Christmas Eve Homily: Joy of the Incarnation

For the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols at Providence Church.

When we think of Christmas, one of the first words that usually comes to mind is “joy.” We hear it in our carols, we read it on Christmas cards, and we hear it in the angel’s proclamation to the shepherd’s. For many people today, however, joy is one of the last things they feel during this time. Stress of planning gatherings, family strife, and unmet expectations rob us of our joy.

The Nativity of our Lord, however, is one of the greatest causes of joy. The news of the Incarnation is “good news of a great joy that will be for all people.” (Lk. 2.10) Christmas comes during to darkest time of the year with the joyful news that the Light has come.

The Nativity Icon

Christmas brings us joy because it is the news that God is with us. Isaiah prophesied that the virgin-born Messiah would be Immanuel, “God with us.” (Matt. 1.23; Is. 7.14) In the Incarnation,God tabernacled, or dwelt, among us.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth. (John 1.14)

In the Old Covenant, God’s presence was always veiled. But now, in Christ, John says “…we have seen his glory…” In the person of Jesus, God took on flesh and revealed himself to us and took residence with us, humbling himself (Phil. 2.) And, in entering our world, he entered into our suffering and pain. He was fully God and fully man. As Kevin Bauder recently said,

He was also born with a completely human body—specifically, a male body—that had all the appendages intact and functional. He experienced human growth as a human child in a human family, gained human insight through human learning, expressed Himself in human language, endured human hunger, thirst, weariness, and pain, felt human love, joy, compassion, fear, sorrow, and anger, experienced human betrayal, died a human death, and ultimately gained a human resurrection.

Jesus entered into humanity, in all our pain and sorrow, in order to redeem us from sin and death. The incarnation was necessary for our redemption.

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. For surely it is not angels that he helps, but he helps the offspring of Abraham. Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted. (Hebrews 2.14-18)

The Son of God took on human flesh because a human sacrifice was necessary for human sin. But only One who is eternal could fully bear the weight of God’s wrath against our sin. Jesus, the God-Man, is both the sacrifice and the priest, offering himself before the Father on our behalf. (And, as the author of Hebrews points out, he continues to intercede for us and help us in our temptation, because he faced the same temptations as a man.)

Jesus not only dwelt among us, but He did so in order that we might dwell in the Godhead. The Incarnation unites the divine and human in Christ, and (in union with Christ) in us as well. In Christ, we are brought into the eternal fellowship of the Trinity (1 John 1.) We are brought into fellowship with God, and with one another. And this fellowship is a fellowship of complete joy. God in Christ came to dwell with us, and he brings us into the eternal indwelling of the Father and Son in the Spirit; and we, now, are called to indwell one another. Here what Peter Leithart says about this ‘mutual indwelling’:

For Jesus, incorporation into the communion of the Father and Son by the Spirit overflows into the life of the community. The church is not only the tabernacle of God in the Spirit, but each member makes room for every other. Christmas is good news, but like all good news from God it comes with a demand: God dwells with you; dwell with one another. God made room in humanity for Himself to make room in Himself for humanity; therefore, stretch our to make room for others in yourself. God tabernacled among you; stretch your tent curtains so others can pitch near you.

So, this Christmas, make room in your heart and life for Jesus; take joy in the eternal communion of the Triune God. And follow Jesus’ example in entering into the lives of one another, bringing the good news of joy in Christ.

Baptism and Union with Christ

In Pauline thought, baptism is closely linked with union with Christ. We are baptized into union with the Lord. We are baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection (Rom. 6.3; Col. 2.12). As we are baptized into union with Christ, we are adopted as “sons of God through faith,” and we become “Abraham’s offspring, heirs according the the promise.” (Gal. 3.26-29)

In fact, the way Paul speaks of baptism does not leave much room for suggesting that baptism is a “mere symbol” of union with Christ; rather, baptism actually effects that which it symbolizes. In Paul, the sign and the thing signified are not to be pulled apart. So, how do we make sense of this? How does baptism bring us into union with the risen Christ?

Paul’s answer is that baptism into Christ is baptism into the whole Christ, both head and body, what St. Augustine called the Totus Christus. Baptism is the doorway into the Church, the body of Christ:

“For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body…” (1 Cor. 12.12-13)

To be in the Church, the body of Christ, is to be in Christ. Thus baptism into the Church is baptism into union with Christ.

Collect for Ash Wednesday

Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent; Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we, worthily lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

-Book of Common Prayer, 1662

On Liturgical Worship

My household and I are members of a liturgical church in the CREC. Being liturgical, we follow a biblical and historical pattern of worship that changes very little week-by-week. Liturgical worship is the Church’s way of worshiping in spirit and in truth, decently and in good order, that both glorifies God as well as disciples the Church.

The pattern of worship used by our church has been described as “Covenant Renewal” worship. It follows the layout of offerings and covenant renewals in the Old Covenant (see Leviticus 9), and is the basic liturgical structure that the Church catholic has followed and built upon for centuries. In Covenant Renewal worship, God calls His people into His heavenly presence; we confess our sins and receive assurance of pardon through Christ; God reorders and consecrates us through preaching and reading of Sacred Scripture; we commune with Him at the Lord’s Table; and He commissions us to make disciples of all peoples.

