In the Beginning…, Christmas 1 – December 31, 2017

[RCL] Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147 or 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

The first eighteen verses of the Gospel of John are certainly well-known—“In the beginning was the Word.” But this passage can seem too floaty, too esoteric, too obscure, abstract, and idealized. It’s poetry, yes, but it’s not particularly helpful poetry, and when we read the Bible, most of us like to gather some sort of concrete idea of what to do in our lives on an everyday basis.

But if John thought poetry was the best way to introduce Jesus and encourage us to encounter Jesus, why was that?

This text reveals that we need to think differently about who we are. It’s very easy as we go about our daily lives making our daily mistakes to get very down on ourselves, to believe we are constantly disappointing God and everyone else. And while it’s important to never lose sight of our feet of clay, the fact is that God created us but a little lower than the angels, and sometimes we need to rise into the stratosphere with John and live into that a bit.

Being a disciple of Jesus Christ means being changed. We are born blessed by God, created in the image of God, but salvation makes us a new creation in Christ. Listen to how Isaiah talks about how God has changed him in our lesson today: “I will greatly rejoice in the LORD, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels…You shall be called by a new name that the mouth of the LORD will give.”

Our trust and faith in God that we struggle so doggedly to maintain and renew makes us, who are already cherished by God, into souls who shine with new potential and the beauty of life immersed in God. This is true even when we are sinning because the underlying reality of our desire and hunger for God will always drive us to stand up again when we’ve fallen, to reach out again when we’ve lost contact with God, to open up again when we’ve hardened our hearts.

What can we learn about what Jesus wants us to be from what we learn about who Jesus is in John’s prologue? John says, “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” You were part of a process much greater than your parents creating a biological exchange. Jesus Christ himself, the great and eternal Word, was the vehicle of your creation, was the medium and the messenger that spoke a unique word into the universe that never was before and never will be again. That’s you.

You might not believe little old you could be that special or important. But John says it himself: “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” You are a child of God born of the will of God.

In fact, we were so important to God that Jesus chose to leave all his heavenly glory, emptying himself and taking on the form of a slave, as Philippians says. “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory,” John goes on. That’s what we’re celebrating today, on this first Sunday of Christmas. God chose to humble Godself to the level of a poor, limited, human creature. And more than that—notice that John adds, “And we have seen his glory.” Jesus didn’t just become human for a minute or an hour or a day and then go right back to heaven. He lived among us for thirty-three years, enduring the messiness, the heartbreak, the inconvenience, the joy, and the pain of human life.

And he never walked out on that pain. He could have used his power at so many moments to ease his way. It would never have affected his healing or his teaching. There was no reason for him to suffer the pain he went through, from getting sick to getting in arguments to having clueless disciples, to having friends die, all the way up to the excruciating suffering he experienced on the cross. But he did it because he loves us, and he would never abandon us to suffer alone.

He entered the pain willingly because he wanted to go to the darkest depths of human suffering, because that is where all of us end up at some point in our lives, some of us more than once. That is what John means when he says “and we have seen his glory.” Not his glory in the sense of being powerful or mighty or wearing a robe that shines like the sun and ascending to heaven on a cloud. We have seen his glory as he dwelt among us because there never has been and there never will be any place of pain, lostness, suffering, or addiction that we can go and not find him there with us, bearing it with us and for us.

“No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known,” John says. This can help us see the Incarnation and the Christmas season in a whole different way. If Jesus had not been born, that first sentence, “No one has ever seen God,” would still be true. Mary and Joseph and Peter and John would not have seen God, and we would not have seen God. But because God made the choice to share Godself with us in human form, we have seen God in Jesus Christ, and it is amazing.

And that second sentence, “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” This shows us once again what Jesus gave up and sacrificed to come to us, a completely different sacrifice from the giving of his life on the cross. He was close to the Father’s heart. That was where he lived, in the perfect Trinity of love. And he left that peaceful, radiant and loving place, the place close to the Father’s heart, for us. And why? To stay with us forever? Yes, but more than that. To bring us to that place. To bring us close to the Father’s heart. He told us so himself: “I go to prepare a place for you.” He doesn’t even take his special place back for himself. He gives it up for us. And this is the fundamental reordering of the universe that happened on Christmas that we celebrate today.

It’s worth living in the poetry sometimes. We can get frustrated when we don’t get concrete direction from a Bible passage. But the poetry is what explains the why of all the literal actions of discipleship we’re trying to do. What takes tithing and studying and praying and worshipping and serving from being rote, mechanical duties to being our offering of our very selves to the living God, is the cosmic story of God and humanity of which John sings. The beauty of the words, and underneath that, the beauty of the truth that, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God”—that poetry is what makes our souls catch fire for God and all God asks of us.

This is why scripture matters so much. Because when real life comes crashing in, when the divorce papers are served, when the job loss happens, when the cancer or Alzheimer’s diagnosis comes through, we have to have somewhere to anchor our souls. And we do, in a few simple words a man named John wrote a very long time ago. “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” The hard knocks of life plus the poetry of scripture give us the chance to build our lives so that we become a word of poetry ourselves, one little phrase expressed by the great Word that is God.

The Rev. Whitney Rice is an Episcopal priest in the Diocese of Indianapolis and currently the Associate Rector the St. Francis-in-the-Fields Episcopal Church in Zionsville, Indiana. A native of Lee’s Summit, Missouri, she comes to ordained ministry by way of the University of Kansas and Yale Divinity School, where she won the Yale University Charles S. Mersick Prize for Public Address and Preaching and the Yale University E. William Muehl Award for Excellence in Preaching. See more of her work at www.roofcrashersandhemgrabbers.com.

