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Sermon: Christmas Day 2010

January 3, 2011

Christmas Day, Year A – December 25, 2010
“God Incarnate”
The Nevil Memorial Church of St. George
Ardmore, PA

Isaiah 62: 6 -12  •  Psalm 97   •  Titus 3: 4 – 7   •   Luke 2: 8 – 20


Merry Christmas!

I hope all of you got enough sleep last night and aren’t too stuffed from your Christmas Eve dinners.  It is a joy for me to be here with you on this Holy morning, the day in which our God became as one us, born among us as a little child.  I want to do a little theology with you this morning, so if I may beg your indulgence, I want to read for you a bit from a poem that served as the Christmas sermon for St. Isaac the Syrian, who died around the year 700.

“This Christmas night bestowed peace on the whole world;
So let no one threaten;

This is the night of the Most Gentle One –
Let no one be cruel;

This is the night of the Humble One –
Let no one be proud.

Now is the day of joy –
Let us not revenge;

Now is the day of Good Will –
Let us not be mean.

In this Day of Peace –
Let us not be conquered by anger.

Today the Bountiful impoverished Himself for our sake;
So, rich one, invite the poor to your table.

Today we receive a Gift for which we did not ask;
So let us give alms to those who implore and beg us.

This present Day cast open the heavenly doors to our prayers;
Let us open our door to those who ask our forgiveness.

Today the DIVINE BEING took upon Himself the seal of our humanity,
In order for humanity to be decorated by the Seal of DIVINITY.”

One of the ways we can talk about the Incarnation of Christ is as the “condescension of God.”  You hear it a different way near the end of St. Isaac’s sermon, “Today the Bountiful impoverished Himself.”  To our modern ears, these sound like funny phrases, even negative ones.  And perhaps they are intended to be, but they also point us to something so much more.  Now, let me ask you to hold those phrases in your head for just a little bit while I introduce another concept.

In theology, we talk about God’s transcendence and about God’s immanence.  Transcendence refers to God’s “otherness,” God’s “holiness.”  This encompasses all of those things about God that are mystery, that are beyond our understanding.  God’s transcendence is very important because it can help us remember, in times when we might be tempted otherwise, to recall that God is God and we are not.  And yet, this is only one part of God’s nature.  God is also immanent, which if you could see it spelled out, you would note it is not the word that mean “coming soon.”  Rather, it is a word that means “remaining within” or “indwelling.”  Remember the prophecy of Isaiah we’ve been hearing so much about this Advent and Christmastide?  “And you shall call his name Emmanuel.”  Emmanuel, which means “God with us.”  Immanent.  God with us.

All throughout the history of Israel, God’s transcendence and God’s immanence were made apparent in to His people:  the transcendent voice of God from the burning bush spoke to Moses and the immanent columns of fire and cloud led the Hebrew people by night and by day out of the land of Egypt.  But never has God’s immanence been so readily seen or experienced as in the Nativity of Jesus, God’s own and only Son.  God became one of us, was born as one of us.  So, if God’s immanence once meant God’s dwelling within the realm of humanity, now in the age of His nativity, it grew to mean so much more.  It came to mean God’s dwelling among us as one of us.  He embodied his own immanence; he incarnated His divine self in our human flesh, fully God, and yet fully human.  And believe you me, it took theologians and philosophers and heretics hundreds of years to come to terms with that, so when I say this, I know I say it standing on the backs of all of the great theologians.

In order for God to inhabit human flesh, in order for God to embody his immanence as one of us, God had to do something pretty unique.  Remember those first, almost negative sounding phrases we discussed at the beginning?  “The condescension of God,” or “the Bountiful impoverishing Himself.”  To condescend means “to behave as if one is conscious of descending from a superior position, rank, or dignity, “ or “to put aside one’s dignity or superiority voluntarily and assume equality with one regarded as inferior.”  We normally think about it in terms of phrases like, “Don’t be condescending to me!” which is really another way of asking someone else not to regard us as if we were dumber than they.  But if we take the word’s meaning seriously, as it applies to God it is truly amazing.  God voluntarily gave up His superiority, His greatness, His strength, and so much more to inhabit weak, mortal, fallible, damageable, and temporary human flesh.  And yet somehow, remained fully God.  God condescended to become a human man; God impoverished his transcendental nature by coming down and dwelling among us as one of us.  That’s what the Nativity is all about.  We see a little baby and we see an innocent, weak creature that needs our love, our care, and our protection.  It is not readily apparent that what we should also see is the very face of God.  God who takes care of us now needs our care.  God who loves us, now needs our love.  It is a wonderful, beautiful image.  God cannot do what God came to do for us without our help, without our action.  We must be agents in this.  Not agents of our own salvation, but agents of God, working out His divine purpose.  We are his hands, we are his feet.

Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the incarnate Deity.
Pleased as man with us to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel.
Mild he lays his glory by, born that we no more may die,
born to raise us from the earth, born to give us second birth.
Risen with healing in his wings, light and life to all he brings,
hail the sun of Righteousnes!  Hail, the heaven born Prince of Peace!
Hark!  The herald angels sing, Glory to the newborn King!


Fr. Ryan+

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