Historic biblical liturgy functions as a guide for the Church as we enter the throne room of God. To come before the Almighty, we have to come on His terms; we can’t worship Him however we want. God has outlined for us in His Word the acceptable way to come before Him, and the tradition of the Church guides us in how God’s people have appropriated that biblical pattern throughout history and gives us direction for the future. However, in modern evangelical Christianity, liturgy is often seen as being lifeless, rigid, and restricting. Real worship, many might think, happens when the worshipper is ‘free’ to express themselves to God their own way. Besides, it’s hard to learn how to follow the liturgy.

I want to show that, rather than being lifeless and restricting, robust liturgy gives life and freedom to the worship and the Church; and, though learning the liturgy is not very difficult, it does take time. But then, anything that is worth doing well takes time, like dancing.

liturgy2

Liturgical Discipleship

Biblical liturgy is one of God’s means of discipling His Church. Through the liturgy, we are shone the proper way to come before God, being cleansed from sin and called up into the heavenlies to worship God “with angels and archangels, and all the company of heaven, and all the Church on earth.” More than that, the worshippers are taught who they are and what our purpose is. We are children of God by grace, cleansed of our sin through Jesus’ blood; we are ordered by His Word through Scripture read and expounded in the Consecration and fed at His table in Eucharist; we are blessed and sent by Him on mission to bring to rights the fallen world through the gospel in the benediction and commissioning. The Church’s liturgy communicates the answers to the ultimate question of life, and in fact sets the worshipper in their proper place within God’s story.

One of the ways God’s people are discipled through the liturgy is the shaping effect it has on our character affections. Not only does the liturgy tell us what to say and do in worship, but also how to think and feel towards God worshipfully and reverently. Liturgy creates holy people.

The liturgy gives form to the worship and affection of God’s people, and in fact gives direction for obedient worship when those affections may not be there. In our ritualized lives, we know better than to only show love to our family and neighbors when we feel like it; we demonstrate love through actions whether or not we feel the right emotions because we know it is right. In the same way, in the Lord’s Service, we might come in not feeling worshipful, but we step into the liturgy nonetheless, praying that God will grant proper affections of worship; we sing the psalms, we confess our sin, we give our thanks to God, we sing the Sanctus, and our hearts are directed toward proper God-pleasing feeling. And, in fact, God is pleased when we come to Him in this kind of faith that His Spirit will fill up what is lacking in our hearts.

In liturgical worship, we are discipled to reflect the God in whose image we were made. God is a god of ritual and liturgy. Look at the creation week; look at how He interacts with His people and with the nations; look at how He has arranged the universe, the stars, the seasons, even day and night. He is a God who does not tire of repetition but delights in it. When we worship Him liturgically, we do so not only because He has laid the pattern out for us, but because we are learning to reflect Him.

Learning to Dance

C.S. Lewis once compared worship to dancing: with both worship and dancing, learning the steps takes time and effort, but once the proper motions are learned, the dance becomes second nature. If you are trying to learn a dance, only to find that the steps change every time you come to practice, you will likely never become an apt dancer. Similarly, in worship that is characterized by “spontaneity” or elements that change every week, worshippers will always be awkwardly trying to figure out what’s next. These churches may boast of worship that is “free,” but there is little freedom to truly worship when one is constantly worried about the changing steps. When we are a part of a set form of worship that changes little week-by-week, though, we don’t have to be distracted by what is coming next and instead we may freely focus on the content and Object of our worship.

In liturgical worship, when someone comes in from a non-liturgical background (really, every church has a liturgy of some kind), the liturgical “steps” may seem foreign or awkward, but following and learning the liturgy is rather simple. In fact, the common liturgy of the Church is one of the most accessible “worship-forms” there is. For centuries, all classes of people have been able to follow the liturgy, chant the psalms, memorize calls and responses as well as canticles, and find their place in worship. Whether literate or illiterate, rich or poor, young or old, the liturgy of the Church can be learned and followed.

Ideally, however, learning the liturgy is done as a child. Christian children learn and become accustomed to the rituals of worship from their earliest days. A child who has not yet learned to read or write can yet learn the Nunc Dimittis and Gloria Patri, or know to kneel to confess their sins and declare “Thanks be to God!” after the reading of His Word.

Ritualized, liturgical worship is worship that is accessible to the common man (and child!) The steps of the liturgy can easily be learned and memorized. And at that point, God’s people are able to engage with Him in the beautiful dance of worship.

So, in conclusion, we worship liturgically because God’s Word has laid out for us the Covenant Renewal pattern. We worship liturgically because through the liturgy we are shaped and discipled. We worship liturgically because we worship a liturgical God. The liturgy of the Church creates Christian culture. It shapes us into a people ready to obey Jesus’ commission. It anchors us in God’s Word and gives us our battle songs as we spread the Kingdom around the globe.

