Sermon for the 1st Sunday after Christmas/St. John the Evangelist
Today, the church celebrates the feast of St. John the Evangelist. Which of course means, our readings, despite being the first Sunday after Christmas, do not sound particularly Christmassy. But that’s alright, we still have occasion to speak of the events of Christmas today. For the reason St. John’s feast is the 3rd day of Christmas is because he spent much time elaborating on the themes of light in darkness and that the Light of the world was the Incarnate Son of God. The Word, the 2nd person of the Trinity, took to himself a body and became God in the Flesh.
I hope all of you have taken some time to be lost in the wonder of this mystery over the last few days. I know for me it takes some effort; the seminary classes I teach spend a good amount of time talking about the Incarnation and I’m quite positive I could bore you to tears with some of the tedious thoughts that surrounded the person of Jesus Christ in the earliest church. But it’s more than that; I struggle because this idea that God came down at Christmas and was born of a Virgin in a stable has been so engrained in me that I take it for granted. I’d like us to consider a couple of thoughts; first, from C.S Lewis. In his book, Miracles, he spoke of the grand miracle being the Incarnation of the Divine Word. And he wrote, to get your mind wrapped around this event consider this analogy: God becoming man, is like one of us deigning to take on the existence of a slug. Think about that: a slimy, gross slug-small, living under wood and rocks. A creature I think many of us look at and either don’t think twice about, or who give a short and succinct exposition of our feelings by saying “ew”! And so, the Incarnation is a great condescension. We should reflect on that.
But it’s more than the humility of God’s Son. It’s also a mystery as to how it even took place. How does one who is eternal step into time? Micah’s prophecy tells us that his goings have been of old and that he is from everlasting. How does this work? Furthermore, this is the God who made everything, and as its Maker, exists outside of all his creation. We sing this somewhat regularly at communion “whom all the world could not contain”. And yet, he takes on the limits of space which is common to all men. To use the theological term, God becomes circumscribed in the person of Jesus, he takes boundaries to himself. Again, how is that even possible? I won’t pretend that I can explain it-but I want us all to marvel at this. We may not understand the “how” but with the blessed Mother, we too can ponder all these things in our heart.”
In reflecting on God becoming man, it is not only his humility and the mystery of it all, it is the wonder of God establishing a way for men to return to him. I would like to stitch together several passages to help make this point. One of my favorite verses of Scripture is from Isaiah 40, where the prophet wrote “the Glory of the Lord of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” Perhaps, on the surface, this verse does not strike you as odd. But I have to imagine that any Jew who heard or read what Isaiah had to say would have been shocked. After all, this privilege of seeing God’s glory was not accorded to Moses, the man who stands next to Abraham as the two pillars of Jewish tradition. Do you remember that story? It comes from the end of Exodus 33. It is filled with anthropomorphic figures of speech to describe Jehovah, it is dark, it is mysterious and terrible. Listen to these verses:
And he (moses) said, I beseech thee, shew me thy glory.
19 And he said, I will make all my goodness pass before thee, and I will proclaim the name of the LORD before thee; and will be gracious to whom I will be gracious, and will shew mercy on whom I will shew mercy.
20 And he said, Thou canst not see my face: for there shall no man see me, and live.
21 And the LORD said, Behold, there is a place by me, and thou shalt stand upon a rock:
22 And it shall come to pass, while my glory passeth by, that I will put thee in a clift of the rock, and will cover thee with my hand while I pass by:
23 And I will take away mine hand, and thou shalt see my back parts: but my face shall not be seen.
Moses, the meekest man on the earth, by all accounts deserving, if any man were, to see the glory of God, was forbidden. He was able to see a little bit of the back end of it, but the sheer weight and luminosity of God’s glory would have killed him according to verse 20. While this is certainly true and the clearest understanding of the text, I want to suggest that there is also an element of timing involved in God’s decision. First, St. John clearly teaches in his first epistle that there will come a time in the age to come, that men will see God “as he is”. At that time, the Glory of God will not be too much a burden for us to bear, but we will revel in it. Set free completely from sin, we will no longer feel the piercing of his holy eyes. That is why heaven has long been described in the church as the “beatific vision”, to behold the face of God. That is what we long for. But must we wait for death to attain the vision of God?
