A Sermon by The Rev’d Dr Lynn Arnold AO


[Readings: Malachi 3:1-4; Song of Zechariah; Philippians 1:1-11; Luke 3:1-6]

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be worthy in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.

Today is the Second Sunday of Advent and we have lit the next candle on the Advent wreath. Variously known as the ‘Bethlehem Candle’ or the ‘Candle of Faith’, it reminds us that Mary and Joseph travelled to Bethlehem and that angels had spoken to them asking that they accept on faith a promise of cosmic enormity. As Christmas approaches yet again, do we approach it with the same awesomeness of faith that Mary and Joseph exhibited?

Before I explore that issue further let me go off on another track – up Mount Olympus in fact. This mountain, the tallest in Greece at over 2700m, was felt by ancient Greeks to be the home of their gods. The legend developed over centuries that the ancient Hellenes wouldn’t climb that mount out of respect; a legend cautioned by stories of sacrilegious and failed attempts to have done so, such as Bellerophon riding his wingéd horse, Pegasus, to the top. However, as with many legends, the story that the ancients never climbed Mt Olympus turns out to have been belied by the facts. Indeed, there is evidence dating back from at least the fourth century BCE that climbers had indeed ascended the sacred mount. How then did the first of those early climbers react when, upon reaching the summit, they found that they encountered neither gods nor their abode? I suppose some might have speculated that they had climbed the wrong mountain and have gone in search elsewhere; however, we do know that some took the divine absence on the peak of Olympus as proof that there were no gods. One of those was the playwright Euripides (480-406BC) who wrote a tragedy based on the myth of Bellerophon. The play itself has not survived, however Spencer McDaniel has noted that a fragment of this play was quoted in a treatise by Pseudo-Ioustinos which read:[1]

Does anyone really say that there are gods in heaven?

There are not! There are not, if someone among human beings is really willing

To not foolishly believe an ancient fable.

Think for yourselves; don’t have an opinion based on my words.

It appears then that Euripides had felt the physical absence of gods atop the sacred mountain was proof conclusive of their non-existence anywhere. The expectation of centuries of earlier humans that gods lived there was suddenly, in the eyes of the likes of Euripides, found wanting; his conclusion was to reject the supposed gods rather than the human expectation that the gods lived there. Significantly though, his reaction was not shared by many other ancient Greeks who did not let the failure to find incarnate gods disporting on a mountaintop disprove their capacity to believe in the existence of divine beings. Such ancient believers simply concluded that the legends of physical beings on top of a mountain were simply metaphors for transcendent divinities who still ruled their lives. So here were two possible reactions to a dramatic contradiction of previous expectation. One led to disbelief, the other led to a faith open to alternative explanation.

Now to return to Mary and Joseph. The Judaic context into which they had both been born had long accepted not only a single god but also one that did not need physical idolatry to prove his existence. Nevertheless, centuries of human expectation had evolved around the idea of Yahweh, including a building up of complex legal obligations which obscured their capacity to see the real God. At various times during those preceding centuries, prophecies had been made about the true God and his intentions for humanity. This morning we heard the Song of Zechariah which summarised some of those prophecies, lines such as:

This was the oath you swore to our father Abraham: To set us free from the hands of our enemies … To give God’s people knowledge of salvation … to shine on those who dwell in darkness and the shadow of death: and to guide our feet into the way of peace.

These prophecies, as Zechariah also mentioned, foretold how his son would be:

… called the prophet of the Most High.

Mary and Joseph had themselves been told by angels of their role in the coming of their child as the one who would be the Most High; but what they were told contradicted all that they had been brought up to believe. Our reading from Malachi gave us some hints of just how the coming of the Messiah would, prior to the angels’ visits, have been expected by Mary and Joseph:

The Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple … but who can endure the day of his coming.

The gospels of Luke and Matthew tell us how Mary and Joseph were informed that they would be the host for this sudden coming Lord in their midst, not in the temple; and that they would be able to endure the event. How did they react to this totally unexpected news delivered by the angels; news which defied all previous expectations? From Luke we read that the angel Gabriel assured Mary that ‘no word from God will ever fail’ [Luke 1:37] to which Mary had responded:

I am the Lord’s servant, may your word to me be fulfilled. [Luke 1:38]

While in Matthew, we read of the angel’s words spoken to Joseph in a dream and of his response:

The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel’ (which means God with us). When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. [Matthew 1:23-24]

They had both been brought up to expect a Messiah who would come as an adult, born of royalty and arriving in glory; but suddenly they encountered the unexpected – a baby born to them and in the most humble of circumstances. A humble animal trough in a barn out the back of an inn would hardly have met any prior expectation. It would take an extraordinary faith to correlate these two very different images of the coming of the Son of Man; yet Mary and Joseph showed such extraordinary faith when they encountered God in a way that was beyond any mortal expectation. For others such an unexpected turn of events was not acceptable; so their reaction was not one of a growth in faith which enabled their belief in God to grow but a rejection of the Lord’s chosen one.

