December 25, 2017

Christmas Day B

Isaiah 52:7–10, John 1:1–14




Beloved people of God, grace and peace to you from our Lord and Savior Jesus the Christ. AMEN.


“But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.” The older I have become the more this verse, Luke 2:19, has become one of my favorites, not just in the Christmas story, but in the whole of Scripture. Mary’s pondering provides a model of the devotional life.


Last night this space was supposed to be filled with hundreds gathered to celebrate the birth of Jesus. But Mother Nature intervened. Normally, of course, people to flock to Christmas Eve Candlelight services. There is something so special about lighting candles, dimming the lights, singing “Silent Night,” and then concluding with a rousing rendition of “Joy to the World.” But there is also something very special about this service on Christmas Day, the morning after the big Christmas Eve celebrations. It seems like just the right time to ponder with Mary the significance of the birth of Jesus.


As Mary pondered what had happened, she must have been filled with wonder that God was truly present in a baby of such humble, lowly origins; she must have marveled that God had chosen a young teenage girl such as herself to bear God’s son; she must have rejoiced that God was working through Jesus to bring salvation to all people, not just to a chosen few.


Another model of the devotional life is the gospel writer John. It is fitting that on Christmas morning our gospel reading is drawn from John 1. John loved to ponder the meaning of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.


John makes some audacious claims in our Christmas gospel reading. He claims that the Word of the God who created all things became flesh and lived among us in Jesus. John views Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promise in the Old Testament to dwell with the people of God.


That leads to a second amazing claim: that Jesus reveals God to us. John affirms, in effect, if you want to know who God is and what God is up to in the world, look to this man named Jesus. Jesus bears God’s glory, the glory as of a Father’s only son. This means that Jesus opens up access for common, ordinary people to the creator of the universe. In John 1:18 the evangelist explains that no has ever seen God, but Jesus, who is close to the Father’s heart, has made God known to us.


In the final verse of the Christmas gospel John affirms that Jesus is full of grace and truth. That means Jesus fully embodies God’s grace and truth. In John 1:16 the evangelist expresses his confidence that from the fullness of Jesus we as his followers have received grace upon grace.


Grace is a significant word not only in the gospel of John, but also in the rest of the New Testament. Over and over again, the Apostle Paul stresses that we are saved by grace through faith. The importance of grace for our salvation has been at the heart of our Reformation tradition. The roots of charis, the Greek word translated as “grace,” go back to the Hebrew word chesed. In the Old Testament chesed is translated as God’s steadfast love, mercy, and lovingkindness. The Psalmists understood that life is constantly changing. Virtually everything can be taken from us in life, but the Psalmists affirmed repeatedly that the steadfast love of God endures forever. Consider the first four verses of Psalm 118: “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever. Let Israel say, `His steadfast love endures forever.’ Let the house of Aaron say, `His steadfast love endures forever.’ Let those who fear the Lord say, `His steadfast love endures forever.’” The one thing we can count on through all of life’s changes is the steadfast love of God.


To affirm that Jesus embodies God’s grace, therefore, is to affirm that Jesus embodies God’s steadfast love. Later in John 13:34 Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment: “that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” In his life Jesus modeled that love by preaching good news to the poor and lowly, by healing lepers and others suffering in mind, body, or spirit, by welcoming children, women, and strangers and others viewed as having low status, and by eating with sinners and others rejected by religious leaders. In Mark 10:45 he stressed that God sent him to serve, not to be served. In Matthew 5:44 he taught his disciples: “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” In Matthew 25:40 he affirmed that inasmuch as we do it for the least of these, it is as if we have done it for Jesus himself. In John 15:13 he assured his disciples: “No one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” Jesus laid down his life for his friends on the cross. What is amazing about Jesus is that he considered even his enemies his friends. Jesus truly was full of God’s grace.


In the Christian tradition his mother Mary has also been affirmed as one full of grace. One famous prayer in the Catholic tradition is: “Hail, Mary, full of grace. The Lord is with thee.” Whether or not we join in saying this prayer, we still view Mary as a model of grace. When the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary, he said: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” “Favored” is a translation from the same Greek root word as “grace” is translated from. Gabriel said, in effect: “Greetings, graced one!” Mary embodied a key characteristic of grace: gentleness. What a precious image of grace— Mother Mary gently caring for her child Jesus!


In “Choosing Gentleness,” an article in the December 6 issue of The Christian Century, Craig Barnes acknowledges that “we tend to think of gentleness as a weak or fragile thing.” Barnes, however, makes the case that gentleness rises from strength. He tells the story of officiating for the wedding of a big college football lineman and his petite bride. In his vows this burly groom promised the typical things like loving in sickness and in health, but then he added something unexpected: “and I will always be gentle with you.” “The gentle,” affirms Barnes, “don’t find their strength in the ways society has privileged them, nor in the success of their pursuits on the many fields of competition. Among Christians the gentle find their strength in their identity as people created in the image of God, people whom Jesus Christ was dying to love. When we take seriously the holiness of our lives— lives redeemed from everything we’ve done to profane that holiness— we’re made strong in the grace of God. And those who have attended to the grace they have received tend to want to be gracious to others.”


In our Lutheran tradition we heavily emphasize that grace is an unconditional gift from God, but we also stress that it is a gift that keeps on giving in the gracious lives of those who have received it and taken it to heart.


The gospel of John bears powerful witness that Jesus is full of grace. He also witnesses in a powerful way that Jesus is full of truth. As followers of Jesus, we are not naïve about destructive forces working against God’s grace. We are called to bear witness to the truth of the darkness of our time as well as to our hope. As Walter Brueggemann clarifies, prophets such as Isaiah did not hesitate to trace the path of disaster human beings were heading down. He insists that our work now as followers of Jesus is to tell the truth, as best we can, about the path of disaster we are on. We need to speak passionately and clearly about economic injustice, racial injustice, ecological abuse, and the like. The amazing thing about the prophets, observes Brueggemann, was that after they had traced the path of disaster, they were able to pivot and “talk with confidence that God is working out an alternative world of well-being, of justice, of peace, of security— in spite of the contradictions.”[1] The prophets could critique the worst abuses of the powers that be and at the same time cultivate a compelling vision of a community ruled by God’s love and justice. The prophets were confident that the dominant culture, no matter how corrupt, would not triumph in the end. The community of God, shaped by God’s love and justice, would ultimately win the day.


Mother Mary sings with similar confidence in the Magnificat: “He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.” So confident is Mary that she sings of the promised future as if it has already happened.


John also expresses such confidence. He is fully aware that Jesus was not welcomed by all with open arms. Nonetheless, John testifies that “what has come into being in [Jesus] was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”


On this Christmas Day, as we ponder with Mary and John the birth of Jesus, we pray that God would fill us with such confidence in the ultimate triumph of God’s grace and truth that we are truly motivated to live gracious and truthful lives.


On Thursday Margaret Marcuson sent out a Christmas prayer to her fellow Ecumenical Ministries of Oregon board members. This prayer was first shared by Frank Borman from near the moon at Christmas in 1968. Borman commanded the Apollo 8 mission. 1968 was also a dark time in our nation’s history. The confidence in God that Borman expressed is as timely today as it was then, and with this prayer I conclude: “Give us, O God, the vision which can see Your love in the world in spite of human failure. Give us the faith to trust Your goodness in spite of our ignorance and weakness. Give us the knowledge that we may continue to pray with understanding hearts. And show us what each one of us can do to set forward the coming of the day of universal peace.” In the name of the One who is full of grace and truth, AMEN.







[1] “How God Intervenes,” Sojourners, January 2018:21.