Sermon: December 25 2016 (Christmas)

Christmas Day

Isaiah 52: 7-10

Hebrews 1: 1-6

John 1: 1-18

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.

Words from the Gospel according to St John, the first chapter.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

And the Word became flesh.

The doctrine of the Incarnation is Christianity’s beating heart. From it flows our understanding of God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit; our view of the sacramentality of things; our vision of what it means to be human, made in God’s image. Without the Incarnation, the Resurrection is the little more than a parlour trick and the Church little more than a fan club.

It violates my anthropological intuitions to say so, we who are so allergic to claims to cultural uniqueness: but there is nothing quite like the Incarnation anywhere else, this idea that God—the God who made all things, and who upholds the whole universe—this idea that this God of infinite power is born a human boy, wet and screaming, nursing and sleeping, teething and throwing tantrums; that God grows up, gets grubby and grumpy, nauseated, constipated, gets himself killed. This is—I don’t know—something else. A hint half guessed, a gift half understood, or not at all.

I mean, gods that are like people are dime a dozen. Zeus and Thor, Shiva and Guan Yin, even Yahweh in the old days, are all anthropomorphised. Frankly, except on our very best days, even the God we imagine is likely a very powerful man. And shapeshifting gods are common too, including those who temporarily adopt human form. Zeus did this, of course, to nefarious ends; a bizarre passage in the Poetic Edda has Odin accusing Loki of having born children and “milked cow” as a woman on earth; even our own Book of Tobit has the Archangel Raphael take on human appearance to journey with the eponymous protagonist’s son, Tobias. But none of this is quite the doctrine of the Incarnation, which begins not with a humanoid god, but with a God radically other, so unlike anything in the world that the divine is beyond knowing and certainly beyond telling. God is the mystery to which all things owe their being, and yet it is this God who comes and shares in our fragility and finitude. And how fragile and finite indeed. Sea turtles break out of their eggs, and immediately dash for the ocean. Giraffes can walk within hours, despite their awkward gangliness. Human neonates, in contrast, are unable to lift up their own heads for the first two months of their lives. The Christ-child is, like all children, utterly dependent on others. This, we are shown rather than told, is what God is like: a baby in a manger, a man on death row.

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Of course, this is absurd. It makes no sense. Except that it is the only thing that really does make sense against a world in which might makes right; the value of things is reducible to their utility; and even people are means to our ends. The Incarnation is a repudiation of these poisonous ideas, lodged in our brains and our bones, our societies and their structures.

This is what true power looks like, not military might, nor media manipulation by monied interests, but a newborn in a world where infant mortality at the time is best estimated at 30%. It’s a crapshoot, whether Jesus would have made it to adulthood, and then we killed him by popular vote.

This is the value of the world, such that the God who, by definition, has no use for it, made it anyway and then made it home, became part of it. How dare we treat it merely as our pantry, our gas station, our playpen, our theatre of war?

This is what a human being is worth, a homeless foreigner, a boy born out of wedlock, a criminal, tried and executed. The heir of all things, who reflects the glory of God, who bears the very stamp of God’s nature.

The Incarnation makes moral sense, then, but in ways that run against our entrenched intuitions, either endowed upon us by our biological heritage or calcified by our cultural history. Evolutionary theorists tell us that the strongest survive, by which they definitely do not mean those who lay down their lives for others. Economists have no other way to conceptualise value except in terms of use. Psychologists have shown through decades of research that prejudice—suspicion and derogation of the other—is all but inevitable, baked into the way we process social information. The Incarnation renders none of these claims empirically false: it is not a scientific theory, after all. But it is a response to such a world as this that, far from escaping into denialism or cynical apathy, enters directly into these economic, political, psychological, and biological realities. The Incarnation is therefore an invitation for us to be defiant in hope, to resist being overcome by our own darkness, the darkness of the world around us. It is into this world that Christ is born, which comprehended him not, knew him not, received him not. And yet, the light shines. Perhaps this too is absurd, but if so, it is a necessary absurdity. To whom else can we go? Here is the Word of eternal life.

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The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth and from his fulness have we all received, grace upon grace and one day eye to eye we will see the return of the Lord.

In the meantime, it is the first day of Christmas, and there are—sons and daughters of the most high—(there are) good tidings to bring, peace and salvation to publish. There is a Word we have received, to bring light to the world.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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Sermon: December 27 2015

Readings

Ecclesiasticus 3.2-6, 12-14

Colossians 3.12-21

Luke 2.41–end

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

Son, why have you treated us so? is the New Testament’s equivalent of that more familiar parenting trope, “I’m not angry, I’m just disappointed”.

This is, so our cultural cynicism has led us to believe, just what families do: families disappoint. They fail to remember birthdays, or show up to piano recitals; they refuse to take over the family business, or settle down with a nice Chinese girl; what about that one you used to play together with when you were small? Families, they disappoint. They get pregnant, and claim that it was a miracle. They try to end the engagement in secret. They don’t think to tell their mom and dad where they’ve gone; don’t you know that we’ve been worrying sick? You could have been kidnapped, like that poor girl all over the Internet: the blonde one, with the eyes, her parents are still looking for her. Why have you treated us so?

