Sermons

Sun, Dec 27, 2020

The incarnation as subversion

Series:Sermons

Several years ago…

during one of our holidays in Vanuatu…

we visited a small island…

hoping to encounter a dugong, who was known to enjoy interacting with humans.

Sadly, during our brief stay, we never saw him.

Instead, we had another interesting wildlife encounter.

We were diving off the beach… 

out the front of the bungalows where we were staying.

There wasn’t much of a reef––

just the occasional bommie.

It was fairly late in the afternoon, so the lighting was a bit muted.

Suddenly, a large shape started coming towards us.

Now, the waters of Vanuatu are pretty safe.

They don’t have any of the large aggressive sharks––

not like here.

As it drew closer, it turned out to be a Giant Grouper.

For those of you who don’t know…

Groupers are very large, stout-bodied fish with big mouths.

The Giant Grouper can grow in excess of two and a half metres in length…

and weigh up to three hundred kilograms.

And this was at least as big as me.

It slowly swam up to us…

and then, just as slowly, swam alongside us––

only about a couple of metres away–– 

with its large eye going back and forth between Natasha and me…

clearly checking us out, trying to make sense of us.

I wasn’t overly worried…

but, nonetheless, I gestured to Natasha for us to move on.

And, as we swam off––

in an un-rushed, non-threatening way––

the Grouper followed us…

keeping pace…

staying only a few metres behind…

swimming with its large mouth open, as they do.

After about a hundred metres or so, it obviously got bored and swam away.

At the time we thought of it as a nice wildlife encounter.

About a year or two later…

I was in a bookstore looking for a present for my nephew and came across one entitled “Dangerous Marine Animals”.

I was surprised to find the Giant Grouper listed.

I was even more surprised to discover…

that there have been several reported cases where one has tried to swallow a person.

Perhaps it wasn’t such a charming encounter after all!

 

In a way, Luke’s Christmas story is a bit like that.

On the surface–– 

and from a distance––

it seems a quaint, heart-warming tale.

Matthew’s story, on the other hand, has quite a hard edge.

In Joseph’s response to the news of Mary’s pregnancy––

and the reference, in the Greek, to him being an “honourable man”––

there’s a clear allusion to a possible honour-killing.

That’s followed, then, by the intrigue of the so-called “Wise Men” visiting…

and the diabolical political machinations of King Herod…

who ends up slaughtering all of the baby boys in Bethlehem;

with Joseph, Mary, and Jesus escaping in the nick of time.

But not so the story in Luke’s Gospel.

Its author seems to paint a serene and romantic picture for his Christmas story––

a simple, rustic setting…

with lots of animals…

humble shepherds…

and angelic choirs.

On the surface, at least, it’s a cute, heart-warming, feel-good sort of story––

a story which, of course, has given rise to our nativity scenes and our Christmas carols.

Behind that romantic portrait, the underlying message of the story––

the underlying message of the incarnation––

is that God reaches out to us…

that God comes to us…

metaphorically…

poetically…

existentially…

embodied in this tiny bundle called Jesus.

The story of the incarnation presents us with a God who comes to us…

enfleshed in all of the risks and potentials of human birth.

It presents us with a God who is experienced––

not through power or might or cosmic control…

but in fragility, vulnerability, helplessness, and dependence.

It presents us with a risk-taking, risk-filled God.

And yet, at the same time––

at least on some level––

it also presents us with an image of a cute and cuddly sort of God––

a God who is safe;

a God who, like any newborn baby, represents something of a blank canvas––

able to be fleshed out…

able to be shaped and moulded…

able to be taught and influenced.

The flip-side of the incarnation is, in many respects, a God who is somewhat malleable;

a God who is able to be formed into our image…

upholding and reinforcing our values and our concerns.

Of course, few of us think of God like that or respond to God like that––

at least not overtly or blatantly.

And yet, most of us, on some level, have a God-construct––

an image of a God–– 

that is safe and predictable…

affirming, comforting, and reassuring.

In some way or another, most of us presume that we know what God is like.

Indeed, many Christians are not afraid to proclaim what is God’s “will”––

what God thinks…

what God likes…

and what God wants from us.

 

All of which brings us to this morning’s reading––

the story of the presentation of Jesus at the Temple.

Like the birth story in Luke’s Gospel, initially, it conjures up warm, fuzzy feelings––

loving parents showing off their cute baby publicly for the first time…

strangers goo-ing, and gushing, and saying nice things—

a scene not unlike that of a baby’s christening.

But it’s not.

The hymn that the author has composed and placed on old Simeon’s lips––

traditionally known as the Nunc Dimittis––

is…

or ought to be…

more than a little unsettling.

Certainly, the way that the author constructs this story it was for Jesus’ parents…

for, he suggests…

they were “amazed” at what Simeon says about their baby.

And, in that time and that culture, that’s not a positive thing at all.

The sense of the Greek is more like they were “shocked”, “astonished”, even “dumbfounded”.

Why?

Because the author sounds a note that would have been discordant for any first-century Israelite.

He highlights the universality of Jesus and his mission…

suggesting that God’s salvation isn’t just for the Hebrew people—

as they all assumed––

but that God’s salvation is for all people.

That would have been unthinkable–– 

even offensive.

The author is suggesting, here, that non-Hebrew people are the recipients of God’s love and grace…

just as much as the Hebrew people are.

And there’s no suggestion that they are required to change… 

or even to ‘convert’ in order to receive it.

In other words, the author is suggesting… 

that the birth of Jesus overturns all of their preconceived ideas…

and all of their presumptions… 

about the nature of God… 

and about how God relates to humankind.

 

If we’re honest, that’s something with which we have always struggled.

And it’s something with which we continue to struggle, even today.

As sociologists continually remind us…

if it’s nothing else, then religion is, by nature, conservative.

It inherently serves the dominant ideology… 

and functions to maintain the social status quo.

It has done so throughout history.

It’s what politicians demand of it.

It’s what so many people––

overtly or inadvertently––

expect or crave from it.

And yet, the author of Luke’s Gospel suggests that the incarnation blows that apart––

or…

that it ought to.

As the great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth once asserted:

Faith in God’s revelation has nothing to do with an ideology which glorifies the status quo”.

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