December 25, 2014

Christmas III

Isaiah 52: 7 - 10; Psalm 98: 1 - 6; Hebrews 1: 1 - 4; John 1: 1 - 14


The Gospel of John, the prologue to which we just heard, unlike the beautiful prose of Luke which was read last night and is a more familiar Christmas story, does not provide detail of the birth of Jesus, which we celebrate this Christmas Day. Or does it?

In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God. Where else have you heard the phrase, “In the beginning?” The very first words of the Old Testament, of the Bible itself, Genesis 1:1. “In the beginning, God.” John sends us back to Genesis to find the beginning of Jesus, who he states was with God and is God. Genesis tells us that as God created all that is, God spoke. God’s word and breath and being entered into everything that was created.  So, if Jesus, the Word of God, WAS at the beginning, what is the significance of the birth of this baby in Bethlehem?

The baby born in Bethlehem was part of a Jewish family and grew into adulthood in a Jewish society. The stories of his family’s ancestors, preserved by both oral tradition and written documents, reflected the struggles of a people of faith, the temptation to trust more in human devices than in God’s providence and the back and forth journey between trust in divine promises and disbelief. One might truthfully say that continues to be our own story and journey today. What is different about the God of the Hebrews and the gods of the many cultures through which they traveled during the Exodus? What about the gods of the Greeks and Romans worshipped at the time of this birth we now celebrate? 

The gods of the Canaanites, of the Fertile Crescent peoples, and those of the later Greeks and Romans were many and each ruled a specific portion or portions of human life and/or the universe. They interacted positively and negatively among themselves, and the perceived results of their actions affected human life. These gods, however, were set apart and did not actually build relationships with humans. These idols were worshipped for what they could DO for humankind, and in fact, their worshippers often sought to control them for purposes of their own well-being. These false gods have no history of loving humans and desiring them no matter what. They certainly did not stoop to toil and suffer as humans do.

Israel’s God claimed sovereignty over everything to do with life and the universe, not just a portion of it. Israel’s God demanded whole-hearted devotion to only the One God. The Israelites were invited to take part with God in unfolding history. They were a covenant community, and their covenant was with the God who created and ruled them. They were in a true relationship with Yahweh, a living god, not just a stone statue or a marble construct. They relied on God’s promise, God’s word.

Now the Word (with a capital letter W) used in John’s Gospel in Greek, is logos, and is more than our English word in meaning. It implies essence – the essential core of a thing. So, beyond the extent to which our human language allows, John is emphasizing that this Essence which came into our world, was indeed the Divine; was God. Then, as now, there was much in the world that was evil and much about the affairs of mankind that were in opposition to the way God intended for his creation to function. In the end, however, neither the Jews nor we ourselves control our God as the neighbors of the Israelites sought to do. 

So in the midst of the darkness that pervaded the world of the Jewish people and others in the year 1 BC, God came to his people as one of them, as life and light for all people. John tells us that the darkness did not overcome this light, although the world had no understanding of who this baby in Bethlehem, this boy interpreting the Holy Scriptures in the temple, this man preaching, teaching and healing throughout the land or even the rabbi hanging on a cross between two thieves was. This child was given by God to all people to reconcile them, us, to the God of the beginning. God himself came to show us that he lives among us. Yet, even before his birth he was rejected, inasmuch as his mother was sent to the barn to give birth.

Thus, as heirs of the Judean tradition, we believe human affairs are not governed by the evil designs of human beings or by economic stresses, but by the overruling providence of God, who works for good in all things. In recent weeks we have witnessed how the absence of this belief creates great fear, even panic, and results in seeming triumph for evil. I speak of course of the recent SONY vs. North Korea misadventure and the overflowing emotions and destructive behavior of the increasing tension between people of different skin color in our society.

Further into the Gospel of John, in the third chapter, we read, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, so that all who believe in him shall not perish, but have everlasting life.” The Word, the Love, greater than all possible imagining, came to us this day to claim us, to relate one-on-one and one over all. Even though our own spiritual ancestors rejected him, tortured and killed him, the Word, the Light, was victorious in that we need not dwell and die in our own sinful ways. We need not stay in a state of doubt, fear and disbelief. We have been given the hope and promise of life everlasting by a God whose grace is immeasurable. This is the God who took on our form for his own, who lived an earthly life, who was tortured, died and rose again - for us. There is not enough wrapping paper and ribbon in the world to contain the love of God. And yet, this baby, like all babies, longs to capture our hearts, to dwell in our hearts and to provide for us all that is good for us.

That is why we celebrate his birth this day. We, as Christians, are a covenant people through the covenant of our baptism. Won’t you pray to ask Jesus to be born once more in the manger of your heart, setting it on fire so that you may shine his Light and share his Love, not only this Season, but all the days of your life. Amen