Love came down at Christmas (sermon)

“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”

In the name of…

Seeing is believing—that’s the expression you’ve heard before, the expression my mother used when I didn’t quite manage to clean my room, or, in the face of empty promises over half-finished homework, or, when she was hoping for something slightly too far removed from reality.

Seeing is believing. But that’s not the whole quote. The 17th century English writer Thomas Fuller penned this expression in a collection of proverbs and folk sayings, writing that “Words are but Wind; but seeing is believing”. For Fuller, words are ephemeral, in one ear and out the other, transient, a moving target. “Words are but Wind; but seeing is believing” Seeing is believing because seeing feels somehow more truthful, more evidence-based, more real.

We are surrounded by words. Words that are beautiful or moving. Words that are false, or deceptive. Words, words, words, that surround and overwhelm us as we spend our days reading emails, news, and books… listening to podcasts and music lyrics and television… our world is filled with words that we must listen to, and weigh their truth. Is it real, or is it fake news? Are these words to believe in, or words that deceive? Words are wind, but seeing is believing.

On this Christmas morning, we read this famous passage from the first chapter of John: in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. You’ve probably heard it before, or perhaps hundreds of times. And in talking about the Incarnation—the birth of Jesus Christ—John, or the person from the Johannine community who wrote the text, weighs in on an important debate in the New Testament: whether seeing is in fact believing. We see this debate happening in the famous story of Thomas from the Gospel of John, who refuses to believe in the resurrection until he can see Jesus himself. Jesus says that “blessed are those who do not see, and yet believe”. The writer of Hebrews says something similar in that famous verse, that “faith is being sure of what you hope for, and certain of what you do not see”.

Words are wind, but seeing is believing. Because regardless of the lesson of Thomas, and the writer of Hebrews, I think we humans know that seeing still matters, even though we’d like to have enough faith to believe without seeing. Seeing matters.  Knowing with certainty still matters. At the end of the day, words—as important as they are—don’t hold up in comparison with seeing in real life.

And so John’s story of our salvation begins with an impossible, astounding declaration: “the Word became flesh and lived among us”. The transient, the negotiable, the promises of prophets, the word spoken into the dark at the beginning of creation: finally visible. Seeing is believing, and “we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth”. The Word became flesh, so that we could see, and believe.

This glorious contradiction then begs the question: if the Word has become flesh… if Christ has truly come among us, what do we see? What drives us to belief? Perhaps it seems like a simple question: well, we see Jesus, as human, living, dying, raised from the dead, and that’s our proof. But as a person living in the 21st century, I don’t literally see Jesus standing in front of me. It has been two millennia since Christ ascended to heaven, and I still wonder: if I can’t see Jesus in-person, what is left for me to see, so that I may believe?

This first chapter of John may seem like an odd choice for Christmas Day: there is no manager, no angels or shepherds, none of the familiarity of Christmas Eve. Instead, the lectionary assigns us this meditation on the Word becoming flesh, a reflection on the cosmic implications of the Son of God coming to earth as a human child. What is clear here is that the Word become flesh is a direct result of love. From another part of John’s gospel: “for God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life”. God coming to earth, God’s glory revealed in the lowliest of mangers, was all for love.

Here, I am reminded of a famous poem by Christina Rossetti, the Victorian poet, who describes the Incarnation as an act of love. Rossetti writes that

Love came down at Christmas,
Love all lovely, Love Divine,
Love was born at Christmas,
Star and Angels gave the sign.

She asks later in the piece the same kind of question we’re asking today: “But wherewith for sacred sign?”. Where is our sign? What is the glory that we see? Rossetti answers quite simply, that “Love shall be our token”. Love is our sign of the Incarnation. Jesus was born, lived, died, and rose again two millennia ago, but Love continues, to this day, to be our token, to be our evidence of this glory.  

Love came down at Christmas. Friends, the truth of the matter is this: that 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. We, you and I, have seen his glory. We have seen his glory, because we have seen love.

We have seen Love every time we realize the truth that God wants to save the whole human family—you and me and the world, even when we seem completely unworthy of love.

We have seen Love in the care and goodwill of others, in the seeking and serving of Christ in all persons, in loving your neighbor as yourself.

