Wednesday, January 03, 2007

Beginning again

Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas Day
31 December 2006

If you are like many people, about 365 days ago, you made a New Year’s resolution. Remember, you were going to going to get a better job, you were going to finish the project you started last January, you were going to clean out the attic, you were going to loose weight, etc. In all likelihood, that resolution failed, particularly if it was something long-term.

Sometimes we look at New Year's resolutions as something of a joke. I know one fellow who says that every year you should make resolutions like: This year, I’ll put on a few more pounds; I’ll work on going into debt; I’ll steal from my company and cheat on my wife; I’ll alienate my children and go into a deep depression. The idea, of course, is that you really don’t want to do any of these things, so making it a New Year’s resolution will help you avoid it for sure.

And yet, I think each of us longs for the opportunity for a fresh start. We have a constant need for the childhood simplicity of a “do—over.” Who among us has not made a mistake or felt disappointment and wanted the chance to begin again.

We are told that a long time ago, God looked down upon earth and saw his people, and looked upon them with mercy and wanted to give them a second chance. We see it foreshadowed right there in Genesis (the seed of the woman will crush the seed of the serpent). He resolved to send us a Savior, and in Jesus Christ, he did just that. One thing that makes him God is that he keeps his resolutions. It is so fitting that we celebrate the First Sunday after Christmas Day this New Year's eve, for in this little baby we see the opportunity for all our new beginnings.

The gift of God’s Son was the gift that kept on giving. Jesus interpreted the Law and showed us God’s will for our lives. He called out disciples to walk with him, and follow him to God. He laid down his life in our place, and took it up again. He washed us of our sins, gave us new lives, and filled us with the Holy Spirit.

God, for whom all things are possible, made good on his resolution to redeem us. And this resolution can never fail, for in the fullness of time, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. God became a human being to get it right for us. Because God is the one who can keep all his resolutions.

The Son of God—God from God, Light from Light, very God of very God, begotten not made, being of one substance with the Father—became a simple human being, yet never ceasing to be fully divine. “We beheld his glory,” John says, “the kind of glory an only Son shares with his Father.” Then John tells us that he gives believers the right to become children of God.

St. Paul the Apostle said it this way in letter to the Galatians, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons [that is, sharing our humanity so that we might share his divinity]. And because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!'”

Our redemption became possible because God became human—to get it right for us. That concept is hard for us to grasp—one person, completely human and divine. I think it’s hard for us to grasp because at a deep level, we are all aware of the great dissimilarity between God and mere humans. But we must clarify our thinking and recognize that the only dissimilarity is sin.

I spoke to my fourth graders about the incarnation one day—telling them about how that means that Jesus is the "God-man." That is, he’s 100% God and 100% human at the same time. One of them said, “But wait a minute, that’s 200%. It’s doesn’t make sense." (Perhaps you’re thinking the same thing.)

So I took out a blank piece of paper. I said, “What I’m holding in my hand is 100% paper. Right?” They all nodded yes. “But, what I’m holding in my hand is 100% white. Right?” Again, they all nodded yes. And they got it—there nothing contradictory about it. You can have white paper just like you can have a God-man.

It seems confusing at first because our vision has been distorted by the reality of sin. But remember that when God created us in his own image and likeness, he was the only prototype—the only model. Which means that there is absolutely no contradiction and nothing incompatible between God and man EXCEPT human sin. And that is why God became man, to renew the compatibility and to restore the communion between the two. Jesus is the new man, our only Mediator and Advocate. St Paul says "in him all the fulness of deity dwells bodily, and you have come to fulness of life in him."

Jesus is that divine Logos—the “Word of God” that John spoke about in his gospel—the complete revelation of God, who is love and who meets us where we are so that God can bring us back into a right relationship with himself. In Jesus Christ, each of us can find a new beginning. In the Christ child, we can find newborn opportunity.

