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Responding to “God With Us”: December 24/25, 2022

The Nativity of the Lord
Luke 2:1-20
John 1:1-14

I mentioned in my sermon last Sunday, about a minister who said that he reads the upcoming readings right before his head hits the pillow, so that his dreaming subconscious can conjure up a sermon while he sleeps… I stand here wishing I had remembered those words, because I find Christmas and other big holidays to be the hardest to preach on. (By the way, this is good news to you, because if I don’t remember my own words from six or seven days ago, I can’t expect you to either.)

The challenging thing with Christmas is that you could go in so many directions. Do you go sentimental, and talk about the yule log and Christmases of old? Or do you challenge that, and use the Christmas story as a springboard to talk about poverty, the plight of refugees, or the need to challenge the powers of the world? Do I somehow try to work in Home Alone, or It’s a Wonderful Life, or Gremlins, or Die Hard? I remember summarizing a Don Knotts film one year. I remember talking about martians who visited a lady in England and ate her mince pies another year. But then I remember sharing some powerful real-life occurrence that I could barely get through, because of the tears. Does the the Christmas story need unpacking (where we ‘figure out’ the angels, and shepherds, and the mysterious conception of the Christ child)? Or does the story speak for itself? Is the primary audience the people who are here each week, or those who are visiting? Or those, from maybe all over the world, who might find us online?

And no matter where or who you are, are you approaching this Christmas with joy and anticipation at the most unfettered celebration in a few years? Or are you depressed at the impact of the winter storm and the pandemic and related precautions that continue to play a background (or foreground) role in our lives? In other words, what is it that you’ve brought with you here, tonight [today]? If you were a little shepherd girl or little drummer boy, what are you bringing as you stand or kneel before the child wrapped in bands of cloth; the one said to be the Messiah, the Lord?

The thing is, I think these days people are tending to find or locate themselves in very different places. And sometimes dialogue and bridge-building across those divides is being frowned upon. Though what is Christmas about, if not bridge-building? I’m thinking of the story from the First World War, about the Christmas truce that had German and British soldiers singing Silent Night and playing soccer. But more than that, the bridge-building between Creator and creation.

So imagine if we were one of the early groups of Christians: the first generation or two. We’d be meeting at night, like right now, as they did at first. And for them, the reason for their group’s very existence was not Christmas, but Easter. “Here is a human life,” someone has summarized it, “so shot through with the purposes of God, so transparent to the action of God” that we can say nothing less than what we’re talking about is God.* Someone so caught up in the inner life of God that even death is overcome. And stories of his death and his continuing life and presence after death spread, and change lives, and change communities.

And the continuing question of “who is this” that we’re dealing with lead to further reflection, and a consideration of how God and God’s power was inseparable from Jesus in his life: in his acts and his teaching. And it’s only natural that we keep going further and further back. In what’s probably the oldest Gospel, the writer describes Jesus showing up one day, with power and authority, and clearly aligned with God, as revealed at his baptism.

As the stories develop and continue to be told, we receive tales of his conception and birth; we heard one tonight [today]. These stories evoke the ancient story of creation: God’s Spirit hovering over the waters of the earth… here hovering over, overshadowing the womb of Mary. In these scenes we have a God “who thrives on partnership and does not believe in doing things” solo. A God looking to collaborate, and the ‘yes’ of the “willing collaborator, the co-worker.” ** One recent Anglican bishop in England has described the scene as having, “yes… a certain vulnerability that our forebears did not recognize, [in which God] holds his breath and waits for our response.”** And because this collaboration or partnership is equal, “its fruit was Jesus Christ, truly God and truly [human], utterly and equally human and divine.”**

The stories of the young and growing Christian community will continue to grow and spread, and the Fourth Gospel [which we’ll hear from at the end of the service] conveys what Matthew and Luke do by way of story, but does so in the language of poetry and philosophy: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God…. He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him…. 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.”

“God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God” is how a creed, some generations later, will describe it, with an economy of language, as people continue to wrestle with the question of “who is this” and “how can we speak of him?”

