Dec. 28, 2014
Rev. Jeremy Smith
Wearing out our Christmas Clothes
Introducing the Scripture
In the Beginning. Does that sound familiar? It’s found in two books: Genesis which talks about how the earth was created, and in the Gospel according to John, written almost a century after Jesus was born. If any Gospel gets the “not very subtle” award, John is it. There’s no messianic secret like in Matthew, only constant affirmations about who Jesus is.
John is trying to say that the story of Jesus is not a story about Jesus, but about God. The parallel “in the beginning” with Genesis means that Jesus is reordering Creation, redefining what life is, what creation is, what salvation is, is doing a complete fruit-basket turnover. But unlike a flood that wiped the slate clean and gave Russell Crowe another acting role as Noah, this time Jesus is reordering life from the bottom up: from the stable to the palace. Darkness and Doom will no longer rule the world; Light and life will now be the way how God operates. It’s a manifesto of how the Gospel can reorder our lives even today.
Listen now as these words of revolution are shared.
Last year I preached from this pulpit that the thing that reminded me most about Christmas was food. This year, I want to talk about Christmas sweaters. My favorite part of Christmas is the holiday sweaters. My grandmother was famous for her holiday sweaters with the bells sewn on them that rang when she walked, and indeed even one with Rudolf that had a light-up nose. These days, Christmas sweaters are worn by many people. Both the classy ones that this congregation wears, but also the ironic ones worn by our young people.
I’m sad to say that not everyone had the taste of my grandmother. You may not be aware that there’s actually competitions at workplaces and parties where everyone wears their most outrageous holiday sweater to best one another. One friend recounted the time when people had an “ugly Christmas sweater contest” at their work, and the person who won wasn’t intentionally participating. No one here though, I promise, very tasteful people.
Whether it is Christmas sweaters, dresses for Christmas eve, or just the long-pant pajamas that come out during the holiday seasons, we’ve been wearing out our Christmas clothes. And the season might be drawing to a close.
If not already, then soon, the Christmas sweaters will be relegated to that distant part of the closet or the dresser or maybe given away. We will take the Christmas decorations, the lights, the ornaments, and the trinkets that adorn our mantels or shelves or doors. Our tree will either be boxed up in the garage or taken to the curb.
We take that time and period called Christmas and put it aside until the advertising starts next August. This holy time is over. It’s time to recover and prepare for whatever comes next.
Jesus was born into a world that had holy times too.
There were holy times like Feasts and festivals. The Roman Empire would have these big festivals celebrating their many pagan gods, lasting many days and sacrificing many animals. The Jewish people would have the Passover and other celebrations. These were heightened times for both celebration but also caution, as the Empire was wary any time too many of their subjugated peoples gathered together.
There were holy places, holier than the Apple store every September. The Tabernacle in the Old Testament was the localized presence of God. The tabernacle was a big tent, about 75 by 150 feet high. This sanctuary is 50 feet high and the Tabernacle was a tent.
At the far end of the tabernacle, was the Holy of Holies, a room separated by a heavy curtain, and behind that curtain was the Ark of the Covenant, a special holy box, and inside that Ark or box, were the Ten Commandments. Now, this was the most sacred place where God lived: in the tabernacle, in the Holy of Holies, in the Ark, and most sacredly, in the Ten Commandments. It was a holy place indeed, and the ground beneath it was holy ground.
There were holy people, the Pharisees and Sadducees. The people who enforced the purity laws and made sure they kept the Jewish culture going. If you think about it, no one in the nativity was considered holy by these standard-bearers. Not the dirty shepherds who lived on the hills. Not Mary who was pregnant. Not Joseph who likely would have had to help with the birth. Not Herod who was an awful person. The magi-the wise men-were not Jewish so not holy. The only person considered clean in the whole Christmas story might have been the Innkeeper. We don’t know. We just know that the world was separated into holy people and not holy people.
For the entire world, with its festivals, spiritual places, and better-than-you people, this seemed to be the way of the world. And it was a way that God seems to decide is not right. It’s not right to separate the sacred and the secular, the good and the bad, the ivory towers and the huddled masses. It wasn’t right for there to be Jews and Gentiles, where your only choice was either to be born into a Jewish family or worship the many pagan gods. There has to be a better way between an exclusive ethnic faith and the loose plurality of paganism.
We believe that God didn’t find the situation was right and that there was a better way because one night in Bethlehem, we believe God became human. This is what we call the Incarnation: God became human. Jesus is who we call Emmanuel, which means God With Us.
The Incarnation matters because it made all ground holy ground, all times holy times, and all people holy people.
