SON OF GOD, SON OF MARY, SON OF DAVID
you remember when you were a child and you couldn’t wait until
Christmas? My sisters and I
counted the days. By
Christmas Eve we were beside ourselves.
On Christmas morning when our parents finally gave us permission
to get up, we children were down the stairs like the Kentucky Derby
field leaving the starting gate.
There is a man, an old man now, whose anticipation of Christmas
is as fresh as a child’s. What
excites this old man isn’t the store-bought present wrapped in shiny
paper; it’s the manger-born child wrapped in diapers.
The old man’s name is Martin Luther.
His Christmas exuberance is child-like.
No one in the church catholic glories in Christmas in quite the
way that Luther does.
There is good reason for this.
Luther was no armchair spectator.
He was immersed in
life. Life had whirled him
up into ceaseless turbulence and conflict.
He was also immersed in Jesus Christ.
And Christ was that luminosity which loomed before him and seized
him and leant him righteousness and resilience; a righteousness and
resilience that allowed him to resist the deadly forces which otherwise
spewed destruction wherever one looked.
When Luther spoke of temptation he didn’t mean titillating
notions that lingered in one’s head like a catchy tune; he meant
something so visceral, so gut-wrenching that even the strongest person
shook. When Luther spoke of
love, he didn’t mean benign sentiment; he meant the most passionate,
self-forgetful self-giving. When
Luther spoke of evil, he knew first-hand a horror as grotesque as it was
terrible. Many people who
are daintier than they should be are put off by Luther’s earthy
language. They find it shocking. Do
you know what he found shocking? – people who are so naive, so superficial, so
clueless that they fail to understand that the world swarms and seethes
and heaves. Luther knew that
the world is the venue of a cosmic conflict which surges round and
about, claiming victims here and there, while from time-to-time the
front of this cosmic conflict passes right through your heart and mine.
When it does, only the earthiest language is adequate.
Everyone knows what Luther said at the famous confrontation in
the city of
, 1521. “Here I stand.
I can do no other. I
cannot and will not recant. God
help me.” But few people
are aware that he said this not in a spirit of petulant intransigence or
puffed-up arrogance. He said
this in anguish – anguish for many reasons, not the least of which was
this: from that moment until the day he died, twenty-five years later,
there was a price on his head. Even
fewer people know what his opponent, Emperor Charles V, vowed in the
face of Luther’s stand: “I have decided to mobilize everything against Luther: my kingdom, my dominions, my
friends, my body, my blood, my soul.”
In other words, the opposition Luther would face for the rest of
his life was total, relentless, and lethal.
And we find his vocabulary exaggerated and his delight in the
Christmas gift childish? We
should know what he knew: the world is a turbulent and treacherous place
for any Christian in any era.
Creatures of modernity like you and me think we live in an
ideational world. If we pass
a motion at a meeting, we assume that a problem has been dealt with.
If the House of Commons passes new legislation, we assume that
injustice has been rectified. We
assume that to discuss a social problem dispels the problem.
We mull over different philosophies and compare them with
didn’t speak of “Christianity;” he was possessed by the Christmas
babe himself. He didn’t
finesse theories of evil; he was confronted with powers of darkness so
intense and so penetrating that either he looked to the One who is
indeed victor or he unravelled.
I understand why Luther delighted in Christmas, why he looked
forward to December 25th with a child’s tremulous longing.
Then what is it about the manger-gift that sustained the
Wittenberger then and sustains us now?
he who adorns the manger is the Son of God.
“Son of” in biblical parlance means “of the same nature
as”. To behold the child
who is Son of God is to behold the nature of God; or at least as much as
can be beheld.
Luther didn’t dispute the truth that God is magnificent,
mighty, (almighty, in fact); God is resplendent, glorious, incomparably
so. Luther never disputed
this. He also said that we
never see it. The God whose
majesty is indescribable is hidden
from us. But Christmas
celebrates not God hidden but God revealed.
And God revealed appears in the world as we are in the world:
weak, vulnerable, suffering, bleeding.
The Nicene Creed says that “for us and our salvation the Son of
God came down from heaven...”
Came down? Yes.
A condescension. Came
Yet more than humility: humiliation.
