Monday, December 30, 2013

First Christmas Sunday

I was out of town for a bit of vacation this past Sunday, December 29, and our Priest-Associate, the Rev.  Dr. Philip Wainwright, was in place to preside and preach at both services. With my thanks.  His sermon, on John 1, follows here.
                                                                                                   --Bruce R.

This morning’s gospel reading is what used to be called the ‘Christmas Gospel’, because from 1552 to 1979 it was the only gospel Anglicans used at Christmas Communion services. Now we have two choices, Luke and John, but if we had to go back to one, John’s would be the one, because without the truth contained in John’s words, the Christmas story would not be complete. It would be what most people in the world think it is—a heart-warming story, enjoyable and even something to celebrate but of no eternal significance.

Each Gospel writer, as he set down the facts about Jesus under the power of the Holy Spirit, chose a different place to begin. Mark begins as Jesus was beginning His ministry, Luke begins about a year before Jesus was born, Matthew begins all the way back in Abraham’s day, but John begins as far back as it is possible to go when thinking about Jesus: before the world was created, before time, before all things. V 1, In the beginning was the Word… v 2, He was in the beginning with God. That by ‘the Word’ he means Jesus is made explicit towards the end of the passage: v 14, The Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth… v 17, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. Through these verses, John identifies the baby in the manger at Bethlehem as the Creator of all things visible and invisible that we confess in the Creed.

This is the significance of Christmas, the aspect of Christmas which the world increasingly chooses to find offensive. This is why city councils that used to erect a Nativity scene are no longer allowed to do so in many parts of America, and why children in public schools can no longer sing Christmas Carols in class. This is why last week a VA hospital in Texas refused to accept Christmas cards made by local children for veteran patients. Because the story of the baby born to the homeless couple in a stable isn’t just a heartwarming story, it is the assertion that this baby is the only God, the God of the whole universe, the God who created those who believe in Him and those who don’t. This baby is God become Man, the Word become flesh. It is an assertion that those who believe in other Gods, and those who believe that all religions are the same, do not want to hear, and don’t want anyone else to hear either.

One of the questions that is always asked by unbelievers, whenever the truth about Jesus is proclaimed, is ‘Why? What difference does it make, even if it’s true that God became Man?’ It’s a good question, and it is one that the Church seems in no hurry to answer. The church has spent most of its energy over the centuries answering the question ‘How? How could it be true that God become Man?’ We have come up with all the various theories about the persons of the Trinity and the Union of the Two Natures in Jesus Christ and so on, and Christians have been excommunicating each other for centuries simply for answering those questions in different ways. The world outside the church has for the most part looked on in amazement or today amusement at this, because except for a handful of philosophers it isn’t asking the question and doesn’t understand why the church is concerned about it. How? What’s the problem with ‘how’—if there really is a God, He can surely do anything He wants, including becoming man; if He can’t do that, it can’t mean much to be God, after all! The majority of the world isn’t asking ‘how’. 

The world wants to know first whether it’s true, and if it is true it wants to know what difference it makes. The world can only find it irrational that Christians spent so much energy on answering a question whose answer is only of interest to a minority and still spend so much on protecting the faithful from other possible answers. The only reason for anyone to celebrate Christmas is because it has some purpose that we can rejoice in, that there’s something in it for us that is worth having. These verses in John’s gospel tell us what that is.

This is why John begins with creation, in the beginning. The world was created through the Word, even before the Word became flesh, John reminds us in verse 3, and we remember from Genesis that human beings were created in His image, which means, among other things, that He created them holy. God was pleased with His creation; God saw everything that he had made, and indeed, it was very good, but He especially loved the new creatures to which He had given His image. If one way mankind bore the image of God was in their holiness, another was in having free will; God has free will, and those He created in His image have free will too. As long as man freely chose to align His will with God’s, Man lived a holy life, in harmony with God and the rest of God’s creation. 

The problem came when Man decided to use his freedom at the expense of God and the rest of creation. Of his own free will and choice Man sinned against God, disobeying His commandment. The result of this was that Man was no longer holy, and therefore was separated from God, no longer able to enjoy God’s presence, and sin began to dominate him—dominate us—in all the ways which we know so well. But because God loved human beings, He chose not to abandon us to that; He chose to provide us a way back to holiness, and back to harmony with Him and with all creation.

