My Christmas Day Sermon
Go Big, Go Bold
December 25, 2022
John 1: 1 – 14
I said in my first sermon that I was sure that our time here would go by quickly. It sure has. We’ve had a great time. Thank you. Thank you so much for this very special opportunity to be a part of your lives, of your church and of your city. In this short time, we’ve developed a great affection for you. We will hold you in our prayers and our thoughts in the days to come.
Today’s lesson, John 1:1 – 14, is John’s Christmas story. That said, it is nothing like the most familiar and popular Christmas story, from the Gospel of Luke. That’s the one recited by Linus in “Charlie Brown’s Christmas.”
Each of the four gospels begins with some account of Jesus’ origins. Mark introduces Jesus as an adult, the man from Nazareth. Matthew and Luke begin earlier, telling of Jesus’ conception and birth. John pushes back even further, back to the beginning of creation itself.
“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” If that sounds a bit like the very beginning of the Bible in Genesis, that’s because John wants us to know that Jesus, the Word now made flesh, was there at the beginning.
John “goes big,” very big, as big as the beginning of the cosmos and creation. “He was in the beginning with God.” But not just big, John goes bold telling us that, “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” Last night, a newborn baby. This morning, the eternal Logos, the Word of God made flesh.
Big and bold — and very important. There’s always been a debate, both in the church and beyond about who Jesus was and who he is. That debate continues today. Many have argued that Jesus was a great man, a great teacher, an especially exemplary human — but in the end no more than other great figures of faith and history.
The Bible — the Gospel of John and this text are Exhibit A — assert something far bigger and bolder. Listen:
“And the Word became flesh, and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” Then in the concluding verses of John’s Prologue, “From his fulness we have all received grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses, grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.”
That’s big, that’s bold.
John is not alone on this score. I remember when I first awoke to the bold declarations of the Christmas carols themselves. Like the one we’ve just sung, “Joy to the World.” Listen to the last verse again,
“He rules the world with truth and grace/ and makes the nation’s prove/ the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love.”
Or take “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing”
“Christ by highest heaven adored, Christ the everlasting Lord/ late in time behold him come, offspring of the virgin’s womb/ Veiled in flesh the Godhead see/ hail the incarnate deity/ pleased as man with men to dwell/ Jesus our Emmanuel . . .”
Far from being sweet, sentimental nothings, background music for Christmas shopping, the carols — at least many of them — are quite bold declarations of faith.
While it is fair, and really important, to ask what such declarations mean, especially what they mean for us today, it is not fair to simply set them aside, which is what I think happens a lot these days.
As I listen to sermons in a variety of churches I find that the pulpit, perhaps reflecting the pew (it is kind of a chicken and egg thing) tends these days to be telling stories aboutJesus, who is an especially compassionate and wise man, but not proclaiming Christ crucified and risen, King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Word of God now in flesh appearing.
What that tends to leave us with are sermons that are moralistic, what I’ve called “Law.” They are all about us, what we should do, what we ought to think, what we are to feel.
If you have noticed something different in my preaching it may be because I’m less interested in moralism and exhortation than I am in proclamation. I am less inclined to stress what we are to do, more given to declaring what God has done, is doing and what God has promised. The gospel is not good advice. It is good news. The news of forgiveness, healing and a new possibility — given by God.
This kind of preaching is not, however, easy to do in the current climate. It is easier to hedge our bets, to cut the faith down to contemporary tastes. Evangelicals preach 5 steps to a successful life or better marriage, mainliners preach inclusion and diversity. Fewer preach Jesus Christ as Lord.
This doesn’t mean we can’t have questions, even doubts. It doesn’t mean we have to swallow things we don’t understand or that we can’t question what we’ve been told.
We should question because in far too many instances those with power have abused that power and distorted the faith for their own ends. But let our questions be honest ones rooted in a genuine spirit of inquiry. Let us come to God, as I said in my first sermon, with “a teachable spirit.”
A young friend and colleague of mine, Quinn Caldwell, shared some thoughts in this connection recently, at an event in celebration of an anniversary of the United Church of Christ, our denomination.
As he began, Quinn took his listeners on a field-trip to a Borders or Barnes and Noble. He pointed out a popular new section, “Teen Paranormal Romance.” Romance novels have been around for a long-time, but this is something different. “Hordes—hordes—of teenagers and young adults (older adults, too) are reading about the love triangles of humans and vampires and werewolves and zombies and wizards.”
“This is the Twilight books. And not just the romances: Harry Potter and Percy Jackson, too. And not just books: this is Buffy the Vampire Slayer, True Blood, Being Human, Ghosthunters . . . the list goes on.
