Life and Life

A Sermon For the 1st Sunday in Christmas; Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7, John 1:1-18, Psalm 147 or 147:13-21

 

Thank you to -Br. James for his vision about singing on Christmas Day’s (Koester). He wrote: We don’t have to give Christmas to some Hallmark moment

 … – we can sing. We can sing, … in hope of … a world of mercy, justice and peace, a Magnificat world.

which got me thinking about John’s prologue in musical terms as a different way of understanding it. Eventually , remembered as a kid going to hear an Atlanta Symphony Orchestra performance of Peter and the Wolf. Before the performance began the conductor lead a sort of prologue. It goes like this

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MfM7Y9Pcdzw&feature=youtu.be

The musical prologue framed how the story would be told, so we could hear and understand it.

Early Christians have a problem. Every other civilization around them has a divine system of many gods.

  • The Romans have multiple pairs of gods: Jupiter-Juno, Neptune-Minerva, Mars-Venus, Apollo-Diana, Vulcan-Vesta, and Mercury-Ceres.
  • The Greeks have: Zeus, Hera, Poseidon, Demeter, Ares, Athena, Apollo, and Artemis.
  • Egypt has: Ra, Geb, Nut, Shu, Osiris, Isis, Set, and Horus.
  • Persia has: Adad, Ashur, Anu, Dagan, Enki, Ereshkigal, Inanna, Marduk, and a bunch more .

The Christians’ Jewish background believes in one God – God. And now these upstart Christians who claim to follow God also claim that God has come to earth, born of an earthly mother, is named Jesus, lived and taught among us, just as we do, died, and has risen from the dead, and is now back in heaven with God. This incredible story is completely unbelievable and so offensive they are being accused of believing in two gods. Others charge them of following various Greek philosophies. John’s prolog says no and sets the stage for the Gospel by revealing how God and Jesus are mystically one from the very beginning in poetry. He does so because poetry is a way to explain the unexplainable, through the beauty of the words, … underneath {which is}, the beauty of the truth (Rice)

John begins in an unusual place before the beginning, which is intended to turn our attention to God’s character (Harrelson). He draws on familiar Old Testament traditions, but none of them are in their usual form (Harrelson). From Genesis we know God’s word speaks the world into being (Gen 1:1–2:4a) (Gaventa and Petersen). Jewish writers, like Philo,

[spoke] of Wisdom … who represented God in human history, but … stopped short of saying that God became human (Slater).

He builds on Proverbs’ teaching that Wisdom was created before the beginning (Prov. 8:22-23) (Keener and Walton; Gaventa and Petersen) He makes use of Wisdom being linked with God’s creating Word in the Wisdom of Solomon (7:22; 9:1-3) (Keener and Walton). and references to God’s Word as light and life in Deuteronomy (8:1; 11:9), Baruch (4:1; 4:2; cf), Psalms (119:105) and the Wisdom of Solomon (7:26) (Keener and Walton).

John does makes use of The Greek philosophy, by using the Stoic’s idea of logos as the harmonious web of reason that holds all things in being to present a complete picture of the source and causes of creation (Gaventa and Petersen). The introduction of light and life shifts the story’s focus to humanity. It also provides us a source of strength by assuring us that though there is darkness and shadows in the word, they will never overcome the light of creation and the incarnate divine presence (Harrelson).

John also encourages us to think differently about who we are (Rice). He teaches us that God loves us so much that God/Jesus chose to leave the glory of heaven, become human, just as you and I are human, so that we might become more like him (Slater). We are so beloved that the Divine makes the invisible and unknowable visible and present sharing the perfect intimacy between God and Jesus with us to be a model for our relationships with each other and our relationship with God/Jesus/Spirit (Gaventa and Petersen).

John closes the prologue saying no one has seen God, implying no one can see God, that only the Son, Jesus, has made, can make, God known. This tells his readers, including us, that the story that follows is not about Jesus, but about God who creates us, rescues us from our misbehavior that distances us from God and each other and supports us through all the travails of life’s journey (O’Day; Harrelson).

John’s prologue does more than set the stage for his gospel story, reveal the mystery of God’s presence in human form, and define Jesus’ ministry. He also sets up the Gospel as a calling to review our behaviors, acknowledge the shadows we cast, and accept the power of light to transform our ability to nurture others by introducing Jesus who makes God known. As theologically complex as John’s gospel is he reminds us that our behavior, what we say and what we do, is more important than what we profess (Slater). John gives us a strong place to anchor our souls (Slater). He opens the world of poetry to share the unexplainable. He opens the world of song through which we can share a Magnificat world of hope, mercy, justice, and peace (Koester). In poetry and song, we are empowered, by the love enkindled in our hearts to share how all the hopes and fears of all the years are met in thee tonight. (O little town of Bethlehem). and not just 2000 years ago but every night until night is no more.