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The preacher’s temptation at this point is to pivot from the fraught fragility of the facts of human families to the simple serenity of our spiritual home, with that paradigm of loving relationship, the Father, Son, and Spirit. From there, the preacher can derive some moral ideal about how we should treat our fathers and mothers, our brothers and sisters, with self-giving love.

The problem with this otherwise apparently sensible and edifying approach is that there is precious little evidence for this kind of idyllic familial bliss in the Bible. It may be true that the perfectly mutual self-giving love that is Father, Son, and Spirit canwith some heavy qualification—provide a sort of template for our own earthly family lives, but the doctrine of the Trinity is not in the first place a doctrine about human social relations. To confuse it for one is to confuse God for creature.

What we get instead, even in the case of the Holy Family, is dysfunction and awkwardness, failures to communicate and to empathise. Long before we even get to the New Testament, the Bible is a saga of familial conflict and complication. We have Abram trying to pass off his wife as his sister. We have Laban tricking Isaac into marrying both daughters, rather than one. We have Jacob cheating Esau of his inheritance. We have Joseph, sold to slavers by his brothers. We have the soap opera of the lives and times of Saul and David and Jonathan and Michal and Merab and Bathsheba and Uriah and Absalom and Amnon and Tamar and Solomon. 

By the time we get to Joseph and Mary, it seems only a minor scandal that she conceived out of wedlock and that he tried to get rid of her. He even comes off as a nice guy for trying to do it quietly, even if it is also his own face that he is trying to save. And then, of course, Joseph himself soon vanishes from the picture altogether, we can only speculate why.

And what of our Lord? At least in South East Asian terms, Jesus himself can hardly be said to be a paragon of filial piety. In our gospel reading today, we have Jesus, the insolent pre-teen, neglecting to inform his parents of his whereabouts in a magnificent failure of empathy. This would not have gone down well with my parents when I was a child, I assure you. And then, at the beginning of his adult ministry in John’s gospel, we have that famous and much debated scene of the Wedding at Cana, in which Jesus says to his mother, “Woman, what have you to do with me? My hour has not yet come”. And in Matthew’s gospel, his response to the bloke telling him that his mother is looking for him is more unambiguously dismissive, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”.

You know, I’m beginning to think that Jesus did not have very much time for the nuclear family. In any case, any attempt to establish the nuclear family as a biblical mandate is flagrantly unwarranted.

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If there is a Christian doctrine of the family, it is a doctrine of adoption. Think of the election of Israel, think of the appointment of David; think of Jesus and Joseph and Mary. Think of us, the goyim of the eleventh hour, nevertheless called up to our place at Israel’s banquet. It is at least a picture of family that rejects pat certainties about who’s in and who’s out, that refuses to fetishise genetic relatedness or ethnic membership, and that instead takes risks in hope and perhaps even in absurdity, based solely on the faithfulness of the God who first adopted us.

There is, of course, an important sense in which we don’t, for the most part, choose our families. But of course we do, in much more important ways, daily, with every interaction.  

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Families, they disappoint. Sometimes, it’s their fault; sometimes it’s ours; sometimes it’s nobody’s fault, really. But—and maybe this is perverse to say in these most tender of times post-Christmas reunions—[but] the very fact that families can and do disappoint is, it seems to me, a good thing, a good sign, in that it reveals an openness, a vulnerability in us to be affected by those whom we love enough to hurt us.

Make no mistake: this is not to let ourselves off the hook, not to enable our neglectfulness and selfishness; nor is it to encourage us to allow ourselves to be abused or taken for granted or otherwise disappointed. To celebrate vulnerability is by no means to condone its exploitation.

Quite on the contrary, the reminder that we are called to be vulnerable to one another is precisely and for that reason a reminder of our obligations toward those who are vulnerable to us. Say what you like about the gender politics of the epistle to the Colossians, but it gets right at least the fact that all human relating is mutual, even if not always equal: wives and husbands are both addressed, ditto parents and children. The call to be vulnerable comes with obligations for those toward whom the vulnerability is directed.

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Much has been made in recent weeks about the Holy Family as refugees, and this is no bad thing. It is no bad thing not just because that reading inspires compassion in us, but because it relocates our imaginations away from cookie cutter, colour-by-number dioramas and nativity plays, into the gritty particularities of actual human familial experience. The Feast of the Holy Family captures pregnancy scares and anxieties about infidelity as much as it does the triumph of innocence over the unreasonable expectations of imperial bureaucracy and the long arms of despotic persecution. In other words, it is about your family, and mine. And it is about our disappointments and regrets, as much as it is about the mundane miracles of being and having father and mother, brother and sister, husband and wife. Our prayer therefore, is that these families are made holy, in ways that only precious, fragile, vulnerable things can be. And, we pray also to recognise that they already are holy, in the ways they afford opportunities for love.

+In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.

     

Sermon: n.d.*

Readings

Sirach 24:1-12

Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21

Ephesians 1:3-14

John 1:1-18

Let the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable to you, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Words. Of our mouths and others’; of friends and family members; of the peddlers of products and political propaganda.

