26 December 2014

Sermon – “A Christmas Triptych” (John 1:14)

I understand that the triptych began as a specifically Christian form of art. Instead of a single canvas, three panels are used to portray a particular truth or incident. In that sense, triptychs offer a fuller, you might even say three-dimensional, perspective of what they portray. Perhaps for this reason the Bible gives us not one but three accounts of Jesus’ coming into the world: one each in the gospels of St Matthew, St Luke and St John. Each of them has a slightly different story to tell, recounted from a different perspective. I believe it is only when you have heard all three, looked at all three panels so to speak, that you can come to a full understanding of the Christmas story.

Unfortunately, at the Christmas services we usually have time only to read one, to look at a single panel. But for the next few moments I want us to fold out the triptych and to look at all three.

Luke: A picture of Mary

We begin with St Luke, whose account of the first Christmas is perhaps the most familiar. It is Luke who tells us of the angel coming to Mary and announcing to her that she will bear a son. It is Luke who tells us of the long trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem. It is Luke who tells us about the shepherds and the angelic choir.

It has long been observed that Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth is written from the perspective of the Virgin Mary. Mary was probably a young girl in her early teens, barely a woman at all, when she became betrothed to Joseph, a carpenter. Betrothal was the stage that preceded marriage. It lasted for a full year and was something considerably more serious than modern-day engagement. For one thing, it was every bit as binding as marriage and could only be broken by a formal act of divorce.

It was in this betrothal period, then, that Mary received a strange visitor—an angel sent from God. Now we mustn’t necessarily think of an angel as some winged being robed in dazzling white, as artists so often portray them. The word both in the Hebrew of the Old Testament and the Greek of the New simply means a messenger. So we have no reason to think that the room where Mary sat was necessarily flooded with blinding light. It may have been just an ordinary meeting. What was extraordinary was not the messenger as much as the message that Mary received: that without having engaged in sexual relations with any man (not least her fiancé Joseph) Mary was to become pregnant and give birth to a child. Even more astounding was that that child would be the Son of God.

Mary’s initial reaction was bewilderment. How could any of this be possible? She lived in an era centuries before the development of modern embryology but she knew as well as you or I do that virgins do not get pregnant. Perhaps it was the angel’s final words that convinced her: “Nothing is impossible with God.” And we all know Mary’s response: “Here I am, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” And the rest, we might say, is history.

Matthew: A picture of Joseph

We turn now from Luke’s gospel to Matthew’s. Luke wrote his account of Jesus’ birth from the perspective of Mary but Matthew tells the Christmas story from the eyes of Joseph. And of course it is from Matthew as well that we learn about the visit of the wise men, of King Herod’s uncontrollable jealousy, and of Mary and Joseph’s being forced to escape to Egypt with their newborn son. But back to Joseph.

Somehow word had reached him that Mary was pregnant. Could it have been through Mary’s relatives Elizabeth and Zechariah? Could it have been through the village grapevine? I like to think that Mary herself might have told him what had happened. Whatever route it took, Joseph had learned of Mary’s condition and this threw him into a moral dilemma. What was he to do? One option was to call off the betrothal. But he would have to find a way of doing it quietly, behind the scenes, or else Mary could end up being publicly accused of adultery. And on that topic the Scriptures were clear: “If a man commits adultery with the wife of his neighbor, both the adulterer and the adulteress shall be put to death” (Leviticus 20:10). Perhaps images conjured up in Joseph’s mind similar to what we read of the woman who was brought to Jesus after being caught in adultery.

It was as Joseph was tossing all of this back and forth in his mind that he too received a visit from an angel—in his case not in person, but in a dream, but the message was the same. “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” This was all that Joseph needed. He awoke from sleep determined to take Mary as his bride and to suffer the consequences of people always talking (but never to him) about the questionable provenance of her child.

John: A picture of God

Turn on a few pages now to John’s gospel. If Luke wrote from Mary’s outlook and Matthew from Joseph’s, whose perspective does John represent? The answer, I believe, is God’s. We hear nothing from John about the maid in Nazareth or of the carpenter who was her husband-to-be. Instead, John points us upward to gaze into the vastness of the cosmos and to look back, if we can, to the very beginning of time.

As John tells it, the story of Jesus does not begin with an angel coming to a virgin or with a carpenter waking from a dream. No, it begins deep within the very heart of God. What happened that first Christmas morning had somehow, mysteriously, been a part of God’s plan of creation, part of his very being as Love, right from the beginning, before ever the first word was spoken and there was light.

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.

So there you have a triptych: three pictures of the coming of Jesus from three different perspectives. But what is it that unites these three pictures, that gives them unity? The answer, I believe, is faith. We have the faith of Mary, who not knowing what the future might hold, trusted God enough to take that next step after which nothing could ever be the same again and say to the angel, “Here I am… Let it be to me according to your word.” There was Joseph, who was also willing to trust God to bring him and Mary through the shame and the gossip, the sideways glances and whispered murmurs that would forever be a part of their life in the village of Nazareth.

I am grateful to Nancy Clauss for posting on Facebook a recent op-ed article about faith by New York Times columnist David Brooks. I found it tremendously helpful and challenging. He describes the main business of faith as

… living attentively every day. The faithful are trying to live in ways their creator loves. They are trying to turn moments of spontaneous consciousness into an ethos of strict conscience. They are using effervescent sensations of holiness to inspire concrete habits, moral practices and practical ways of living well.

Marx thought that religion was the opiate of the masses, but [Rabbi Joseph] Soloveitchik argues that, on the contrary, this business of living out a faith is complex and arduous: “The pangs of searching and groping, the tortures of spiritual crises and exhausting treks of the soul purify and sanctify man, cleanse his thoughts, and purge them of the husks of superficiality and the dross of vulgarity. Out of these torments there emerges a new understanding of the world, a powerful spiritual enthusiasm that shakes the very foundations of man’s existence.”

Insecure believers sometimes cling to a rigid and simplistic faith. But confident believers are willing to face their dry spells, doubts, and evolution. Faith as practiced by such people is change. It is restless, growing. It’s not right and wrong that changes, but their spiritual state and their daily practice. As the longings grow richer, life does, too. As [Yale professor and poet Christian] Wiman notes, “To be truly alive is to feel one’s ultimate existence within one’s daily existence.”[1]

The Letter to the Hebrews puts it more succinctly: “Faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” This was the case with Mary and with Joseph. They had come to see their lives, indeed life itself, within the context of the transcendent, always loving purposes of God. Not that there were not doubts, problems, conflicts—but their faith in God would always sustain them through them.
We’ve thought about Mary and Joseph, but what about the middle panel of our triptych? What about God? Perhaps I am teetering on the brink of heresy, but I believe that at Christmas our God himself also showed faith—faith to become a tiny cluster of cells within a woman’s uterus, faith to be a helpless infant in his mother’s arms, faith to think that one man in a far-off corner of an empire could change the world, faith to undergo his own death… And that same God comes to you and to me today and invites us on that same adventure of faith, to follow the one who teaches, “Those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it” (Mark 8:35).

[1]     David Brooks, “The Subtle Sensations of Faith”, New York Times, 23 December 2014, p. A27. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/23/opinion/david-brooks-the-subtle-sensations-of-faith.html?smid=fb-share&_r=0

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