Saturday, January 02, 2010

Sermon for Christmas II
St. John’s - Moultrie, GA
January 3, 2010

As you all know, the life of our church revolves around the two most holy days of the Church Kalendar, those being Christmas, and Easter. I find it most interesting that on this second Sunday after Christmas, when we are over half-way through the Christmas Season, we’re already looking toward Lent, and Easter. Why do I say that you might be asking? If you look again at the Collect appointed for today I think you will see why I would make a statement such as that.

Our Collect today opens with an acknowledgment that sounds a great deal like the Collect appointed for Ash Wednesday, in which we pray, “Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made…” The most penitential season of our Church Year, in which we are preparing our hearts to return again to the events of Holy Week, we are reassured that God still remembers the “goodness” of creation, and that has not changed on account of our fallen and sinful state. The very fact that God declared in Genesis that all of creation was “good” and that final declaration that all that God created was “very good” is not undone with the Fall. Creation from that point forward is marred and its luster is now faded, but the goodness that was there from the beginning was not destroyed. The very fact that God’s Spirit dwells within each of us, and that God breathed life into us solidifies that very fact.

Now on the Second Sunday after Christmas, the theme of our goodness comes back again when we prayed just a few moments ago, “O God, who didst wonderfully create, and yet more wonderfully restore, the dignity of human nature.” Through the Incarnation of Christ, our image is changed, and we are now a new Creation in Christ. I think it’s most important to note, who is doing all of the work here. It is God who created the dignity of our humanity in the first place, and it is God who restores that nature as well. We bring nothing to table in that regard, and can do nothing other than respond to the grace that has been shown toward us by a loving and merciful God.

How does this happen? What exactly is God doing here?

First, and most importantly, we must acknowledge that what is happening here is a profound mystery and one that requires faith rather than fact to begin to understand. St. Augustine, the revered Bishop of Hippo who lived in the 3rd and 4th centuries AD, said, "I believe in order to understand" (credo ut intelligam). St. Anselm, who was enthroned Archbishop of Canterbury in 1093, echoed this: "I do not seek to understand in order that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand." Anselm’s mantra regarding the Christian faith can be summed up in three words, “Faith seeking understanding.” Clearly, these two men answered the question by emphasizing faith. If these statements are any indication, St. Augustine and St. Anselm held to what we hear in Hebrews: "Through faith we understand..." (11:3).

Moderns such as Richard Dawkins, author of the book The God Delusion, would argue that this is pure rubbish, and with all of the advances of science and modernity, we should be able to prove beyond a shadow of a doubt any and everything that ought to be believed, and the rest cast to the realm of the uneducated and backward. Philosopher David Hume once made the following claim:

When we run over libraries, persuaded of these principles, what havoc must we make? If we take in our hand any volume of divinity or school metaphysics, for instance, let us ask, Does it contain any abstract reasoning concerning quantity or number? No. Does it contain any experimental reasoning concerning matter of fact and existence? No. Commit it then to the flames, for it can contain nothing but sophistry and illusion.

There’s a major problem with Hume’s argument. It fails its own test for validity. Just like I mentioned last week regarding the statement “All truth is relative,” the statement above collapses under its own weight. Does Hume’s argument contain any mathematical computations in order to probe the realms of any abstract reasoning – no, it doesn’t. Does the statement contain any experiments that can help deal with matters of fact and existence – no, it doesn’t. Therefore, doesn’t it fail its own test for validity? I say, yes, it does.

Our response should be one of humility and faith, and not one that requires proofs or scientific facts. If we come in such a posture, it’s amazing what understanding God begins to open up to us.

This restoration is required because we made a mess of things doing it our way, rather than trusting God for His. Because of Man’s pride we continue to rebel against God, and His will for us in our lives. In Dante’s Divine Comedy, pride occupies the lowest rung of hell because it is by far the hardest of the seven deadly sins to overcome. Whenever we make a concerted effort to truly acknowledge and confess our manifold sins and wickedness, more than likely pride is somewhere at the root of our misdoings. In the General Confession in Morning Prayer, we declare that, “We have followed too much the devices and desires of our own hearts.” The first of the beatitudes is “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” Those who are poor in spirit realize the true poverty that comes from trusting in ourselves. The reward that comes from accepting a humble, lowly, obedient, and penitent heart is an inheritance beyond what we could ever imagine.

In our collect, Jesus comes in that very fashion. The only way that we can share in his divinity and divine life was because he humbled himself and partook of our humanity, shunning not the Virgin’s womb and took our humanity into his divinity. The very fact that this Season of Christmas celebrates the birth of the Christ Child should be evidence enough of the humble nature of the Messiah that we proclaim as our Lord and Saviour. That Jesus would come knowing that His very life pointed toward the cross and His death also declares the humility with which He would willingly submit His very existence to the will of the Father. Jesus declares throughout His ministry that He came not to do His own will, but the will of His Heavenly Father. We who bear the name of Christ must also humble ourselves and become like Him who submitted wholly to the will of God Almighty.

In our first lesson from Isaiah, the prophet declares that a new day is about to dawn for the people of Israel. For us at Christmas a new day has dawned for us, the people of the New Covenant as well. Our Lord has proclaimed liberty to the captives and opened the prison doors to those who are bound. We are held captive to the bondage of sin, and are bound by the desires of the world, the flesh, and the devil. Jesus comes to us again to proclaim that those chains of bondage have been forever broken, and we become slaves of Christ, as St. Paul begins many of his epistles. We have voluntarily bound ourselves to Christ and are slaves in the sense that we submit ourselves to an authority wherein we may abound with joy and thanksgiving.

In the current issue of Mandate, the bi-monthly publication of the Prayer Book Society, there is an article entitled, “Gresham Machen on the Christian Doctrine of Sin.” There is a copy of this issue in the tract rack by the side door if you would like to make a copy of that particular article. It’s amazing that the excerpt that was quoted from his book Christianity and Liberalism was penned in 1923. It certainly rings true today as much if not more so than it did almost a century ago. Here is how Machen treats the human condition, and in light of our collect for today, how our Lord transforms human nature into His image and likeness and away from what it had become.

In saying that Christianity is the religion of the broken heart, we do not mean that Christianity ends with the broken heart; we do not mean that the characteristic Christian attitude is a continual beating on the breast or a continual crying of “Woe is me.” Nothing could be further from the fact. On the contrary, Christianity means that sin is faced once for all, and then is cast, by the grace of God, forever into the depths of the sea. The trouble with the paganism of ancient Greece, as with the paganism of modern times, was not in the superstructure, which was glorious, but in the foundation, which was rotten. There was always something to be covered up; the enthusiasm of the architect was maintained only by ignoring the disturbing fact of sin. In Christianity, on the other hand, nothing needs to be covered up. The fact of sin is faced squarely once for all, and is dealt with by the grace of God. But then, after sin has been removed by the grace of God, the Christian can proceed to develop joyously every faculty that God has given him. Such is the higher Christian humanism—a humanism founded not upon human pride but upon divine grace.

We hear again the message of Christmas, and the Incarnation of our Lord, who stepped into the very creation that He made in the beginning. He came down to earth in the lowliest of forms so that we might reach unimaginable heights. He did so for us and our salvation in order that we might have life and have it abundantly both in this life and in the life to come. This, my brothers and sisters in Christ is Good News. It’s actually the best news anyone could ever hope to hear. And as we celebrated again our Lord’s birthday, we were the ones who actually received the greatest gift that has ever been given to man. Thanks be to God, for that unspeakable gift!

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