Jesus & Our Priorities, Sermon for 2nd Sunday of Christmas

(John1:1-18; Sirach 24:1-12; Wisdom 10:15-21; Ephesians 1:3-14)

Here we are beginning a new year, turning calendars to 2015, thinking ahead of resolutions and what needs to change, and I’m foolishly going to suggest we need to use this opportunity to look backward.

Furthermore, we have this gospel reading from the start of John’s Gospel, the Prologue, as it’s known. It’s an intro, an opening. It is there for us to look forward, to set the tone of all that is going to come in the story of Jesus. Plus, we’re on the cusp of Epiphany, when for six Sundays we’ll encounter the next parts of Jesus’ story, the ways this light is revealed to the world, of how people got to know him and how we get to know him.

But for now, as we have maybe a pause, a hint of what’s coming, we also need a reminder of what came. We gather today on day 11 of the 12 days of Christmas. The Christmas season officially concludes tomorrow. And it’s worthwhile that we have to think back to Christmas Eve today. As we gather amid falling needles and poinsettia debris, our world in so many ways has already moved on. The gifts are unwrapped and put away. By December 26, radio stations had already switched off the holiday hits. Focuses changed to New Year’s Eve celebrations. Decorations come down as we tidy up. We return to work and school, to regular rhythms. We go back to life.

Yet today, interrupting again, we are compelled to recall a baby born in a barn. And just to be clear, that isn’t a cuddly and sweet story endeared to us because it is set well to music. It isn’t just a holiday pause. It’s not a diversion from life, but a reorientation of life. And Christmas must be that because centrally what we believe and continue to proclaim is that God was born.  God was born. Again, our understanding of Jesus isn’t just that he grew up to be a nice guy, or that he was a nonviolent revolutionary who could be a thorn in the side of the world’s most powerful empire, nor even that he knew a lot about God. What we believe is that Jesus was—and is—God.

As the story continues, it gets even more disturbing. Beyond the Prologue, all of John’s Gospel could be seen as a commentary or an argument about how Jesus, a particular person could make God present for us and, more, actually could have gone on to be killed. God, even though he’s human and not unbroken and, yes, even though he was executed on a cross. It’s just plain outrageously foolish.

But then we amp up our foolishness to the nth degree. Our peculiar readings for today expand our perspective, identifying in Jesus God’s eternal wisdom that provided the shape and pattern for the existence of our universe since before anything came to be.  Since we’re looking back, we’ll look waaay back. The readings step back from the Bethlehem stable to say that the one who was born there was with God, was God, since the beginning, speaking all things into existence. “No one has ever seen God,” it said. Only Jesus has made God known. That’s a no-nonsense statement with oomph.

So, aside from the fact that this has been scriptural understanding and that Christians have held this belief ever since there were Christians, still Jesus as God has gotta give us some pause and make us uncomfortable. It is so direct, so particular.

It has been making me think of a phrase I hear too often from friends and others generally. In talk about raising children regarding faith, they say they’re “going to let them decide for themselves and choose what they want to believe.” It’s a strange thing to say. I mean, for simple starters, we don’t let kids decide whether or not they want to use silverware or have table manners. Going to school isn’t optional. We pretty well expect they’ll subscribe to our society’s ethics and norms. We even struggle with disappointment when they challenge our allegiances, to an alma mater or to a sports team. But God is up for grabs on doing whatever they might want?!

It seems so backward. Isn’t the whole point of God, being something that’s bigger than you? That you are among creation, and so don’t get to pick (or be) the Creator? Wouldn’t it be the height of presumptuousness to imagine you could set aside God for another deity, or that you could take-or-leave the whole spiel altogether? Isn’t this exactly what the 1st Commandment is about, and why it’s the 1st Commandment? That is to say, it’s a question of priorities—literally meaning what we put first.

Furthermore, it’s evident that we’re bad at making these so-called choices. The Prologue says Jesus came to his own, and his own people did not receive him. It’s saying that they already had some knowledge of this God, but still couldn’t see it, wouldn’t accept him. Or, as it says a bit more gloomily after John 3:16, “the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light.”

Yet it’s not just our postmodern families, with lives overflowing with flashy options (even if they’re not truly optional and not all that good or bright). It’s not just those who want to sleep in on Sundays. Getting back to the main issue at hand, still even those of us who have spent our lives in church probably have difficulty with identifying God with Jesus alone.

I suspect for our children we need to re-focus this devotion, and we ourselves need to be more devoted. We would benefit from reclaiming this wisdom, remembering the true shape of our lives and what brings us light. We are people with myriad commitments and obligations and diffuse interests, scattering us in so many directions, and probably leaving us un-grounded and less enlightened, if not entirely self-devoted idolaters. I can say for myself, right along with the rest of you, that I certainly fall short in having this be the center of my life, with all the rest of who I am to be oriented around Jesus, structured out from that center, to know that life is marked from a manger to the cross and out beyond an empty tomb.

