Here’s my sermon for the 4th Sunday of Advent. My text was Matthew 1.18-25.
“…You will name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sin.”
To those of you who know me, it may come as a surprise to learn that I tend to be contrary by nature.
Towards the end of my first semester at the University of Virginia, my freshman year, I was invited one Saturday night by my friend Ben to a Christmas party. The party was hosted by Campus Crusade for Christ and was held in the home of their campus pastor.
Back then, I was still new in my faith and in many ways I wasn’t confident about being a Christian. Back then, Ben was the only Christian I knew at school.
As their name implies, Campus Crusade is an evangelistic organization. Of course I didn’t know that at the time and Ben had grown up in the mountains of Southwest Virginia where most of the Christians he knew hoarded guns and canned goods in their basements in anticipation of the apocalypse. An organization like Campus Crusade probably seemed tame to him.
It was during my first semester, about this time of year, that Ben invited to this “party.”
Now I shouldn’t have to tell you that the word ‘party,’ to a college student, conjures particular images and elicits very specific expectations- none of which were matched by the gathering Ben took me to that Saturday night.
In fact, in all my years of college and graduate school, this was the only party where I was asked to take my shoes off at the front door.
Ben and I walked there that night, in the cold and thin snow, to a neighborhood just off of campus. Walking up the short driveway to a small ranch home, I could spy through the big bay window in the living room a glimpse of the evening that lay ahead of me.
At first I thought we must be at the wrong house; this must be a Tupperware party or a bridge club. Ben though assured me it was the right address.
I thought about running away then and there- and probably I should have- but Ben’s a lot bigger than me and I didn’t want to aggravate him.
When Ben knocked on the door, this skinny guy with a soul patch under his lip and a guitar slung across his back answered the door. When Ben introduced me, the guy- the student pastor- shook my hand with disproportionate enthusiasm and said: ‘Jason, yeah, Jason- Acts 17.7.’
And I replied: ‘What?’
This must have been his secret Christian greeting and because I didn’t know what he was talking about, because I didn’t even know my name was in the bible and because I didn’t reciprocate with ‘Michael, yeah, archangel of the Lord, Daniel 12.1’ he gave me a sad, pathetic sort of look and ushered me inside.
But first he asked me to take off my shoes.
Everyone else must have drank the Kool-Aid before I arrived because I didn’t fit in and couldn’t understand how people seemed to be enjoying themselves.
Once we were inside, Ben abandoned me. He mingled around the house while I stood near the dining table in my threadbare socks eating chocolate covered pretzels and looking at my watch between bites.
You can imagine how much my mood improved when Mike, the campus pastor, asked us all to circle up in the family room for a sing-a-long. I ended up sitting shoulder to shoulder on a sofa with two other people.
On my left was a girl who began every sentence with ‘The Lord just put it on my heart to ________‘ and who looked at me like I was as crazy as I thought she was.
On my right, with his arm resting uncomfortably behind me, was a 50-something man who worked in the dining hall. He had a long, scraggly beard and was wearing a Star Trek sweatshirt and had earlier over chocolate covered pretzels asked me if I thought the incarnation was a violation of the Prime Directive.
Across from me, sitting on the brick hearth, was a girl named Maria. I recognized her from the little Methodist church I tried to worship at a few times.
I remembered her because every Sunday when it came time for the congregation to share their joys and concerns Maria would grab the microphone and hold the congregation hostage for 20 or so minutes while she narrated the ups and downs of her romantic life.
Unwisely, I thought, Ben sat next to her on the hearth.
We sang songs whose words I knew only vaguely and whose tunes seemed unseasonably fast-paced. Mike, the pastor, strummed his guitar and led us in a breathy, earnest voice while his pregnant wife accompanied him on a small plastic keyboard on her lap.
When the singing was over, Mike, assuming a serious tone of voice, asked us to open up our bibles. I felt like the music had stopped and I was the one without a chair. I hadn’t noticed before but I was the only one who hadn’t brought a one.
‘Luke, chapter 2’ Mike said. Everyone but me read along as Mike read aloud: ‘In the days of King Herod…’
After he finished the reading, Mike asked everyone to share what the passage- what Christmas and the incarnation and the coming of Jesus- meant to them. And for several long minutes people around the room said things like:
‘I’m so thankful Jesus came into the world to die for my sin.’
Each person’s sharing was slightly different, but they were all about Sin- about Jesus reconciling it, suffering the wages of it, dying for it.
Then for a few moments a pause settled over the room. It took me a while to realize that it wasn’t a holy silence or even a meaningful one. It was everyone waiting on me to say something. Eventually I realized I wasn’t going to be released until I offered some testimony of my own.
Okay, maybe it sounded sarcastic but with all sincerity I wondered out loud what was genuinely on my mind. I asked a question:
‘If there’d been no Fall, would Christ still have come?
If humankind had never sinned, would there still have been Christmas?’
From the group’s embarrassed reaction you would have thought I’d just called Jesus’ mother a dirty name. Everyone looked at me with confusion. Mike looked at me with pained sadness and Ben looked as blushed as the pastor’s wife’s red corduroy dress.
An awkward silence fell over the room until Ben summoned a fake laugh from somewhere in his belly and somehow just kept the hahaha’s going.
I suppose it was only obvious to me how Ben was hoping he could just keep laughing and laughing and laughing until we sang another song or did something. But for pastor Mike I was clearly a neophyte to the faith (or a fool) and this was what he would’ve called ‘a teachable moment.’
He slung his guitar behind his back and started to gesture with his hands like it really pained him to break it down so simply for me.
