Worship Sunday at 10:30

Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Christmas 01/02/2011

“In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God,” and so begins John’s gospel.  If you come to church on Christmas Day this is always the gospel and it is always the gospel on this Sunday, the second Sunday of Christmas so those who put together the lectionary clearly felt it was important.  If all we had was John though, there would be no manger scenes, there would be no Christmas pageants because there’s no story, there’s no story of Jesus’ birth; Luke and Matthew give us that.  The words from John are beautiful and laden with meaning, but with their cosmic nature, they’re hard to picture, but maybe Rembrandt did it.

The picture on the cover of your bulletin is a copy of Rembrandt’s painting “Holy Family.”  I confess that I don’t know much about art, but I read a biography a few years ago called “Rembrandt’s Eyes” by Simon Schama which did help me gain a deeper appreciation of Rembrandt and more of an understanding of his work.   Rembrandt did do many paintings depicting Bible stories or events and obviously the Holy Family is one of those paintings.  The original is housed at the Hermitage, the old Winter Palace in St. Petersburg, Russia.  I might have seen it when I was there twenty five years ago, but I don’t really remember. That was in a previous life and I probably would have just been bored and unappreciative anyway. 

Rembrandt lived during the 1600’s and he painted the nativity as if it were an event taking place at that time.  The clothes being worn and the furnishings are what would be typical in a 17th century Dutch home.  You can see that Mary is seated and with one hand is either rocking the cradle or maybe she has just pulled back a covering to check on her sleeping child.  In the other hand and arm she is holding an open book that appears to be well thumbed, a book that we assume is a Bible; at the moment though she’s not reading, she’s focused on the baby.  In the background, a little harder to see is Joseph and he appears to be planing a piece of wood, doing his work as a carpenter.  In the upper left hand corner you have angels, cherubim hovering and watching over the whole scene.

It’s kind of an interesting approach I think, an interesting approach to the nativity, although one not unique to Rembrandt; other artists have also situated biblical events in more contemporary settings.  Besides placing the event of the nativity in his time though, you could also say that Rembrandt has depicted two ways of understanding the Word, the Word that we again focus on this morning with the prologue to John’s gospel.  I have no idea if Rembrandt himself had the Word in mind as he did this painting, but I don’t think it’s a stretch to make a move in that direction as we look at it.

The word of God of course is central to faith and I think most often we think about it as it’s found in scripture.  A key claim concerning the written word of scripture is that it is believed to be inspired in some fashion by God and it is believed to have particular authority.  In other words, it’s more than just another book or another collection of writings.  There is basic agreement on that but then there is much discussion among faithful people about exactly how scripture is inspired and about exactly what authority it has and how it is to be interpreted but this isn’t the place for that discussion. 

The point for us this morning is that as we read words of scripture or hear them read, regardless of all the interpretive questions, we believe that we are addressed by the Word of God.  These words and stories have special meaning and weight.  So we read the words again, the same stories over and over and perhaps find that we are addressed in a new way; again, the Bible is not just another book you read through and say, “That’s that,” and put it on the shelf never to be looked at again.  You come back to it precisely because the Word of God is found there and the old words speak new wisdom to new situations and contexts because it’s a living word, still active and vibrant.

In the painting it appears that this is just how Mary has used her Bible.  The book she holds is well worn, well used, no doubt speaking to her in new ways as she continues to ponder all she has been told and has experienced in the birth of this child.  She is using the Bible to make sense of the mystery she has become part of. 

At the moment depicted in the painting though, she is not reading;  she is pondering the child, the Word made flesh as opposed to the Word on paper, the Word made flesh that John writes about in his gospel.  In Jesus, God’s Word comes to people as a human being.  In the time before Jesus and in the time after Jesus, many human beings have said things about God but in Jesus the Word comes from God in human form.  In his life, in what he says and does, and in his death and resurrection we don’t just receive information about God, we are granted an encounter with God.       

Whether or not it was Rembrandt’s intent I don’t know, but in this painting Mary is encountering the Word in these two ways, in the written word of scripture and in the Word made flesh, Jesus.  When she returns to her reading her understanding will be deeper because she has encountered the Word made flesh.  As she tends to the needs of her child, her understanding of him will be different because she has spent time with the Word as scripture.  The two go together and Rembrandt has done a pretty good job of illustrating this. 

What he also does is through this picture of Mary he shows us a model of one aspect of a life of faith, particularly a life of faith in a Word based church which is what we are as Lutherans.  Rembrandt effectively shows the back and forth between Mary studying the child and her studying the Bible.  It is a behavior that we too are called to engage.  In fact, this is a perfect opportunity to make a theological resolution for the new calendar year, namely a resolution to develop a richer, fuller faith by tending to the Word, the Word of scripture and the Word made flesh, Jesus.  It’s a resolution you can make regardless of where you are in your own journey of faith and regardless of how much or how little you are already attending to the Word. 

Regarding the Word as scripture there are plenty of ways to deepen your engagement through Bible studies and Lay School classes and with your own personal devotion to develop or expand a discipline of Bible reading.  One thing I haven’t pitched in awhile is the daily lectionary printed in the newsletter every month.  It’s not a burdensome discipline to take on consisting of a psalm and two short readings each day and it is focused on the Sunday lectionary, leading you toward the Sunday readings on Thursday, Friday and Saturday and then providing reflection on the Sunday readings on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday.

On Sunday, the assumption is that you’re in church to hear the readings of the week, and there you also encounter the Word made flesh.  We’re not privileged like Mary to gaze at the child as we rock the cradle, but we are invited into this sacred space and in Holy Communion, in word and music, in prayer we are granted an encounter with Jesus.  Being part of the worship life of the church is always central to that encounter. 

We also encounter Jesus as we live out the truth proclaimed about him and lived by him.  In today’s readings both John and Paul speak of Jesus as the truth of God and that truth has to do with grace and forgiveness and reconciliation.  We depend on and expect God’s grace and forgiveness and reconciliation for ourselves, but we should also expect it of ourselves in our relationships with friends and strangers.  As we live out this truth, we do encounter the Word made flesh and others encounter it in us.

This morning we do think about the Word.  In whatever ways are appropriate for you, resolve to make this year a year of encounter with the Word in scripture and in the Word made flesh, Jesus who lives among us, full of grace and truth.

Rev. Warren Geier

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
but the
one who
sent me.”


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