December 27, 2020 The First Sunday after Christmas

The First Sunday After Christmas
December 27, 202
The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

From the gospel according to John, “…And the Word became flesh and lived among us…” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     The opening words of the gospel according to John tell us that Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ whose birth we commemorated a few days ago, Jesus, the Word of God, was not only with God, but has existed since before the world began because Jesus Christ is God. John’s words call to remembrance the great creation stories of Genesis: those accounts of how God created all that is, seen and unseen. God created every form of life – the birds, fish, animals, plants – everything – just as God also created humankind from the dust of that newly formed earth. And all of this creation, our home called “Eden”, was a garden of incredible beauty and peace, a garden that God pronounced, “good.”

But something happened at Eden. The man and woman chose to eat a forbidden fruit and with a shudder felt throughout the universe, sin entered the world, humankind fell from grace, and communion with God was broken. Scripture tells us that because of sin humankind was banished from Eden. In the words of author John Steinbeck, our home became East of Eden. And everything East of Eden became, at best, incredibly complicated.

     I find that at the heart of both the Old and the New Testaments is the story of God’s own holy longing, God’s call to his creation, “Where are you?”, God’s aching for us to come home, to be reconciled and restored to wholeness in body, mind and spirit with one another and with God forever. And scripture also tells us that throughout human history, rather than abandon us, God, time and again, continued to interact with, and intervene in, the lives of those who promised and sincerely desired to walk in God’s ways and uphold God’s values. As my colleague, the Rev. Rick Morley, notes, “When enslaved, God liberated his people. When homeless, God gave them a land. When that land was devastated, God built it up again.” God sent prophets and teachers and leaders to direct us. God continuously inserted himself into human history offering to make “His story, our story, and our story, His story.”

     Yet, throughout the Bible we read that just as our commitment to God’s ways would come and go, God, too, seemed to come and go. God would be present one moment to perform the miraculous and then seem to disappear the next. No one had ever seen the face of God and lived and yet, most, if not all, still believed in the very existence of God. Yet, because of sin our relationship with God was never the same. In Eden, God was just there: walking, talking, and no doubt, playing with his creation. But East of Eden life was estranged, life was difficult, and for many, life was empty of meaning and hope.  That is, until Bethlehem … That is, until “the Word – God– became flesh and lived among us” in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, Jesus the Christ.

     Christmas commemorates an incredible moment in human history. It celebrates how the God of all creation – the God of all power, knowledge, grace, mercy, love, justice, judgment, and forgiveness – in an incredible act designed to restore all creation - humbled himself and was born among us, “the Word became flesh.” This incarnation, this nativity, this birth, is a mindboggling reversal of all religion. Rather than our striving to be reunited with God through our ownmerits - (God knows that given our sinful nature such is impossible) - instead God comes to us. And as incredible as this sounds, God not only comes to us, but becomes one with us, one of us and in so doing, in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, offers to “clothe us with salvation and righteousness.” In the Christmas miracle, God offers, through Jesus Christ, to make us whole again, to recreate us in God’s own image once more, to bring us into a new Eden if we so desire, if we will so change our ways and turn to God once again. In the words of St. Paul, when the “Word became flesh and lived among us”, God birthed a new way of life marked by faith alone. That is why whenever these words from the gospel according to John are proclaimed, (“The word became flesh and lived among us,”) we stop what we are doing and bow in reverence and utter awe at the holiness and grace of that moment in history, that moment when East of Eden was no longer our home. At Bethlehem, our home became Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, God’s own self.And through Christ we are made children of God, heirs of God. Indeed, at Bethlehem, God’s story does become our story - and our story becomes God’s story. And this time, it is forever!

     And yet, there is even more to Bethlehem. Known to his people only in story and sagas of past events, seen only in a cloud, a pillar of fire, a burning bush, a quiet voice in the midst of utter silence, in a voice heard from behind a curtain, God, whose face was always enshrouded from his people, suddenly reveals his face to the whole world, and it is the face of Jesus Christ. It is a face of humility, unconditional love, endless grace, and truth and mercy. And rather than death (for no one had seen the face of God and lived), in and through this Jesus, God is made known as a Father who offers not death, but the gift of eternal life. No wonder, the Prophet Isaiah, in anticipating this grace-filled moment – this day when God would reveal God’s self in ways unthought-of or even imagined –the prophet Isaiah proclaimed, “My whole being shall exult in my God … (for) … we shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of our God” - just as we once were at Eden.

    Indeed, everything changed at Bethlehem. But, the question the whole world seems to ask this morning is this: Does Bethlehem still change us today? In other words, what difference does all of this really make in us, in our choices, our way of life right now? With racial and economic division among Christians, growing disdain in Churches for the neediest of society, and the vilification of anyone who disagrees with another’s opinion and often vilified with violence, no wonder the world asks, our neighbors ask, “What has really changed since Bethlehem?” It seems that our world continues to live East of Eden. Cain still slays Abel; people still cheat one another; religions while claiming to be peaceful and peace-loving, war with one another; famine and health crises abound; and men’s (and women’s and children’s) hearts fail them for fear about the future. What has really changed?

Everything! But like all matters of faith, like all things that make a lasting difference, the miracle of Bethlehem requires that we choose to embrace it, choose to allow God’ s grace to permeate our hearts and minds, so that it transformsour thoughts and priorities, and we, ourselves, are changed. And when we are changed, then so is the world.

     How? In the words of the gospel according to John, while the law of Moses taught us how to live and urged us to walk in God’s ways – in Christ, at Bethlehem, at Christmas, we received the grace and truth to accomplish it, to live as God’s people. At Bethlehem, we began to understand what it means to be truly forgiven, to be restored, graced and blessed. At Bethlehem we received the grace to commit ourselves to walk in God’s ways, to carry Christ’s light, and to foster God’s justice, equity, forgiveness and mercy in our homes, our communities, and throughout the world. When we truly embrace in our hearts and minds the Christ at Bethlehem, we begin to see Christ in every person we meet. We become God’s continuing visible presence in the world every day and forever by how we choose to live.  And thatmakes a difference! Because when, without exception, we choose to forgive just we also acknowledge our need to beforgiven, when we choose to reconcile and be reconciled, when we choose to love and be loved, then the real grace of Bethlehem, of Christmas, begins to unfold and makes a difference in us and shows the world a new way of living. Yet, the truth remains: New life in Christ is always a choice and that choice always begins with us.

     Beloved, at Bethlehem, God invited the whole world to offer and open our hearts to be God’s home. And those who choose to offer and open their hearts, enter into a new relationship with God in an Eden like none other before it: a new Eden that God pronounces “good” forever. 

     “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” As a new year dawns and the year 2020 with all its tragedy, ill-will, and death draws to a close, let us pray that the Christmas miracle: God’s grace to the world in the person of Jesus Christ; God’s gift of redemption will not only dwell among us, but, shine so brightly in us and through us in this new year, the world will find its way home once more. Amen.