24 December 2017 – A Fervent Love

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Rev’d Peter Norman

Mary’s experience of becoming the mother of the Coming One is revealed to
be not just about her giving birth to a child, but about her participating in
bringing a whole new world to birth. And so, this week, as we finish our time of
preparation, we discover that we’re not just waiting for a person – however
divine he may be. We are waiting for a radically new way of being that
embraces not just Jesus, or those involved in his birth, but the entire cosmos!

The dynamic of Advent and the Incarnation is often described in terms of God’s
choice to reduce, to diminish, to descend to the level of humanity for
mysterious reasons that lie at the heart of our faith. As Paul writes in his letter
to the Philippians, in a passage that many New Testament scholars believe to
be the text of an ancient hymn sung in early Christian worship, “Who, being in
the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made
himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was
made in the likeness of men. And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled
himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross”
(Galatians 2:6-8). When we try to “make sense” of the Incarnation, to shape
the heart of the Christian faith into doctrine, it is often said, and quite rightly,
that the energizing reason for the Incarnation is love, but what does this
mean? There are probably more theories about love than anything else. We
know this from human love; to the extent that one tries to explain why one
loves another. Hence, there is no reason to think that love between God and
humans will be any easier to get a handle on. How can we explain God’s love?
What if we were to just accept God’s love for humanity, without trying to
theorise about it? A love so great, so the bible tells us, that it causes God
to become human, as a sign that we are worth it. In her book The Givenness of
Things, American novelist and essayist Marilynne Robinson writes, “To
properly value this pledge of fervent love, the Incarnation, we must try to see
the world as deserving of it. . . . What would tip the balance toward accepting
the truth of the Gospel? What would make the Incarnation with all it implies
credible, even necessary? Reverence toward humankind. The hardest question
Jesus puts to us is really whether we believe in ourselves”.

In 19 th Century Danish philosopher and theologian Søren Kierkegaard’s book
Philosophical Fragments, we find a story about a powerful king who falls in
love with a lowly maiden. The maiden is unaware of the king’s love, and the
king is worried. Knowing that love is built on equality, how is the gap between
his royal greatness and her humble maidenhood to be crossed. He does not
want to coerce her into loving him by revealing his love in its entire splendour,
nor would elevating her to royal status work, since then she would simply be
the same lowly maiden with a better wardrobe and job description. The only
possible solution to the king’s problem is remarkably simple. “Since union
could not be brought about by an elevation it must be attempted by a
descent.” The king must step down from his royal throne and enter the
maiden’s hut as an equal. Not as a king in a peasant’s costume, but as a
peasant. Only then can he be sure that she might return his love because of
the person he is rather than because of the role he inhabits. The king’s advisors
and courtiers are astounded—how to explain the choice to leave royalty
behind for a simple girl, especially since she is unaware of the king’s love? And
this, Kierkegaard reminds us, is precisely the mystery and madness of love, not
only of the king for the maiden, but also of God for human beings. “This is the
unfathomable nature of love, that it desires equality with the beloved, not in
jest merely, but in earnest and truth.”

The last Sunday in Advent offers a creative juxtaposition of images. In the Old
Testament God’s promise to David is spoken through Nathan the prophet. It is
a fascinating exchange in which David seeks to align God with his own agenda
by building God a house. But, in reply God refuses, offering instead to build for
David a home, meaning, establish a dynasty. As Psalm 89 reveals, God does not
need David’s wealth or protection and God will not be domesticated to David’s
agenda. Rather it is David who is to be strengthened by God and who is to align
with God’s purpose. “With my holy oil I have anointed him; my hand shall
always remain with him; I will make him the firstborn, the highest of the kings
of the earth. (Psalm 89: 20 -21, 27). Yet, centuries later when this promise is
fulfilled in Christ, the way it happens is in stark contrast to the royal wealth and
grandeur of David. In fact, the circumstances and songs of Christ’s incarnation
reveal the Baby to be One who undermines imperial power, wealth and
domination in all its forms. Further on in the 1 st chapter of Luke Mary sings “the
Lord has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts, brought down the
powerful from their thrones and sent the rich away empty (Luke 1: 51-53).
Mary’s Magnificat, celebrates God’s grace and justice. God has fulfilled the
promise to Abraham and Abraham’s descendants, raising up the lowly, and
bringing down the powerful. In Mary’s Magnificat the subversive nature of
God’s Reign in Christ is celebrated, and in Paul’s closing words in today’s
passage from Romans, the radically inclusive nature of this Reign is celebrated.
So as we hear again, the announcement of Christ’s incarnation, may we
remember that it’s not just the birth of a Child that is important here, but the
birth of a whole new order of love and justice which this Child brings into our