Download the sermon for Christmas 1 (B).

Confusing the Sacred and the Profane, Christmas 1 – 2015

[RCL] Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18; Psalm 147 or 147:13-21

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. – John 1:14

When much of the world might think of this time as a great chance to get sales and deals or to catch up on sleep after relatives have left and to gear up for the New Year, this is a very different time for the Church. For the Church, this is the beginning of a short and nonetheless highly important season, the season of Christmas. This season gives us a sense of the expanse of time between Jesus’ birth and some of the other important events that happened around it. More importantly, this season also gets us in touch with the fact that the incarnation was not something that occurred just in the moment of conception or in the moments of delivery. Rather, the incarnation was something that unfolded over a great amount of time, since the beginning. It is this connection to the beginning that John, whose “account” of the incarnation we read today, was referring to. So let us return to John’s words. With God’s help, we will find ourselves more deeply immersed in the great mystery of Jesus Christ and his presence on Earth.

Most people who have grown up in the Episcopal or many other Christian churches will have heard the phrase: “and the Word became flesh and lived among us,” quite a few times. Compared to the pageant-worthy accounts in Matthew and Luke this seems quite unexciting. It is certainly lacking great imagery on the surface. Nonetheless, it becomes more interesting with a closer review of what these words mean and how significant they are. Another way to translate the phrase that gives us a closer experience to that of the original listeners is to say, “The Word became flesh and pitched a tent amidst us.” Taking into account how these words would have resonated with the present and past of the Jewish-Christian communities that gathered around these Gospel accounts will help us get a sense of how Jesus’ coming in turned ideas about what is sacred and what is mundane completely upside down.

So where does the ‘tent’ connection really come from? Linguistically and conceptually a ‘dwelling’ for the Jewish people was a tent. To dwell with was to pitch a tent. Long before Jesus was born in Bethlehem and long before the Jews built their Temple, they were a moving people who lived in tents. As they moved they carried the Ark of the Covenant, which held the Ten Commandments, with them and they believed God was present with the Ark. Some distance from where they pitched their own tents, they erected a super-tent, called the Tabernacle, for God. This tent had rooms, walls, incense, furniture, a garden and a clear barrier around the outside. When God’s cloud was on the tent no one was allowed in there. Otherwise, only certain men, the descendants of Aaron, were allowed in there at all. Even they could only enter after they offered a sacrifice for their own sins and took a special bath, or they could die. You see, by making God’s tent so different, so far away, and so exclusive they were making it pretty clear that their lives, their ordinary selves, where they lived and what they did were mundane, even profane. Only the exclusive people, places, and things were Holy and worthy of God.

With this in mind, we can see just how Christ turned this all upside down in his coming. While the Tabernacle was a super-tent with rooms and furniture, Christ “pitched his tent” in a stable or barn. The Tabernacle was apart from where others stayed, whereas Christ stayed in an overcrowded inn in the middle of town. One could easily argue that Christ incarnated a highly undesirable and unclean space, in the opposite space from the select area the tabernacle would have been. While only certain men, ritually cleaned, could enter God’s other tent, dirty shepherds and even animals got to share Jesus’ first intimate moments. The mundane and profane people and circumstances that were excluded from the Tabernacle were the exact people and circumstances included and recognized as Holy in the presence of Christ.

As we, as the Body of Christ, seek to follow in his example in this way it is important that we realize that it isn’t about making the Holy less Holy or less valued. Rather, it’s about recognizing the holiness in the everyday and drawing that forth. We are in a world where the lines between the ordinary and the special, the profane and the sacred are heavily drawn. If we as the church are to truly be people of the incarnation, we must at the very least challenge these distinctions and at best remove them altogether. We must do so out of our deep faith and understanding that all creation is suitable, inhabitable and thus somehow inhabited by God. How do we do this?

We can approach this work in a number of ways. The places we worship and other sacred spaces offer great opportunities for this. Through prayer we make these spaces Holy and bring forth their inherent spiritual beauty. By inviting and encouraging other kinds of meetings, fellowship gatherings, mutual support functions, and even parties with dancing, we can begin to unlock and reveal just how wonderful and sacred it is to be able to share these moments with others. By doing so in our places of worship we then change the way we regard these activities wherever they may occur.

We can also accomplish this through changing the ways that we approach and consider the routine things in our lives. From the time we spend brushing our teeth to our daily carpool and other regular appointments, we can bring forth the divine aspects of time by bringing more intentionality and paying attention to the ways that God’s presence manifests. So much of this comes down to being more intentional and practicing gratitude in all that we do. In doing so, we’ll find that in a sense of holiness will pervade our lives more deeply. We’ll find ourselves more able to recognize the ways that God is incarnating within our lives.

That leads to the most central part of this work, prayer. For it is in prayer and reflection that we enable ourselves to notice God birthing around us. And so let us all take the time, through this Christmas Season and beyond if possible, to consider all that we do notice as we remind ourselves of God’s Holy Presence everywhere. In doing so, we’ll help these Holy moments last well beyond the day or even the liturgical season of Christmas. In doing so, we’ll make them part of our entire lives and beyond. Amen.

Download the sermon for Christmas 1C.

Written by The Reverend Edwin Johnson

Christ doesn’t belong back in the box, 1 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2014

December 28, 2014

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147 or 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

The poet W.H. Auden captured the after-Christmas feeling very well. Toward the close of his long poem, “For the Time Being,” he wrote:

“Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes –
Some have got broken – and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Leftovers to do, warmed up, for the rest of the week –
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted – quite unsuccessfully –
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers.”

