The Fourth Sunday of Advent
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
Today is the last Sunday of Advent, and this is the last sermon in a series called “Advent Treasures.” Over the past few weeks we have dug down deep into the treasure chest of this season. We have studied its rich history and traditions. We have read the Scriptures and sung the hymns. We have brought up the themes of Hope, Peace, and Joy, but today we hold up the jewel of Love, and the brilliant idea of love made flesh.
I’ve been thinking about that for years.
At my last church there was a woman who told me she wanted to get married, but couldn’t, because she couldn’t afford it. I said, “Of course you can! You and your fiancé can come down the aisle at the end of a regular worship service, but instead of asking to join the church you can ask to be joined in holy matrimony. I’ll ask if anyone has any objections and if not you can say your vows, exchange your rings, and voila—you will be husband and wife! If you do it during the Season of Advent so much the better, because you’ll already have a good crowd of people there; the choir will be robed and ready to sing; the church will be decorated for Christmas; and with a little bit of advance notice I can preach a sermon called ‘the Incarnation of Love’ that will be perfect for the occasion.”
She didn’t take me up on that offer, and it was probably for the best. The man she wanted to marry wasn’t ready to marry her. But I couldn’t seem to let go of that dream of doing a wedding as a part of a regular worship service, and at some point I must have shared it publicly because not long ago Tamara Witte told me that’s the way she wanted to get married. Do you remember Tamara? She was a student at the Baptist Theological Seminary at Richmond when she was with us. She interned here and was ordained here. I don’t think it was because she couldn’t afford a regular wedding that she wanted to get married during a worship service; I think it was because she understood marriage at a level most people don’t: she understood it as the incarnation of Love.
She told me that she had dreamed of getting married since she was a little girl. She had wondered what her husband would look like and what his name might be. There were a few times in high school, when she thought she was getting close, that she wrote her first name followed by someone else’s last name, just to try it on. But none of those had been the right one. This one—whose name was Greg Walczak—turned out to be him. He was an old friend from childhood who had recently lost his wife. They re-connected during Tamara’s first ministry placement and before you know it they were talking about marriage. Tamara was surprised. She might not have picked that face. She probably wouldn’t have picked that name. But this is how incarnation works: what was only an idea at one time begins to take on human flesh until Love has a name, Love has a face. In Tamara’s case it had the face and name of Greg Walczak.
On December 11, 2016, at the close of the regular worship service, Greg and Tamara came down the aisle while the congregation was singing “Joy to the World.” Some of you may have been here. Nobody but me knew why they were coming. They might have assumed that they wanted to join the church. But when I announced that Greg and Tamara had come to be married there was an audible gasp. I asked if anyone had any objections. No one did. So, right there in front of God and everybody I asked Greg and Tamara to repeat the vows, exchange the rings, and within the space of five minutes they were husband and wife. In my opinion it was perfect, or as close to perfect as such a thing can be. It was the incarnation of Love, and a perfect illustration of that other incarnation, the one we celebrate at Christmas.
For so many of us God, like Love, begins as an idea. We hear people talking about God in church, we sing hymns of praise to the Trinity, but in the beginning God is just an idea, and a very vague one at that. God is “up there,” or “out there,” somewhere. And—like Love—God often seems very far away. But what the writers of the New Testament all seem to agree upon is this: that the abstract became concrete in a man with a particular face and a particular name— Jesus of Nazareth—who was, miraculously, God-in-the-flesh. Rather than dig down into any single text this morning I’d like to take a broader look at how the New Testament bears witness to the idea of the Incarnation, and I’d like to begin with the Gospel of Mark.
Mark doesn’t mention the birth of Jesus, and so we don’t know whether or not he had any notion of a “virgin birth,” but he does say that when Jesus was baptized the sky was “ripped open” and a voice from heaven declared: “You are my son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Whether or not Mark wants us to believe that Jesus was God’s son in any literal sense, he certainly wants us to believe that Jesus was God’s son in the sense that he did what was pleasing to God, and God loved him for it.
Matthew and Luke both write about his birth, and strive to show their readers that from the very beginning Jesus was the son of God. Matthew says that an angel told Joseph in a dream that what was conceived in Mary was from the Holy Spirit, and adds that this was to fulfill the prophecy from Isaiah 7:14, that a virgin would conceive and bear a child whose name was “Emmanuel: God with us.” Luke tells the story differently but the outcome is the same. In his version the angel Gabriel comes to Mary and amazes her by saying: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born [to you] will be holy; he will be called the Son of God.”
