A Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas
“When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children,” from St. Paul’s letter to the Galatians, in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Many Christians would probably be surprised to learn that the “Christmas story” we all know by heart—the Virgin Mother and her Son, the manger and swaddling clothes, the angels and shepherds—is a composite of information from just two books of the New Testament: the Gospels according to SS Matthew and Luke. St. Mark and St. John say nothing at all about the birth of Jesus, and our brief reading from Galatians today is the Apostle Paul’s only mention of our Savior’s birth. But while this morning’s reading from the prologue of the Gospel according to St. John does not mention the birth of Christ expressly, it is, in fact, centered on our Lord’s Nativity. For here we learn that the divine “Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth; [and] we have beheld his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father.”
In this verse we find one of the most marvelous, and scandalous, doctrines of our faith. Adherents of other religions may believe in a creator “God,” and some teach that “the gods” can disguise themselves as people or animals and visit the earth from time to time. But the doctrine of the Incarnation is unique to Christianity. Only the faith of Christ teaches that the Divine Architect, “without [whom] was not anything made that was made,” actually became one of His own creatures. Only Christians believe that the hand of the One who wills the continued existence of every atom, who spins the galaxies in their courses, that omnipotent hand once held tight to His Mother’s finger in a stable at Bethlehem.
St. John’s claim that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us” was an amazing one for a first-century Jew to make. After all, in the Old Testament God is awesomely, incomprehensibly separate from His creation, dwelling in unapproachable light. For any faithful Jew the chasm between Creator and creature was immense and unbridgeable. God’s perfect holiness was simply too much for the things of this fallen world to endure. Isaiah, for example, worried that just laying eyes upon the Living God might be fatal for a sinful human being like himself. The four-letter Hebrew name of God is considered so holy that pious Jews dare not have it on their lips. God is quite literally unspeakably Holy.
Yet here we are, as Christians, fearlessly speaking the name of God Incarnate, the Word made flesh, Jesus the Christ. In fact, tomorrow is a special celebration in our Prayer Book of the most Holy Name of our Savior. This feast commemorates the day when, eight days after the boy’s birth as commanded in the Old Testament law, our Lord’s parents presented him for circumcision and He was formally given His name, Yeshua—“The LORD saves,” which may be rendered in English as either Joshua or Jesus. “Jesus” was the name both the Blessed Virgin Mary and her betrothed, St. Joseph, had received by divine revelation nine months earlier. Their child would be named Jesus, “for He will save His people from their sins.”
Yeshua is, of course, a noble name in the history of Israel. The first man to bear the name “Joshua” was a trusted aide of Moses and a mighty warrior who led Israel into the Promised Land and won a home for God’s people by the edge of the sword. But our Lord’s parents already knew that the baby boy they enrolled as a son of Israel by circumcision that day would be far greater than His Old Testament namesake. Mary’s Son would bear not only the name Jesus, but Immanuel—“God with us,” and He would be called “the Son of the Most High.” Eight centuries earlier the prophet Isaiah predicted this little boy would “be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.” These were weighty names and titles, indeed, for such a tiny baby. Little wonder that Mary “treasured up these things in her heart,” too amazed to even speak.
Yet for all the exalted titles Christ bears, none is more meaningful than the Holy Name of Jesus itself. In this sacred name we see the whole of salvation history summarized, “The LORD saves.” From the day Adam and Eve were cast out of the Garden of Eden, God has been the One who saves. The hand of the Lord was at work in the ark of Noah and the ram sacrificed in Isaac’s place, in the parting of the Red Sea and the fall of the walls of Jericho, and in countless acts of deliverance throughout the history of Israel. But as the Blessed Virgin presented her first-born son back to His heavenly Father with the awesome name “Jesus,” history reached its turning point. The saving acts of God reached their climax in the Word made flesh. Through this Jesus the blind will see, the deaf will hear, the lame will walk and the dead will the live again. And at the appointed time this Jesus, who was in the beginning with God, will make atonement for our sins by His own precious Blood and put death to flight by the power of His resurrection. By Jesus God does save in very truth.
The Holy Name of Jesus is a name of limitless power. The demons of Hell are right to quake at the very mention of Christ’s name. The darkness has nowhere to hide from the Light that entered the world at Bethlehem. When confronted by the Truth incarnate—God’s saving power made flesh--the vaunted strength of “the father of lies” proves feeble. And the day is coming, dear brothers and sisters, when our Lord will make a footstool of Death, our final enemy, and the spiritual forces of wickedness that corrupt and destroy the creatures of God will join every other being in heaven, and on earth, and under the earth, bending knee in submission to the One whose name is above all names, Jesus the Christ. Holy is His name.
Beyond doubt, the name of Jesus is endowed with immense divine power. But to those who earnestly repent of their sins and turn to God in faithfulness the Savior’s Holy Name is a source of joy, not fear, for His divine name is also a human name. The Lord of all creation stooped down to take on our flesh and bone, our joys and sorrows, our frailty and our mortality. And He took a Name like our names: Jesus, son of Mary, of the household of David. You and I may know Him—we know Him—by this Name.
“No one has ever seen God,” St. John reminds us, “the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known.” Because of the Incarnation you and I may know God intimately—“on a first name basis,” so to speak. You and I may see God face-to-face and live, because He truly is one of us. He has a face like ours. And as our brother Christ calls each one of us by name. When Mary Magdalene was distraught beyond words at the disappearance of her Lord’s body on Easter morning, the risen Jesus soothed her aching heart and filled her with joy with just one word—her name, “Mary.” When Saul of Tarsus was struck down on his way to persecute the Church in Damascus, the risen Savior touched him to quick by calling his name: “Saul, Saul. Why are you persecuting me?” Again and again in Holy Scripture and Sacred Tradition we find it, our Lord calling His saints by name to an intimate relationship with Him. And so they are recorded in the Lamb’s Book of Life: Mary Magdalene, servant and sister of Jesus; Paul the Apostle, servant and brother of Jesus. If you have renounced Satan and the sinful desires that draw you from the love of God, if you have turned to Christ in faith, receiving the healing waters of Holy Baptism and partaking of the Living Bread that came down from Heaven, your name is written there, too, alongside millions of other servants of His eternal Kingdom—the family of Jesus, those who truly know Him by name, those made children of God by the will of God.
Let us pray that in the course of the Year of Our Lord 2007 we may all come to know more fully the Holy One who became flesh and dwelt among us, the One who bears a name at once both human and divine, and serve Him even more faithfully than we do today. Blessed be His Holy Name forever.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.