THE INCARNATION – JUST AN INSTRUMENT OR THE REAL THING
(I gave this sermon in Bellville, near Cape Town on Christmas Day; however the content of the sermon is really dealing with one of the pillars of Christian theology and could be read at any time, anywhere)
Christmas Day 25 December 2016 in Bellville, The Evangelical Lutheran Church,
Cape Orange Diocese, ELCSA, Martin Pietersen Laan
Full Communion Service at 09h00
Texts: Isaiah 52.7-10; Hebrews 1.1-4; John 1.1-14
The Incarnation, an instrument for something more or the real thing?
General introduction regarding God’s activities visa-vie us. On God’s creation and redemption.
Looking at our sermon text John 1.1-14: the key word is the Word, ó Logos; the evangelist as the key word so there is a link to the very beginning (Genesis 1.3), because when God created he said something, a word is used. This Word would be understood by Jews as well as by Greeks. To the Greeks it makes sense to talk about the word in relation to the ideal world and the ideal man. To the Jews it was natural to talk about the Word through which everything was created. For example Psalm 33.6 says, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and all their host by the breath of his mouth”. The Word is central also in Wisdom literature (Apocrypha).
So it was through him that everything was created (Colossians 1.16).
Yet we do not have full clarity as to where this Word takes us. That is what this sermon will say something about. God has arrived through Jesus Christ, but to what purpose?
The next two points will talk about incarnation as instrument
John 1.14b says, “we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s Son, full of grace and truth”.
Here we see that the Word become flesh (the incarnation) opens up for the glory of God, and an existence in heaven. In other words, it must be literally true that this incarnation eventually brings you into the glory of God the Father, also made manifest in the Son being glorified, made omnipresent through the Holy Spirit. Is this glory only made manifest in heaven? A good question; God’s glory was seen in the baby in the manger. And Paul also experienced Christ’s glory on his way to Damascus, when he still was a Saul, persecuting the Christians.
But this does not take away that this same Paul, like so many other of us, also, almost constantly was longing to get away from this earth, this world, this life. So we need to hear what he wrote in the epistle to the Philippians: “It is my eager expectation and hope that I will not be put to shame in any way… for to me living is Christ and dying is a gain; If I am to live in the flesh, that means fruitful labour for me; and I do not know which I prefer. I am hard pressed between the two; my desire is to depart and be with Christ for that is far better, but to remain in the flesh is far better for you.” (Philippians 1.21-24)
It would not be wrong to say here that Paul in fact is expressing very classic sentiments that people have expressed through the centuries, inevitably so, due to the chaotic existence that this world after all, even at its best, so he is expressing the conviction that through Christ we have a safe passage to heaven.
“and the Word was God” (John 1.1)
The incarnation carrying the seed of the resurrection
Again one is bound to say that Jesus Christ came here for a purpose. He came to conquer suffering, sin, evil and even death.
We may not think about it, but every Sunday morning service in the church is there because of what happened one morning, the day after the Sabbath Day, that early morning when the women found the tomb empty, that tomb, in which Jesus was buried.
The only thing that we could find sustainable as Christians is this, that there is a victory over death, and that this victory was made demonstrable that particular Sunday morning.
Therefore one is bound to say that the incarnation, the event when Jesus was born, which event was God making himself a homestead here (or rather skenoo means God making an encampment amongst us John 1.14) carried the seed of the resurrection. If it is true that it was God who had made himself a home here, however temporarily, that event must eventually lead to a conquering of all those things that hold us back from God’s heavenly kingdom.
Some of the first Christians, for example Athanasius in Egypt in the third century, could express the situation in the following terms: “God became human so that we may become deified”. This is with a very fine term called “theosis”, a word indicating that our whole existence is geared towards another and “higher” existence, where and when we would become more like God. This may be claimed on the condition that this inclination of moving away from here does not take away our responsibility while here on earth (here a huge discussion is lurking in the background as to how this expression in fact easily could be abused, see …).
The next two points will deal with incarnation as the real thing
To be a Christian is not in the first place to seek a way away from here but to seek a way of being here, and I would add, regardless of age. It appears to be an absolutely central issue in Jesus’ ministry. Why would he otherwise repeatedly, tell stories which implies responsibilities in this world?
Facing these stories, timeless as they seem to be in their application, we can only say that we fail…… utterly.
We can start with John 1.11 which says, “He came to his own home, and his own people received him not”. It is of course about the way Jesus was received by especially some of his own people’s leaders at the time, who eventually wanted to do away with him. He was even foretold by some of the prophets, but that did not help.
However, these same words should be put in connection with some of Jesus’ own parables. We choose one, namely that of the Judgment Day, when it again will be asked whether we received him or not. But it is done, to some of us at least, in quite a surprising way; in a way hiding behind others.
Jesus embodies the human nature completely (that is the word become flesh) and is therefore entitled to ask us how we deal with the following six categories of human beings (I am talking about the parable of the sheep and the goats and the judgment).
We probably are well aware of the point made in this parable: what you did to one of the least of these who are members of my human family, you did it to me. (Matthew 25.40)
I was hungry
I was thirsty
I was a stranger
I was naked
I was sick
I was in prison
Could it be said more explicitly? God was made flesh in order to change this world into a liveable place, where those who are hungry will be given a meal, the thirsty running, fresh water, the stranger an invitation to share your home, the naked a set of clothes, the sick transportation to a doctor or nurse, and the one in prison a visitor who is not taking for granted that all behind bars are criminals (remember detention without trial, political prisoners, prisoners due to conscience, religious belief etc.).
“And she gave birth to her first-born son and wrapped him in swaddling cloths, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn”, (Luke 2.7).
If it was good enough for God to enter this world through such a vehicle, frame, body, one cannot see lightly on the fact of the existence of children. The fact that this birth has taken place has led to the following result:
All new-borns are holy, eternally valuable, and directly under God, not only at the disgression of the child’s mother or the father, or both. You cannot do what you like with such a life.
Children’s rights will for ever be in focus
The church must be a safe space for children, in the ordinary church life there must be space for them (maar ook a lekker plek) and in the Christian homes; somehow the church must be a safe haven even for the unborn)
In brief, because of the Christ birth, church and society must provide security and happiness for all our children and this cannot wait. You see, the incarnation is not just an instrument or a vehicle for transportation to heaven. More than that, the incarnation is the real thing, which understood rightly will transform our churches and societies completely.
To sum up:
It is an instrument for bringing us to God in a total and eternal way. But just as much the incarnation is the real thing, through which we live a godly life here and now fulfilling God’s purpose with humankind,
Called to becoming a reconciled community, reflecting the image of God already in this world.
Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit.
As it was in the beginning, is now and will be, for ever. Amen.