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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Christmas 1/04/2015

In church we’re still in the Christmas season, but that’s about it; cultural Christmas that started before Thanksgiving pretty much ends when the presents are opened so by now there are far fewer lights and decorations around town, the time for celebrations and parties is past. There are lots of parties in the weeks before Christmas, and then there’s more around New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day, but we’re past all that now. In church Christmas does still go on and on Tuesday we’ll celebrate the Epiphany and the arrival of the Wise Men but despite all that, as of tomorrow, most people will have returned to the ordinary routines of life; party time is over.

But in today’s first lesson Jeremiah describes a party. It’s an invitation to a homecoming party with all the good things parties are supposed to have: the best food and wine, music, singing and dancing. It’s intergenerational, young and old together will be merry and it goes on forever with the Lord as the host. “I will turn their mourning into joy. I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow. My people will be satisfied with my bounty,” says the Lord.

What Jeremiah does here is very typical of what prophets do. What he’s actually doing is writing about the end of the exile in Babylon and the return of the people to Jerusalem but he does it with this vision of a party. We sometimes mistake prophets for fortune tellers who offered specifics about what was going to happen, but that’s not really what prophets did. There wasn’t a literal way for Jeremiah to describe this homecoming but what he and others did was to create images that would then help people use their own imagination to understand the possibilities and images of feasts and parties were frequently used. A description of a party was an imaginative way to provide a sense of what the return would be like. It would be a cause for celebration like Christmas and New Year’s are a cause for parties and celebration.

However, I don’t think we get this lesson today just to remind us that the holiday season isn’t over yet and that there is still reason to celebrate. What Jeremiah does with this proclamation is he offers an image of grace and that’s why this is an appropriate text for the Christmas season because grace gets closer to the heart of the real meaning of Christmas.

I was watching the NBC nightly news on Christmas night, I think it was NBC anyway, and they did a little feature at the end asking people on the street what Christmas meant to them. Now of course I don’t know how many people they actually talked to or how they decided which ones would be included in the broadcast, but none of the ones they showed, not one mentioned God or Jesus or church or anything religious as part of what Christmas meant to them. It was a little discouraging but then I thought, maybe they’re right and those responses just reflect the fact that cultural Christmas has prevailed so that presents and parties and family have become the real meaning of Christmas for most people; Jesus gets left out in the cold.

One of the things that we hope we do with our Sunday School kids is to make sure that they know that Christmas isn’t just about Santa, as much as we all love him, but that Christmas is the celebration of Jesus’ birth. That’s the beginning of understanding what Christmas is really about but even that doesn’t represent what I would call the real meaning of Christmas. The birth of a savior is obviously important and it is worthy of a party, but it may be that you don’t get beyond the birth and closer to a deeper meaning until maybe today, the eleventh day of Christmas,when the time for parties is over and you’ve had time to reflect on it a little bit and ask about what that birth means. That’s when you get around to grace.

The birth of Jesus was God’s conclusive and loving turn toward this world, his world. The failure of humanity to love God with heart, soul and mind and the failure of humanity to be obedient to God’s words provided ample reason for God to give up and start over. In the birth of Jesus, God does start over but it isn’t giving up. God starts over with this child who will grow up and reveal God’s essence as a God of grace and not a God of you get what you deserve judgment. Instead of giving up, God says, “There’s one thing I haven’t tried yet.”

We were talking about Jeremiah though. One of the things that irritates me is when I hear someone say that the Old Testament reveals a God of wrath and judgment while the New Testament reveals a God of grace and forgiveness. It irritates me because it just isn’t true. Throughout much of the Old Testament, and especially in the prophets, there are words of warning, there are words of judgment, but those words are invariably followed by texts like today’s, texts about grace. They are texts that witness to the fact that those words of warning and judgment are not the last word and the reason they are not the last word is not that the people deserve it because they’ve changed and now love God with heart, soul and mind. They’re not the last word because God has decided that he won’t let them be the last word, and that’s grace; deserves got nothing to do with it. By the grace of God, there will be a homecoming, there will be a party.

That prophecy was declared, but one would have to say that it wasn’t totally fulfilled. The exiled people did return to Jerusalem, but it wasn’t exactly a party; they continued to face hardship and difficulty as they tried to rebuild and figure out who they now were as a people. But you could say the same kind of thing about the birth of Jesus. It did mark a new beginning in God’s plan for salvation, but the kingdom Jesus proclaimed and embodied still doesn’t exist in full, we still only get a foretaste of the feast to come.

It’s true—the specifics have not been fully realized, but…the promises of grace do exist in full. As we say, we live in the in between time of the promise made but not present in full, but even in the in between the grace that underlies the promise is present. The birth of Jesus, the Incarnation that we continue to celebrate represents the Bible’s ultimate example of God’s positive purpose and intent for this world and at the heart of that purpose is grace.

Today’s lesson from Jeremiah with the promise of a party is an example of God’s grace toward those in exile in Babylon. Today’s gospel that sets the Incarnation in the light of creation is also a gospel of grace upon grace revealed in Jesus’ birth. It does make good theological sense to pair these reading on this Sunday and as is the case every Sunday, we need to hear words of grace.

The passage from John is the same gospel text that is appointed for Christmas Day so for those who were here that day, when you heard it today you might have been thinking, didn’t we just do this? We did, and on Christmas I shared a quote about grace from Paul Tillich, a noted theologian of the last century, and one not necessarily noted for being easy to understand. I’m going to share it again now, because I think it’s really good and, not many of you were here on Christmas morning and even if you were, it bears repeating.

“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; those are good words for the first Sunday in a new calendar year: accept the fact that you are accepted, and Jeremiah might add, it’s a good reason to throw a party.

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
but the
one who
sent me.”
 
 

 

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