“These books and videos assume there’s a whole other, magical layer of reality just under, or just beside this one, that we’re all liviing with it all the time without knowing it . . . a whole world of wonder and mystery . . . Your neighbor’s a vampire, your cousin’s a wizard, there really actually is a troll that steals a sock out of the dryer every time you do the laundry. And always, always, you are swept into a great struggle between good and evil in which you will play a decisive role.
“These kids, these young adults,” said Quinn, “are longing to believe in magic . . . to believe that there is something to this world beyond rationality, deeper than rationality, a truth that lies beneath the surface and can’t be seen with the naked eye but which is old, and powerful, and good, and worth trying to tap into.”
Having set the stage with this excursion to America’s bookstores and pop culture, Quinn moved to his conclusion. He noted that the planning committee for the anniversary event had asked that he, as their keynote speaker, challenge the assembled representatives of hundreds of different congregations to boldness and to a bold future.
“I don’t know if they (the planners) had any specific kinds of things in mind, but I suspect, this being the United Church of Christ, that the kind of boldness some were picturing is being bold around a social issue: being loud of behalf of immigrants, or bold serving your neighbor, or fearless in demanding peace, or brave in calling for economic justice, or radical in extending a wide welcome in your churches. That’s not what I’m challenging you to.
“You should do all these things, but they’re not what I’m here to challenge you to . . . here’s the boldness I call you to: dare to proclaim a faith that is at least partly irrational, unreasonable, unpalatable, indigestible to your modern, hard-thinking, critical selves. I challenge you to proclaim, revel in, delight in, dwell in mystery.”
Not, he clarified, “Agatha Christie type mystery (the kind of mystery that has a solution), but divine mystery, ineffable truth, things that cannot be proved or observed or tested, which cannot in fact be true . . . but are. Like that what sits on the plate is both bread and, in some deep true way, the Body of God, too.
“And you don’t parse it, or explain it, or test it, or experiment on it, and you damn well better not be embarassed by it. You just say, ‘This is the body of Christ,’ and you eat it, and see what happens.
“You say, ‘Come, Holy Spirit, Come,’ over the water, and tell the person she’s saved. You say, ‘Heaven is real.” You say, ‘Life will win.’ You say, ‘He is risen,’ and even if you can’t prove it in a lab, you hold to be true nonetheless.”
I love that. It goes I think with John’s big, bold claims.
One of those big, bold claims is nestled in the third paragraph of today’s lesson, which starts with the bad news before it moves to good news. The bad news is that the world does not know its creator and Lord. It prefers the darkness to the light. His own people reject him.
In all the Christmas stories, there is the frank acknowledgment that the world — our world — is estranged from it’s maker and redeemer. Jesus, God’s word of grace, comes as an invader to hostile territory. Territory held by the devil, under the rule of Sin and Death. Think the perpetual winter of Narnia in C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.
But, there’s also good news. “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 the will of the flesh or the will of man, but of God.” Makes me think of Tracy Chapman’s song, “Start all over, make a new beginning.”
A true story: after the Berlin Wall fell a young German girl, whose mother had sold her into prostitution at age 10, found her way to a Christian community and took shelter there. One day at worship, there was a baptism. That young girl, now 13, heard the pastor say, to the one being baptized, “You are born again of the Holy Spirit.’
After the service the girl made her way to the front. Shyly, hesitantly, she asked the pastor, “Can I be born again?” In her naivete she understood what John was talking about, perhaps far better than some who use the term “born again” as a slogan or litmus test.
I have a parting gift for you. It is an affirmation. Very simple. It goes like this, “I am God’s child, deserving of love and respect, and God will use me to change the world.”
Please note — this is important — this is not prescriptive. In other words, I’m not telling you that you need to try really really really hard to believe that you are a child of God, worthy of love and respect, and that its now up to you to change the world. That would be prescriptive, moralizing. The Law. This is not a New Year’s resolution.
No, this is descriptive. This is who by the grace of God you are. This is what God is already at work doing in your life. You aren’t who an often hostile and distorted world tells you you are. You are not what that liar the devil tells you when you are having an anxiety attack or overwhelmed by fear.
This is who you really are. “I am God’s child, deserving of love and respect, and God will use me to change the world.”
But we do need regular reminders. So here’s the idea. Write these words on a card, stick it on your mirror and say them to yourself each day for the twelve days of Christmas. Not a New Year’s resolution . . . a Christmas gift and blessing.
Let’s give it whirl right now. Find this affirmation in the bulletin and let’s say it together. Ready, “I am God’s child, deserving of love and respect, and God will use me to change the world.”
Well done! But not quite done yet. In just a moment, I want you to turn to someone near you and say this affirmation to them, and then listen as they say it to you. I know, it’s hokey, it’s embarrassing, but humor me, it’s my last Sunday.
First, let’s take two deep breaths. In/ out. In/ out. Now turn to someone else and say these words:
Remember then: on a card, on your mirror. Once a day for the twelve days of Christmas . . . and all God’s people said, “Amen!”