Delivered on Sunday, December 24th, 2017, and posted without edit, although I think I made a few on the fly, last Sunday morning! I rarely do the traditional “2-point” or “3-point” sermons taught in seminaries. Instead, I use a structure that I learned from one of my mentors, a renowned speaker in his age but no minister. His book, “As Listeners Like It,” was published in 1930. It works for me and seems to work for those who graciously listen to me on Sunday mornings.
The Reading: Gospel of John 1:1-18 (NRSV)
We are blessed to have our cherished hymnals, the majority of the hymns familiar ones, at least to most of us, even if some we only get to pull out for certain seasons of the church year… such as our beloved Christmas carols. My late mother had a collection of hymnals, dozens and dozens of them which my Dad scrounged in various book sales or churches along the way, some songs familiar and others I never heard sung. So it goes with hymns, most become less popular over time, as the style of music changes. One that I came across while in seminary is still sung, but isn’t in our hymnals – I checked. Known as “Hail Gladdening Light” or more commonly “O Gladsome Light,” it is the earliest known complete hymn and thought to date to sometime around 200 A.D and widely known within a century, it was meant to be sung in the evenings, at the lighting of the candles, as Sundays were regular workdays in the Roman Empire and services thus had to be held at night.
I think about its words echoing off the stone in the underground cemeteries of Rome, while Christianity remained banned and persecuted, and Christians met in secret amid the chilly, rank, and dark spaces as that light was brought in unconquered by the darkness. I think about Christmas, when those words take on a more potent reminder of the words of John, that “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it,” as the first verse rang out:
O Gladsome Light, O Grace
of God the Father’s face,
th’eternal splendor wearing;
celestial, holy, blest,
our Savior Jesus Christ,
joyful in Thine appearing
WHY I BRING THIS UP
Unlike the nativity scene of the Gospel of Luke or the long genealogy of the Gospel of Matthew, by John’s introducing Jesus with the words “In the beginning…” the message of the Christmas story is held forth as a reminder that while Creation is a long ago event, the relationship of God with humanity is ongoing and unfolding. No small wonder that St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote, Christmas is the “festival of re-creation,” it is a festival whereby God gives God’s own life to his people. God in the flesh, the divine human and holy humanity – a beacon of light in a sometimes gritty world.
Yet I think that the rub of the story of Christmas is that we have sanitized it into a pretty solid feel-good moment and in some ways, our carols, as lovely as they are, can reinforce that image. Hallmark-friendly, Christmas has become an escape from the craziness of our world, instead of a moment that equips us for the world. Let’s face it, we would be horrified if our crèches had the pungent scent of a barn stall sprayed on their idyllic scenes and a King Herod figurine stood with a blood-stained knife in a castle placed across the room, at some distance from the Wise Men. The authentic story is all there because only then does it make sense as to why Jesus was sent to live among humanity and to die because of us.
This brings me to an interesting opinion piece I read this past week, in which Rev. Clare Johnson speaks to how God’s giving himself in Jesus, sometimes gets lost among the churched, and how it plays out in attitudes that amount to “A theology that is only for the powerful and those who feel guilty (that comforts the child trafficker but not the child, the exploiter but not the exploited, the sexual predator but not the victim, the rapist but not the raped, the con artist but not the conned).” This “is harmful to a world full of trafficked children, exploited people, and victims of assault and abuse,” among others, because as she noted, “It allows sinners to alleviate their feelings of guilt without acknowledging the pain they have caused in other people’s lives,” because it is believed that “the only forgiveness that matters comes from God.”
“This theology presents the mask of humility” saying God has forgiven the wrongdoer, so who am I to judge? All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God, “while completely removing the human victim of sinful behavior from the spiritual conversation. In fact, victims of sinful behavior are often admonished to ‘forgive as God forgives,’” for “once a sinner asks for forgiveness, the onus falls completely on the sinned against to forgive, lest they become a sinner themselves for refusing to forgive.” The result is that real suffering is ignored, glossed over and unintentionally justified.
