Isaiah 61:1062:3; John 1:118
Good morning! Hallelujah and Merry Christmas!
Now you might think that it’s a little late for such a greeting—even though the holly and the ivy and the pine boughs still surround us in most of our homes and our sanctuaries. And today we are still singing the carols of angels and shepherds and kings about the birth of our Lord—as indeed we should!
Dear Friends, by blessed tradition this is only the fourth day of Christmas—with eight more days to go—and your teacher this morning is actually going to propose that we never, never, never put Christmas behind us—not today or next week or in any month or season of the year.
Rather, the word today is an invitation to keep Christmas all year. No, not the colored lights and the glittering tinsel—but the love and joy of the Christmas heart. And the radiant faith that, because of Christmas, our lives, our world, and our whole future are all transformed.
Can you believe that? I very much hope and pray that you can!
In the year 1865, Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Philadelphia sent its rector abroad for a year of study and travel. So Phillips Brooks spent the summer and autumn months in the old countries of Europe. December brought him to the Holy Land, where he visited all the scenes so familiar to him from the narratives of the Bible. He spent two weeks in Jerusalem. Finally, his journeys brought him on Christmas Eve to that little town just five miles south of Jerusalem and across the Judean hills.
Phillips Brooks stood that night in the old, old church in Bethlehem where, in his own words, “close to the spot where Jesus was born, the whole church was ringing hour after hour with hymns of praise to God.” Again it was Christmas Eve!
It was an unforgettable night for Phillips Brooks. Three years later, remembering that night, and also that holy night long centuries before, he wrote the words, and his organist wrote the music, for their lovely, perfect carol:
“O little town of Bethlehem… . The hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight.”
So Christmas, Brooks suggested, is the meeting time of our hopes and our fears. That suggestion seems all too appropriate this Christmastide. We have been singing our carols into the brutal face of a world of terror and unending violence, and we struggle to believe in the very possibility of a world of peace and goodwill.
You and I know that there are really two basic stories about Christmas: an intimate story and an ultimate story. There is a very human drama within a cosmic drama. You might recall Shakespeare’s theatrical device of a play within a play, as it is done in Hamlet.
The intimate drama of Christmas is a family affair: a father and a very young mother, weary travelers in a temporary and humble place, with their just-born baby—it’s not exactly a private situation, for they are surrounded by shepherds and sheep and kings and camels, all of whom (including the four-legged creatures) have some intimations that this baby is really special. Some of those people, at least, have received messages from the heavens above them—from the dazzling pattern of the stars (but probably the conjunction of three bright planets, which modern astronomers have calculated really happened just at that time!), or a message from the joyous chorus of angels—promising a new kind of monarchy and majesty over the whole world and a whole new age of peace and goodwill.
It is an awesome, wondrous, beautiful story!
But there is another story of Christmas—an ultimate story, an even grander drama: the story of what God—the Great Almighty God, our Creator—was doing in and through the birth and life of that baby Jesus, who was on his way to becoming Christ our Lord. And that is the story we must keep telling all year long—after we have taken down our trees and put away our crechès, and Santa Claus and his reindeer have gone back to wherever, up there in the polar regions.
However, that ultimate story had a prologue, perhaps 500 years before, in the prophecies of Isaiah—especially in that 61st chapter of the Book of Isaiah. First, there is the Gospel-in-anticipation in that chapter’s opening verses, where Isaiah says:
“The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the poor and the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners.”
But remember, Friends: these are the very words that, 500 years later, a youthful and not-yet-famous Jesus of Nazareth read from a scroll when he stood up in his hometown synagogue and recited:
“The spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good news to the poor and the brokenhearted and the captives and the prisoners.”
That Jesus should identify himself with that old passage from Isaiah absolutely amazed his hearers that day—some of whom asked, “Isn’t that young man the carpenter’s son?”
And then that same 61st chapter of Isaiah (as we have heard in this morning’s lections) ends with the dream of a great day of rejoicing that is coming: the day when the good news is activated, realized, incarnated—a day of celebration, when Zion shall become “a crown of beauty” among all the nations of the world because of its justice and righteousness—so the world will know at last that a new kind of royalty and majesty has come in glory—and as a blessing to all peoples. That sounds like a dream about Christmas and a Prince of Peace anticipated maybe 500 years before Jesus’ birth!
But then Saint John’s Gospel takes Christmas back even further—indeed, as far back as we can ever, ever go—all the way back to the very foundations of the Earth and all of Creation, even before Earth itself. For…
“In the beginning was the Word [wrote John],
and that Word was with God, and the Word was God,
… That word was life and the life was
the light of all people.
