Christmas Eve 2008 Homily
“The voice of one crying in the wilderness: "Prepare the way of the LORD; Make straight in the desert; a highway for our God. Every valley shall be exalted; and every mountain and hill brought low; the crooked places shall be made straight; and the rough places smooth; the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken.” Is. 40:3-5
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld His glory, the glory as of the only begotten of the Father, full of grace and Truth.” Jn. 1:14
“God, who at various times and in various ways spoke in time past to the fathers by the prophets, has in these last days spoken to us by His Son, who He has appointed heir of all things, through whom also He made the worlds; who being the brightness of His glory and the express image of His person, and upholding all things by the word of His power, when He had by Himself purged our sins, sat down at the right hand of the majesty on high...” Heb. 1:1-4
We are accustomed to describing the act of God in the incarnation as a great act of humility, a great act of condescension, an act which is wonderful and amazing but in some way involves God leaving his glory behind. God as an infant, God as a crying baby in a stable, laid in a manger, what could be more humiliating? What could be more inglorious? Passages like Philippians 2:7 are quoted to describe this act: ‘But he made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, coming in the likeness of men.’ Some translations say that he “emptied himself,” and the famous Christmas Carol says “mild, he lays his glory by/ born that man no more may die.” We routinely describe the incarnation with regard to great contrasts. There is what God is in Himself, and then there is what God became in the incarnation. There is the glory and holiness and transcendent being of God enthroned as absolute King of the Cosmos, and then there is Jesus, born of a woman, born in a stable, laid in a manger, no crib for a bed.
Our catechism implies this contrast when we ask the question ‘what is God?’ The answer is that “God is a Spirit, infinite, eternal, unchangeable, in his being, wisdom, power, holiness, justice, goodness, and truth.” There is no mention here of the incarnation, and the answer implies that the incarnation is something quite different from the way God usually is. God is a Spirit, the answer says, God is infinite, eternal, unchangeable. Those first four attributes would seem to contradict any notion of an incarnation.
And so we describe the great act of the incarnation as this wonderful impossibility that God overcame. How can the infinite, eternal, and unchangeable become the exact opposite of those things? How can the infinite become finite? How can the eternal have a beginning? How can the unchangeable be conceived? We ask these questions with amazement and wonder, and ultimately we worship and adore the God who does this. We worship the God who is able to do this, the God who was willing to do this for us, despite His glory and perfection and honor, overcomes the distance, bridges the chasm, and becomes one of us.
And of course there is truth in all of this. There’s nothing untrue in these descriptions in and of themselves. But there is a danger if this is all that we say. The untruth can begin to creep in if we do not tell the rest of the story. If we stop here, it can serve to obscure a more fundamental fact about the person and character of our God. One of the ways, we catch a glimpse of this is in passages like the ones just read: Isaiah 40, John 1 and Hebrews 1. A common theme running through all of them is the theme of glory, and that glory being revealed. Isaiah says that the glory of the Lord is going to be revealed when God comes to save his people. The prophet doesn’t say that the glory of God will be laid aside or veiled or somewhat hidden or obscured. The prophet says that the Coming One will reveal the glory of the Lord. So too, John insists that the incarnation was fundamentally the revelation of the glory of God. When the incarnation occurred, when we saw Jesus, we finally saw His glory, and not just any glory, we beheld the glory of the Father, full of grace and truth.
Similarly, the writer of Hebrews says that Jesus the Son of God is the brightness of God’s glory and the express image of His person. And our tendency is to jump immediately to Trinitarian categories. We’re fine with the Son being the brightness of God’s glory and the express image of His person, but we don’t tend to think about the incarnation. The baby in Bethlehem, lying in a food trough? That’s the brightness of God’s glory and the express image of His person? But that seems to be the very thing that the writer is talking about. Immediately after saying that he is the brightness of God’s glory and the express image of His person, he says that he not only upholds all things by the word of His power, but he also purged our sins and sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high. Hebrews says that the brightness of God’s glory and his express image is evident in both his sovereignty in upholding all things and in purging our sins on the cross. The revelation of God is that God does both of these things.
And this gets back to our prior point. We tend to contrast the God who creates, the God who rules, the God who inhabits eternity with the God who is conceived, the God who is born, the God who dies. We are Christians, and we believe the Bible and so we don’t question these things. But we tend to contrast them nevertheless. We talk about God as God and then we talk about the incarnation as though it were something somewhat different. It’s something amazing and glorious, but we tend to describe the incarnation as though it doesn’t ordinarily fit with the idea of God. We have a notion of God, an idea of deity that pushes the idea of suffering and humility and incarnation to the far side of God-ness. To be God, we think, is to inhabit eternity, is to be a Spirit, is to be infinite, is to be unchangeable, is to be something and someone quite different than our human experience. And again, there is some truth there.
But these Scriptures push against this conception of God. John says that when Jesus was born we finally saw God for who he really is. We finally saw the glory of the Father full of grace and truth when Mary brought forth her Son and laid him in the manger. And when the child grew in wisdom and stature and in grace before God and men, we finally saw what God is like. And when that same carpenter’s Son was mocked and spat upon and despised and afflicted and finally crucified, Hebrews says that we saw the brightness of His glory; the express image of His person was revealed.