Words. Greetings and gossip; Christmas cards and New Year’s resolutions; television specials and tawdry advertisements.

We are, this season—as every year in recent memory—bombarded by words, by sounds, by noise. And now, finally, some reprieve; things are beginning to quieten down again, now that the festivities are just about over.

We have, thankfully, a moment to step back, to look back and consider the weeks just past. And now, after hearing from Luke’s Gospel and Matthew’s Gospel these past few weeks, about the busy particularities of that first busy Christmas season, we are told: In the beginning was the Word.

The Word. In stark contrast to our incessant chatter, God utters one Word, and thereby calls the world into being, breathing into it life and shining unto it light. God utters one Word, and in this one Word become flesh, calls and draws the world into his bosom as his children.

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On this second week after Christmas day, we gather to hear the eternal Word who is, simultaneously and paradoxically flesh: body that can be and is broken, blood that can be and is poured, all for our sake. What can we say about such a Word as this, from whom comes words of eternal life? Faced with the Word, our words are but as straw, as Thomas Aquinas realized. Words strain, writes T. S. Eliot (1943), Crack and sometimes break,

Under the burden, under the tension, slip, slide, perish,

Decay with imprecision, will not stay in place,

Will not stay still.

This situation, you can imagine, puts the preacher in a difficult position.

Faced with the aptness of silence in this quiet season, we are nevertheless tasked to speak. But perhaps this is appropriate after all. Faced with the unspeakable mystery of the God who utters into being all things, human beings find ourselves to be—as Nicholas Lash puts it—“the speaking part of things”. We are not unfamiliar with paradox. What then, can we say? If we cannot predicate things of God per se; if we cannot talk of God literally, as it were; we can, perhaps, allude and associate, even—with Thomas Aquinas again—analogize. This certainly seem to be John’s strategy, pointing us now to Genesis 1, now to the rich Wisdom theology of the Hebrew Bible and other pre-Christian Jewish texts, and now to the contemporaneous intellectual milieu reflected in Aramaic writings of his day.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word shared in God’s divinity. It was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through it, and without it not one thing came into being. John opens with a re-telling of Genesis. And then, just a few moments later, comes the twist: and the Word became flesh and lived among us. The penny drops, and we hear again the words, but this time differently: all things come through him, and without him not one thing came into being. God speaks, and for this reason, the world is. This Jesus—the son of Joseph, of Nazareth (from which no good ought to be expected, as Nathaniel blurts)—is the reason and logic of creation. There is, at the heart of all things, not cold indifference leading to entropic decay, but the loving utterance of fatherhood and sonship. Herein is life and light that shines in the darkness.

The light that shines in darkness; the light to our paths and to our feet, as the psalmist says. Similarly, later on in the twenty-fourth chapter of Sirach, which our reading today introduces, the Jewish Wisdom tradition comes face to face with Torah. Not only is Wisdom she who covered the earth like a mist and takes root in an honoured people, but also the book of the covenant, the law that Moses commanded as an inheritance for God’s people. To say the least, John has a complicated relationship with the law. It is easy to read John too negatively, but that tendency must surely tempered by his claim—at the end of this first chapter—that the law of Moses presages the coming of Jesus, through whom comes grace and truth. He finds Jesus, as it were, in the law of Moses; however, as the narrative progresses, we quickly discover that the law is in him, and the new commandment is love. So it is that John’s allusion to Law amounts to much the same thing as his allusion to the creative Word: it is, once again, the affirmation that love lies at centre of all things.

As we have heard, none of this is really foreign to early Judaism, as expressed in her Wisdom tradition. Wisdom is, while being Law, is not therefore an agent of oppression, but emphatically the agent of deliverance and redemption. Indeed, the tenth chapter of the Wisdom of Solomon, of which we heard the ending today, narrates the redemptive history of Israel and Wisdom’s chief role in it. From Adam to Noah to Abraham to Lot to Jacob to Joseph, and finally, to Moses, Wisdom saves; she delivers a holy people, leading them through deep waters and guiding them along a marvellous way. So it is in John’s gospel, that this Jesus is he who takes away the sin of the world, and therefore rightly commands us to follow him, that we may be blameless and holy before God in love.

The inadequacy of words is no less obvious now than it was before, and it seems that our flustered verbosity is as much evidence of our limitations as of the uncontainable mystery of God.

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It is the second Sunday after Christmas, and we are now—one hopes—in a better position to reflect upon the season, to tune out the jingles and carols, the crinkling and crunching of wrapping paper, followed by peals of childish joy (or, alas, the false gratitude of adult disappointment). We shall soon miss our families and friends who have come to visit and gone; we shall soon (but perhaps not soon enough) shed the weight we inevitably put on this time every year. Tomorrow—Epiphany—we shall (most of us) take down our trees, and box up our baubles and tinsel for next time around. The time for noise, for busyness, for many words is over for now. It is, I think, a good time to consider—in whatever way we are able—what it might mean that at the foundation of all things is God’s single utterance of the love that calls us.

Amen.

*Written for an assignment, rather than for preaching.