14 December 2014: Third Sunday of Advent
10.30 Sung Eucharist
Revd Simon Cowling
Isaiah 61. 1-4, 8-11; John 1. 6-8 & 19-28
(John) came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.
Rabbi Shmuel Boteach became a celebrity Rabbi a few years ago following the publication of his best-selling book Kosher Sex – rather more serious and rather less racy than it sounds, in case you were wondering. But I first came across his writing some years ago in a newspaper article entitled ‘Why the nativity is just a curiosity to Jews’. In the article Boteach reminded his readers of the Jewish belief in a God who is, in his words, ‘utterly transcendent and (who) has no form.’ He went on to state unequivocally that ‘(the) idea that a man could be God is anathema to the very essence of Judaism’.
Boteach’s position was strongly articulated and argued, as you would expect from an orthodox Jew. I once heard the same position argued rather more humorously by the Rabbi of our local Reform synagogue in Leeds when he gave an Advent address at the church where I was Vicar. I’d asked him to offer some thoughts on Jewish views of the incarnation and he began his talk by saying: ‘The incarnation didn’t happen. Good night’. He went on, and to my immense relief at rather more length, to remind us that the claim we make as Christians – that in Jesus Christ God appeared on earth and lived among us – is one which sets us apart from both Judaism and Islam. For both Jews and Muslims, the Christian claims about Jesus’s divinity compromise the oneness, the essential unity, of God.
But amongst those of faith it is not only Jews and Muslims who have questioned the idea of God becoming human. Christians have had similar questions. Nearly forty years ago a book appeared with the provocative title The Myth of God Incarnate. The word ‘myth’ in the title was being used in a technical sense often used in the academic field of religious studies. All the contributors to the book were respectable academic theologians. But of course the title was also helpfully provocative for the publishers, and provoked exactly the kind of scandalised reaction which ensured that the book became that exotic creature, a religious best seller.
Well over a generation later the book seems rather dated. In retrospect it probably marked the end of a theological era rather than the start of a new one. And the fact that the debate about Jesus and who he was has moved on so swiftly since 1977 has shown that there can never be a last word about the incarnation, about the Word of God made flesh. The belief that in Jesus God became human is one which Christians have held for two thousand years. It is deeply embedded in our tradition, in our common story. It is the narrative, the truth, which binds together all Christians, living and departed.
My reflections on the incarnation today are partly related to where we are in the season of Advent. Football might be a game of two halves, but as some of us have been reflecting in the Advent study sessions, Advent is a season of two halves. If you’ll allow me to extend the metaphor just a little, we’ve nearly reached half time. Half time in Advent is when our spiritual focus shifts from the crucified and risen Christ to the Christ-child in Bethlehem, from the one who will come as judge with great power and glory to the one whose coming among us as a vulnerable child we shall celebrate on Christmas Day. Traditionally the Church has marked this spiritual shift on the 17 December, and I’m looking forward to this shift in my sermon today, without, I hope, anticipating too much the 25 December.
In the Christmas story the words ‘incarnation’ and ‘birth’ are often used as though they were, more or less, interchangeable. For a Christian, though, that can never be entirely true, because the incarnation, the enfleshing of Jesus, was not a single event. It wasn’t just his birth. The incarnation is better thought of as a series of events through which God reveals himself to humanity. This series of events is reflected in many of the stories we read in the Gospels: the Presentation of Jesus in the Temple by a proud Mary and Joseph; the story of the trip to Jerusalem when Jesus lingers in the Temple to argue with the scribes and scholars; Jesus’s baptism in the river Jordan; the call of the disciples by the sea of Galilee; the first miracle at Cana. By such brief snapshots the Gospel writers, from their differing standpoints, give us an insight into the life and ministry of Jesus, enabling us to recognize in him someone who was certainly fully human yet someone who also had a compelling authority. As we’ve heard John the Baptist says to his inquisitors today:
Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandal.
Yet as John hints in those words, the authority of Jesus will be recognized only by a few. The story of the incarnation, which begins with the birth of a vulnerable child in a rough and ready crib in a Bethlehem shack, finally ends with a vulnerable and rejected man on a rough and ready cross on a hill outside Jerusalem – the last and very bleak Gospel snapshot. From a precarious birth to an agonizing death in little more than thirty years. Not much on which to base a whole new understanding of God and of God’s relationship with his creation. But, paradoxically, it is this vulnerable figure on the cross who is in the end able to speak most powerfully of the presence of God among us, who enables us, against all our instincts, to believe that God did indeed take on our human flesh. The God described by Rabbi Shmuel Boteach, the God who is ‘utterly transcendent and (who) has no form’, is a God who can compel our wonder and awe. But a God who is able to suffer within his creation, who is able to take on himself the woundedness and sinfulness of our fallen humanity, who is able to transform that woundedness and that sinfulness through his death, that God is a God whom we can love. Birth and death – the beginning and the end of human life – are a beginning and an end which Jesus Christ has experienced. So to believe that Jesus Christ is God is to believe that God has come to share the very life which he himself created. And through sharing his creation he has shown us what we ourselves might become. That is an insight of the very earliest theologians, like the second century Bishop of Lyons, Irenaeus: ‘Our Lord Jesus Christ, the Word of God, out of his boundless love, became what we are that he might make us what he himself is.’
The incarnation cannot, in the end, be explained. But neither can it be explained away. I entitled the last of our Advent study sessions Heaven in earth, and God in man, a line from a poem by Richard Crashaw. At one point in the poem Crawshaw uses a series of apparently contradictory phrases. Through these phrases he shows us how Jesus, the light to which John the Baptist bears witness, embodies the God who straddles the two parts of Advent: the vulnerable child of Bethlehem in whom, even so, we see the face of the one before whom we shall all stand at the end of the age.
Welcome, all Wonders in one sight!
Eternity shut in a span.
Summer in winter, day in night,
Heaven in earth, and God in man.
Great little One! Whose all-embracing birth
Lifts earth to heaven, stoops heaven to earth.