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Son of God, Son of Mary, Son of David

 

Do you remember when you were a child and you couldn’t wait until Christmas? My sisters and I counted the days. By Christmas Eve we were beside ourselves. On Christmas morning when our parents finally gave us permission to get up, we children were down the stairs like the Kentucky Derby field leaving the starting gate.

There is a man, an old man now, whose anticipation of Christmas is as fresh as a child’s. What excites this old man isn’t the store-bought present wrapped in shiny paper; it’s the manger-born child wrapped in diapers. The old man’s name is Martin Luther. His Christmas exuberance is child-like. No one in the church catholic glories in Christmas in quite the way that Luther does.

There is good reason for this. Luther was no armchair spectator. He was immersed in life. Life had whirled him up into ceaseless turbulence and conflict. He was also immersed in Jesus Christ. And Christ was that luminosity which loomed before him and seized him and leant him righteousness and resilience; a righteousness and resilience that allowed him to resist the deadly forces which otherwise spewed destruction wherever one looked. When Luther spoke of temptation he didn’t mean titillating notions that lingered in one’s head like a catchy tune; he meant something so visceral, so gut-wrenching that even the strongest person shook. When Luther spoke of love, he didn’t mean benign sentiment; he meant the most passionate, self-forgetful self-giving. When Luther spoke of evil, he knew first-hand a horror as grotesque as it was terrible. Many people who are daintier than they should be are put off by Luther’s earthy language. They find it shocking. Do you know what he found shocking? – people who are so naive, so superficial, so clueless that they fail to understand that the world swarms and seethes and heaves. Luther knew that the world is the venue of a cosmic conflict which surges round and about, claiming victims here and there, while from time-to-time the front of this cosmic conflict passes right through your heart and mine. When it does, only the earthiest language is adequate.

Everyone knows what Luther said at the famous confrontation in the city of Worms , 1521. “Here I stand. I can do no other. I cannot and will not recant. God help me.” But few people are aware that he said this not in a spirit of petulant intransigence or puffed-up arrogance. He said this in anguish – anguish for many reasons, not the least of which was this: from that moment until the day he died, twenty-five years later, there was a price on his head. Even fewer people know what his opponent, Emperor Charles V, vowed in the face of Luther’s stand: “I have decided to mobilize everything against Luther: my kingdom, my dominions, my friends, my body, my blood, my soul.” In other words, the opposition Luther would face for the rest of his life was total, relentless, and lethal. And we find his vocabulary exaggerated and his delight in the Christmas gift childish? We should know what he knew: the world is a turbulent and treacherous place for any Christian in any era.

Creatures of modernity like you and me think we live in an ideational world. If we pass a motion at a meeting, we assume that a problem has been dealt with. If the House of Commons passes new legislation, we assume that injustice has been rectified. We assume that to discuss a social problem dispels the problem. We mull over different philosophies and compare them with “Christianity.” Luther didn’t speak of “Christianity;” he was possessed by the Christmas babe himself. He didn’t finesse theories of evil; he was confronted with powers of darkness so intense and so penetrating that either he looked to the One who is indeed victor or he unravelled.

I understand why Luther delighted in Christmas, why he looked forward to December 25th with a child’s tremulous longing. Then what is it about the manger-gift that sustained the Wittenberger then and sustains us now?

I: — First, he who adorns the manger is the Son of God. “Son of” in biblical parlance means “of the same nature as”. To behold the child who is Son of God is to behold the nature of God; or at least as much as can be beheld. Luther didn’t dispute the truth that God is magnificent, mighty, (almighty, in fact); God is resplendent, glorious, incomparably so. Luther never disputed this. He also said that we never see it. The God whose majesty is indescribable is hidden from us. But Christmas celebrates not God hidden but God revealed. And God revealed appears in the world as we are in the world: weak, vulnerable, suffering, bleeding.

The Nicene Creed says that “for us and our salvation the Son of God came down from heaven…” Came down? Yes. A condescension. Came down. Self-abasement. Humility? Certainly. Yet more than humility: humiliation. There’s a difference.

