I delivered my second sermon at RUF UCLA, once again at the kind invitation of Rev. Matthew Trexler. Inspired by the verses containing the closing words of Zechariah’s Benedictus, I delivered a Christmas homily from the apocalyptic (revelatory) and cosmic perspective of the victory of Jesus Christ over sin and death and how this victory confronts the problems we face. The scripture read at the beginning is from David Bentley Hart’s translation of the New Testament.
Below is the typed manuscript (not the transcript) from which I delivered my message. I’m thankful to T. F. Torrance and Sinclair Ferguson for their intellectual and theological inspiration.
Maybe you’re here tonight, and you feel unhappy. Maybe you’re hurting. Maybe you feel adrift in a sea of paralyzing choices. Maybe you’re having persistent and stressful arguments with your parents, roommates, or friends? Maybe you’re struggling with addictions, or the fear of failure, or of disappointing the people you love? Perhaps your classes and exams are driving you to the brink of your sanity? Perhaps you feel self-hatred, or guilt, or shame, or fear, or loneliness? Do you feel bitterness toward God? Do you doubt the love he has for you?
Maybe you think that a Christmas sermon is a nice thing to have around this time of year… That it’s an obligatory nod towards an old story… But I have to confess—I’ve been waiting to talk to you about this since the summer. See, you might think that Christmas can’t speak to any of the things I just talked about. But the Christmas story isn’t about God changing your life around—no, it’s about God dwelling with us, it’s about the God of the Gospel entering into our circumstances, into the nitty gritty of our lived experiences.
“A Dawning from On High has Visited Us.” Well, my name is Keanu Heydari, and I’m delighted to be with you all tonight. Let’s pray…
What do people mean by the word, “Gospel?” The Gospel is simply good news! It’s the good news that Jesus Christ entered into the brokenness of the world—our world—and in so doing became one of us. Christians since the beginning have confessed that this man, Jesus, is in fact God himself. We believe that Jesus is the “second person of the trinity.” Now, if you’re new to all this and have no idea what that means, that’s fine! It’s really not the most important part of the story. But what we do have to know from the get-go is that God becomes one of us. The story of God and his relationship with the world doesn’t begin with this act of becoming. But we understand all of our history from this vantage point. What year is it? 2017. 2017 years after what, exactly? … Even so, we have to recognize that this story is very old – and it begins in a garden. This garden was the place where our first spiritual parents decided that their way or ordering time and space was superior to God’s way. When humanity chose to turn away from God, the soil of the earth itself was cursed, and Suffering, Sin, and Death entered into the universe. But these words that I’m sure you’ve all heard before: sin, suffering, death—they aren’t, at least not in the first instance, really about you at all. They refer to cosmic powers and forces that we don’t fully understand that have been wreaking havoc on the world for who-knows-how-many years.
After the fall of humanity into alienation and estrangement from God, God decided to bring together a people for himself, whom he called Israel, through a man named Abraham. But, if you’ve even glanced through the Old Testament, you’ll have already seen that Israel didn’t do much better than our first parents did! Now—I can just imagine what some of you may be thinking right now—this is all very nice and all, but it doesn’t seem to have very much to do with Jesus, I mean, isn’t this supposed to be a Christmas sermon?
But we should be careful not to miss what questions God’s in-breaking into the world was meant to answer.
When we talk about Christmas, we also talk about the hope of Israel. The story of the people of God has been one of exile and return. After the exile, the Jews didn’t experience God’s presence any longer—they were spiritually dry and their lives weren’t characterized by joy and gladness. Their lives were characterized by isolation and loneliness—everyone seemed to have missed God. And you can imagine their disappointment, these people waited for so long for the presence of the Lord in the temple—but they saw, heard, and felt only silence and emptiness. “How could this be? Where are you God?” – They had to have been asking. God promised in the Old Testament that he would be fully present for the people of God—that he would show himself, that he would show his face to his people. And more than that, he would deliver them from their oppressors, and free them from their captives. He would give people life and give them life abundantly—he would show his people what flourishing really meant. But where was God?
In the least expected place, at the strangest of times, a most unlikely thing happened. In the filth of a first-century rural stable, this long-expected Messiah, this presence of God with his people, broke into the universe. Today, our nativity scenes usually depict a clean, cuddly Jesus who is cooing in the seemingly undisturbed arms of his mother, Mary—As if she hadn’t just given birth in a barn! We can easily forget that when Luke writes the famous words—“And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger, because there was no place for them in the inn,” that this is profoundly depressing—this is disgusting, this is shocking, this is offensive.
A manger was a feeding trough—likely the place from which cows and horses ate a mixture of grass and gruel. And just think of it: the amniotic fluid surrounding the flesh of the infant Jesus began to solidify into a kind of gel, as there were no towels with which Mary and Joseph could have cleaned their child. The borrowed bands of cloth, probably makeshift from existing pieces of clothing that the two of them carried in their belongings, these strands stuck to the baby’s skin. And the loud crying of Jesus likely frightened the animals in the barn, causing horses to whinny and cows to moo. Extreme night-time temperatures must have only made the situation more unbearable.