There’s a difference.
It is wonderful that God humbled himself for our sakes; wonderful
that he didn’t confine himself to his splendour but accommodated
himself to us his creatures. Yet
immeasurably more wonderful is it that for our sakes he knew not merely
humility, but even humiliation. We
read in the gospels that the detractors of Jesus hissed that our Lord
was illegitimate. “Why
should we heed -- or even hear -- a bastard like you?” they taunted
contemptuously. When he
died, the same people quoted the book of Deuteronomy: “Cursed is he
who hangs on a tree.” “That
proves it!” the head-waggers chattered knowingly, “We were right to
shun him. He was cursed by
God all along. What insight
we had from the start!” Humiliation?
Crucifixion was a Roman penalty reserved for those deemed scum:
military deserters, terrorists and rapists.
Jesus is lumped in with that
Then there’s the cry of dereliction, “Why have you forsaken
me?” It’s the most
anguish-ridden cry that Jesus ever uttered.
Yet since the Father and the Son are of the same nature, the cry
of the Son’s dereliction is simultaneously the cry of the Father
himself. It’s the cry of
someone who has voluntarily undergone enormous wounding for the sake of
those he holds dear. The cry
of dereliction is really the cry of God himself over the pain of his
torn heart, suffered for the sake of us whom he plainly loves more than
he loves himself.
Not the hidden God (splendid, magnificent, majestic) but the
revealed God (suffering, humbled, humiliated, slain;) only the revealed
God can help us, said Luther. For
only the revealed God has identified fully, identified himself wholly
with the grief and guilt, turbulence and turpitude, conflict and slander
and suffering that surround my life and yours.
Only this God is
of any help to us.
Luther used to say that the most comforting words in all of
scripture are the six words – what do you think the six most
comforting words are? – of the preface to the Ten Commandments: “I
am the Lord your God.” If
we really understood these six words, he said, we should be invincible.
And who is the Lord our God?
The God of manger and cross who will go to any length to seize,
save and secure those whom he has named his own.
there is more to the manger-gift. Not
only is he Son of God, he is also son of Mary.
Jesus isn’t apparently human or seemingly human but actually
human, fully human. “Tempted
at all points as we are”, is the way the NT speaks of him.
The one Greek word, PEIRAZEIN, means
tempted, tested and tried all at once.
Tempted, tested and tried like us but with this difference: he
was never deflected in his human obedience, trust and love for his
Father. He didn’t
capitulate in the face of either the tempter’s threats or the
Let’s talk about temptation for a minute.
We modern types always assume that temptation is primarily
temptation to do something wrong, temptation to commit a misdemeanour, temptation to
contradict a code. But in
scripture temptation is primarily temptation to deny the goodness of
God. First we deny the
goodness of God; next we deny the goodness of God’s claim upon our
obedience (his claim upon our obedience, is of course our blessing;)
finally we spurn the claim and disobey him – as we violate him and
thereby violate ourselves. It’s
not that we have done something
wrong; rather, we have cast aspersion on the goodness of God and the
goodness of his claim; the bottom line is that we have violated our
relationship with God even as we have violated our very own person.
It’s no wonder the Anglican Prayer Book reminds us, “And
there is no health in us.”
He who is the son of Mary has been given to us as the one human
being who doesn’t succumb to temptation; the one human being whose
obedience to his Father is uncompromised, whose trust in his Father is
undeflected, whose love for his Father is unrivalled by any other
attachment. Then by faith I
must cling to the Son of Mary,
because my obedience is
compromised a dozen times per day; my trust is fitful, and my love for
God is forever being distracted by lesser attachments. The
human response to God that I should
make and even want to
make has been corrupted, since I am a creature of the Fall.
Then of myself I can never render God the obedience and trust and
love which befit the child of God. Nevertheless,
there is provision for me: I can identify myself with the one whose
human relationship to his Father is everything that mine isn’t.
In faith I can cling gratefully to the son of Mary.
In the last few years family-therapists have come to appreciate
the damage sustained by adults who came from what are called
“shame-bound families.” We’re
speaking now of the adult whose childhood unfolded in a family where the
all-consuming preoccupation was the deep, dark family-secret that had to
be kept secret. If the
secret were told, public shame would spill over the family.
