -- rather than to the Dark Under World -- Hades or Sheol. So, of course, you tended to carry your good deeds with you, as it were, in your packsack to display whenever needed. Those good deeds were the coinage which paid the price for your ticket to life after death.
We still do that commonly today, carrying our good deeds in our packsacks to display whenever we need to impress someone, to buy their good will. We try to buy a little bit of heaven here and now, personal acceptance, personal worth in the eyes of other people. At some level, we all know that heaven is a relationship, not a place. We want the respect and good will of others, but we think we must buy them with our good works.
In Biblical language, that is called salvation-by-works -- trying to justify and prove myself by what I do.
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But in our Fallen state, we are not sure whether God even exists, or if He does, what attitude He might have toward us. We almost universally suspect that He does not like or accept us, and cannot imagine a Creator of the universe who is totally committed to our welfare and salvation -- to a gracious and open relationship with us. The thought of a Creator and Sovereign of the cosmos wanting to meet us on a level playing field, not on a field tilted in His favor, does not occur anywhere in the pagan or secular worlds.
Almost universally in pagan culture, the strong are expected to rule the weak, it is their right and even duty. The gods and goddesses rule, not because they are Creators of the cosmos or because they are righteous, but rather because they are the biggest and strongest, and can tilt the playing field in their direction. Might makes right.
In such a world, truth is a commodity for sale. So, as Paul notes in Romans 1:18 ff., we subvert the truth, thereby blindsiding ourselves, and thus creating our own self-destruction. In such a world, there is no possibility of we saving, securing, making safe, ourselves. In the Fall, we have bought ourselves a one-way ticket to self-destruction.
So, we try to buy our way back to safety by our good deeds.
Into that world, Jesus, the Son of God, enters at Christmas, the Incarnation. He, the Word, the Logos, had already shown up occasionally, speaking to Abraham, Moses, the prophets. But this Incarnation was different. God Himself was making an appearance visible and accessible in principle to every human being. If you had been alive in Palestine 2000 years ago, you could have heard, spoken to, shaken hands with, received a hug from, Jesus, the Son of God.
The unimaginable God empties Himself, humbles Himself, and turns out to be the supremely imaginable God. He turns out to be the Creator God, the Logos, the Intelligent Designer, who, in and of Himself, makes sense, and thus can give sense to our lives. Truth-seeking, that which at all costs we had to dodge and avoid, turns into that which at all costs we must follow.
He, who we thought tilted the playing field always in His own direction, has to force us to stand on a level playing field where we can talk openly and truthfully with Himself. "Come, let us reason together...," He invites. That kind of openness, living in the light, terrifies us. The problem is not God, but us. We are the ones who do not show up for the reasoning together.
He has to force us onto the level playing field, by Himself speaking the truth -- whether we like it or not -- from a humble and vulnerable position. With the two-edged Sword of the Spirit, He forces clarity -- at any cost to Himself. He does it in a manner such that any honest man has to conclude -- this Man, this God, loves us.
And the light dawns. "You are the Christ, the Son of the Living God...!"
"I can't imagine that!" means typically, "I can't believe that's true!" And "Can you imagine that?" often points to something hard to believe, but real and true.
We cannot receive what we cannot imagine. We cannot receive His love if we cannot imagine it. So, God comes to make Himself, His truth, His love imaginable, a part of our lived experience. He brings Heaven with Him, and so can say, "The Kingdom is among you..."
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The Eucharist makes no sense without an Incarnate Lord. "This is my body, this is my blood." About as earthy as you can get.
But Jesus is aiming beyond the sacrifice of the mass. He is aiming at you and me. The drama of the Last Supper, the drama of the crucifixion, have as their target, you and me. Unless you consent to be that target, you might best not be here. It will only cause you great distress.
Jesus aims to make you and me the Body and Blood of Himself - the Church. He aims, with truth, love, grace - on that level playing field - at the conquest of our wills. He aims to inhabit the throne room of our lives, to displace us from that throne, and to sit there Himself.
Jesus aims to walk out that door sitting on that throne, to live and speak through you and me -- directly in the face of that world out there.
The on-the-street creed of the early Christians was, "Jesus is Lord," probably the origin of the Apostles' Creed. You did not say that without risk in the Roman Empire because some of the Caesars were claiming that title, and wanted no competition.
Caesar today is still claiming that title.
Our American government has officially dismissed God from being Sovereign over America, and declared itself to be the determiner of truth and of righteousness, or of who is and is not a person. It had a name, it is called "positivist" law, in which there is no God over government to hold it accountable. We have an anti-Christ government which is teaching our children through its schools to ignore God and follow it as sovereign. And it is succeeding -- mostly because it has so little effective resistance.
We have anti-Christ leadership in the Church. And they are succeeding -- mostly because they have so little effective resistance.
Where are the people of God?
In this world, in this America, Jesus is planning to be Incarnate through you and me -- to create that effective resistance. The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament proclaims His handiwork.
"For Zion's sake, I will not keep silent, and for Jerusalem's sake, I will not rest, until her vindication goes forth as brightness, and her salvation as a burning torch..." (from Isaiah)
How about you? Are you a "silent planet"? Does praise to God ring out from your lips in your family? At your job? When you vote? In your prayer time?
Does love of God and neighbor flow from your behavior as you go through your day? If being a Christian were a crime (which it will almost certainly become), would there be any visible evidence to convict you? Can you say, "Jesus is Lord" - out loud, in public - gracefully, as appropriate, and with conviction? At any cost to yourself?
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The truth is, I suspect, that every last one of us struggles with that. Every last one of us needs to get on our knees and confess our apathy, cowardice, ignorance -- or whatever -- to God, and ask His forgiveness and direction. We, as a parish, need to confess and ask forgiveness of God, and ask His direction to discover His will in the face of our often apostate and rebellious Episcopal Church.
But -- God holds the intellectual, moral, and spiritual high ground. He is inviting us to stand there with Him. Imagine that! -- if you can! That high ground IS the Kingdom of God, the ground of truth, the ground of righteousness, and the ground of goodness and beauty. The Kingdom is reality -- all in full bloom.
God is inviting us to "get real". As some said in the '60's, "Hey, man, reality is the best trip!" It really is.
But the only way there is to pick up our crosses daily, to let the truth and the Lord of truth speak for themselves, and to follow Jesus, right up to the alter, swap our lives for His, and then out the door into the fallen world, with Him reigning on the thrones of our hearts. He then will speak to the world through us.
To all who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave power to become children of God; who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.
Those children of God are more than a match for the forces of darkness and power-struggle, in or out of the Church.
And, honest people will conclude:
"These people -- and this God -- love me."
We prayed earlier:
"Almighty God, who hast poured upon us the new light of Thine incarnate Word: Grant that the same light, enkindled in our hearts, may shine forth in our lives; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord...." Amen...
See Also, Imagining God...
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