Monday, December 31, 2012

Specific focus in the big picture . . .

     We have spent a great deal of the last three weeks reminding ourselves that Jesus came among us and dwelt with us.  Given all the tragedies, both at the national and local level, such has certainly been appropriate.  It is very comforting to know that our Lord knows our sufferings, our fears, our hurts, and our frailties.  Some of us have spent time on conversations reminding ourselves that God cares for each one of us, where we are in our our faith walk with Him.  He proved that love of each one of us at great cost to Himself, not just during the Incarnation but during His life that led to Calvary.  But that comfort would be empty were His only characteristic empathy.  We all know empathetic people in our life.  They are the people who cluck at all our sufferings or faults and cheer us on as we strive in life.  But their empathy only sustains us for so long.  Eventually, we want more than a cheerleader, we want more than for someone to feel sorry for us when we are beset by sorrows.  Enter John and his discussion of Jesus of Nazareth.

     The passage that we read today we also read at the Christmas Eve service as we light the candles in the darkness.  Those who pay close attention to the Christmas narrative may notice that there is a big difference between John’s account and the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  All that we know about events surrounding the birth of Jesus, we know from Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  It is in their accounts that we learn of Jesus’ genealogy, of the conception by the Holy Spirit on the young Mary, of the struggle that Joseph faced, of the inn being full, the babe being wrapped in swaths of cloths and laid in a manger, of angels proclaiming to shepherds the significance of the birth of the baby, of the magi and a host of the other details that we all know and love.  How does John announce the birth of Jesus?  The passage is famous for its beauty and the truth it conveys, but there is no Bethlehem manger scene, no chorus of angels, no cattle lowing.  In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

     If you are new to the Church and new to the parish, these words might seem a strange way to announce the birth of the King of kings and Lord of lords.  Where’s Mary and Joseph?  Where’s the hymns?  How did the birth take place?  Those details are skipped in lieu of a different focus by John.  While part of Matthew, Mark, and Luke’s purpose has been to teach us that God has come to dwell among us, that the Incarnation means that Jesus is fully human and, therefore, understands us completely.  John, though, has another focus.  John wants us to focus on the fact that the birth which we celebrated this past Tuesday is THE signature event of God’s plan of salvation and of cosmic history.  To be sure, it is an amazing plan.  Considering the obstacles that we have tried to place in front of God, considering the scope of history -- the rise and fall of empires, and considering our very nature and our unworth, the birth of Jesus is nothing less that the second greatest miracle in history!  I use that term second best only relatively or as a picker of nits.  Without Easter, Christmas is meaningless.  Of course, the opposite is true as well.  Easter without Christmas is worthless.  We, you and I, need both.  But that is a sermon for another time . . . .

     John’s focus, though, is a reminder that the course of history has pointed toward this birth.  In what amounts to a Scriptural reset, John takes us back beyond Jesus’ birth to that “time” that preceded creation.  In the beginning was the Word . . . You cannot, you should not read John’s introduction without being reminded of the breath of God brooding over the waters of Genesis.  In the beginning God created . . . The Word, Jesus, was with God for all eternity.  Furthermore, God created all things through Him.  Want to know your image, how you were created in the image of God?  You were gloriously created in His image.  How do we know?  And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us . . . He became one of us.  Though He was wrapped in deity, He chose to become fully human and was born of a woman into this time and this space and this earth.  He took on finite nature, human nature.  We could spend weeks discussing the amazing truth that He who was eternal and infinite (as expressed by the word our translators chose as “was”) limited (as expressed by the word “became”) Himself by enfleshing Himself in our finite selves, not as a warrior king, but as a baby born to a carpenter, a baby who would grow up to teach us of our Father in heaven and die for our sins.

     It is truly the most amazing story, if it ended there.  But have you considered that all of this that we read today is just the prologue or introduction of John’s Gospel?  Have you considered as wonderful and as well known as this passage is, it is only fourteen verses of John’s Gospel?  This Scriptural reset, as I call it, this reminder that what we celebrate this week has been part of God’s plan since before He created the world and enfleshed humanity.  But all of this, all of it, has been for a specific purpose.  The creation, the enfleshing of the Son, the testimony--all of it has been for the specific purpose of bestowing upon you, and upon me, and upon all who would hear the story that God wants us to be with Him for all eternity.  And though we have all created situations which make such a communion impossible, God has acted through His Incarnation and Easter miracles to make it possible.

