Sermon preached Third Sunday of Advent, 17 December 2023, Immanuel Lutheran Church, Buderim, Qld, Australia.
Watch the sermon here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y3eclR7mpFQ
‘To all who did receive [the Word], to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.’ (John 1:12).
I love how each of the gospel writers paints a different portrait of Jesus:
Matthew is a royal tapestry: Imagine a tapestry woven with rich threads of lineage, stretching back through generations, reaching into the depths of Jewish history. Matthew starts with a genealogy, so names like Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and David dance across the fabric, culminating in the birth of Jesus, the promised King. Exotic oriental threads are added, as Magi see the king’s star rise, and travel from the East bearing gifts for the newborn King. Each thread, precisely chosen, represents a deep tradition, adding intricate detail and colour.
Mark is a bold and dynamic sketch: We heard Mark’s gospel account last week (Second Sunday of Advent). Mark plunges us right into the middle of the action (literary scholars call this in media res, “in the middle of things”). He has an urgency with quick energetic strokes, almost impatient, terse and minimalist. ‘The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ.’ The desert air almost crackles with heat as John the Baptiser emerges, his figure stark against the sun baked wilderness.
Luke is a photorealistic panorama: Luke includes fine historic details of the Roman census on his canvas, before broadening out to a panaroma capturing the rolling hills around Bethlehem as the angels appear to the shepherds, who — in a blur — rush to the manger. (We’ll hear part of this account on Christmas Eve and Day).
John is a massive abstract impressionist masterpiece: There’s no mention of the familiar Christmas images (no baby Jesus, no manger, no shepherds, no star or magi). ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ John’s gospel explodes on the sprawling canvas with a dizzying swirl of light, colour, and divine mystery. Think Van Gogh’s swirling brushstrokes or Pro Hart’s colourful and playful techniques. Yes, Jesus can be found in a historical time and place (in ancient Palestine, during the time of the Roman occupation, in a manger), but John reminds us that the Word always was. There’s a timelessness that situates Jesus in the light of eternity.
That said, we, as products of this modern era, sometimes struggle to reconcile these different portraits of Jesus. Each gospel account seems to have different events, the order of the events are different, sometimes seemingly conflicting or at odds with each other. So we tend to harmonize these into one dull account, a linear and monotone storyline, mechanically stringing together the events, seeking scientific explanations, stripping away the vivid details, emotional vibrancy, and unique perspectives that each gospel artist brings. We do this, because that’s how our modern mindset works: we want “Just the facts ma’am,” the material, cold, hard “facts.”
So the Christmas stories painted by the gospel writers, the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, can be hard to believe for us with this modern mindset. Angels, rising stars, a virgin birth, a mythic “beginning” before time — these require categories beyond the naturalist, human-centred, analytic and materialistic modernist mindset. We ask modern questions such as: “If Mary was a virgin, and there was no sperm, when Jesus was concerned where did the male half of the chromosones come from?” Or “Was the star seen by the Magi some sort of super-position of the planets, creating a bright “star” in the night sky?” At times we struggle to make sense of the story. And you’ve no doubt encountered friends or family who likewise struggle, who perhaps even think you’re somewhat crazy for believing in angels and the spiritual, or that a baby could be born to a virgin, that the Creator God would be found in a manger in ancient Palestine. I wonder: what part of the Christmas stories do you find most challenging to believe? The fact is: it takes faith to believe the gospel accounts concerning Jesus. Simply faith believes the Christmas stories as written.
And yet, belief is exactly what the Christian life is all about — simply faith. ‘To all who did receive [the Word], to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.’ (John 1:12). The children of God are those who believe his name. To believe in someone’s name is to simply trust in that person. To “believe in the name of Jesus” is the accept who Jesus claims to be, and because you believe Jesus, to dedicate your life to him. So we believe that this baby, announced by angels, conceived to a virgin, born in Bethlehem, laid in a manger, whom prophets foretold and angels sang, we believe this baby is actually (somehow?!) the Son of God.
But truth be told, there is a bigger hurdle for our belief. Angels bringing messages from the spirit world, stars rising, a virigin giving birth — all this is child’s play for the God who simply spoke creation into existence. If God can say, “Let there be light,” and there was light, then all the rest is trivial. But here’s the crux of the Christian life: do you believe that this almighty, infinite, eternal, transcendent, and holy being we call “God,” do you believe that God came to earth as a human baby? This is the bigger question!
Do you believe that God almighty became vulnerable, risking himself by being placed on the bossom of a teenage peasant girl?
Do you believe that the infinite God became finite, willingly limiting himself to a feeble human frame?
Do you believe the eternal God located himself in a particular time and place?
