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Sermon First Sunday of Christmas: Believing is Seeing, New Year’s Day, 2012 at Resurrection Lutheran Church in Oakland, CA

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First Sunday of Christmas at Resurrection Lutheran Church Oakland, California January 1, 2012

Believing is Seeing

Isaiah 61:10-62:3 Psalm 148 Gal 4:4-7 Luke 2:22-40

We’re celebrating the first Sunday of Christmas here on the secular New Year’s Day, 2012. The year 2011 was quite a rough one. We wonder what the New Year 2012 will bring. When we wonder it is with good hope in our hearts because of Christmas and our celebration of God coming to be with us in Christ. Therefore, whatever the New Year brings, God in Christ with all the gospel promises will remain, stay, abide, accompany, and carry us right on through it – I want to be redundant as possible to increase our faith. For with faith we will attain more than victory.

For the secular order seeing is believing, but for people of faith believing is seeing. Believing is a new sense of sight and this sight is representative for all our senses and indeed, for the renewal of our whole being, which is the only thing that will make our new Year become really fresh and new.

For Christians Advent begins the New Year. Without the birth of Christ and the new quality of existence that becomes ours through the new birth that we receive through Christ, one year will just follow another, like Shakespeare says, ”until the last syllable of recorded time.” We “fret our lives on a stage” and “it all signifies nothing.” (I know I am conflating a few of Shakespeare’s quotes.)[1]

The secular gets all its life and meaning from the Incarnation, as our Galatians texts says, “In the fullness of time, God sent his Son, born of a woman – meaning that Christ was human, and born under the law, meaning that he was a Jew, to redeem those who are under the law – that we also might achieve the adoption as [God’s] children.”

My father would compare the secular order to a freight train that was still moving after the locomotive, the engine had become detached. The wagons would still roll for a while, but disconnected from the source of their movement, they would have to come to a stop.

When we stay connected with God by remaining people of faith, our believing becomes transformed into seeing, that is experience. Through faith God is at work in us and brings about our seeing “the salvation that God has prepared in the presence of all people” and “the redemption of Jerusalem” – to use the prophetic words of Simeon and Anna in the temple.

Remember how the people in Bethlehem’s nativity were amazed at what the shepherd’s told them? They told them how the angel of the Lord revealed to them that this little one, born in a stall and laid in a food trough, was Christ our Savior. Here in the temple, poor Mary and Joseph are amazed at what Simeon and Anna tell them about their child. We know that they were poor because they could not afford to offer a lamb, but could only offer two turtle doves or young pigeons for their first born offering. But through the eyes of faith and the leading of the Holy Spirit, Simeon and Anna could see that Mary and Joseph without realizing it were bringing with them – the Lamb of God!

We miss the boat when these amazing revelations are not believed by us and what’s more, when we do not believe that they are about us. After we hear the narrative of Joseph and Mary following the law and going to the temple, it is about them in the third person. But we also have to believe the story so that we see that it is about us – in the first and second persons, about me and you. Then it becomes the story that we are living here and now.

Thus St. Paul tells us in Galatians: in the fullness of time, God sent his Son so that we might receive adoption as [God’s] children. And because we are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son, Jesus Christ, into our hearts, crying Abba, dear Father. Thus we are no longer slaves, but children and if children then heirs of God through Christ.”

Can you possibly imagine what it means to be an heir of God? God is much richer that Rockefeller and we have been adopted in God’s family and we receive places around the Table of the Lord.

These matters are hard to believe, because what we see is so adversely opposed and contradictory. The world is very much with us – our suffering, our pain, our disappointment, our realization that our days are numbered. But the good news is that Christ has come to marvelously exchange his divine and immortal nature for our human mortal one. Christ will exchange our sinful human birth for his divine and righteous birth. In our song, “Let All Together Praise Our God,”[2] we will sing that Christ will become the slave and I a lord[3] or if you like, Christ a slave and I a lady, in the sense of nobility, the nobility of the spirit; in the sense of graduating in stature to a first born status, whatever your actual birth order. I am the eleventh child, but Christ makes me and you become first born. In this marvelous exchange with Christ, we become promoted beyond nobility, because what family can match having one drop of the blood of Christ? In faith we ascend into the royal priesthood and become Christs one to another until we ascend by faith into the divine things of God. This wonderful ascent comes from the marvelous exchange brought about through faith. Believe it and you will receive it. Believe it not and you won’t.[4]

To anticipate our sermon hymn again, when we sang the song it always gave me such a thrill when I heard that the angel no longer blocks the gate to paradise.[5] In German it goes: Heut schleusst er wieder auf die Tür zum schönen Paradeis. Der Cherub steht nicht mehr dafür. Gott sei Lob, Ehr, und Preis!  Today God has reopened the gate to Paradise. The angel with the fiery sword no longer bars our way; to God let our praises rise!

