Sermon preached by the Reverend Peter D, Thompson, Deacon
St. Paul’s on the Green, Norwalk, CT
The Nativity of Our Lord – December 25, 2014
Let us pray.
Take our lives and let them be
Consecrated, Lord, to Thee;
Take our moments and our days,
Let them flow in ceaseless praise.
If you were here last night, you know we had quite the party: this place was packed, people were really enjoying themselves, and the DJ on the console back there was playing everyone’s favorite songs. Despite the let up in rain and fog outside, inside this morning seems a little dreary. We have just a few singers rather than a full choir, and the pews aren’t nearly as crowded. Last night, we heard the familiar tale we all crave, complete with shepherds and angels and Mary and a Child in a manger and no room in the inn; this morning, we attempted to follow a dense philosophical discourse about the Word and grace and truth and some guy named John that made me feel like I was back in my college Greek class. The shift between last night and this morning is kind of jarring. Yet it’s also a shift that will soon be reflected outside of Church in the rest of our lives. In fact, because we’ve been anticipating Christmas for several weeks, this day is actually the beginning of its end. Starbucks will be taking the holiday cups out of their stores soon; the after-Christmas sales will be starting, if they haven’t already. The expectation is over; the festivities are almost done; and it’s about time to get back to work.
Unfortunately, the way most of us celebrate Christmas encourages us to think of it as a distant historical memory that we commemorate ritualistically once a year. We build our Christmas crèches and put up our Christmas trees and bake our Christmas cookies; we tell the baby to sleep in heavenly peace and invite the joyful and triumphant to join the faithful in coming to Bethlehem; we know what’s coming when the angel proclaims peace on earth and Mary ponders everything in her heart. This is what Christmas means to us: the same comforting customs we look forward to and indulge in each year as November becomes December. Even those who have long left the Church come back to get a taste at Christmas; even those of us who have spent the whole year at our family members’ throats spend time picking out the perfect Christmas gift for that most annoying relative; even musicians who wouldn’t be caught dead singing anything about God will offer their own renditions of “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing!” Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without the traditions we have always honored, without the stories and songs we know so well.
What’s frustrating about the reading we heard this morning from the Gospel of John is that it is free from most of the trappings we are familiar with. There are no shepherds or angels in this Christmas story, no Mary or Joseph, no Wise Men—not even a Baby Jesus. There are certainly no mentions of Santa Claus or reindeer. Instead, the prologue of John focuses on an entity called the Word, who was somehow both with God and God at the same time and who was a light that enlightened everyone but who wasn’t even accepted by his own people. You might wonder what any of this strange paradoxical talk has to do with Christmas. To you, this might sound precisely like the elaborate religious claptrap so many people are fleeing the Church to avoid.
But do not be deceived by appearances! This passage from John is actually one of the most important parts of the entire Bible. In fact, it contains material that is so powerful that in the fourth and fifth centuries it caused the early Church to erupt into fierce controversies, resulting in deep conflict and even moments of violence. To what extent, thinkers of the time wanted to know, was Jesus God? To what extent was Jesus human? How could we possibly understand a figure who was not just God and not just human—but both at the same time? These questions were essential to early Christians’ understanding of their faith and themselves—and when they wanted to explore them more, they turned to, more than any other passage of Scripture, this morning’s reading from John.
Over time, Christians came to understand this passage as foundational to what is called the doctrine of the Incarnation—which, stated most simply, declares that God became human in the form of Jesus. What emerges from the Gospel of John is not a charming manger scene of shepherds, angels and Wise Men that is distantly ensconced in the past, but instead something more immediate and visceral: the Word made Flesh. John’s vision confronts us with the reality of God taking on an actual, physical body—a body that experienced hunger, thirst and nourishment; that knew touch, desire and care; that suffered rejection, pain and abuse. In having a body, in becoming flesh, God deemed the human form worthy of being a vehicle of revelation; God made our humanity—our flesh—holy, despite the obstacles we face, despite our own imperfections and limitations, despite our eventual end in death. To honor the Incarnation is to dare to see the potential for holiness in your flesh and the flesh of others, to embrace humanity in all its richness, contingency and ambiguity. It is to realize, in the words of Barbara Brown Taylor, that the “call to serve God is first and last the call to be fully human.”
Many aspects of our yearly Christmas festival help us to escape the stresses and responsibilities of our everyday lives—by carving out one specific section of special time as separate from our normal existence, or by recalling the events of a long time ago. But the Incarnation does precisely the opposite: the Incarnation calls us to dive more deeply into our present reality and responsibilities: to reach out to those who suffer from sickness or any kind of lack, to love those we are close to with tenderness and purpose, to treat our own bodies with respect and compassion. If God found human life so valuable that he was willing to undergo it himself, then our own human lives and the human lives we encounter also have deep value; we must care for all bodies—our friends’, our family’s, our lovers’, our enemies’, our own—as if they were the very flesh of God.
In the early 1940s, as World War II was commencing, the English American poet W. H. Auden wrote a long poem, called For the Time Being, in which he sought to communicate the importance of Christmas for the present. At the end of the poem, Auden evokes the familiar image of cleaning up and putting away Christmas decorations in order to address the ways in which we too often let Christmas pass us by without letting it have a major effect on our lives. He expresses his fear that we might see “the Actual Vision” and fail “to do more than entertain it as an agreeable Possibility,” that we might send Jesus away as “the promising Child who cannot keep His word for long.” He goes on to assert that “the Time Being” must be “redeem[ed] from insignificance.”
The poem then ends with these poignant stanzas:
He is the Way.
Follow him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.Seek him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
If, after today, you find yourself upset that Christmas is over and you long to return to the place of contentment and joy that Christmas created in your heart, you don’t have to turn back the clock to relive your favorite Christmas memories; you don’t have to time-travel to the royal David’s City of two millennia ago. You can love Jesus in the complexity of each present moment—at home; at work; in school; on the street. The project of the Incarnation, the great task of being human, extends far beyond December 25th. There are so many opportunities to seek him in this kingdom of anxiety, to love him in this world of the flesh—every day of the year.