Monday, December 31, 2007

Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas

As promised:

St. Thomas Episcopal Church, Vernon NJ

The Sunday after Christmas 2007 (BCP)

Isaiah 61:10 – 62:3; Psalm 147: 13-21; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

The Rev. R. F. Solon, Jr.

Well, the official Christmas season is over, right? Ever since Thanksgiving or even before, we’ve been inundated with messages to buy, give, shop. Buy this for your loved ones. Give this special gift to someone you know. Shop till you drop! Don’t’ miss out! There’s a special sale! Now open extended hours! I don’t know about you, but I didn’t go near a mall the last week or two before Christmas. It just got to be too much - all the emphasis on stuff.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m no Scrooge. I like presents just as much as anyone else, both getting as well as giving. You may have had a special present you searched high and low for. Perhaps you received a something particularly thoughtful this year that you weren’t expecting. Hopefully you experienced joy from your giving and receiving, and hopefully those with whom you gave and received, experienced joy as well. We often often receive joy from stuff, don’t we? We’re human, after all, flesh and blood, made of matter and atoms and DNA and proteins and all the rest, and there are times, like at Christmas, when we feel particularly connected to other people. Often, it’s our gift-giving and receiving - our stuff - that facilitates our joy and our connectedness. We’re made of stuff, and we can’t help but like, appreciate, and sometimes even love our stuff.

In one sense Christmas is indeed over, although we Christians know that the Twelve Days of Christmas begin on December 25, they don’t end on December 25. I happened to venture finally to a local mall on Friday to just take in the sights and get a little exercise. I wandered through some of the stores and actually bought a couple of books that looked interesting. But I remember most of all is the sales. In the men’s department of one department store chain, there were items that were 50, 60, and even 75 per cent off! One rather nice shirt, warm and thick for winter, was marked done to $7.50 from $65.00 I kid you not! I was amazed. I almost bought it, too, just because it seemed like such a good deal. I ended up leaving it on the shelf, but it got me thinking. Even the retailers want to gift us presents. Yes, they want us to buy stuff, but they also make it so easy, practically giving perfectly fine stuff away almost for free.

And you know, in a way, society has it right with its relentless emphasis on stuff. Stuff is important. It matters. Even God thinks so. God thinks that stuff is important. Remember the creation story? After each day of creation, God pronounced that “it was good.” After the sixth day, when God created humanity, God said we were very good. Us! Not just good, very good! It’s the only time that a part of creation was deemed very good. From the very beginning of creation, God has taken a particular interest and delight in flesh and blood, in us humans. In stuff. The atoms and molecules and all, the stuff of life, our physical lives, is something God has always paid attention to. Think back to Christmas and the Sundays of Advent. In almost every case, the reading from Isaiah is grounded – and I use that term deliberately – in the stuff of creation:

In days to come
the mountain of the LORD's house
shall be established as the highest of the mountains.

Or this:

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad,

the desert shall rejoice and blossom;

like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly.

From Christmas Eve:

You have multiplied the nation,

you have increased its joy;

they rejoice before you

as with joy at the harvest.

And from today’s reading:

For as the earth brings forth its shoots,

and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up,

so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise

to spring up before all the nations.

And what do we celebrate these twelve days with all our might? Yes, the birth of Jesus. But it isn’t merely a birth, as miraculous as any birth is. This birth was very special. The Gospel for today is possibly the most beautiful passage in all of the New Testament. Hear the beginning of it again: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” Jesus did not merely begin his existence in a little stable in Bethlehem. Jesus has always existed, has always been loved by God and loved God. More than that, Jesus has always existed, even before there was a creation. The Gospel tells us that Jesus the Christ was intimately involved in creation, right alongside the Father who called things into being. Jesus is actually the Word of creation itself. Jesus is no mere created being like you and me, but has always been alive and active.

That might be Good News enough. But the reason Christmas is so significant, so crucial, is what comes a little later: “And 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….From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” My friends, we Christians make the audacious claim that God chose to become actual matter – atoms and molecules and proteins and DNA and all the rest, and to be a real human being, just like you and just like me. We believe that Jesus was both human and divine. And those aren’t just throwaway words either. The Word didn’t just appear to be human – The Word was human, completely and fully homo sapiens. Think about it. God cared about stuff – about our stuff, about our lives, so much, so much! That God became stuff too. God didn’t just declare stuff, especially us, to be good, even very good, at creation. No, God has been actively concerned about creation and most especially us throughout the billions of years of creation itself. That attention, that love, is what drove God in Jesus to literally live among us as a human being.

We take pleasure and receive joy from our giving and receiving of presents at this time of the year. Our culture is obsessed with stuff, with physical things that we can touch and see and feel. Think about your favorite present this year, or one that you have always remembered. Maybe it’s one you gave rather than one you received. Remember how good it felt? Remember the love and joy you felt for the other person,. The connection you had? Now think of the indescribable joy God feels over his paramount gift to us. And it’s a real present, too, all wrapped up, not with pretty paper and a bright bow, but in simple bands of cloth. That gift to you and to me is physical and we can see and feel and touch it. That gift is Jesus, who was with God and who is God, and who became a real baby and lived in a real place with real people in a real time. And although one part of his physical life ended on a Cross nearly two thousand years ago, we still touch and see and feel him. God’s gift to us of Jesus is truly the gift that keeps on giving, because it is given again every time we come to the Table to celebrate Jesus among us in the Bread and the Wine – the Body and Blood – of the Eucharist.

My friends, that’s the meaning of Christmas. Immanuel – God-with-us - didn’t just end on that Friday on a hill outside Jerusalem. God-with-us is now and here and real. To God, stuff matters. We physical human beings matter to God. God created us, and likes to give presents too, and gives us his ultimate present – himself. And now each of us has to decide what to do with that present. How will we thank him? How will we use what we have been given? This Christmastide, I invite you think about what the gift of Jesus means in your own lives and in the life of St. Thomas’ Episcopal Church. You have a new vicar arriving, and it will be a joy to begin your life together. I pray that the spirit of Christmas will fill your hearts throughout the next weeks and months and years. Never forget the great joy you are to God. Never forget this Christmas present that tops all other presents you’ll ever receive or give. Because, from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.

In the Name of the Holy and Undivided Trinity. Amen.

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