Alleluia. Unto us a child is born: O come, let us adore him ☩ in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
Merry Christmas! I pray that you all are doing well given the craziness of our world right now. On this First Sunday after Christmas, as we are every year, we are presented with the first 18 verses of John. You might know that in The Episcopal Church, we follow what is called the Revised Common Lectionary – a three-year cycle of readings that is shared among most every denomination. The idea behind such an ecumenical lectionary is that whether you worship at First Presbyterian, First Methodist, Sacred Heart, or St. John’s Lutheran, Christians will all hear the same Scripture readings. Though the Spirit has not yet healed all of the fractures in the Body of Christ, at least sharing the same readings is a step towards unity.
Also, for preachers, it’s incredibly helpful to have resources that assume everyone is preaching from the same Biblical texts each week – so there are blogs, podcasts, and commentaries all arranged to follow the lectionary. Now, I mention all of this because today is an exception to the rule. Today, others are hearing a reading from Luke 2, about the presentation of Jesus and Mary in the Temple forty days after Jesus’ birth. This is the passage where Simeon and Anna sing praises about the Christ-child. It’s a lovely text and certainly fits within the season of Christmas. And we do read that passage every year on February 2, which is the Feast of the Presentation, falling 40 days after Christmas Day. Instead of that passage from Luke 2 being read, we heard the opening of John.
The Episcopal Church breaks from the lectionary on the First Sunday after Christmas to ensure that this magisterial and majestic text is read at least one Sunday every year. As I’ve mentioned before, one of the things that distinguishes our Anglican heritage, theology, and practice is our focus on the Incarnation. John 1:14 says, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” That truth is the cornerstone for our tradition – and so we deviate from the lectionary to have this seminal passage included in every Christmas season.
John’s prologue, as it is often called, is so deep and rich that if I preach sermons for the next 40 Christmas seasons, I’d never run out of new things to say about it. This year, I want to focus on what it means to be told that God became flesh. This is such a central belief of our faith that it’s right there at the very heart of the Creed that we say each week: “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”
That phrase “was made man” is so absolutely powerful and is worthy of our deeper reflection. If you attended any of our outdoor Eucharists this fall, you know that we used a slightly different translation of the Nicene Creed that has been approved for usage and may likely be included in the next version of the Book of Common Prayer. Now before anyone worries about changing the historic Creeds of the Church, we would do well to remember that we aren’t speaking Greek right now, so everything is an exercise in translation. Furthermore, there are even different versions of the Nicene Creed depending on which ancient Church Council you want to go back to. It’s not about changing the faith, it’s about translating it anew – which is actually what the Incarnation is all about – God being translated into a human life that we might know God more fully and his love for us.
And in this alternative translation, the phrase “was made man” is rendered as “became truly human.” That change might take a while to get used to, but it’s worth the effort as our faith is all the more enriched if we understand not only that God became man, but that God became truly human. For one, this translation gets us away from the distracting issue of gender. Yes, Jesus was male, but masculinity is not what God was taking in in the Incarnation. No, the word in John is “flesh” and in Creed it’s the word from which we get “anthropology” – it’s about all of humanity.
What this helps us to see is that Jesus did not come to save us from our humanity. Too often in the Church, life is treated as a chore to get through until the reward of heaven, and that is unfortunate. No, Jesus came to save humanity itself. If we understand the Incarnation as God coming to us in the form of a man, or a human, then certainly, it is a glorious and splendid message of grace. In no way would I deny that Jesus became man. But the Incarnation is so much deeper and lovelier than that because Jesus became truly human.
Absolutely, the Incarnation is about the revelation of God. We know God more fully because Jesus came as God Incarnate. And we do a good job at Christmas talking about that. But it is also just as true that Jesus came to reveal to us the depths of our humanity. Now, we might think, as humans, don’t we already know everything there is to know about being a human? Isn’t that like saying that we have to train a dog to be a dog? Well, it turns out that we do have a lot to learn about humanity.
