The Word tabernacled among us: A Sermon for Christmas Day, 2019

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory.”

I love the contrast between our Christmas Eve and Christmas Day services. The early service on Christmas Eve is full of noise and excitement. Last night the church was almost full, with families, and children who were full of anticipation of the presents under the trees back home. They could hardly contain their excitement. Each year, I invite them to come forward and join me at our lovely creche, and I engage them in conversation about the story represented by the creche, and its meaning for our lives and our faith.

Then, at 10:00 pm, there’s a very different mood. Excitement still, but the mood is shaped by the beautiful music provided by the choir, organ, and instrumentalists as people gather in the nave. Both services end in darkness as we sing “Silent Night” with candles lit in a darkened nave. Finally, the bells peal the joyous sounds of celebration and we go out into the darkness, our hearts filled with joy.

Christmas Day is very different. In some years, though not now, we might come to church in the glorious, dazzling light, of sun shining on snow. The brightness of the sun corresponds to the glory of the gospel reading we hear each year, the first verses from John’s gospel.

This gospel reading offers a vivid contrast to the story we read each year on Christmas Eve, Luke’s version of the birth of Jesus. While Luke moves us in panoramic style from the powerful center of the Roman Empire to one of its obscure and distant corners, the village of Bethlehem, as the characters mentioned change from emperors and governors to a pregnant woman and a band of shepherds. The story ends in stillness and quiet, with Mary pondering all that happened and the shepherds returning to their sheep.

John’s gospel begins with an even wider view than Luke’s. Instead of setting the context in the Roman Empire, John expands out even further, to the beginning of time and the origins of the universe. He draws our attention not to how or where Jesus was born, but to the God who created all that is, and the Word through whom everything was created.

John begins with a panoramic view of the universe: In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. But from that vast eternal scope, he focuses in on us:

“The Word became flesh and lived among us.” The incarnation is a great mystery of our faith, something that we should ponder and treasure in our hearts, something we should puzzle over, ponder. More than that. The Word connects us with God because our words, our thoughts are attempts to approach and understand the Word. By thinking, reflecting, struggling to understand the meaning of the Word become flesh, there’s a way in which our thinking itself makes Christ present in our minds and in our lives.

You may find all this very abstract. It is, but John doesn’t stop there. He goes on. The word became flesh and lived among us.

With this verse, John brings us back to Bethlehem, to the reality of the incarnation. Literally the Greek reads, “and the word became flesh and tabernacled among us.” While John likely wants us to think of the tabernacle that was the symbol of God’s presence to the Israelites in the wilderness, it’s also the case that we are to think of Christ being among us, “living among us” in a temporary, make-shift way, like a tent. That is to say, the word took on frail human flesh to be like us.

This paradox, this mystery is quite beyond comprehension. The Word taking human flesh. St. Augustine captures the paradox in one of his sermons on this text for Christmas:

“He so loved us that for our sake He was made man in time, through Whom all times were made; was in the world less in years than His servants, though older than the world itself in His eternity; was made man, Who made man; was created of a mother, whom He created; was carried by hands which He formed; nursed at the breasts which He had filled; cried in the manger in wordless infancy, He the Word without Whom all human eloquence is mute.” — St. Augustine, Sermon 188

John goes a step further. For John, this infant, this tiny human creature, incapable of speech, vulnerable, utterly dependent on others for life itself, this infant reveals God’s glory to us.

 

So we are back in Bethlehem, back in the confusing paradox that God became incarnate in a very ordinary way, in the poorest of circumstances, in the weakest of all human forms, a baby. And it is in that paradox, that we see God’s glory. For John, it is the same paradox as the cross, which he almost always refers to as the glorification of Christ. What he is telling us is that in these moments of weakness, we see God’s majesty and power.

To see and know Christ, the Word, in the babe in a manger, is to see and know God’s glory. To see and know Christ in the cross, is to see and know God’s glory. To see and know Christ, to taste Christ in the bread and wine of the Eucharistic feast, is to see and know God’s glory.

May we experience, may we see and know the glory of God today, in our lives, and in the world around us, in the Christ made flesh in a manger and as we kneel at the altar. May we know and believe the mystery of our faith, the mystery of the Incarnation, the mystery of God’s love for us, today at Christmas, and throughout our lives. Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Break forth, O beauteous, heavenly light: A sermon for Christmas Day, 2017

One morning in the first week of December, I was walking back to my office after having coffee with a colleague on State St. It was around 10 am and a bright sunny day. As I came toward the church, I looked up and saw something remarkable, perhaps miraculous. The sun was at the perfect angle in the sky so that it shone directly through the tower windows. I had never seen this before. It filled the tower with light that shone even more brightly than the sun.

