I called today's service The Little Service That Could. Because despite an ice storm that coated most of mid-Michigan with a treacherous glaze, and kept us white-knuckle tense all the way to church, not quite 30 brave souls showed up for worship, with me presiding as lay minister for the day and a lay ministry colleague assisting.
At first, though, it was just FT, our sacristy helper and myself. What if no one else showed up? I joked that we'd just pass the paten and wine jug around between the three of us; FT suggested that she and our third party just read and initial the copy of my sermon and call it a day. Then a few more people showed up. We figured we'd run through a truncated, music-less liturgy and common-cup Eucharist; one of those loosey-goosey retreat-style worship services. (The fact that the sound room/tat closet was locked, and no one had a key, would add to the informal feel.)
Finally we got a quorum, and then a few more. The organist arrived with a key to the sound room, and a couple of our other frequent flyers helped get things together for the morning. We got out more Communion ware. My assisting minister slid in at the last minute.
It went pretty well despite the general seat-of-the-pants feel of the morning, and the knowledge that the roads and our vehicles were getting a fresh coat of ice even as we worshipped.
We'd chosen the Christmas 2 texts for the day. Here is my sermon:
I bring you grace and peace, this second Sunday of the Christmas season, from God the Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ. We pray, sanctify us in the truth, o Lord; for your Word to us is truth. Amen.
On Christmas Eve, we heard the story of God becoming one of us. We heard about the who and the where and the when and the what: Mary and Joseph, an affianced couple who were – scandalously, in that time and place – expecting a baby. We heard about Caesar Augustus, back in Rome, whose census of the Roman empire brought this beleaguered little family, along with many other families, to the town of Bethlehem to be counted.
We heard about the birth of God With Us – in a stable; in the ancient equivalent of a parking garage; because that was the only place left to go when Mary went into labor. We heard about the shepherds, those first outsiders to hear the good news of the coming of the Messiah – the riff-raff of their society; persons considered so marginal and incapable of leading pious lives that their occupation as shepherds rendered them ritually unclean. Who would be the modern-day equivalent of shepherds, do you think? Maybe bag ladies and gentlemen; or carnies; or migrant workers.
And for those of you who read ahead in Scripture, you heard about the “wise men from the East” – pagan astrologers to whom God had nonetheless somehow communicated the message that something huge, something earth-changing, was happening in Palestine; and who eventually found Mary and Joseph and child; who “got” it – who got that this little child in humble circumstances was someone and something completely different; and who bowed down and worshipped in the face of this mystery. Imagine a hotline“psychic friend” or a coworker of mine when I lived up north who believed in fairies and auras and used to offer corn pollen to the four winds to help her find her lost car keys – imagine folks like that, outside the scope of the people we think are theologically correct or even well connected to reality, being the ones whom God seeks out first to learn about the God With Us.
So, anyway…that’s the story. We hear it every year. Perhaps, like Mary, we ponder these events in our hearts on an ongoing basis. Or perhaps, if you’re more like me, you tend to wrap up the Christmas story in tissue paper with your crèche and your ornaments and stick the box in the attic for another year.
But the Gospel of John is not going to let us do that. The Gospel of John wants us to stick with this story of God’s Incarnation, God’s entering into our human existence. It assumes we know the when and who and what and where. It is now going to tell us the WHY. And that “why” is so important, so essential to our understanding of ourselves, that the Gospel begins – not a coincidence – the very same words as the Genesis story of the creation of the world: In the beginning.
And the WHY we hear is…love.
Love – the love of God that brought everything into existence and that sustains creation on an ongoing basis; the love between the Persons of the Godhead; that love that yearns to enlighten us in our ignorance and foolishness and confusion and inability to get things right; that love was channeled right into the midst of our earthly existence as a little baby; as one of us. Not because of who any of us are or what any of us did, as the text points out; but because of who God is, and what God has chosen to do on our behalf, out of love.
