Αὐτὸς γὰρ ἐνηνθρώπησεν, ἵνα ἡμεῖς θεοποιηθῶμεν·
Athanasius De Incarnatione Dei Verbi 54.3
‘He became human so that we might become divine’
Few of us here today have much experience of living under despotic regimes. We are fortunate indeed. A large part of humanity has not been so lucky, and even today there are plenty of people who are not able to come together as we do, to celebrate the wonderful news given by the angels to the shepherds outside Bethlehem. Peace on earth, and good will amongst men seem in fairly short supply. What can we do? We can pray, and we can worship Almighty God, who comes among us.
We have come here tonight to celebrate something which defies our understanding and expectations. The simple fact that the God who created all that is took flesh in the womb of the Virgin Mary and was born for us in Bethlehem as the Messiah, the Anointed of God, who would save us from our sins, should still feel strange and odd. It simply doesn’t make sense, nor indeed should it. In human terms, Mary should have been stoned to death for extra-marital infidelity, and some thirty three years later her son is executed as a blasphemer, a rabble-rouser, a trouble maker, in an awkward backwater of the Roman Empire, having gathered round himself a small group of misfits and undesirables appealing to the baser elements of society. There is nothing respectable here. And yet here we are, some two thousand years later, celebrating the birth of a child who changed human history and human nature, because we do not judge things solely by human standards. We come together so that we may ponder the mystery of God’s love for us, a God who heals our wounds, who restores broken humanity, who offers us a fresh start, who can see beyond our failures and shortcomings, and who becomes a human being so that humanity might become divine, so that we may share in the divine life of love, both here on earth and in heaven. The Word became flesh, and lived among us. These few words express what the Christian faith is all about, and how it can change the world.
If that isn’t a cause for celebration, I don’t know what is. We are so familiar with the story of Christmas that I wonder whether we, myself included, really take the time to ponder, and to marvel at the mystery which unfolded two thousand years ago in Bethlehem. God, who made all that is, comes among us, taking flesh in the womb of a young girl through the power of His Holy Spirit, so that in His Son we might see and experience God and His love for us.
God comes among us not in power or splendour but as a weak, vulnerable child, depending on others for love, and food, and warmth. He is laid in an animal’s feeding trough, insulated from the cold hard stone by straw — hardly a royal birth, and not what we would expect of God, and that’s the point. It is supposed to be surprising, and to shock us. So now God would be with his pilgrim people on earth – sharing all of human life, from birth to death, so that we might, through him, share the Divine Life of Love, that of God the Holy Trinity: a relational God who invites humanity to share that relationship, who offers it freely, and to all. The sheer exuberance of such an offer, is almost profligate: it is generous in a way which deﬁes our human expectation and our human understanding.
Throughout his life all that Christ says and does shows us how much God loves us. The Word becomes flesh, and enters the world, he dwells among us, a wondrous mystery which provokes us to worship, to kneel with the shepherds and to adore the God who comes among us, who shares our human life so that we might share His divine life, not because we asked for it, not because we deserve it, we haven’t worked for it, or earned it, rather it is the free gift of a loving and merciful God, this then is the glory of God – being born in simple poverty, surrounded by outcasts, on the margins of society, to call humanity to a new way of being together, where the old order is cast aside, turning the world upside down and offering us the possibility of living in a radically different way, a way of peace and love and joy, not one of power. Heaven comes to earth, born in the womb of a Virgin, so that we might behold the glory of God in a new-born child. So that we might experience the love and truth of God.
The word is made flesh so that prophesy might be fulfilled, so that the hope of salvation might be dawn, so that a people who have languished long in darkness might behold the glory of God where heaven and earth meet, in a stable in Bethlehem, where men and angels may sing together ‘Alleluia, Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace to people of goodwill’ The worship of heaven is joined with earth on this most holy night, that in the quiet and stillness all the earth might be filled with the praises of Almighty God, who stoops to save humanity in the birth of His Son.
