April 10, 2022

Paths of Christian Spirituality: The Incarnational Tradition (Lent Sermon Series)

Picture the scene. You are a Jew and live in occupied Palestine, and you are preparing to celebrate the Passover, the great memorial of YHWH’s liberation of your people from…

Isaiah 9:2-7; 2 Corinthians 4:5-12; Luke 19:28b-40

Picture the scene.

You are a Jew and live in occupied Palestine,

and you are preparing to celebrate the Passover,

the great memorial of YHWH’s liberation of your people from slavery in Egypt.

There is a revolutionary scent in the air, the people are restive.

You’ve heard there is brigade of Roman cavalry arriving to dampen the people’s spirits

just to remind them of the overwhelming military force of Rome,

should any be thinking of rebelling.

Enforcing the so-called Pax Romana.

But you’ve seen that kind of posturing many times before,

so you head home to your village Bethany

on the other side of the city of Jerusalem.

And as you walk you begin to sense that over here

the people’s spirits remain high.

In fact that something curious is beginning to stir.

There is word that Jesus of Nazareth, who many believe to be the Messiah,

has finally come to Jerusalem again.

People are pouring into the streets to welcome him.

While the might and violence of Rome are on display on one side of the city,

on this side it seems that Zechariah’s prophecy is coming true.

This man, possibly the messiah, comes riding,

as Zechariah said, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.

He seems to be saying with his donkey and his army of peasants,

as Zechariah also said,

that he will cut off the chariot from Ephraim and the war horse from Jerusalem

…and shall command peace to the nations.

This is not pax romana, that is for sure.

This is a different kind of peace altogether.


Ohohohohoooo! This is subversive stuff.

The crowd is really building now, and they are singing of him:

“Blessed is the king
who comes in the name of the Lord!
Peace in heaven,
and glory in the highest heaven!”

The Jesus has got some nerve, I’ll give him that!

Rome will not like this, no not one bit.

Not only are they singing his praises, and calling him King

they are waving palm branches

like they did when Simon Maccabaeus marched in

and liberated the city from Rome 200 years ago!

They are laying their coats down for him to walk his donkey on.

This is the stuff of envy for Pilate

– he dreams of this kind of loyalty, this love.

He sure isn’t going to be happy with a new upstart King in Jerusalem,

come to think of it, neither are the Sanhedrin,

the Jewish religious authorities.

This Jesus is going to need more than an army of peasants and a little donkey

if he is going to survive the week.


We don’t often think of God as interested in politics.

And we do often hear it said that the church should butt out of politics,

and keep to the spiritual and religious realm.

As if the two didn’t overlap in anyway.

In fact, the visible was made by the Invisible God,

and matter by he who is Spirit,

so that Spirit might animate matter and so be made visible.

Matter was made for Spirit. The two are indivisible.


But not only do we get push back from other people

when we bring the spiritual into the political domain,

but we also hear it said from some quarters of the church

that there is a divide between the sacred and the profane.

Real Christians, we seem to hear, have as little to do with the world as possible,

and the best of all Christians retreat to monasteries and convents

to keep themselves unstained by the secular realm.


You will not be surprised to hear me say, this is all flat out wrong.

And Palm Sunday bears me out on this.

It is a great example of the incarnational or sacramental tradition.

To be incarnated means to be enfleshed, embodied.

Spirit with meat on the bones.

(Spirit con carne, you might say!)

And the highest point of the incarnation is of course Jesus – the God-man.

Spirit and matter brought together in perfect union in his body.

Immanuel – God is with us.


But there are many other physical things

that are of great significance to the story of Palm Sunday.

The Palms and cloaks that the people wave and place on the ground to honour him;

their voices raised in praise,

the humble donkey, symbol of the pax Christi.

Spirit and matter working together.

The material giving expression to Spirit

and the life of God at work in the world.


Now, we use material things in church to remind us of this.

Everything from our building itself, to the font, pulpit, vestments

– and aumbry where we store the reserved sacrament and holy oils.

And of course, the high point in church worship of the incarnational tradition,

are the sacraments themselves – baptism and the eucharist.

Which are visible signs – material and physical signs,

of an inward, invisible grace.


But now, and this is crucial,

the spiritual doesn’t infuse the material only in church.

All matter no matter how degraded,

is created by and is an icon of the divine,

pointing to God, revealing something of God.


And in fact, the point of a religious life at all,

is to enable us to incarnate the divine presence in our day to day lives.

