Sermon for Second Sunday of Christmas, January 3, 2021
Read Pastor Julie's sermon as shared on Facebook Live. Visit https://www.facebook.com/saronstrasburg each Sunday at 8:30 a.m. for a brief live service of scripture, prayer, and a sermon by Pastor Julie.
Jeremiah 31:7–14 | Ephesians 1:3–11 | John 1:1–5, 10–18
For a while, Reader’s Digest (that little magazine with inspirational stories, humor, practical tips) ran a series of “close-ups” where you would look at a picture of something that had been magnified and try to figure out what it is. There are some fascinating patterns both in nature and manufactured-things: like oranges and sponges and spaghetti: Maybe even unrecognizable close up. Until you see the answer key, where the picture is zoomed back out and you have that “ah ha” moment.
In his season of Christmas (that continues until Jan. 6), we have just gotten a close-in view of one little baby born to one woman—out of 107 billion people that the Population Reference Bureau has estimated have ever lived on earth. But now, in a very different “birth” narrative in John’s gospel, we zoom out and see the whole thing by being brought to Beginning. Here, we remember that the ancients marked time less in a linear fashion—that is, a timeline like we do—and more in a circular fashion. This was part of being tied very closely to the planting and harvesting of crops; the grazing and birthing of sheep and goats: Without artificial light—the growing and lessening of light with the seasons; the waxing and waning of the moon were the ebb and flow of time. For us in a modern/ post-modern age, it’s good to remember that the Beginning, then, is not just in a time long ago, but something the persists in the continual creation of days and seasons and years; of eras and nations and people. That is, this Word (or Wisdom) is part and parcel with God—a continual creative force that is also life and light: That enlightens and comes into the world still. That is, all this stuff is still happening. If we could just zoom out and see it—which we are invited to do today: To realize that the bits and pieces—the pattern, if you will—of life and light are a close-up of a bigger view.
We don’t get an explanation here because so much remains a mystery (“no one has ever seen God”), but we do hear that the role of John the Baptist is to point at it. There are things like the pattern of “laws” or “teachings” given through Moses: That—if taught and followed—also point to the mystery and goodness of God. Better yet, because we prefer to enforce the rules on everyone else, Jesus raised the stakes by breaking complicated extra “rules” with something that wouldn’t let anyone off the hook: grace and truth. John describes Jesus as the embodiment of the Word—an intangible, force-filled, creating force now in a human: To become a part of the cycles of life, ever-spoken again and again.
Of course, the devastating message of John is that this Word is mostly rejected: Like the prophets, it’s hard to get through when we tend to think how we see things is right. You know—idolatry and using God’s “name” vainly. We do the fear-thing and vilify others, plump up our false egos with stuff and ideas, and even confuse these with faith…. Which is where Lutheran theology is handy: You are going to cycle around in sin no matter what. Which you may either see and not know how to get out of, or—again, think is the right way to go. The second are the hardest to save, says Luther. But this Word that was in the beginning and with God, is still in the beginning of every rotation we make—whether 2020 to 2021—or the day that is January 3—or the conclusion of the life of someone dear to us. The Word persists. And we don’t see the whole mystery, and yet it is the thing that gives us life and meaning. At the Beginning and the End. Finally, all we can is gaze upon it in wonder. ALL THIS—that makes up our years and days and moments—is shot through with God active in the Word.
Like the beautiful words from Jeremiah. (I don’t think it’s an accident that out of the mouth of the most depressing—and depressed—prophet come some of the most profound and beautiful words. It alerts us to the mystery of God in the cycle of life.) The name for the people of Israel here is their ancestor, Jacob, who once wrested an angel and walked away—albeit with a limp. Now “Jacob” is in the grasp of hands too strong for him. What a thing it is to now be blessed, strengthened, filled, given peace! And I wonder, do you notice when this happens to you as well? Can you fully be present to the miracle that is the redemption of our ability to be together again—because of a vaccine? The mysterious word of God—the light in the darkness- continually shines upon us—even when we don’t “know him.” Even though the “world” came into being through him… If we just step back and look!
I think it’s Fr. Richard Rohr who says, “In God’s economy, nothing is wasted.” What if we began to “know” the world in this way? With expanded minds and hearts that take in what is before us, knowing that it was all made with One who’s life enacted (as the biblical Word does) a soul-piercing love that brought down the powerful—scattered the proud—and filled the hungry, lifted up the lowly. This is Mary’s Magnificat that we have sung during Advent. It’s also a passage in scripture that a church member years ago on internship in the midwest tried to argue about with me as being not true. It’s been banned recently in countries like Argentina and India; a prominent preacher criticized for using in support of the #metoo movement—as if, somehow, it didn’t apply to women who have been harassed and endangered.
The thing about this Word is that it’s the Big Picture, but it’s also intensely Particular. Because John doesn’t say anything about them, we can’t get hung up here on the pastoral scene of angels or shepherds; magi with gifts. John’s telling of the birth story of Jesus is for all of us, all year ’round. There’s no putting Jesus in a manger and leaving him there because the humanness of Jesus invites us to be more deeply human ourselves; to become more who we are by “emptying ourselves”—or to add some Catholic theology where the sacred is embraced in actual human life—to embrace what Johannes Metz calls a “poverty of spirit.” Our needs always outpace our capacities, he says—and we have to start by letting go of all that—like Jesus did. We have what we need: As a part of creation bespoken into existence with the Word in us. Beloved and with worth beyond all measure. It’s a good thing to remember in the New Year. It will fill us so that the words we speak to one another will point to the mystery that is part of their fabric- and the fabric of all things. The future, then, like the beginning, is one that we will face together as part of Creations and of God. Thanks be to God. Amen.