Generous Orthodoxy  


In the Bleak Midwinter
Sermon by Reverend Fleming Rutledge
December 21, 2016
Christ Church, Cooperstown, New York
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And Jesus said to Thomas, “Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” (John 20:26-29)

It was very exciting to be invited to preach at this service for your new rector. My husband and I have counted Dane as a dear friend since his first week at another Christ Church, in Greenwich, Connecticut, and we’re thrilled to see him now installed in a position of leadership where he can fully exercise his gifts. We’re delighted also about his growing family. Debby Boston is a powerhouse in her own right; don’t be fooled by her charmingly modest demeanor. She’s omni-competent—a full-fledged lawyer as well as a mother and first-rate cook, hostess, and household manager. Both these young people were Phi Beta Kappa at W & L, but Debby in her junior year, a rare honor. The two of them are a remarkable team. I think you can look forward to some very good years with them both.

When Dane invited me, I accepted instantly, without even thinking, but then I began to realize what a compounded blessing it was going to be. First of all, I’ve loved Cooperstown for many years. To me, it’s one of the most attractive towns in the United States. I have dropped into Christ Church anonymously many times and yearned to feel at home here. Now, by the grace of God, I have my opportunity!

But there’s something much more important about the wonders of this occasion. First of all, tonight is the shortest and darkest night of the year, the deepest part of the season just before Christmas. Second, it’s the feast day of Thomas the Apostle, often called “doubting Thomas.” We’ll soon learn why that’s so significant. And third, it’s the fourth week of Advent. For the Christian church, it’s the most expectant week of the year, saturated with the sense of something uniquely miraculous about to happen.

The Advent season offers something remarkable to the church—the calling to live in two places at once. If the church is doing its job, the people of God are going about their December routines in a double sense. We are shopping, decorating, baking, wrapping, and creating as much magic for the children as possible. We are burning candles and putting out multitudes of lights. But in our hearts and in the worship of the church, the Advent season begins in the darkness, in the depths of the night. In the world of darkness, refugees are homeless; families shopping at a Christmas market are run down; the people of Aleppo are hunted from house to house. In our own country, we are divided and wary of one another. It is the midnight of the year. The early church knew what it was doing when it settled on the winter solstice as the date for approaching Christmas.

This is the right moment in the year for the announcement of the coming of the Lord. A few years ago, on the radio, I heard a breathtaking African-American spiritual that I had never heard before. It had a question-and-answer format, or, rather, call-and-response:

What month was my Jesus born in? Last month of the year.
What month? January? No...February? No... March? No…
Last month of the year…
Born of the virgin Mary.

What does this suggest? It suggests that the clock of human progress and human potential was winding down to zero.

The supreme poet of the Advent season, W. H. Auden, writes,

The evil and armed draw near
The weather smells of their hate
And the houses smell of our fear;
Death has opened his white eye…

Cold the heart and cold the stove,
Ice condenses on the bone,
Winter completes an age.[1]

The image of the evil and armed, the symbolism of hate and fear, combined with winter cold and ice, suggests that the miracle of God’s coming occurs precisely at the last moment when human hope is extinguished. “Winter completes an age”; he is speaking of the end of the age of false hopes, false promises, false saviors.

The poet continues. He suggests that all our attempts at human self-help and our religious strivings for peace and meaning come to an end:

Was the triumphant answer to be this?
The Pilgrim Way has led to the Abyss.

All our religious searching leads to a dead end—the Abyss, the impotence of human wishes, the collapse of human hopes.

You probably know of the famous utterance by Roman gladiators. As they came into the arena to fight to the death for the amusement of the public, they faced the emperor and said Ave, Caesar, nos morituri te salutamus: We who must die salute you.[2] W. H. Auden uses this by changing it into a refusal to salute worldly power and a turning to another Power from another sphere:

We who must die demand a miracle.
How could the Eternal do a temporal act,
The Infinite become a finite fact?
Nothing can save us that is possible.
We who must die demand a miracle.

How could the Eternal do a temporal act? How could the Infinite become a finite fact? Auden is audaciously describing the central mystery of Christmas—the moment when the impossibility of the human condition (“we who must die”) is met by the possibility of God—the miracle.

The question of Christmas can be stated very simply as the first line of a Christmas carol: “What child is this?” I’m going to say something now that might cause you to drift off, but stay with me for a minute. Christmas has been called “the feast of Nicene dogma.” What? How can dogma be a good thing? Many people think it’s a bad thing. I just finished reading a very popular, and for the most part very good book called Take This Bread. I loved it for the first two-thirds, but I got pretty much turned off when the author referred to the Nicene creed as a “toxic document” which her congregation would never use. She did not understand its crucial importance. When the Council of Nicaea met early in the fourth century, their purpose was to determine, once and for all, “What child is this?” Who was Jesus of Nazareth? Was he a man who became a god? Or was he himself God from the beginning? This argument was settled at Nicaea, but the argument is not over; it is still going on in the church. One of the things I want to tell you is that Dane Boston will be a superb guide to you in this matter, and I think I can safely say that he will be defending the decision of that great church council, which engaged some of the greatest minds that the world has ever seen in one period of time. In fact, this sermon is in Dane’s honor, because he is a fine teacher of the faith of the church.