It is wonderful that God humbled himself for our sakes; wonderful that he didn’t confine himself to his splendour but accommodated himself to us his creatures. Yet immeasurably more wonderful is it that for our sakes he knew not merely humility, but even humiliation. We read in the gospels that the detractors of Jesus hissed that our Lord was illegitimate. “Why should we heed — or even hear — a bastard like you?” they taunted contemptuously. When he died, the same people quoted the book of Deuteronomy: “Cursed is he who hangs on a tree.” “That proves it!” the head-waggers chattered knowingly, “We were right to shun him. He was cursed by God all along. What insight we had from the start!” Humiliation? Crucifixion was a Roman penalty reserved for those deemed scum: military deserters, terrorists and rapists. Jesus is lumped in with that crowd.

Then there’s the cry of dereliction, “Why have you forsaken me?” It’s the most anguish-ridden cry that Jesus ever uttered. Yet since the Father and the Son are of the same nature, the cry of the Son’s dereliction is simultaneously the cry of the Father himself. It’s the cry of someone who has voluntarily undergone enormous wounding for the sake of those he holds dear. The cry of dereliction is really the cry of God himself over the pain of his torn heart, suffered for the sake of us whom he plainly loves more than he loves himself.

Not the hidden God (splendid, magnificent, majestic) but the revealed God (suffering, humbled, humiliated, slain;) only the revealed God can help us, said Luther. For only the revealed God has identified fully, identified himself wholly with the grief and guilt, turbulence and turpitude, conflict and slander and suffering that surround my life and yours. Only this God is of any help to us.

Luther used to say that the most comforting words in all of scripture are the six words – what do you think the six most comforting words are? – of the preface to the Ten Commandments: “I am the Lord your God.” If we really understood these six words, he said, we should be invincible. And who is the Lord our God? The God of manger and cross who will go to any length to seize, save and secure those whom he has named his own.

II: — Yet there is more to the manger-gift. Not only is he Son of God, he is also son of Mary. Jesus isn’t apparently human or seemingly human but actually human, fully human. “Tempted at all points as we are”, is the way the NT speaks of him. The one Greek word, PEIRAZEIN, means tempted, tested and tried all at once. Tempted, tested and tried like us but with this difference: he was never deflected in his human obedience, trust and love for his Father. He didn’t capitulate in the face of either the tempter’s threats or the tempter’s seductions.

Let’s talk about temptation for a minute. We modern types always assume that temptation is primarily temptation to do something wrong, temptation to commit a misdemeanour, temptation to contradict a code. But in scripture temptation is primarily temptation to deny the goodness of God. First we deny the goodness of God; next we deny the goodness of God’s claim upon our obedience (his claim upon our obedience, is of course our blessing;) finally we spurn the claim and disobey him – as we violate him and thereby violate ourselves. It’s not that we have done something wrong; rather, we have cast aspersion on the goodness of God and the goodness of his claim; the bottom line is that we have violated our relationship with God even as we have violated our very own person. It’s no wonder the Anglican Prayer Book reminds us, “And there is no health in us.”

He who is the son of Mary has been given to us as the one human being who doesn’t succumb to temptation; the one human being whose obedience to his Father is uncompromised, whose trust in his Father is undeflected, whose love for his Father is unrivalled by any other attachment. Then by faith I must cling to the Son of Mary, because my obedience is compromised a dozen times per day; my trust is fitful, and my love for God is forever being distracted by lesser attachments. The human response to God that I should make and even want to make has been corrupted, since I am a creature of the Fall.

Then of myself I can never render God the obedience and trust and love which befit the child of God. Nevertheless, there is provision for me: I can identify myself with the one whose human relationship to his Father is everything that mine isn’t. In faith I can cling gratefully to the son of Mary.

In the last few years family-therapists have come to appreciate the damage sustained by adults who came from what are called “shame-bound families.” We’re speaking now of the adult whose childhood unfolded in a family where the all-consuming preoccupation was the deep, dark family-secret that had to be kept secret. If the secret were told, public shame would spill over the family. Therefore any number of lies, evasions, and smokescreens were invented to cover up whoever it was in the family, whatever it was in the family, that threatened the family’s artificial reputation. The adult child of the shame-bound family now finds herself guilt-ridden, fearful, inhibited.