Believing God became human makes all times holy times. While we often point to Jesus’ birth as when God became part of the world God created, we see in John 1 that the Word, who we know as Jesus, existed before time and place, and since time and place began. The Word is mentioned in verse 1, Creation is mentioned in verse 3. What changes in Bethlehem is that this part of God will no longer exist outside of human experience, outside of time, but breaks the barriers and belongs to the human condition completely. The Evangelist John seems to constantly say “when you see Jesus, you see God. When you know Jesus, you know God.”
Believing God became human makes all places holy places. As Presbyterian minister and prolific author Frederick Buechner says “Moses at the burning bush was told to take off his shoes because the ground on which he stood was holy ground (Exodus 3:5), but the incarnation means that all ground is holy ground because God not only made it but walked on it, ate and slept and worked and died on it.” Jesus did not do away with holy places, of course (I’m thinking of him driving out the money changers from the temple), but emphasized that holiness knows no boundaries and seeps out everywhere.
Believing God became human makes all people holy people. Jesus was all about breaking these barriers. He ate with sinners and prostitutes, talked to the woman at the well, healed the hemorraging woman and the servant of the Pagan Roman Centurian. He had dinner with Ducks and Beavers fans at the same time. He suffered alongside us. As British theologian N.T. Wright says “Before the King of Kings learned to walk and talk, he was a homeless refugee with a bounty on his head. If he is Emmanuel (God-with-us) then he must be with us where the pain is.” God is no longer only with you when you are good enough; God is with you at all times.
We no longer have to seek a place, a time, or a people to be holy. If you want to find God, God lives moreso than any other place, in the mind, body, and spirit of Jesus Christ. By studying and living like Jesus, we become those holy vessels that seep out holiness on all people, places, and times where we are.
Today is the 4th day of Christmas. In the church, we believe that Christmas is more than a day, and even more offensively, Christmas is not even the season of gift-giving between Halloween and Christmas Eve last-minute gifts at the gas station. The 12 days of Christmas is the 12 days AFTER Christmas. Having Christmas as 12 days gives us 12 days to remember that Christmas is not just an event, it’s a lifestyle. That believing Jesus was born is less important than living like he was.
12 days of Christmas reminds us to care for the transitions. This matters in our busy schedules that go from big event to big event, with life between being cleaning up from one thing and preparing for another. Last Sunday we had the children’s Christmas pageant and the actors were top-notch, the costumes were top-notch and it went well. The day before for the dress rehearsal was less than optimal. A little chaotic. One of the parents asked me what the hardest part was of the Pageant. I said the hardest part of the Christmas Pageant is the transitions. Moving from one scene to the next, getting all the children up on the altar not once but twice (including the sheep). Our transitions from one scene to the next in our lives are no less important, and remembering Christmas is 12 days instead of a few events reminds us to care for our spiritual lives between the big days and the Sundays.
12 days of Christmas reminds us to take our behaviors that change ever so slightly in this space and to change our behavior outside this space. Our sermons are meant to have pieces in them that you chew on during the week. Our hymns are meant to have lines in them that you find yourself reciting during the week. If you’ve ever hummed a few bars of the offertory, anthem, or Jonas’s postlude, then you are taking this experience and out into the world. While worship is certainly a mountaintop experience were you can find a holy moment, hymn, interaction, or Scripture, we become that Good News when we leave this place and share it with all who we meet.
In conclusion, a few years ago, the evangelist Tony Campolo shared the story of a nativity in St. Louis, Missouri. It was in front of City Hall (yes, it’s the Bible Belt, I’m from Oklahoma, I know, but go with the story), and overnight someone stole the baby Jesus from the manger. A somber newscaster the next day recounted the news saying “Someone stole Jesus. Last night someone went to the manger scene at city hall and stole the baby Jesus. Jesus is missing! If any of you out there have any information about where Jesus might be found, please contact this station immediately. We are most anxious to recover Jesus and put him back where He belongs.”
We know what this experience is like. We believe that other people have stolen Jesus and made him endorse this political point of view or this church or this issue. We believe that other people are misusing Jesus and have stolen him from us like a nativity crime scene. My hope is that instead of lamenting a loss, that we go about the business of becoming that Jesus that we feel has been lost. That we live, teach, and treat others like we expect Jesus would live, teach, and treat. That we remind the world through our actions and very lives what God in flesh looks like. And who knows, you might bring that Jesus back again.
May we live into the Incarnation and make the abstract notions of holy times, places, and people real in the times, places, and people around us. Glory be to God. Amen.