So. Was Jesus of similar substance with God—was he like God (that’s homoiousia in Greek)—or was he “of one substance” (homoousia) with God? There’s only one letter of difference in the two words, the Greek letter iota. (I’m trying to hold your attention here.) My theology professor used to tell his students that “The truth about the salvation of the human race hung by an iota.” What child is this? “The infinite has become a finite fact.” Everything depends on this, or the nativity story is just a child’s fable that no thinking adult can believe.

Now we come to the apostle Thomas whose feast day this is. Peter was the leader of the twelve disciples, and the best known to us today, but in the Gospel of John,  Thomas the doubter plays a key role. When Jesus tells his disciples that he’s leaving them and that they know where he’s going, Thomas is the one who protests. Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going; how can we know the way?” This protest leads to one of Jesus’ greatest sayings: “I AM the way….and the truth, and the life…”

So all through the Gospel of John, Thomas is the contrarian. But when the evangelist John brings Thomas back at the end, it’s the climax of the story. John was a master storyteller. He shaped the material he inherited so that Thomas, the one who resisted, becomes the one who tells us finally and completely who Jesus is.

Thomas was not with the disciples who first saw Jesus after the resurrection, and he said he didn’t believe it. He said he wasn’t going to believe it till he saw the prints of the nails in Jesus’ body. A few days later, the disciples were gathered together, and this time Thomas was with them. The doors were shut, but Jesus came and stood among them, and said, “Peace be with you.” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side; do not be faithless, but believing.” Thomas answered him, “My Lord and my God!” (ho kurios mou kai ho theos mou).

My Lord and my God. All commentators agree: this is the highest and most unequivocal confession in the Gospel of John. Thomas no longer calls Jesus “Master.”  When he calls him Lord and God, the evangelist has brought his Gospel full circle, back to the Prologue, which is the reading for Christmas Day: In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus has now returned to the place where he was before the Incarnation.[3] Thomas’ confession is the pinnacle of Christian faith. When you sing “O come all ye faithful” on Christmas Eve, I hope you will find new meaning in the second verse: “Very God, begotten, not created.” That’s Nicene dogma. That’s who the child is. The Eternal has done a temporal act, the Infinite has become a finite fact. “For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven.”

Our hymn at the conclusion of this service is one that I’m sure you all know, but perhaps you don’t all know the fulness of doctrine (dogma) that it proclaims. It’s a very old hymn, from the Middle Ages, and was originally in Latin. Each verse sets out what has become known as “the Great O’s of Advent.” The child in the manger is given all the great Messianic titles of the Old Testament . (I’d love to expound them all, but I won’t stretch out my time that far.) Here, briefly, are the “Great O’s”:

  • Emmanu-el (in Hebrew, God with us)
  • Sapientia (Wisdom from on high that proceeds from the mouth of God)
  • Adonai (the name of God who gives the Ten Commandments to Moses on Mount Sinai)
  • Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse, the father of King David from whose line the Messiah was to come)
  • Clavis David (the Key of David that opens what no one else can unlock)
  • Oriens (the longed-for Daystar that scatters the darkness)
  • Rex Gentium (the King of the Gentiles and all the nations to the end of the earth)

Thomas’ confession of faith, then, is the summary of all the titles and all the prophecies and all the hopes of the Old Testament. Out of the unrelieved darkness of death, the Daystar arises. Again in the words of the prologue of John’s gospel, “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness overcame it not.”

“My Lord and my God.” I am sure there are many doubting Thomases here tonight. I assure you that I am a doubter myself, many times a week. But here are the words of the Lord himself that will be our light in the darkness of doubt. Here is the promise that Jesus himself makes to us. Yes, to us, to this congregation gathered to welcome a new apostolic messenger into its midst. This is what Jesus says to Thomas; listen to him speaking directly to you:

Jesus said to him, “Thomas, have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.” (John 20:26-29)

That’s you, and that’s me. We are the ones who have not seen with our eyes like Thomas. We are the ones who have not seen and yet, in spite of that lack, receive the Lord’s blessing and become believers. The Lord looks through and beyond the disciple Thomas in front of him, he looks down the ages and across oceans, and he sees you and me, and he promises his own self to us, to those who have not seen but yet put their trust in him. And so the Evangelist John concludes his Gospel with these words:

Now Jesus did many other signs…which are not written in this book; but these are written [so] that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that believing you may have life in his name.

May it be so. And may the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you always.

AMEN..


[1] W. H. Auden, from the Advent section of “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio.”  I have reversed the stanzas for the effect I want to make.

[2] There are several versions of this famous Latin saying. The original is quoted by the historian Suetonius.

[3] Rudolph Bultmann, The Gospel of John, 695.


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