Below is my sermon from Christmas Day 2016 preached at my sponsoring parish, The Church of the Redeemer. The lessons can be found here. Given the importance of this day, I decided to go with a manuscript instead of a cartoon. So below, is a recording of the sermon as well as the manuscript.
I absolutely love the Book of Isaiah. I find its poetry and prose have permeated my very being. The expansiveness of this book has the ability to speak to all my places of darkness and my places of light – to my joy and my sadness. But even more, this book has the ability to speak to the complexity of human emotions. For in the passages that speak to the darkness, glimmers of light break through. And, in passages of joy the backdrop of despair can be seen, if only we look closely enough. Today’s passage is no different.
It is hard to miss the sheer exuberance of this passage from Isaiah:
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
The prophet is proclaiming that peace is coming. God is being faithful to God’s promises, and will restore God’s people. The victory of God is about to be made known before the eyes of all the nations. It seems the prophet can barely contain his excitement. While there is great joy in this passage, it is set in the midst of despair.
You see the prophet is speaking to an Israelite audience living at the end of the Babylonian exile. This is a nation that has witnessed and lived with the stories of the destruction of that great city Jerusalem. The peace that the prophet announces, the peace we hear of this morning, is the announcement that God is about to restore the people of Israel to their own country – they are about to go home. Knowing all this, the prophet cries out:
Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem.
Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem. The city that has crumbled under foreign occupation can now rejoice. God is returning, the city will be restored, and the community will be made whole. So the prophet calls on this people standing in the midst of rubble, amidst broken dreams, disappointment, and shattered lives to break forth together – as a community – with song of praise to God. For God has come to set them free. For God has come to set us free.
The Gospel passage appointed for Christmas Day is radically different than the passage we heard last night on Christmas Eve. This passage is stripped away of all the images we have come to associate with Christmas. John’s prologue says nothing about crèches and shepherds; there is no babe wrapped in bands of cloth; there is no Angel announcing good news or the heavenly hosts singing “Glory to God.” This morning all distractions have been erased. This morning, John tells us that Jesus is Word and Light. John tells us that there is darkness and that the Word will be rejected by some – the Word will be rejected by his own people. We have come to believe and know, that this Word comes in the midst of our darkness and light, in the midst of our pain and joy. To be among us. To be one of us. So this morning, we come together into the presence of our Lord and Savior bringing all the particulars of our lives – our hurt, our pain, our joy, our gladness, our hopes and dreams, and our love. And we do so trusting that God takes on all of these things: God participates fully in the drama of humanity that we might be made new – that we might be set free. So “break forth together into singing you ruins of Jerusalem,” for the Word has been made flesh.
In the beginning was the Word. In the beginning there was God and the Word together – creating, forming, molding the entirety of creation into being. In the beginning there is God’s love toward the world that God creates, and God’s plan for that creation. In the beginning there is an image of humanity that dwells in the realms of justice, peace, freedom, and love. From the very beginning, all of creation is imbued with the Logos, with the Word and Wisdom of God.
But this is not the beginning. We do not live in a realm of justice, peace, freedom, and love. If your newspapers, twitter feeds, and Facebook home pages are anything like mine they are filled with anxiety and fear. They are filled with the demands of this world, as opposed to the demands of God. It is as if a shadow has been cast over the beauty of creation: over the wonders of justice, peace, freedom, and love. It is as if the world has forgotten that the Word became flesh. For once the Word became flesh, once that glimmer of light shone in the world, darkness met its match: For there is no darkness that is strong enough to quench even the smallest amount of light.
Because each and everyone of us is created in the likeness of God, because each and everyone of us is a beloved child of God, we have, from the beginning of our creation, been infused with the Word, the Truth, the Light, the Wisdom of God. No matter how dark the world and our lives seem, no matter how much we struggle to get into the “Christmas spirit,” we contain within our beings the ability to proclaim Jesus is born in this world. We contain deep within our souls the light, which casts out all darkness.
There are times when faith requires us to act before we can fully feel or understand that which we are called to do. It seems to me, the celebration of Christmas, the celebration of the birth of our Lord, is one of our chief responsibilities as followers of Jesus, and thus this proclamation is required of us even when we do not fully feel it or understand it. But that is the true gift of the Incarnation.
God comes among us to share in the fullness our lives, God comes to share our stories, to join our lives with God’s that we might be strengthened and sustained to carry out God’s work in the world. That we might, as much as our feeble selves can handle, participate in the building of the Kingdom of God – that we might bear the light and truth of the Incarnation in our lives; and pass along the light of Christ to the deepest and darkest corners of the world.
For those of us repeatedly alienated through a thousand little comments or rendered invisible by society; for those of us weighed down by financial burdens, by unjust economic and political structures; for those of us who experience anxiety and fear at the realities of our civil discourse; for those of us who have been and continue to be beaten down mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and physically, God sees and names and touches us. In the midst of all this the incarnation is God’s Word to us that our bodies, our lives, our souls, were made to be free to love. God becomes us so that we can become like God – so that we might love one another, be with one another, that our lives might mirror and participate in the community that is God’s life.
God comes among us to set us free from all that holds us captive. When the Word becomes flesh, when the Word dwells among us, we get a glimpse of the true reality of God. This is what the Incarnation is about; this is what Christmas is about. Christmas has happened, Christmas is happening, Christmas will continue to happen until God’s victory is completed on earth – until all people are set free and dwell in the Kingdom of God. Until that day when the realms of justice, peace, freedom, and love prevail.
This morning, I want to leave you with the words of liturgical scholar Nathan Mitchell. Mitchell captures the heart of what it is we endeavor to do this day, and every day as a community that has pledged itself to be in relationship with the incarnate and living God. He writes:
What the parish celebrates during this season is not primarily a birthday, but the beginning of a decisive new phase in the tempestuous history of God’s hunger for human companions. The social concerns of the season are thus rooted in Jesus’ proclamation of God’s reign: the renunciation of patterns that oppress others (holding, climbing, commanding) and the formation of a new human community that voluntarily embraces those renunciations. It is an adult Christ that the community encounters during the Advent and Christmas cycles of Sundays and feasts: a Risen Lord who invites sinful people to become church. Christmas does not ask us to pretend we were back in Bethlehem, kneeling before a crib; it asks us to recognize that the wood of the crib became the wood of the cross.
As we, yet again, glory in the miracle of the Incarnation let us remember that our hope and joy in this new beginning is set towards the glories of the Risen Lord. The one who makes God’s victory known. The one who came, the one who comes, the one who will always come to set us free. Therefore, let us break forth together into singing for the Word was made flesh.