December 18, 2016










Fourth Sunday of Advent - Year A

A Sermon Preached by Berkeley D Johnson III on December 18, 2016


It is an honor and privilege to have the opportunity to preach on these lessons on the fourth and final Sunday in Advent.


My goal, as always, is to move your hearts, spirits, and minds, and hopefully to leave you with more questions than answers.


My first prayer, for each of us, is that we not question our faith, or despair that our faith may be inadequate, because we wonder whether angels are real, or if we can truly believe in a virginal conception.

In the course of my work as
a hospice chaplain, I have had the
chance to focus on angels,


and even though I have not, that I know of, seen one with my eyes, or encountered one, that I can recall, in a dream the way that Joseph did, I am at this point pretty fairly convinced, from my experience, that angels are part of the reality of the universe, that they are messengers from God, that they love us unconditionally, and that we can call on them in need.


And what is it that the angels always seem to say? “Do not be afraid...” Indeed, those are the first words the angel speaks to Joseph. And Joseph, in his wisdom, and to his everlasting credit, listens.


Now, Matthew's story about how the birth of Jesus took place is quite different from Luke's; but rather than get into all of that here, please know that I still have a few copies of a wonderful little book, Raymond Brown's An Adult Christ at Christmas, and I'm hoping to gather with a few faithful souls this week to talk about the two birth stories, or infancy narratives, as Brown calls them. So, if you'd like to be a part of that, please let me know after the service.


But I do want to touch this morning on a kernel that Brown uncovers in his work; what he refers to as the “chronologically-backwards growth,” or development, of the “christological moment” – the moment when Jesus' divinity is established – because it relates directly to today's Gospel lesson and to the epistle reading from Romans which we just heard.


If you noticed, this is the very beginning of the Letter to the Romans. Chapter One, Verse One. And this is how Paul begins his letter: he introduces himself: “Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God...”


He then articulates his understanding of Jesus' divinity, how it is that Jesus is declared to be “Son of God.”


And how is it? “with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead...”


So, think about that for a moment: Paul, writing first, before any of the Gospels, and consistent with the most ancient preaching and earliest creedal statements about Jesus, identifies the Resurrection as the “christological moment” - the moment when Jesus is declared to be, or becomes, God's Son.


But, as Brown points out, further reflection on the mystery of Jesus by the early Christian community ultimately rendered this understanding inadequate, because, as he writes, “it did not do justice to the continuity between the Jesus of the ministry and the risen Lord.” Do you see?; “Christian penetration into the mystery of Jesus illuminated the fact that he was already Lord and Messiah during his lifetime, so that the resurrection was the unveiling of a divine sonship that was already there.”


And so, consistent with this deepening awareness, Mark, which is the earliest-written of the Gospels, begins the process of moving that christological moment, from the resurrection, back to Jesus' baptism, where the Holy Spirit, previously associated with the risen Christ, now descends on Jesus at his baptism. Does everyone recall how Mark's Gospel begins? “The beginning of the Good News of Jesus Christ, the Son of God”; and it commences with Jesus' baptism, where the Holy Spirit descends as a dove, and the divine voice designates, or reveals, Jesus as God's Son.


But as this mystery, as this christological moment, was pondered even more deeply, so too the baptism ultimately becomes an inadequate starting point; for if Jesus was and is truly divine, then he must have been so always – throughout his entire life – right? Thus, in order to remove any doubt, Matthew and Luke move the beginning of the Gospel, the christological moment, from Jesus' baptism, back to his conception and birth, which now becomes the moment when God reveals who Jesus was.


And finally, although Brown doesn't go there, as I have pondered this mystery over the years, I have been led of course to consider what the last gospel writer, John, might have had to say about it. And there it is: this chronologically backwards-developing christology is made complete, as it is moved all the way back, to before time. For as John writes,


“In the beginning was the
Word.” And who or what is that
Word? Yes, it's Christ. And what
becomes of that Word? The
Word becomes Incarnate. “And the
Word became flesh, and dwelt
among us.”

Now, you can correct me if I'm wrong, but I think that “In the beginning” is as far back as we can go.


The point of all this is that we have received these accounts of Resurrection and Incarnation, not merely as concepts to be believed or disbelieved, or set up as stumbling blocks for our faith, but as gifts to be cherished, to be reflected on and pondered, to be pored over and studied, and to be contemplated in meditation and prayer.


Certainly, it has been that way for me. My christological moment, as it were, came in 1994, when I surrendered: when I finally decided to give up trying to understand, or wondering whether I actually believed in the Resurrection, and told God that I would simply accept it in my heart. That was the turning point: the moment when everything changed for me. Because once I accepted the Resurrection in my heart, everything else became quite easy by comparison. If I believe, if I truly trust in my heart, that Jesus has been raised from the dead, then why should anything else be of any difficulty?


The lesson here, if there is one, is

that faith precedes


Remember that. Faith, for me, is the giving over of one's heart, before we have full or complete understanding in our head – before we know fully what it is that we are giving ourselves over to -- that is what removes the stumbling block and creates the space for God to enter in.

So, if the virginal conception is a stumbling block, remember that it wasn't the earliest creedal statement about Jesus' divinty, nor was it even the second, nor was it the last. It is simply one point, one step, in an evolution, as it were, of the deepening mystery and dawning awareness of who Christ Jesus was, is, and is to be. Seeing it in this way perhaps then can be a cause for rejoicing: we can give thanks that Matthew entered into this fray of christological insight, and offered and established a new way, through his account, of understanding the miracle and mystery of Christ.

As you know, I am loathe to give advice or formulas; but I suppose the sharing of my story reveals it is my experience that at some point, for some of us, we may need to confront some aspect of our faith in order to grow in faith. So perhaps that is what the Holy Spirit has called me to share with you this morning. Perhaps some of us have confronted an ultimate question about our faith; perhaps some of us haven't; perhaps some of us have, but have since forgotten the lesson; perhaps some of us can't quite conceive yet of doing something like that; and perhaps some of us are just fine and never will and don't need to, thank you very much.


In closing, I would like to offer a prayer I saw this past week that moved me quite deeply. It was written for those affected by, and responding to, the humanitarian crisis in Aleppo, and I share it here as a reminder that our lives and our faith, that Incarnation and Resurrection, are not a means of escaping from suffering, but rather are an acceptance of, and the result of, entering into suffering.

  • We pray for those damaged by the fighting in Syria.
  • To the wounded and injured: Come Lord Jesus.
  • To the terrified, who are living in shock: Come Lord Jesus.
  • To the hungry and homeless, refugee and exile: Come Lord Jesus.
  • To those bringing humanitarian aid: Give protection Lord Jesus.
  • To those administering medical assistance: Give protection Lord Jesus.
  • To those offering counsel and care: Give protection Lord Jesus.
  • For all making the sacrifice of love: Give the strength of your Spirit and the joy of your comfort.
  • •In the hope of Christ we pray. Amen.

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