“For us and for our salvation, he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” Not the final words on the subject, and maybe not the most perfect words. But better than some of the other options floating around at the time. A still helpful metaphor is that of light: lighting one candle from another. The second candle gets its flame from the first. It is as strong and bright as the first. And the first is undiminished from it. A popular thinker at the time, named Gregory [St. Gregory of Nazianzus] used technical language: “the one who is before the ages” enters our age; “the invisible, the ungraspable,” becomes someone we can grasp; “the imprint of the archetypal beauty… the undistorted image” shows us what it looks like to reflect the love of God in the world.****

All of these stories and statements trying to make sense of the question of “who is this / who was this?” The one through whom God’s power was seen in death. The one who reflected perfect reciprocal relationship with God in life. And the one in whom God was fully present at birth, and before even that. Perhaps this is more helpful, on some level, than getting mired in the minutiae and historicity of the dreams, angels, prophecies, virginal conception, the census, the star, and everything. Not disregarding them, but looking through them to what our ancestors were trying, in so many ways, to convey: Jesus as the perfect response to God “that is both human and more than human.”*** And again, Jesus as the human life “so shot through with the purposes of God, so transparent to the action of God,” that people can see it and say nothing less than ‘that is God.’*

And many, many generations later, closer to our own day, we’ve continued to grapple with this, putting our thoughts and reflections to music:

“Word of the Father, now in flesh appearing.”

“Mild he lays his glory by…”

“Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see”

“Son of God, love’s pure light… Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.”

Attempts, in song, at expressing the experience of, and the belief in, that “human life so shot through with the purposes of God…”* All of this rumination basically asking: who is Jesus, at the deepest level?

And we might then ask ourselves, ‘who are we, at our deepest level?’ We may not be able to boast of sharing the “same substance” as the Father, as the creed will say of Jesus. But we were created with dignity, in the image of God. And the very premise of the Christian faith is that through Jesus we are invited into that same intimate relationship he had (or has) with God; we are adopted into it; we are grafted onto the branch. Who are we at our deepest level? We are — all — children of God. And while the entire divine plan may not depend on us to the same extent that it depended on Mary, our flourishing, and the flourishing of a very broken world do depend on our response. “[W]ith a certain vulnerability that our forebears did not recognize, [God] holds his breath and waits for our response.”** Waits for your response. Your response to the question of ‘who is this’ laying in the manger, and ‘what difference is that going to make in my life?’ As individuals, and as a congregation, and as the Church, tonight [today] we ask — as we stand or kneel before the utterly vulnerable baby (somehow containing the fullness of God) — who are we, deep down? The last three years have primed us for this question. Take away our usual habits; change our relationships and ways of communicating; in a situation of anxiety and sometimes danger; and throw in a winter storm (alongside the world’s wars and rumours of wars): how will we respond to the baby in the manger?

The Church — whether powerful and ornate as it has been at times in human history, or, as in the west in modern days, growing leaner — offers ways of helping us respond to the God who came to be with us, and showed us the beauty of God, and the beauty of the human response to God: committing to living differently in baptism. Offering the blessings and scars of life back to God in the eucharist (communion). And looking for God, and looking for ways of talking about, or to, God, in the Bible and in prayer. And in being connected with others following the same path, in the life of the Church.

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” is the message of this night [day]. “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.” But that does not have to be our response. About 150 years ago, one of our Anglican forebears, Christina Rossetti, put down her response, in song:

What can I give Him, Poor as I am? —
If I were a ShepherdI would bring a lamb;
If I were a Wise Man I would do my part, —
Yet what I can I give Him, — Give my heart.

So maybe we can follow her guidance in some way tonight [today], or in the coming days of the Christmas season, and beyond. Commit to responding to God — to the baby wrapped in bands of cloth, that we’ve come to see. You might make that response tonight [today] by affirming your trust in God through the words of the Creed. Or in the silence that precedes our prayer of Confession. In receiving Communion, or sitting or kneeling silently in the moments after. Or lighting a candle at the back. Or in singing one of our hymns. And then taking our light — God’s light — from this place into the world. To our families, our friendships, our workplaces, and wherever we find ourselves.

The God whose breath hovered over the waters of creation, and whose Word became flesh in Mary, is still active and present around and within us. And tonight [today] we’ve been reminded of that. That God has come among us. God wants to be with us. But God’s appearing is often veiled. God comes in quietly, in weakness. And yet God wants a response. God wants our partnership. So may this be a moment of remembering, and recommitting to that.

“For the grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all… He it is who gave himself for us that he might… purify for himself a people of his own who are zealous for good deeds.”

[‘He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave 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.”]

©2022 The Rev’d Matthew Kieswetter

* Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust, 57.
** Michael Perham, Glory in our Midst, 30-31.
*** Rowan Williams, Tokens of Trust, 66.
**** St. Gregory of Nazianzus, Festal Orations, 70-71.