Auden’s “For the Time Being” is a Christmas oratorio written for the bleak mid-winter, post-Christmas malaise. The excitement of the holiday is past, and now we get back to our daily lives, made all the more dull by the brief holiday.

“For the Time Being” was written on the heels of Auden’s conversion to Christianity. The lengthy poem gives Auden’s understanding Christianity, particularly the meaning of the Incarnation – God becoming human in Jesus. Auden wrote:

“To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.”

Auden wrote this oratorio in England in 1941 and 1942 and published it in 1944. He, like other Christians of the time, desperately wanted the brief glimpse of the Christ child to sustain the world in a time of war. The world was full of people naming other humans “it.” That’s how you get well-educated, thoughtful Germans to participate in the horror of the Holocaust. You rename another person as an “it” instead of a “you.” You dehumanize the other person. You certainly don’t try to see Christ in them. That the temptation to demonize the enemy existed on both sides of the conflict did not escape the poet. He concluded:

“There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God’s Will will be done, That, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.”

In lives full of work, keeping bills paid, writing papers or memorizing multiplication tables for school, it would seem impossible to redeem everyday time from insignificance. Yet, that is just what scripture tells us is the Good News of Jesus’ birth. The Good News is that all time is redeemable. Nothing has to be insignificant.

The Gospel of John begins with a cosmic view of time. John tells of the Incarnation from a heavenly perspective, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”

The prologue to this fourth gospel introduces Jesus as the preexistent Word of God, the second person of the Trinity. John does not begin his gospel with Jesus’ birth, but with the creation, telling that not one thing is, that Jesus did not create. This ties Jesus very closely to the everyday stuff of life. Before he was born to a poor couple in a lowly stable, Jesus had worked to create dirt, water, air and all life.

These words from the start of John’s gospel are most likely the words of an ancient hymn, perhaps written by the John the Apostle, perhaps known in the community where he led the church. The hymn itself is verses 1 through 5, 10, 11, 14 and 16. A closer look at those verses shows that each verse contains a keyword picked up in the next verse. To introduce us to the person of Jesus of Nazareth, John weaves together a tightly written hymn of praise of Jesus as the eternal word of God, with John the Baptist’s affirmation that this eternal word has come among us as the light of the world.

John wrote: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

John carefully and beautifully shows us how the two great ages – our time-bound world and eternity – coexist in the person of Jesus. By weaving the story of the eternal Word with the story of that Word being made flesh, we see that those two ages are not mutually exclusive. In the person Jesus, we can meet eternity in the here and now.

Through Jesus’ life, his words, his actions, we see the will of God lived out in the flesh. John’s prologue tries to stand at the crossover point between this age and the next. For John that nexus is the manger, when the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. God did not send Jesus to redeem merely a stable in Bethlehem, or even all of first-century Palestine, but to redeem all creation.

Let us lay these two visions of life alongside each other – Auden’s vision of a Christmas celebration now morphing into a mid-winter malaise, and John’s vision of the light of Christ spreading into the darkest corners of our lives.

Do you entertain Jesus as merely an agreeable diversion? Or are you ready for something more? John wanted us to let the Word of God that created all that is pitch his tent in our day-to-day existence. I’ll warn you: This is risky business. It will always be far easier to confine Jesus to holidays and perhaps Sunday mornings. It will always be far more difficult to invite the light of Christ into every area of your life.

Are you ready for the light of Christ to shine in your darkness? What about the parts of you that you hope no one notices? What about the parts you like to keep tucked under the bed or in the back of the closet, so to speak? Are you ready for the light of Christ to shine there, too?

The celebration is over. As Auden writes, “Now we must dismantle the tree, putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes.” But the light of Christ was not meant to be tucked back in the attic with the decorations. The love of God as it shines through Jesus was meant to take root in your soul. And it still can, if you make room in your everyday life for light to shine in your darkness.

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He blogs at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

 

The light of Christ, 1 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2013

December 29, 2013

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147 or 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

Have you ever noticed that when you get together with your family and start telling stories about when you were growing up or what happened years ago, the same events sound very different as different people tell the story? Depending on who’s describing it, the guy who used to live across the street was a scrooge or a saint; or moving from one town to another was either a disaster, a wonderful escape or a thing indifferent, hardly noticed. Same event, different folks in the family, different points of view.

This is not unlike the wonderful poetry of the first 18 verses of John’s gospel we just heard. This is the Christmas story, the third time the Bible tells it. It’s the same story we heard on Christmas Eve, the story of the manger and the shepherds and the angels. And it’s the same story Matthew tells in his gospel, with Joseph’s dreams, the wise men and the flight to Egypt. But the point of view is different, and John’s gospel sounds strange to ears more accustomed to crowded inns and angel choirs. That’s because different folks in the family are telling the same story.

You see, Luke, who wrote the familiar story we heard on Christmas Eve, was a bit of an historian. He was very concerned with getting the dates and rulers right, and with locating everything in time and space. He also may have been a gentile, and he was clearly very concerned about people who, like the gentiles, were considered outsiders. So, Luke is more interested in shepherds – who were social outcasts – than in kings. And Luke tells the story from the perspective of Mary – a radical move since women were even lower on the social ladder than shepherds.

Matthew is more traditional. He was certainly a Jew and may have been a scribe. He was very concerned with making it clear that Jesus fulfilled all of the Old Testament prophecies as the Messiah, the King of Jews. So, shepherds didn’t interest him as much as the royal wise men from the East. The child is surrounded by his peers. And he paid a lot of attention to the flight to Egypt because of the parallel between the Exodus and Jesus’ own return from Egypt to Israel. Also, the more conservative Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ birth from Joseph’s point of view.

