Sunday, January 5, 2014

Forget Theological Maxims and Biblical Proof-texts: This Is Your Nativity Story. (And hey, this is a short one!)


John 1:1-18

1In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2He was in the beginning with God. 3All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4in him was life,* and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.*
10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11He came to what was his own,* and his own people did not accept him. 12But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.
14 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. 15(John testified to him and cried out, ‘This was he of whom I said, “He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” ’) 16From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son,* who is close to the Father’s heart,* who has made him known. 

     I just put our tree away.  It’s a bittersweet thing. Wrapping up the ornaments in bubble wrap and recycled tissue paper. Putting all those memories away for another year. Rewinding the tree lights, knowing that I will curse myself next year for not taking care to organize them better.  But now, without the tree, we’ll have more room in our tiny house. The cat will no longer be tempted to bat at the precarious ornaments, and my dogs’ tails will no longer be quite the hazard they have been - at least, not in that particular walkway. We put the nativity scene away, too.  We have one that is a kind of calendar that counts down the days to Christmas, with the baby Jesus in the manger being placed as the last in the countdown, December 24th. It’s funny to me that Jesus spends the least amount of time sitting out in the open according to that calendar, but perhaps that is for another sermon. But now, Jesus is tucked back inside his box, back with the ornaments and the tinsel and the tree lights, back down in our dank Pittsburgh basement. Target has its decorations at 90% off, and dried up Christmas trees are now at the bottoms of our driveways, a trail of needles tracing back to our front doors. As my mom says, every year, at about 6pm on Christmas Day, usually sounding like a sad trombone, “Christmas is over.”
    And I’m sorry. This isn’t going to be a “keep Christmas in your heart all year ‘round” kind of sermon, because frankly, I’m pretty glad the commercial aspect of Christmas is over, even if the liturgical season of Christmas is still going on.
    We’ve spent an Advent season waiting for the birth of Christ. We’ve heard the nativity stories from both Matthew and Luke, stories of Jesus’ birth and who came from near and far to see him. We’ve dressed up our kids as bathrobe shepherds and wandering sheep, we’ve sung “Gloria” to recall the angels who came to proclaim his birth, we’ve heard the stories of the Magi who come from far away to see this infant in a barn.  We’ve arranged nativity scenes where all these characters - plus goats and donkeys and camels - all come and surround the Christ child, to witness to his birth.
    Hopefully, amidst the shopping and the rushing and the decorating and the eating - so much the eating - we’ve thought about the nativity, about who came to see Jesus, about coming to see Jesus ourselves.
    The nativity story really is a story about coming to Jesus, about travelers from far and wide, about the metaphorical traveling we must do to see him, to catch a glimpse of this baby who is the light of the world.
    But our passage today is a different kind of nativity story.  Instead of camels and shepherds and hay and swaddling cloths and the reign of Herod the Great, instead of situating Jesus’ birth in historical time among the politics and the musty stable and the swishing animal tails, we have a story that begins before time itself.
    This passage is rewriting the Genesis passage, situating Christ at the very center of the creation of the entire cosmos.
    Genesis begins: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God said that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness.”
    John begins: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”


Both of these passages have, at their very heart, the creation of the cosmos through the  very words of God, and God chooses to create light with those first words.

    I have spent hours this week, but years, really, trying to parse through the John  passage for today. Trying to figure out who Jesus is here, what Jesus is doing, trying to determine Jesus’ identity and the meaning of the Trinity, and Jesus’ relationship with the Father and trying to understand the incarnation, and how it all fits together in some sort of complicated philosophical, theological, Christological framework.
    Like Jacob who wrestles with God himself, I have wrestled with this passage, trying to make sense of it, trying to make sense of who it is telling me God is.  And like Jacob, I come out of it with a deeper limp, a heavier ache in my side.

