Sermon preached by Anne M. Watkins
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The First Sunday after Christmas – December 26, 2010
In the name of God: who was and is and is to come. Amen.
May I have a word with you?
I wonder how that question sits? Likely, it depends on who is posing it, where you are, what the relationship is, and probably the tone of voice being used. But whether it comes from an employer or supervisor, a spouse or partner, a parent or your child, I imagine that the question at the very least startles us to attention and possibly puts us a little bit on edge. Words and our words with one another matter.
Each year, on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day we hear the words to a familiar story bringing images of Jesus’ birth, complete with Mary & Joseph, a crowded Bethlehem with no vacancy signs, innkeeper and stable, angels and heavenly multitudes, shepherds and sheep, oxen and donkey, a manger and swaddling cloth.
And each year on this day – the first Sunday after Christmas – we hear the words of another Christmas story, one devoid of any of those familiar characters or scenes. No pregnant girl traveling with her fiancé, no crowded city without enough hotel rooms, no animals or their keepers, no infant asleep in a manger.
Both stories are important to us; each is very different in its rendition.
Luke sets his story of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus in the historical context of 1st Century Roman Empire with a narrative, story-telling style from the very outset. In contrast, John begins his biography of that same life, death and resurrection with what many scholars believe to be the lyrical language of early church hymnody. Its words and focus bring none of the storytelling sense of 1st Century Roman rule. In truth, if we were reading it for the first time, we wouldn’t even know immediately that it is the story of someone’s life.
John sets the prologue to his gospel in the context of creation. Listen to these words: ”In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep…Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.” (Genesis 1:1-3)
In Genesis, we hear God speak creation into its very existence. In John’s Gospel, intentionally echoing the language and imagery of Genesis, we hear God speak that very same creation into salvation. “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. 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 1:1-5).
Episcopal priest and author, Charles Hoffacker, suggests that Luke’s gospel invites us to exercise our imagination while John’s prologue invites us to exercise our thought; to ponder as Mary does: after the Angel Gabriel announces her holy pregnancy, after her cousin Elizabeth shouts out praises when she arrives in her home, after the Magi appear with incredible gifts and bow down before her infant.
Our culture tends to encourage us to short-circuit the process of thought, time devoted to pondering. The preparation of our hearts in Advent most often is short-circuited by the call to greater busyness. We may pause for a day of Thanksgiving before jumping headlong into a season of shopping punctuated on radios with popular and classical Christmas music that saturate us so thoroughly that when it finally abruptly ceases today – the day after Christmas – most of us are, I suspect, relieved. Yet, after that momentary relief, our culture invites us to jump headlong again – this time into end of year financial or party planning, identifying resolutions to make and break in short succession, radios now beckoning us to the week-long countdown of the top 100 songs of the year.
The Evangelist John and the Church invite us to think, to ponder – to use all twelve days of this Christmas season – and try to make something concrete out of an abstract, mystical, and frankly, incomprehensible action taken by our God. “…the Word became flesh and lived among us, … full of grace and truth.” (John 1:14)
The symbol given the Evangelist John is the eagle. I wonder if we might soar like an eagle to look at this beautiful language and allow it to soak into and wash over us – like the sight of candles, the smell of incense, and the sound of gorgeous chant wash over a congregation here each Sunday night during Compline. Those sights and scents and sounds – and the pondering they assist – help to break into and sanctify the otherwise darkness of a stone church building. “…light shines in darkness, and darkness cannot overcome it.”
Isaiah, in telling part of the story of the people of Israel, reminds us that others before us also knew firsthand about the darkness which tries to overcome light. They had been exiles in Babylon. Returning to the land of Judah and beginning to rebuild the temple may have been shards of light for the beleaguered people. Yet, life in Judah was also very harsh and as too many today still know, the temptation to give up when life overwhelms is a real danger. Isaiah came to remind those ancient people and comes to remind us of God’s promise of vindication; to conquer the shame and humiliation of exile – or joblessness, or broken relationships, or mental anguish, or sheer fatigue – vindicate it all ultimately with joy and celebration. Isaiah sets the stage for the coming of what was and is and will be – Word made flesh.
Word, our English translation for the Greek Logos, was a rather sophisticated term of John’s time in both Jewish and Greek thought and provides some meanings that go beyond our ordinary English sense of “word”. We might look at some of these to help us in our exercise of pondering.
John’s “Word” refers to the ultimate structure underlying the universe; what holds everything together and makes it work; what modern day scientists – astronomers, physicists, biologists – endeavor to understand: atoms and molecular structure; planets, moons and galaxies. “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life…”
John’s “Word” refers as well to what ought to be – divine law in the sense of what we might call “right living”. Legislators and ethicists endeavor to understand this “word”, recognizing that while atoms are obedient, predictable and reliable, humans are not. “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” (John 1:10-11)
A third sense of John’s “Word” has to do with cosmic meaning; that which Mary may have been pondering. Philosophers, theologians, and indeed, the question that touches each of our hearts at one time or another, extends from this third sense: what does all of it mean? For human nature rails against any suggestion that the highs and lows, the joys and sorrows, the grandeur and the mundane moments of our existence have no significance. We know otherwise even as we struggle to articulate what that significance might be.
Today, we are given in this prologue to John’s gospel, the foundations for a crucial doctrine of our faith: that of Christ Incarnate. Through our pondering of the Incarnation beginning over these twelve days, we can be led more deeply into awareness and understanding of a love so deep and broad and wide that God would become one of us. Eugene Peterson, in The Message, paraphrases John’s words this way: “The Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighborhood.”
That would be our neighborhood and the most personal of relationships that ever was or will be. It is a relationship of such intimacy and depth that salvation is spoken into existence and we meet Christ our redeemer.
God loves us and God’s creation so deeply and so broadly and so widely that God deems it worthy of redemption — and comes to us in Jesus so that we need no longer fumble around in the dark trying to find our way. Jesus shows us the way; and no matter what the darkness is, it cannot overcome the light.
It may take us a lifetime to live into that example of our redemption. Writing in the late 2nd and early 3rd Centuries, early church father and apologist, Iraneaus, sums it up this way: “The Word of God, Jesus Christ, on account of his great love for mankind, became what we are in order to make us what He is Himself.”
This year, may we celebrate Christmas fully – starting with these next twelve days given us – pondering the words Luke and John have had with us over the last three days. Pondering what they mean for us, pondering what they direct us to say and do – in the words we have with one another, in the actions we take with one another, and in the light we shine onto darkness wherever we confront it — today, this week and into the next year. For, in all grace and truth, God has moved into the neighborhood and we are forever changed. Amen.