References

Gaventa, Beverly Roberts and David Petersen. New Interpreter’s One Volume Commentary. Nashville, n.d.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Keener, Craig and John Walton. NKJV Cultural Backgrounds Study Bible Notes. Nashville: Zondervan, 2017.

Koester, James. “Sing.” Brother, Give Us AN AdventWord. SSJE, 25 12 2017.

Rice, Whitney. “In the Beginning…, Christmas 1.” 31 12 2017. Sermons that Work.

Slater, Thomas B. Commentary on John 1:1-18. 31 12 2017. <http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2975 1/3>.

 

 

Full of grace and power

A sermon for Christmas 1

Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7, John 1:1-18, Psalm 147
and Acts 6 & 7

When it appeared the time between writing a Christmas sermon, and the 1st Sunday after Christmas sermon was rapidly collapsing, I thought I’d just borrow the core from a previous year’s sermon. It turns out I haven’t preached the 1st Sunday after Christmas very much. Most often, I had taken the week after Christmas off, as we visited one family or another. Okay, I’ll borrow the core of a previous St Stephen’s sermon. There was one, and you have heard it. So, here we are.

Once again, after reading, and prayerful cogitation, not to be confused with a nap, the divine muse offered an idea. Acts refers to Stephen as full of grace and power (Acts 6:5). The prologue to John describes a man sent from God, who is not the light but testifies to the light (John 1:6). And to those who receive and believe in his name, he gives power to become children of God (John 1:12). And a bit later:  we have received grace upon grace, … grace and truth (John 1:16, 17). A life, known for an eloquent defense of the Gospel, grace, and power, resonates with John’s description of one who testifies to the light being full of grace and truth. Stephen’s life resonates with John.

You know something of Stephen; at least that his last name “is not Spielberg or King” (Johnson). You know there was a dispute in the early church about the fair distribution of food and that Stephen is among the seven chosen to resolve the problem. You know Stephen is martyred. You may not know why.

In addition to waiting tables, Stephen is a powerful preacher, healer, etc. He gets into a conflict with a Synagogue of Freedmen; Jews who have returned from Roman slavery in the dispersed Jewish community.  They are unable to overcome his teaching and preaching, about how to be faithful toward God (Gavenat and Petersen). They didn’t like it, so they charge him with blasphemy and drag him before the council. Sound familiar?

In defending himself, Stephen recites a salvation history, not unlike what we hear in the Great Easter Vigil (Ryan). He talks about the promise God makes Abraham and the covenant that follows. He covers Joseph’s being sold into slavery in Egypt, and the Jacob’s family moving to Egypt. Then moves on to Moses, and the gift freedom given the Hebrews. And then their rebellion, including the whole golden calf incident; and drawing from Amos, a lesser known offense, of worshiping Moloch and Remphan (Amos 5:25-27) (Copeland Acts 7). He finishes with a history of the Tabernacles, the tent in the wilderness and the Temple in Jerusalem; concluding that God does not dwell in anything made of human hands. And having gone this far in disturbing his accusers, he charges them of behaving like their Jewish forefathers, in resisting the Holy Spirit, and killing prophets. Horrifically enraged, the Freedmen drag Stephen out of the city, and stone him to death. In the process, Stephen sees Jesus standing at the right hand of God, offers his life to Jesus, and asks forgiveness for his persecutors. Sound familiar? By the way, he is loving buried by devout men lamenting his death (Acts 8:2).

There is a strong similarity between Stephen’s life described in Acts, and Jesus’ life described in the Gospels. But what I’m curious about is the similarity with John the Baptist as a witness to the light. Both are exemplary disciples, whose lives we tend to put up on a pedestal, as far beyond what we might accomplish. This line between the extraordinary and ordinary is not helpful; and in truth, it runs against our lives as incarnate people, as baptized people (Johnson). Gavenat and Petersen note we cannot serve the word and not serve at table. The grace that enables Stephen’s eloquence inspires his table service, feeding the widows of his community.

Living a life, that follows Jesus is a generally accepted model, even if often shunned as impossible. And while our lives may not match Jesus’ in the dozen or so points that Stephen’s may, we can, in our own way, be servant leaders, we can, within our own calling, be full of the Sprit, we can, within our own gifts, show signs, and wonders. By the way ‘wonders’ is not about the miraculous, or supernatural, it’s about the depth of care we demonstrate in doing something for another who is in a difficult circumstance. And even if we don’t perceive an ability to do much, we can change our behavior for the better in the parlance of Stephen’s story, we can stop throwing stones. As hard as it is to confess, we throw stones more frequently than we think. More often than not we throw stones that are words of hate, words of disapproval, or words of judgment (Ryan).