With the coming of Christmas, we “herald the incarnation of our own Creator into the smallest, most vulnerable human there is: a newborn baby. And a pretty pitiful baby, too — born in a barn to a mother with a bad reputation,” writes Johnson, therefore “If we take the incarnation seriously, it has to inform our understanding of Jesus’ death. Jesus lived on earth as a poor, homeless carpenter with questionable parentage. He lived among the poor, inviting outcasts into his circle of closest friends. Did he die on the cross only so that King Herod wouldn’t have to feel guilty about being so cruel and oppressive?” “Does Jesus’ sacrifice only mean that people who do… evil are forgiven by God and therefore cannot be” held accountable?
In my observation, while the 12-step program of “AA” and other recovery groups address the spiritual component to healing by specifically including a step about making amends for the wrongs one has done…. it begs the question: Are we doing enough in our faith walk to speak to that part two of our seeking forgiveness? Is that something we ponder when we partake at the Lord’s Table – not just seeking forgiveness for ourselves, but also seeking to bind up the very wounds we have inflicted upon others and God? I admit, that is something that hits home to me, as much as anyone because the washing away of our sins by the grace we experience in Jesus Christ doesn’t wash away the impact on those who were injured. That comes SOLELY from our taking ownership. Only Then can we truly become the visible and tangible carriers of God’s inward and spiritual presence.
In Judaism, there is a rabbinical tradition, a story told, that each person has a procession of angels going before him or her and crying out, “Make way for the image of God!” because we were created IN the image and likeness of God (Gen. 1:26-27). The angels surrounding us declare that to honor the image, the human being, is to honor the Creator, the Holy One. What we do, say, or give to another we do, say, or give to God. Likewise what we fail to do, say, or give to another we fail to do, say, or give to God.
Imagine how different our lives and world would be if we lived with this as our reality and the truth that guided our lives, with its profound ethical and relational implications:
- Reverence for God is shown in our reverence for each other;
- Our fear of offending or hurting another human being must be as ultimate as our fear of offending or hurting God;
- Violence against another person is an act of desecration against God;
- Arrogance and condescension toward another person are blasphemous of God;
- The denial of another’s humanity is akin to the denial of God’s divinity; and
- Our love of neighbor mirrors and reveals our love of God.
Everywhere we go the angels go with us announcing the coming of the image of God and reminding us of who we are. It changes how we see ourselves and one another, the way we live, our actions, and our words. It means that Christmas cannot be limited to an event on our jammed calendars. Christmas is to be a life lived, a way of being. It means that Christmas is more properly understood as a verb rather than a noun, where we stop asking each other “How was your Christmas?” and instead ask “How are you ‘Christmassing?’”
Are you and I recognizing the Word become flesh in our own lives, as much as the Word become flesh in Christ? Are you recognizing the Word become flesh in the lives of others?
Do you see the procession of angels and hear their voices?
In the festival of re-creation that is God celebrating humanity in a stable in Bethlehem, the Son of God became the son of man so that the sons of men might become sons of God. Divinity was clothed in humanity so that humanity might be clothed in divinity. It means we are holy and intended to be holy, not as an achievement on our own but as a gift of God.
This is the gift of Christmas. We have been given the power to become children of God. This happens not by blood, or the will of the flesh, or the will of people, but by God – for us, for the person living next door, for those we love, for those we fear, for those who are like us and those who are different, for the stranger, and for our enemies.
“And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”
NOTES: Credit where credit is due. Thanks for inspiration and awesome quotes by the following sources, which were “stumble across” articles. The first one I ran across from a friend’s Facebook post and found fascinating and quite powerful, the second is from a blog upon which I drew in writing the last part of this sermon, and the third is probably more than anyone would want to read about angels and buried in it is an outstanding insight that I needed. Hopefully it offends no one that I draw when needed, upon the marvelous insights of others, rather than having every profound thought myself.