Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas, December 30, 2018 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

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Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Psalm 147, Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7, John 1:1-18

And the Word became flesh and lived among us… (John 1:14)

In the beginning…

What comes next? Is it “God created?”

Or is it “was the Word?”

The audacity of this opening of John’s gospel is the bold claim that it was, and is, both:

“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (Genesis 1:1).

Most astonishingly, though, is that the Word, the Logos, is before even heavens and earth, because this Word was not only with God but, in fact, was God.

Imagine yourself in the gathering that first heard this text said aloud. Many would have still identified as Jews. They would have immediately recognized “In the beginning” as the first words of Torah. Those are even the first words learned in Hebrew: אֱלֹהִ֑יםבָּרָ֣אבְּרֵאשִׁ֖ית (bə·rê·šîṯ bā·rā’ĕ·lō·hîm) – in the beginning, God created.

But that’s not how John tells it. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (John 1:1). Before brooding over the formless void, before causing light to burst forth from nothingness, before spangling the heavens, before all of that, the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

And then. And then this Word took on human flesh and pitched a tent, here, with us. So accustomed are we to stories of Jesus – of the star in the sky and shepherds and angels and as a boy in the temple and an adult wandering around Galilee telling stories – we are so used to all of this, that we tend to forget: God’s very self  became just like you and me.

John does not go into the why’s and where’s and how’s of the Christmas narrative, because how do you describe the indescribable? It’s like describing how it feels to fall in love. You can say where you met and who was there and where you were and what you were wearing, but how do you tell of falling in love if not through poetry and symbolism and story?

 God became flesh and blood, entering the world wholly dependent on earthly parents for love and care and protection.

But why? Why would the God of the Universe stoop so low, coming as one of us, living and dying as one of us? 

God became one of us to show us the way to God. Like the Hebrews wandering in the desert for forty years, humanity had wandered far afield from that “in the beginning.” We had forgotten who and whose we are. We had forgotten that we were made from Love and for love. But God had not forgotten. God continued the grand dance of creation by joining us here. Because God loved us. Because God isLove.

And in taking on human form, fully human as we declare in the creeds, God has hallowed, made holy our own full humanity. There is not some grand distinction between the spiritual or the intellectual and the body. Our bodies, our persons, our very being is holy and beloved of God. And we know this because God embraced our very human physicality, warts and all.

“For he was made human that we might be made God,” is how Athanasius of Alexandria put it.[1]Not that we ourselves are God, but that we know ourselves to be of the very substance of the God who created and became one of us.

But before we over-spiritualize and start to imagine ourselves walking around with little halos over our heads, we have to understand that it isn’t just about us, those of us gathered here today. It’s about allof us.

Theologian Sam Wells, vicar at St. Martin-in-the-Fields in London penned a column in the Evening Standard about this time last year in which he urged us to a materialistic observance of Christmas. Now, we all know people who rage against the over-commercialization and materialism that Christmas has become, myself included. We claim that thisis the true war on Christmas. Perhaps there is a materialism that has crept like kudzu over what is a sacred Holy Day, but not all materialism is created equal. Dr. Wells wrote:

Christmas is about how God went to great lengths to relate to people who needed God but weren’t sure they much wanted God. Celebrating Christmas means going to such lengths to relate to people who need us but aren’t sure they want us. This is Godly materialism: hugging those whom no one hugs, eating with those with whom no one eats, listening to those to whom no one listens, touching those whom no one touches, remembering those whom no one remembers, loving those whom no one loves.[2] 

God became the very stuff, the material, of which we are made. And we who claim to follow Emmanuel, God-with-Us, are called to embrace that same matter, “seeking and serving Christ” and “respecting the dignity of every human being,” not in some distant, intellectual way, but in touching and seeing and hearing. It is astonishing how invisible, how silent, human flesh can be for those of us not paying attention.

Frederick Buechner tells of a Christmas Eve many years ago when he was in Rome, gathered with thousands upon thousands of pilgrims for the late mass. The people had begun to assemble quite early to find a place where they might see, might catch a glimpse of Pope Pius XII. As they waited, they would occasionally break out in Christmas carols – Stille Nacht in German, Adeste Fidelis in Latin, and everyone seemed to know all the words no matter the language. As the hour for the Christmas mass drew near, he spied the Swiss Guard entering, and hoisted upon their shoulders the Holy Father perched on the great golden throne. Buechner remembers that the pope, rather than smiling and waving at the gathered throng was instead leaning slightly forward, gazing intently into the crowd, his eyes magnified by the thick, round glasses on his nose, looking at every face, as if looking for someone he knew should be there. Is it you? Are you the one?

Buechner writes:

…as the old Pope surely knew, the one he was looking for so hard was at that very moment crouched in some doorway against the night or leading home some raging Roman drunk or waiting for the mass to be over so he could come in with his pail and his mop to start cleaning up that holy mess. The old Pope surely knew that the one he was looking for was all around him there in St. Peter’s. The face that he was looking for was visible, however dimly, in the faces of all of us who had come there that night mostly, perhaps, because it was the biggest show in Rome just then and did not cost a cent but also because we were looking for the same one he was looking for, even though, as Isaiah said, there were few of us with wit enough to call upon his name. The one we were looking for was there then as he is here now because he haunts the world, and as the years have gone by since that Christmas Eve, I think he has come to haunt us more and more until there is scarcely a place any longer where, recognized or unrecognized, his ghost has not been seen. It may well be a post-Christian age that we are living in, but I cannot think of an age that in its own way has looked with more wistfulness and fervor toward the ghost at least of Christ.[3]

“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”

Do you see him? Do you see her? Do you see them? God is with us, everywhere we look. May we love humankind as fiercely as God loves us. Loves us so much to become one of us that we might become at least a little more godlike ourselves.

May you be blessed this Christmastide with a holy longing to see the face of God, born of Mary, in everyone you meet.


[1]On the Incarnation, 54-3. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2802.htm  

[2]https://www.standard.co.uk/comment/comment/be-more-material-this-christmas-your-spiritual-side-can-wait-a3724961.html

[3]http://www.frederickbuechner.com/quote-of-the-day/2016/12/24/search-for-a-face?rq=christmas

ASEPSermon for the First Sunday after Christmas, December 30, 2018 – the Rev. Elaine Ellis Thomas

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