“He Came Among His Own” Christmas Eve 2014

“He Came Among His Own.”[1]word-became

John 1.11

Christmas Eve, 2014

 

Good evening.

I want to begin by saying that the reason why you’re here tonight is of no consequence. If you’re at Liturgy every Sunday, whether you’re what we often call a “C & E” Christian-and that doesn’t stand for Church of England, but rather “Christmas and Easter”- it doesn’t matter. All that matters this evening is that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is born in Bethlehem of Judea, and while that sounds like “old news”-though maybe “good news” in a generically Christian sort of way-the better news is what St. John has to say, He came among his own.

To put that a bit differently, The Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

I don’t get too excited about angels in the sky singing, shepherds in the field abiding, the wise men from afar bearing gifts, the holy family, or even the baby in the manger, but what I do become incredibly excited about is that Christ took on human flesh-he became a man- and in doing so, he took upon himself every rotten, wounded, sick, horrific, part of me, and in return he gave himself to me.

And he didn’t just do it for me-he’s done it for everyone, regardless of whether they’re devout Christians, C&E Christians, marginal Christians or atheists: there is no part of humanity anywhere that Christ has not taken upon himself and in doing so, healed, made whole. Now not everyone knows it, and that’s as much the fault of the Church as it is those who live in ignorance, but Christ hasn’t given up on anyone which is precisely why the “old news” that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is born in Bethlehem of Judea is still “good news,” for Christ became a man, lived among men, and still searches….perhaps even for you.

Now this is important to everyone tonight by virtue of the fact that you are here, at this Liturgy-for whatever the reason might be: keep peace in the family, duty, desire, make your parents happy, make your mother happy give your favorite pastor a gift, whatever, the fact is that you’re here and that means that at some level, you believe in God—and that’s a good thing.

Maybe your faith isn’t as refined as the person next to you, and maybe those who believe their faith is refined isn’t quite as perfect as they might think, but that’s OK too, for you see Christ still came among us as a man-not as the God of the Old Testament, in a fiery cloud or whirlwind, but as one of us; it’s Genesis in reverse: he became bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh, precisely so that none of us would be frightened or afraid to approach him, for you see he hasn’t come in judgment or wrath, but rather in mercy and peace; with outstretched arms and not a clenched fist. And tonight he’s come again, among his own.

Belief in God is a good thing, but it’s not the only thing; St. James reminds us that even the demons believe in God. Belief in the Nativity story too is a good thing, but it’s not the only thing either. No one should ever start with a “belief in God”-after all what does that mean? Tonight there’s a historical, prophetical, and scriptural reality held out once again to the entire world, that transcends angels, mangers and wise men, and it’s that reality that needs to be believed, yes; but better still apprehended and acted upon: Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is born in Bethlehem of Judea, that is to say, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, as a man.

      And he came among his own; did you hear that? Were you listening-I know no one wants a lengthy Christmas Eve sermon, and neither do I, I despise long and windy sermons, but you need to get this: he came among his own, which can only mean that his flesh, his bone, his blood, his skin-his biology if you will-was identical to our own, after all who was frightened at his coming? No one looked at him in the manger and fled in terror or fear!

You are his “own.”

      So no matter who you are, how often you attend a Liturgy or pray, no matter why you’re here this evening, you have a reason to rejoice: the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, for-no-other-reason-than-to-seek-and-to-save-the-lost. No one then should be frightened, no one should believe that he or she is not loved by Christ, no one should think that there is some sin, some roadblock, some hindrance between them and our Father, for Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is born in Bethlehem of Judea, that is to say, the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, as a man.

Brothers and sisters, you are loved beyond what you can possibly imagine: Christ has come into our flesh, making us children of God, with himself as the firstborn.

Tonight, once again, we will celebrate that great gift of life, of forgiveness, of mercy, of healing and of peace with God in the Eucharist. Tonight Christ will again come among his own, with his Father and the Holy Spirit as the entire Trinity celebrates with us tonight that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is born in Bethlehem of Judea; the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, as a man.

Finally-and that’s the first word you’ve been waiting to hear-I want to leave you with what the centurion in Matthew 8 said to Jesus: Lord I am not worthy that you should come into my home, but only say the word… “only say the word” brothers and sisters………………….

Our Lord didn’t “say” the Word, he became the Word, and that Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

And now the second word you’re waiting for: AMEN!

 

 

[1] While there are no direct quotes in this piece from specific Fathers, I owe them all a debt beyond repayment. For better or for worse, their words and their wisdom have largely shaped my own theological thought. In this particular piece I was inspired by the work of Bernard of Clairvaux; when you read his Christmas homilies you cannot help but come away thinking that he was a man for whom the Incarnation was one of the greatest joys of his life-as it should be for ours!

Final Advent Mid-Week ’14: Speak Tenderly.

