a sermon based upon John 1:1-14
December 31, 2017 – New Year’s Eve
Even though the retail stores and TV commercials have moved away from Christmas – setting up "Valentine’s Day" displays and promoting "Year-End Clearance Sales" – the Church maintains the focus on Christmas for a full 12 days – from Dec. 25 (the first day of Christmas) through January 6, which is "Epiphany".
These 12 days of Christmas are not spent on shopping and holiday partying (like the four weeks of Advent were, leading up to Christmas Day), but about inviting Christ into our hearts, and getting our personal relationships right, and making sincere resolutions about how to improve our lives in the coming year.
As I said in my sermon last Sunday, the Christmas story reminds us that God is found in un-expected places. Not necessarily where the media is focused; not in the halls of political power and military might; not even in the festive parties and shopping. God is found among ordinary people, like us, in quiet moments when we take time to pause and to reflect.
Today’s choir anthem (lyrics by Jane M Marshall, 1971, Hope Publishing Co, used with permission, CCLI #1117-0235) asks:
Has anybody seen Christmas? … Underneath the glitter and the sequins and the bows? Anybody seen Christmas? -- Look closer, look deep: Glitter’s just the wrapping, if love’s the gift inside. So, underneath the glitter may be Christmas. Has anybody seen Christmas? … Lost among the parties and the chatter and the noise? Anybody seen Christmas? -- Look closer, look deep: Often at a party, a stranger finds a friend. So, even in the parties may be Christmas.
Has anybody seen Christmas? … In the hurry and the rush, in the crowds & being tired? Anybody seen Christmas? -- Look closer, look deep: Nothing’s too much trouble when gifts are given in love. In the hurry and the rush, in the crowds and being tired, in all the time and trouble may be Christmas. May be a Baby. May be Love.
The Christmas story reminds us that God's greatest redemptive work in the world begins in a tiny way, with all the fragility and sensitivity of a newborn baby's skin!
In the carol "O Little Town of Bethlehem", we sang these words: "How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given.
So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of heaven. No ear may hear Christ's coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him, still the dear Christ enters in."
To a world, overwhelmed by big problems (and big powers), deafened by big noises (from big mouths)... All the big names, big money, big business, big government... it is surprising to realize that when God begins to do something in history-making proportions, it starts in a way that seems weak and foolish... Small. Infant-sized.
The signs of God's great saving work in the coming of Jesus Christ (and the alternative kind of Kingdom that he will establish, in God’s name) are not big and loud and hard and strong. They are soft -- as soft as baby skin, or the brush of angel wings.
They are silent -- as silent as starlight shining on Judean hills. They are gentle -- as gentle as Mary's hands and the baby's light breathing. "Silent night, holy night, all is calm, all is bright ’round yon virgin mother and child."
This is the way God works, friends! Starting the greatest redemptive program the world has ever known in ways that seem small, negligible, ridiculously feeble, and oh so easily overlooked: a baby, wrapped in cloth, lying in a manger.
So, do you feel "too little to count for much" in this big, busy, modern world?
Whenever I do, it is because I have forgotten the basic meaning of Christmas: that God is nearby -- with us -- in our strife, our suffering, our sputtering... With us in our lonely stable... saying: "Be not afraid. For behold, that which is conceived in you is of the Holy Spirit." (That which is conceived in you is of the Holy Spirit!) Do not fear. Trust the embryo... It’s an opportunity for us to say, with the angel, "Be not afraid. For behold I bring you good news of a great joy which will be for all the people." A great joy which will be! It will be! You’ve got to trust...!
When you feel "too little" to count for much, remember the little town of Bethlehem. Remember how little room there was for Mary and Joseph -- so little space that a cattle stall had to suffice for the Christ's birthplace.
Remember that the Redeemer of the world did not need a palace, elegantly furnished and spotlessly clean, to make his beginning here. Remember that even a little space was enough for Christ to get a start in the world… a start that’s been growing ever since.
Knowing that Jesus began his saving work in an un-spectacular and humble place, we are reassured that he doesn't now need a grand Temple (or Crystal Cathedral) to make his presence known. A smaller space -- like our own Alpena Church -- can suffice, if our doors are open, and our hearts are open, to welcome him.
The spirit of Jesus can still make a fresh, clean start in you and me -- with all our weaknesses & errors, shortcomings & sins -- if we'll simply have him enter. Give him a birthplace, and he'll grow!
The Christmas story tells me that the hope of the world is in the NEARNESS OF GOD, not in bigness or spotlessness, nor grandeur or power. The hope of the world is not in bigger churches or more well-to-do homes, no... Our great hope -- for souls and for the world alike -- is that the Christ-like God will be welcomed into our average, sullied, weary, daily lives. Into lives that are sometimes grim and stable-like...
The hope for the world is that we welcome God into our lives, dirt and all; even with cries of pain like Mary in labor, or tears of frustration like Joseph's inability to share her burden.
We church members gather faithfully in this sanctuary all through the year (for 155 years already) daring to believe that NOW -- just as much as at that first Christmas -- God will use ordinary, humble people in simple, small places (like Alpena, Michigan) to make Christ's presence & goodness known. Our common-place is God's ideal "dwelling-place". As I said last Sunday: God is nearby; God is with us… now & into eternity.
The message of Christmas is nothing less than asserting that the "divine" God has come alive in our common humanity.
As Bonnie Bartz read for us from the Gospel of John:
"In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. … All things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made.
In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. … The true light that enlightens everyone was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, yet the world knew Him not. He came to His own home, and His own people received Him not!
But to all who [did] receive Him, who believed in His name, He gave power to become children of God! …
And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth." (John 1:1-14, selected verses.)
John’s poetic prelude to his Gospel asserts that the "divine" God (the Creator Almighty) has come alive in our common humanity… "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth." The "above" has been brought low. The "eternal" is enmeshed in our own time. The "holy" has been discovered in the midst of our shabbiness. (!) The Almighty "love" is mixed in to our often un-loving nature. Heaven and earth are joined, inextricably, as One!
In other words: the experience of Christmas means sensing the presence of God in our midst! Recognizing the near-ness of God in your everyday life. It's a message we need to hear (and not just at Christmas time): that God is NOT far off, but is "here & now", eternally & undoubtedly nearby!
As close as Father Joseph stands to the manger. As near as the Holy Child to Mary's breast.
Christ in the cattle stall. Christ in the carpenter shop… Christ preaching, teaching, healing... Christ praying in Geth-semane, and dying on a Cross. Christ triumphant beyond the tomb; Christ in every welcoming heart. The stories of Jesus’ life -- and the truths of God -- are summed up in that special angel-given name: "Immanuel" which means "God with us."
So, let’s remember Christmas all year through. Dwell on the birth of God in Christ Jesus, and recall what it means to be human. To be baby-like. To be Joseph-like… Mary-like. You and I may sometimes feel small and of no account, but (like them and like Jesus) we are a glorious blend of ordinary body and extraordinary mission. You and I have been given the continued care of Jesus Christ -- letting God’s Messiah have a fresh start in the world THROUGH US day by day.
So, my prayer for you (and for me) for the coming New Year is that each of us: continue to give God's small start in the world more strength and more space in our lives, day by day. Because God is here. God is near. Don’t you feel it?