We have seen Love at Chapel of the Cross this fall as we explore what it means for love to dwell among us—in our homes, in our worship and formation and fellowship and service.

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. We have seen his glory, even in the year 2020, because we have seen Love.

Love shall be our token,
Love be yours and love be mine,
Love to God and all [of us]
Love for plea and gift and sign.

We have seen Love, and so we believe—we believe in a God who loves us so deeply and desperately that God’s majesty and glory would be made known through a tiny baby: Love Incarnate. Love Divine. Love which dwells among us.

And the Word became flesh, became Love in the most unlikely of places. Love came down at Christmas. Love dwells here.

The Lord has done great things for us (sermon on Ps. 126)

And God stepped out on space
And he looked around and said
I’m lonely
I’ll make me a world

So begins ‘The Creation’, that famous poem by James Weldon Johnson, which ends with the creation of man, which portrays a God who contemplates the vast expanse of interstellar space, and says

I’m lonely
I’ll make me a world

A God who dreams up a world so bright and beautiful and good—too good to last against the perils of temptation. A God who watches in sorrow as Adam and Eve eat the fruit, who walks in the garden at the cool of the day and says

I’ll make me a world

And so outside of the garden, he tells his beloved creation how to live, to be in a world where pain and death exist.

But soon, Abel lies dead, and violence runs rampant until, of those people made from clay, there are only a few who remember God’s dream. And so the waters cover the earth, and recede and a rainbow appears in the sky as God promises

I’ll make me a world

So Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and Joseph wrestle with this God and this dream, the dream that will outnumber the stars in the sky and bring rulers to their knees in the face of these wandering nomads, beloved of God, provided for even in drought and plague.

So they go to Egypt. But the Egyptians have forgotten Joseph and his God and this dream, and so God says

Let my people go
so I can make me a world

And in the face of this dream, the waters of the Red Sea part, water gushes from the rock, manna falls from the heavens, the tablets of stone invite God’s beloved into this dream of justice and abundant life.

God beckons an unruly people into the promised land saying

I’m gonna make me a world

It didn’t last for long, by all accounts—whether Deuteronomy was a dream or a short-term reality, soon there were judges and then kings: some glorious, some forgotten. And God’s beloved forgot, again and again, turning to Ba’al and earthly rulers for comfort, peace, security.

And as the tattered shards of God’s dream were carted off to Babylon, God through the prophets, prophesied that the ancient ruins shall be built up, that those who mourn in Zion shall have garlands instead of ashes, and God took the remnant of the people of Israel and Judah by the hand and said

I’ll make me a world.

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, they were like those who dream. In this world, this dream of God, the people returned and the temple was rebuilt, the law was reestablished and there was great rejoicing, and then the Bible tells us very little for the next hundreds of years…

until a man clothed in camel’s hair, a man named John, appeared on the banks of the Jordan as a witness to God’s dream. And through this voice crying in the wilderness, God says to these ruled-over and captive people

I’m lonely
So prepare the way
Because I’m gonna make me a world

But God’s dream of beating swords into plowshares and uniting the whole world to himself was not, is not, a world of judges and kings and warfare and poverty. Amidst the joy and repentance and excitement on the banks of the Jordan, the gathered crowd forgot, forgot this dream, and eagerly awaited a Messiah like the earthly kings, like David of old.

And God chuckled, and sent a baby, born in straw and among shepherds, and said

I’ll make me a world

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth, the grace and beauty and goodness of God’s dream from that garden so long ago. The Word became flesh and lived and died and rose for each of us because God said

I’m gonna save me a world

Two thousand years of prophets and saints and sinners and God making and remaking this saved world, and we still find ourselves here this Advent, waiting for the coming of Christ. We still find ourselves waiting for, longing for our savior who will turn the world right, who will make this dream of God a perpetual, eternal reality.

On this third Sunday of Advent, we may find ourselves praying ‘O Come O Come Emmanuel’, and wondering where God is. Where is this Lord who has done great things for us before? Where is our God now?

