A Sermon on the First Sunday after Christmas, Sunday, December 26, 2021
Delivered to Church for the Highlands
Have you had Christmas carol stay with you and roll around in your headspace for a while? That happened to me the other day after we sang “Hark, the Heralds Angel Sing.” The words “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see” stayed with me and became an ear worm for a day or two. The carols remind us that Christmas is so much deeper than the version of our consumer culture
Our gospel text this morning certainly takes us deeper into the Christmas story, down into the profound reality of what was happening in the manger. It doesn’t even mention the angels, shepherds, Mary and Joseph, or even baby Jesus. John’s assuming his readers know all of that already. What he quickly gets to at the beginning of his gospel is how Jesus coming into the world was the very incarnation of God; God taking on human flesh. John was pretty intrigued and excited about it and we will be too as we understand what it means for us in our world today.
One thing it means for us is that we are not alone. The people at that time would learn of the good news that they were not alone in the miseries of their world; that God had heard their cries and arrived to do something about injustice, hatred, poverty, sin, and the darkness of evil. They longed for restoration to what they once were and to a time when they lived in and enjoyed the peace of God. They dreamed of a day when they no longer felt alone and prey for surrounding nations and empires to devour.
This Christmas, we are to know that we are not alone in this world. Strangely, this time of year when the focus is on joy and togetherness, many people feel alone, even when surrounded by friends, family, and co-workers. We can still feel disconnected from others, and even God. The gospel this morning can help us when we feel this way, as it informs us that we can know that God is with us, right here in our difficulties, disappointments, poverty, health problems, addictions, and fears. The birth of Christ anchors our hope in the reality that God doesn’t leave us alone to fend for ourselves in this world; that God was willing to come to us and in the fullness of time. As Bishop Jake Owensby states in Looking for God in Messy Places,
“In Jesus, we see that God comes to dwell in the midst of gloom. God comes not merely to provide the comfort of a little light to those who happen to believe but to be the inextinguishable light that once and for all dispels the gloom—in all its forms—that too often hangs over the beloved children of God. (Location 922)
God coming into human flesh also means that we are understood. Think for a moment about the vulnerability of a baby born into a family living in captivity to a brutal, foreign government. They lived in a time of great instability, division, and violence. People hanging on crosses on the outskirts of the city were reminders of what happens when the oppressed go against the oppressors. Joseph and Mary were regular folks, with Joseph working as a common laborer. Any money he made would be subject to exorbitant taxes to the Romans and often collected by unscrupulous collectors. There were also diseases, plagues, and natural disasters that threatened daily existence. They were still able to worship God and practice their religion, but divisions and factions among them with varying ideas about how to relate to God and the Roman government were growing. This was the world Jesus was born into.
St. Augustine captured the idea of how God came to understand what life on earth is like:
“Man’s maker was made man that He, Ruler of the stars, might nurse at His mother’s breast; that the Bread might hunger, the Fountain thirst, the Light sleep, the Way be tired on its journey; that Truth might be accused of false witnesses, the Teacher be beaten with whips, the Foundation be suspended on wood; that Strength might grow weak; that the Healer might be wounded; that Life might die.”
The things he would experience as a human while living in it from the manger to the cross were God’s experience of earthly existence. God would understand what it’s like to be us.
Do you ever feel like God doesn’t understand you or what you are going through? Don’t we all feel that way at one time or another? At times we may think God is too distant to know or care about what we are going through down here in our world. We may even conclude that if God does know then he certainly isn’t doing anything to help. I’m sure the people Jesus grew up with and around thought that at times. It’s horrible when we feel that no one understands us or what is going on in our lives. We feel isolated and hopeless. The nurse who works endlessly to care for dying COVID patients in a society where masks and vaccines are politicized. The alcoholic who battles addiction and all its triggers every day. The bereaved who feels alone in the weight of grief. The refugees seeking asylum in our country who must feel misunderstood every leg of their journey, especially when treated as less than human. The LGBTQ persons who feel misunderstood and are too often treated horribly by people who seek not to understand them. People who live in poverty and in an economy that makes it difficult to get out of it find it hard for anyone to understand them. The good news John gives to us, though, is that the God who came among us in Bethlehem long ago, understands what it’s like to live in a world where you are marginalized, oppressed, lonely, abused, and crucified.
So we are understood by God. But now God can also be understood. God’s arrival in human flesh, coming into our neighborhood, gives us an understanding of who God is and what God is like. As we’ve heard in John’s gospel, “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 writes of how no one had ever seen God but it was Jesus that made God known. And what Jesus showed was God’s grace upon grace for a world desperately in need of it.
Isn’t that good news of great joy for us today, that Jesus coming into our world means that we can understand more of who God is and what God is like? As we end this year and begin another later this week, may we all consider how we can spend more time with Jesus, looking at him in the gospels, talking to him in our prayers, and walking with him in our days.
The carol I mentioned earlier, “Hark the Herald Angels” sing, continues beyond what stuck in my ear, with words that are good for us to take with us as we begin this first week after Christmas and as we begin a new year: “Hail the incarnate deity, Pleased in flesh with us to dwell, Jesus, our Emmanuel …”