Based on Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3, Galatians 4:4-7, Luke 2:22-40
We could well reflect on many things on this first Sunday after Christmas. We could reflect on the gifts we received, on the Christmas traditions of our families, on the fact that after such a difficult year that Christmas came anyway, or on the miraculous and mysterious claim that God came down to be born, live and die as a human – before being resurrected through His divinity. I’m willing to hazard a guess that most of you haven’t spent much time pondering the Incarnation and what it means to you as you live every day as a Christian. Consider the fact that no other religion prior to this doctrine of God-intervention had ever stated categorically that their god or gods would deign to become human. Certainly, the gods of the Greeks and Romans had stories of great heroes who were the offspring of a god and a woman – but nothing similar to the Incarnation had ever been a foundational part of any major religion prior to the first century CE.
I believe it is important, therefore, to take a moment today to consider the implications of the Incarnation for day-to-day Christian life. The first of many questions about the Incarnation is this…is the Incarnation a one-time event in a specific place and time or does it have implications and insights to offer us as we seek to live our lives as disciples of the Incarnated one – Jesus? If God became human only to show that it could be done, then we have a miracle without any staying power – a religious footnote in history, if you will. If, however, the act of God becoming human inaugurated the in-breaking of the kingdom or reign of God and thus enabled humans to understand that they were spiritual beings who happened to be human, then we have a powerful and transformative action that has the potential to change the world and our lives.
Our scripture readings today help us with some of the implications for our Christian lives of the Incarnation and reign of God – whether it is the prophet Isaiah speaking poetically about exulting in God, being clothed in salvation, and receiving a new name; the Apostle Paul reminding the Galatian believers about the Incarnation causing our adoption as children of God, or Simeon and Anna recognizing the divinity and sovereignty of God come to earth in the form of a human infant, all these teachings can show us the way to better understand the transforming power of what God did so long ago. Before we go further, let us go to God in prayer, thanking God for coming to earth as Jesus…
The writer of Third Isaiah is speaking of the end of God’s judgement on the house and leadership of Israel. We heard the first portion of Chapter 61 read two weeks ago which proclaimed good tidings for the poor, healing of the broken-hearted and release and freedom for the captives and prisoners. The end of this Chapter, our reading for today, picks up the themes of reversal of fortune and recovering of an exalted place with God. The people of Israel will be reborn and will even get a new name (similar to Jacob becoming Israel) which denotes their renewed favor and standing with God. In verses just after our reading, it states that God will rejoice over Israel as a bridegroom over a bride. A new creation has been born and the old has fallen away.
Paul’s letter to the believers in Galatia is a passionate one. There is much going wrong in this church plant and Paul gets good and lathered over their errors. His point in our reading for today is to remind the new believers that the Law was given to keep things going until the Incarnation and Resurrection. In the Christ, they became adopted children and thus heirs of God, whether Jew or Gentile. The gift of the Holy Spirit, which came through the Christ, opens us into an intimate relationship where we can all call God “abba” which means “daddy”. Thus, the Incarnation put the Law into its rightful place as a structure to operate within while we were awaiting God’s great act of love.
Mary and Joseph are doing all the things that normal Jewish parents did following the birth of a first-born son. They have him circumcised and named on the 8th day and then present him to the Temple. They pay the pauper’s sacrifice tax and then run into the prophet/priest Simeon. Simeon was righteous and devout and the Holy Spirit guided his life. It had been revealed to him that he would not die before seeing the Christ – the Messiah. Simeon recognized the divinity of Jesus immediately, and spoke a prophecy to his parents. Jesus would be a revelation to the Gentiles and glory to the people of Israel. Yet all would not be wine and roses as Jesus’ life would cause dissension and opposition in Israel and would wound his mother’s soul. The prophet Anna echoed what Simeon had said to all who would listen that redemption had come at last to Israel.
The Gospel of Mark has Jesus announcing his public ministry in the 15th verse of Chapter 1. Jesus says, “…The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God has come near; repent, and believe in the good news….” The biblical Greek words for “kingdom of God” are “basileia tou Theou” which can be translated as either “kingdom of God” or “reign of God”. Most Bible translations primarily transform the Greek word basileia into kingdom. However, it is also clearly used by Jesus to indicate the immediate reign of God which leads to the future kingdom of God. Thus, the term is not a static one simply looking into the future of a coming kingdom, rather it is a dynamic one which indicates that with the Incarnation we are placed on a continuum where the reign of God has begun that will lead to the kingdom of God.
The latter view of the Incarnation invites us to return to a vision of the basileia that for the most part we have lost. If we think at all about “the Kingdom of God,” it is usually in terms of “realm” rather than “reign”. God is “up” in heaven, and our life unfolds in its familiar secular manner “down” on Earth. Once in a while, in a worship service, in moments of intense prayer or through accompanying a dying loved-one, we sense strongly God’s presence with us. These isolated events typically cause little change in our worldviews, nor does it give us a biblical perspective that characterizes the reign or salvation of God within our every-day lives. Neither do they cause a movement that calls forth an active discipleship from us, where the very purpose of our life is understood as seeking to enter into the divinely orchestrated movement of God within the Body of Christ.
However, when we realize that the Incarnation is the opening salvo of the reign of God, then we become engaged in the persistent unfolding of God’s redemptive work in our lives and world. We come to realize that daily it is evolving and getting closer to completion. It indeed drew near beginning with the Incarnation and we, in collaboration with the risen Lord, are still engaged in a struggle against the worldly “powers and principalities”. Actively called to engage against death and destruction in our world; the suffering of the innocent and marginalized; the inequities, structural sin, and evil which are everyday facts of life. Scripture calls us to understand that we do not confront these realities alone – that we are to be the main players with Jesus in God’s great plan.
According to the prophet Isaiah we have been chosen and anointed by God – clothed in righteousness and salvation and have been given a new and blessed name. We are named as one of the adopted children of God, says the Apostle Paul. The Incarnation allowed for our redemption from the Law so that we might be adopted as heirs of the kingdom of God – living and working in the realm of God to bring God’s preferred future to reality in our world. As Simeon said to Mary and Joseph, “…my eyes have seen God’s [your] salvation, which God [you have] prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light of revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel….” The Incarnation allows us to live and work with God in the realm of God as heirs to the glories of the coming kingdom of God. Let us live every day, therefore, in thanksgiving that God loved us so much that God came down at Christmas so long ago and began for us the reign of God which is leading to the kingdom of God. Thanks be to God…amen!