We return to the story of the king and the maiden. Let us imagine the
challenge presented to the king who now, as a peasant, must win the love of
the maiden whom he inexplicably loves. Surely, there will be regular
temptations to rely or fall back on what he has left behind—his power, wealth,
connections, and status, but if she is to truly love him, she must love him for
what he truly is—a human being just as she is, hopefully the best that a human
being can be. He must live, work, eat, and sleep in the same world as she does,
with no special favour or trappings. This is precisely what we find Jesus doing
in the Gospels. He lives a human life in which divinity shines through
fundamental ordinariness. Marilynne Robinson writes, “How does such a being
live in the world? If his divine nature is granted, what shape and content will it
impart to his singular, mortal life? Jesus participates profoundly in human life
without any compromise of his divine nature. This is an extraordinary
statement about the nature of human life. The Gospel writers can evoke at the
same time a figure so persuasively human that his life seems sufficient in itself,
without any reference to his transcendence. This means that his Incarnation,
his life on earth, was real. It is surely among the mysteries of Incarnation that
Jesus could take on human language as well as human flesh, and that he could
find it suited to his uses. In what human form can the divine be wholly present
without violating the conditions of human existence? A very ordinary life, it
would seem. There is much that is thrilling and telling in the thought that true
divinity can assume the place of a human being and yet remain an ordinary
man to every mortal eye”.

When reading the Gospels, we often are drawn to Jesus’ miracles as moths to a
flame, the events in which Jesus’ humanity seems temporarily unable to
contain his divinity. However, Jesus himself never seems to think of the
miracles that way; he regularly emphasizes their ordinariness, and discourages
anyone seeking to follow him simply because of the miracles. Jesus often
instructs the recipients of his miracles not to tell anyone; furthermore, after
many months in Jesus’ presence, his disciples are sent out to do the very things
that we consider to be miraculous. About his miracles, he tells his followers
“Greater works than these shall you do.” Ralph Waldo Emerson suggests that
we should accordingly consider Jesus in a new way: Alone in history he
estimated the greatness of man. One man was true to what is in you and me.
He saw that God was incarnate in a person, and evermore goes forth anew to
take possession of the World. He said, in this jubilee of sublime emotion, “I am
divine. Through me, God acts; through me, God speaks. Would you see God,
see me; or see yourself”. . . He was the only soul in history who has
appreciated the worth of each human being.

During this Advent season, as we await the Incarnation anew, we would do
well to remember, in the midst of daily reminders of how deeply into apathy,
depravity, and evil human beings are capable of descending, that we are also
the recipients of divine love, a love of which, in some inexplicable way, we are
worthy. This should make a difference in how we think about and act toward
ourselves and each other. As Marilynne Robinson opines, “so let us say Christ
entered the world as essential truth, cosmic truth mediated to us in a form
presumably most accessible to us, a human presence, a human life. That he
should have done so is an absolute statement of our value, which we have
always done so much to obscure. It is possible to claim a dignity for humankind
that is assured because it is bestowed on us, that is, because it is beyond even
our formidable powers to besmirch and destroy. Human beings are sacred
things whom it is indeed blasphemy to wrong. Only think what we
are, then why God might have a fondness for us”.

Let us not be afraid to make this personal during this Advent season. If God has
taken pleasure in creation, there is every reason to assume that some part of
God’s pleasure is in your best idea, your most generous impulse, your most
disciplined thinking on whatever is true, honourable, just, pure, pleasing,
excellent, and worthy of praise.

God loves us. God is with us. God is in us. Have a blessed Christmas.