Heart_2In the midst of Advent and the often loud and seemingly maniacal run-up to Christmas, where the holidays often do little more than to add their own unique anxieties, on top of the “normal” anxieties that are part and parcel of our humanity, a voice that Elijah would recognize-a “still, small, voice”-says “speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her, that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned.”[1]   Continue reading Final Advent Mid-Week ’14: Speak Tenderly.

Third Sunday in Advent 2014: “Go Ask Him.”

John-the-Baptist-in-prison-Rembrandt“Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?” That’s about as basic a question as a person can ask: Is it you, or do we need to keep looking? This is the question asked by John’s disciples; the disciples who heard John say: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”[1] Continue reading Third Sunday in Advent 2014: “Go Ask Him.”

Merry Christmas to the Mentally Ill

battling-holiday-depressionI think it safe to say that the holiday season is easily upon us, and for those who must deal with the hell of mental illness, to say that the holiday season is “upon” us is reminiscent of what the Lord God said to Cain: evil is waiting outside your door, moreover, it desires you. I don’t pretend to have any great insight into mental illness, and as a general rule find “pastoral” advice to be laughably banal. Descriptions of the specialty of holiday madness’s have been written by far more “pastoral” people than I aspire to be; I find them a bit too rarified for my own experience, and the faith behind them to be just a little too perfect. It often reminds me of the Vennerings from Dickens’ Our Mutual Friend: “And what was observable in the furniture, was observable in the Veneerings–the surface smelt a little too much of the workshop and was a trifle sticky.” Continue reading Merry Christmas to the Mentally Ill

The Strange Story of the Bat-Light and the Non-Prophet Church

downloadSecond Midweek Advent ‘14

Malachi 4.1-6

 

Anyone remotely familiar with either the comic book or television version of Batman will remember that when criminals invaded Gotham City and were simply too much for Commissioner Gordon’s police force, he would switch on the Bat-Light: a very large and very intense spot light that would project a symbol of a bat in the sky over Gotham City. Continue reading The Strange Story of the Bat-Light and the Non-Prophet Church

On “Owning” the Ethic

Candles are seen at the memorial of Garner in Staten IslandI began reading Brian Brock’s Singing the Ethos of God: On the Place of Christian Ethics in Scripture (Eerdmans, 2007) last evening. I finished the first chapter, “Reading Self-Consciously: The Hermeneutical Solution,” and while the authors examined in the first chapter would be considered well outside the “mainstream” of Lutheran thought (Elizabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, Daniel Patte, and Charles Cosgrove), collectively they made a rather interesting point, namely, the actual responsibility for the ethic. I suppose another way to express the same would be to ask: Who takes responsibility for the outcome of an ethic; who “owns” it? Continue reading On “Owning” the Ethic

Second Sunday in Advent 2014: Luke 21.25-36

I was reading a piece this week by William Willimon, who when he was still in the parish, attended a funeral at a very small, independent Baptist church in rural Georgia.[1] Willimon’s own parish was also in rural Georgia, and a relative of one his members had died, so he and his wife went to the funeral as a show of support for the family. The funeral was held on a sweltering Georgia afternoon at this church literally at the end of a dirt road. When the casket came in the preacher began to shout: “It’s too late for Joe—he might have wanted this or that in his life, but it’s too late now. He’s dead. It’s all over for him, He might have wanted to straighten out his life, but he can’t now. It’s over.” Continue reading Second Sunday in Advent 2014: Luke 21.25-36

Advent Mid-Week I ’14

Tsade-Righteous-Branch-300x300Jeremiah 23.5-8

It is highly unlikely that any Old Testament prophet would find himself invited to a Christmas party. They find little, if any, cheer in this world, and generally find themselves abused, scorned, laughed at, mocked, imprisoned or tortured.

On the way up to Clarion I used to pass a house just outside of New Bethlehem, and the owner had placed signs with scriptural verses of judgment all over the outside of his home, and while I’m certain that he knew that the average Christian had more fear of their favorite team not making the playoffs than they did of God, it didn’t seem to matter to him; he, for his part he “preached” repentance.

The history of the church is full to overflowing with those pastors, priests and bishops who took the Old Testament prophets seriously, and for whom God was not an “idea,” and Jesus actually did take on human flesh. Many of them, not unlike Jeremiah, were ridiculed, tortured, exiled, imprisoned, or within the contemporary church, complained about to their bishops, District Presidents, or summarily “fired” by congregational vote. Some of you may remember Fr. Mike from St. Nicholas who used to come to all of our functions. He was complained about to his Bishop by prominent members of his parish and the charge was that he spoke too much about judgment and the expectations of God for his people. I had a member of Resurrection parish tell me one time that she liked many of the sermons she heard because there was no “fire and brimstone.”

I suspect Jeremiah couldn’t disagree more.

Tonight’s reading from Jeremiah is just one of many prophetic Advent voices, and while the raising up a “righteous branch” who will “reign as king and deal wisely,” executing “justice and righteousness” in the land sounds delightfully familiar to contemporary ears, but we rarely stop to consider why it is that God makes such an assertion.