John doesn’t write about the birth of Jesus, but his version of the story makes the idea of incarnation remarkably clear. He says in chapter 1 that “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” And then he says, “The Word became flesh and lived among us” (literally, “pitched his tent with us”). There is no clearer statement of incarnational theology in the Bible. If incarnation means “the embodiment of a deity or spirit in some earthly form” if it comes from Latin roots that mean “entering into flesh”; then John expresses that complicated abstraction with stunning simplicity: God became human and pitched his tent among us;
The Word became flesh.
I didn’t get to do this at Greg and Tamara’s wedding, but at most of the wedding rehearsals I’ve done we practice that moment when the bride comes down the aisle toward the groom, and I tell the groom that it is his responsibility during that moment to have a look of absolute rapture on his face. “Rapture!” I say, because his bride is going to be looking at him for some clue that she is doing the right thing. In the same way, I think that the proper response to the Incarnation is rapture. God isn’t coming down the aisle like a bride, in a beautiful wedding dress, but coming into the world as baby, wrapped in swaddling clothes. It should make us gasp for breath, shout for joy, and today’s Gospel lesson has some of that quality to it.
It describes that moment when Mary realized that it was true—that the improbable announcement she received from the angel Gabriel was actually taking on flesh and bone within her womb. Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, knew what no one else could imagine. She said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord!” That’s when Mary threw back her head and began to sing the song we have come to know as the Magnificat. “My soul magnifies the Lord,” she sang, “and my Spirit rejoices in God my Savior! For he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” It is the perfect response to the miracle of incarnation.
Paul wasn’t around for any of that. He came on the scene a good bit later. He never mentions the virgin birth. In fact, he says very little about either the birth or baptism of Jesus; his focus is on the cross. In Romans 1:3 he implies that Jesus became the Son of God at his resurrection—that in that act of power God raised him up, claimed him as his own, and vindicated his life and ministry. But in some of his other writings Paul echoes the incarnational language that was circulating in the hymns of the early church. One of them, in the first chapter of Colossians, claims that Christ is “the image of the invisible God,” and that “in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.” In the letter to the Philippians Paul quotes another hymn, saying: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross.”
Maybe you already knew it, but I wanted you to see that the consensus of Scripture is clear, and that in these writings we find a truth that is older and deeper than anything the present age has to offer: Jesus of Nazareth was somehow, miraculously, God-in-the-flesh. And if God is Love, as the Scripture says (1 John 4:16), then Jesus was the incarnation of Love in a way no one has ever been before or since. What a gift to the people of his time and of ours! Instead of remaining frustratingly abstract and forever distant God came near to us in Christ Jesus, entered into our own fragile state. “He was born in human likeness,” Paul says. “He was found in human form.” It is a wonderful truth. But it is also a dangerous one. As long as you are God no one can hurt you. When you become human you give up that invulnerability. “He became obedient to the point of death,” Paul writes, “even death on a cross.” Incarnation is risky business.
It was risky from the very beginning. After Jesus was born his parents took him to the temple where Simeon sang his praises but also warned Mary that trouble was on the way. In Matthew’s version no sooner was God-with-us than King Herod wanted to kill him! The writer of Hebrews acknowledged that “becoming like his brothers and sisters in every way” also meant sharing in their suffering and sorrow. And even as love is made flesh in a wedding ceremony we recognize the danger of it. We cast the dark shadows of “worse,” and “poorer,” and “sickness,” over the bright promises of “better,” and “richer,” and “health.” We feel it is our duty to warn anyone who would risk incarnation that you make yourself vulnerable this way; you open your heart like a fresh wound to another who may or may not be holding a handful of salt.
For God to do such a thing for us is to take the risk that we might abuse his gift, that we might seize Love-in-the-flesh and nail him to a tree. Surely that shadow hung over the manger of Bethlehem, and surely God knew it, but still God did it, in the same way that people still get married. If you ask the most honest among them they will tell you that they had to do it, that they were driven to it by a Love that had become so real, so strong, they really felt they had no other choice.
I think that’s how it was for God, too.
The Bible says that he loved the world, and that’s true. He loved it so much he could no longer remain a distant abstraction from it. He had to come near, had to make himself known. Love gave him no other choice. So he stripped himself of his invulnerability, emptied himself of his divinity, and entered—naked, frail, and tiny—into human existence. It was a risky thing to do, and in the end it would prove to be the death of him. But great love is capable of great risks, and is willing to take them for the sake of the Beloved.
That is what Christians celebrate in this season: not gifts and toys and goodies, wonderful as they are, but the surprising truth that Love came down at Christmas, that the Word did indeed become flesh, and that in Jesus whom we call the Christ the incarnation of Love and the incarnation of God turned out to be one and the same.
—Jim Somerville © 2021