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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Christmas Day 12/25/2014

By the time we gather for Christmas Day worship, things always feel a little more relaxed. Actually, for me the pressure starts to ease after the early Christmas Eve service; that’s the most complicated one. Then the late service, while similar in many ways, with the smaller crowd and later hour that keeps some of us up past our bedtime, gives it a different feel, more subdued. Then this morning a little more air is let out, it’s quiet, the organist has the morning off, choir members can just worship without worrying about an anthem, pastors from Negaunee can just worship, even for me, while I still have a service to lead, of all the Christmas services, this one may be the most worshipful. I think that’s the key though; for those who are here on Christmas morning, it is a very worshipful time.

In this more subdued setting though, we always get the opening verses of John’s gospel. It’s not a story like Luke and Matthew tell so all the familiar characters are missing. Instead John sets the incarnation in the context of creation, “In the beginning was the Word…” and as it continues you hear the echoes of Genesis.

John is often considered to be the most theological of the gospels. That can be debated I suppose, but it is true that those who formulated what became accepted Christian doctrine drew heavily from John particularly in understanding the person of Jesus, the Word made flesh. More and more though, I wonder if that was really John’s intent; was the goal to provide his readers with dense theology? Without question it’s there as generations of theologians have found.

I think though, that John can also be understood as a book of poetic images, a book that that creates and lays bare a multi-layered vista that enables us to see more deeply and clearly than we could otherwise. He creates something like what I experience when I kayak in the late fall or early spring when there are no leaves on the trees and there is an absence of ground vegetation. At those times you can see things that you can’t see when everything is lush and green. What you can see are the layers of the landscape. The skyline as it meets the ground is different, individual trees and branches are more distinct, sometimes you see a house or a building or a rock formation that you didn’t know was there.

That’s kind of what John does, he uncovers these different layers. In the verses we heard this morning John doesn’t fully investigate any one image, instead he lets the layers evolve and wash over each other. The prologue functions like a musical overture that offers bits of melodies and motifs that will be more fully explored later in the piece; in John’s case, images like the Word and light and darkness and children of God, they will be revisited later and followed by other images that will add additional layers to the vista that he creates. The layers don’t provide full understanding, but that’s not John’s intent. He does this so that we might come to believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God as he says later in the gospel.

There’s a story about Robert Louis Stevenson, that when he was a boy growing up in the mid-1800’s he was sitting one night by a window in his room watching a lamplighter light the street lights, the gas lights, down below. When asked what he was doing he said, “I’m watching a man poke holes in the darkness.” That too is a pretty good description of what John does: he pokes holes in the unfathomable mystery of God and causes light to shine.

In the quiet of Christmas morning though, what is it that we most need to hear from John’s prologue? There’s no one right answer to that question and we all might have a different word or phrase or image that got our attention this morning and that’s OK. For me though, the answer to what I most need to hear this morning remains the same as what I need to hear every morning. What I need to hear is a word of grace. “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.”

Grace of course is one of those words that we throw around like we know what it means and maybe we sort of do, but I don’t think any of us fully understands it. If you look up grace in the dictionary you’ll find that it’s one of the longer definitions on the page because it can be nuanced in so many ways. In the dictionary I have upstairs though, definition number 7 says in part, “Divine love and protection bestowed freely upon mankind; an unmerited gift from God.”

That’s helpful, but then the word unmerited can be hard to grasp for people who are accustomed to earning their way and you get what you deserve. Providing some clarity though, I found a quote from Paul Tillich, one of great Christian thinkers of the last century and not someone who I would normally look to expecting clarity; he can be a very difficult and convoluted read. But here’s what he had to say about grace:

“Grace strikes us when we are in great pain and darkness. It strikes us when we walk through the dark valley of a life that feels meaningless and empty. It strikes us when we feel that our separation from God is deeper than usual because we have violated another life which we loved or from which we were estranged. It strikes us when, year after year, the longed for perfection of life does not appear, when the old compulsions reign within us as they have for decades, when despair destroys joy and courage. Sometimes at that moment a wave of light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying, you are accepted. You are accepted. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted! When that happens to us, we have experienced grace.”

Accept the fact that you are accepted; the grace that Jesus embodied represents that acceptance that we all need. As I’ve said before, the Word did not need to become flesh in order to reveal a “you get what you deserve” God. That was already the image for most people. The Word made Flesh is about God’s ultimate, gracious commitment to this world and especially his gracious commitment to the human beings who inhabit this world. On Christmas this gift of grace is the greatest gift we receive. It’s a hole poked in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.

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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