To belong to the family of God is to be relieved of being shame-bound. In the Son of God God has identified himself with me completely; all that is or might be shameful about me God has taken on and absorbed himself. In the Son of Mary, on the other hand, I have identified myself with the man Jesus. Whatever is genuinely shameful about me is taken up into the righteous humanness of Jesus himself. In his humanness he is the one with whom the Father is well-pleased. In faith, then, I cling to him, and in him my shame is bleached and blotted out.

III: — Lastly, the manger-gift is also the son of David. When people hailed Jesus as the son of David they were recognizing him as the Messiah. David had been Israel ’s greatest king, despite his undeniable feet of clay. David had valiantly tried to redress the injustices that pock-marked the nation. David was a harbinger, a precursor of the day when the just judge of the earth would no longer be defied and a topsy-turvy world would finally be righted.

Make no mistake. The world is topsy-turvy. A man who fails to hit a baseball seven times out of ten is guaranteed ten million dollars per year for the next five years. Meanwhile homemakers are selling daffodils on street corners because cancer patients needing treatment have been told that there’s a six-month waiting list for the equipment. The public education budget increases every year – and so does the incidence of illiteracy. Please note: concerning illiteracy Canada has surpassed both the United States and Italy . Canada is now, per capita, the most illiterate nation of the west – and all of this despite unprecedented billions spent on public education.

Anyone who struggles, like King David of old, to redress the injustices of the world learns quickly how frustrating, absurd and heartbreaking the struggle can be. A friend of mine who administers a facility for battered women was invited to duplicate the facility in another municipality, simply because of that municipality’s need. (In other words, wife-beating shows no signs of going out of style.) The institution she represents was offered free land by a developer. She spoke to municipal civil servants as well as to elected representatives. They promised to support her. When a public discussion was called concerning the project, however, both municipal staff and elected representatives sniffed the political wind-direction and turned on her. They didn’t merely withdraw the support they had promised; they faked surprise, as though they were hearing her for the first time, and then they denounced her, as though what she proposed (a facility for battered women) were antisocial and irresponsible and even patently ridiculous. (You see, a facility for battered women attracts creepy males as surely as a garbage dump attracts rats – so she was told.) I saw my friend two days after the event. She was still punch-drunk. She was shocked at the betrayal, the savagery, the greasy opportunism of it all. Luther wasn’t shocked at this. He was shocked at ignorant, fastidious people found his language shocking when he tried to address it.

The whole world cries out for the son of David, however inarticulately or unknowingly, just because the world cannot correct itself. As a matter of fact, the world is not getting better and better, however slowly. Then is hopelessness the only sensible attitude to have? Not for a minute. The manger-gift is the son of David, the Messiah promised of old, the royal ruler who will right the capsized world on that Day when he fashions a world in which righteousness dwells.

Then you and I must never capitulate to hopelessness. Neither do we disillusion ourselves with naiveness. Instead we faithfully, patiently, do whatever we can in anticipation of that Day when justice is done. And if what we do in anticipating this Day plunges us into even greater conflict for now, then our friend Luther will smile at us and say, “I could have told you that; I always knew that the appearance of Jesus Christ provokes conflict.” And at such a time we shall have to find our comfort and cheer in that manger-gift, the child of Bethlehem , who made Luther’s eyes light up like a child’s on Christmas morning.

He who has been given to us is the Son of God, the son of Mary, and the son of David.

As the Son of God he is God humbling himself, even humiliating himself in seeking to save us.

As the son of Mary he renders the Father the proper human response that we should make but can’t, and therefore we must cling to him in faith.

As the son of David he is the long-promised Messiah who guarantees us a righted world in which righteousness will one day be seen to dwell.

The Reverend Dr Victor Shepherd
Advent II 7th December 2008
Church of St Bride, Anglican, Mississauga