Advent 4 13 Deerfield
Some 70 years ago Christian prisoners of war made a chapel in a corner of a cell. On the wall they hung a rough carved crucifix. At Christmas they set on a table below the crucifix a nativity scene made from bits and pieces of wood and cloth. One day while a prisoner was kneeling in prayer the guard walked in. He pointed at the figure of the man on the cross and asked, “Who?” “Jesus,” the prisoner replied. Then the guard pointed at the figure of the baby in the manger and asked, “Who?” “Jesus,” the prisoner replied. The guard put his hands together in respect, bowed, and said, “So sorry.” And the prisoner replied, “No, not sorry, but so glad.”
At Christmas we proclaim our faith in the Word made flesh, Jesus, God’s son. He was born in a stable, died on a cross, was raised from the dead and in him we have new life. Paul wrote to the church at Rome of the “gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures . . . concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord.”
Many human religions believe the world as we know it was created by a god or gods who then inspired men and sometimes women to teach this creation how to live and gave them the ability to live by these teachings. The details of the teachings and the examples of holy life vary from place to place, person to person, and culture to culture.
Christians alone of all human religions believe that God our creator not only gave us inspired teachings and the examples of holy men and women, but also that the creator also became a man, “to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to the God and Father of all.”
To many non-Christians the incarnation is a scandal and an offense. Some hold a philosophy that limits the real to what can be seen and measured, but most of us have known some of the transcendent realities. We have learned, for example, to recognize the love that motivates the Christmas present that isn’t quite right – the wrong size, wrong color, wrong brand. We’ve all gotten presents like that aren’t quire right, and we’ve all given presents like that that aren’t quite right. We know Christmas presents as an outward and visible sign of inward and spiritual love and affection.
We gather for worship celebrating Jesus’ use of ordinary things to share his extraordinary love. “On the night before he died for us, our Lord Jesus Christ took bread, and when he had given thanks to the Father, he broke the bread and gave it to his disciples, and said, ‘Take, eat: This is my Body, which is given for you. Do this for the remembrance of me.’” In the same way after supper he took a cup of wine, gave thanks, and shared the wine with them, “This my blood of the new Covenant, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. Whenever you drink it, do this for the remembrance of me.” (BCP p. 358) We call this use of the ordinary things by a Latin word, sacrament, and we explain the Christian sacraments as “outward and visible signs of inward and spiritual grace, given by Christ as sure and certain means by which we receive that grace. Grace is God’s favor towards us, unearned and undeserved; by grace God forgives our sins, enlightens our minds, stirs our hearts, and strengthens our wills.” (Catechism p. 857-858)
Jesus offered God’s grace to the disciples the night he was betrayed, and Jesus offers God’s grace to us this day because he is God incarnate. We live by grace, and not by law alone. We live as forgiven sinners, set right with God by God’s action, not our own. And that is a moral scandal to the non-Christian. How dare we say that “if we confess our sins God is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."”(I John 1:9) Sin, the moral agree, must be punished. We mock God’s law, they say, when we say we escape punishment by claiming God’s forgiveness.
We agree that sin must be punished and the righteousness of God’s law maintained. But we also say that Jesus took our punishment on himself on the cross, and when he died there the power of evil was forever broken. Jesus could do so because he, being God, came “to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to the God and Father of all.”
In the prayer Jesus taught us we pray, “forgive us our sins (our trespasses).” We claim for ourselves the spiritual benefit of God in Jesus sharing our human nature. At the cross, Jesus prayer, “Father forgive them.” And we are forgiven because of Jesus’ death and resurrection.
We live by grace, and not by law. So it is not only because he commanded us but because we are grateful for our own forgiveness that we pray, “forgive us our sins (our trespasses) as we forgive those who sin (trespass) against us.” Our pretending to forgive those who sin against us is a further scandal to those who know only law and not God’s grace in Jesus. We who try to forgive know how hard it is. It does seem easier to hold on to the sense of injury, to play the victim. But we know that in the long run that is harder. Resentments can kill us; they contribute to high blood pressure and other physical and emotional, and spiritual, illnesses. We can forgive only because Jesus shares with us the power of his love. But the good news is that we can forgive, and when we forgive others, we experience anew God’s forgiveness.
Corrie Ten Boom was a Dutch Christian who helped shelter Jews during the Nazi occupation and with her family was taken to a concentration camp where her sister Betsie died. After the war she spoke in Germany and wrote a book, The Hiding Place, from which this comes:
“It was at a church service in Munich that I saw him, the former SS man who had stood guard at the shower room door in the processing centre at Ravensbruck. He was the first of our actual jailers that I had seen since that time. And suddenly it was all there – the roomful of mocking men, the heaps of clothing, Betsie’s pain blanched face.
“He came up to me as the church was emptying, beaming and bowing. “How grateful I am for your message Fräulein”, he said “To think that, as you say, He has washed my sins away!”
“His hand was thrust out to shake mine. And I, who had preached so often to the people in Bloemendaal the need to forgive, kept my hand at my side. Even as the angry, vengeful thoughts boiled through me, I saw the sin of them. Jesus Christ had died for this man; was I going to ask for more? Lord Jesus, I prayed, forgive me and help me to forgive him.
“I tried to smile, I struggled to raise my hand. I could not. I felt nothing, not the slightest spark of warmth or charity. And so again I breathed a silent prayer. Jesus, I cannot forgive him. Give me Your Forgiveness.
“As I took his hand the most incredible thing happened. From my shoulder along my arm and through my hand a current seemed to pass from me to him, while into my heart sprang a love for this stranger that almost overwhelmed me.
“And so I discovered that it is not on our forgiveness any more than on our goodness that the world’s healing hinges, but on His. When He tells us to love our enemies, He gives, along with the command, the love itself.”
Christmas is Jesus’ birthday, and we get the presents. Our greatest gift is Jesus who, being God, came “to share our human nature, to live and die as one of us, to reconcile us to the God and Father of all.” And all the gifts we give and receive convey the love and reconciling power of the same Jesus.
The guard in the prison camp put his hands together in respect, bowed, and said, “So sorry.” And the prisoner replied, “No, not sorry, so glad.”