The Son who lives and dies and rises again for us will be here tonight under the outward forms of bread and wine so that the heavenly banquet may nourish our souls. He gives Himself so that we might share His Divinity, so that God’s love can transform our human nature, having redeemed it in His Nativity. So let us come to sing his praises, and be nourished with His Body and Blood and experience here on earth the joy of Heaven and the closeness and the love of God, let it fill our souls with joy, and let us live lives which recognise the wondrous thing which happens tonight, that it may be a reality in our lives, that we may may proclaim in word and deed the reality of the Word made flesh, so that others may be drawn to kneel and worship like the shepherds, like the Holy Family of Mary and Joseph, and come to believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed all might, majesty, glory, dominion and power, now and forever.
The journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem would have taken Mary and Joseph about a week on foot, it’s hard work, and uphill all the way. Bethlehem was associated with two figures in the Bible: David, Israel’s second king, and his ancestor Ruth, the Moabitess, whose love and devotion to her mother in law Naomi are inspiring. It is a hill town, and source of water about five miles south of Jerusalem, where shepherds would raise sheep for the Passover sacrifice in the Temple, first-born males, holy to the Lord. A fertile, fruitful place, a place of promise. It is a place with the prophet Micah sees as the starting place for a future for Israel. One ‘whose coming forth is from of old, from ancient days’ (Micah 5:2 ESV) The Incarnate Word of God, who has always been, and will always be: Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. The Good Shepherd, who will ‘shepherd his flock in the strength of the Lord, in the majesty of the name of the Lord his God. And they shall dwell secure, for now he shall be great to the ends of the earth. And he shall be their peace.’ (Micah 5:4-5a ESV) He will be our peace, because He makes peace, ‘For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.’ (Colossians 1:19-20 ESV) What is prophesied by Micah is fulfilled in Jesus. All scripture points to Him, and finds its fulfilment in Him, the Word made Flesh.
In the letter to the Hebrews we see the prophecy of Psalm 40:6-8 fulfilled in Christ. The sacrifices of the old covenant are replaced in the new covenant with the sacrifice of God for humanity. Sacrifice is fulfilled and completed, once and for all. It is this sacrifice, which the church pleads and re-presents. The eternal offering of a sinless victim, to free humanity of its sins, to restore our relationship with God and one another. It is an act of perfect obedience: the body prepared by God for Christ to do His will and sanctify humanity, to heal us and restore us.
In this morning’s Gospel Mary does not tell Elizabeth that she is pregnant. By the power of the Holy Spirit, John the Baptist, the last of the prophets, announces the coming of the Saviour by leaping for joy in his mother’s womb. It’s important. There’s no time to waste: Mary arose and went with haste to see her cousin Elizabeth and tell her the Good News. Time is of the essence for us too: not for the frantic fulfilment of consumerism and the world around us: last-minute presents, or enough food to satisfy even the most gluttonous. No, we have to prepare our hearts, our minds, and our lives, so that Christ may be born again in US, so that we may live His life and proclaim his truth to the world.
Through the prompting of her son and the gift of the Holy Spirit, Elizabeth can cry ‘Blessèd are you among women, and blessèd is the fruit of your womb!’ Elizabeth recognises that Mary’s obedience, her humble ‘Yes’ to God undoes the sinfulness of Eve. That she who knew no sin might give birth to Him who would save us and all humanity from our sin. It is through the love and obedience of Mary that God’s love and obedience in Christ can be shown to the world, demonstrated in absolute perfection, when for love of us he opens his arms to embrace the world with the healing love of God on the Cross. He will be the good Shepherd, laying down his life for his flock that we may dwell secure. We prepare to celebrate Christmas because it points us to the Cross and beyond, in showing us once and for all that God loves us.
