Sunday, December 18, 2016

This Week's Sermon: "The Fulfillment of Prophecy"

John 1:15-18

15 John testified about him, crying out, “This is the one of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me is greater than me because he existed before me.’”

16 From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace; 

17 as the Law was given through Moses, so grace and truth came into being through Jesus Christ. 

18 No one has ever seen God. God the only Son, who is at the Father’s side, has made God known. (Common English Bible)

“The First Christmas: Recreating a Holiday’s Original Meaning,” Week Four

I remember as a kid that meeting your sports heroes was just about the most amazing thing that could happen, right after an all-day Power Rangers marathon on television or pizza day at the school cafeteria. It probably would have taken on even more meaning to me if I were not raised in the comfortable circumstances that I was, but was instead this little boy on the very margins of the world as an exile who idolized Barcelona’s Lionel Messi, whom Sports Illustrated writes about here:

Six-year-old Murtaza Ahmadi, an Afghan boy who rose to online fame by wearing a makeshift Lionel Messi jersey made from a plastic bag, finally met the Barcelona star after months of waiting. After a meeting was set back in February, and Messi sent along some signed jerseys and a signed ball, the boy was forced into exile in May amid threats from the Taliban. He emerged on Tuesday, alive and well, in the arms of his hero.

It is a heartwarming story, and yet even behind it, there are shadows that give the adult version of me pause. Messi is accused of tax evasion in Spain, where he plays his club soccer. The event was covered by the Qatari organization dedicated to putting on the 2022 World Cup, a tournament almost certainly awarded to them by bribing the FIFA executives who voted on where to host it.

As an adult, I have long since learned that my fellow adults will often let me down—and that I will often let myself down. It is why we need a fulfillment of prophecy like Jesus, who, as John writes here in John 1, provides for us “grace upon grace.”

This is a sermon series for the church season of Advent, which is known pretty much in every other context as “the Christmas season” or “the holidays.” Except it isn’t the Christmas season: the twelve-days-long Christmas season (yes, just like the Twelve Days of Christmas carol) begins on Christmas day and extends to January 6, the traditional date of the Epiphany, when the Magi arrived at where Joseph, Mary, and Jesus had been bedded down.

Advent is meant to be a season of preparation, and not just preparing for the Christmas dinner parties and the tinsel and ornaments, but a preparation for the least material of all things: of divine life becoming human life. To help us prepare for the birth of the Christ child this year, we will be revisiting the work of John Dominic Crossan and the late Marcus Borg who, if you remember, were the authors of The Last Week, a book I used as the template for my Lenten sermon series a couple of years ago. The First Christmas represents their sequel to The Last Week, and much as The Last Week sought to go verse-by-verse through the Passion narrative and place it into its historical and anthropological context, so too does The First Christmas deliver a similarly thoughtful treatment of the birth narratives in Matthew and Luke.

We began this series three weeks ago with an excerpt from the chapter “An Angel Comes to Mary,” and then we turned to a passage from the book’s next chapter, “In David’s City of Bethlehem.” Last week, we arrived at the next chapter, entitled “Light Against the Darkness,” and this week we come to the chapter entitled “Jesus as the Fulfillment of Prophecy,” which ends thusly:

(Jesus) is, according to Matthew and Luke (and the rest of the New Testament) the completion of the Law and the Prophets. He is their crystallization, their expression in an embodied life. He decisively reveals and incarnates the passion of God as disclosed in the Law and the Prophets—the promise and hope for a very different kind of world from the world of Pharaoh and Caesar, the world of domination and empire.

That Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, is not a fact to be proved, as if it could be the logical conclusion of a syllogism based on the argument from prophecy. Rather, to call Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, Lord, and Savior, as the Christmas stories do, is a confession of commitment, allegiance, and loyalty. To do so means: I see in this person the anointed one of God, the decisive disclosure of God—of what can be seen of God in a human life, the fulfillment of Israel’s deepest yearnings, the one who reveals God’s dream for the world. This is what it means to call Him Emmanuel and to affirm that Emmanuel has come.

For Borg and Crossan, the truth of Jesus is not something that can be laid out in a logical or mathematical proof, it is something that must be experienced and understood in one’s bones before they say yes to God in a way that is indeed a confession of commitment and loyalty to the divine.

But it is a confession we ought to be able to make freely, willingly, and gladly precisely because we do know that our human heroes are, in the end, simply humans with all the attendant foibles, flaws, and pains that come with that fragile state of being, a state of being so fragile that we do indeed need, as John says here in John 1, grace upon grace from the fullness of God.

And betwixt God's fullness and our hollowness, there arrives Jesus, the fulfillment of all our wildest expectations in our souls.

We have our heroes, and it is right that we should have them. They light the way for us, show us the way forward in how to be better persons and a better people.

But they are not perfect. Nor are they are not the fulfillment of prophecy that Jesus was and is. Even our greatest heroes cannot, and would not, aspire to the mantle of godhood. When Emmanuel has come, we mean a very specific and special thing, that it is Jesus who has come to earth and will come to earth again.

Who are we, compared to such goodness and greatness as that? It is so very easy as a pastor but honestly, as any Christian who has been going to church for years, for decades, to say that we know what and who Emmanuel does indeed look like, and of course it is like those we most admire for their deeds, or their politics, or their stories.

We may see Jesus in our neighbors, we may see God in the stranger’s face, and it is right that we should do so. After all, God made us in God’s own image in Genesis 1. But we cannot allow that good nature to turn into us forming an Emmanuel in our image, rather than the other way around.

For Emmanuel represents not just a fulfillment of small slivers of prophecy, of a verse here and a verse there, no, Emmanuel represents the fulfillment of an entire history of prophecy, of centuries of a people waiting for and longing for a Savior in the truest sense of the title—someone who would save them, and save us.

That is a God-sized task, to save an entire world. And paradoxically, that God-sized spirit will have to take the form of a tiny baby first, who only after years of nurture will grow into the Lord we seek.

We’re one week away from Bethlehem, brothers and sisters. Stay devoted. Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
December 18, 2016

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