Sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day, January 2, 2022 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas

ASEP Sermons

Micah 4:5-10, 13a+Psalm 9:1-2, 7-11,13-14+(Galatians 4:1-7)+John 1:1-5

If you were with us on Christmas Day, you may be wondering why we have circled back to John’s Prologue and why it reads “the light shines in the bleakness” rather than the “darkness.” For that latter bit, you can read my sermon on our website or find the video on Facebook. The short version is that the compiler and translator of our current lectionary, Dr. Wil Gafney, is highlighting the negative connotations of blackness and darkness as evil and frightening. Those associations have been used, and continue to be used, to attribute negative characteristics to black skin, so she uses words like bleakness and shadow instead.

But why are we even reading this part again? The customary Episcopal lectionary for this day actually has three choices: the flight into Egypt to escape Herod’s murderous rampage, Jesus as a 12-year-old getting left behind in the Temple, or the arrival of the Magi on Epiphany. Well, we are still in Christmas, and none of these is actually in the Christmas season (although the slaughter of the innocents on Herod’s orders is observed on December 28).

So, John’s prologue it is, in shortened form.

I recently read (and I can’t remember where or would cite it) that John’s gospel is actually a commentary on the three synoptic gospels – Matthew, Mark, and Luke. These three cobble together the story of Jesus’s earthly life, and John tells us what it all means.

This rings true when you read the opening of John which has nothing to do with a pregnant Mary or a stable or shepherds or any of that. John gives us a cosmic, there-at-the-beginning, divine Christ, and then lets the story unfold from there. You cannot escape the obvious in John: Jesus, the messiah, the Christ is one and the same as God yet in a form we can recognize.

Many of us have deeply ingrained images of God. For some, God is an authority figure about whom doubt and questions are not allowed. For others, God is kind of like a benevolent dictator, a bearded old man in the sky who rewards us for being good and punishes us for being bad, kind of like Santa. Or maybe your God is like that watchmaker who set the world going and then left us all to our own devices.

Whatever your image of God might be, chances are you plant them on Jesus. If you understand God to be like a grandfather in the sky, you’ll have one idea about Jesus. If you believe in a vengeful, angry God, your understanding of Jesus will be quite different.

But what if we start with the Jesus we find in the gospels and then take a look at who God is. What do we find there? [1]

A Jesus who calls his followers out of the working class.

A Jesus who surrounds himself with women and children.

A Jesus who looks at the huddled masses and calls them blessed.

A Jesus who heals and raises from the dead.

A Jesus who invites us from sinfulness into new life.

A Jesus who loved us so much that he gave his life for us.

Our ideas of Jesus who walked this earth are gleaned from the stories we find in all four gospels. And if our image of Jesus is as one who loved us infinitely and with abandon, then that is who God is. God taking on human flesh and pitching a tent in our midst (which is what it means to say that God dwelt amongst us) is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). If you want to know who God is, then know who Jesus is.

We can also learn a lot about who Jesus is by looking at those who have devoted their lives to following him. There have been saints and martyrs and prophets over the past two millennia for whom following Jesus meant giving up power and privilege (like St. Francis and St. Katherine Drexel) or the poor ones whose belovedness was affirmed in how Jesus cared for the poor and outcast (St. Bernadette and St. Vincent de Paul). They lived godly lives and set examples for us to follow.

But like many of you, over the past week, I have been thinking a lot about Desmond Mpilo Tutu who died last Sunday. If you really want to know who Jesus is and who God is, you can learn a lot by watching how this particular human lived his life as one who loved and was loved by the God who came as one of us.

Of course, Tutu is most remembered as the prophet of the anti-apartheid movement, giving voice to those who suffered poverty, violence, and the indignity of an ideology that regarded them as less than human. We have heard lots of stories about him this week, and I have reminisced about the time I spent with him in Cape Town.

I first met Arch, as he is affectionately called, in 2012 when I was in Cape Town for three weeks, training in the methodologies of the Institute for Healing of Memories. My cohort of ten people from seven different countries attended the Friday morning Eucharist at St. George’s Cathedral at which Tutu celebrated the Eucharist when he was in not traveling the globe. My enduring image of him was not the endless number of photos and selfies he permitted and seemed to enjoy, but the limitless hospitality he showed to everyone who was there. After the Peace, it was his custom to invite every single person who was from somewhere else to stand and introduce themselves. The delight with which he greeted each person was infectious. If Jesus delights in us the way Arch delighted in all those people, taking the time (a long time) to hear from everyone, that’s a Jesus I can follow.

