January 23rd, 2016
But I’m happy to have received this Gospel text again. Sometimes its beauty stops us from really opening up to receive it—like a beautiful piece of clothing in shop window, that we would like to have but convince ourselves we can’t afford. We walk away without looking at the price tag, which actually says, “Free.” And the Gospel is paired today with these great texts from Jeremiah and Paul’s letter to the Ephesians, and they all point to one thing—that God is working in time to bring all things into the fullness of his love and grace, according to his plan and his purpose, through Jesus Christ, his eternal Son.
Nowadays it is customary to downplay the idea that God has a plan for my life, or a plan for you, or other ideas of that sort. And this comes from a good place, a desire not to hurt someone when they’re experiencing bewilderment and pain. It comes from a good impulse, to avoid trying to arrange people’s lives into neat categories, at the expense, perhaps, of the lives of others. But what if Paul is right, and God has “a plan for the fullness of time”? Paul writes: “With all wisdom and insight he has made known to us the mystery of his will, according to the good pleasure he set forth in Christ, as a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth.” In the effort to avoid one error, we fall into another—to refrain from trying to explain pain away, we then remain silent about God, and render God impotent. God no longer is sovereign, but is ‘with us’ in pain. But that’s not what get from Scripture, especially not today—the God who is with us in pain, the God who is Immanuel, is also gathering all things in heaven and earth as the fullness of God’s plan comes forth. God brings together the mourning and sets them dancing with joy, if Jeremiah were to be believed.
What if the Fall were not an accident, but act of providence? People who answer this question by saying it was an act of providence are supralapsarians, which is one of my favorite theological words. Among the supralapsarians are Martin Luther, John Calvin, St. Augustine, and the Orthodox Church. My sister gave me a great little book for Christmas, called Becoming Human, by the Orthodox theologian John Behr, who teaches just north of here in Yonkers at St. Vladimir’s Seminary. And even though it is almost as short as this sermon, it is as lovely as an account of supralapsarianism as I have ever read.
In this book, John Behr points out that in the Creation story, after God makes a thing, “it was so.” Except, the human beings. The human being isn’t finished until Pilate points to Jesus on the cross in the Gospel of John and says, “Behold the human being.” And then Christ says, “It is finished,” and he dies for the sake of the world. In the fullness of time, Christ came and the work of God to make a human being was completed. And when we die in Baptism, we become human as Christ did in death. “In this providential plan,” he writes, “the human race comes to learn of its own weakness, but also and simultaneously comes to know the greatness of God manifest in its own weakness, transform the mortal to immortality and the corruptible to incorruption…for it is precisely by his death that Christ has conquered death.” In other words, we need weakness to know the power of God, which is hidden in weakness, and the cross, and in death, because if we had never known weakness, we would have never known that God’s strength is made perfect in weakness.
This is a very interesting little book, this Becoming Human. I had been wanting to preach on the idea of the fall. When I was preparing for the Holy Innocents service, I picked a hymn called “There’s a Wideness in God’s Mercy,” primarily because it spoke about the evils of life and of God’s greater goodness. In the hymn there’s a verse—“Tis not all we owe to Jesus/it is something more than all/Greater good because of evil/larger mercy through the fall/make our love, O God, more faithful/let us take you at your word/and our lives will be thanksgiving/for the goodness of the Lord.” And it got me thinking about the ways of God, who can work with evil and bring good out of it, how all the defeats and horrors of life fail to overcome God’s goodness.
At the end of the prologue to the Gospel of John, we hear: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” Here John is already speaking about the crucifixion and the resurrection, when the power of God will be made perfect in weakness, and where the human being will be complete. This last line is filled with the promise of Good Friday, or as Auden put it in his poem: “The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory/ And already the mind begins to be vaguely aware/Of an unpleasant whiff of apprehension at the thought/Of Lent and Good Friday which cannot, after all, now/Be very far off.” And yet it should not be unpleasant, but a happy thought, and one that also invites us more deeply into the present, that our own deaths in baptism were the births of our new lives in Christ Jesus.
“In [Christ],” Paul writes, “when you had heard the word of truth, the good news of your salvation, and had believed in him, you also were marked with the seal of the promised Holy Spirit; this is the pledge of our inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people, to the praise of his glory.” Here Paul is speaking of baptism, of that death and birth. The amazing thing about this day, this Christmas that we celebrate, this Easter that we anticipate with longing, is that reality of this present moment: that by our Baptisms, God has made us children, sharing in his glory as Christ shares in the glory of the father. Grace and truth come to us through Jesus Christ—and all who believe in the name of Christ, God gives the power to become his children, born of God, through the Word. This is God’s plan all along—to make you not only a creature, but his very own child through his powerful word. Amen.
Reverend John Flack