It is a very human thing to create a god of our own expectation, yet time and again through the Bible we see that God proclaimed himself beyond the limits of any such expectation and, by so doing, demanded a faith which was prepared to break free of the chains of all prior human prediction. Does our own faith find itself weighed down in human expectation of the divine and thus confronted when God breaks through with the unexpected?

The poet John Donne [1572-1631] faced such a situation which he recounted in one of his Holy Sonnets. This is what he wrote in his fifteenth holy sonnet:

Wilt thou love God as he thee? then digest,

My soul, this wholesome meditation,

How God the Spirit, by angels waited on

In heaven, doth make His temple in thy breast.

The Father having begot a Son most blest,

And still begetting—for he ne’er begun—

Hath deign’d to choose thee by adoption,

Co-heir to His glory, and Sabbath’ endless rest.

And as a robb’d man, which by search doth find

His stolen stuff sold, must lose or buy it again,

The Sun of glory came down, and was slain,

Us whom He had made, and Satan stole, to unbind.

‘Twas much, that man was made like God before,

But, that God should be made like man, much more.

John Donne was a man of deep faith – he knew that our God loved his creation – all his upbringing as a child and pilgrimage as an adult had brought him to that understanding, to that expectation. But then, at some point of devotion prior to writing this sonnet, some unexpected insight must have surged within him leading him to write these lines:

‘Twas much, that man was made like God before,

But that God should be made like man, much more.

One can almost hear his gasp of wonderment as he suddenly realised the enormity of the Nativity – God, ineffable, immortal and sublime, had from the Creation made humans in his image – a wondrous concept in itself but now, by the birth of Jesus, all that paled against the realisation: ‘… that God should be made like man’.

Furthermore, we can sense a second gasp when Donne considered the reason for this unexpected action of God in making himself like man; listen to his words:

And as a robb’d man, which by search doth find

His stolen stuff sold, must lose or buy it again,

The Sun of glory came down, and was slain,

Us whom He had made, and Satan stole, to unbind.

Christmas is a time of special celebration as we joy in the birth of Christ; but in truth, for most of us, its significance lives in the shadow of Easter. Yet consider John Donne’s words ‘the Sun of glory came down, and was slain’ – by these words, he had come to understand that which should really be obvious to all of us when we think about it but which we so often miss. There could never have been an Easter without a Christmas. The execution of the Son of God needed his incarnation; for there then to be a resurrection with its breath of eternal life, there needed to be a first breath at the birth of incarnate life. Once again, listen to Donne’s words about how God:

Hath deign’d to choose thee by adoption,

Co-heir to His glory, and Sabbath’ endless rest.

The gift of life through birth, where the breath of God is made manifest in our world through the birth of every baby, is wondrous; yet still more wondrous is this unexpected further gift of God – the chance to be co-heirs in His Kingdom. In our baptism liturgy we seek to recognise this. Shortly, we are about to celebrate the sacrament of baptism for Edward Morgan; during this liturgy his parents, Sally and Thom, along with Edward’s sponsors will say ‘Amen’ (literally ‘So be it’) to the words:

Almighty God deliver you from the powers of darkness, and lead you in the light of Christ to his everlasting kingdom.

These words speak of a wonderful expectation, but an expectation which will be from God not us – a reminder too that human expectations can be both hopes and limitations.

After I had worked for World Vision for a number of years, I was sometimes asked if the decision to join them had met my expectations. My answer was that it had met all my expectations albeit unexpectedly. Though this sounded oxymoronic, yet I meant every word, for the experience had unfolded in ways that enriched my faith more than I could ever have imagined at the outset; my human expectations were transcended.

So, on this second Sunday of Advent, on the occasion of the baptism of Edward Morgan, may I offer the following prayers:

May Edward’s pilgrimage fulfil the expectations of his baptism albeit in ways in which he may never imagine but God has; and may this Christmas represent for each of you a time when the expectation you may have of this celebration of the birth of Christ, of Immanuel, God with us, be fulfilled in ways exceeding any human expectation. Amen.

[1] Did the Ancient Greeks Ever Climb Mount Olympos? – Tales of Times Forgotten