If this salvation history, our lineage of faith, is anything to go by, the answer to this question is that God is among us, inside of us, knocking at the door of our homes and hearts, saying

I’m lonely
I’m gonna make me a world

but I can’t do it
without you, my beloved child

The Lord can indeed restore our fortunes and turn tears into songs of joy

And so on this third Sunday of Advent
Christ stands before you
Your home
Your heart
Wherever you may find yourself this year
and says
I’m gonna make me a world.
We’re gonna make this dream real
Will you join me?

Do not forget (thanksgiving sermon)

Thanksgiving 2020—a Thanksgiving, perhaps unlike any in our recent memory. And however you’re spending this holiday, I think we all feel a sense of loss this year. Traditions with friends and family that must be canceled, or changed and adapted. New conversations where we discuss risk, where we admit our own vulnerability to forces of nature beyond our control.

Perhaps today, we find ourselves standing at a border, a boundary. Standing in the unknown—the winter holidays in a pandemic, thinking about the past, and looking into an uncertain, but hopeful, future.

And so this year, if that is indeed where we find ourselves, we are in the exact same place as the Israelites. Despite what it sounds like in today’s first lesson from Deuteronomy, we, they, are not in the promised land yet. The whole book of Deuteronomy is them standing on the shore of the Jordon, listening to Moses speak. Almost there, but not there yet. So close, but not yet.

In this passage, Moses speaks of the goodness of the land before them, a land with flowing streams, a land where you will lack nothing. It is a mental picture sketched before a hungry, tired people, a tantalizing picture of what might be. But there is an underlying warning, if you’re looking for it: do not forget. Do not forget the Lord your God, do not forget the years of the desert, do not forget. Remember it is God who brings you to the goodness of the land. Do not forget.

After generations of slavery, years of wandering in the wilderness, how could they possibly forget? After so many hard lessons, and witnessing God’s provision, how could they forget this wilderness experience? Walter Brueggemann writes that this experience permitted “Israel to recognize that it was not self-sufficient, could not manage its own way, and therefore could not pretend that it was in charge of its own life.” For Brueggemann, “The wilderness memory is one of vulnerable dependence, the shattering of all illusions of adequacy.”

And yet, it’s so easy to forget, when things get better, when the hope-for future finally arrives. As people, we want to put aside our vulnerability, banish the memory of a time that is so far out of our control. But God says, do not forget. Remember.

Remember the time when you needed me, God says, and I showed up. Remember the manna in the wilderness, the Zoom and phone calls with friends and family and church family, the dedicated work of so many making sure the poor have access to housing, food, clothing, medicine. Remember the new furry friend you brought home from the shelter, the extra time with kids (as challenging as it may sometimes be), the delight of seeing the seasons change at a slower pace of life.

Remember, God says, that even in the wilderness, there can be sufficiency. There will be brighter days—after all, we haven’t crossed the Jordan yet. Don’t forget. Don’t forget the homebound, and those who live far away, who we welcome to our Sunday services week after week. Don’t forget the creativity and ingenuity springing from the children and family website, from youth leaders taking charge of small groups and figuring out new, safe ways of being in community. Don’t forget the partnership of faith leaders, who worked tirelessly to create and fund the learning site, to help children in our community amidst the challenges of learning during a pandemic. Don’t forget, that we know now more than ever, that we can still be the church, the Body of Christ, from our own homes, or from wherever you’re worshiping with us today.

Do not forget, that this is the God who brought you out of Egypt. Remember the manna in the wilderness, new every morning. Do not forget the water from the rock, the mercy of God, the laws that bind us together as a community. Remember the covenant that he swore to your ancestors, as he is doing today.

So on this Thanksgiving, a Thanksgiving in the wilderness, I hope that amidst whatever is happening in your life today, I hope we can remember. As we remember the past, and hope for the future, I hope we can remember to give thanks for the blessing of today: for a God who is cultivating this field as his own, who is still at work in the wilderness of our lives.

So we give thanks, and wait on this side of the Jordan. And as we wait, we remember the works of God in this wilderness and all the goodness that is yet to be, remembering with hymn-writer Henry Alford that “all the world is God’s own field”. And so we pray, and sing:

“Even so, Lord, quickly come,

bring thy final harvest home;

gather thou thy people in,

free from sorrow, free from sin,

there, forever purified,

in thy presence to abide;

come, with all thine angels, come,

raise the glorious harvest home.”