a sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas [Year B]
John 1: [1-9] 10-18 and Ephesians 1:3-14
We are in full-on Superhero mode at the Martin house right now. A few months ago, our four-year-old, Jasper, discovered the main characters of the Marvel and DC universes and it has been Spiderman and Batman and Superman ever since. He was Spiderman for Halloween and for Christmas someone gave him a Batman costume, and we wears both all the time. Sometimes he can’t decide on one, so he’ll wear a Spiderman shirt and a Batman mask. You can walk into any room in our house, even when we’ve cleaned up, and either see or step on a superhero figurine or accessory. Jasper has not seen one movie or comic book yet, but something about these characters fascinate him and spark his imagination. I think it’s not uncommon, given that movies in this genre gross billions in revenue.
Lately he has really become interested in the fact that all superheroes have what is called an alter ego, and he’s trying to memorize which alter ego goes with which hero. The way Jasper asks about a character’s alter ego is, “Who is such-and-such when they take off their suit?” And so we explain that when Batman is not dressed like a bat with the mask and the cape, he is a normal man named Bruce Wayne, Spiderman, when he’s not in his Spider outfit, is really a guy named Peter Parker. Yesterday he found his little figurine of Flash Gordon and that is where it got a little complicated because apparently Flash Gordon and the recent TV show The Flash are not the same thing. I had to look that one up.
The Word of God—that is, the very essence of what God is like and how God moves, the second person of the Trinity—has put on a special suit and it is Jesus of Nazareth. We don’t need to look that one up. John, the gospel writer, begins his story about Jesus this way, leaving nothing to secret, by telling us how the Word of God, who exists from the very beginning of time, has a human counterpart and that this human counterpart has some to live among the rest of us. “The Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son.”
Before we learn anything that this human counterpart does, John states very clearly right up front that when we come to know who Jesus is we are coming to know what the heart of God is. Only certain people ever know that Bruce Wayne is actually Batman, or that Peter Parker is Spiderman, and the heroes tries to keep those two identities separate. It’s as if their power would be taken away if this was revealed. Not so with the Word of God. The Word wants to be known and seen as Jesus, the glory of a Father’s only Son. The Word wants people to see him and see his true identity, God’s Son.
And just as superheroes acquire or display some powers when they don their different suits, so does the Word of God gain certain powers and abilities when he puts on human flesh and comes to be among us. It is a power of giving like we’ve never seen. He gives us who receive him the power to become children of God, to be born anew and live with God in unity. His powers are strange, almost backwards from from we’d expect because they are rooted in his humility and servanthood, not in magic or wizardry or brute force.
This is the miracle of God’s incarnation, which is the heart of what we celebrate at Christmas. Incarnation means “putting on flesh” or “being physically present.” But the incarnation is not just the heart and meaning of Christmas. God’s act to become flesh and live among us and therefore undergo human life in broken world becomes the basis for everything else about Christian faith, from the manger (which John actually never mentions) to the cross.
This fundamental idea may seem kind of basic and obvious to you and me by this point. We marvel over story of Bethlehem, we sing the Christmas carols, we ask “What Child is This?” and think about God as baby all the time. I was amazed at how many of the Epiphany families who took part in the daily video Advent devotions showed nativity scenes. There were so many different and beautiful ones. I remember one young woman and her nephew, Callie and C.J., took us through her house and showed us three or four of them.
We just accept the incarnation as a fact, but for so many of the earliest Christians this was a challenge to get their head around. The concept of God, especially in ancient Greek culture, was all about attaining secret knowledge and intellectually contemplating beliefs and theories. To arrive at what God was like you needed to debate and argue different perspectives about life. You were supposed to reflect on private things of the soul, contemplate the universe, and so on. The idea that a God would just reveal himself so plainly and blatantly, as a person, was preposterous. One early critic of Christianity, a man named Celsus, wrote a long essay attacking the faith of Jesus that many people in his time read. It gives us a peek into ancient views on religion. At one point in it Celsus says, “If you shut your eyes to the world of sense and look up with the mind, if you turn away from the flesh and raise the eyes of the soul, only then will you see God.”