‘Jason, the reason Jesus came,’ he explained, ‘is he had a job to do: to rescue us from our Sin so that we can have a relationship with God.’
For a few minutes more it sounded like he was rattling off lines memorized from a pamphlet about the wages of sin.
‘But what I was wondering: If we had never sinned, would Jesus still have come?’
‘But Adam and Eve did sin; we do sin. I’m a sinner. I’m not ashamed to admit that’ Mike replied and did so rather condescendingly.
That’s when any hope Ben had for me to keep my mouth shut went out the window.
‘That’s not my point,’ I said. I mean…
“Is the incarnation something that comes out of God’s frustration and disappointment with us? Or out of God’s overflowing joy and desire for us?”
“Is Christmas just the beginning of a rescue package that bails us out of our suffering and sin, or is Christmas even deeper and more mysterious than that?”
The group just watched us go back and forth, staring at me like I was either an idiot or a heretic. The pastor’s wife was biting her lip, and where I had spent the first 30 minutes of the evening wondering how I could escape she was now clearly wondering how she could get me out of her house.
No one seemed to appreciate the budding theologian in their midst.
It didn’t help matters that the only person sympathetic to my perspective was the bearded 50 year old with the Star Trek shirt whose sole contribution to my cause was to say ‘Dude, that’s deep.’
Meanwhile the girl sitting next to me had placed her large KJV bible in the crack of the sofa cushions, erecting a barrier between us and making clear that she was not with me.
Finally someone said out loud: ‘Well, I know I sin all the time and I’m just grateful he came to die for mine.’
As if rendering a verdict, Mike said: ‘Praise God!’ Then he swung his guitar around like Church Berry and we sang another song.
For all the confusion my question caused, the answer is YES.
Would he still have come?
Would there still be Christmas if there’d been no Fall? YES.
Even though I couldn’t have articulated it back then, that’s what John’s Nativity story is getting at when it proclaims: ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.’
Even before Joseph dreams his dream, before he’s felt in Mary’s womb, HE IS. He’s before time.
Before the stars were hung in place, before Adam sinned or Israel’s love failed- before creation is even set in motion God had already chosen to one day take flesh and live among us.
The ancient Christians had a catchphrase they used to think through this. In Latin, it’s: opus ad extra, opus ad intra. That was their way of saying: Who and what God is towards us in Jesus Christ, God is eternally in himself.
If what Jesus teaches us is really the Word of God, if the Cross is in fact a perfect sacrifice for your sins, if your salvation is indeed assured, if the one born at Christmas is truly Emmanuel- God with us- and nothing less, then who and what God is in Christ on Earth, God is antecedently and eternally in himself.
If Jesus is the supreme expression of God, then he must’ve always been so. Before he’s Jesus of Nazareth, in the flesh, he’s the eternal Son, in the Trinity.
That’s what Christians mean when we say that Christ is pre-existent.
That’s what we profess in the creed when we recite that Christ is the one ‘by whom all things were made.’
In other words, the incarnation only unveils what was true from before the beginning.
So what we unwrap at Christmas isn’t simply a rescue package but an even deeper mystery:
The mystery that the Nativity is an event that God has set on his calendar from before the first day of creation.
The mystery that the incarnation is God’s primal, primordial, eternal decision not to be God in any other way but God-with-us.
The mystery that there is literally no limit to God’s love.
There can be no time at which you can exhaust God’s love for you because Jesus Christ is before time.
And so Jesus doesn’t just come to forgive us our sins. He isn’t born just to die. Because when we say that Christ is pre-existent, we say that he would’ve come anyway, that he always going to come, that even if there hadn’t needed to be a Cross there still would’ve been a cradle.
Because before he brought forth light and life on Earth, God’s shaped his whole life to be Emmanuel, God-with-us.
Jesus isn’t made simply to forgive or die for our sins.
Because if Christ is preexistent, then everything goes in the other direction.
Jesus isn’t made for us; we were made for him.
We are the ones with whom God wants to share his life.
It’s not that Jesus is the gift God gives us at Christmas.
It’s that at Christmas we finally discover that we’re the gift God has given to himself.
I waited until we walked to the end of pastor Mike’s driveway before I said to Ben: ‘Well, that was an awesome party.’
And he belly-laughed, not at the evening but at me, at what he thought was my contrariness.
‘But it’s a good question!’ I growled. Ben just laughed some more, and by the time we were leaving the neighborhood he said: ‘I don’t see what difference it really makes.’
Back then our friendship was still new and it was governed by politeness. So I let it go.
Back then I wasn’t bold enough to push the difference.
But I’m the pastor now, so listen up:
INCARNATION names a love every bit as deep and unconditional as CROSS.
You’re holy and you’re loved and you’re graced not only because God took flesh to save you but also because even before creation morning God chose to be with you.
The Gospel’s not just that in the fullness of time God came among us to suffer for our Sin.
The Gospel’s also that before there was time God decided to join his life to ours no matter what.
The Gospel’s not just that Christ died for you.
It’s also that before there was even the promise or notion of you…
Before you did your first good deed or told your first lie…
Before you made your life a success or made it a disaster…
Before you said your wedding vows or before you broke them…
Before you held your children in your arms or before you estranged yourself from them…
Before you first laughed or wept or kissed or shouted out in anger…
Before you gave your life to the Lord or before you turned your back on him…
Before the oceans were even born God said ‘I do’ to you.
That’s the Gospel too.
Would he still have come? Would he still have taken flesh?
And that means-
The invitation for you to come to God is always there.
Because it’s always been there.