Monday, January 13, 2014

A Light Shines - a sermon for first Sunday of Christmas 2013

On Christmas Eve, I shared with you all about how certain stories tend to have a constancy – they are retold time and again as families gather. And how we might find that certain details have great meaning and can never be left out. But have you ever noticed, as well, that when you get together with your families, telling stories about childhood or family events or whatever might have happened years ago, the same story of the same events can sound very different as different people tell the story? Depending on who’s describing it:
·         Uncle Al’s six inch bass becomes the monster that almost got away.
·         Was it a five-star resort we stayed in on our honeymoon or a hovel, barely able to be called a motel.
·         Remember the old guy who lived at the end of the street growing up – was he a cantankerous old scrooge or generous saint?
·         Ah, the family vacation with all the cousins – what a disaster! Or was it a wonderful escape?
·         And who won that fight with Chip – or was it Dale?

Same event. Different folks. Different details. Different points of view.
This is not unlike the wonderful poetry of the first eighteen verses of John’s gospel we just heard. This is the Christmas story, the third time the Bible tells it. It’s the same story we heard on Christmas Eve, the story of the manger and the shepherds and the angels. And it’s the same story Matthew tells in his gospel, with Joseph’s dreams, the wise men and the flight to Egypt. But the point of view is different.
Luke, who wrote the familiar story we heard on Christmas Eve, was a bit of an historian. He was liked getting the dates and rulers right, and with locating everything in time and space. Luke also likes to tell about those on the margins and so Luke is more interested in shepherds – who were social outcasts – than in kings. And Luke tells the story from the perspective of Mary – a radical move since women were even lower on the social ladder than shepherds.
Matthew, in the other hand, seems more traditional. He was certainly a Jew and may have been a scribe. He was very concerned with making it clear that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies as the Messiah, the king in the line of king, Son of Man. Shepherds didn’t interest him as much as the royal wise men from the East - the child surrounded by his peers. Matthew would pay a lot of attention to the flight to Egypt because of parallels with the Exodus. Also, the more conservative Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ birth from Joseph’s point of view.
Then there’s John. John may have heard the stories in Matthew and Luke but he’s not primarily an historian or a Jewish royalist. John is a mystic. He writes of the meaning of Jesus’ birth and he writes from his theology – from the holy imagination of his prayer. Nevertheless, he’s still telling the same story. All three are talking about the same birth.
John does begin the story earlier, reminding us that Christmas really begins where Genesis begins: in the beginning with God at creation. Using language evocative of Genesis, John begins by talking about the Word of God. The Word is God in action, God creating, God revealing himself, the one whom the church has named the second person of the Blessed Trinity. This Word was with God and this Word was God.
Then John tells the Christmas story in nine words: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” He who was with God in creation, the one who is God revealing himself to humanity, this one became a person, became flesh – as completely human as you and I.  A person who was the Word – who was God’s own self.
Matthew, Luke and John so share one special way of telling the story in common. There is one image, one symbol that they all use to talk about the birth in Bethlehem. Can you think of what it is?
Light! They all talk about light. For Matthew, it is the light of the star. For Luke, the light that shone around the shepherds. For John, the Light of the world, the true light that enlightens every man. These echo Isaiah’s vision of vindication shining out like the dawn, of salvation like a burning torch.
We understand this image of light because we know about darkness. We know what it’s like to live in and with darkness. Have you ever walked into a dark room. If you have and you know the room, then you might know where things are but you still walk a bit slower, more methodically. But what if that room has been rearranged. Walk through an unfamiliar room in the dark can be painful. We know what it’s like when we don’t know where things are, or what we’ve just bumped into, or whether we’re going where we want to go, or if our next step will be OK, or if we will break something and make a mess. It’s hard to walk in the dark.
What John, and Luke and Matthew all say about Christmas is that a new light begins to shine. We don’t have to walk in the dark. By the light of Christ we can begin to see who we are and who we are created to be. For it is in the person of Jesus that what it means to be a human being is finally made clear. In him we see that our lives are made whole only as we surrender  in love and service; in him we see that really being alive means risking everything for – and because of – the love of God and the Kingdom of God.
In him we see that hope needs never be abandoned – NEVER – and that we contain possibilities beyond our imagining.
And by that light that has come into the world we also can begin to see God clearly for the first time. “No one has ever seen God,” John reminds us. But God is made known to us in Jesus. This means that everything we ever thought about God, everything we had figured out, everything that we were sure we knew about God – all of this is put to the test in Jesus. Not in one saying or one parable, or one miracle,  but in all of Jesus – in his life, his ministry, his teaching, his death and resurrection. In the Word made flesh, we finally have the light we need to see God.

The light of Christ, the Word made flesh, comes among us at Christmas, and we celebrate its coming into the world. That first Christmas, the light shone – and it continues to shine. By that light we have been given the power to become children of God and to take our places with the light. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. This is the Christmas story. This is our story.

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