So much for that “daily post through Advent” plan! Ah well. Perhaps in another season.
At Bethlehem Lutheran Church in Encinitas, CA., we worshiped on Christmas Day with an invitation to come in our jammies or a Christmas sweater. We had DOUBLE the number of folks we usually do for Christmas Day worship! I’m not sure if it was the jammie invite – though lots of folks did wear their PJs – but it was great fun.
I was the preacher for the day, and our text was John 1:1-14. This passage is a creed of sorts – a statement of faith.
My thoughts on, and reaction to, this profound text are below. May you have a blessed and merry Christmas!
Sermon for Christmas Day, 2016 – Bethlehem Lutheran Church
Mary Shaima, Diaconal Associate
1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John.7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son,full of grace and truth.
Grace and peace to you this Christmas Day, from our loving God through his son, Jesus the Christ. Amen.
That greeting, which precedes so many sermons in the world, is really a summation of the gospel lesson we just shared.
It’s a gospel lesson in the form of poetry. Poetry like the type that American poet Wendell Berry tends to write. Both broad and intimate in scale. Speaking truths that touch our souls’ depths. Berry writes:
Geese appear high over us,
pass, and the sky closes. Abandon,
as in love or sleep, holds
them to their way, clear
in the ancient faith: what we need
is here. And we pray, not
for new earth or heaven, but to be
quiet in heart, and in eye,
clear. What we need is here.
(Wendell Berry, “What We Need Is Here” http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/what-we-need-is-here/ )
Contrast this with John’s gospel:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him
… And the Word became flesh and lived among us, … full of grace and truth.
What we need … (gesture to crèche & manger) is here.
The Word became flesh, and lived among us.
Yes, this part of John’s gospel, considered a “prologue” to the rest of it, is beautiful poetry. It also has a broad-yet-intimate scale to it, but I think of it more like the scale of the photographs from the Hubble Space Telescope.
This is the Small Magellanic Cloud, a satellite galaxy of our Milky Way. The sparkles of light in the center of the photograph are baby stars. That’s the actual term NASA uses: “…baby stars that are still forming from collapsing gas clouds and have not yet ignited their hydrogen fuel.”
The photographs from Hubble are the visual manifestation of the word “cosmic” – seemingly beyond anything we can understand. Not unlike this gospel passage! And yet – our astronomers and space scientists continue to watch and study. They seek the truth about what they see through the lens. We also seek the truth, though we find it not expressed in numbers of galaxies and spans of time far greater than we can even comprehend. Kneeling down next to the manger, we find it in a baby, in the most vulnerable of creatures. A baby, still forming, whose “fuel”, so to speak, may just be starting to ignite.
We understand babies to be vulnerable in terms of helplessness. But here’s the thing in this text to really ponder: GOD as a baby takes on that same degree of helplessness. God becomes dependent on US.
Even in the context of this gospel passage, this is a head-scratcher. But I would invite you to consider the word “vulnerability” from a different angle.
Last week, when we heard the story of Joseph and his encounter with the angel, Pastor Laura spoke of vulnerability. She told us about the woman who, while fighting her own cancer, stepped in to pay the medical bill for another patient without the same resources. Responding to vulnerability with vulnerability.
This is the essence of the incarnation. God responds to our vulnerability by becoming vulnerable. But it’s not quite the same kind of vulnerable.
Most of us would define “vulnerability” as “weakness.” Personally, I have issues with vulnerability. You’ll notice I’m not wearing my jammies; that would be too vulnerable. I chose the Christmas-sweater option.
Researcher Brené Brown*, however, invites us to rethink this assumption. She asked people to finish this sentence: “Vulnerability is .” Here are some of the replies:
- (Vulnerability is) Standing up for myself
- (Vulnerability is) Trying something new
- (Vulnerability is) Stepping up to the plate again after a series of strikeouts
- (Vulnerability is) Asking for forgiveness
- (Vulnerability is) Having faith
When she considered these responses, she concluded that what vulnerability REALLY sounds like is truth. What it feels like is not weakness, but courage.
Courage, of course, has for its root word the French word coeur – heart.
This is the kind of vulnerability I see God entering when God comes to us in the person of Jesus – a newborn in a cattle hay rack.
It’s a vulnerability that is entered into by choice, with courage, from the heart. The WHOLE heart. It’s what is meant by the statement “I’m all in.”
God’s whole heart is laid in the manger. God is all in – FOR US. Not for God’s self, but for the world that came into being through God and the Word.
The NASA scientists tell us these infant stars “are still forming…and have not yet ignited…” And the gospel tells us “all things came into being through him…” It’s an already/not yet, isn’t it? – like so much of our life together with God.
Jesus in the manger is still forming…and we might say he has not yet ignited any fuel cell other than the ruach of his breath. We sit down next to the manger knowing how this story ends – and yet it doesn’t end. God’s story is ever unfolding, drawing us into the dance that is life.
Our stories are not ended either, of course. We sit between the times that mark our lives. We are still forming too. How many times do we simply need to sit by the manger and look at the baby – this helpless little one – and wait for the dawn?
Pastor Laura and I have a friend and colleague who has waited a long time for the dawn. Whether she and her husband would ever be able to have children was a question that stayed in the darkness of their lives. The pain she carried with her was real and deep. Earlier this year, she and her husband announced they were expecting. She had waited for some time to announce this, and every week represented another step closer. She knew at some point she ought to breathe easier, but she just couldn’t. She’s a pastor, but she’s also a person. She waited for the dawn.
A couple of weeks ago, a number of our friends and colleagues also waited for the dawn. They were gathered in the San Carlos area to remember the life of a close friend of our bishop – a pastoral colleague of ours. As they raised a glass in his memory, the news came that our other colleague had been safely delivered of a very healthy baby boy. The glasses were raised again – this time to give thanks for the gift of new life.
This is his Christmas picture. Pretty darn cute.
All of these folks at the San Carlos gathering had been praying for this woman for months, and so to hear of little Dietrich’s safe arrival was a pinprick of light. Perhaps the dawn would indeed come.
And last night, Dietrich made his debut across social media as the Baby Jesus. Our friend is still on maternity leave but she couldn’t resist taking this picture. Dietrich, too, is all in.
(Admittedly, that comes with the territory if you are a pastor’s kid.)
Dear brothers and sisters – this dawn has come. It is the dawn of redeeming grace, as the hymn tells us.
And this is the hymn text that, guaranteed 100%, will ALWAYS make me cry.
Let me tell you, for years that has annoyed me no end. Why did THIS one line tear me apart?? But some personal work this year has brought me to the place of asking: does this hymn text probe where I am most vulnerable – where I see myself as weak, as unlovable, as not enough?
Well, this is precisely where God enters in, upending my assumptions to tell me to my face “I love you. You MATTER.”
It’s where God’s incarnation as Jesus – as vulnerable child – invites me to re-define vulnerability. In God’s terms. And those terms include redeeming grace.
Before Jesus, God’s all-in, is incarnate and laid in the manger, our vulnerability is lodged in a place of uncertainty.
But once God is laid before us – we can claim vulnerability from a place of certainty. And that certainty is that God loves us and trusts us so much that God would place God’s self into our care. That God would be all in.
Wherever you are joyful this day – wherever you carry pain – wherever you are uncertain – know that God is all in with you, with God’s whole heart.
Love has come. For you. For me. For the world.
What we need – is HERE.
Merry Christmas, dear friends.
*Brené Brown, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent, and Lead. Avery, an imprint of Penguin Ransom House, 2012.