At the request of a handful of my friends, I am posting the sermon I preached at St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church, St. Paul, Minnesota, on Christmas Day.
In many great stories, there is a moment when something totally unexpected occurs that radically alters the shape of the narrative. Yet these twists can never really be entirely unexpected or arbitrary because then they feel imposed on the reader and foreign to the story up to that point. Usually after such a surprise happens, details are filled out so that we the hearer can understand how this strange thing came to be, and these details help not only to make sense of the plot twist, but help to illuminate and recast all that has come before. A classic example is the moment when, having just cut off Luke Skywalker’s hand, Darth Vader reveals that he is in fact Luke’s own father. Nothing to that point, or so we thought, had prepared us for this revelation: Vader is the dark, powerful henchman of the mysterious emperor, prone to strangling people with a twist of his fingers; Luke is the naive, whiny redneck who is destined to overthrow Vader, his mortal enemy; how can it be that he is bone of Vader’s bone – and of a mighty attractive princess from Naboo I might add? But soon after this baffling revelation, things that happened before start to make more sense, and even things that appeared to contradict this twist are shown to have a deeper meaning. Remember when Obi wan Kenobi said that Luke’s father was dead? But it turned out the inner meaning to this was that Anakin Skywalker was no longer recognizable in Vader. And let’s not even get into the fact that Leia is Luke’s sister.
Interestingly enough, the passage we read from the Gospel of John has its own story to tell about light and dark, and about unexpected events that, once they have occurred, not only make sense of themselves but help to illuminate all that went before, and all that will come after. And so John begins with some very familiar words: “In the beginning was the Word.” Now I wonder if these words sound strangely reminiscent of something we’ve read before. Let’s turn to the very first lines of the first book of the Bible, Genesis. There we hear: “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” “In the beginning.” It’s not just our translations, but the Greek itself is identical. John wants us to hear these resonances. Whatever else John is about to tell us, it has something to do with all that has gone before. All things, all of the created cosmos “came into being” through the Word that was with God right there at the start. Now what does it mean that all things were created through “the Word?” Well the Greek word we translate as “word” is logos, and it has many resonances. In different strands of ancient philosophy one could almost say that the logos of a thing was its “nature,” that which made something this rather than that; that which made it intelligible. And sometimes, as in Jewish theology, and in parts of Scripture commonly called “Wisdom Literature,” we hear about an organizing principle through which God created the heavens and the earth. The book of Wisdom says God was the one “who has made all things with his word;” and Psalm 33 says “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made.” Other parts of Scripture use the same kind of language, but with reference to the wisdom of God; for instance Proverbs says that “The Lord by wisdom founded the earth; by understanding he established the heavens; by his knowledge the deeps broke forth, and the clouds drop down the dew.” And I don’t think we need to understand wisdom and word as incompatible, because they’re really speaking about this single reality, that God creates and holds the world in existence from the depths of his own being.
Now, this is all well and good, right?, that God created the world through his Word, but what of it? Well, we aren’t simply being told about a mere fact; we’re being told that this word became flesh. The Word becoming flesh was part of the plan from the very beginning.
So part of the good news of Jesus is this: That God’s loving action has never waited idly or passively. From before there was time God was pouring his love out upon his Son, his Word, and in creating the cosmos through his Son, creation itself participates in this exchange. As John says, those who trust in this good news are made children of God; we share in the Son’s relationship to the Father, as it were.
I would be amiss if I didn’t here mention the importance of angels in the Christmas stories. An angel told Zechariah about the birth of his son John, who would be the Baptist, and an angel told Mary that she would bear Jesus; and an entire heavenly host appeared to shepherds in the fields to tell them about Jesus’s birth. The shepherds were given a glimpse of the pulsing complex reality of creation, where mysteries normally hidden from our view, came into plain sight. The angels themselves, anxiously awaited the birth of Jesus; they love humanity and rejoice in its salvation.
So God has always been acting for our salvation in creation; but he has also been preparing the way for his Son in other ways, supremely in taking a people to himself; in calling Israel, in giving them the Scriptures, in inspiring their prophets; all these things point to the coming of Jesus. Perhaps here a return to our initial analogy is appropriate. Sometimes an earlier part of a story takes on a new and striking light when seen through an unexpected plot twist. Take the passage from Isaiah: It is rather obvious that on an historical level, Isaiah is anticipating the restoration of the city of Jerusalem after the Israelites had been scattered in exile. But we can’t help but look at that passage anymore apart from what has happened in Jesus. In Jesus, the prediction of Israel’s salvation is retained, but given a new shape; The heavenly Jerusalem is now the salvation we have been given; God’s kingdom has come in Jesus and we taste its fruits, however fleetingly, in the Church’s life, and especially in the sacraments. Not only the city of Jerusalem, but every place, may become a site where the seeds of God’s promised salvation can take root. And so, when in St. Luke’s Gospel, Zechariah – John the Baptist’s father – praises God for the birth of his son, he says:
Blessed be the Lord, the God of Israel; *
he has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty savior, *
born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets he promised of old,
that he would save us from our enemies, *
from the hands of all who hate us.