    But after pages and pages of commentaries, books and books of academic analysis, after sermons and talks and reflections from theological and spiritual giants, after prayer and struggle and fear and misunderstanding, I think maybe I’ve missed the point.  This passage really isn’t a clear definition of who God is.  This passage is beautiful, and true, and contradictory and poetic and bewildering.  But I don’t think this passage is meant to be a proof text about who God is. This passage is a song about who we are. Who we really are.  To our core. In our inmost being.
    This passage isn’t really the story of Jesus’ birth. It is the story of our birth.  This is the story of our nativity.
    Instead of a story about who comes to see Jesus, this is a story about God, through Jesus, coming to see us.  Instead of a story about a star shining in the sky to light the way to the Christ child, this is a story of the light that points its way to us.
    This hymn sings about the creation of the cosmos, a cosmos full of light “that enlightens everyone.” And this hymn centers on us. To us has been given the “power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.”
    Can you hear it? Through Christ, we are born. We are born of God. This is our birth story. This is our nativity story.
    The writer of the Gospel of John says, “And the word became flesh and lived among us...”
    The Word comes to us. Literally, in the Greek, “eskenosen” - the Word “pitches his tent” among us.
    And John continues, “and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.”
    The Word comes to us, sets up his tent among us. And we are invited to see the glory of a dusty, leaky, oh so very human, pitched tent.
    In the Greek, “The Word” is “Logos.” But unlike the Stoics and other philosophers who claimed that the world is based upon a logos of abstract reason, this Logos is spoken, active. This Logos is a revelation - “not so much a divine idea, but a divine communication.” And like that riddle about the tree falling in the forest, God’s Word is nothing unless it is relational, unless it’s set in the earth, pitched into the ground, interacting with dust and sweat and heat of humanity.
    The Word creates, speaking all things into creation. The Word creates, speaking us into being.
    And we are the story that God is telling. This is our nativity story. The story of our birth. And God is still speaking, God is still creating, God is still sending the Word out into the world.

    This week I’ve been thinking a lot about resolutions.  About the start of a new year and trying to do better.  Like everybody else, I want to exercise more and drink more water, and do better with my time and keep a cleaner house. I want to find ways where I can encounter Jesus, where I can find Jesus in that manger in a stable surrounded by the donkeys and the sheep and the shepherds and the singing angels.  But you know what? Just like every year, I’m going to get tired of all the striving.  If I’m lucky, I’ll last through sometime around mid-February and then the winter doldrums will hit and I’ll skip one day of exercise, and then I won’t see the harm in just one more cookie, and I’ll rush from one thing to the next and say to myself that I’ll be sure to spend time with God tomorrow. I will forget about my promise to keep coming back to the nativity scene. I’ll get overwhelmed by the violence and hatred in the news and in Pittsburgh and on TV and feel helpless about all the hungry people in the world and in my neighborhood, and I’ll stop trying to find Christ in the world. I will get so so tired from all the striving and the working and the aching and the confusion. I’ll stop worrying and struggling and thinking about the meaning of the Trinity and stop trying to determine who Christ is or the meaning of what he has done for this world.  I’ll get cynical. I’ll get lazy. All of these things. I will forget about the nativity stories of how, like the shepherds and the wise men, we are called to come see the Christ child for ourselves.

    But my failures aren’t the end of it. We get a nativity story, too. A story that describes who we are, who God made us to be, a story that tells the tale of God coming to see us, of God pitching God’s tent among us?
    A story about God coming to us?
    A story that’s not about our striving, or our faith, or our commitment to travel miles across a desert on a camel, but a story about the Word creating us. Forming us into being. Making us out of his own light.
    Just amazing.
    It’s God who does the initiating, God who does the creating and God who invites us to participate in that creativity.  So when our resolutions fail, when we forget the nativity story and the huge importance of the birth of the Christ child, we are still here, and God is still speaking, and the Word has pitched his tent among us. We are still the story that God is telling. God is coming to us, all the time. God is still speaking us into existence. Proclaiming us as God’s own.
    And we are invited to participate in this new creation. To remember our nativity. To know from whom we come. To know of what we are made. To remember who came to us, in the flesh, full of grace and truth

Thanks be to God.

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