December 18, 2016
Isaiah 7.10-16; Romans 1.1-7; Matthew 1.18-25
+ I have had an interesting array of Advent reading this year. Inspired by William’s class earlier this Advent on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I have re-read a few of my favorite Bonhoeffer books, including a wonderful book about Bonhoeffer’s views on preaching, Worldly Preaching. And I don’t need to tell anyone here who took William’s class, Bonhoeffer is really speaking loudly and clearly to all of us right now!
Most recently though I have been reading a fascinating biography of the great author and Christian apologist C.S. Lewis by the wonderful Anglican theologian Alister McGrath. Lewis continues to be such an important influence in so many Christian lives, and specifically in the lives of all of us who are Episcopalians and Anglicans.
In this particular biography though, I was especially struck with the story of Lewis’ conversion. As some of you might know, he was an atheist, then slowly, became an agnostic, then he became a believer in God. But his conversion to Christianity was different than his other realizations. Before, he believed in a God who was a rational realization, but One who was totally separate and separated from this world. When he came to believe in Christ, all of a sudden, it all came together for him. God, in Christ, became personal. And it just sort of happened on its own in Lewis’ life.
I think many of us can relate to this. I know I certainly can. Yes, most of us it seems have had that sense of the reality of God in our lives at times and we understand that, yes God exists. Out there. Maybe, vaguely, God cares for us and is aware of us. But God is out there. Distant and distinct from us.
For some of us, though, our experience of God becomes much more personal. And we often experience God in what we may call a so-called “Christ moment.” This Christ moment happens when we see that God, as we see God in the person of Christ, is something much closer to us, much more personal, much more intimate. God, in Christ, is here with us—in the turmoils and difficulties of this life. And for any of us who have that “Christ moment” experience (and I hope you’ve had that experience in some way in your life), our spiritual lives change. Our relationship with God changes. No longer is God that distant presence—out there. But, in Christ, God becomes a real presence. Right here. And we feel—truly feel—that God really does LOVE us! And accepts us. Fully and completely. For who we are and what we are.
I had this “Christ experience” in my own life many, many years ago. In fact, it was 35 years ago today, on Friday, December 18, 1981. Now, I really have never talked about this experience with others. I don’t know why I haven’t shared it. I guess, it’s just always been a very private experience for me. Maybe I’ve never been really able to process it until recently. But it was a very real.
I had just turned 12. I had long been interested in God and religion in general, though Church wasn’t all that exciting to me. And Jesus seemed like a nice teacher, a good guy, but I certainly did not see him at that time as the Son of God, or God incarnate. At that time in my life, I was going through a hard time—or as hard for a time as a twelve year goes though (and let’s face it 12 years old really do have it hard often times).
In the midst for this hard time, in the midst for this spiritual searching, I just suddenly, in the midst of this kind for vague sense of God’s Presence out there, I suddenly “got” this whole Christ thing. I got that Christ was God—God with us, God right here. Christ was God in this world, in this flesh. And Christ loved me. And Christ cared about the problems of that rebellious, eccentric 12-year-old.
Yes, Jesus was still a kind and good teacher in my undertanding. But he was also much more than that. The distance between that vague God and me closed up. And it all came together, as it did for C.S. Lewis. . It was amazing and it was very important. And I firmly believe it set my course for the rest of my life.
Now, I know some Christians—especially some Evangelical Christians—may call that a “born again” experience. In some ways, yes, I guess it was. But it was a weirdly intellectual experience as well, which is why I related so much to the story of C.S. Lewis’ conversion in the Alister McGrath biography. I mean, although there is still so much mystery and so much to the spiritual life I will never understand, in that moment it all just kind of made sense. And it was important to me.
I think it’s very appropriate that that experience happened to me during the Season of Advent (though I don’t think I really knew what Advent was in 1981) Because this kind of “Christ moment” experience of God is what Advent and certainly Christmas is all about.
This coming week, with Christmas upon us, like almost no other time in the Church Year, we recognize that what happened in the birth of Christ is the collective experience any for us who have experienced that intellectual and spiritual realization that Christ is God with us. This coming week at Christmas we are very strongly and uniquely reminded that God is no longer that distant, vague God out there. But that God is here, with us. God knows us—each of us. And loves us—each of us. God, coming among us in the form of Jesus, in the form of this child, born to the Virgin Mary, suddenly breaks every single barrier we ever thought we had to God.
No longer are there barriers. No longer is there is a distance. No longer is there a veil separating us from God. In Christ, we find that meeting place between us as humans and God. God has reached out to us and has touched not with a finger of fire, not with the divine hand of judgment, with tender, loving touch of a Child.
This is what Incarnation is all about. And because it is, because this “Christ event” changes everything, because we and our very humanity, our very physical bodies, are redeemed by this event, we should really want to glory in it. God came to us, where we are, and met us. We may not have asked for it. We may not even have imagined how it could have happened. But it did. And we are so much better for it.
Throughout our scriptures readings today, we hear that one common echo:
Emmanuel—God with us.
In our reading from Isaiah today, we find God speaking through the prophet announcing that, through the lineage of David, Immanuel will come to us. Paul today talks of how God worked to bring about this revelation of God’s self in human form. And in our Gospel reading, the angel calls Joseph, “son of David” and that through this lineage, through this virgin, we have Emmanuel.
We have “God with us.” Emmanuel is that point in which God and humanity met. God reached out to us.
This week, on Christmas, we will celebrate that event. We will celebrate that event in which God finally break through the barriers and, in doing, destroys those very barriers. This week we celebrate that cataclysmic event in which heaven and earth are finally merged, in which the veil torn aside, in which all that we are and all that we long for finally come together. Nothing will ever be the same as it was before. And realizing that, we can say: thank you, God! Thank you, O Christ! It is an event that transformed us and changed in ways we might not even fully realize or appreciate even at this point.
The coming is Emmanuel—God with us—is almost here. I don’t think any of us would doubt that. We see the trees, the lights, the Santas and the reindeer. But the real Christmas—that life-altering event in which God took on flesh like our flesh, is here, about the dawn into our lives.
Truly this is Emmanuel. This is “God with us.” God is with us.
So rejoice! The star that was promised to us has appeared in the darkest night of our existence. It is a sign. It promises us light, even all seemed bleak before. There now is a way forward through the darkness. And we will not travel that way forward alone. Oh no.
God is with us.
And that light that reminds of this holy and amazing fact is now shining brightly, right there, before us.
And its light is burning away the dark clouds of doubt and despair.