Here it is folks. Probably the longest post I've ever done too. NB: This was absolutely written to be delivered, not read. So please ignore the incomplete sentences- they worked in real life :)
Celebrating Christmas: A Sermon on John 1:1-18
St. Clare’s Church, Ann Arbor – December 28, 2003
In seminary, we spend a fair amount of time thinking and talking about our strengths and, shall we say, growing edges. One thing that I have rediscovered about myself is that I love planning for things. I love the part where we get ideas for a class presentation, a worship service or even a party. I like doing the preparations, getting everyone organized so that when the big day comes, we will all be ready to go. Maybe this is why Advent has always been my favorite liturgical season. Advent is all about getting ready – preparing a way for the Lord. Around here, we do this especially well with intergenerational activities, and a focus on creating contemplative time and space for each of us to get our hearts ready. Anticipation like we have in Advent is exciting. Anticipation… I love it. I like planning and getting ready. But there is always this follow-up part. After the party, we need to clean up – and worst of all, do dishes! After the excitement of brainstorming and getting a really good idea, there is always grunt work to be done to carry it out. After the excitement of a new pregnancy and a new baby, there is this small helpless person who only sleeps when you hope she will stay awake, and cries when you want to sleep, . After the excitement of moving to seminary, there is reality to be dealt with – classes, papers, tuition, and the fact that seminary is not full of perfectly kind, holy people. Excitement and anticipation often get deflated when they run over that pesky thing called reality. Christmas morning was great, except for the kids fighting over the new Playstation game. Christmas dinner would have been fun, if your crazy family didn’t all have to be in the same room. God coming to be with us on Earth, in the flesh would be fantastic – but what kind of God becomes incarnate as a baby in a manger? What kind of King lives a life as an itinerant with no place to lay His head? What kind of Messiah comes not to overthrow but to be crucified? The kind of God, King and Messiah that comes to shine light in our darkness.
This kind of let-down – this baby in the manger is easier to swallow on Christmas Eve, when we greet the coming of our Lord with a cast of thousands. As a raging extrovert, I tend to prefer the hustle and bustle of the Christmas pageant and the Christmas stories in Luke and Matthew. There is so much to see and hear - there are so many characters to identify with! We want to have dreams and visions like Joseph and Zechariah, we know what its like to be “just doing our job” and have God break in on us – and to be terrified and joyful, like the shepherds. We know what it is to wait for a child that is both longed for and unexpected, like Mary and Elizabeth. With all that going on, it is easy to lose sight of one small character – the helpless baby Jesus, lying in the manager. The mysterious folk known as the Lectionary Committee did a smart thing by giving us the first chapter of John this Sunday after Christmas. It is certainly a different picture of Emmanuel than we had on Wednesday night. There are no more adoring shepherds, the choirs of angels have returned to Heaven. In the “day-after” Christmas time – when all the presents have been opened, family and friends have gone home, and the house probably needs cleaned up– when the anticipation is over, this week our Christmas story gives us just one character to identify with: the Word made flesh, the Light shining in the darkness. This is what we have been waiting for, this is the comfort promised to us by Isaiah: The Emmanuel, God-with-us. But the good news from the Gospel of John today goes even further than this. John reminds us that God has always been with us, since the beginning. The Word made flesh shines light into the darkness, and the darkness shall not overcome it: the Light is then still shining today. If Advent was about hope and expectation, then Christmas is about celebration, fulfillment and miracles. Not celebration as in eggnog, presents, cookies and sparkly things – not that I have any issue with those things. But by celebration I mean something more life-encompassing, more life-giving. Our celebration continues by finding God-with-us, and proclaiming that Light in our lives – even if it means going into the darkness to find a dim light shining. Certainly, in the bright parts of our lives – singing in church choir, good friends and relationships, children we are proud of- light is as easy to find as sales at the stores this weekend. Finding God present in our dark struggles, in loneliness, illness and brokenness – that is as difficult, time-consuming, and strange as, well, as following a far-off star in search of a baby in a manger. At Christmas, we see God at work in the miraculous extravagance of Incarnation and our foretaste of the Resurrection, and we see God at work in the ridiculously ordinary circumstances of babies and animals. And, at Christmas, we discover again that those two things are not as separated as we may think.
To celebrate the ending of our fall terms, Luke and I went to see the movie “Love Actually”. The movie begins with footage from a typical airport scene. Hugh Grant, in a voice over, tells us that whenever he is feeling particularly degraded about the state of the world, he goes to the arrival gates at Heathrow Airport. Watching parents greeting children, wives and husbands, girlfriends, boy friends, old friends, love and affection are very much on display. Here, we can remember that if we look hard enough, and perhaps in some unlikely places, we will find that Love Actually is everywhere.
Continuing the Christmas celebration is as simple yet extraordinary as that. The Word became flesh, shining Light in the darkness – and continues to do so in our everyday miracles, both great and small. When a struggling teenager reaches their high school graduation because someone cared enough to see him through, God love is made flesh in our own lives. When a Christian congregation and a Jewish congregation can live together with love and respect, light has overcome darkness. When lonely people are welcomed into community, when hungry families are fed, when children are raised in love, God is with us. Find those places of light in your life, and shine that light in the darkness. Love actually is everywhere… By shining light in the darkness, we will find it, in the most unlikely places, we will find it, in a stable, in a baby, in our lives. And in small ways, as we celebrate the light each day – as it was in the beginning, is now, and will be forever – the Light will not be overcome. May the celebration continue!