Do you hear what I hear?
Sermon by Rev Allister Lane on 1 December 2019
Reading was Luke 1:26-45
The people of Israel lived in a state of advent waiting: of waiting for an arrival. God had formed a covenant with Abraham, and had promised an ordered future – free from the chaos of unfairness, violence and misery. And so they waited for a Saviour – for the Messiah, who would enact God’s rule.
We get a sense of that in words of Psalm 122 we heard earlier… King David gives thanks for the difference God’s presence makes – for the peace and unity for all people, for ‘right living’. It was a descendant of King David whom Israel was waiting for.
This waiting for the arrival of the Messiah is expressed in the words of the carol (which we’ll sing in a moment) “O Come, O Come Emmanuel’:
O come Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel…
Key of David…
Rod of Jesse…
Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by thine advent here
This is her activity of waiting. This image of a woman with outstretched arms is called Orante – ‘One who prays’.
It is a pose of trust and desire. She stands feet planted firmly, openness expressed by her body – arms and even eyes (not praying with her eyes closed, like many of us!)
It represents the human experience of waiting for something. The world is not as it’s meant to be. We know this, and so don’t we all wait for freedom, justice, peace, well-being…?
This is a painting of the Christian community, and dates from the Third Century. At this time in history, Jesus has come into the world.
So what is the woman waiting for…? She’s not waiting for the Son of God to come in flesh. That’s already happened.
I suggest she could be waiting for Jesus to be received.
Christians like her, and like us, do not need to treat Advent like an imaginative replay of the waiting in the centuries without Jesus – before the Incarnation. Jesus has come.
But has Jesus been received? This woman prays with expectation that she will be open to receive Jesus fully; to enter fully into relationship with Jesus, and enter into the Kingdom Jesus came to bring. Are we waiting with expectation – praying – to live fully in God’s Kingdom?
Our Advent is one where we know Jesus has come – we have received Jesus into our World, and the world has been changed. But has Jesus been received into our lives? Are we waiting with expectation?
I was visiting someone in their home recently, and suddenly the whole house is shaking. It wasn’t an earthquake but the roaring of a jet aeroplane taking off from nearby Wellington airport! The person I was visiting didn’t respond at all. The roar had made me jump out of my skin, but they were used to the roaring jets, they live with it every day. I’m guessing they can probably even sleep through it.
Are we sleeping through Christmas? Have we heard the ‘roaring’ of the story of Christmas read this morning? Can we hear the claims of Christmas – of the doctrine of Incarnation – that God became human?
Three things to hear in the reading about Jesus’ incarnation:
1. The angel says: “the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David… (this is the descendant of David Israel was waiting for)
33He will reign over the house of Jacob for ever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.
What kind of person is this?
2. But Mary has more immediate questions about the incarnation: Mary says to the angel,
How can this be, since I am a virgin?
Oh…, this isn’t going to need a husband. Make no mistake this is not a man’s doing, this is God’s doing.
3. The third and most amazing thing about the incarnation is identified by Elizabeth’s words to Mary:
blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfilment of what was spoken to her by the Lord
Elizabeth is talking about how the Lord is revealing something amazing to Mary about the plans for her. And the way the Lord is understood fits with the theology of the day.
But Elizabeth also says:
43And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?
Mary could well have said “Wait…what…? ‘The mother of my Lord’?!
This is a bombshell! …that the Lord God of heaven has a mother – what is more a mother who is young, poor and unmarried.
Do you hear the roar of the Christmas story?!
The metaphysical becomes physical.
The immortal becomes mortal.
The immutable has become radically vulnerable.
The impossible has become possible.
What is Mary’s response? (Let’s note this carefully. In its familiarity we may miss the meaning of her response.)
How can this be? (v34)
Mary’s response is really important for us.