The problems facing Judah are not flukes of history, the outcome of some geopolitical struggle in an ancient and forgotten part of the world, and the problem of Judah is not simply “bad” rulers, nor are the people of Judah innocent by-standers, merely victims of a warring kingdom’s aggression.

What is being done to Israel is being done on purpose and not by some foreign army, but rather by the will of the Lord who says as much:

 

Behold, what I have built I am breaking down, and what I have planted I am plucking up—that is, the whole land. And do you seek great things for yourself? Seek them not, for behold, I am bringing disaster upon all flesh, declares the Lord. But I will give you your life as a prize of war in all places to which you may go.[1]

 

And the reason is because the Lord holds the people of Israel directly responsible for their actions, despite being warned.[2]

Kings in power have abused it; priests have made their vocations laughable; children of the covenant have determined it to be irrelevant, and no end of false prophets have arisen-all claiming to be sent by God-[3]and all claiming that Jeremiah’s prophecy of desolation, capture, imprisonment and exile are the ranting of a madman who walks up and down the streets of a city wearing a yoke around his neck to serve as a visual example of what will soon be inevitable.

This isn’t a manger scene in Bethlehem with angels singing “Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace, goodwill to men”; this is utter devastation and destruction, all very purposeful, very deliberate, and all taking place as a direct result people’s actions.

But when the modern parish hears these messages, one of two reactions is inevitable. The first is simply disregard of the message, or the belief-the very same that was widespread during Jeremiah’s life-that such a tragedy can’t happen here, and besides-the argument goes-“we have faith.”

The second is that the pastor “always” has what is considered to be an “unhappy” message; preaching about a Jesus who is coming in judgment and who does have expectations of his people. In essence, the pastor is as unbalanced as Jeremiah or the man in New Bethlehem.

Neither is true; both are a lie.

Certainly many things can be said about the LCMS, but among my own classmates, I don’t know a man who steps into the pulpit and doesn’t number himself among those to be judged, or who doesn’t take very, very seriously the warning of Advent.

Advent, more than any other time of the church year, is the time “to be in earnest,”[4] so anyone who says in response to Jeremiah’s warnings “By grace I’m saved,” and yet lives a life that is grace-less, is every bit as deluded as the false prophets Jeremiah confronted.

But of course a “righteous king” did come, and he didn’t come simply to be born, to die, to be resurrected, and to ascend—out of sight, out of mind. He came to welcome man back to himself-even searching for men who refused such a welcome, and he came to demonstrate to us what justice, mercy, and forgiveness look like in “real life.”[5] He didn’t come in terror or in judgment, but rather as one of us: who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.[6]

This bears saying again: Christ came to welcome man back to himself, that is, you and I; back to himself, that is, our created place as his brother. He came to be the embodiment of this passage: For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. 17 For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.[7]     

And of course this righteous king is going to return, to finally execute justice on a cosmic scale, so from Jeremiah’s perspective it is imperative that you and I not love the darkness when such a light has come into the world, particularly when we’ve been given the grace to know exactly what the darkness is.

So what is Advent’s message this evening?[8] How best to prepare for the coming of our King and our Judge? By putting on yoke of Christ.[9]

And what is such a yoke but patience: Wait for the Lord and keep his way,[10] realizing that we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us.[11]

Christ has brought you and I into his vineyard, therefore let us all do good work, and to that end we must not be found neglectful in our striving after Christ, remember that great hope that we have within.       And where there are to be found contests, there are rewards; where there is a war, there is also a victory, and of that victor St. James says: Blessed is the man who remains steadfast under trial, for when he has stood the test he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.[12]

Let us together then cultivate the field of our present life, not rejecting our crown, and join with the Psalmist who said Wait for the Lord; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the Lord![13]

[1] Jeremiah 45.4ff

[2] 18.11-12 among others

[3] Hananiah perhaps the most infamous.

[4] A phrase P.D. James was fond of using.

[5] Gregory the Great and Leo the Great make these points over and over again in their Christmas homilies.

[6] Philippians 2.5ff

[7] John 3.16-17

[8] For the rest of this homily I am grateful to the insight of my father in the faith St. Ephrem; may his memory be eternal!

[9] Matthew 11.29

[10] Psalm 37.34

[11] Romans 5.3-5

[12] James 1.12

[13] Psalm 27.14

First Sunday of Advent: An Ass and An Epistle

higher4pl1Matthew 21.1-9 & Romans 13.1-11

 

Watch, for you do not know the day or the hour, and what a sight you would have seen: Jesus riding on an ass, as a crowd spread palm branches before him crying Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord![1]

But we’re not interested in the crowd or their cries; we’re not interested in their palm branches or their cloaks spread on the road. We’re not interested in the order given to the disciples or even the prophecy quoted by St. Matthew. What we are interested in is the ass. Continue reading First Sunday of Advent: An Ass and An Epistle