Friday, December 19, 2008

Sermon: 4 Advent (21 December 2008)

Sermon: 4 Advent (21 December 2008)
(2 Samuel 7:1-11, 16/Luke 1:46b-55/Romans 16:25-27/Luke 1:26-38)
Sweet Kissing: The Mystery of the Incarnation

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

This icon – Sweet Kissing – written by the hand of our own sister, Susan, graces our small chapel at Trinity Church. I am drawn to it, particularly during night prayer when all is still and the lamps and candles cast a soft glow on mother and child. Like all true icons, it is more than art, more than image; it is a window into the mystery of our faith. This particular icon beckons us to contemplate perhaps the greatest of these mysteries – the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ.

The mystery of the incarnation is expressed not merely in the figures in the icon, but in its sacred calligraphy, in eight letters representing four words.

MP ϴY : matēr theou – mother of God

IC XC : Iēsous Christos – Jesus Christ

There is great theology here, and great history. The fourth and fifth centuries witnessed dramatic Christological debates in the church – attempts to answer the questions, Who is Jesus? and What is his nature? These debates were efforts to understand and resolve the apparent paradox of the divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ. There was a continuum of thought on the issue, and it was easy to be drawn from the center of orthodoxy to one of the opposite poles of heresy. There you might find the Gnostics and Docetists who denied the humanity of Jesus or, at the other extreme, the Ebionites who denied his divinity. But the church, the orthodox church, knew better, and defended the truth at all costs – and the costs were often high. Paul, not so distant in the past for these fourth and fifth century Christians, had written conclusively and authoritatively of both the divinity and the humanity of Jesus Christ, and these scriptures were still regularly read during worship by the faithful.

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; 16for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers—all things have been created through him and for him. 17He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. 19For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross (Col 1:15-20, NRSV).

In Christ is the fullness of God, Paul writes, insisting on Jesus’ divinity. And the church’s Creed reflects this understanding.

[I believe]…in the one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-Begotten, begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father; by whom all things were made.

But this scripture by Paul was also read during worship.

5Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, 6who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross (Phil 2:5-8, NRSV).

In Christ Jesus is the fullness of humanity, Paul writes, insisting that Jesus was born in human likeness. And the church made this, too, part of its Creed.

[Jesus]…for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven and was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and was made man.

The Christological debates reached their zenith at the Third Ecumenical Council of the church held at the Church of Mary in Ephesus, Asia Minor, in 431. There, amidst charges and counter-charges, excommunications and reciprocal excommunications, the church finally spoke with one, united voice through the 250 gathered bishops. The church declared the Nicene Creed the true symbol of the true faith. The church condemned as heresy any doctrine which denied either the divinity or humanity of Christ. The church affirmed – as the only true doctrine -- that Christ unifies in one person both his divine and human natures – that Jesus Christ was, is, and forever will be fully God and fully man.

And these eight letters on the Sweet Kissing icon bear eloquent testimony to this fifth century victory of orthodoxy; for, at this council, the church bestowed upon Mary the title Theotokos – the God-bearer – and matēr theou – the Mother of God. This was no effort to establish a doctrine of Mary, but rather to affirm the mystery of the incarnation – God made man through the Holy Spirit and the virgin. This was no effort to worship Mary, but rather to affirm that her son – the man, Jesus – was truly the second person of the Holy Trinity and therefore supremely worthy of worship. This was not really about Mary at all, but about her son – her son and God’s Son – Jesus.

And all that, too, is right there in the icon, there for all to see: Mary’s head bowed in humility; her eyes not haughty, but downcast, her gaze averted; her hand directing attention, adoration, worship toward her son. Her title, Theotokos, – God-bearer – notwithstanding, it is not so important that she bore God, but it is essential that it is God whom she bore. Her title, matēr theou, -- mother of God – notwithstanding, it is not so important that she was the mother of God, but it is essential that is was God whom she mothered. That is the faith of the church. That is the mystery of the incarnation, the mystery revealed in the sixth month of barren Elizabeth’s pregnancy when

the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary (Luke 1:26-27, NRSV).