We honour Mary because in all things she points to her Son, Jesus. It’s not about her, it’s all about Him. We honour the Mother of God; we worship the Son of God. We worship Him who died for love of us, who gave himself, as the Lamb of God, that takes away the sins of the world, to die so that we might live. The process of salvation starts with a young woman being greeted by an angel, and saying, ‘Yes’ to God. Her cousin Elisabeth recognises this. Elizabeth’s son, John the Baptist, leaps in her womb. While not yet born, he recognises the presence of a Saviour, and proclaims Him. Our salvation is very close indeed. We can feel it. We know that God keeps His promises. We can prepare to celebrate the festival with JOY, because we know what is about to happen: a baby will be born who will save humanity from their sins, whom John the Baptist will recognise as the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.This is the Good news we share with the world around us: that God loves us, was born for us, and dies for us. Everything, all that Jesus is and says and does, from His taking flesh in the womb of His mother, His Birth, His life, Death and Resurrection proclaim God’s love to us:
“Behold, the days are coming, declares the Lord, when I will fulfil the promise I made to the house of Israel and the house of Judah. In those days and at that time I will cause a righteous Branch to spring up for David, and he shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In those days Judah will be saved, and Jerusalem will dwell securely. And this is the name by which it will be called: ‘The Lord is our righteousness.’” (Jeremiah 33:14-16 ESV)
‘For I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans for welfare and not for evil, to give you a future and a hope. Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will hear you. You will seek me and find me, when you seek me with all your heart.’ (Jeremiah 29:11-13 ESV)
So my dear brothers and sisters let us prepare to meet Him, living out our faith in our lives, and encourage others so to do. So that that the world may come to believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.
If there is one thing which we could all do with at the moment, I suspect that it is GOOD NEWS! It really does seem to be in short supply, and it is fair to say that the world longs for it. We want to be cheered up, we don’t want to be as we are. We know that something is wrong, and we wish there was a solution. There is, and His name is Jesus Christ, a mighty one who will save, as prophesied by Zephaniah. The Messiah, the one to save Israel from her sins, and not just Israel, but all humanity.
In St Luke’s account, which we have just heard, John the Baptist preached the good news to the people (Lk 3:18) and the Good news is this: ‘His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’ (Lk 3:17 ESV) What? I hear you say, this is GOOD news? It is. We have a choice to make: Do we want to follow Jesus or not? There is a choice of destinations after death: Heaven or Hell? Where do you want to go? Do you want to have a relationship with the God who loves you, who created you, and offers you salvation? This may seem stark, but it is part of Advent, to consider the four last things: Death, Judgement, Heaven, and Hell.
We are able to make a choice. We are not simply consigned to Hell, to an eternity without God’s love and mercy, because of what God has done for us, through His Son, Jesus Christ, whose coming we celebrate. The Word became flesh, He shared our humanity, so that we might share His Divinity. Christ died for us, so that we might live forever with Him. This is the hope of Heaven which we celebrate at the Incarnation. God loves us. God saves us, and we are able to accept that salvation, and encourage others to do so. This is Good News, for all the world. It is why we can say with St Paul, ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.’ (Phil 4:4 ESV) We can rejoice because in Christ we are offered salvation.
We do not deserve it, because we sin, which separates us from God and each other. And yet God is both just and merciful: we deserve to be punished, but God redeems humanity through His Son. This is the mystery of our redemption, that God demonstrates His love for us. ‘For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.’ (Jn 3:16-17 ESV) If we believe in Jesus, if we trust Him, then we can be saved. In our baptism we share in His Death and resurrection. In the Eucharist we are given a pledge of His love, we eat His Body and drink His Blood, so that He may transform us. Such is the mystery of God’s love for us, which is why we follow Christ’s command to DO THIS. It reminds us day by day, and week by week that God loves us.
God loves us. If I preach nothing else, know that we are loved by God, and that His love has the power to transform us, you and me, and the entire world, if we would only let Him. The world is sick and hungry, and the remedy is Jesus Christ, who came as a baby in Bethlehem, and who will come again as our Saviour and our Judge, a Judge who offers us pardon and peace, a peace which surpasses all understanding.
‘And we, what shall we do?’ (Luke 3:14 ESV) John the Baptist is clear, be honest, don’t be greedy, don’t sin. Instead be loving and generous: put that love into practice in your lives and live out your faith. We have in Christ an example of how God has been generous towards us, so we are called to be generous in return. We are called to be a generous and forgiving church, a place of healing and reconciliation, which manifests God’s love to the world, and offers salvation to all who turn to Christ. ‘And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth.’ (Zephaniah 3:19 ESV) God longs to heal the lameness of our sin, to take outcast humanity and gather it into the feast of the Kingdom, to clothe us in a garment of praise and thanksgiving, which is the garment of our Baptism, when we put on Christ. He longs to feed us with Himself, so that we might be nourished by Him, and have life in Him, healed by Him, and given the promise of eternal life. This is the hope which Advent brings, and it is the cause of our JOY.
