A Sermon about Sermons and the Word

2nd Sunday of Christmas — John 1:1-18
Six years ago, I was preaching on this Sunday, on these Bible readings, and started off with a Bob Dylan song. I only remember it because that was my last sermon before you sent me out on 10 weeks of sabbatical.

Recalling that, and being one week away from my last sermon before you send me out, I’ve been thinking of some of the sweep of my sermons and our lives together. As I’ve been here, serving as your pastor for 11 years and a bit, there are some things that you might’ve gotten used to hearing me talk about. Caring for God’s creation amid climate change, for example: pretty big themes. Love, likewise, widespread and fairly constant.

A more specific type of detail, you may recall I get a kick out of sharing the Greek word skubala, a word for waste, destined for the landfill or the sewer. It comes from Philippians by Paul, which you may also have realized I cherish and find important for our shared faith, because he emphasizes Christ’s devotion to you and how everything else by comparison is rightly called “crap” (also highlighting that I don’t shy away from us addressing coarse or difficult things).

Noticing that, you almost certainly also know that I talk lots…an awful lot…almost continually about Jesus. Maybe you’ll be fortunate enough to have a next pastor who doesn’t need to blather on so constantly with “Jesus this, Jesus that, Jesus is for you, Jesus loves you” all the time. I guess you could be praying about that.

But in the meantime, for eight days more, you’re still stuck with me and my Jesus talk, today with this start of the Gospel of John. This is also among my favorite Bible passages; it says so much, and says it so well. That has to make us think about how we try to share our faith, how I preach to you, or how we put words to what we believe. This reading talks about testifying, to be witnesses, categories for which it sets a pretty darn high standard.

Think about it this way: if I’ve been testifying to you and trying to bear witness and tell you about Jesus for the last 136 months, it could seem fairly disappointing that I haven’t managed to accomplish very much that’s explicitly memorable, unless by explicit you mean teaching a Greek cuss word. Of sermons I recall, I mentioned that Bob Dylan one. In another, I talked about making pumpkin pie. There are highlights in pieces of Bible studies and trying to peel back confusing layers and dig in to texts. But mostly from this pulpit, nothing resilient or glamorous. So little so, in fact, that perhaps you’ve even been asked on a Monday, if not at brunch after worship, “so, what did Nick have to say in his sermon?” And you’d have to reply with a shrug, “I dunno.” Quite frankly, there are plenty of weeks that would be my own reply.

If we’re trying to explain this in the kindest way possible, you may compare it to the meals you eat, that you can’t necessarily recall what you’ve had for each meal this past week much less over the years, but that those have nonetheless sustained you, the food has inexplicably given you what you needed to survive. Maybe sermons are like that, vital but entirely transitory and fleeting, working through that inexplicable Holy Spirit.

I mentioned recently that I’ve never re-preached a sermon. Partly that may be because they’re not all that great to begin with. But it’s also that the words don’t apply the same way in new times, when our lives are in different places, when the world is not the same.

Along those lines, with one more pre-Jesus detour along the way, let’s stop past old Christmas cards. Acacia and I were cleaning some stacks on shelves in the basement this week, which included sorting old Christmas cards. Those are nice words to pull out, to find former greetings and old tidings of cheer from another time and place. Among them were family and friends in photos, including watching new family members be added and then those babies changing year by year. Wide-eyed infants became cute toddlers who then took on poses and personalities. The transformations come so fast. My youngest nephew is 10 weeks old today, and every time I’ve seen him he has looked immensely different.

I’m eager to be done talking about me and turn our attention instead to—you guessed it—Jesus. So if we’re marking time since Jesus’ birth, this is day 10. Even at a week and a half old, that baby Jesus would’ve been different than when he was born. We’re past the point where he was named and circumcised at 8 days old. His family was already experiencing changes. The shepherds and angel choirs were gone and they were going on with life. Some of the news of this baby, some understanding of him was maybe beginning to sink in.

