Herculean task for the first Sunday after Christmas: how to offer people an antidote to the lethal mix of maudlin sentimentality and bottomless greed that our culture calls “Christmas”? I am posting this early in case it offers a few ideas to anyone out there struggling to prepare a sermon for Sunday. It’s a terribly difficult Sunday, I think – - for the church, Christmas is just starting, but for most people in our culture the gifts are unwrapped, and thus the party is over. And probably the gift-returns and clearance-sale-hunting are just beginning. Oh, the horror.
n.b.: Although I am preaching this on Sunday, I actually used the lectionary readings for Christmas Day 2012 in the RCL (Christmas III): Psalm 98, Isaiah 52:7-10, Hebrews 1:1-4, and John 1:1-14.
My sermon draws inspiration from a few other attempts to describe Christmas from angelic perspective: “The Visited Planet” by JB Phillips, a Christmas reflection by Philip Yancey found on this great site with many other inspirational Christmas stories, and a sermon from Barbara Brown Taylor called God’s Daring Plan.
Finally: Eric Gill has the most amazing Christmas woodcuts. Do check them out!
Over the course of the last five weeks we’ve been on a kind of a journey together. Our journey began on the first Sunday of Advent in the dusty deserts of ancient Israel where we heard the prophets Jeremiah and Isaiah, who told us: keep watch for God’s saving work; God is on the move. The next Sunday we travelled forward in time about 700 years and found ourselves in the wilderness of Judea, by the banks of the River Jordan, where John the Baptist was urging repentance and readiness, for the Kingdom is at hand. Then last Sunday we took a detour to a little cottage in a town called Nazareth where the scene changed to a close-up of a surprised-looking young woman singing her unlikely hymn.
And if you joined us on Christmas Eve, we all mounted our camels together (figuratively speaking) to make the last leg of the journey. On our way we heard from a woman villager of Nazareth, and from a shepherd’s wife whose husband had been utterly transformed by his encounter out there in the fields, and a local girl who had seen the baby for herself: “it was small,” she said. Finally we found Mary and Joseph in the inn in Bethlehem where we all gathered around and waited, with great joy, for the birth of the baby Jesus. We were joined at the last minute by some shepherds, fresh off of their shift in the fields and still smelling of sheep.
So there we all were together, hanging out in the midst of the nativity scene in our imaginations with these individuals who are, in a way, the familiar faces of Christmas. Usually this little band of characters is immortalized with a nativity scene in many churches, and in many homes too – maybe you’ve got one set up in your living room. As you know there’s also a nativity set up on most Christmas markets in Germany, too, although the nativity scenes never seem to draw as many visitors as the stands selling Kartoffelpuffer and Glühwein.
In the weeks leading up to Christmas we live in the nativity, so to speak: we enter personally into the experiences and the lives of these wonderful biblical characters who populate the story of the coming of the baby Jesus. We take time in Advent to remember and to re-live the personal response to the Christ of each of these figures.
But on Christmas Sunday, all of this changes. If we have been examining with a zoom lens the intimate story of Christmas for the last five weeks, focusing on the radiant faces of those who have seen the baby Christ, this morning our readings in the lectionary ask us to take an enormous step backwards, away from the manger scene, and attempt to take in the cosmic view.
This Sunday we are being invited to view the Christmas story not as a few individuals saw it, but as God and the angels have always seen it: in celestial perspective. So let us try to understand Christmas like the angels do: that Christmas is not just the story of an isolated event that happened one particular day in Bethlehem, and certainly not just a story about a few selected or particularly holy individuals whose lives were destined to overlap with the birth of baby Jesus. No, the angels see Christmas for what it is: the turning point in an infinitely larger story… a story of radical and enduring love that is as old as time itself and that shall have no end.
But this the angels have known all along. Surely they watched with curiosity from the celestial realms as God (whose mysterious plans, let’s face it, they never really understood) shaped this little blue-green planet, set it down third from the sun where it wouldn’t get too hot or too cold, and set it spinning (but thankfully not so fast that its inhabitants would get sick). It wasn’t even a terribly big planet, in angelic perspective, but this unlikely planet was the one God had chosen.