Similarly, in John’s first epistle, he says that the eternal life of the Father was manifested, revealed, seen, heard, looked upon, and handled. Whatever our conception of God, it must include this. When we ask ‘what is God?’ the first thing the New Testament writers would point to is the person of Jesus. Who is God? God is the one who revealed himself in Jesus. God is the one who was born of Mary. God is the one who lived as a man, who taught, who healed, who ate and drank with sinners, who was ultimately betrayed and crucified and rose again and ascended into heaven. That is our God. God is not first of all something else. God is not first of all infinite and eternal and unchangeable in a way that is at odds with the incarnation. Rather, the incarnation is the veil finally being torn away. If the ancients thought of God as someone distant and other and infinite and unchangeable they had some excuse for thinking that, although the Jews had plenty of hints that this was not the case. But when Jesus was born, when the incarnation occurred all of those preconceived notions were blown apart.
The incarnation is not something that we must try to fit into our doctrine of God. Rather, the incarnation is the beginning of our doctrine of God. It is the revelation of the glory of Lord, the brightness of His glory, the express image of his person. The incarnation is not merely consistent with the person and character of God; the incarnation shows us the kind of God we actually serve. The incarnation shows us not an aberration from the way God usually is; rather, the incarnation shows us what God is actually like. God is the God who both creates and sustains the worlds and gives himself for sinners. God is the God who both inhabits eternity and freely enters time and space and identifies with his people. God is the one who is both unchangeable, whose Word stands forever and cannot be moved, and He is at the same time always and unalterably free to experience growth and sorrow and love and joy. The God who rules heaven and earth is also the God who is born a child in Bethlehem.
And, as the hymn declares, this really is tidings of comfort and joy. The New Testament has a great deal to say about glory, and as we look at those passages we notice over and over again the association of glory with God’s people. We’ve already pointed out that Jesus is the revelation of God’s glory, but the New Testament writers don’t stop there. Paul says that in the New Covenant we have been given the Spirit, and as we read the Scriptures and hear the gospel proclaimed, we all with unveiled face, behold as in a mirror the glory of the Lord, and we are being transformed into the same image from glory to glory (2 Cor. 3:17-18). He says that we glory in tribulations (Rom. 5:3), and while our outward man is perishing and we experience afflictions, these are working in us an eternal weight of glory (2 Cor. 4:16-17). Paul’s own tribulations are the glory of the Ephesians (Eph. 2:13). He says that the Thessalonians have suffered like Christ and therefore they are his glory and joy (1 Thess. 2:14-15, 19-20). Peter, likewise says, ‘If you are reproached for the name of Christ, blessed are you, for the Spirit of glory and of God rests upon you.’ (1 Pet. 4:13). A little later he says that he is a “witness of the sufferings of Christ, and also a partaker of the glory that will be revealed.” (1 Pet. 5:1).
The reason it is great comfort and joy to know the God who is both sovereign and humble, the God who is both infinite and a child, who is both eternal and born of a woman, is that this same God promises to bestow this glory on us. Partaking of the glory of God, sharing in that glory, means living in this same reality, living as weak and broken people and yet strong and exalted, seated with Christ in the heavenly places. We live as those who have been given eternal life and yet have been born, and who will all die. We have been united to the changeless one, the one will never leave us or forsake us, and yet we grow up, and live, and change, and die and rise again.
In Ephesians Paul prays that the eyes of their understanding might be enlightened, that they might know what are the riches of his glory of His inheritance in the saints (Eph. 2:18). What the Ephesians need, and what we so often need is not for God to show us his glory. That has been revealed to us in Jesus. What we really need is for our eyes to be opened to see the glory right in front of us. We see a child in a manger, and say God has in some way laid his glory aside. But God says, ‘no, no, that is my glory, my wisdom, my infinity, my changelessness, my holiness, my justice, my goodness, my glory. God in the manger is the glory of God revealed. And if God in a manger is the glory of God revealed, then God on the cross is the Lord of Glory (1 Cor. 2:8). The glory of God is joy in suffering, peace in upheaval, mercy in justice, exaltation in humility, losing our lives to find them. If the glory of God is revealed in an infant lying in a manger, then why can’t the glory of God be revealed in your family? Why can’t the glory of God be manifest in your fellowship at a table, in your exchanging peace and joy and mercy with one another? Why can’t the glory of God be revealed in the midst of brokenness and confusion? Why can’t the wisdom and power of God be evident in weakness? The answer is that it can be and that it is. And so here we are assembled to proclaim that glory, the glory of the Lord that has been revealed to us and is being revealed in us through the working of the Spirit. Christ is born! Glorify Him! The glory of the Lord has been revealed. The veil is torn away. See the glory.
“O Zion, You who bring good tidings, Get up into the high mountain; O Jerusalem, You who bring good tidings, Lift up your voice with strength, Lift it up, be not afraid; Say to the cities of Judah, "Behold your God!” Is. 40:9
In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen!
Wednesday, December 24, 2008
Christmas Eve 2008 Homily