Luke, ever the physician with an eye for clinical detail, says it over and over like a refrain: Gabriel was sent to a virgin; the virgin’s name was Mary; Mary was perplexed, being a virgin. The gospels and the apostolic church resolutely affirm that Mary was a virgin and that her virginity is essential to the incarnation of Christ. Only through the virgin birth can heaven and earth meet and God and man become one in Jesus.

The angel said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God” (Luke 1:35, NRSV).

The incarnation thus announced by the angel Gabriel is not incidental to our salvation and to the restoration of the world. It is not merely a way for Jesus to enter history on his path toward the cross and salvation. No. The incarnation is an essential part of our salvation. In the incarnation, Jesus took upon himself our humanity that he might bestow upon us his divinity. Jesus united, in himself, divinity and humanity so that mankind might be restored in the image of God, grow in the likeness of God, and be reconciled fully to God. In the incarnation Jesus embraced our corruptibility and gave us his incorruptibility. In the incarnation Jesus bore our sins and offered us his righteousness. In the incarnation Jesus suffered our death and bid us live his life eternally. The human and divine met in Jesus – embraced and kissed – that we might become the true sons and daughters of God, partakers ourselves in the divine nature. What a laudable exchange; what a great and praiseworthy blessing (Laudable Exchange, music and lyrics by John Michael Talbot) is the incarnation! Once we were children of Adam only, heirs of corruption and death, of nature distorted and bent toward sin. But now, through the incarnation, we are children of God through the new Adam, Jesus, and heirs with him of righteousness and life, of nature restored and empowered by the Holy Spirit. Through sin, what was true of Adam became true of all his children – all of humanity. Through the incarnation, what is true of Jesus is true of all his brothers and sisters – all who have become one with him through faith, baptism, and the anointing of the Holy Spirit.

Mary knew none of this when she responded to Gabriel: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word” (Luke 1:38, NRSV). It took the church some four hundred years of worship, prayer, study, and contemplation to reach an orthodox consensus on the meaning of the incarnation. But Mary knew this: the Lord had done great things for her and, through the son she would bear, the Lord would do great things for his people. So she proclaimed to Elizabeth, the barren one great with her own child.

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me,
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever (Magnificat, BCP).

Here is the Sweet Kissing icon, here is the mystery of the incarnation, not in line and form and color, but in prayer and song and proclamation: the virgin of Nazareth in Galilee blessed by God as Theotokos, graced by God as matēr theou; the mother-to-be, head bowed and eyes averted, directing attention toward the God of her fathers and toward the Son she would soon bear. Here is the one who will, throughout all ages, be called blessed, not because of who or what she was, but because of God’s divine grace and Mary’s human “yes.”

The mystery of the incarnation began with Mary’s “yes,” but it does not stop there; it rushes forward throughout all time and into every place where the gospel is proclaimed and the proclamation is received. Each of us is called by God to incarnate Jesus Christ, to unite our humanity with his divinity, to be flesh and blood sons and daughters of God in this world of ours.

26[For] in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith. 27As many of you as were baptized into Christ have clothed yourselves with Christ. 28There is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male and female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus (Gal 3:26-28, NRSV).

We are called to be Theotokoi – God-bearers – not as Mary was, but no less than Mary was. We are called to be Sweet Kissing icons of the incarnation with heads bowed in humility; eyes not haughty, but downcast, gazes averted; hands and hearts and lives directing attention, adoration, worship toward the son of Mary and the Son of God. We are called to pray and sing and proclaim Magnificat: our souls magnify the Lord, for he has done great things for us. We, too, are called by God to be blessed throughout all generations, unto the ages of ages. Let the words of Mary – Theotokos and matēr theou – become our words: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”


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