Tuesday, December 27, 2016

Immanuel: God with Us


ST. JOHN'S heraldry has always included the eagle.  In The Divine Comedy, Canto 19 of Paradise, Dante has the blessed souls fly in the shape of an eagle as he is introduced to St. John.  The reasoning behind this is John's Gospel draws our attention to heaven.  From the first verse of his Gospel, he confronts the Mystery of the Incarnation.  Whereas Matthew begins with the patriarchs,Mark with the voice in the wilderness, Luke with Zachariah burning incense in the temple, John begins in eternity with the unity of God and the Word.

Imagine that we're among those shepherds who first heard the Christmas Gospel. We're on a hillside just outside of Bethlehem. We are with ordinary men, we meet them at the synagogue, we visit their homes. They know something of the Scriptures. So as we see the angel, shock though it may be, we can make sense out of the message. He must be talking about the Messiah. We conclude that the Messiah is far more important than our daily work, so we grab our staffs and run down to the inn. That's not where the Messiah is. Oh yes, the angel did mention a manger. So we look in the barns. There we see the Holy Family. We are amazed that they are so poor. Could the heavenly host have been singing about this? We go over the checklist: a baby, check. Swaddling cloth, check. In a manger, yep. It's all there. Moses was a helpless infant once, so why not also the Messiah?

You and I know even more of the story. We know that this baby is God Incarnate. If Jesus were only a human child, then our coming here is a mistake, in fact, twenty centuries of Christian history have been a mistake. How difficult it is to say those words -- this Baby is God. Fine gold has yielded its purity to be mixed with mud. That is why St. Paul calls the Incarnation a mystery. No other religion makes such a claim. Reason recoils from it. But all depends on the truth of it - God is a particular Baby in a particular place.

Many of the doctrines of the Bible make pretty good sense. Take creation, for example. When we look at the organ we know all the tracks and pipes, keyboards and boxes, did not come together by themselves. So when we look at a man, a far more marvelous structure, reason demands that we attribute his existence to Intelligent Design. Or take original sin. One thing foreign missionaries have little trouble teaching people is that they are sinners. All we have to do is consult our consciences, think of our many errors, of the days we would like to live over. The Bible tells us the specifics, but the fact that we are sinners we know. Likewise, all people seem to know that somehow a conscious existence continues after death. Ancient Greeks put a coin in a dead person's mouth to pay the ferryman; American Indians buried their chiefs with weapons so he could hunt in the next life. All who have seen injustice prevail know that some day real justice must be done. The Bible tells us a lot more about the next life, but we would know that it existed anyway.

But that God should become man! Outrageous! It's contrary to nature. As Christians we certainly agree. This is contrary to nature. We call it a miracle. It was not an act of nature; it was an act of grace. Where there is grace, there is also the miraculous. Nature is utterly tragic. Where nature is invincible, the Law has the last word, and it ends in death. Grace, not nature, provides the resurrection, the miracle, the intervention that overcomes the tragic. By grace God led His people through the Red Sea, fed them with manna, brought forth water from the Rock. By grace Jesus led Peter to walk on top of the sea, multiplied the loaves and fishes, and washed away our sins with His blood! No one could figure this out without divine revelation. Deep is the mystery of godliness!

That is what God was doing at Bethlehem. Here God was making His love for us real. Here God set in motion the events that would culminate in the victory of grace over nature. The world declares God's power, history His rule, personal experience His tenderness, but to see the height and depth of God's love, we must come to the manger. The Son of God left behind the celestial spheres of power, descended to the limitation of the womb, the frailty of human childhood, the discipline of human education.

Yes, our Redeemer had to be both God and man. No mere man could redeem even himself from sin, let alone everybody else. When you are trying to solve a mystery you look for both motive and opportunity. So when you ask who redeemed the world, ask those same questions. Only God could have such unconditional love so as to lay down His life for the world. Only a man could have the opportunity to suffer and die. A mere man might die, but there the story would end because he would be tangled in the net of sin. To have both motive and opportunity requires God Incarnate. God was in Christ. He could die, and He could rise again.

The collective human race will always be frustrated by evil. It can invent new culture, new education, new technology. All this merely exchanges new evils for old ones. Evil in the world is a consequence of sin. The solution requires grace. Wherever there is grace we will see miracles and mysteries, we will see energy which nature and the Law cannot account for. But we know it was there. We can repeat the fantastic story of the Gospel. The way from man to God was blocked by the barricade of sin, far too high for man to cross. So God came over it in Christ, and made a passage through it with His flesh and blood. That is the mystery of godliness.

In the Iliad, Homer tells of Hector, the hero of Troy. As he prepared for his last battle, Andromache, his wife, came as far as the gate to bid him farewell. She was followed by the nurse who carried Hector's infant son. The mighty Hector, with his marvelous armor and plumed hat, was terrifying to the baby. The little one clung to the nurse's neck. Then Hector took his helmet off, and the baby began to smile. He hugged his father. So when our heavenly Father appears as the volcano God, as He did at Mt. Sinai, we tremble with fear. We recoil from the holy because He is holy. Remember, the Polynesian word for "holy" is taboo. We have innate fear of such things, but as He lays His power by, as He comes in the form of a Servant, even the guiltiest of sinners can embrace Him. Yes, we needed a hero, a superstar, but we also needed a Savior we could approach. In Jesus we have the answer. Great is the mystery of godliness! AMEN.

by: Rev. Lloyd Gross

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