In these remaining ten days of Christmas, I pray we take the time to prayerfully discern:  how we are incarnate, how we live in the Divine Light, how we receive grace and truth, and how we share them in:  healing the broken hearted, binding wounds, lifting the lowly, providing refuge, or serving at the table of the other. May the incarnate light shine through our lives, on the lives of family, friends ~ and Freedmen.

 


 

References

Copeland, Mark. Bible Study Guides. n.d. <http://executableoutlines&gt;.

Harrelson, Walter J. The New Interpreters’ Study Bible. Abingdon Press, 2003. E-book.

Johnson, Edwin. “Confusing The Sacred & The Profane, Christmas 1(C) – 2015.” 27 12 2015. Sermons that Work.

Ryan, Linda. Speaking to the Soul: Why Wenceslaus went out that day…. 27 12 2015. <http://www.episcopalcafe.com&gt;.

Sakenfeld, Katharine Doob. New Interpreter’s Dictionary of the Bible. Nashville: Abingdon, 2009.

Jesus 2nd birth, no first, no being day

A sermon for Christmas 1

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

 I don’t remember when it was last week, I realized I was preaching today. In the 20 years I’ve been a priest, my family and I have traditionally taken the week after Christmas off, most often to visit family. Since 1994 I’ve preached this day six times; that our family status has changed is revealed that of those 6, 3 have been since 2011. None of which has anything to do with anything except bible verses less often preached are both more difficult, because preachers are not as familiar with them, and more available to flashes of insight, because preachers are not as familiar with them. So the thought of today being “the celebration of Jesus 2nd birth” stuck.

And yes, I said Jesus second birth, not his second birthday. But actually today would not be the celebration of Jesus second birth it would actually be the celebration of Jesus 1st birth, because it happens before creation, and the Christmas event is clearly after creation. Except that Jesus isn’t born the first time, so much as Jesus just is the first time.

Confused? Don’t be alarmed, you are not alone. From the beginning there was confusion about Jesus. Is Jesus human? He has a human mother. But, Jesus also has a divine father, so is Jesus divine? The debate got so contentious that in 325 the council of Nicaea was called to settle the question. We know their work as the Nicene Creed. A second council, in Constantinople in 381 was necessary to affirm the church’s belief. And there is truth to the observation, we are still arguing about Jesus’ humanity and or divinity today.

If we look around at all the Nativity scenes it looks as if we are celebrating the humanity of Jesus, all the baby Jesuses look just like any other baby. And there is deep truth to this observation, for Jesus is completely human, which makes him unique among the stories of gods who often appear in human form, but are never truly human. And I think for the most part we are comfortable with Jesus in human form. Almost all the bible stories are of Jesus as fully human. All the miracles, and teachings are accomplished by Jesus whom the witnesses knew as human, though gifted, even divinely gifted.

I’m not sure we spend a whole lot of time with Jesus – divine. It’s hard to do, in part because there is no sensual reference. I am sure it is important that we pay attention to Jesus – divine. In part because it reminds us Jesus is not a super human, but the very presence of God, which reveals the depth of God’s commitment to us. God cares enough, not just to send a representative, but to be personally present. What do you appreciate more: a call from your boss’s secretary, with message of appreciation, or a call from your boss with a message of appreciation? Secondly, knowing that Jesus is God’s self eliminates the difficulty of God sacrificing a son; God sacrifices God’s self. This is another measure of God’s commitment to us.

A final note of all this may be that today we celebrate Jesus’ being day. Jesus – divine just is, like God always was, always is, always will be. As much as we understand the verbs, complete understanding eludes us. Even if you are able to get your head around the billions of years our universe has been, which is more than I can do, getting our heads around essence prior to, though, and afterwards, … well like I said, it’s beyond me. That; however, is not a comment about its truth.

Truths can come to us by experience, and or experience(s) passed onto us. Truth can also come to us by revelation, and or revelation(s) passed on to us. The presence of God to Abram’s is a revelation. The biblical account of Abram’s revelation is passed on to us. Both are truth, not from any empirical source, but simply because we believe, or we have faith. Put it another way, we trust the revelations passed on to us, just as our forebearers trusted their experience of divine revelation.

So, today is our celebration of Jesus’ being day. A day we celebrate Jesus – divine, a revelation of Jesus’ love for me, for you, for all humanity, for all creation; which makes me worthy, makes you worthy, makes all humanity worthy, makes all creation worthy. See it doesn’t matter that I or you or they love Jesus, human or divine. What matter is Jesus, human and divine, loves me, loves you, love everyone, loves all creation. And that establishes our relationship with each other, with all of God’s image bearers, with all of creation; not just for today, but every hour of every day now and forever.

So, happy second, no happy first birth…, no happy being day; oh, I just thankful Jesus, human and divine, love us all.