But that wasn’t the remarkable thing. On the tower walls, and I have no idea how this occurred, there was reflected light from the sun; it was patchy but it went up the tower walls. I had no idea where the light was coming from but it was a sight that was so ethereal, so bright, so beautiful, that it took my breath away.

 

I’ve been around this place for over eight years. I thought I was familiar with all of its nooks and crannies (well, to be sure, I’ve never climbed up the tower to see the bells). I thought I had seen it from every angle, at every time of day or night. As beautiful as Grace Church is, it’s become so very familiar to me that I don’t expect to see something new, I don’t expect to encounter and experience beauty in a new way. Continue reading

And the Word became flesh and tented among us: A Sermon for Christmas Day, 2016

 

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God”

We live in difficult times. The world is a dangerous, scary place. The future looks bleak. Not only are the problems we face apparently beyond our will and capacity to solve. It’s not just the ongoing wars, a challenging economy; Climate change seems to be occurring at a frightening pace—with reports this week about warm temperatures in the Arctic causing unprecedented ice melting.

It’s not just the immensity of the problems, in recent years truth and reason themselves have come under attack. First it was Stephen Colbert and “truthiness.” Now, we are victims of “fake truth” the manipulation of the media, and a widespread and vicious attack on science.

Some of this latter can be blamed on a certain understanding and worldview within Christianity. It’s been a practice among some Christians for centuries to draw a sharp contrast between faith and reason—to argue that one must believe in spite of evidence to the contrary; that faith in God goes against reason. In recent decades, that view has led to some Christians making contortions in their efforts to explain away the theory of evolution, the fossil record, the big bang, arguing that scientific evidence like fossils were given by God to test our faith, or worse, planted by Satan to deceive us.

In a way all of this has led us to this point; where we’re not quite sure of anything; that every position no matter how supported by scientific evidence, is only a matter of opinion.

These majestic, transcendent verses from the very beginning of the Gospel of John reflect and present us with a very different perspective. John is writing from within a particular worldview that permeated the Hellenistic culture of his time. In the beginning was the Word, in fact, in the beginning was the Logos—more than word, it could be translated as reason. You could understand it as the underlying order of the universe, natural law, if you will.

John is asserting not just that God created the universe, but that this created universe is imbued with divine order and reason; that it makes sense, and also, that by exploring the universe, we can come to know something about the nature of God.

Of course, to translate logos as “word” is to make another important theological point—that at the very beginning of things, the second person of the Trinity was present, involved in creating the universe. Indeed, in Genesis 1, God creates by speaking the universe into existence—God said, “Let there be light.”

This is all well and good, but the reality is that the world we experience only dimly reflects the divine order and creative power that brought it into being and maintains it. Our fallen natures have clouded our reason, and creation itself bears signs of our disobedience of God.

We experience our own sin and fallen-ness, we know our broken-ness and the broken-ness of the world, and we struggle to know and to love God and ourselves. Given that, we’re tempted to experience or understand God as utterly beyond us, beyond our comprehension or understanding, remote, uncaring, unmoved or unmoving.

The word became flesh and dwelt among us. This is the heart of this passage, the heart of the gospel, it may very well be the heart of Christianity. The God who is utterly beyond us, incomprehensible, infinite, has become one of us, has dwelt among us. The God who created the world and us, has come to us in human form, becoming human, sharing our lives and our existence.

But more than that, the word we translate as “dwelt” could be translated as tabernacled or tented—it’s a reference back to the experience of the Hebrews in the wilderness when they created a tabernacle to be a symbol of God’s presence among them as they wandered through the desert.

That’s one way we should think about it, that in the Word becoming flesh God tented among us, taking on a frail, temporary body like ours, but also that God journeyed with us, that God journeys with us, that God is with us as we wander through our lives.

It’s a remarkable journey that we make through our lives, it’s a remarkable journey of struggle, change, and love. There’s a remarkable journey in this text, from before time and the universe existed, to the Word becoming flesh and tenting among us.

To ponder that mystery, not just what the words say, but the mystery of the nature of God to which it bears witness—a God beyond our comprehension and imagination, but a God who so cares for us and loves us, that the very Word of God comes to us, becomes one of us, dies for us.

To contemplate that God, the God we see dimly in the beauty of creation; the God we see clearly in the incarnation; the God we see in the words and life of Jesus Christ; the God whose self-giving love embraces the whole world in his outstretched arms.

To contemplate that God, to contemplate that love, and to begin to express and share that love; that is what and who we are called to be by Christmas. Thanks be to God.