And there’s the core of why it matters. We look back to Jesus to know what God still plans and intends for us, what the shape of our lives and the goal of our universe is supposed to be. So it isn’t that we have a God who so sternly demands obedient allegiance, with threats of “or else.” It’s that there’s so much promise for us and for all creation around us in this God who has come to dwell with us. It’s worth being able to trust our lives, our hopes, our existence to Jesus. That’s what makes it the priority. This is what God wants for us, to offer assurances and to guide and fulfill our lives.

For starters with that, we’re not left aimlessly wondering whether the universe is against us, or if we just need to try a bit harder to have karma go our way, or if there’s any point to it at all or if our lives are simply irrelevant. We, instead, are given confidence in love and charity and community. In Jesus, we know compassion. We know that our lives matter, that we’re not just waiting for our souls to fly away, but that this flesh, this created stuff, this world is vital to God. God is utterly invested here. With Jesus as God revealed for us, from a lowly birth in Bethlehem to being with the poor and the ill, on to the end you may know that God’s good for you cannot be stopped even by death.

One last word of promise for today, a nice, tender image. I really cherish and cling to these during this Christmas season, because I find the image of Mary cradling and nursing the baby God so stunning and beautiful. This is a parallel to that. Our final verse from John had the stuff about no one ever seeing God, but God being made known only by Jesus. Along with that was the phrase that the Son “is close to the Father’s heart.”

That’s helpful already. That heart-felt image of knowing God by heart tells us of proximity, of shared emotions, of love, of Jesus revealing for us what is centrally important to know about God.

But rather than just heart, a more direct translation of that phrase would be that Jesus is held “in the bosom” of the Father. Just as Mary nursed Jesus, the baby God, so God’s own bosom nurses with tender care. And Jesus isn’t the only one held close in God’s bosom. Jesus brings you into this family, making us all children of God, nursed and sustained and held dearly, close to God’s heart and in God’s bosom forever. That’s good stuff, worth knowing, worth remembering, re-orienting your whole life. So, Merry Christmas!

Hymn: Of the Father’s Love Begotten (ELW #295)

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Sermon for Christmas Eve, Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-20

You know what would be great, if on Christmas we had one of the best reasons ever in the history of the world to celebrate and instead turned it into another lame lecture on morality.

I apologize for starting with rotten sarcasm on this cherished evening. But the appointed Titus reading messes up Christmas, with its aloof austerity and expectations that because of Jesus we have to act proper. I can’t help but point out how in faith sometimes we got it, and sometimes we royally blew it.

Let’s get you up to speed with about three sentences of backstory Bible study. Jesus was born, right? Over the years, he did and said some stuff until he was crucified—killed on a cross—and on the third day rose from the dead. With me?

From that first Easter Sunday (if not before), his followers have been left trying to figure it out, to make sense of him. They called him Savior. They said it was good news, that he showed us God in a way nothing else had, which made a huge difference for our lives and maybe all creation, the whole cosmos. The earliest Christians saw it as an abundance of grace, as forgiveness that left out or forgot or excluded nobody. They practiced radical hospitality and sharing and compassion and peace, because that’s what they understood Jesus to be about, what God wanted for all of us. The earliest practicers of the good news saw everyone as favored by God and had understandings on taking care of each other and including females and class-relations and economics that were ahead of their time.

Way ahead. See, Titus and his next generation came along, seemingly intent on flubbing it up. They decided to ditch the amazing equality and abundant love and the entirety of life absolutely drenched in God’s grace. Forsaking that, they wanted instead to cling to power and re-entrench patriarchy and male dominance and privileges of status. And since, it’s taken us 18 or 1900 years to get back to standing against oppression and allowing women to have a voice and saying you don’t have to be special to be welcome here. Some of those persistent problems we still struggle against, with the church too often toiling the opposite direction, naming sinners to be cast out while claiming divine sanction for ourselves.

And so Titus—that forgettable dog of a reading dragged out all over the world for tonight—botches the birth of Jesus, turning gift into demand. But there it is anyway, showing that sometimes we get it and sometimes we get it backward. Here’s a repeat for you (as if you asked for the reminder): it blathers on about “training us to renounce impiety and worldly passions, to live lives that are self-controlled, upright and godly.” Lest there’s lingering doubt about what malarkey this is, earlier in the chapter tells women to be submissive to their husbands and take care of children and the household. It says slaves shouldn’t talk back to masters. It was written directly to undermine the grace-filled lives of earlier Christians.

