This Advent we kick off a sermon series entitled ‘Mystical Christmas,’ looking at Advent through the perspective of some of the Church’s ancient mystics.
This past Sunday I borrowed from St Maximus the Confessor (580-662) who viewed the Incarnation as the absolute and primary purpose of God in creation.
In other words, according to Maximus, the Incarnation is neither occasioned nor determined by the Fall.
You can listen to the sermon here below, in the sidebar to the right or download it here. Though, I’ve got to admit that the holiday combined with my birthday produced a rather flat delivery. Mea culpa.
Every year during Advent we let our confirmation students loose through the building to take an informal poll of you all.
Armed with paper and pencil, they’ve snuck up on you here in the sanctuary as service begins. They’ve accosted hangers-on still lingering in the fellowship hall after the 8:30 coffee hour, and they’ve barged into Sunday School classrooms, emboldened by the permission to be as irritating as necessary in order to get answers to the questions we’ve given them.
In years’ past more than a few Sunday School teachers have told me they don’t particularly like anyone interrupting their class time.
A couple of people, including He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named, have balled me out for putting them on the spot and making them looking foolish in front of sixth graders.
The question we give the confirmands is the same every year:
Why did Jesus come to earth?
In other words, why Christmas?
About 15% of people always respond that Jesus comes to teach us how to love one another and help the needy. I suppose those are the liberals among us (I’ll get an email about that).
Without fail, a reliable 85% of people answer, in so many words, that Jesus comes to forgive us for our sins. That Jesus is born to die.
Every year the questions are the same and, remarkably, every year so are the answers. The needle doesn’t move at all. More than 3/4 answer, year in and year out, that Jesus comes in order to die for us.
And the problem with that answer is that it’s wrong.
Or rather, it’s incomplete.
We lament the commercialization of Christmas. We talk about how Jesus is the reason for the season, and we root for Kirk Cameron to put the Christ back in Christmas.
But it’s not clear to me that we’re at all clear on what the reason for Jesus is.
A few Advents ago, as He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named was chewing me out in the church hallway after having been grilled by confirmands and their poll, He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named grumbled at me:
‘Well, if I don’t know the answer to your questions is that my fault or my pastor’s fault?’
I told him that was a fair point and that if he wanted he could go right ahead and assign blame to his pastor…Rev. Dennis Perry.
Seriously, in the 13 years I’ve spent at bedsides and gravesides, the more confessions I hear and struggles I listen to, the more people share their faith and their fears with me, the more kids and youth ask me questions, the more I’m convinced that the question ‘Why does Jesus come?’ is the most important question we can ask.
So today I want to do something different.
I want to give it to you straight up.
No personal stories. No clever rhetoric. No funny anecdotes. No desperate or ironic antics to win your attention. Not even a Joel Osteen crank.
Nothing to distract you away from what I want you to know.
Today I want to make a theological argument, and I’m going to take the gamble that you all can handle it.
My wife, Ali, assured me you were up for it. I told her I doubted it; she told me that you might find that insulting. If that’s the case, then I leave it to you to prove her right.
And if you’re not up for it, or if that’s not your cup of tea, then it’s your fault for coming to church the Sunday after Thanksgiving.
The problem in answering that Jesus comes to forgive our sins, the problem in suggesting that he’s born to die, is that it makes Christmas determined by us. It makes the incarnation contingent on us: on our sin, on the Fall, on Adam and Eve’s disobedience.
The infinite (i.e., God) is determined by that which is finite.
You and me.
Instead of something that flows from God’s abundance, the incarnation is something provoked by our weakness. Instead of a gift God gives out of joy for us, the incarnation is the outworking of God’s frustration and disappointment in us.
Christmas then isn’t something God freely does of his love and grace; it’s something God’s compelled to do because of our plight. It’s something God has to do to rescue us from Sin.
But by definition God doesn’t have to do anything.
And, secondly, to say that God sends Jesus; so that, we can be forgiven of our sins is to make Jesus a solution to a problem.
It’s like saying I married Ali; so that, I wouldn’t be lonely. I shouldn’t need to say that Ali is surpassingly more than just a hedge against loneliness. She’s not simply a solution to my problem.
But when we say God sends Jesus so that we can be forgiven of our sins, that’s exactly what we do. We reduce Jesus to a strategy. We circumscribe him according to his utility. We render Jesus down until he’s little more than a device God uses to bail us out of our situation.
Jesus isn’t a device.
No matter what Joel Osteen promises you, Jesus isn’t merely a solution to our problems.
Even our problem of Sin and Death. (I couldn’t help myself)
Jesus isn’t a strategy made flesh; he’s the eternal fullness of God made flesh.
The image of the invisible God, as Paul’s Christ hymn puts it in Colossians 1.
Third, by saying that Jesus comes to forgive us our sins, we picture creation as a sinking ship and we imagine Jesus as God’s last ditch effort to save us. Or worse, we imagine ‘sin’ as something predestined or concocted by God merely to display his holiness and mercy upon the Cross.
But to picture Jesus as God’s last ditch effort to save us is to presume that Jesus would not have come if we hadn’t sinned.
That if there’d been no exit from Eden there’d have been no journey to Bethlehem.
To suggest that Jesus might not have come is to say that the incarnation is something less than an eternal, unchanging decision of God’s.
Indeed it’s to say that Jesus isn’t really the image of the invisible God because if the incarnation is not an eternal decision of God’s, if the incarnation is not something God was always going to do irrespective of a Fall, then that means at some point in time God changed his mind about us, towards us.
And if God changed his mind at some point in the past, then what’s to stop God from changing his mind again in the future. What’s to stop God from looking at you and your life and deciding that the Cross is no longer sufficient to cover your sins?
It’s true that Jesus saves us. It’s true that his death and resurrection reconcile God’s creation. It’s true that through him our sins are forgiven once and for all, but that alone is not why he comes.
That’s not why he comes because he would’ve come anyway, because he was always going to come.
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, of 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.’
That’s what the first Christians sang in the hymn Paul quotes in his letter to the Colossians that Christ is:
‘…is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; all things have been created through him and for him…‘
He was before was was.
He’s back behind yesterday.
There is not when he was not, and there can not be when he will not be.
What’s that mean?
It means the incarnation only unveils what was true from before the beginning.
It means that 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.
Jesus is the reason for the season, but the reason for Jesus is that before the stars were hung in place, before Adam sinned or Israel’s love failed God’s deepest desire is, was and always will be friendship. Fellowship.
In the Trinity we discover that God is a community- an eternal friendship- of Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
In Jesus Christ, we discover that God became what we are so that we might be taken up into what God is. A friendship. A community of Father, Son and Spirit.
So the next time someone asks you ‘Why does Jesus come at Christmas?’ you’ve got no excuse.
You can’t blame Dennis. Now you know the answer.
Jesus comes because God wants to be friends with you. Or rather, Jesus comes because God wants you to join the friendship we call Trinity.
And that answer’s not as simplistic as it sounds.
‘Being forgiven’ doesn’t ask much from you, but friendship- the kind of faithful friendship Jesus displayed with the Father- that kind of friendship could potentially ask everything of you.