Some people are snobs – what a lecturer of mine called ‘chronological snobbery’. It goes something like…
Well, people back in those days weren’t very sophisticated and lived in a culture where they could believe those sorts of things – God becoming human; Jesus was God. But I think Jesus was just a great moral teacher. I’m a modern thinker. We can’t believe in those things anymore.
Right…?, you’ve heard this? But Mary doesn’t just accept the news, she says “How can this be?” She doesn’t just respond “Oh great, that’s wonderful , all my dreams come true.” Mary says “How can this be?” She’s dubious (at best!).
So when you hear people say “I can’t believe a claim that God became human. Other cultures back in those days went for that sort of stuff. Such extreme beliefs were normal.” That is ‘chronological snobbery’.
And I’ll tell you why… We have to understand the thinking in other cultures to assess whether they would believe something more easily than we do today. Let’s take a quick look at the main cultures around at the time the Incarnation was being proclaimed. What were the worldviews of the people closest to the event? Did the cultures in those days make it easier to believe the Incarnation?
Greco-Roman culture: The doctrine that God could become flesh was absolutely contradictory to the very core that worldview, that believed that the physical world was intrinsically dirty/polluted/evil. The idea that the divine would become human/physical was absolutely ridiculous and impossible.
Eastern culture/worldview: The material world was an illusion. The divine would call us away from the illusion of the material world. The divine would not come into the material world, to ‘fix’ it! So again, the doctrine of the Incarnation is absolutely ridiculous to Eastern culture and thinking.
Judaism: Did you hear me say earlier that the Jews were waiting for their Messiah? Surely, they would find the Incarnation easier to embrace? Absolutely not – in fact, of all the cultures at the time, Judaism struggled with this the most. They were waiting for a Messiah, but the suggestion that God HIMSELF would come into our midst (in the flesh) violated the central understanding of who Yahweh is.
Judaism had the highest view of God. Yahweh is not some ‘life-force’ or something, Yahweh is the transcendent Creator of the universe, outside creation, separate. He is known and adored because He is holy; God is ‘other’. His name couldn’t even be written down. And so, of all the cultures of the time, the Incarnation is most repugnant and offensive to Judaism.
Do you see? There was nothing about these cultures and the respective worldviews at the time that made the Incarnation easier to believe than today. Furthermore, the incarnation is not the logical progression in a developing series of ideas about the divine in relation to the world. It wasn’t like the Incarnation was a ‘solution’ for anyone at the time. The incarnation ‘interrupted’ and violated all cultural thinking.
The doctrine of the Incarnation should be heard today as an explosive roar – but that was true for those at the time also. There was nothing easier at the time about believing God has become human.
So what does this mean for us? Well, in addition to not being guilty of ‘chronological snobbery’, we should consider why so many people who faced the same intellectual barrier we do, believe.
If it was no easier for them (and yet they accepted, and staked their lives on, this doctrine) then something confronted them so profoundly, their worldview was shattered. The roar of the Incarnation overwhelmed their pre-existing conceptions. There is something about the person of Jesus that overturned people’s worldviews.
Please let the roar of Christmas – the doctrine of the Incarnation – confront you.
To say “I just can’t believe God became a human” in response to
- the central claim of the Christmas story, and
- the lives of all who have embraced this for themselves,
is intellectually lazy.
It needs accounting for.
And can’t be by saying:
- it was easier to believe that back then, or
- it was the logical progression in a developing series of ideas, or
- it a solution to fix a problem at the time.
If you struggle to believe the Incarnation, so did they. But they looked and saw what changed everything.
Will you look? Will you hear the ‘roar’ of Christmas? Will you get past the familiar sentimentality of Christmas and allow the claim of the incarnation to confront you?
This woman prays with expectation that she will be open to receive Jesus fully; to receive his freedom, life, purpose, wholeness, hope; to enter fully into relationship with Jesus and enter into the Kingdom Jesus came to bring.
Would you do that? Have you done that? Have you received Jesus? Are we waiting with expectation – praying – listening for the roar?