And even from the beginning, God’s plan to love and to save all that he had made was already underway. And a deep longing for God and readiness for God’s coming was planted in creation like a seed that just kept growing and growing. The angels often remarked in wonder that the earth literally cried out in praise of its creator, like a song with neither beginning nor end. (It’s like we sang in Joy to the World: “fields, floods, rocks, hills, and plains … repeat the sounding joy, repeat the sounding joy!”). The Psalmist understood this. He knew that God’s creation has been waiting for God’s final coming since they were made:
Let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
the world and those who live in it.
Let the floods clap their hands;
let the hills sing together for joy at the presence of the Lord,
for he is coming to judge the earth.
The angels watched as the story of God’s plan of love and salvation continued to play out and grow in momentum through the story of Israel, but the angels had figured out by then that God’s plan was intended to the whole earth. The prophets knew it too: they knew that God’s salvation was destined to reach all peoples. Although the prophets preached to their people Israel, they must have sensed it already: that God’s mercy was too wide and too wonderful not to save all that God had made.
In a vision the prophet Isaiah, whom we read this morning, saw God’s saving arm stretched out over all nations and tribes and countries, to the four corners of the earth, bringing the whole world under his saving mercy. In the passage we read this morning Isaiah foretold the day when all of the earth would see the salvation of God:
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.
The angels and the prophets could sense it, deep in their bones: God’s love for this little planet and the people on it was relentless. And it was getting pretty clear that God had a daring and remarkable plan for the salvation of what he had made: he was going down there, to be with his people. As John would later put it: 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.
That’s why the angels weren’t too terribly surprised on the day that God announced that it was time: time to enter into the world. After all, they had been watching God’s plan of salvation unfold from the beginning, and they could sense that the time was ripe. In the angels’ eyes, the coming of God’s presence into the world at Christmas was not an anomaly, but one more thing that God would do to love and save his creation, and thus entirely in keeping with God had always been doing, since day one, just to be with his people, whom he loves.
After all, the story of God’s relentless love didn’t begin on Christmas day 2,000 years ago, as if on that one specific day God decided out of the blue that the created world needed some heavenly love. No – as the angels would be happy to tell you, the story of God’s coming to be with God’s people forever begins at the beginning and continues through the middle and shall endure until the end that is no end at all. All that God has been doing and is still doing down here among God’s people is moving towards one glorious end: the salvation of all that is and the final coming of God to dwell among God’s people, forever.
The coming of the Christ child was certainly the main highlight of the story (the angels agree). The nativity scene is one that the angels like to pause and rewind and replay over and over again, and they never grow tired of watching it happen. Mary’s song has been playing on repeat in some of the celestial chambers for 2,000 years now. But Christ’s coming as the baby Jesus was not the end of the tale; God was just turning the page on a never-ending love story.
But there will be a final chapter to this story, someday. There are hints and guesses of what shall be at the end of the storybook we have, but those who are welcomed in on that last day will discover that not even John’s visions came close to doing it justice. Then on that day the God who has been coming to us throughout all of human history will come to dwell among mortals forever, world without end; and to make his home among us, for once and for all.
Or, as John of Patmos would have it (chapter 21):
I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them as their God; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away.” And the one who was seated on the throne said, “See, I am making all things new.” … Then he said to me, “… I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end.”
On this first Sunday after Christmas, we celebrate that glorious day on which the Christ child came into the world, but we do so remembering God’s cosmic, celestial, eternal plan to come to dwell with God’s people and to be their God forever. Seen through angel eyes, the one specific coming of the baby Jesus is understood as the incarnation of the eternal and cosmic Christ, the one who was and is and shall be: “the reflection of God’s glory and the exact imprint of God’s very being.” The one who comes with righteousness and peace has come not just to the shepherds, or to Mary and Joseph, but to all of humankind, throughout every age of need. The Christ upon the throne, our Lord and Saviour, has been with us all along and shall be with us even until the end of the age.
This morning, let us stand in wonder at this great mystery, and attempt to take this mysterious grace into our hearts: that the one baby Jesus, wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger, is the exact imprint of God’s very being, and the savior of the world. That the coming of the Christ was not a departure from God’s daring plan, but the culmination of God’s idea of love that had been growing and gaining in momentum since the world was made. And that the Christ who came to Mary and Joseph and the shepherds is none other the one who sits upon the throne: the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.
Let us pray:
The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’
And let everyone who is thirsty come.
Come, Lord Jesus!