I spent significantly more time with Arch the following summer when I returned for another three weeks to do some research. I had just been ordained to the transitional diaconate (that comes before ordination as a priest in our tradition) and received permission to serve three Sundays as a deacon at St. George’s, which meant that I was there for those Friday Eucharists. This time, after the services I accompanied Arch and the dean of the cathedral and a handful of others down a pedestrian mall to a little shop where Arch drank a smoothie and held court. There were no strangers present. If someone new came into the shop, he invited them over to join the party. I remember thinking to myself that I wanted his attention; I wanted to talk with him, because being in his presence, he made me feel like the most wonderful person he had ever met…until he invited another and another and another and they got to feel that, too. His joy in being with people, showing them the kind of love that I imagine God to bestow, was an icon for me. I saw God reflected in that face. I heard how Jesus must have laughed with his friends when Arch giggled and then busted out cackling with glee.

Of course, everyone who ever met Arch has a story to tell and a picture to show. But there are two stories that I believe reveal who he really was.

One happened in 1985, the year after he received the Nobel Prize. An angry crowd was about to necklace a suspected police informant. Necklacing was placing a gasoline-soaked rubber tire around the neck of someone and setting it on fire. It happened a lot to traitors of the antiapartheid cause. He had railed against the practice, denouncing violence in all its forms, and when he saw it happening right in front of him, this world-famous archbishop waded into the angry crowd, much to the fear and anxiety of those who were with him, and saved the man. ”Let us not use methods in the struggle that we will be ashamed of,” he said, even though millions involved in the struggle disagreed with him. But he insisted. “When we see others as the enemy, we risk becoming what we hate. When we oppress others, we end up oppressing ourselves. All of our humanity is dependent upon recognizing the humanity in others.”[2]

The other example is what he said upon receiving that Nobel Prize. His speech in Oslo is magnificent, but these words came much earlier, right after the prize was announced. He said:

This award is for mothers, who sit at railway stations to try to eke out an existence, selling potatoes, selling mealies, selling produce. This award is for you, fathers, sitting in a single-sex hostel, separated from your children for 11 months a year… This award is for you, mothers in the KTC squatter camp, whose shelters are destroyed callously every day, and who sit on soaking mattresses in the winter rain, holding whimpering babies… This award is for you, the 3.5 million of our people who have been uprooted and dumped as if you were rubbish. This award is for you. [3]

If Jesus is one who stood in solidarity with the poor, the homeless, those just hanging on by a thread, then this is what that looks like. If Desmond Tutu could sing and laugh and dance with abandon, which he did at every opportunity, even in the face of the grim reality of apartheid, then this is what incarnation looks like. If Arch could insist on restorative rather than retributive justice, reclaiming the humanity in those who had done their worst against him and people like him, then this is the image of a God I can believe in. If the archbishop could speak firmly with truth and conviction and love to those who would deny his humanity, then this is someone who walks in the path of Jesus. “Perfect love is not an emotion; it is not how we feel. It is what we do,” Arch said.[4]

This is what the incarnation was and continues to be. We may not be Desmond Tutu, but we aren’t supposed to be. We are supposed to be fully who God created us to be. As the body of Christ, each of us carries the image of the invisible God.  When people look at us, do they see love and forgiveness and mercy, joyful and assured of our belovedness? I hope so. There are too many people in this world whose image of God is filled with hate and judgment and violence.

“What has come into being in the Word was life, and that life was the light of all people” (John 1:3-4).

Go. Be light to this world in the name of the One who created you, the One who loves you, and the One who promised to be with you always.


[1] With gratitude to Pastor Jim Somerville, founder of “A Sermon for Every Sunday” for this idea. https://asermonforeverysunday.com/sermons/c06-the-second-sunday-of-christmas/

[2] Desmond Tutu, God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time, (New York: Doubleday Religion, 2004).

[3] https://www.legacy.com/news/celebrity-deaths/archbishop-desmond-tutu-1931-2021-who-helped-end-apartheid-in-south-africa/

[4] Desmond and Mpho Tutu, Made for Goodness, and Why this Makes All the Difference, (New York: HarperCollins, 2010).

ASEPSermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas Day, January 2, 2022 – the Rev. Dr. Elaine Ellis Thomas