Then there’s John. John may have heard of the stories in Matthew and Luke, but he’s not primarily an historian or a Jewish royalist. John is a theologian and a mystic. So he writes of the meaning of Jesus’ birth, and he writes from his theology, and from the holy imagination of his prayers. But he’s still telling the same story – all three are talking about the same birth – all three are saying the same thing.

John does begin the story earlier – he reminds us that Christmas really begins where Genesis begins, in the beginning, with God in creation. So, using language evocative of Genesis, John begins by talking about the Word of God. The Word here is God in action, God creating, God revealing himself, the one whom the church has named the second person of the Blessed Trinity. This Word was with God, and this Word was God.

Then John tells the Christmas story – in nine words. “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us.” He who was with God in creation, the one who is God revealing himself to humanity, this one became a person, became flesh – as completely human as you and I. Not God in a people-suit; not a really good person who God rewarded and made special; not a super angel God created early and saved up for Bethlehem.

But a person, who was the Word – who was God’s own self. Soaring words for the most down-to-earth thing that ever happened. But it’s still the Christmas story, still the story Matthew and Luke tell – the story of the birth of Jesus.

In addition to telling the same story, Matthew, Luke and John also share one special way of telling it: There is one image, one symbol, and only one, that they all use to talk about the birth in Bethlehem. Can you think of what it is?

They all talk about light – the light of the star, the light that shone around the shepherds, the true light that enlightens every man. These all echo Isaiah’s vision of vindication shining out like the dawn, of salvation like a burning torch. Where Christ is, people, who understand talk about light. They have to – there’s no better image of what’s going on. The light shines in the darkness, John proclaims. And somehow we understand this, and we understand that this truth cannot be better expressed in any other words, with any other image.

In large part, I suspect we understand this because we know about darkness ; we know what it’s like to live in and with darkness. Remember what it’s like to try to walk through an unfamiliar room that is completely dark, or to wake up confused in the middle of the night in someone else’s house, trying to get somewhere.

We know what it’s like when we don’t know where things are, or what we’ve just bumped into, or whether we’re going where we want to go, or if our next step will be OK, or if we will break something and make a mess. We know how easy it is to go in circles in the dark, and to get turned around, and to stub a toe and get angry and hit whatever’s handy.

And we know what it is like to live like this in broad daylight.

What John, and Luke and Matthew all say about Christmas is that a new light begins to shine. Gradually, quietly, but with absolute certainty, and by that light we can begin to see.

By that light we can begin to see who we are and who we are created to be. For it is in the person of Jesus that what it means to be a human being is finally made clear. In him we see that our lives are made whole only as we surrender  in love and service; in him we see that really being alive means risking everything for – and because of – the love of God and the Kingdom of God.

In him we see that hope needs never be abandoned – never – and that we contain possibilities beyond our imagining.

Also, by that light that has come into the world we begin to see God clearly for the first time. “No one has ever seen God,” John reminds us. But God is made known to us in Jesus. This means that everything we ever thought about God, everything we had figured out, everything that we were sure we knew about God – all of this is put to the test in Jesus. Who God is, in relationship to us, is fully revealed in Jesus. Not in one saying or one parable, or one miracle,  but in all of Jesus – in his life, his ministry, his teaching, his death and resurrection; in these all together we finally have the light we need to see God.

The light of Christ, the Word made flesh, comes among us at Christmas, and we celebrate its coming into the world. God had revealed himself and his love to us in Christ.

That first Christmas, the light shone – and it continues to shine. By that light we have been given the power to become children of God and to take our places with the light.

The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. This is the Christmas story. This is our story.

All of those other lights – the ones on trees, shopping centers, houses and office building – these are, at best, a faint reminder of the light we celebrate during this holy season, the new light that shines from Bethlehem and from the very heart of God that is our gift, our legacy, our prize, and – always – our sacred calling to name and to share.

 

—  The Rev. James Liggett has recently retired as Rector of St. Nicholas’ Episcopal Church in Midland, Texas. He is a native of Kansas and a graduate of the University of Houston and the Episcopal Divinity School. He has served parishes in Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma. 

The Word, the logos, the Christ, 1 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2012

December 30, 2012

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147 or Psalm 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

Love Christmas. Love this Gospel. For this is John’s Christmas story. Or perhaps it makes more sense to say that this is John’s version of the Incarnation. No shepherds, no star, no kings, no Bethlehem, no manger, no Joseph and no Mary. Had John been Rogers and Hammerstein, he would have started his version of the good news of Jesus with the words, “Let’s start at the very beginning, a very good place to start.”

And so we are transported way back to the beginning of time. To before the beginning of time. Before anything at all was created, before the world began, the Word, the logos, the Christ, was with God and was God.

Was God. In the beginning, the Word was God. Astonishing! We are meant to be astonished. We are meant to be hushed. All our fumbling theologizing about Christmas and the Incarnation is silenced by this pushing back of the story to the very beginning of all things.

For the very next thing we are told is that “all things were made through him.” That would be as in all things, everything and every one. Simply breathtaking.

Which would explain everything about who we are. We are those people who have promised, and continually promise over and over again, to seek and serve Christ in all persons. Not some people, not most people, but all persons.

Most unfortunate, this good news John is proclaiming at the outset of the fourth gospel. Unfortunate because very often we do not want to recognize the Word, the logos, the Christ, in all persons. There are some persons we might not want to be of Christ so as not to have to serve them!

