In the beginning was the Word: A sermon for Christmas Day

This sermon, offered on Christmas Day 2017 by the Very Rev. Andy Jones at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin is a slightly updated version of a sermon offered on Christmas day 2015.

It is build around the readings assigned for Christmas III in the Revised Common Lectionary.  You can find those readings here.

 

What a difference a few hours can make.  It’s hard to believe that we are in the same place.

Just last night we were gathered here in a dimly lit stable, resonating with the sound of donkeys, sheep, heavily breathing cows, and softly wuffling creatures.  The air was sweet with the smell of hay and of straw.

And there was a baby lying in a manger, a child whose coming had been foretold, and about whom a multitude of the heavenly host sang  “Glory to God in the highest!”

This morning, in the bright light of day, we leave the stable, the animals, the familiar and comforting smells, even Mary, Joseph, and the baby far behind.

This morning the powerful poetry of the Prologue to the Gospel according to John sweeps us up and propels us into that swirling chaos when

the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters” (Genesis 1:2).

John says:

“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 without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it”

(John 1:1 – 5).

This is John’s version of the infancy narrative.  No stable.  No manger.  No shepherds, sheep, angel choirs…  Not even a travel weary couple and their newly born child.

Coming here expecting Christmas this morning this Gospel reading can feel pretty disorienting.  Maybe it is supposed to.  Maybe that’s the point…

Think about it.  This isn’t the first time this has happened to us this season.

We came here on the first Sunday of Advent, a time of anticipation and preparation for the coming of Christ, and the crèche was empty.  Instead of hearing about the child that was to be born in a manger we heard about the Christ who will come again.  Instead of hearing about events of 2,000 years ago we heard about… the end of all time.

Today, on Christmas Day, we come here again, the crèche is full, the baby is lying right there in the manger, and instead of hearing about the child who is “good news of great joy to all the people…” we hear about…  the beginning of all time and all things!

Maybe the framers of the lectionary have chosen this reading for us today because they understood that there is a danger in focusing too closely on the familiar… sheep and shepherds, straw and hay, mothers and babies… things we can touch, smell, hear…

The story that we know and love so well; a story remembered in painting, song, and made for TV specials is so familiar, so sweet, so gentle… so domesticated that, on this day when we gather to mark the birth of Christ, we are in danger of forgetting the rest of the story…  the part of the story that had the shepherds trembling in fear.

That’s why the writer of today’s Gospel has brought us here…

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 without him not one thing came into being.

“Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light.  And God saw that the light was good;”

In the beginning was the Word,”

 “And God said, ‘Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.’….   And it was so. God called the dome Sky.”

In the beginning was the Word,”

And God said, ‘Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.’ And it was so.”

In the beginning was the Word,”

And five more times, eight times in all, the word of God was spoken… and through him all things came into being.

“Through him all things came into being and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.”

We need to remember that what we are talking about, what we are celebrating; the moment that leads us to sing “Glory to God in the highest,” is too big, too expansive, too much… to fit into a story, the elements of which are comforting, recognizable, and familiar.

We are talking about the beginning and end, the alpha and the omega, the very breath of God forming the Word, bringing order to the chaos, and giving life and light to all people!

But that’s the real beauty of the story that we tell.  It is a simple story, one that brings us great joy and comfort, filled with things that we know and understand and at the same time… all of that enormity, the breadth and scope of all time, from the beginning to the end of all things, rushes together, as if it is swirling through a funnel, and ends up right here, in a stable, in a manger, enfleshed, one of us.

Last night was a time for tenderness, for love; a time to press our cheek to the soft, downy head of a newborn and breath deep the sweet smell of new life, a life that comes to us with a story that will change the world.

Today, today is a time to lie in solemn stillness, a time for awe, for the wonder that comes from the realization that in the coming of this child

“the Word has become 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” (John 1:14).

“Glory to God in the highest!”

Amen

 

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A Terrible Proposition: A Sermon for Advent 4B

This sermon, offered at Saint Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Madison, Wisconsin, by the Very Rev. Andy Jones, is built around the readings for the 4th Sunday in Advent in Year B of the Revised Common Lectionary.

You can find those readings here

 

Good morning.  And what a morning huh?  This day is just packed!  December 24th The Fourth Sunday of Advent and Christmas Eve!  There’s almost too much to do!  We’ve gone to just one service this morning so that we can hang the greens, decorate the church, and be ready for Christmas Eve; two more services, with a pageant this afternoon and a dramatic and beautiful telling of the story and a round Silent Night by candlelight later this evening.  All over the church clergy and congregations are dealing with the same time crunch and wondering if it really is possible to get it all done today…

It would be awfully easy to just jump straight into Christmas Eve.  After all, we know how this story ends.   And we’ve been waiting such a long time…  Time is so short…  There is a baby on the way!

But for now, at least for another hour or so, gathered here this morning, it is still Advent, we are still waiting, hoping, wondering…  And it’s a good thing too.

