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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Christmas 1/05/2014

Today is the last day of the Twelve Days of Christmas.  Commercial Christmas of course has been over for about eleven days now but having started long before Halloween it should be over.  In church though, we keep going; the light of Christmas continues to shine in the darkness.  The focus shifts a little bit starting tomorrow with Epiphany and the official observation of the visit of the Wise Men, but even then the celebration goes on, and it should because of the magnitude of what we celebrate.

This year, both before and during Christmas I’ve found myself thinking about the true meaning of Christmas as I’ve worked on sermons and newsletter articles.  I didn’t really plan it that way but maybe my thoughts went that way because it comes up in light of how blurred Christmas has become in our wider culture.  The increasingly blatant commercialism is one thing that blurs things but that’s not the only thing.  There’s also the stress of Christmas with all the preparations that for many people seem to suck the joy out of Christmas so that it mostly becomes an ordeal to be endured.  I find it kind of sad when I hear people say, “I’ll just be glad when it’s over;” if that’s how you feel it doesn’t leave much room for any true meaning. 

Then there’s some of the silly discussions and arguments that come up during the Christmas season about the war on Christmas, Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays, Holiday concerts rather than Christmas concerts at school, things like that and this year it got even sillier with the question of whether or not Santa has to be white.  All of these things are distractions and I’m sure there are others, distractions that really have nothing to do with the true meaning of Christmas but it made me think about what is the true meaning?

On Christmas Eve I said that some of the better Christmas stories and movies do get at aspects of the true meaning of Christmas even if they don’t mention Jesus and I think that’s true; they have their place as they get at some of the underlying themes and values that are part of the Christmas story and also part of Jesus’ teaching.  Today though, on the Second Sunday of Christmas, the lectionary always takes us back to the first chapter of John which is also always the gospel lesson on Christmas morning.  Not many people are here on Christmas morning for the reading of this gospel so it’s good that it’s repeated in the years when there are two Sundays after Christmas because it does offer a reflective counterpoint to Luke’s Christmas Eve story and perhaps gets us closer to the true meaning of Christmas than any other story, biblical or otherwise. 

The true meaning of Christmas is the Word became flesh and lived among us.  The true meaning of Christmas is Emmanuel, God with us.  The true meaning of Christmas is God’s decisive turn toward humanity, God’s embrace of humanity, not because we deserve it but because that’s who God is.  The true meaning of Christmas is God’s gift of grace upon grace.  Athanasius, one of the early church fathers said, “God became human so that we might become divine.”  That doesn’t mean that we become God but that we have the ability to share in the divine attributes of God and thus come closer to who God would have us be.   

John’s more cosmic rendering of the Incarnation lacks the familiar cast of characters, Mary and Joseph, shepherds, angels, Wise Men, the baby Jesus, but in the way that he tells it, he shows that this event is about us as much as it is about all of them.  John moves it from being something that happened a long time ago to being something that happens, that is happening right now.  The Word has become flesh; light does shine in the darkness; God is with us. 

God is with us and God is for us.  If you want the true meaning of Christmas, if you want the truth of Christmas, that’s it and that, as they say, is a game changer.  As much as I enjoy many of the trappings of Christmas, for me this turn of God toward humanity represents the true meaning.  It changes who we are as it makes us children of God who, in John’s words, were born not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.  The true meaning of Christmas does have to do with theological truths about God and the nature of God but it has just as much to do with truth about ourselves and our identity.  To understand ourselves as children of God isn’t just a theological cliché; it gives us an identity that tells us who we really are and it tells us that we’re never alone because God is with us.

This central theological truth can get lost in the midst of all the trappings and distractions, but there it is.  Our human nature is touched by the divine nature of God.  The Word became flesh, full of grace and truth; and we saw his glory.  The elegance of John’s words takes us beyond any simple and sentimental images we have of sweet baby Jesus lying in the manger and maybe on this twelfth day of Christmas, mostly separated from the distractions, we’re better able to grasp the magnitude of all this and what it means for us; sweet baby Jesus lying in the manger is God himself made flesh for our sake.  We are touched by the divine!  We are touched by the glory of God!  We have not been left to our own devices to try and earn our way which could only lead to failure and doom, but instead we have been made participants in and recipients of “the good pleasure of his will” as the letter to the Ephesians puts it.

We celebrate Christmas but Christmas is just the beginning of the story.  We celebrate Christmas but we’re already pointed toward Easter.  The letter to the Ephesians talks about “a plan for the fullness of time, to gather up all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth” which alludes to the idea that the Incarnation was just the beginning of the plan.  The baby had a destiny; he would grow up and his teaching would upset and continues to upset the expected order of things, things about which we’ve always assumed “that’s just the way it is;” but Jesus, echoing and expanding on what the prophets before him said, points to a different way, he lived a different way.

His ultimate destiny of course, was more than that of a teacher and more than just a role model.  In becoming human, the Word, Jesus became fully human and being fully human includes the reality of death.  Jesus would take on death and in doing so he would transform it.  It would not be the last word for him and with him having taken on human nature, it’s no longer the last word for any of us.  Death is still part of our reality, just as it was part of Jesus’ reality, but because of him we don’t have to be afraid.

And yet…He was in the world, yet the world did not know him.  That is the sad truth of Christmas.  For far too many, “He was in the world, yet the world did not know him” is the true meaning of Christmas.  I find it depressing when people say they can’t wait for Christmas to be over, but even more depressing is the fact that there are so many for whom Christmas is only about the distractions.  I’m always encouraged by the big crowd at the early service on Christmas Eve, a crowd that always includes a good number of children, because it is evidence that despite the pull of commercialism, there are people trying to help their kids understand that Christmas is about more than the presents, more than ribbons and tags, packages, boxes and bags.  There is a greater truth that they can at least begin to grasp.

The lessons today, especially the gospel but also Ephesians, help us to get at that truth on this last day of Christmas.  The Word has become flesh; God is with us.  The light does shine in the darkness, and the darkness will not overcome it.

Rev. Warren Geier

 
 

Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640
contact@bethanyishpeming.org

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor
pastor@bethanyishpeming.org

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“Whoever
welcomes
one such child in my name
welcomes me, and whoever
welcomes me welcomes
not me
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one who
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