I think sometimes we hear the Christmas story so often that we no longer really hear it; it’s like pleasant holiday background music that doesn’t shock us or move us. But what our Gospel text is telling us today is something so shocking, so amazing, so unbelieveable – that the God who is bigger and more powerful and more “other” and simply more than we can possibly comprehend, would choose, out of love, to reveal self to us most fully in the person of Jesus Christ. In the Old Testament we certainly find a God who seeks relationship with humanity; who communicates in various ways with humanity; but in John’s Gospel, God’s revealing face to us has real skin on it; real bones and flesh and nerve endings underneath it; is someone we can place in a particular place and time in history, someone whose experiences and actions we can relate to, human to human.
In the Christian tradition in Ireland they speak of someone being a “soul friend.” A soul friend might be a formal confessor or spiritual director in the church…but more often than not it’s just a very good, very special friend who keeps good company with you in your spiritual walk – a friend with whom you can be completely honest and transparent; a friend who seems to have a special window into your own experience and spiritual life, who will laugh with you and cry with you and give you a nudge or a kick in the pants when you need it. A soul friend helps grow your soul; and that’s a great thing to have, isn’t it.
And the beginning of John’s Gospel tells us that Jesus Christ – God’s Logos, God’s revealed self to us – is just that; our soul friend. The Word of God who was God and with God from the beginning, who brought the very cosmos into being, is also one who knows us, lovingly and intimately, better than we know ourselves. Our thoughts and experiences and frustrations and crises as members of the human family are not unknown or unfelt by this God with a human face, born into a human family. Have you ever been short of life’s resources? Jesus was. Have you ever been in trouble with an authority figure? Jesus was. Have you ever had friends or family misunderstand or even betray you? Jesus did. Have you ever been in physical or emotional pain that seemed to squeeze the life right out of you? Jesus was. Have you ever wondered, “Why is this happening to me?” Jesus did. Why? Because of God’s love. Because of God’s desire to be soul friend to each of us.
Oddly enough, on this 2nd Sunday of Christmas we also hear about…John the Baptist. As the text says, “He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light.” At the time our Gospel was written, there was still a remnant of John’s disciples who hadn’t bought into the idea that Jesus, not John the Baptist, was God’s Messiah; it’s thought that this, among others, is a comment directed toward members of that sect. But there’s something else here. Note that the God of the universe, this God who loves us and who will do anything to enlighten our darkness with the gift of divine friendship and guidance, not only comes to us in a dramatic, direct way in the person of Jesus, but also uses other human beings as arrows who point to Christ; who point to the light. As children of God…siblings of Jesus...heirs of God’s kingdom and members of God’s household, as Scripture puts it…we, like John the Baptist, are also called to testify to the light, as we can; as circumstances give us the opportunity. Sometimes that testimony may be in words; sometimes it may be in actions…sometimes it may be something as simple as a loving, grace-ful steadfast presence in someone’s life. St. Francis of Assisi once advised his hearers to “Preach Christ always – use words if necessary.”
For those of us at the Christmas Eve service – remember when we all lit our candles and held up the flames. That’s our great duty and delight – to bring the light of Christ, even in what feels like a tiny flicker, to the dark places around us.
Our Gospel lesson reminds us that in Jesus Christ we have all received “grace upon grace.” We have received the truth of God’s abiding presence and love. We have received the greatest, best soul friend of all – a God whose face we can see in Jesus’. We have received the privilege of helping bear the light of God’s loving face to all the world. What gifts these are. So I wish you, this morning, yet again – Merry Christmas – today, and tomorrow, and always.
And now may the peace of God which surpasses all human understanding, keep our hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus. Amen.
The salt truck was making its way down the road as we emerged from church. We passed it on the way to the local diner for some brunch. Then we carefully -- 30 miles an hour carefully -- made our way back home to crash. (Ourselves -- not our vehicle.)
It was a pretty good Sunday, all things considered.