Sermon Sunday January 9th: “For God so loved the world…”

Matthew 2:1-12

Epiphany in Greek means “manifestation” and for the early church epiphany was set apart as the time to wonder at the truth that God came to us, — was made manifest in the person of Jesus.    At that time, you see, there was no celebration of Christmas.  That would come centuries later.  Early on there was first only Easter marking Jesus’ resurrection and our salvation.  Then the church added Pentacost, the birth of the church and the mission to spread the good news of this salvation.  And then there was Epiphany – time set apart to contemplate the divinity of the person of Jesus, to contemplate incarnation.  

 While most of us Christians here in the 21st century feel pretty comfortable with Jesus, the early church certainly did not.  In fact, those first Christians were actually deeply troubled by Jesus. They were not in the least bit comfortable with the idea that God, that cosmic mystery, mighty power of the universe, would take on the form of a human, that the creator would become creature, would become man.   They questioned “Why would God do this?  Why take on flesh?” 

 Athanasius, an early church father who lived in northern Egypt in the third century, was one who spent a lot of time thinking about this and in his really remarkable work On the Incarnation he writes:   

 “Some may then ask, why did [GOD] not manifest Himself by means of other and nobler parts of creation, and use some nobler instrument, such as sun or moon or stars or fire or air, instead of mere man?  The answer is this.  The Lord did not come to make a display.  He came to heal and to teach suffering men.  For one who wanted to make a display the thing would have been just to appear and dazzle the beholders.  But for Him Who came to heal and to teach the way was to put Himself at the disposal of those who needed Him, and to be manifested according as they could bear it.” [1]

 Now you may have noticed that Athanaisus is presenting an understanding of what Jesus came to do which sounds rather different than that which many of us are used to hearing. 

 We are used to hearing that the reason Jesus came into the world was so that he could save us from our sins.   We are used to hearing that the reason Jesus lived was so that he could die and be resurrected. And that through his death and resurrection, the dept that humanity owed God for the disobedience of sin (A sin most commonly understood as pride, of thinking that we don’t need God, that we can eat from that tree of knowledge and be just fine on our own) could be  repaid once and for all.   

Athanasius, however, understands the reason for Jesus, the motivation for incarnation in a different light. He sees the point of Jesus  being not only death and resurrection but also the teaching and healing he brought in his life.   He sees a God who comes not to judge but to aid ailing humanity.  God comes not to demand a payment for sin but to respond to the heart felt cry of God’s people.  Or in the words of Athanasius, God that takes on flesh “in order put Himself at the disposal of those who needed Him, and to be manifested according as they could bear it.”

 So all of this begs the question, “What is our deep need, that according to Athanasius, God is responding to in the person of Jesus?”  What is it that God sees in us, that only by taking on flesh God can minister to?

 Could it be a bone deep longing to be signs of Epiphany ourselves?  Could it be that our deepest need, the need God is responding to in the person of Jesus, is our need to love and be loved so completely that we are freed to shine with the light and the brilliance of that Bethlehem star?

 You see, so many of us, I fear, walk through our days feeling not an over abundance of pride but instead full shame and insecurity.  We worry that we do not measure up or at worst that there is really something fundamentally flawed about us.  We fear that we are not enough.   We think, “I’m the reason my child is having such a hard time.”  “Loosing my job is just proof that I am not a good husband, a good father.”  “If people only knew the truth about me, that would really be the end.”  

 Could it be that the reason the word took on flesh and walked among us was not because humanity had a debt to pay to God for the sin of thinking we don’t need God, but because of the deep wound that humanity carried thinking that God no longer had need of us?  Could it be that God came to us in the person of Jesus so that God’s love could be made known right in the midst of our flaws and inadequacy?    To know we are loved so completely that our shame evaporates like a morning mist?  The Gospel of John tells us “God so loved the world that God sent his only son (John 3:16)…”

 What kind of a love is this?    This love that is the root of our need and the reason for incarnation, this love is not the sugar sweet sentimentality of a hallmark card. No this love runs deeper. This is powerful stuff – the stuff of creation.   In Hebrew the word that is used to describe this kind of love , this God love, is Hessed.  Hessed, which translates as steadfast love, connotes a more of a cosmic force than a sentimentality .  Hessed is that which holds the universe together.   It is that which was poured into the earth on the dawn of creation in God’s blessing of goodness.  And of course this kind of love is a love that can never be earned.  It is not a love based on merit.  It is not a love given as reward. It is not a love that can be sought or claimed, or won or conquered.

 Martin Luther, the great reformer of church, spent much of his life as a monk feeling ashamed and inadequate.  Night after night alone in his small cell, he would agonize about the countless ways that he, despite his best efforts, had let God down.  Despite his best attempts, he could not lead the life he thought God expected of him.  Then one night it hit him, grace knocked Martin Luther off his feet and onto his knees as he suddenly realized that the God he longed to please was not a harsh God of judgment but instead the babe born in the manger, the one who emerged beloved from the river Jordan, the one who gives life with abundance.  He suddenly saw that God’s grace and forgiveness was not rationed for only the saintly but for him, for us, all of us.  God so loved the world, so loved the world – so loved Martin Luther, so loves me, so loves all of you.  The Epiphany of that unconditional love transformed Luther’s life and through him, transformed the trajectory of Christianity. 

 In 1992, my husband and I moved to Hacienda Vieja, a small village of 50 families in Northeastern El Salvador.  It was just a few  months since the signing of the peace accords that ended years of brutal civil war, a war fueled by billions of  US dollars.  We had come to help  communities scattered along this mountainous border with Honduras rebuild after the ravages of war.  I could barely speak Spanish and knew very little of the harsh reality of campesino living, let alone what it was like to be a refugee in Honduras fleeing the violence of death squads.

 I was a stranger from a strange land. Yet two women, Reina and Mercedes took me under their wings and taught me how to carry water, to make pupusas and to wash out my clothes at the river.  They laughed at my fumbling and loved me all the more.  Under their love, I learned and grew, gave birth to my first child became a mother.  Together we experienced the power of strangers becoming friends, of the violence of war melting under the warmth of affection.

  And I will never forget the moment when it hit me.  Standing in line at the communal water spigot, it hit me.  I was enough.  Somehow through the  love of my new friends Reina and Mercedes,  I had found something for which I did not even know I had been searching. There, standing in line with all the other women, I realized, despite my failing, despite my inadequacies, despite the war I had done little to protest, I was really enough, I was loved.  I was loved not because I had proven anything or earned anything.  There in that little town, on the edge of nowhere, God’s abundant love was manifest to me and something inside me was was healed.   Epiphany.

 The early church gave us the gift of the season of Epiphany – a time to reflect on how God’s love entered and is entering our world.  It is a time to sharpen our senses, develop our God sense so that we may notice, respond to and be changed by encounters of love. So, I invite you in this season of epiphany to look deeply into your own lives and into the life of this community of faith.  Stand with those wise men of the east and gaze into the darkness.   Will you, like those wise ones of old, let the light that is erupting into the darkness lead you to God’s epiphany in your own life and in our life together?   For as sure as the star blazed in that night sky thousands of years ago, God’s love burns brightly, even in, precisely in, our places of deepest need. Amen

[1] On The Incarnation.  St. Athanasius. (St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press: Crestwood, NY 1944). P. 78.