Therefore any number of lies, evasions, and smokescreens were
invented to cover up whoever it was in the family, whatever it was in
the family, that threatened the family’s artificial reputation.
The adult child of the shame-bound family now finds herself
guilt-ridden, fearful, inhibited.
To belong to the family of God is to be relieved of being
shame-bound. In the Son
of God God has identified himself with me completely; all that is or
might be shameful about me God has taken on and absorbed himself. In the
Son of Mary, on the other
hand, I have identified myself with the man Jesus.
Whatever is genuinely shameful about me is taken up into the
righteous humanness of Jesus himself. In his humanness he is the one
with whom the Father is well-pleased.
In faith, then, I cling to him, and in him my shame is bleached
and blotted out.
the manger-gift is also the son of David.
When people hailed Jesus as the son of David they were
recognizing him as the Messiah. David
’s greatest king, despite his undeniable feet of clay.
David had valiantly tried to redress the injustices that
pock-marked the nation. David
was a harbinger, a precursor of the day when the just judge of the earth
would no longer be defied and a topsy-turvy world would finally be
Make no mistake. The
topsy-turvy. A man who
fails to hit a baseball seven times out of ten is
guaranteed ten million dollars per year for the next five years.
Meanwhile homemakers are selling daffodils on street corners
because cancer patients needing treatment have been told that there’s
a six-month waiting list for the equipment.
The public education budget increases every year – and so does
the incidence of illiteracy. Please
note: concerning illiteracy
has surpassed both the
is now, per capita, the most illiterate nation of the west – and all
of this despite unprecedented billions spent on public education.
Anyone who struggles, like King David of old, to redress the
injustices of the world learns quickly how frustrating, absurd and
heartbreaking the struggle can be. A
friend of mine who administers a facility for battered women was invited
to duplicate the facility in another municipality, simply because of
that municipality’s need. (In
other words, wife-beating shows no signs of going out of style.)
The institution she represents was offered free land by a
developer. She spoke to
municipal civil servants as well as to elected representatives.
They promised to support her.
When a public discussion was called concerning the project,
however, both municipal staff and elected representatives sniffed the
political wind-direction and turned on her.
They didn’t merely withdraw the support they had promised; they
faked surprise, as though they were hearing her for the first time, and
then they denounced her, as though what she proposed (a facility for
battered women) were antisocial and irresponsible and even patently
ridiculous. (You see, a
facility for battered women attracts creepy males as surely as a garbage
dump attracts rats – so she was told.)
I saw my friend two days after the event.
She was still punch-drunk. She
was shocked at the betrayal, the savagery, the greasy opportunism of it
all. Luther wasn’t shocked
at this. He was shocked at
ignorant, fastidious people found his language shocking when he tried to
The whole world cries out for the son of David, however
inarticulately or unknowingly, just because the world cannot
correct itself. As a matter
of fact, the world is not
getting better and better, however slowly.
Then is hopelessness the only sensible attitude to have?
Not for a minute. The
manger-gift is the son of David, the Messiah promised of old, the royal
ruler who will right the capsized world on that Day when he fashions a
world in which righteousness dwells.
Then you and I must never capitulate to hopelessness.
Neither do we disillusion ourselves with naiveness.
Instead we faithfully, patiently, do whatever we can in
anticipation of that Day when justice is done. And if what we do in
anticipating this Day plunges us into even greater
conflict for now, then our friend Luther will smile at us and say, “I
could have told you that; I always knew that the appearance of Jesus
Christ provokes conflict.”
And at such a time we shall have to find our comfort and cheer in
that manger-gift, the child of
, who made Luther’s eyes light up like a child’s on Christmas
He who has been given to us is the Son of God, the son of Mary,
and the son of David.
the Son of God he is God humbling himself, even humiliating himself in
seeking to save us.
As the son of Mary he renders the Father the proper human
response that we should make but can’t, and therefore we must cling to
him in faith.
As the son of David he is the long-promised Messiah who
guarantees us a righted world in which righteousness will one day be
seen to dwell.
Reverend Dr Victor Shepherd
7th December 2008
Church of St Bride, Anglican,