Christians are joyful because we know what God has done for us, and He is the source of our joy. We can trust Him, and His joy is everlasting. Unlike the things of this world, which are fleeting, and do not last, God’s joy, His love, and His faithfulness are everlasting. We know this through Christ, who came that we might have joy, and have it to the full: ‘As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.’ (Jn 15:9-11 ESV) This Advent let us listen to what Jesus says, and do it, following His commandments, living out our faith in our lives, and encourage others so to do. So that that the world may come to believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.
Prophets have a job to do which is both simple and difficult: they proclaim the word of the Lord God, calling His people to repentance, to turn away from their sins, and to turn back to the Way of the Lord. It sounds simple in theory, but in practice it is difficult. People don’t want to listen, or be challenged. It is easier to stay as you are, and not to worry, but that simply won’t do in the long run.
John the Baptist, the son of Zechariah, goes out into the wilderness, a desert place, where people have an encounter with God. He preaches a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin. Jews were used to the idea of ritual washing and cleanliness, but this was something more, something which would turn your life around. Changing your ways is both an event and a process: you have to will to do it, and to persevere in doing it. At its heart it involves wanting to live the way God wants us to love: being loving, and forgiving others as we have been forgiven. It sounds easy enough, but doing it day after day, week after week, year after year is hard. We fail, and keep failing, but GOD STILL LOVES US. He doesn’t turn away from us, even when we turn away from Him, because that is what love, mercy, and forgiveness are all about. God wants to change the world profoundly. That’s what Isaiah’s prophecy quoted in Luke Gospel is all about. The promise of salvation offers the world a radical change, as we see in the prophet Habakkuk, ‘For the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea.’ (Habakkuk 2:14 ESV) All the prophecy in the Old Testament points to, and finds its fulfilment in, Christ: ‘For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,’ (Col 1:19). We will see God’s glory both in the baby born in Bethlehem, and when Christ shall come at the end of time as our Saviour and our Judge. We are prepared for this by the message of the prophets, and especially by John the Baptist, who quite literally prepares the way of Lord.
So we need to be prepared, by saying sorry to God, by asking for His forgiveness, and by turning our lives around, so that ‘that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ’ (Phil 1:6) We’re a work in progress, and for the past two thousand years this is what the church has been, and will continue to be, until Christ comes again. We will fail, on a daily basis, that’s not the point! The point is that we keep trying, and keep asking for forgiveness, and keep trying to live the Christian life. It’s a big, daunting task, which, if it were just up to us individually, we would have no chance of achieving. But it is something which we can do together, as the body of Christ, and relying upon God alone: it is His Gospel, His Church, and His strength in which we will accomplish this. Too often we trust in ourselves and fail. We need to trust in God and ask him to bring about the proclamation of the Gospel through us. We need to be like John the Baptist, preparing the way for the Lord who will come again as our Saviour and our Judge.
The church, then, must be a voice crying in the wilderness. What we proclaim may be at odds with what the world thinks we should say and do, but we are not called to be worldly, to conform ourselves to the ways of the world. We live in a fallen world, which is not utterly depraved, but which falls short of the glory of God. The church exists to conform the world to the will of God. To say to the world: come and have life in all its fullness, in Jesus Christ and turn away from selfishness and sin.
Now, the world may not listen to us when we proclaim this. It may well choose to ignore us, to mock us, even to persecute us. We must, however, be prepared to do this regardless of the cost to ourselves. We must bear witness to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, and their saving work in the world, even if it means losing our lives, because it says to the world: we trust in something greater than you, we know the truth and it has set us free. We are free to love God and to serve him, and to invite others to do the same, to be baptised, to turn away from the world, and be fed by word and sacrament, built up into a community of love, offering the world a radical alternative. ‘And it is my prayer that your love may abound more and more, with knowledge and all discernment, so that you may approve what is excellent, and so be pure and blameless for the day of Christ, filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.’ (Phil 1:9-11 ESV)
God offers the world a radical alternative, built on LOVE, which is shown most clearly in the Cross, when Jesus died for love of us. For love of us, whose sins nailed him to it. God loves us so that we might become lovely, and gave His life for us, so that we may come to share His life . This is our hope, this is the hope of Advent, the hope proclaimed by the prophets which we need to live out in our lives. Only then can the world come to believe and give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now and forever.