And, even though we celebrate his birthday with a very specific remembrance each year, though we look back on it and re-live it, after that nativity, Jesus was never a newborn again. (Unless you try to work it on a technicality with Bible verses about him being the firstborn from the dead, or by claiming that he’s present in and with each and every newborn. But still, you know what I mean.) Jesus continued to grow and change. Last week, almost as an out-of-place disjunction, we heard of him as a tween, almost a teenager, complete with testing boundaries and the attitudes still expected from adolescents.

Since he’s growing and changing and aging, that also would have to mean one way or another that Jesus was going to die. It ended up being on a cross on account of you, but even if we imagined him dying of old age, that still is a remarkable thing when we have identified Jesus with and as God. It completely fouls up any traditional concept of God, of divinity, of a supreme supernatural Being. As eternal, God wouldn’t be constrained by time. Being infinite is a term trying to define that God shouldn’t be bound by or even located in space. If almighty or supernatural—literally as above nature—God shouldn’t be governed by laws of physics or biology. We like those images, like to imagine God as bigger than any of those laws or boundaries, transcending everything that continues to confine us.

But if Jesus is God, we can’t say that. He is in time. He is in a particular place. He either couldn’t or didn’t fly away, disobeying gravity, or stop death from draining away life. Jesus undoes so much of that classic notion of God and gives us something new, totally different. This is a God who changes.

Again, it’s so nicely and enduringly said by this passage from the Gospel of John: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God” and this Word speaks all things into being, history we can accept and believe. Yet what happens next is that this Word of God is so invested in creation that when it has gone astray, when it stops listening to the Word, God continues striving to call it back, to speak again of love, to offer new beginnings. The Word that dictated, that set a plan and order for the universe also responds when things don’t follow that, don’t go according to plan. The Word is responsive. Those verses are about living, and struggling. And becoming, one of the richest ideas of our faith for our world, that what we might be or will be, we aren’t yet.

This, of course, isn’t just an innovative idea from the Gospel of John. All through our Old Testaments is a God who continues responding to our errors, our shortfalls, our forgetfulness, our rebellion. This is a God who continues to try new things, new approaches. This God is described on occasion with the surprising possibility of “changing his mind.” For our old, standard notions of God, that’d be impossible. God would have already known the future, and planned the future, and ruled out any other realities. But the God of the Bible is open and responsive, and so God can change God’s mind and meet you in a new way.

So our message as Christians and the good news we have to share is not static. This news is always new. While our faith may have some strong messages or timeless truths, they don’t stand once and for all but remain always changing as they engage again with fresh relevance for each moment in your life. The angel’s song at Christmas that “unto you a child is born, a savior” is a message we keep repeating, but what he has come to save you from or save you for is as new as each original sin and every individual moment of suffering. The ethic of our faith, to love our neighbors as ourselves, is reiterated and even identified as the “golden rule.” But what exactly it means to love your neighbor can’t be codified in some ancient rulebook. It’s new with every fresh work week, has its own meaning as school resumes tomorrow, and requires constant figuring in our families. More, it is different in our world of discerning what it means to love terrorists or prisoners or new basketball coaches or oil executives, just as it was a different set of boundaries and barriers and difficulties with your last set of neighbors, and for the previous generation, and back when God was walking around in the flesh.

Tim used to envision for us this as a Monty Hall kind of God, who let you pick what’s behind door number three and let you make a deal. This morning, we can simply identify this God as one who lets you make decisions and poor choices and yet won’t give up on you no matter how much of a bonehead you are. God is with you anew in a new year, is with me as I embark on a new thing (whether or not that was a good decision), is most certainly with you even when I won’t be.

I’m grateful at least for this moment that this isn’t my final sermon for you, because I don’t have any mighty or enduring or timeless “last words of wisdom.” All I have is the foolish word that God’s Word, the eternal Logos, the Sophia from on high, has come into our world, has become flesh to dwell with you, has come to reconcile you and redeem you and forgive you and love you. I don’t fully have any idea what that means for tomorrow, or even for the rest of today, or really even know what it means for you right this instant. But that’s the Word we have to proclaim and share, the Word who abides with you and lives in you.

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

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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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