In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
“These are the last and mad times of a world grown old.” The person who wrote that did not live in the 21st Century, where we have multiple media to witness in real time the horrific events happening around the world. It wasn’t written by someone in the 20th Century, after two world wars and several genocides. Nor was it written by someone in the 18th Century, after the “Enlightenment,” when all the Wars of Religion were over. The person who wrote it lived in the 16th Century, just after the time of Luther. His name was Martin Chemnitz. “These are the last and mad times of a world grown old,” he wrote.
Throughout Christian history, many people have thought that this world was coming to an end. Things are so bad, they thought, that these must be the last times; the Day is coming soon. But it seems to me that it is much more recently that books have been written and movies have been made that imagine what it would be like if we knew that this world had grown so old that it was about to die. What would we do? I saw a movie like that recently, Interstellar, which, if you haven’t seen it, you should. It’s a great movie, just as a movie. The theology isn’t that great, but that’s to be expected. Interstellar is set in this world in the not too distant future, when crops barely grow, and there are constant dust storms, and people are eventually just going to suffocate because of the bad air. So they send out space exploration missions in order to find, if they can, a planet on which the human race can survive. They find a wormhole crossing the space-time continuum, so that they can find other galaxies in which they might be able to live. They realize in the movie that there is no one “out there;” no one who will come and save them. They are their only saviors; they are their only heroes.
The setting in space is new, but this is a very old story. In fact, it’s the story of every man-made religion: we must go up to God, even if there’s no God to go up to. Whether it’s by doing a lot of good things, or by mystical meditation, or by escaping the body, or whatever, you must go up to where God is. There is only one religion in the history of the world that reverses that motion, and it is the Christian religion. In Christianity, humans don’t go up to God; in fact, most of the time they don’t really want to. Instead, God comes down to us. And when He does, it’s without a lot of fanfare. There are no worldwide celebrations, or angels of armies making sure that everyone knows that God is coming. The only angel army appears to some shepherds. And it starts even smaller than that: with a single angel. It’s very quiet, almost a secret, as this angel speaks to a young woman in a town that had become a punch-line: Can anything good come out of Nazareth? He comes to her and he says, “Greetings, you who have been favored by God!” She doesn’t even know what’s going on, at first.
Perhaps we have sung the Christmas hymns too many times. Perhaps we know the story too well, that this doesn’t strike us as surpassing strange. This? This is the rescue mission of humanity? When God told Ahaz to ask Him for a sign that Jerusalem would be rescued from the threat of the kings of Syria and Israel, to ask for a sign as high as heaven or as deep as death, Ahaz said, “I will not put Yahweh to the test.” Fine! God says. Then I’ll give you a sign: a baby. What kind of sign is that? And yet, when God fulfills the sign of that baby in Mary’s virgin womb, it is indeed as high as heaven: the eternal Son born in time. And it is as low as Sheol, because this baby God will die for the salvation of God’s people. This is a strange sign, and it is risky as hell. We take for granted all our medical technology: the ultrasounds, and the monitors, and the doctors, and the anesthesia. But imagine pregnancy and birth without all that. From our perspective, even Jesus getting out of the womb is not a given. He comes as a thief in the night, sneaking into the world as the son of a virgin. If the lord of this earth had known at what time He was going to come, he would have kept watch and not let his reign be broken into. And he tries, but he’s too late: as soon as Jesus is born, a paranoid ruler tries to get rid of the infant king.
Jesus is not conceived and born into an ideal world, a world where everything is good and people welcome Him as their Lord and God. He’s born into this world. He’s born as an impossible creation in a mother who has never known a man. But what we call impossible is not for the God who spoke it all into existence in the first place. Elizabeth was called barren; didn’t stop God from giving her a son named John. Mary is a virgin; doesn’t stop God from giving her a song who will be called great and holy and the Son of God.
This is the hidden, undercover, rescue mission that God begins at the angel’s word. A risky attempt to secure salvation; so risky that Jesus will finally die. But, of course, that was the plan all along: to be born into a dying world and die to save it. But not only that. We’re familiar with birth; we’re familiar with death. But we had never seen before, and we have never yet seen since this thing called resurrection. Sure, people had been resuscitated, but they all died again. Jesus is truly the firstborn from the dead. And that, that is the final twist in this plot: the only hope for salvation for the billions upon billions who have lived on this planet is this man, crucified and resurrected in real flesh and blood. If you thought His conception and birth were risky, what about tying the salvation of the entire creation to this single man? But there’s no reasoning with this God, once He has decided to save you. So the angel speaks to Mary: “The Lord is with you.” And He was, not as a nice thought, but as real as a baby moving around inside her. And He is with you. He is Immanuel, God-with-us. And today He is with you. Hidden, undercover, to rescue you. Here He gives you a taste of a life that never ends. Here is the only eternal life in this whole dying creation: His own Body and Blood for you to eat and drink. The living Jesus comes to you, as certainly as He came to Mary, in the midst of these last and mad times of a world grown old. O God, let it be to us as you have spoken, from this Advent until your second Advent.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:7, ESV). Amen.
– Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 12/19/14