This messiah, this God-man, this anomaly, chose the starting point of his in-breaking into the universe of people and plants in an a largely unknown part of the world. If what became of this man 30 years after the fact is true, that this child would be crucified by the Roman government as a radical and as an enemy of the state, that he would lie dead in his grave, and that, on the third day, this man rose from the dead, this has radical implications for the way we understand ourselves, other people, and even the world itself. The God of the universe chose to be with us, and in this choosing, he brings himself to the poorest of the poor, to the despised, to the downtrodden, to the lonely and forgotten, to the sick and distressed, to the refugees and orphans, and to all who are oppressed.
The people of Israel had waited for this day. God’s people had finally received their Messiah. Speaking of the birth of Jesus, Zechariah prophesies, “By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.” 700 years before the birth of Jesus, the prophet Isaiah wrote—For a child has been born for us, a son given to us; authority rests upon his shoulders; and he is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.
But who is this Wonderful Counselor, this messiah? To think of Christmas is also to speak about the birth of Jesus in a theological way. What do I mean by this? I mean incarnation—from the Latin, meaning, the taking on of flesh. God puts on human flesh and enters into our reality. So, then, what does this theology of the incarnation mean for us?
The God of the universe breaks into the world, he shatters the categories of space and time to situate himself in front of us. God’s being is not in a splendid isolation and absence. He is no longer the hidden one who hides his face away from us. God is with us, and God is for us, forever. God became human in order that we might become fully human. The incarnation is about the humanization of the human race—it is about restoring and redeeming humanity to its true nature. We were meant to be in community with God and fellow human beings. We weren’t designed for strife and alienation, for hatred and greed, for anxiety or for guilt. We were designed for communion, togetherness, and fellowship.
In the incarnation, and in the cross, and in the resurrection, the same Son of God through whom the world was created comes to save us, to save the world—in effect, it is an act of re-creation. In other words, the community of those in Christ, the church, is a model of humanity that is being remade and redeemed as a result of the creative grace of our loving God who does not look at us with scornful or judgmental eyes. This God invites us into himself, and he joins us in our suffering and our work.
This isn’t first and foremost a contract—this isn’t a give-and-take, a final decision we have to make. Jesus is the God of the universe, he is the Victorious One, who has defeated evil once and will do it again completely. Our response to this should be faith in this Victorious One, in overflowing thankfulness because of his great love for us—physically demonstrated to us, not only by his sacrificial death on the cross, but in humble birth.
Paul reminds us that even though Jesus was in the form of God, he did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but he emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.
In the words of T.F. Torrance (modified quotation),
“In the little town of Bethlehem so many years ago, the presence of this kingdom was made manifest in the royal presence of the man Jesus. This, and this alone, is the great, wonderful, good news of the gospel: God with us! At last, at last, the light of the world had broken out; that in him the inexpressible peace of God had overtaken a weary world, afflicted by evil, with peace and goodwill toward mankind, all men and women alike. In him the pure undeserved royal grace of God had overtaken mankind.”
But you see, as Torrance says so beautifully, it was the sheer freedom and loyalty of this grace of God that acknowledged no other authority than that of the majestic love of God the Father.
“This love of God set the world in uproar and turbulent division. Under the divine light of Jesus Christ, all darkness was revealed and exposed; under this royal grace and love, all division and conflict stood revealed, and under that majestic freedom all bondage and tyranny were relentlessly exposed.”
Because of the great love of Jesus Christ for us, we are not overcome. The faithfulness of Jesus Christ to his own fate, even death on a cross, is the first proof of God’s love for us. But at this very moment, God’s love is indeed pouring out on us—he does this through the gift of himself to us at all times and in all places—the gift of the Holy Spirit.
In the violence, and in the uncertainty, and in the catastrophe of the world today—in light of human frailty and brokenness—Jesus is the pioneer of the voyage into the unknown and he has returned to us with the most wonderful news—he has emerged as the victorious one, trampling over sin and death, and in doing this, those who are united to him have victory over their doubts, their alienation, and their estrangement.
One of my favorite theologians is Sinclair Ferguson, and he says that the meaning of Christmas is to be found—not in long and drawn out arguments on proof-texts from scripture—but from two small words. In chapter 2, verse 11 of Luke. “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” To you. To you is born this day! Taking hold of these two simple words: to you is born a savior. With these words, we grasp the greatest miracle of all miracles, that the cosmic God who defeats sin and death wishes to be our friend—and here we understand that this is God’s inexpressible gift. That God so loved the world that he gave his only son, to you. That believing in him you might not perish, but have everlasting life. When that angelic, “to you,” becomes tonight’s “to me,” then Christmas becomes more than the annual celebration of a great event in the past, it becomes the deepest reality of the present. And we’re able to see that he is ours. Jesus is ours, we are his, and he is ours.
Are you hurting? Are you lonely? Are you filled with bitterness? I invite you, then, to raise up your white flag of surrender and accept the good news: Jesus has come and he is with us.