We return again to our Old Testament reading; “the glory of the Lord shall be revealed and all flesh shall see it together.” When is it that this glory will be seen? Does Isaiah say at death? Recall the verses that immediately preceded it: “The voice of one crying in the wilderness prepare ye the way of the Lord. Make straight in the highway a desert for our God.” We’ve just concluded the season of Advent where we see this passage featured in the gospel and call to worship. We know this is the voice of John the Baptizer. So if we read this passage carefully we can determine that, after the Baptist, those of low estate would be lifted up, those who esteemed themselves highly would be made low, and those who were crooked and rough would be straightened and smooth by the call to repentance. And after this had been done, the glory of God would be revealed. Well what did John prophesy? Yes, he was a prophet in the sense of calling the people to repentance. But he also pointed ahead to something, or in this case, someone. We read just a week ago the words “there stands one among you whose shoe I’m unworthy to unloose.” When Isaiah said the “glory of the Lord shall be revealed” on the heels of John the Baptist, he meant Christ. Christ is the glory of the Lord. This is why on Christmas day we read that great verse from Hebrews 1 the Son is “the brightness [or radiance] of the Father’s glory”.
But as clear as the author of Hebrews may be, this passage is trumped, as it were, by the Gospel for Christmas day. What our beloved St. John teaches us at the end of his prologue is this: “The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we beheld his glory, the glory of the only-begotten of the Father, full of grace and truth.” John teaches his readers that we have seen the glory of God in the person of Jesus Christ. That which Moses was blocked from seeing, that which Isaiah some five hundred years later said would in the future be revealed,is manifested forth in the child of Bethlehem.
Friends, you should wonder at our Lord’s humility; you should stand amazed in contemplation of the mystery of the incarnation; but I urge you to step beyond this and consider that Isaiah says all flesh will see the Glory of the Lord revealed. In the older covenant, not even Moses, who shared intimate communion with God in the mountain, not even Moses, was able to see this glory. But we have that right! In taking humanity unto himself, God has made a way of access for us to the glory of the Father which we in our fallen state cannot behold. That is an enormous part of the beauty of living in the newer covenant.
You might ask, and fairly so, what’s the big deal? So God in his mercy chooses in the fullness of time to show his glory in a way he had previously not, why does that matter? I think the key to understanding this lies in Jehovah’s answer to Moses upon Moses’ request to see God’s glory. The Lord answered him “I will make all my goodness pass before thee.” Shortly thereafter, the Lord hides him because he can’t see this goodness. The puritan commentator Matthew Henry explicitly states, “the goodness of God is his glory.” Which means that the child in the manger is God’s goodness. And this makes perfect sense; in Exodus 33:19 as the Lord describes the goodness that will pass before Moses, he says “I will be gracious to those whom I will be gracious and I will show mercy on those whom I show mercy.” In other words, goodness of God is the grace and mercy which saves us. While the older covenant had rituals which looked ahead to the coming of the Messiah, God’s glory, or goodness, were not yet fully revealed. Beloved, in the Christmas seasons, we rejoice that that which the holy seers and prophets saw not, has been revealed to us.
And that pronoun, “us” is interesting. In the limited vision God gave Moses, he made one thing absolutely clear: his grace and mercy would remain partially shrouded and would extend only as far as God deemed it should go, namely Israel. But Isaiah foresaw that “all flesh would see it”. When the Word took flesh to himself, the fullness of God’s plan was revealed. The limitation of salvation to the house of Israel would be blown wide open as the Gentiles would be welcomed in to the fold. Friends, we must eschew any sense of self-importance and deserving. The holiest man of the Israelites was denied what the most common of all Gentiles has now seen.
One of the unfortunately neglected saints in the Christmas season is Simeon. The end of Luke chapter 2 tells us that he was a holy man who was promised that he would not taste of death until he saw the Lord’s Christ. He lived in the Temple and when Mary and Joseph brought him, Simeon sang the most lovely of songs. “Lord, now let thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word. For my eyes have seen they salvation.” Simeon looked upon the newborn and saw the salvation of God; which is to say he saw the goodness of God; which is to say, he saw the glory of God. And he knew Isaiah’s prophecy: which is why his song continues with the theme that Christ would be a “light to lighten the Gentiles and the glory of thy people Israel.” Simeon knew all flesh would be able to see what he saw.
In a little while, we will sing again the carol of Charles Wesley, Hark! The Herald. And we will sing that magnificent line “Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see, Hail! The incarnate Deity.” The glory which St. John labored to explain , the glory now available for all men to behold, is there in the Christ child. O come, let us adore him. Alleluia. Amen.