[Sermon] Christ, the Essence of the Human
I was given the opportunity to preach my first real sermon (I’ve done mini homilies before, but no sermon) today at our local Lutheran/Presbyterian church here in Truckee. You can watch it above (my sermon starts at the 9:15 mark) or read the manuscript below.
I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty Christmassed out. I’m typically a pretty staunch practitioner of Advent, or at least I want to be. Looking back at last Christmas, I recall thinking, “You know, next year, we should really DO Advent. You know, wait until Christmas Eve to decorate — even to start playing Christmas music.” But then 2020 came. And it’s been an entire 9 months of Advent. So, on Thanksgiving Day, we ventured out to Sierraville, cut down a tree, and started the heavy rotation of Christmas music on Spotify.
So now, it’s only a couple days after Christmas and I have to confess — I have a bit of a Christmas hangover. I’m kind of sad… I don’t look forward to the day that we take the tree down. But there IS something purifying about having a bit more space in the living room and less anxiety around what gifts to buy for those people who already have everything, praise be to God.
Talking about purification, let’s turn to our reading from Luke… Some people think this was when Jesus was presented for circumcision. But this is not what it was. Like any good faithful people of their day, we have to say that Mary and Joseph had Jesus circumcised on the 8th day.
Instead, this is Mary’s purification. Leviticus 12 says that, because of her contact with all of those bodily fluids, a woman would be in a state of blood purification for 33 days after childbirth. She must not touch anything holy or enter the sacred area until her time of purification is completed. So here they are, 33 days after the first Christmas, in the temple. Again, like good faithful people, they’re doing as Mosaic law said and presenting their firstborn male child as being holy to the Lord.
The text says that they sacrificed a pair of turtle doves and two young pigeons. Those Leviticus geeks out there know why they did this. For the rest of you (like me, who had to look it up), this is in lieu of another law in the Torah where when you made this sacrifice for purification, you were required to offer a lamb. But if you were poor and couldn’t do that, the law offered a ‘sliding scale’ so to speak. Instead of the large furry creature, you could instead offer a pair of turtle doves and two young pigeons.
Mary and Joseph are poor. This is true and well known. But what’s also happening here is Jesus being revealed AS the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Mary and Joseph are fulfilling the law of Moses in every perfect way. This is not a random act — they are presenting Jesus, “born under the law” which we’ll talk more about soon.
Then, these two older folks come up and “mob the crib” if you will. You know those lovely people in church who get all up in your baby’s business and you’re a little like, yyyyeah, toooooo close. Well, these are those people. Simeon and Anna.
Now, they aren’t there by accident. They weren’t just out on their evening stroll on their way to Jax Diner and happened to swing into the temple. No. They have been longing for the consolation of Israel and the arrival of the Messiah. In this account, they both have a powerful prophecy over the baby. Simeon was promised that he’d see the savior before dying and here he was, in that moment.
What I love about Simeon and Anna is that they so beautifully embody what Christian patience is. This long and yearning hope finally comes to a wonderful crescendo in this holy moment. And then, they and Jesus went home and did normal things. Though you and I may not be like Jesus in any way, He is like us in every way. This is our savior. The extraordinary becoming ordinary.
On that point, I want to direct our attention to today’s reading from Galatians. I was SO excited to see this passage in the lectionary for today because it’s one of my favorites. This passage, chapter 4 verse 4, is THE Christmas passage (no, friends, Christmas is NOT over — forget what I said earlier, we’ve only begun!). It’s the verse that Martin Luther always emphasized during Christmas sermons.
If we want to understand the incarnation of Christmas, it’s good practice to take it from Paul first. Paul always gives us the story in the shortest version possible — in this case, NOT EVEN A WHOLE SENTENCE. Paul’s incarnation story IS Galatians Chapter 4 verse 4.
But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born through a woman, and born under the law…
This is the theological gist of the Christmas story in the simplest and shortest way.
“Born of a woman.” Here we have Theotokos — Mary — bearer of God. This is the flesh of the matter. The key to this is “born under the law.” So, the one who was over the law — true God — now puts Godself under the law.
It’s helpful to note that in a theological sense, “law” doesn’t just mean laws like the 10 commandments, but anything and everything that accuses. You can hear the sound of a crying baby as pure grace one moment and pure terror the next. The latter example is one of the law striking our hearts (it’s typically what the parents feel). God enters human flesh and lives with people who are possessed by an accusing voice. It’s the human condition. Have you heard this voice lately? I’m hearing it right now.
It’s not just that God became human and entered into our flesh, but that God did it for a reason. Let’s look closer at the first part of St. Paul’s Tweetable Christmas story…
Born of a woman. In the manger.
I want to take this sacred time with you this morning to honor our flesh. What happens to human nature when Christ becomes a human? What does this mean? What’s the significance?
I don’t know about you, but I feel so out-of-body in this pandemical moment. I haven’t hugged anyone besides my wife and daughter in months. A couple weeks ago, we went to an event at my daughter’s school — it was the Spiral of Lights, a Waldorf tradition. Everything was pitch dark except for this big spiral of lanterns in the snow. It was holy. Amazing. But bizarre. And awkward. No one could recognize anyone! Everyone was even more covered up than they usually would be on a cold dark night. I felt so… Disembodied.
Christmas — the Incarnation — brings us back into our flesh. How does Christ honor this human flesh while keeping in mind verse 5 of that same passage, “in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.” God came into flesh for a reason. We need redeeming from something — our fallenness. Our broken relationship with God. This was not just a cosmic magic trick.
He was born of a woman. Born in a manger. He had diapers. To put it in the censored version of the ever-vivid Martin Luther, he was a pants-pooper God. He’s a manger God.
What this means is that God is hiding here. Christ’s flesh was born under the law in such a way that honors human flesh. That honors human beingness. This is really God. We’re not humiliating him or diminishing him by calling him a pants-pooping God. God IS this pants-pooping human being. There is so much honor being bestowed on the human being here.
The incarnation is not a case to escape our humanity or the created world (bodily functions included). We’re not condemning natural human life. We’re seeing Christ’s redemption of it. Christ doesn’t offer an escape out of humanness, he returns it back to its blessedness. God has come into humanity and is never coming out. In the incarnation, we have the divinization of the human being and the humanification of God. Christ is the essence of the human being and he redeems all of it and makes it holy.
Luther also emphasized the point that the angels initially were shocked by Christ being born in the manger because that meant that humanity itself was greater than the angels. Being human was no longer beneath being an angel, but above it (even with all of its funky smells and weird bodily functions).
And finally, we have to see that unlike other places in the Bible where God hides in order to NOT be found; here, God hides in this one place, time, circumstance, and body in order to be found. He wants to be found in the manger and only there. In this one incarnate flesh. When we find him there, he can be seen and preached. We can look into God’s eyes. God now has a face, covered with little baby tears.
And so, this first Sunday of Christmas, may you know that in Christ, you’ve gone from being a slave, captive to the law — captive to all the shoulds, should-nots, and all the various ways that the accuser within you tells you that you’re not enough or that you’ve mucked it up — to being an adopted child of God who cries with great release, “Abba, Father.” This is not merely a universal love, this is an unconditional, unearnable, and permanent love specific to you, child of God. And so, this is the good news… Though your faith and my faith will falter, his never will. Merry Christmas. Thanks be to God.