“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” John 1:14
For those of you who intend to tie me down to five minutes, like Mark Twain, I apologize. Please accept this longer sermon. I didn’t have time to prepare a shorter one!
When my grandson Owen was three or four years old, he and I played pirates in the woods at the end of our garden.We searched for buried treasure. By interpreting the clues I’d planted, we discovered the loonies I had previously buried for him to find. After the initial novelty wore off, Owen became puzzled by my enthusiasm and exclaimed, “Papa, we’re playing, this is only a game!” Children find joy in their world of discovery. They are exposed to an expanding universe that, in turn, expands their imagination. It can be overwhelming. For a while, they enjoy living with both fantasy and the realities of newly discovered truths. Their’s is a world that fills them with awe and wonder as they see, hear and feel new sounds and vistas. Soon they begin to ask questions of their own identity and where they might further explore the world around them.
Such was the case last Sunday when our children participated in their Christmas pageant. They had fun, identifying with the story and with its characters. Where do you and I fit within the Christmas stories? Like that pageant, most of us think of Christmas as one continuous story. Whereas, if you take time to look at the original script, you’ll discover it is a series of independent tableaus taken from a variety of sources. These are borrowed from Matthew’s and Luke’s gospels as well as other non-scriptural sources. To mention but a few, there’s no mention of a donkey or stable in either gospel, nor of three kings.
It takes more than a brief Christmas Eve sermon to explain the origins of this literal reception of the Christmas story. It’s rooted in the systematic efforts of an insecure Roman emperor who struggled to consolidate his power within an empire that had been on the verge of collapse and who’s own legitimacy as well as that of his mother were very much in question. He used a particular expression of the Christian faith to serve his political ambition. That literal Christmas story has been around for over sixteen hundred years. It continues to be accepted and served millions of faithful to this day. Perhaps you are among them.
On the other hand, you may be here tonight and be wondering “Is this make-believe?” Perhaps it’s been a while since you attended a service on Christmas Eve, or you’ve never entered this church before. You’re home for the holidays and you’re here to sing carols with your family or boyfriend or girlfriend. If you’re sitting here struggling over some of the details of the nativity story that leave you perplexed, cynical or worried, do not be afraid, for I bring you tidings of great joy. The story is true, every last word of it is true.The stories of Christmas are parables and like all parable’s they represent a truth that cannot be fully expressed in words. Like all good parables the truth is not to be found in the details, but rather in it’s message. It’s all about what Jesus called the kingdom of God. It is where true justice, compassion and peace are found. It’s a parable about so many things, but most of all it is a parable about peace on earth that gives glory to God by recognizing the intrinsic worth and dignity of everyone, regardless of race, ethnicity, gender, or economic circumstance.
Is it possible to make sense of the Christmas stories in the 21st century?
Luke’s story tells of shepherds (and, naturally for his audience) of angels. Matthew introduces the Magi. The common factor in both tales is that the visitors are people who would not have been socially acceptable in the Jewish society in which Jesus lived. Shepherds were shunned because they were often unable to purify themselves to meet standards of Jewish ritual cleanliness. The Magi were foreigners – in effect, they were untouchables.
In the characters of the shepherds and the Magi, the stories preserve an early and absolutely fundamental theme of the Jesus of history. He taught that everyone on earth is acceptable to God. Differences of tribe, nationhood and race are of no account to God, said Jesus. When religion puts up barriers between the “good” and the “bad” God passes through them as though they don’t exist. Nothing can separate us from the love of God, for whom there is neither Christian nor non-Christian, sinner nor saved, Church nor non-Church.
So even though these stories are not “what really happened”, they preserve and bring to life the ministry of Jesus. Provided we recognise them for what they are – delightful and meaningful stories – we can also recognise that the sacred wonder of being is revealed or “shown forth” in human life today.
For ourselves as individuals, we gain a new lease on life as we reaffirm that we are personally part of a scheme of things beyond our human understanding. For ourselves as part of humanity, we gain our rightful place when we affirm that everyone without exception has intrinsic value and is worthy of boundless love, compassion and mercy. It is a child who, in the stories of Matthew and Luke, reveals the mystery of what it means to encounter the source of life in all its beauty and wonder. That which is first shown to untouchables and outcasts, is also shown to us.
Admittedly, I find myself drawn more and more to an alternative understanding of the significance of Christmas, an approach more typical perhaps of John’s gospel than Luke’s. In this version of the story, Christ is identified with that the otherwise hidden glory of God – that which has and continues to be part of the very fabric of existence. Jesus is identified with the “Word” of God by whom all things were made, and without whom there was not anything made that was made. All life has its being in him. All knowledge is acquired in his light.
I’ve never met an atheist who doesn’t believe in a god who would not be worth believing in to start with. When some deny the existence of God, I ask, “Who is this god that you so readily deny? Chances are I’d also refuse to believe in your limited concept of god.”
The Christian theologian Thomas Aquinas was a radical and insistent agnostic about “God”. He understood that “God” cannot be investigated in the same manner as other living thing within our natural word, otherwise “God” would not be “God”. Thomas wrote that since we cannot know what “God” is, but only what “God” is not, we cannot inquire into the how of “God”, but only into how “God “ is not. We may be able to study and calculate “things” but are unable to study “God” in much the same way, since “God” is not a “thing”.
The problem facing the world today is not that God is absent. The problem is that humans are often blind to God’s presence. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness comprehends it not. No awareness, no understanding, no beholding of God’s glory. On this account, Christmas is not about a hitherto absent God coming into the world, but about the bringing into the light – the bringing to human awareness – of the abiding presence of God that has always been a feature of creation.
The Word was made flesh, not to make an absent God present, but to make the always-present God publicly known, that we might behold divine glory, full of grace and truth. And that is the task of those who seek to follow Jesus – to make the glory of God’s continued presence known.
So let your light so shine before others that they may see your good works, and glorify a God not only in heaven beyond our human understanding but also here on the earth, in our very midst, for all who have eyes to see, and ears to hear, and hearts to love.
The Church of the Holy Saviour, Waterloo