Because today, on this fourth Sunday of Advent, there is someone who is here to offer testimony, to speak truth to power this morning.  She will not be silenced.  Her voice rings out across the centuries, and we are here today to honor her, to hear her testimony, and to grapple with her understanding of what is… and what is to come…

“In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David…”

Luke 1:26-38

In a world oppressed by empire, among a people conquered, downtrodden, diminished…

The Angel of the Lord comes to someone with no power, someone with no status or rank, someone who is the property of her father, someone soon to be the property of a husband…

The Angel Gabriel comes to a young woman, whose name is Mary, and makes an astonishing claim:

“…you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus.”

Jesus… Jesus will be his name…

But Mary knows that she wouldn’t be the only one to name this son.

Ringing in her ears, even as the light shining from the angel threatens to overwhelm her senses, is the echo of the promise, made through the Prophet Isaiah, crying out to a people lost in the darkness:

            “For unto us a child is born

A son given to us

Authority rests on his shoulders

And he is named

Wonderful counselor, mighty God

Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace”

Isaiah 9:6

And in her heart Mary knows that this child, the one whose birth the angel is foretelling… this child will come to:

“… bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;

Isaiah 61:1

A sharp intake of breath.  Does her heart skip a beat?  An aching in the core of her being?

Mary is engaged to Joseph but they aren’t married.  If she becomes pregnant…  The scandal will be ruinous for her and her family!  In fact, Joseph would be within his rights to have her stoned!

And then there is Herod the Great, the Roman Puppet King of Judea, whose tyrannical reign was characterized by the use of murder and terror.  Threats to his authority, and to the authority of Rome, Empire, are crushed without mercy.

When the Angel Gabriel tells Mary:

“He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

She has to see this future as fraught with danger, for herself, for the child, and for the people who live under the rule of Herod and the iron fist of the Pax Romana.

This moment, when Gabriel, an angel of God, arrives as an emissary to a young woman, someone who might walk through the streets of Nazareth without drawing any attention to herself, and asks her to bear a child in a manger, in a stable, surrounded by sheep and oxen…

…This moment is charged with a level of political danger and consequence that is unmistakable to anyone who is paying attention and willing to see the narrative being developed through the angel’s overtures….

Mary is being asked to offer herself, her reputation, her safety and that of her family, maybe even the safety of her people, in order to make God manifest in the world; to set in motion a movement, a revolution that the principalities and powers that hold sway over us and this world will do anything in their power to suppress and destroy.

The angel has asked, God and all of history are waiting… what will she say?  How will she respond to this…     and let’s not romanticize this…   to this terrible proposition?

She asks, “How can this be…?”

One question?  That’s it?  One question?”   That’s all she needs?  She doesn’t ask for assurances, for guarantees?  Maybe she’s stalling for time.

And then, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

 

In just a few hours we will gather here again and it will be Christmas Eve.

There will be a pageant, this space filled with children, children telling the story of a miraculous birth, a birth to the least likely of parents, in the least likely of places; the birth of the one who brings new life to all the earth.

And then again, still later, we will gather, in the dim light of the stable…  We will glory in the miracle of new birth, in the tenderness of mother and child, in the voices of angels and heavenly hosts, and in the excitement and wonder of shepherds.

We will stand and sing Gloria in Excelsis Deo to celebrate Emmanuel, God With Us and we will hold our candles high as we sing Silent Night, Holy Night.

But for now… for now it is still Advent.

And while there is still time, before we crowd around the manger to ooh and aah at the child wrapped in bands of cloth, we need to hear the testimony of a young woman who will not be silenced.

A young woman who, after the angel departed, after the luminous vision had faded, embarked upon a journey to visit her cousin Elizabeth; whose song of exultation describes her understanding of what is and what is to come; whose song interprets and explains without flinching from their political implications the events we will celebrate in the few short hours ahead…

A young woman whose testimony calls us to take our part at the manger this evening as informed participants, as disciples, aware of the political implications and dangers of following the child who will lead us…

Jesus, Emmanuel, Wonderful counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace – who will be great, who will be called the Son of the Most High, who will sit upon the throne of his ancestor David. Who will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of whose kingdom there will be no end.

And so now honoring the voice of a young woman who had the courage to speak truth to power, to offer her testimony and utter God’s Word of love to the world, I invite you to open your prayer books to page 91, and stand as we once again proclaim the Song of Mary.

The Song of Mary        Luke 1:46-55

My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my Savior; *
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.

From this day all generations will call me blessed: *
the Almighty has done great things for me, and holy is his Name.

He has mercy on those who fear him *
in every generation.

He has shown the strength of his arm, *
he has scattered the proud in their conceit.

He has cast down the mighty from their thrones, *
and has lifted up the lowly.

He has filled the hungry with good things, *
and the rich he has sent away empty.

He has come to the help of his servant Israel, *
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,

The promise he made to our fathers, *
to Abraham and his children for ever.

Glory to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit: *
as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be for ever.

Amen.