The idea is that if we can see God here in bread and wine,

we can begin to see him everywhere.

All of this – our worship here in church on Sunday,

is meant to the serve the purpose

of forming us into the sorts of people who walk with Jesus,

talk with Jesus, and do the things that Jesus said we should do.


At the end of the liturgy we are dismissed with the words,

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

The word dismiss comes from the Latin to go.

And it is really a call to action!

All of what we do here on a Sunday is meant to be taken out there.

Where it can make a difference.

Go, and sow seeds of love.

Go, and be the yeast in the dough, causing the whole batch to rise.

Go, and shine the light of Christ in the dark corners of the world.

Go, and bring peace, patience, forgiveness to your neighbours.

Go, and find God at work at your office, shop, school, home, wherever,

go, and be his hands, his feet, his voice of love to all you meet.


But how can we put the incarnational tradition into practice?

We’ve heard in the video about Brother Lawrence.

I want to echo that and recommend any book or copy of his letters you can find.

I have this one, which combines Brother Lawrence’s letters from the 17th century,

with the letters of another Christian, from the 20th century, Frank Laubach.

It is called Practicing His Presence

and it is perhaps one of the greatest pieces of Christian literature of all time.


So, what is practicing God’s presence?

Simply, it is learning to bring to mind an awareness of God

as much as possible throughout the day, whatever we’re doing.

So rather than rely only on praying in church on Sunday,

or perhaps mealtimes, bedtimes,

Brother Lawrence and Frank Laubach, both encourage us

to pray without ceasing as Paul talked about in his letter to the Thessalonians.

Now, you might think that’s alright for Brother Lawrence

– he was clearly a monk with a name like that.

And yes, you would be right,

but his preferred place to practice the presence of God was when washing the dishes.

And Frank Laubach was not a monk and did not live on his own.

He was a family man, a pastor and a Christian missionary.

And a hugely productive and effective educationalist.


He suggested that we try to bring God to mind one second in every minute.

But if that seems too much as a starting place,

you might try once an hour, as Joe suggests in the video.

And you could set a reminder on your phone to help you.


Here is Frank Laubach’s experience in his own words:

“Two years ago a profound dissatisfaction

led me to begin trying to line up my actions with the will of God

about every 15 minutes or every half hour.

Other people to whom I confessed this intention said that it was impossible.

I judge from what I have heard that few people are really trying even that.

But this year I have started out to live all my moments

in conscious listening to the inner voice, asking without ceasing,

“What, Father, do you desire said?”

What, Father, do you desire this minute?”


He then describes some of the results of this experiment.

He said, “I feel simply carried along each hour,

doing my part in a plan which is far beyond myself.

This sense of cooperation with God in the little things is what so astonishes me,

for I have never felt it this way before.

I need something and turn round to find it waiting for me.

I must work, to be sure, but there is God working along with me.

God takes care of all the rest.”


After a year of practicing God’s presence in this simple way, he said:

“I feel, as I look back over the year,

that it would have been impossible to have held much more

without breaking with sheer joy.

It was the lonesomest year, in some ways the hardest year, of my life,

but the most glorious, full of voices from heaven.”


This is Palm Sunday

– Jesus’ subversive undermining of the political status quo of his day,

not with a massive, armoured war horse but with a little donkey;

not with a great army of trained soldiers to defeat the Romans,

but with an army of peasants.

Not bringing the violence of Pax Romana,

but the peace of Pax Christi.

Paying attention to the way Spirit moves in matter on occasions like this,

and in people like you and me,

and to God in our everyday lives,

and seeking to be filled with God’s Spirit and to work in partnership with him,

is called the incarnational tradition.

God’s Spirit is revealed in matter,

in bodies, palms crosses, choirs and simple bread and wine.


Emmanuel. God is with us.

When we do the dishes. When we do the shopping.

As we sleep. When we rise.

When we’re in church. When we’re in the shops.

We were made to be animated by God’s Spirit.

We were made to live in the fullness of the creator’s life.


So, your challenge this week, your experiment in prayer, is this:

find a way to remember God quietly in your heart and mind

as often as possible.

Whether it is once an hour, or once a minute,

set a goal and seek God’s will with all you do, think and say.

And see how you feel.

The Bible tells us that when we seek him with all our heart

we will find him,

and in this Holy Week when we walk with Jesus through his suffering and death,

we know how much this means to him.

How much he loves us,

how far he has gone bring us his deathless life.

Emmanuel. God is with us.









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