So we might not wish John had started at the very beginning. The beginning is not a very good place to start at all. It is hugely inconvenient to start there because it leads to all this seeking and serving of persons, quite frankly, we just would rather not seek and serve.

Christmas is so much easier if you just stick to the nativity scene and think about cuddly sheep, and a cow in the background, and hay in the manger, and shepherds falling all over themselves with excitement like so many children under the Christmas tree, which, just as inconveniently, does not seem to be a part of the story.

Until you get to the part about light. “In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” Martin Luther is said to have lit the first Christmas tree with candles so as to make it look like the stars in the sky!

Now when you light a candle, you tap into an ancient and nearly never-ending cycle of life-giving energy. The chemical energy of photosynthesis in plants is passed up the food chain, for instance, to grazing cattle and then on to tallow in a candle. As Roger Highfield, in his book “The Physics of Christmas,” explains,  when the candle is lit in the gloomiest of nights, it releases “cryptic sunlight” and returns the complex fat or wax molecules to the form in which the plants found it in the first place – water and carbon dioxide that can be incorporated into living things all over again.

And here’s the kicker: the Word, the logos, the Christ is in all of that. The logos is in the photosynthesis and the cryptic sunlight. “Without him was not anything made that was made.” Oh, my. That no doubt includes fruitcakes, that awful necktie from Uncle Joseph and every one of the Pittsburgh Steelers in town for one day only to make or break the Ravens’ season.

This is more complicated than Christmas ought to be. But here it is, in black and white, Christmas as seen through the eyes of the fourth gospel, John. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us … and from his fullness have we all received grace upon grace.”

“Dwelt” means something like “pitched his tent” among us. This means that when we pick up our tent stakes and move on, the Word can pull up and travel with us. And the fullness of this Word from which all life, all things, all light doth proceed, is shared with us all. As in “all.” Not some, not a lot, but like creation itself, all persons and all things receive this grace. Have received this grace. “Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound.”

So here in this corner is the Word, and all that he has done since before time, in time and beyond time. And in the other corner is John, the man who was a lampstand. “He was not the light, but came to bear witness to the light.”

So now, maybe we could do that, too. We could bear witness to the light that comes from the Word who was with God and was God in the beginning. Maybe we could be like John and be a lampstand from which this light that comes from the Word who was with God and was God in the beginning can shine forth. Think here of “The Hobbit” and “The Lord of the Rings.” Think Bilbo Baggins, Frodo and Sam, think Gandalf and Aragorn, think Pippin and Merry, think, yes, even Boromir and Gollum.

We might ask, which character in “The Lord of the Rings” is most Christ-like? But then, that would be the wrong question. Each character of Middle Earth fighting the forces of darkness carries something of the light, the logos and the Christ within them. All together they are the body of Christ. Alone, none of them can get the job done, move history and the world forward. Together the world is saved. Changed, but saved.

This is what we are called to be and do: bear witness to the light and do all in our power to help others do so as well. This is best done by seeking and serving Christ, the Word, the logos, in all persons, everywhere, at all times.

None of us can be Christ-like unto ourselves. Yet, we each carry some particular Christ-like characteristic. We each carry a piece of the light. All together we can make up a Christ-like community. That is why, when we baptize new members of the Body of Christ, the whole body is changed and made new. That is why it is so important to take the promises we make seriously. Especially the promise to do all in our power to support one another in our lives in Christ. Because the piece of Christ that I need is the piece you have, and the piece you need is the piece I have. Together we can strive for justice and peace for all people, and respect the dignity of every human being. We are the body of Christ.

Together we make up the mosaic that is the Word, the logos, the Christ, for the world. Merry Christmas! God bless us every one. Amen.

 

— The Rev. Kirk Alan Kubicek has served as rector and assistant in a broad variety of parishes over the past 28 years. He is currently chaplain and teaches at St. Timothy’s School for girls, the diocesan girls’ boarding school in the Diocese of Maryland, where he teaches World Religions and IB English. His sermons are archived atwww.perechief.blogspot.com.

Welcome the divine glory, 1 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2010

December 26, 2010

Isaiah 61:10-62:3Psalm 147 or 147: 13-21Galatians 3:23-25, 4: 4-7John 1: 1-18

The familiar Christmas story that features angels and shepherds, a brilliant star and a silent night, Mary and Joseph in a stable, and the newborn child asleep on the hay – this is a story that captures the imagination. It is the source for countless carols and pageants, greeting cards and paintings, and nativity scenes. It is sung about, seen, and celebrated wherever Christmas is kept.

But this Christmas story from Luke’s gospel is not the only perspective on the birth of Jesus that appears in the New Testament.

There’s also Matthew’s version, which emphasizes the dreams of Joseph, Herod’s fear and violence, the magi and their mysterious gifts, and the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt.

There’s the opening chapter of the Letter to the Hebrews, where the Son of God appears as heir of all things, victorious and triumphant.

There’s the passage in today’s reading from Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, which describes Christ born of a human mother so that we can be adopted as God’s children.

And there is also today’s gospel, the opening verses of John, which offer still another perspective on the birth of Jesus, another view of Christmas and what it means for us.

Luke’s familiar story engages the imagination. John’s approach is different. It is not opposite to that of Luke. It is not more or less important. It reveals the same Christ. But it is different. For where Luke engages the imagination, John’s verses can be said to engage the mind.

The symbol for John’s gospel is the eagle, because the eagle soars to the heights and has keen vision. Nowhere is such symbolism more appropriate than in the opening verses of this gospel, where immediately we are taken up to eternity and daringly witness that before anything was created, the Word already was, and this Word was with God, and this Word was God.