More to the point, I’m just sure you arrived here on Christmas Eve yearning, practically begging, to hear a lesson on what Titus calls “temperance, seriousness, and prudence.” Any “amens” to that? You know already that’s not what Christmas is about. It’s not why Jesus was born. It’s not how we celebrate. Prudish self-control and lack of passion is not the heart of what God is up to. It gets God backward, cramming God into a message of self-serving morality. Worst, it replaces joyful abundance with a lame, droning threat.

A related example of such ditching the good news for a threat is familiar in what we’ve been doing for two months with Santa Claus. He should be the mark of generosity and free gifts this season, but instead we turn him into a surveillance camera of “Santa’s watching and knows if you’re naughty.” It reverses the main point. So, of the discipline-surveillance Santa, Titus is a theological version, which makes it an even more rotten corruption.

To explain, I’d like to switch from sarcasm to sacrament. Sacrament is a word that means something like “sacred thing” or “holy stuff.” Sacraments are physical signs of God. We look around us and try to figure out where God is in the midst of our existence. We tend to figure certain people or situations are more blessed, to locate God’s presence as more involved in one place than another.

Titus claims this locale is in acting proper, that good behavior gets you closer to God and so work ethic dictates whether God is with you. Our society goes on to add the association with power and prestige, further guessing that wealth is a sign of blessing, making money our sacrament, our sign of God. Likewise, the old saying “cleanliness is next to godliness” imagines that dust and debris and grime block God, that clearing away bad things gets you next to God. So our tendency is almost toward anti-sacrament, not about stuff where God is, but what we get rid of or escape in order to find God, separating God from the mess of regular life.

But now visualize Christmas…the birth of Jesus…this baby lying in a manger. We may choose antibiotic sterility, but God was born pro-biota, amid the bacteria, the germs, and—we should be honest—the animal poop! Picture how much spit and saliva livestock drool out of their snouts. Then notice how those suspect, podunk first-timer parents put baby Jesus right in the manger feed-trough where the cud-chewers had been licking! They also came with poor planning, without reservations booked at the inn, had no huffy claims to privilege, were left out in the cold.

That’s where we look to find God! Christmas upends our typical sacramental biases of where we wanted to implicate God. If God isn’t primarily in our morality. If God isn’t invested in the “bigger is better” development program. If God isn’t running an exclusive operation. If God isn’t flashy or austere or high and mighty in any regard. With this ultimate revelation of God for us, our sacrament, our sign of God turns up far from power or glory or success or perfection or acting so self-righteously upright or being neat and tidy. Our sacrament at Christmas is the opposite of the magnificent, immaculate, proper, or in any way “just right” but is rather stinky and crowded and a bit crude.

Yet this also says that God’s presence is in some truly miraculous places. If we are able to see God asleep in the feed-trough, waking only to bawl his head off, with grungy shepherds not lingering out in the labor and delivery waiting room but busting right in—since God is there, God is also able to be many other unexpected places. Most importantly, God is abiding with you, not waiting for you to get your screwed-up act together. God is with you when life seems like a big ol’ mess and way too cluttered and not going well at all. God is most definitely there when things are not “just right.”

In fact, that’s exactly why Jesus arrived, not to be a heavenly boss or to reinforce our dominating stereotypes but to be with you in compassion, in blessing through the worst moments, otherwise you wouldn’t really need a Savior. He was born poor and outcast. He spent time with the sick and the losers around him, not to mope or reprimand but to host a party. In the end he went to the cross and into his tomb so you may know God doesn’t evaporate into thin air but abides with you through it all. That’s what we begin to see tonight, not a conquering overlord sealed off behind a hypoallergenic barrier, but one who is passionate about giving himself away, intimately involved in the care of sustaining life, from a vulnerable baby to the stretch of solar systems, and you in the complex, messy midst of it.

One more word on sacraments of this God, words from Jesus himself. This has been about seeing God in sorrow or suffering or sloppiness. But in our usual sense of sacraments, we typically point to two events that Jesus shares with us, where he promises to be found. We started the service turned toward the baptismal font, and near the end, we’ll gather around this table. In water, and in bread and wine, whether completely drenched in grace or snuck in under the smallest morsel, these common, crude elements of our world become holy stuff because with them Jesus has promised forgiveness for what you’ve done wrong, to connect you again to God, to remain with you in love.

So you may expect, then, the presence of Jesus with you, not just on the most holy and peaceful night of the year, but through the grind of every day. Not just when you get exactly what you want, but in disappointments. Not just when all is calm and bright, but through the disturbing darkness. Not just when things are going well and you’re doing exactly what you should be, but when it’s all screwed up and you’re in pain or you are a pain.

Nevertheless, in Jesus, God is here, always for you. That’s why we celebrate and can say Merry Christmas.

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