That light shines in the darkness, and the darkness
has not overcome it.”
So, Friends, the Christmas lights were really lit the first time in God’s Creation of the world!
But John’s Gospel also tells the Christmas story again—perhaps almost a century after Jesus had come and gone. What had God really been doing in Jesus Christ? God was revealing the Word in fleshly, human—gloriously human—form, full of grace and truth. The Incarnation! Yes, said John, it’s true: no one has ever literally seen the face of God. But in Jesus Christ, who is so close to God’s heart as God’s beloved Son, we—even we—can come to know the very heart of God! And what is that heart? It is love and peace forever—even to eternal life.
So the ultimate Christmas story is told in both anticipation and affirmation: in the prophets’ ancient anticipation of Christ’s coming—and then in the ecstatic affirmation that he actually came! He came! He actually “lived among us full of grace and truth… . He was really here! We saw him! We heard him!” That is the Gospel writers’ vivid testimony.
These two stories of Christmas—intimate and ultimate—are really one story, after all. There is no contradiction between the Nativity at Bethlehem, with its angels and shepherds and wise men, and the Word and the Heart of God from the very creation of the world.
It is One Gospel of love and peace and eternal life. It is God’s own will for the way we are to live our lives. Now what might that mean for how we are to live during the year 2004—and ever after?
Well we might just dare to be more loving—not only more loving of the persons closest and dearest to us, within the intimate circles of family and friendship and our closest colleagues, although most of us have some homework to do within those circles. But more loving of those we don’t even particularly like—or those with whom we may be in conflict, socially, politically, racially, even religiously. Or those who are so far, far away from us geographically that their urgent human needs may seem too remote for our caring or acting—but whose lives of oppression or unending vulnerability to terror or broken hearts cry out for the Good News, which first Isaiah and then Jesus Christ knew to be the very heart and spirit of the Living God. In Christ nobody, nobody, nobody can be excluded from our love.
We might dare to join those who are doing vital things for peacemaking—whether seeking to rid the world of nuclear weapons or revitalizing this nation’s faltering support for the United Nations and for economic development for the world’s poorest countries—and/or campaigning for political candidates who, in the electioneering weeks just ahead, really care about such issues.
And we Christians might dare to reclaim our own Christian faith’s Abrahamic kinship with the world’s Muslims—and do so by a more prayerful and penitent study of Islam and a deeper understanding of the troubles and sufferings of Muslim peoples, not only “over there” somewhere, but even and especially the five million Muslims now here within our own country.
Just a few weeks ago, in a little town between Bethlehem and Jerusalem called Beit Jala, a new center was dedicated to bring Christians, Muslims, and Jews together in a local setting that has been plagued by years of violence. The name of that new place is Abraham’s House. Whatever dialogues and other programs may occur at that site, this wonderful new symbol of solidarity among the three Abrahamic faiths should inspire all of us, in all of our own communities, to heal a lot of history and move forward together—and to love the hospitality of that very name: Abraham’s House.
And remembering all the while that Jesus himself was always and only a Jew—always and forever a Jew who never joined a Christian church—yet, as the Letter to the Hebrews put it, he was “the pioneer and perfecter of our [own Christian] faith.” Yes, that Jew! Jesus!
In short, the unending, perpetual, beyond-all-the-holidays message of Christmas is that we Christians are so to live and love and serve and act that we—like our Lord Jesus—we are to be good news to all people.
Yes, Christmas is not really over and done. It never is. Christmas is God’s promise that a great new day is coming—for all of us, but especially for those whose lives have been abused by poverty and tyranny and hate and violence. And for all of you, and all of us, who live with pain and disappointment and sorrow.
Such Good News is sung and celebrated especially in the last two verses of another Christmas carol most of us have sung in recent days and nights. That carol is “It Came Upon the Midnight Clear.” So listen to the words—and hum along too if you wish!
“And ye, beneath life’s crushing load whose forms are bending low,
Who toil along the climbing way, with painful steps and slow,
Look now! For glad and golden hours come swiftly on the wing!
O rest beside the weary road, and hear the angels sing.”
And then Verse 4:
“For lo, the days are hastening on, by prophet bards foretold [like Isaiah!],
When with the ever-circling years comes round the age of gold,
When peace shall over all the Earth its ancient splendors fling,
And the whole world send back the song which now the angels sing.”
So, now once more, Good Friends: Merry Christmas! Hallelujah and a Happy New Year! Amen.