Isaiah 52:7-10; Hebrews 1:1-4; John 1:1-14
A Christmas story – not from Dickens, but from Kierkegaard:
Once upon a time, there was a powerful and wise king who fell in love with a beautiful maiden who lived in his kingdom. The king’s problem was this: how to tell her of his love? He called for the best and brightest of his consultants and asked their advice. He wanted to do this in the best and most proper way – and, of course, he hoped his love would be cherished by the maiden and returned. But when all of his advisors had had their say, the king was left disappointed. For every one of them had counseled him in the same way. “Show up at the maiden’s house,” they said, “dressed in all your royal finery. Dazzle her with the power of your presence and with your riches. Overwhelm her with expensive gifts. What girl could resist? Who would reject such an opportunity, or turn away from such an honor? Who would possibly refuse a king? And if need be,” they added, “you can always command her to become your wife.”
But the king, being wise, was unhappy with this advice. He wanted the maiden to love him for himself and not for his position and power. Love freely given must be freely returned or it isn’t really love. Certainly, the girl could be impressed, even overwhelmed, and of course she could be coerced and might even “learn” to love the king eventually – but the king saw that if he followed this counsel he would never know if she really loved him for himself or simply for the comforts and privileges that queenship offered.
So the king decided against the advice of his counselors. He chose instead to strip himself of his glory and power. He put on the clothes of a poor peasant and walked to the maiden’s cottage to declare his love for her.
Kierkegaard’s story parallels beautifully the story of Christmas. For God decided to come to us as one like us, in the person of Jesus, “who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness” (Phil. 2:6-7). “The Word,” who from the very beginning was with God and who was God, “became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:1, 14).
Who is this One who has come to us as a servant, being born in human likeness? The appointed scripture readings for today give us a wealth of information to ponder, but we will name just three things:
First, he is the Word of God. “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets,” the author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us, “but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son” (Heb. 1:1-2a).
The revelation of God in his Son Jesus stands both in fulfillment and in contrast to the old order of things.
The prophets of old spoke God’s word. Amos cried for social justice. Isaiah saw and proclaimed the holiness of God. Hosea marveled at the forgiving love of God. Each prophet, out of his own experience of life and out of the experience of Israel, grasped and expressed a fragment of the truth of God.
But with Jesus it is different. He is the prophet par excellence, whose coming is the culmination of all the prophecies and promises of the past. Like the former prophets, he spoke the word of God; but unlike them he is the Eternal Word, the Word that “became flesh and lived among us” (John 1:14). As God’s only Son, he is greater than and distinct from all those who have preceded him.
And what does God say to us through him?
Isaiah foretells the message with these words:
“How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, ‘Your God reigns.’ (Isaiah 52:7).
Jesus claims Isaiah’s vision as his own when he announces in the synagogue at Nazareth, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of the sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (Luke 4:18,19)
He brings the good news of God’s love and salvation.
To the blind he promises sight. To the sick he promises healing.
To the lost he promises to be the Shepherd that finds them and leads them home. To the oppressed he offers liberation. To the poor he speaks good news.
He will be light for the blind, bread for the hungry, resurrection and life for those who are passing away.
He will forgive the sinner, raise up the downhearted, care for the stranger, bless the orphan and widow, and lift up the poor.
He is the Word of God, and that Word is life and light (John 1:4). Rejoice to receive it this day!
Second, he is the image of God. “He is “the exact imprint of God’s very being,” the author of the Letter to the Hebrews tells us (Heb. 1:3). He is “God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart; (he) has made (God) known,” writes the Evangelist John (John 1:18). “He is the image (or icon) of the invisible God,” declares the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Colossians (Col. 1:15).
A seal that is used to close letters leaves its imprint in the wax. By looking at the imprint, one can recognize the seal. In the same way, by looking at him who is “the exact imprint of God’s very being” we come to see and know God.
So gaze upon the One who comes to you this day.
See him in his humble surroundings in the cave at Bethlehem.
See him as he welcomes outcasts and speaks tenderly to sinners.
See him as he lays down his life for his friends.
“He is the image of the invisible God.” If you would know what God is like, discover what he is like. Listen to his words, observe his actions, notice his values and priorities, see how he lives his live. And follow him.
Third, he is the glory of God. “The Word became flesh and lived among us,” the gospel of John tells us, “and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14) “He is the reflection of God’s glory,” we read in Hebrews. Reflection here is not thought of in the sense of a shadow, but rather as a shaft of light emanating from a dazzlingly brilliant source. “The true light, which enlightens everyone, [has come] into the world.” (John 1:9) This light “shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:5)
In the Old Testament, the shekinah glory signified the very presence of God in the midst of God’s people. It was the radiant glory of Yahweh’s presence which settled as a luminous cloud on Mount Sinai when Moses went up to meet with God (Ex. 24:15ff). It was seen at the door of the tabernacle when Yahweh “used to speak with Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend” (Ex. 33:9ff). It was the glory manifested on the occasion of Christ’s transfiguration (Matt. 9:2ff), when the three apostles witnessed for a brief while of the glory which the Son had with the Father before the world was made (John 17:5). That same radiant glory of the divine presence blinded Paul on the road to Damascus (Acts 9:3, 22:6, 26:13). In its strong light, brighter than the midday sun, he encountered the Risen Christ.
Jesus is the glory of God, the sign of God’s presence among us. We call him Emmanuel, “God with us.”
How much more could be said about him?! What truth lies beyond our telling?! How poor and inadequate our words are to describe the great mystery of the Incarnation! We confess with the psalmist, “Such knowledge is too wonderful for (us); it is so high that (we) cannot attain it” (Psalm 139:6).
This is the One who comes to us this day, having made himself vulnerable as a babe, having humbled himself to be born in human likeness, the One who came not to be served, but to serve.
He is Kierkegaard’s king in disguise, who offers us the love of God’s heart and invites us to respond in love. He will not coerce us; true love can never coerce. He simply comes among us, as one of us, to reveal to us a greater love than we have ever known, and to invite us into an intimacy deeper than we could ever have imagined with the God whose very being is Love.
It is written that “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:16,17)
Today we rejoice that such a wondrous love and salvation has been offered to us. And with the psalmist we ask ourselves, “What shall I return to the Lord for all his bounty to me?” (Ps 116:12).
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