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Dec. 29, 2019 – sermon

Posted by on Sun, Dec 29, 2019 in Christmas, Sermons

The First Sunday after Christmas Day

December 29, 2019

“For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.”

Our first reading from Isaiah sets an interesting context for the whole idea of what it is we celebrate in Christmastide. We heard the wonderful traditional words from Luke’s Gospel telling the story in words that recall for us pageants and nativity scenes and even movies about the birth of Jesus. We also heard John’s Gospel, which while lacking visual cues certainly fills our hearts with awe and invites us to contemplate the mystery and power in God’s Word wrapped in human flesh.

Let’s look at Isaiah 61:10—62:3 first; these five brief verses speak radiantly of the inextinguishable light of God’s actions. The speaker first marvels at his or her personal renewal, rejoicing in God as one clothed with garments of salvation and the robe of righteousness, as with a bridegroom’s garland and the bride’s jewels—attire designed to show all who see them the great celebratory joy and hope for the future. The voice shifts here, to speak not from the individual, but of the whole community; Zion, now envisioned as a woman, is no longer like dormant seeds planted in dark soil awaiting spring, the garden causes them to grow, new life shoots up into light! Doing so is how God will cause righteousness and praise to “spring up.” Finally, these will shine out like the dawn, and her salvation a burning torch eliminating the darkness. This is not some quiet underground movement, but brilliant and visible redemption, a word which cannot be silenced, cannot be ignored. And as in a surprise twist at the end of a good book, the description is no longer of what will happen, but who they become. No longer is Zion dressed up in royal clothes and jewels, rather she IS the crown of beauty and the royal diadem in God’s hands.

These last two verses which read as prophecy, as if the prophet will not rest until this comes about. Notice how salvation is linked with righteousness throughout the passage, the latter not in the personal sense but as abundant goodness, a new way which will transform and ‘save’ with justice. This is where we begin seeing the resemblance all this from Isaiah has to do with Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth, and with John’s more mystical (or to some, cryptic) description of Jesus’ arrival. The trajectory flows similarly here; from Zechariah alone in the temple hearing the angel’s proclamation, then from Mary hearing Gabriel’s words, and then to Joseph, to Elizabeth. The community gathers with Zechariah and Elizabeth as John is named, just as the angels gather the shepherds, who then arrive to see Jesus. We’ve moved from the lone individuals listening God’s Word, to the community in celebration of the good news, and to how the Word made flesh and living among us will transform the people of God. Again, we recall Isaiah speaking of Zion, not merely wearing but transformed into the royal diadem in God’s hands.

Today, gathering together, hearing the story, saying the prayers, breaking the bread, giving of ourselves —we become the Body of Christ. The Word is made flesh right here among us. This is easy to know and feel here, especially set among beautiful carols and readings, and surrounded by a faith community. It gets harder when we leave, and harder still when we get immersed or caught up in all those parts of life and labor which seem to crowd out God’s Word. Don’t we sometimes long for it to be a clear flashing red sign reminding us to stay grounded, living and doing what God calls us to? I sure have, usually after I’ve said or done something decidedly ‘otherwise.’

Have you ever seen a red-letter bible? I ran across one when I was probably about 11 years old, and I didn’t know what it was, but I skimmed through and saw many sentences printed in red. I soon realized they were the words attributed to Jesus himself. I thought it was terrifically helpful to see them all stand out like that for such easy gleaning of what was surely the most important stuff. I figured this might be what people meant by Jesus as “the Word” (we can be awfully literal in those preteen years!) But when I turned to John’s mysterious first lines about God’s Word made flesh, there were no red letters—we don’t hear a single syllable from Jesus until the end of the chapter. The hope in creating these editions was for the reader to draw nearer to Jesus having his words highlighted. The idea was for us to set aside the clutter of background, doctrines, and theories, and for Jesus’ words alone to tell us of his mission and ministry, and how his life reveals God to us. The problem is, Jesus’ words don’t have the same impact or make nearly as much sense without context, without knowing whom he spoke to and when, what was happening, who was asking the questions, if there was a big crowd or only the disciples, from a fishing boat or from the cross.

It was a lot of years later before I realized why this mattered; even the incarnate Word of God can only do so much without us. To whom does God send the Word if not to us? And whom will it enlighten or transform if not us? The Word cannot be contained in Jesus alone, nor in any one church or any one religion even. If the Word is to live in the here and now, it must be embodied by those who receive it and hear it, by people showing it, doing it, being it. In doing this, we are changed for the better by God’s Word. Which brings me back to our readings and even our carols today—do they reveal the glory of God in Jesus any less because there would not be a single ‘red letter’ in any of them? Jesus never speaks, and yet the Word, very clearly, is not silent.

Today I ask that you take your bulletin home and grab a red pen or pencil—even a crayon will do. Take ten or fifteen minutes to read the lessons and the carols and circle the word or phrases that speak to you. Choose one or two or several and try letting them reverberate in your life throughout the week ahead. You may want to focus with a different one each day. Hear what it says, listen at home times and away times, in calm and stress, with others and alone. Remember that those red-letter bible sentences did not become fully clear without context, and they cannot contain all that the Word incarnate is about in our lives. None of today’s readings or carols have any words from Jesus, and yet he is the Word which has come into the world and the “good news of great joy” which is honored today. Jesus is not only born in Bethlehem this Christmas; he is born in you. The Word is not only made flesh in scripture; the Word becomes real in you as you make holy room for it. It is then, through this indwelling Word, this Light of the world, that we are transformed. Amen.

© 2019 The Rev. Katherine Sedwick. All rights reserved.