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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

 
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Christmas Day 12/25/2018

On Christmas Day, with the opening words of John’s gospel, the canvas on which the gospel paints the person and work of Jesus gets larger. Luke’s Christmas story is more than a sentimental account of the birth of a baby; there is theological depth to it but even so, what it emphasizes is the humanity of Jesus, a baby born to Mary. In the poetic words of his prologue, John does take the theological depth to another level. You could say that as we move from prose to poetry we move from birth to incarnation with words that take us into the divine realm, words that take us to the beginning and identify “The Word made flesh” present and active with God in the work of creation. The canvas doesn’t get much larger than that.

The move from Luke’s prose to John’s poetry then is significant. We mostly live in a prose world which is part of why Luke’s story is so appealing with its familiar narrative and its familiar cast of characters. Poetic words and images like those of John’s prologue present more mystery. The familiar characters are gone and instead you get, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” It’s beautiful, but mysterious and it stays that way as John then moves into images of light shining in darkness, and of course the early fathers of the church incorporated all this into the Nicene Creed, “God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God,” more beautiful and poetic words.

I said last night that a part of me always feels like the best thing to do with Luke’s story would be to read it and then just have time to reflect silently on it; no sermon that tries to say something new about that which nothing new can be said. I feel the same way about this text. For anyone who comes to church on Christmas Day, my guess is that you know your Bible well enough to be familiar with these verses so you know that they’re better read than explained. As is the case with any good poetry, the best thing to do might be to just sit with the images and see where they take you.

One of the places these words might take you is to thoughts about creation. The opening words, “In the beginning…” words that repeat the opening words of the Genesis creation account can’t help but take you in that direction. As the Word made flesh, Jesus is the creative power of God, painting on this larger canvas, embodying and enacting the creative and saving work of God.

With his prologue, John seems intentional in leading us to imagine Jesus and his work not only being about the work of creation “in the beginning” but also as the inauguration of a new creation. What he does is to frame his gospel in the beginning and in the end with allusions to the creation stories of Genesis. He opens with today’s verses that reflect on and connect to Genesis one. The connection continues at the end of the gospel in his account of the resurrection, an account that begins reminiscent of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, with a man, Jesus and a woman, Mary Magdalene in a garden, remember that Mary thought Jesus was the gardener. What John is saying is that in and through the Word, creation began on the first day of the week and…in and through the Risen Word, the new creation also begins on the first day of the week.

With his poetry, John gives us this somewhat otherworldly, mystical Christmas story if we dare call it a Christmas story. Staying with the imagery though, we find that it’s not so otherworldly after all, but is rooted in the reality of this world. The Word didn’t become flesh in an otherworldly, mystical world. The Word became flesh in this world in order to bring hope to this world.

What John gives us is an image of God’s faithfulness to this world and that perhaps is the overarching truth of what we celebrate on these Christmas days. It’s a truth that will get further unpacked throughout the year especially when we get to the even larger canvas of Holy Week and Easter.

The scripture readings for Christmas Day are always the same: Isaiah, Hebrews, John and Psalm 98. What I find every year as I work on Christmas Day sermons is that in addition to John’s prologue, I’m also always drawn to the psalm. Psalm 98 is a summons to exuberant, authentic joy in the presence of the Lord and on Christmas morning it kind of serves as an exclamation point on the worship of last night and today. It’s a psalm that calls us to joyful praise concerning what God has done, joyful praise concerning the new creation that John’s verses lead us to. “Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises.”

If you’re at all familiar with the psalms you know that they reflect the full range of human emotions especially the ups and downs of our relationship with God. What you may or may not know is that the psalms are divided into 5 books; Psalm 98 is part of Book IV which is a group of psalms that are psalms of joy, psalms that celebrate the reign of the Lord. Book III that precedes Book IV has a very different tone, one that questions God’s presence as the people experience the hardship of exile. The last psalm of Book III is Psalm 89 and it poses the question, “Where is the divine steadfast love and faithfulness of old promised to David and his line?” Psalm 98 provides a response, saying that the Lord “has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness to the house of Israel.”

The Lord has remembered is a good Christmas refrain. What we celebrate today is that when it could have been otherwise, when God could have given up on sinful and broken humanity, instead, by grace he has remembered his steadfast love for us and for our salvation, coming down from heaven, incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary, becoming truly human. That’s what we celebrate today as we “Sing a new song to the Lord, who has done marvelous things.”

There is lots of joy out there today, much of it centered on the material, external trappings of the holiday. Many of those trappings are very nice, Christmas wouldn’t be the same without them, but our joy is different; it’s joy that runs deeper and doesn’t end when the last present is opened or Christmas dinner is finished. Psalm 98 is a reminder that what we reflect on and what we celebrate is a joy that centers on the gift of a savior, a savior who forever changes who we are because he forever changes our relationship with God. God has remembered his steadfast love and faithfulness.

The canvas does get larger today. We do begin to get a better idea of what it is that we celebrate today. The canvas gets larger and it is a source of joy.

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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