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

Babies, Tents, and the Incarnation: A Sermon for Christmas Day, 2014

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God.” These majestic words, the beginning of John’s gospel capture the profundity and the mystery of our faith. For two thousand years, Christians have read these verses, wrestled with them, pondered their meaning. We do that today as we celebrate the miracle of God becoming flesh and living among us.

One of my great joys as a priest is to visit parents of newborn babies in the hospital. Each time I enter the room, I am overwhelmed with the joy, excitement, and love that a new mother and father have for their child. There is also awe and wonder, and usually, especially when it’s a first child, looks of amazement and bewilderment. As I sat with one couple recently, we talked about the life this baby would have, what he would see and experience, who he would become.

I’m awed by the responsibility parents take on. I’m also awed by the vulnerability, weakness, and dependence of newborns. This year, as I’ve reflected on Christmas and thought about what it means that God became flesh in a manger, in a stable, in Bethlehem, I have pondered the mystery that God comes to us, that God became human by being born as a baby, vulnerable, weak, utterly dependent on others for life.

For all the mystery and wonder about the first verses of John’s gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” I think that in some ways, it’s easier for us to get our heads around what John is trying to say here than it is for us to comprehend the fact that God became incarnate in a baby in Bethlehem.

Even if it may be difficult to believe that God created the universe and that the Word was present at creation, such notions at least conform to the idea of God that we have. If there is a God, certainly God created the universe. That’s the sort of thing philosophers debate and a notion that is worthy of an adequate concept of God. But for such a God, as the philosophers argue, all-knowing, all-present, all-powerful, for a God like that to be born as a baby, that just doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Immediately, all sorts of questions come up that curious people might wonder. If God is all those things, all powerful, all-knowing, what was God like as a baby? How could a weak, vulnerable infant contain a being of infinite possibility and infinite nature? How do we make sense of these two ways of understanding the way in which God became incarnate—the story Luke tells of Mary and Joseph, of a manger and stable, of shepherds and the story, or poetry of John: In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.

Well, John himself makes the connection a few verses into the gospel: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” More literally, “the Word became flesh and tabernacled (or tented) among us.”

That’s such an evocative image both for our present context and for the biblical story. Tents are something we’re familiar with. They provide shelter, yes, but they are also relatively insubstantial. They might protect us from rain, but they aren’t much use in a heavy storm with strong winds and few of us would want to have to live through a Wisconsin winter with only a tent for shelter. The image of the tent seems to capture something of the frailty of human nature.

But in the biblical context, the idea of tent or tabernacle takes on even greater significance. For it was in a tabernacle, a tent, that God was present with the Hebrews as they wandered in the desert for forty years. And in the tabernacle, God revealed God’s glory to the Israelites.

John uses that imagery as he seeks to help us understand the nature of God in Christ. For, he says, “we have seen his glory, … full of grace and truth.” Just as God revealed God’s glory to the Israelites in a tabernacle made from the skins of animals, so we see God’s glory in the frail flesh of a new-born baby.

That is the mystery of our faith, that we encounter God in a newborn baby born in Bethlehem. St. Paul articulates this fundamental paradox in the phrase: “power made perfect in weakness” because of course it is not just that we see God in the manger in Bethlehem. We also see God dying on the cross.

In John’s gospel, the paradox of the incarnation is also the paradox of the cross. John loves to use that word “glory” or “glorification” when speaking of the cross. Like Paul, John is telling us that in these moments of weakness, we see God’s majesty and power.

Manger, cross; God’s weakness, God’s vulnerability; God’s power. That is the mystery of the incarnation. That is the mystery and the bedrock of our faith. We may not understand, we may not comprehend it, but we can see it and experience it with our very eyes. We have the reality of the incarnation before us in the God who became flesh and tented among us, the God who died on the cross and was raised again.

But we have the reality of that incarnation before us in many ways. We see it, we taste it in the bread and wine of the eucharist, when we receive the body and blood of Christ. We see it in the very imperfect Church, both our local community, and the worldwide communion, bodies filled with flaws and imperfections, but also, mysteriously, the body of Christ. And finally, we may see it in ourselves, imperfect human beings though we are, but by the grace of God filled with the presence of Christ. May this Christmas rekindle in all of us the knowledge of Christ’s presence, of Christ’s glory, in ourselves, in our church and community, and in all the world. May we experience the reality of the incarnation for ourselves, and share it with the world!