 

Christmas Day 2012

SAMSUNG

The Collect

Almighty God, who hast given

us thy only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him, and as at this time to be born of a pure Virgin; Grant that we being regenerate, and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit; through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit, ever one God, world without end. Amen. (Book of Common Prayer, 1662)

The Gospel

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness, to bear witness about the light, that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to bear witness about the light.

The true light, which gives light to everyone, was coming into the world. He was in the world, and the world was made through him, yet the world did not know him. He came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full ofgrace and truth. (John bore witness about him, and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks before me, because he was before me.’”) For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God; the only God, who is at the Father’s side, he has made him known. (Gospel of St. John, 1.1-18)

And For Your Children: On Household Baptism

The question of whether or not the children of Christians are to receive baptism has been one of much debate, sometimes heated, for years by men wiser and more godly than me on both sides. I am aware, then, that my contribution may not really be much of a contribution at all. I certainly am not saying anything new (in fact, if I were I would be worried.) This issue has been a part of a recent paradigm shift for me that is still in development; it is for that reason, then, that I write this brief explanation and defense of the practice of household baptism, both to help myself learn through writing and to explain this change.

At the outset of a consideration of the proper recipients of the sacrament of baptism, it is important to acknowledge that the New Testament gives no explicit statement saying that either “only confessing believers are to be baptized” or “the children of confessing believers are to be baptized,” (though Acts 2:39 comes close to just that.) Neither the baptist nor the paedobaptist has an explicit verse; but this does not mean that neither have a case for their practice. In this article, I will be considering how children have been regarded in biblical history, whether or not this appears to change in the New Testament and the practice of the early church, and the importance of church history in the discussion.

Throughout biblical history, God has extended His promises to the children of His covenant people. This simply has been His normal practice. From the covenant with Abraham to the covenant with Moses, His people’s offspring are considered members of the covenant. The covenant with Abraham suggests that this is an eternal pattern- through Abraham, all the families of the earth would be blessed. When we come to the New Covenant, we should expect an explicit statement regarding the exclusion of children from God’s covenant if this has changed. The people of the NT as well as the early readers would need to be thoroughly persuaded that their children are no longer part of the people of God until a “conversion experience.”

However, when we come to the New Testament, we find just the opposite. The Lord rebukes His disciples in Luke 18 when they bar infants from being brought to Him by their parents and says “Let the children come to me… for to such belongs the kingdom of God.” (Lk. 18:16-17) Jesus welcomes little children, and states that the Kingdom of God belongs to them. He does not say the Kingdom belongs to adults who exercise child-like faith, but that “…to such belongs the kingdom of God.” In the New Covenant, infants and young children are welcome in the Kingdom of God.

As we move on to the inauguration of the New Covenant church, we find similar evidence. At Pentecost, the Holy Spirit has descended to indwell God’s people, and Peter preachers to those skeptics and mockers who supposed that they were drunk “with new wine” (Acts 2:13) They ask “…what shall we do?” in response to his sermon, he instructs them “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is for you and for your children and for all who are far off…” (vv. 37-39.) So, right from the start, after the Holy Spirit has descended upon Christ’s Church, the apostles establish what is new about the New Covenant- the New Covenant is characterized by the activity and presence of the Holy Spirit. One thing that remains the same is that God’s promise is “for you and for your children…” Peter made sure to state the inclusion of children in God’s promise right from the start of the church.

As the Church spreads in Acts, Luke records significant accounts of conversions and baptisms. There are nine of these accounts. Of these nine, five are said to include households. Did these households include infants? Luke does not say explicitly either way, but whether they did or not is in fact irrelevant- they were baptized on the basis of the faith of the head of the household. And this should be no shock; God’s promise is “for you and for your children..” When we look at non-household accounts, we see that these either had not children/ household, or did not have their household present, such as the 3,000 men at Pentecost, disciples of John, Samaratins, Simon the Sorcerer, Paul, and the Ethiopian eunuch. So, everyone who had a household present had their household baptized. This is certainly a strong establishment of practice for household baptism.

As we look at church history, the practice of baptizing the children of believers was virtually uncontested by those who were orthodox, although the surrounding circumstances and practices were certainly not monolithic.  It was not until about 1500 years into church history that those who were otherwise doctrinally orthodox opposed the practice. Frankly, I cannot bring myself to believer that the Holy Spirit, who guides Christ’s church, could not convince anyone of the error of infant baptism until 1500 years into the church’s history. Baptizing the children of believers has simply been what the Christian church has done. Is it simply a coincidence that the rise and popularity of the baptistic tradition has coincided with the rise and influence of individualism in Western society and the breaking down of the traditional household economy? I think not.

Children of God’s people, then, are rightly heirs to God’s promises, members of Christ’s church, and proper recipients of Christ’s sacraments. Our Lord is their Lord; His answer to the question of infant baptism is “do not forbid them.”

Ascension Day

The Collect

Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that like as we do believe thy only-begotten Son our Lord Jesus Christ to have ascended into the heavens; so we may also in heart and mind thither ascend, and with him continually dwell, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, one God, world without end. Amen.

On this Ascension Day, may we honor and proclaim the Lord Jesus who is presently reigning from the Father’s right hand, and may we rest and trust in His work on our behalf as our Advocate and Great High Priest.