Texts: Isaiah 52:7-10 + Psalm 98 + Hebrews 1:1-12 + John 1:1-14
The Church seems to have its clocks set perennially about four to six weeks ahead. Even as we gather this morning, the world is already moving on from its celebration of Christmas and preparing for New Year’s Eve parties and the start of a new year. In the Church, however, we celebrated our New Year almost a month ago with the beginning of the season of Advent.
For three weeks and two days we were students of hope. Our scriptures and our songs directed our attention toward a moment when God’s future reign would break into our present reality and transform the world around us. This year, like every year, we have witnessed horrible evidence that the world as it is cannot be the world as God made it. Our hope has been stretched to its limits, our patience with business as usual has run out.
As the sun set last night and Christians began gathering in sanctuaries around the world to celebrate the eternal birth of Christ into the world, the Church once again set its clock ahead by about six or seven weeks. Having already begun our New Year, we are now celebrating the festival of love. Like the one that falls on the ides of February, this festival is also marked with candles, and presents, and sweets. The love we celebrate this day, however, is more cosmic than the romances of Valentine’s Day. Today the Church celebrates the reality of the love of God made real and present to us in Christ Jesus, the baby of Bethlehem.
The holy one has so many names. As we waited for its arrival we heard its heralds calling to it by its aliases. John the Baptist called it a purifying fire. Mary’s song called it justice for the oppressed and food for the hungry. Isaiah called it Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Perhaps those are your preferred names for the one who has come. Perhaps the God you yearn for most is purity, justice, might, peace. Be that as it may, this morning we are given a different name to know the presence of the divine, and that name is love.
On Christmas morning we read from the gospel of John that Jesus, the baby of Bethlehem, the pre-existing Word, was in the beginning with God and, in fact, was God. John says,
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. (John 1:10-11)
We might wonder why God would choose to wrap the Word of light and life up in something so fragile as flesh, but John’s gospel doesn’t make us wait long for that answer. Two chapters later Jesus states his reason for being,
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16-17)
The words are so familiar I barely notice them anymore. “For God so loved the world…” How do you feel about the world? Because, I’ll admit, I’m pretty ambivalent. It seems like a hard place to be. It seems pretty callous toward the majority of its people, and pretty cruel toward those who try to do anything about it. It’s an exhausting world, where there is always more work to be done. And, it is a heart-breaking world, where wars and violence are always interrupting our lives, making it impossible to ever really settle in here. We are sometimes drawn to fantasies about some other world, some next world, because this world, right here, is so painful.
But God, who has every option available, including apocalyptic judgement or complete abandonment, chooses not to leave this world but to enter it. Because God made it, and God loves it. And this includes you.
God loves you so much. You are the most precious thing in God’s good creation, and the fact that this is also true of the person sitting in front of or behind you doesn’t take away from that reality one bit. No matter what was happening at the moment of your conception, no matter how you were treated in the years that followed, the truest, deepest reality is that God was loving you fiercely even before you came into being. In the incarnation we see that God, in fact, has been moving heaven and earth to get as close to you as possible. Closer than light. Closer than words. As close as bread and wine and water and skin.
It’s important that you hear this. It’s important that you know this. Because, without love, all the other names for the holy of holies are hollow. Purity, without love, is a brittle self-righteousness. Justice, without love, becomes callous authority. Might, without love, quickly turns to violence. Peace, without love, tends toward either tyranny or isolation. It is love that makes holiness accessible to flawed, ordinary, struggling people like you and me. It is love that cares enough to stoop down in time, leaving perfection for eternity and making a home in this fragile, broken, wounded world.
This Christmas morning we can see so much more clearly than we could last night, in the dark, by the soft glow of our little candles, that the world is hurting. We are hurting, perhaps even wondering if it’s time to move on from this world. But the light of day is also evidence that all nights come to a end, that darkness always gives way to dawn. By the light of this Christmas morning, as the days begin to lengthen again, our trust is renewed that “the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.” (John 1:4)
This light has a name. It is purity. It is justice. It is might. It is peace. It is Jesus. It is love. It is God’s gift to you and to the world, because God loves it all.