But what is this Word, and how does this passage deal with Christmas? Again, if Luke’s focus is imagination, John’s focus is thought. And so John borrows a term from the most sophisticated thought of his time, both Jewish and Greek. This term we conventionally translate as “Word.”

This term has a rich history among ancient civilizations living on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea. It does not mean simply “word” in our ordinary English sense. Instead, it means at least three things.

First, it refers to the structure that underlies the universe, what holds everything together, what makes things work. It is this Word that scientists of our time endeavor to hear and understand, whether they be physicists or biologists or astronomers. The glue that somehow unites all aspects of our wonderfully complex cosmos – this is part of what John means in today’s gospel in making reference to the Word.

The second meaning has to do, not with what is, but with what ought to be, the divine law and intention. Atoms and galaxies are obedient; they follow laws appropriate to what they are. Human beings are manifestly not obedient, yet still we understand there is a law. All people recognize this, however imperfectly, and ethicists and legislators work to express this law. So the way we are meant to live, in all its power and profundity – this is part of what John suggests in making reference to the Word.

Yet another sense of this term has to do with meaning and purpose, with a question that haunts every human heart: What’s it all about? We endeavor to connect with purpose and meaning through myriad forms of philosophy and religion, literature and art. We rage against the suggestion that the grandeur and sorrow of earthly existence is without significance. A persistent sense of purpose in the universe – this is part of what John means in making reference to the Word.

John’s focus is the rigors of thought rather than the richness of imagination. He borrows this term, the Word, from the most significant thought of his contemporaries. And he makes impressive assertions about this Word. This Word is not made at some moment in time, but always was, and always is, and always will be. The Word is with God and is God. The Word is the creator of the universe. In this Word are both life and light.

Wherever, then, people have some awareness of knowledge, of ethics, of purpose, they are enlightened by the Word, regardless of whether or not they know this is happening.

It is now that the drama begins. This Word enters the world in a new way, but remains unacknowledged, unrecognized, even by people who should have received the Word. But the Word persists, with that persistence we call love.

It is here John makes his most astounding claim. He puts together what human reason would say are incompatible. He announces that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

On the one hand, flesh: humanity in its finitude and frailty. Not the body simply, but human nature as subject to suffering, decay, ignorance, and destruction. It is this that the Word becomes by choice.

And remember what the Word is: the structure that underlies everything, the way we are meant to live, the purpose of existence. The Word who creates and who sustains the entire marvelous universe, from unimaginable galaxies down to unimaginable subatomic particles – this Word becomes flesh, a baby who wets and cries and shivers in the cold.

Luke’s familiar story engages the imagination, electrifies the imagination. John’s verses, on the other hand, engage thought and blow the circuits of the mind by audaciously uniting, and uniting forever, what human thought sets apart as opposite: our frail human flesh, with its ills and weaknesses, its ignorance and destruction; and the Word, which come forth forever from the Father and underlies all creation, all ethics, all meaning and purpose.

Luke and John demonstrate different approaches to the truth of Christmas. They are not opposite, and one is not more important than the other, but they are different. Their differences appear in what we have already considered, and also elsewhere in their respective accounts.

Do you remember how Luke’s Christmas story ends? Mary treasures the angelic message delivered to her by the shepherds, and ponders its significance in her heart. The shepherds return to their flocks, glorifying and praising God for what they had seen and heard. Thus Mary appears as a model of contemplation, the shepherds as a chorus of praise. It is not hard to imagine Mary as reflective, realizing in new ways who her child is and the purpose he was born for. Nor is it hard to imagine the bright-eyed shepherds dashing off, full of joy, different people than they were only hours earlier. Thus we have a picture on earth of the life to which we are invited in heaven: the contemplation and praise of God.

Recall now a point in John’s verses where he shifts attention undeniably to himself and his audience: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.”

Luke appeals to the imagination; John appeals to the mind. And here John entices, teases, and excites the mind with the claim that we can see God’s glory. We can see it in Jesus: his birth at Bethlehem, his cross on Calvary, his resurrection appearances at Easter, his love alive among his people.

This is the glory that flames forth in the heart of blessed Mary.

This is the glory that makes shepherds sing for joy.

This is the glory available to every heart and mind that welcomes the truth of Christmas.

So then, allow your imagination to be delighted by Luke’s beautiful story. Let your mind be enlivened by John’s announcement that the Word has become flesh. Ponder the depths of divine mercy along with blessed Mary. Sing with the shepherds of Bethlehem, for the angel’s message is meant for you as well as them.

Welcome the divine glory today and all the year round, for it is ours to see Jesus, both now and throughout eternity.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of “A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2002).

Remembering Refugees on Holy Family Sunday, 1 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2009

December 27, 2009

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147 or 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

[NOTE TO READER: The word Chuuk is pronounced to rhyme with “look.”]

On the island of Guam, a U.S. territory in the western Pacific, there are many people who have come seeking a better life for their children. One of them is a man we’ll call Andrew.

Andrew is from Chuuk State, a chain of islands surrounding a large lagoon in the Micronesian archipelago. The Federated States of Micronesia are part of the Compact of Free Association that allows Micronesians to travel and work anywhere in the U.S. without a visa.

Andrew came to Guam with his common-law wife and several children, seeking a better life and to escape from the grinding poverty that afflicts much of Micronesia. He has no marketable skills and a minimal education, so he is barely literate in his own language. But he is a handsome, strong man who is willing to work.