So through the open gates of Paradise we can go back to the beginning of time, when creation is fresh and new and become the new Adams and Eves in the very garden of delights, which is what the Garden of Eden means, that, however, by becoming christs one to another, which means lovingly giving up our lives for one another. Thus we have a new garden, but also a new city of Jerusalem – a new garden in a city and a new city in a garden, in which the children of God inherit all God’s divine possessions together.

It’s not crazy to believe these things, which it certainly seems to be for a hard-nosed realist. But it is not crazy when in faith we receive this kind of time out of God’s hand and we later reflect on the wonderful time that God has given us and realize that it is not at all a story, but the amazing story of what God has done in our own very lives.

Now I have to admit that all these wonderful experiences that God gives us were not without much suffering. But that suffering only gave to our lives a deeper and richer quality of love and the story then all adds to the music of our witness.

After Simeon’s great prophesy, “Now I can depart in Peace,” the Nunc demittis, he tells Mary that this Christ-child will be a sign opposed for the rising and falling of many and make it so that the inner thoughts of many become revealed. I know that this really means that the first will be last and the last first in terms of Christ’s divine dominion as opposed to earthly ones. But when we have received Christ into our hearts, when God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts and like Christ we too call our dear Father God, Abba, then the rising we do in faith is again through being first born to royalty to priesthood and Christhood up into God and the falling proceeds through love all the way back down these levels until we are below and ready to serve the least of these. The ascent in faith merely provides the strength for any descent in love. Perhaps that is why we speak of “falling in love.”[6]

When we have received Christ, when we have been born by the water and the Spirit, then our inner thoughts that are revealed will be wonderful, will be beautiful. And not only our thoughts, but our Christhood will be revealed, because as St. Paul says in Romans chapter eight, the whole creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God (Rom 8:19).

We all first oppose Christ. But when our new birth in Christ takes place, then we will unfold, develop, and grow, as the Scriptures say about the Christ child: we too will become strong, filled by wisdom, because of the favor of God upon us (Luke 2:40).

That the story of Christ should become our story, because the love of God makes Christ exchange places with us – should fill us with amazement. Eye has not seen or ear heard, nor could a heart possibly imagine the marvelous things that the Lord has prepared for those who love him and are called to God’s purposes (cf. 1 Cor 2:9).

We are somewhat like Mary and Joseph coming in their poverty to offer two turtle dove or young pigeons, not realizing that with them they have the very Lamb of God. And Simeon and Anna’s eyes of faith could see that they held the Lamb of God who would take way the sin of the world – and they did not even realize it.

When we start seeing with our eyes of faith then the prophesy of Isaiah will also open up to us: we too will greatly rejoice in God and our whole being will exult in our God, for like a bride and groom we will realize that we are dressed by God for a wedding feast in garments of grace, a suit of salvation, and covered in a robes of righteousness. The gifts of the Holy Spirit will sparkle like diamonds and our souls will shine like gems and jewels. Justice will overflow and spread over the earth like growing vegetation: trees, grass, flowers and fruit for all the nations of the earth; because Christ is the vindication of Zion. Christ is the burning torch lifted up to light the new city of Jerusalem.

The nations will see the King of Glory and we shall all be given a new name, which will be the surname, Christ. This name will come to us from the mouth of God and we will all be the children of God. Because of Jesus Christ we will be crowns of beauty in the hand of God, because Christ the Lord is the royal diadem and the right hand of God.[7] Believing becomes seeing as God makes all things new for a truly blessed and Happy New Year. Amen.

[1] To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow, Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time; And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage, And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, Signifying nothing. Macbeth Act 5, scene 5, 19–28

[2] The verse here is the fourth: Christ undertakes a great exchange/ Puts on our human frame/ And in return gives us his realm/ his glory and his name/ his glory and his name.

[3] Verse 5: Christ is a servant, I a lord/ How great a mystery!/ How strong the tender Christchild’s love!/ No truer friend than He/ No truer friend than He.

[4] I am referring to what I call the existential rapture in Martin Luther’s “Freedom of the Christian” (1520).

See my Notes on another reading of this Luther pamphlet:

[5] Verse 6: Christ is the key, and he the door/ To blessed Paradise;/ The angel bars the way no more/ To God our praises rise/ To God our praises rise.

[6] The ascent in faith tends to lift up my self-esteem, when it has become beaten down.

[7] Compare the last two paragraphs with the Isaiah text 61:10-62:3.


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