What you and I know as the human condition is one that is marred by the brokenness of sin. If we go back to the very beginning of Scripture, we read in Genesis that humanity was created in the image of God. It’s an image though that is now seen as through a glass dimly. We were not created for war, for poverty, for division, for lying, for greed, for stealing, for violence. Those things are not a part of humanity as God intended it. But in giving us freedom, God also allowed that we might corrupt the gift of life that we have been given.
Jesus comes to restore what has been obscured by sin – namely, the goodness of humanity. This is what the well-known Christmas hymn “Jesus Christ the Apple Tree” points towards. In Genesis 3, a repercussion from sin is that “cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you shall eat of it all the days of your life; thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you; by the sweat of your face you shall eat bread until you return to the ground, for out of it you were taken.” Toil and struggle might seem to be native to the human condition, but this is not God’s intention for us. Jesus comes as “The tree of life my soul hath seen, laden with fruit and always green.”
Former Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams writes, “It is not a human life when we are too busy to speak words of promise to others; it is not a human life to keep ourselves safe so that we can’t understand the suffering of others.” Instead, he writes, “A real human life is one where we lookout for those who are forgotten, where we give others a reason to live; where we show them that they have friends; where we show them that there is hope.” As we know from the great commandment to love God and to love our neighbor, love is the grain of the universe. So to be human is to love. Anything that is less than love is sub-human. And Jesus came not only as the embodiment of this love for us all, but also as an example of this love.
God did not send a message through the prophets as the fullest revelation of God. God did give us a rule book, even if that is how some misuse the Bible. God did not give a speech and tell us to “work it out.” No, God came as a human life, a life that showed us the fullness of humanity, what it means to be truly human. And so Jesus is one whom we can watch and learn from. He teaches us how to be human. Jesus is one whom we can mimic. He shows us how to be human. Jesus one whom we can follow. He leads us into eternal life, which is the ultimate end of our humanity. This is what that hymn envisions for us in its final verse: “This fruit doth make my soul to thrive, it keeps my dying faith alive; which makes my soul in haste to be with Jesus Christ the Appletree.” Instead of the fruit that led to our sin in Genesis, Jesus Christ offers to us the fruit of salvation.
Jesus was truly and fully human, not deficiently human as we are, but he was even more human than us. In Jesus we see what God intends for us – a nearness to God that brings conviction and peace; an unwavering trust and commitment to God; a sense of love that overflows into every moment. Jesus is what a truly human life looks like, what a life lived to the fullest looks like. And while it is true that through his humanity, Jesus restored the righteousness that we had lost to sin, it doesn’t mean that we are any more capable of living the sort of life that Jesus did. We will still make mistakes, we will still fall short, we will still have things to seek forgiveness for, we will still not live into the fullness of humanity.
Christmas though would have us fix our eyes not on our brokenness, not on fallenness, not on depravity, not on sin, but rather on the grace that was embodied in Jesus. Though none of us will live perfectly as Jesus did, by fixing our eyes on him we can see the glory that is intended for us. What it means to be truly human is to have it be clear that God is our Creator, our loving Father, our nurturing Mother. St. John writes that Jesus gives us power to become children of God. Ultimately, this is what it means to be truly human – to be the recipient of God’s grace as the beloved children of the Father.
While it is absolutely true that as St. Athanasius said that “God became man that man might become God” in speaking about the salvation that comes through Christmas, it is also just as true that God became truly human that we might become truly the humanity we were created to be.” And this is what Christmas gives us – the gift of a truly human Jesus who shows us the way of love lived in a human life that we might have the abundant life that was intended for us before the foundation of the world. I’ve just taken about 15 minutes to say what one of the great hymns of Christmas says in one line – but I hope the next time you hear it and sing it that you will recall that Jesus opens to us the way of salvation in the fullness of our humanity, not despite it. “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see; hail the incarnate Deity. Pleased as man with man to dwell; Jesus, our Emmanuel!”