Since his arrival on Guam, his family has broken apart, and he now is responsible for two of his five children: a young girl, and boy for whom he is the sole support. As he seeks employment, he subsists with the aid of food stamps and keeps them safe, seeing that the older girl is in school. Meanwhile because of the scarcity of housing and priority given to U.S. citizens, he has moved his family at least five times in the last two years, often leaving belongings behind as they move.

Joseph and Mary spent much of Jesus’ infancy in exile, staying ahead of Herod and his henchmen, who were determined to keep any rival kingship at bay. Their life, like Andrew and his children’s, was one of displacement and fear. Joseph often had to move his family out of harm’s way as Andrew does; Joseph because of political threats, Andrew because of drugs, alcohol abuse, and violence in the places he can afford to live.

This Sunday is often called Holy Family Sunday. In the familiar lectionary the theme was always focused on the Holy Family and their flight into Egypt. The Revised Common Lectionary has shifted the focus a bit, but the theme of light shining in the darkness could well apply to those who seek a safe place to raise their children in a dark, chaotic, and violent world.

There are now more refugees throughout the world than ever before, most of them victims of war and economic displacement for which they are not responsible. All they seek is a secure place with reasonable food, safe drinking water, and a chance to educate their children.

Consider the words in today’s reading from Isaiah:

I will greatly rejoice in the LORD,
my whole being shall exult in my God;
for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation,
he has covered me with the robe of righteousness.

These words were written to express the joy of a nation delivered from exile; but they could well be words of a refugee family finding a safe haven.

Regrettably our political and economic systems have failed in their ability to provide such places for people seeking refuge. Even with efforts by churches and volunteer organizations to resettle refugees, many remain in camps and compounds, some waiting for resettlement for years. Their faith and hope diminishes over time, and the failure of governments to find solutions is surely a great sorrow.

Like many problems, the solution to this dilemma seems often beyond our reach. We care, but what can we do?

Saying we can do nothing is not an option. There are numerous private reputable organizations that address these conditions, among them Episcopal Relief and Development. Choosing to join a mission that is capable of addressing the plight of refugees and homeless people is easily done online with the stroke of a few keys.

One couple that lived on Guam has partnered with the Episcopal Church in Micronesia to assure that Andrew and his children have the basic necessities. Others have adopted a child, a family, made sure a family has a goat or cow through organizations like Episcopal Relief and Development. There are opportunities for everyone and a wide range of gifts to choose from that can make a difference.

Today’s gospel reading begins with the theme of Jesus as the Word that was before anything was. For John, Jesus is the one true light coming into the world, “the true light that enlightens everyone.”

In our baptismal relationship with Jesus, we begin to see what the darkness often hides: the needs of the poor, the oppressed, and refugees. To turn away from them is to say no to the light. Then we become dwellers in the darkness as well.

As we remember the Holy Family this Sunday, remember also that they represent to us all political and economic refugees. The response to the gospel message requires more than remembering them, it calls us to action – an action of relief and support that ensures that the light shines in the darkness.

 

— The Rev. Ben Helmer lives with his wife, Jane, in Holiday Island, Ark. He is the vicar of St. James’ Episcopal Church in Eureka Springs, Arkansas.

Full of grace and truth, 1 Christmas (A, B, C) – 2008

December 28, 2008

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

“Fast away the old year passes.” So goes the last verse of the old Christmas carol, “Deck the Halls.” For Christians, our celebration of Christmas is but three days old. We have nine more days, and would that we could have all the world join in; some will, but for many, once the tree is out with the trash, it’s time to move on.

The 12 days of Christmas are intended as days of celebration, but also for reflection. The majestic hymn that opens the Gospel of John sets the stage for a whole new order of life, forged in the beginning of Creation with the presence of the Word, now made flesh among us, full of grace and truth.

Once in awhile, people get a glimpse of what God is doing among us. Once in awhile the light shines so brightly in the darkness that nothing can dim it. Once in awhile people feel an upwelling of joy in their hearts, and they don’t even know where it comes from.

These days of Christmas call us to celebrate, to re-order and perhaps re-frame our lives so that we can live differently, not because it’s the time of New Year resolutions, but because Jesus has come to live among us to show us the way.

As this particular, some might say peculiar, year comes to a close, think about what has happened. The world economic engine has all but collapsed. We are officially in a recession in the U.S. We have a new president-elect who will take office amidst the ravages of war and terrorism and economic chaos. Some have lost their jobs, and more likely will. Others have seen much of their retirement disappear. Many of the things that we rely on for our security have vanished.

So, in the midst of our lowliness, in the time of our testing, the Lord appears among us. God enters our hearts with a love that cannot be extinguished. God offers us a guide to faith and salvation that no economic collapse can erode or cheapen. God takes our puzzlement and our failure and redeems them with new insight.

If the light truly shines in the darkness, then where have we been living? Some would say we have chosen darkness over the light. We have chosen to live on credit. We have chosen to live beyond our means as a nation and a people. We have forgotten that there is always a price to pay for greed – a price paid by all of us. And if we were honest, we would admit that deep down, we all knew this economic splurge would have to end; perhaps “not with a bang, but a whimper,” as T.S. Eliot wrote in one of his poems.

But in that darkness comes the light of the Word made flesh. Within the darkness can always be found the seeds of light.

In a neighborhood shelter there was a financial crisis. Grant money that usually supported the shelter had dried up, and the place that many relied on for a daily meal was faced with imminent closure. A local rabbi came by to see the director and asked, “Why are you closing?”

“We’re out of money, rabbi,” she said.

“Well,” he replied, “then go get some!”

She looked at him oddly for a moment and then realized she hadn’t thought about any alternatives. In a month, with the rabbi’s help, seven churches and a synagogue had taken on support of the shelter. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.