     John expresses the purpose of salvation history in these terms: But to all who received Him, who believed in His name, He gave power to become children of God, who were born . . . of God.  Paul, in his letter today, puts the purpose in easier words, though the meaning is the same: so that we might receive adoption as children. . . . So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.  I want you to take a moment and inwardly digest this.  Maybe you are focusing on it for the very first time.  Perhaps you have never hear this passage before.  All of salvation history has pointed to the babe whose birth we celebrate this week, and His life, and His death, and His resurrection for the purpose of redeeming you, of redeeming me, and of redeeming all those whom we encounter in the world!  Put another way, before He set about creating the heavens and the earth, our Lord determined how He would reach into the lives of each of us and redeem us.

     Brothers and sisters, a number of you and those who come here for AA and others who just “drop in” because they can talk to me have lamented that this was a difficult Advent.  For many of you, it seems to have been the hardest Advent ever.  Random shootings, senseless tragedies, lingering diseases, untimely deaths, the fear of the drought, the looming fiscal cliff, the volume of sex slaves in our community, Syria and its biological weapons, North Korea and its nuclear weapons, the fiscal cliff--the list this year goes on and on and on.  How can I get in the Christmas spirit with all this going on?  Brothers and sisters, it is those events and those unnamed which should cause you to fall on your knees at that manger and worship the enfleshed God-babe!  Left to our own devices, there is little that we could do about any one of them.  Ah, but left to Him . . . 

     Brothers and sisters, those of us who have accepted His open-armed invitation from the cross cannot but help be moved by the Christmas scene.  The gift that God offers is simply beyond words.  But the attention that we pay to that gift is often incomplete.  We focus on the crowded inn, the young couple, the choral angels, and any number of other details.  Often what is lost, however, is the attention that is paid to each one of us.  Thankfully, John is there to remind us of the care and concern and love that God had for each one of us.  Before He created out of nothing, He determined to enter this world to save us and allow us to become His children.  Before the world and time began, He determined to enter this world and make it possible for us men  and us women to be adopted into His holy family.  Now, I want you to think about the implication for the hereafter for just a moment.  Think of everything He did to celebrate the birth of His only begotten Son.  The star had to be set in the sky, a common language needed to be spoken on earth, prophecies had to be recorded, the wise men needed to be educated, shepherds needed to be on stand-by, maybe the angelic choir needed to go through warm-ups like our earthly one here.  Everything in the fullness of time needed to be arranged so that He could enter this world He had created.  Ponder for just a second, what the homecoming will be like.  If He did all this for His only begotten Son, what kind of celebration do you think He will throw when the whole mess of kids are brought home by their Lord and Savior?  What do you think the feast will be like when His Son is finally enthroned in glory for all eternity, and you and I are made kings and queens in His eternal kingdom?  That celebration, brothers and sisters, is the celebration to which John’s prologue ultimately points!  That celebration, brothers and sisters, is the one to which we have all been given an invitation and the opportunity to invite others in His holy name!

     As I began this discussion I remarked how comforting the Christmas scene is.  God became one of us, lived among us, and gives us confidence that He knows us intimately, that He empathizes with us.  I mentioned that empathy is nice, but after a while, it seems worthless.  All the mourning and all the cheerleading, after a while, seems empty.  Part of our reminder this day from John is that our Lord who empathizes with us and knows us intimately has the power to effect whatever He wills.  John’s reset takes us back to the beginning, back to when time has no meaning.  John places God’s activity in cosmic terms and reminds us that His efforts, His exercise of His power and authority has been to bring about His will: namely, the redemption of you and me and all humanity.  The babe whose birth we celebrate this week was not Plan G or Plan J or Plan Z; He was and is the Alpha and Omega.  The entire decision of His enfleshing was determined long before you and I came into being, and the purpose of that enfleshing was to make our full communion with God once again possible, even though we had not yet lived nor sinned.  Nothing in the course of history, no rise and fall of empires, no random natural disasters, no plagues, no thing in history, not even death itself was able to thwart Him as He worked to redeem you and to redeem me.  You see, the Lord whom we serve has power.  As we shall see as we remind ourselves of this amazing story over the next four months, He has power to take up His life, to lay it down, and to take it up again.  Only He can accomplish all that He purposes.  The Lord whom we serve certainly understands us and empathizes with us, but our Lord exists beyond time and space and is able to work His plan for us no matter the obstacle.  John’s reset, his prologue, reminds us that the One who loves us dearly can accomplish in our lives whatever He wills.  That One, brothers and sisters, is the One deserving of our worship.  That One, brothers and sisters, is the One deserving of our praise.  That One, brothers and sisters, is the God Man to whom we should all be introducing others, that His return and celebration will be all the more spectacular, all the more wondrous, all the more amazing, just like His grace which caused Him to come down as a babe and live among us.


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