It was because He loves us that He did not do what we so often say we wish He would do. We often say that we wish God would not allow human beings to sin, to hurt each other, that he would not permit diseases to ravage us or floods to destroy us or any of the other things that the Bible tells us came into creation as a consequence of our disobedience. 

We say we wish that, but we’re not really thinking about what we mean when we say it, for what we are really saying is that we wish God would take away our free will, make it impossible for us to choose our own actions. That option would be to cripple His creation by taking away even what is left of His image in us. And because He loves us, He would no more do that than we would. All parents have rebellious children, and they all wish their children would live the way they are trying to teach them to, but because they love them, prefrontal lobotomy is not an option, no matter how much some of us parents occasionally wish it was! And it wasn’t an option for God, either, for the same reason: He loves us, and wants us whole, not maimed and diminished. He wants us to choose life with Him for ourselves.

What John tells us at the beginning of his Gospel is that God chose another way, and John describes that way with a symbol. Later in his gospel he will describe it in plainer terms, but here at the beginning it is expressed only as a symbol: the symbol of becoming light in the darkness. What has come into being in Him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. God chose to give us a way back, and to show us that way back, and then leave us to take it or not, as we choose. We can’t undo our past disobedience by any act of our will, and most of us are honest enough with ourselves to admit that we can’t avoid disobeying in the future by our free will either; we know that we will disobey God again. 

We can’t conquer sin by an act of the will—Scripture makes that clear. But we can accept, freely and without compulsion, God’s plan to redeem us from sin and give us salvation, new life. In this way creation is neither destroyed nor crippled, but those who receive the Word, who believe in His name, can once again become children of God.

Using the image of light to describe God coming into the world helps us understand how to receive this gift in several ways. First, even the faintest light acts as a beacon. When we are in total darkness, even the faintest glimmer, away in the distance, orients us, gives us a direction, a path to follow. We are attracted to it simply because it is light; we immediately want to get closer to it. And that symbol expresses a literal truth about Jesus, the word become flesh; He attracts human beings, no matter how far we are from Him, no matter how little we know about Him. 

Even those of other religions usually claim Jesus as one of their own: Moslems call Him a great prophet, Buddhists call Him one of the enlightened ones, and so on. Even those who have nothing but contempt for Christianity usually speak well of Jesus, saying that Christians misunderstand Him, or ignore Him. (And they’re often right about that, let’s admit it.) When anyone learns about the kind of person Jesus was, they are attracted to Him in ways that they might not even be able to explain.

But the force of the comparison does not stop there. When we yield to its attraction and get closer to light, we find it helpful in other ways. When it is far off, it tells us of its presence and existence, but when we get close, we find ourselves and our world illuminated. Light is shed on us, and we are able to see and understand things we could not understand in the darkness. This also expresses something about Jesus that is literally true. We can learn true things about ourselves by looking at ourselves in His light. You only have to try it to see that it is true. It is the shining of His light into the dark corners of our souls that shows us our need for salvation, that enables us to call upon Him.

In modern times we have learned that light has healing power, and thus have discovered a new way in which this symbol expresses something true about Jesus. Fifty years ago, when babies were born jaundiced, no one really knew what to do for them. Then someone noticed that babies sleeping in cots near windows recovered from their jaundice faster than the others did, and they began to put jaundiced babies in strong sunlight. And so the problem of infant jaundice began to be conquered, through the healing power of that light. And what is true of physical light is even more true of the light of Christ: simply to draw close to Jesus is to begin to be healed from the consequences of our disobedience. And when we draw close to Him with a conscious desire to live by His teachings, we find that our lives are being changed. 

When we trust Him, we begin to heal. I have come as light into the world, Jesus says later in John’s gospel, that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. This is the light that achieves the world’s great healing. As creation fell when we fell, creation heals when we heal. That’s why we sing, ‘No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground; He comes to make His blessings flow far as the curse is found.’

The angel told the shepherds that the baby in the manger was a sign. John tells us about the reality to which this sign points us. That’s what we celebrate at Christmas: to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And when we have decided to follow the light of Christ no matter where it leads, no matter what it costs us, it is Christmas for us every day of the year.

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