Sunday, December 25, 2011

God Is For Us!

Thanks to the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton, whose sermon on "The Lectionary Lab" helped greatly in the writing of the sermon, and to Kiezha Smith Ferrell for reassuring me that it didn't stink.

Isaiah 52:7-10
How beautiful upon the mountains are the feet of the messenger who announces peace, who brings good news, who announces salvation, who says to Zion, “Your God reigns.”
Listen! Your sentinels lift up their voices, together they sing for joy; for in plain sight they see the return of the LORD to Zion.
Break forth together into singing, you ruins of Jerusalem; for the LORD has comforted his people, he has redeemed Jerusalem.
The LORD has bared his holy arm before the eyes of all the nations; and all the ends of the earth shall see the salvation of our God.

Hebrews 1:1-4 (5-12)
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets, but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word. When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.
For to which of the angels did God ever say, “You are my Son; today I have begotten you”?
Or again, “I will be his Father, and he will be my Son”?
And again, when he brings the firstborn into the world, he says, “Let all God’s angels worship him.”
Of the angels he says, “He makes his angels winds, and his servants flames of fire.”
But of the Son he says, “Your throne, O God, is forever and ever, and the righteous scepter is the scepter of your kingdom. You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness; therefore God, your God, has anointed you with the oil of gladness beyond your companions.”
And, “In the beginning, Lord, you founded the earth, and the heavens are the work of your hands; they will perish, but you remain; they will all wear out like clothing; like a cloak you will roll them up, and like clothing they will be changed. But you are the same, and your years will never end.”

John 1:1-14
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

This is the Word of the Lord.

I think it’s interesting that, on Christmas Day, the Lectionary Gospel reading isn’t the birth narrative from Matthew or Luke’s Gospel, but John’s great creation hymn. It is as if God – or, I suppose, the lectionary Elves – are saying to us, hey, we’ve looked in the manger, we’ve met the shepherds, and we’ve seen the child. We now know the “what.” Let’s talk about “Who,” and let’s talk about “why.”

I’m betting that you’ve heard your share of Christmas music this past couple of months. I used to say that I didn’t like Christmas music, but what I’ve come to see a need to clarify is that it’s not the hymns and carols that get on my nerves, I love those. I wouldn’t mind singing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel” all year long. It’s the novelty songs that bother me – the ones that are funny once, but by the seventy-eighth time I hear it that day, I’m over my initial delight, if you know what I mean.

But there’s one I heard this week that caught my ear. A little boy sings it, and he’s been particularly naughty this year – ants in the sugar, ink on Mom’s rug, a frog in his sister’s bed, you get the idea – so he laments, “I ain’t getting’ nuttin’ for Christmas, Mommy and Daddy are mad, I ain’t getting’ nuttin’ for Christmas, ‘cause I ain’t been nothin’ but bad.”

It occurs to me that, all too often, that’s our idea of how God works. If we’re good, God likes us and does stuff for us, and if we’re bad? Well…

And it fits in with our sense of right and wrong, after all. Good people get good things, and bad people get bad things. Santa Claus comes to all the good little boys and girls, while the naughty ones get coal and sticks in their stockings. God, similarly, punishes bad people and rewards good people. Famous preachers have made the news by blaming earthquakes, hurricanes, and tornadoes on the victims of these natural disasters, and while most of us shake our heads in disgust when Pat Robertson blames sinful Haitians or residents of New Orleans for the death and destruction they have endured, many more support and repeat what he says, because believing these things brings their sense of justice and fairness back into balance.

And this carries over into serious doctrinal positions on why Jesus came to earth as well. Human beings are curious; we seek explanations to the mysteries around us, whether natural, scientific, or spiritual. Thus there are at least as many theologies and theories surrounding Christ’s coming, and his death on the cross, as there are stars in the sky.

One of the more well-known theories of atonement, as they are called, has an angry and wrathful God requiring vengeance for those sins humankind, or at least the bad people, and yes we have a detailed list of those sins, have committed. Jesus voluntarily comes to earth and serves as our substitute, shedding his blood to satisfy God’s thirst for retribution. In effect, God (who, for the purposes of illustration, is an old guy in a white robe with a long, flowing beard, kind of like Gandalf in “Lord of the Rings,” if you will) has his finger on the “smite Earth and kill everyone” button, and Jesus steps in – “don’t kill them, kill me instead!”

I am about to make the most blatantly obvious statement I have made this year. That’s quite a stretch, I know, but I think you’ll agree. Ready?

God is not that simple.

God cannot be distilled down to simple cause-and-effect. God is neither a light switch or a vending machine. We cannot control how God will act based on our behavior. And we cannot separate the actions and intentions of one Person of the Trinity from any other Person of the Trinity. God isn’t that simple.

Imagine, if you will, the Nativity. You know the scene, Mary kneeling at the manger, Joseph standing close by, the shepherds in a semicircle, animals looking on in awe. If you want to, you can even have the Three Wise Men there. Don’t worry about the chronology or historical accuracy of the scene, imagine whatever works for you. You can even have the manger glowing brightly, if you like.

Think of this: the baby that’s in that manger? The infant that the shepherds are staring at, the one that the Little Drummer Boy is about to start playing for (hey, if that’s what’s in your nativity scene, fine) – that’s not some messenger from God, that’s not just God’s designated punching bag, that’s not even a lesser-than kind of god.

The writer of Hebrews looks in that manger and says, “…God … has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. He is the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.”

The Apostle John looks in that manger and says, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”

Don’t ask me to explain how, because I can’t. But that baby? That is God.

I’m pretty sure that no one really understands the weight of that fact. I know that I don’t.

But I am pretty sure that if this baby is God, Jesus isn’t some kind of cosmic “Plan B.” I’m reasonably confident that, if this baby is God, Jesus isn’t some lesser heavenly being who stepped in at the last minute to keep a ravenously bloodthirsty, all-powerful deity from smushing us all under a holy thumb. If that baby is God, well, the whole good-cop, bad-cop theory of atonement goes right out the door.

Think of it! “The Word became flesh!” God came here! To us!

God is not finished with us! God is not looking for an excuse to crush us… God isn’t even angry with us! God is not against us – and never has been. In fact, “God (is) with us!” – Emmanuel!

There is no naughty-or-nice list with God. The fact is, we can’t do anything “good” enough to reach God, and honestly, left to our own devices, without the grace of God, none of us would have the slightest interest in even trying.

God entered into the world not because of certain bad people here and there, but because the whole place, everyone, the world, is messed up, and can find no way out.

The Christ was born at a time of political and social unrest: Israel was a conquered country, living under the domination of the Romans, ruled by the cruel King Herod. When Christ came, there was hunger and social injustice and war raged upon innocents, all in the name of such things as Truth and Justice. Then as now, the old values had become skewed and obscured and unrecognizable, and no one knew whom they could trust.

And into such a world God sent the Son.

The message then and the message now is that we are not alone in the midst of the world’s evil.

God has come to us in the midst of our distress. In the middle of our loneliness and despair,
God has sent us a sign of his love. Into a world filled with hopelessness, God comes to us in the hopeful form of new life and new birth.

Christ came to be a beacon of light in a dark world.

Christ came to show us love in the midst of hatred and strife.

Christ came to bring life in the midst of death. Christ came to preach, teach, heal, suffer and die.

This Christmas Day, let us rejoice in the knowledge that whoever we are – no matter our income or class, race or gender, political affiliation or nationality – God is for us, and God is with us!

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