I don’t discourage anyone from making New Year’s resolutions—even if they fail. On the contrary, I think it is a good idea to try to make a fresh start in spite of our failings. It seems so basic to the practice of the Christian faith. After all, our faith teaches us about the need for grace—God’s goodness, God’s power, God’s presence to lift us up and give us the strength to do things we could not do on our own. Our faith tells us that when we sin, we can come back to God and receive fresh grace for a new life and a new beginning.

We do that the first time when we are baptized. Baptism gives us everything we need for a new beginning. Indeed, we call it being "born again" by water and the Holy Spirit. St Paul calls it the "washing of regeneration and renewal." In baptism, our sins are washed away, we are given God’s grace to sanctify our soul, and we part of God’s family, made one with Jesus Christ (sharing mystically in his death and resurrection).

Where we might become confused by our New Year’s resolution is that sometimes, after we’ve broken our resolutions, we think that such an opportunity is all over. But our faith teaches us otherwise. In the Church, we learn to begin again. We may not be baptized again, but we have the same opportunity for a new beginning in sacramental confession and in Holy Communion.

If you have never before made a confession—a private sacramental confession of your sins to God, before a priest who absolves you as his minister (according to John 20:23), a New Year is the perfect time to do so—a time to take account and begin again.

We should note that the general confession we do Sunday after Sunday is meant to be an aid to private sacramental confession, not a substitute for it. It’s purpose it to nenew in us the call to repentance, to the examination of our conscience, and to the amendment of our lives. There are free booklets in the Narthex that are helpful aids to use in examining your conscience in order to prepare yourself to make a confession. Confessions are regularly heard at 9:15am on Saturday mornings here at St Alban's.

Our faith teaches us (and the general confession shows us) that when we confess our sins, we make a resolution. We should resolve never to sin again and to pray for help in leading a new life. Notice how often that phrase "I will, with God's help" comes up in the baptismal liturgy. Our faith teaches us to turn to God and say, “I need help, Lord, I can’t do it alone.” To do so is not a mark of weakness, but a source of strength.

Plan for this to be a great New Year, a year of opportunity and growth. God, in his infinite mercy, is willing to forget about your past because he cares so deeply about your future. Think about what you would like to accomplish in your life this year. Think about what we as a parish would like to accomplish together.

Know that God will be with you every step of the way, and he will supply the strength you need to meet the challenges you face when your resolve is sincere and pleasing to his will. And if and when you falter, get up again and begin again.

In the year of our Lord 2007, I invite you to truly make it "the year of our Lord" and to be part of a new beginning; in the Name of Jesus Christ. Amen.


Anonymous said...

What do you tell the children if they ask you why God is always referred to in the male gender since God has no gender? I am having a difficult time explaining this to someone and I need to break it down as if talking to children

Fr Timothy Matkin said...

It is an interesting question and a complex contemporary issue. I think you could consider a number of points.

1. One person of the Trinity has sex (the Son is male) while the other two are sexless because the Father and the Holy Spirit have no bodies. Or to put it another way, the only body God has is a male body. It would make sense to use a consistent sex reference in speaking about God in general.

2. In language, concrete terms more often have a masculine gender whereas abstract terms more often have a feminine gender. Since Christians see God in personal terms, the masculine description dominates. The word "Spirit" is feminine in Hebrew, neuter in Greek, and masculine in Latin.

3. Traditionally, masculine language has been used to encompass a representation of both sexes (e.g. "mankind"). I am not aware of a case of the reverse. When man is first created in the Bible, the masculine word human ("adam") is used. When Eve is separated from Adam, they are distinguished as man ("ish") and woman ("isha"). This is why the Logos was incarnate as the new Adam (see Romans 5).

4. God specifically revealed himself as Father in both the Old and New Testaments. Jesus taught us to pray to God the Father as "Father." God has a masculine or fatherly realtionship to creation (i.e., a father "begets" whereas a mother "bears").

As far as how to break that down for children, hmmmm . . .

I would say that the polite and respectful thing to do is to call someone what they want to be called, and God told us that we should see him as our heavenly Father.

Fr Timothy Matkin said...

(Sorry, just completing the thought here)

"God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, 'Abba! Father!'" (Galatians 4:6)

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your insight. This is close to what I have said in the past.