Advent is a time to be alert, to be watchful, because we are to be ready for Christ when He comes: in our hearts, through faith, in our annual remembrance of His birth at Christmas, and when He will come again as our Saviour and our Judge. We need to be ready, which is why we have this season of preparation, to help us. We don’t say the Gloria in excelsis, so that it may ring out with joy, as we join our voices with the angels celebrating Christ’s birth at Christmas.We use purple, a dark colour which reminds us both of royalty and penitence. We serve a King, and we are aware of our own shortcomings, and our need to prepare to meet Christ. It is good and healthy to be reminded of how we have all fallen short, to ask God for forgiveness and mercy, and to be reminded that God is loving and merciful, and has taken away our sins on the Cross, to save us.
In our first reading this morning, the prophet Jeremiah declares that God fulfils His promises: we can trust Him. He will cause a righteous branch to spring forth, His Son, Jesus, who embodies justice and righteousness. Jesus shows us how to live, declares God’s love, and dies for love of us. In the Letter to the Thessalonians we see the injunction to be loving one another and all people, because LOVE is the heart of the Gospel, the Good News of Jesus Christ. God loves us, so we should love one another. This is how we should live and be pleasing to God, and prepare for the fact that Jesus is coming again.
If we consider the parable in today’s Gospel, the parable of the Fig Tree, two things are apparent, firstly fig trees are clearly visible and easily recognisable in the Middle Eastern Landscape – when Our Lord comes it will be apparent to all and sundry. Secondly, figs, as fruit take a long time to ripen, so as their visibility shows us that the Kingdom of God is close at hand, their long ripening shows us that we need to be prepared to wait, for all things will happen at their appointed time, a time which even the Son Himself does not know.
In the meantime we need to guard against Drunkenness and Hangovers (not those caused by the inevitable Christmas party) but the metaphorical kind –- a lack of alertness, a sluggishness with regard to the Gospel, and an excessive concern with the worries of this life, instead we need be alert and watchful which will allow us to ‘stand tall when others faint’. We need to be prepared to meet Jesus as our Saviour and our Judge, freed from the cares of this world
God has made a promise, through the mouth of His prophet, Jeremiah, a promise of salvation and safety, which is brought about through the Blessed Virgin Mary’s ‘Yes’ to God, which will lead to the Incarnation and thereby the Salvation of the whole world wrought upon the altar of the Cross. It is this faithful and loving God whom we wait for, a merciful judge. Thus, Advent, the preparation for the coming of Jesus as new-born infant and Judge is a time of hope and joy. We can like the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Church in Thessalonica be filled with joy for the Lord, resolute in our prayer for and encouragement of one another as a Christian family.
This prayer and encouragement leads to an increase of love for both God and our neighbour. This is what living the Christian life means, something we do all through the week. This is the preparation we, as Christians, need. It is something which we cannot do on our own; we need to do it together, encouraging one another to live lives filled with the love which comes from God, which is God’s very nature as a Trinity of persons. This love and a freedom from the cares of this world is what Jesus comes to bring us, this is our deliverance, our liberation from sin. It is this love and freedom which makes God give himself to us this morning under the outward forms of Bread and Wine, a love we can touch and taste, which will transform us, and fill us with His love.
What greater present could we offer to the Infant Jesus than hearts filled with love and lives lived in the true freedom proclaimed by the Gospel. Thus, at one level it doesn’t matter whether the Second Coming is today or in a million years time, what matters is living lives infused with the values of the Kingdom of God, a joyful and yet a serious business. We know what we should be doing, and this is something we as Christians need to do together, praying for the Grace of God to help us, to strengthen us and fill us with that Love which comes from Him. We may feel unsure, unsafe, and worried but relying on God as part of His family, the Church, we can take courage and be alert to take part in that great adventure which is the Kingdom of God.