Do you believe that the transcendent God comes immanently to you, so close that you can taste and smell him in bread and wine?
Do you believe that our holy, holy, holy God dared descend into darkness and mess, that he would be covered in the blood of birth, be laid in a manger along with the scent of animal droppings, be worshipped by lowly shepherds?
Do you believe that God comes to you, to dwell with and in you? Yes, you?!
This is exactly what the cross of Christ requires: a recognition that God humbled himself for you, that God was shamed for you, that God was willing to become naked for you, that he entered the deepest darkness — death — for you. As Martin Luther writes: “The glory of our God is precisely that for our sakes he comes down to the very depths, into human flesh, into the bread, into our mouth, and into our heart.” God’s glory is not bright lights and heavenly hosts (although he does have that too!), but his true glory is when he comes down into the messy flesh, into your heart. So simply faith believes the Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us (John 1:14).
Maybe you’re wondering, “How do I get such faith?” Or, like me, you go through times of doubt and struggle? Well, the good news is that faith is a gift from God. Faith is received when God works in us. And how does God work in us? He works through the sacraments: baptism, absolution (forgiveness of sin), and Holy Communion:
God works in our baptism — In baptism God promises to give rebirth through the washing [with water] and the renewal of the Holy Spirit. He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy (Titus 3:5). So we trust in God’s action in baptism, which we believe unites us with Christ’s death and resurrection, adopts us into God’s family, and gives us the right to be called “children of God.”
God works in absolution — When the forgiveness of sin is announced, “Your sins are forgiven,” we trust God’s spoken promise. But each time we hear this declaration, we say, “Really? Me? My sins are forgiven? But …” and then we fill in the blank with the reasons either that (1) I don’t need my “sin” forgiven, or (2) my sin is so great they couldn’t possibly be forgiven. So when we hear the absolution, faith is created: we are led to say, “Yes, I sin. And yes, my sin is forgiven in Jesus’ name.”
God works in Holy Communion — Each fortnight (or whenever we celebrate the Lord’s Supper), when we hear the words Jesus spoke instituting the meal, we are confronted with his promises: “given for you” and “shed for you, for the forgiveness of sins.” As we eat the bread and drink the wine, we once again encounter the truth that the Word truly dwells in me, that God dared to let his body be broken for me, that God dared to shed his blood for me, that God really died for me, was buried for me, and rose again for me.
So we receive and experience faith by receiving God’s work in us.
So faith believes the Christmas stories, and more so faith believes that the Word truly became flesh and dwelt among us. But simply faith also believes the light shines and the darkness will not overcome it. Where I am in my faith journey, this aspect of faith is the hardest for me! I read and watch the news — with our worldwide 24/7 news, I see and hear the darkness that spreads it’s tendrils all around the earth. As a pastor I listen to people’s stories of heartache, grief, pain, sickness, etc. There is so much darkness out there! At times it seems the darkness is overwhelming. But the darkness “out there” is simply a result of the darkness “in here” [motion to heart]. Our sin-darkened hearts are the collective root cause of the darkness we experience in this world. We are greedy, so others go hungry. We are self-centred, so don’t care for our neighbour in need. We think about ourselves, so damage the environment which in some cases leads to natural disasters.
In the face of this darkness, there’s not much else to do but pray. Faith leads to prayer. In fact, some have suggested that faith is nothing else than prayer. In faith we pray for God’s kingdom to come on earth, not only “out there,” but also in us, through us. In faith we pray that God’s will be done on earth, not only “out there,” but also in us, through us. In faith we pray for our daily bread, for those in need “out there” and also for us. In faith we pray for our sins to be forgiven, just as we forgive the sins of others “out there.” We pray that the light will shine in the darkness, even when it seems that darkness is darker than the light.
So what are we to do? Such faith-filled prayer is busy and active, refusing to accept that the darkness is overwhelming. So we wake up each morning. We love our family the best we can: we feed and clothe them, encourage and pray for them, forgive them. We love our neighbours by going to work: serving people food, building houses, teaching, healing, caring, fixing. We watch out for our neighbours who are sick, lonely, or in need.
We believe the light has come into the world. Jesus Christ, announced by angels, born of virgin, laid in a manger, is this light. And the darkness will not overcome the light. So we shine the light of Christ in the world through word and deed. We remember God’s action in our baptism. We hear the absolution. We receive the Lord’s Supper. We pray. We love our neighbour. This is simply faith. Amen.
Let us pray: Dear Jesus, you are the light of the world. There is so much darkness around us. Let me recognise you as you come in the ordinary. Strengthen my faith that your light will overcome the darkness. Help me be a witness and testify to your light. Amen.