We may have loads of nativity scenes around and be able to talk about Jesus the human, but how often do we still go Celsus’ route without realizing it? By that I mean how often do we still find ourselves saying things like “If I could only mentally escape this chaos for a little bit I’ll connect with God”? “If I could just remove myself from the everyday I’ll experience that flash of faith again”? How often do we look to have an experience in creation—say, with birds—as if it is proof God is real? How often do we look for that one author or that one book that will transcend our realities and help us see the divine more clearly? Nature and good books are true gifts from God—don’t get me wrong—but we don’t have to seek them to know God, John says. Jesus is as far as we need to go. And we don’t need to go find him. He has come to us.
There has been so much talk about how awful the year 2020 was. I think “dumpster fire” is the term I hear most often It is true that much of life was and remains disrupted by the things that happened in 2020, but I’m wondering if this past year didn’t also provide a great opportunity to reflect on the true importance and deep meaning of God’s incarnation. I wonder if the trials of 2020, particularly ones brought about by the pandemic, weren’t actually a window into seeing how a flesh and blood presence with one another is more lifegiving than we realized.
Just look at church life. Much of it has been disembodied this year. We’ve moved many ministries on-line, we’ve tried to limit personal contact as much as possible, dropping things off by the office without running into anyone. Our worship services and daily prayers on the internet offer time for people to reflect on God’s Word and pray, in some sense, together. But there is something about being physically present with one another that almost everyone seems to recognize the need for. It’s not just that we miss seeing each other and all the things that might come with that. There is something about life that depends on incarnation. There is something about our faith that can’t just survive on words and thoughts alone.
When we are actually together, when God’s people are assemble for real, it is like we are wearing our true nature. Our ideas or theories about love and forgiveness and community life eventually have to actually be practiced and honed, and to do that requires real togetherness, being in the same space. This is one reason why our bishops have not encouraged practicing some form of online Holy Communion, although several churches have done so. Sharing bread and wine around a common table of some form, which is what the Lord’s Supper is, brings us together, puts us in one another’s space. And in that God meets us and works to reconcile us, to remind us in the best way possible that we must share this creation. I know that for all the fun it has been to share devotions on-line, I have felt an overwhelming joy to see people in person, to hear people speak as one.
The Word of God is not just some ideal, something we reflect on. God means to meet us, grab us, touch us. The writer of the letter to the Ephesians uses a very physical word when he describes what Jesus does: he gathers. “The good pleasure God set forth in Christ,” he writes, is “to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and on the earth.” He does not say Christ’s goal is to inspire all people, or to improve all people, or to get everyone to make the right New Year’s Resolutions so that their lives will be in order. Jesus is set before us to gather all things—all people, all kinds. Together. And so even though we give thanks for the ways that God gathered some of us through digital means in 2020, we look forward to the ways God may really gather us at some point in the future, maybe even in this new year. Because that is why he becomes flesh and lives among us.
This also suggests that our call as the church must involve being physically present for our communities and the world. We begin to fulfill our role as Christ followers when we clothe ourselves with the suffering of those around us. And that is what the Holy Spirit helps us do, and, thankfully, has enabled you to do over and over again this year. When we do things like that—when we pull up alongside those who suffer the effects of racism, when we reach out with food to the hungry, when we gather together with those who struggle under life’s load, when we bake a supper for someone going through a hard time, then we are wearing the suit of our superhero, Jesus Christ. And the God no one has ever seen will be made known.
There is no cape involved. No X-ray vision, no superhuman flying or jumping abilities (much to Jasper’s disappointment). Just thoroughly human abilities. Washing feet. Sharing bread. Embracing the wounded. Full on superhero mode. You know, the powers of the children of God.
Thanks be to God!
The Reverend Phillip W. Martin, Jr.