So, how is it with you as the old year passes? Are you simply waiting to see when the other shoe will drop? Are you waiting for a new president to do something big and bold? Well, he doesn’t have any money either. It has all been committed to war and bailouts.

It is time to go to work, time to act like the gifted people God created us to be, time to be about God’s business in our churches, communities, and families – business that is committed to redemption, and business that brings graciousness to the lives of all people. That is what we should be doing, b–ecause that is what God has done for us.

“Fast away the old year passes;
“Hail the new, ye lads and lasses.
“Sing we joyous all together;
“Heedless of the wind and weather.”

Welcome to the 12 hallowed days of Christmas. May they be days that you see the Word made flesh scatter the darkness from before your path and empower you to give light to others.

 

— Ben Helmer will shortly complete an 18-month assignment as interim ministry developer with the Episcopal Church in Micronesia (Guam). He and his wife, Jane, will be returning to their home in West Missouri.

Seeing Christmas, 1 Christmas – 2007

December 30, 2007

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147 or 147: 13-21; Galatians 3:23-25, 4: 4-7; John 1: 1-18

I once watched a television program on the theoretical physicist, Richard Feynman. It was said that he had the finest mind since Einstein. He had worked on the Manhattan Project, taught at the California Institute of Technology, and as a final project, had served on the commission that investigated the Challenger disaster.

The TV program talked about Feynman’s friendship with an artist, and how the artist had taught Feynman about art and Feynman had taught the artist about physics. At one point in the program Feynman held up a flower. He commented that his artist-friend had said how wonderful it was that everyone could see its beauty, that no specialized knowledge was necessary to appreciate the wonder of the flower.

Feynman agreed that this was partially true, everyone could look at the flower and see it; but as a scientist, he was able to “see” much more of the flower than most of us. He could see the beauty of the cells working together to support life; the mystery of the flower’s color, locked in its cells, that attracted insects; which, in turn, would lead him to wonder about the insect’s perception of color. In short, Feynman “saw” much more in that flower in a few minutes that most of us would see in a lifetime of looking.

Christmas, too, is deserving of that same kind of looking.

We need to “see” Christmas in ways that move beyond the sentimental and saccharin. So often we see Christmas and the familiar Christmas story by looking at a Christmas card that has a neat and tidy picture of the nativity on it. We look at it the way we might look at the flowers at the market as we pass by to get to the produce.

The prologue to the Gospel of John invites us to look at the Incarnation as Richard Feynman looked at the flower. The Church, in its wisdom, chooses the prologue to John’s gospel both for Christmas and the Sunday following each year. We are invited to let the words roll over us, like waves of music. We love to hear them, even though we may not be too sure about what they mean. John’s words can be like wonderful music that is experienced before it is understood.

The passage from John is more than just the preface to the gospel; indeed, the remainder of the book is in a sense an elaboration on Verse 18: “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”

John has no nativity story, no animals in the barn, no shepherds and angels, but presents us instead with this hymn to Christ. This hymn is a love song, full of increasing light, celebrating the relationship between God and God’s only child and then extending that intimate relationship to embrace all humankind. These are powerful words that speak to us about the one who comes to us in power to make all things new for us – the exiles, the inhabitants of darkness.

Who is this Jesus, the Word who became flesh and dwelt among us?

If we see only the baby lying in the manger, we see only part of the picture. As we did not celebrate Advent by pretending that Christ has not come, so we do not celebrate Christmas by pretending we don’t know what is going to happen to this child.

Christmas does not stand alone; it cannot be celebrated properly in isolation from the whole story of Jesus the Christ. To separate the story of Jesus’ birth from the harsh reality of the crucifixion is to engage in denial. The whole story reminds us that we must also see Jesus as the one who is not received. The very people who hoped, finally got the one for whom they hoped, and they did not recognize him and rejected him. When God came to us, it was as one who is weak and vulnerable, not just as the holy infant, but also as the adult hanging on the cross.

Yet Jesus, the weak, flesh-and-bone one, has real power. It is not the world’s power; it is not the power to make things right or prosperous. The power of Christ continues to be rejected by the world because it is the wrong kind of power. Jesus’ power is to let us be who we are created to be – children of God.

By embracing his weakness, our lives are transformed, and we are empowered. It is the one who is empty who makes full. It is the one who is poor who makes rich. It is the one who dies who gives life.

This Jesus, the rejected yet powerful one, comes full of grace and truth. The Evangelist here quotes a phrase from the Hebrew Scriptures meaning loyalty and reliability. Because of the coming of Christ, we look at the world in a new way. God’s faithfulness contrasts with our daily experiences in the world and calls us to faithfulness also.

The coming of Jesus presents us with a choice. We can be transformed by the power of the gospel to be God’s people, walking in God’s vulnerable ways. Or we can reject him and continue business as usual. Business as usual means sitting in the darkness, shielding our eyes, and turning away from the life-giving light. The story around which we gather today is one of transforming hope for a new life. We are invited to cooperate with the divine initiative, to let the light enable us to see the path more clearly, to make a new beginning as God’s people. Where that happens, heaven and earth do sing, there is joy to the world, and the waste places do break forth together in singing.

The Church gives us not one day, but twelve, to celebrate the birth of Christ, Emmanuel, God-with-us. Join me in taking that time. Don’t be overwhelmed or fatigued by the cultural trappings that have surrounded us since August.

Persevere in hope and joy; don’t abandon them like Christmas trees discarded on Christmas afternoon.

For the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

 

— The Rev. Mary K. Morrison is pastoral associate at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Los Gatos, Calif.