He promised to show mercy to our fathers *
and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath he swore to our father Abraham, *
to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship him without fear, *
holy and righteous in his sight
all the days of our life.
Zechariah knows that in Jesus, God’s promises to Israel are coming to pass. One can see the same thing in the famous song of Mary, called the Magnificat. She proclaims:
God has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.
So in the creation of the cosmos, and in the creation of Israel, God has always been actively at work, making the way for our salvation. Yet this is not all. Perhaps some might become uncomfortable with the idea that God’s plan is only known by a select group of people, be it ancient Israel or the Church. And while I would never want to marginalize the responsibility the Church has to testify to God’s work, I don’t believe we can say that God isn’t at work in people of other faiths or even of none. In fact, if God created the world and longs for everything and everyone to share in his love, then we have every reason to expect that the way for the good news has been and is being prepared everywhere. Now we didn’t read the story this morning, but surely most people recall the wise men who came from the East, following a star, to the town of Bethlehem to worship Jesus. We aren’t given much to know about them, but they surely were not Israelites. In traditional Christian worship, the wise men are taken to be representative of all gentile nations, just as the shepherds are representative of the Jews. We see, then, in the wise men, that God is always at work, preparing hearts so that they may be able to see in Jesus, their deepest longings.
But not everybody likes plot twists; and the sad truth is that there are some who react in strong ways to Jesus’s arrival. When the wise men told king Herod that they were looking for the Messiah, he felt his own position of power and authority was threatened, and in a terrible fit of anxiety, slaughtered innocent children. John’s own Gospel is filled with stories where Jesus is misunderstood, mistrusted, and rejected – sometimes even by his own disciples. In our reading we hear this, that Jesus came into “his own things,” which is to say to the creation which was made through him, and “his own people did not receive him.” Many of his own people were not able to accept that in Jesus, God’s promises to Israel were coming to pass. There may be things in our own lives that prevent us from believing the good news of joy and peace that we are hearing today. So how can, to borrow the words of the famous hymn, “Let every heart prepare him room?” It may be worthwhile to look at some of the people who were able to respond in faith to Jesus.
There were our friends the wise men. These were not a ragtag band of straggling astrologers; the gifts they gave to Jesus – gold, frankincense, and myrrh – these were kingly and expensive gifts indeed. And when they came, they were given an audience with King Herod in Jerusalem. One does not simply walk into Herod’s chambers and have a chat if one is not a person of some stature. They had seen the star roughly two years before their arrival in Jerusalem and probably came with an entire caravan with camels, tents, and servants. And this makes their story all the more remarkable. Because when they went from Herod and made their way to Bethlehem, and into a little space where the animals of village folk could stay, they didn’t up and leave, seeing such a place as beneath them, but in great humility, probably in fine well made clothes, gave their gifts and worshipped Jesus. Humility allows even the well born to recognize Jesus for who he really is.
There are also the shepherds. Poor and likely uneducated, they were in many ways the opposite of the wise men, but when they heard the angel’s message, and saw the heavenly chorus, they responded in faith, trusting that what the angels had said was true, despite the strangeness of the news. It might not seem that a poor woman’s baby was going to break the bonds of Roman oppression, but by faith they too saw Jesus for who he really is.
We need faith, because this work of God is a strange work, is it not? By some unfathomable mystery the word who holds the world in place became incarnate, took on human flesh, and dwelt among us, and so lifted our human nature that death itself no longer has dominion over us. It’s a strange work, and a hidden one! For nine months, God was hidden in Mary’s womb, and in hiddenness God’s work was already begun.
It is sadly true that during the holidays, there is as much depression and hurt as there is joy. We hear about deep loneliness, alcoholism, and broken families as much as Christmas cheer. Can God’s work of salvation be present even in such darkness? The answer to this can only be a yes. Jesus, John’s Gospel tells us, is the true light that illumines every person, the true life that has the power to make us children of God. Hear this good news, then; even when the work is hidden, God has always, God did, and God will always make a way for salvation.