Christmas Eve, December 24, 2016, Lectionary A
The Rev. Dr. C. Clark Hubbard, Jr. Rector Scripture: John 1:1-14
Stretch out your hand [Oh, Lord] to heal and perform miraculous signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.” Acts 4:30
Let us pray. Heavenly, loving Father, send now the Holy Spirit that we might be born again of the Spirit through Jesus, having been born of the flesh; in the name of Him who reigns with you and the Holy Spirit even before time. Amen.
“Police probe 50th homicide of year,” so read the headline on Thursday’s Savannah Morning News.
“People are getting worse,” the old man said, “the younger generations especially. They have no respect for rules or values. Our country is in big trouble. The world is going to hell in a handbasket.” Chances are, we’ve heard someone, perhaps, even ourselves make such a statement about the condition of the world, but is it true? Is human nature that much different than it was when that older person was young? Are people really getting worse?
If we look at history, we discover that in every generation, some people have done terrible things to other people. In every time period, the population appears to have a mix of people — some with high values and some with low values, and some seemingly with no values at all. Every age includes people who are altruistic and people who are self-centered. What’s more, in every period for which we have any kind of records, it seems that these good-bad characteristics appear mixed up within individuals.
There are people who seem basically good but who at some point do some terrible things, and vice versa. If you are looking for a film that illustrates this, check out the movie, “Crash,” co-written, produced, and directed by Paul Haggis. It received six Academy Award nominations and won three. I warn you, though it gets pretty rough.
It would seem, though, that with every advance of technology, we discover new ways to do right and wrong. With modern media and 24 hour news, we hear about things that we didn’t hear about as easily or as often in earlier times, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen.
So it may not be true that people are worse now than in earlier generations, but they’re not much better either. Yes, ever since our first parents were expelled from the Garden of Eden, human nature has been in need of restoration. What is to be done about our fallen, sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes evil human nature?
In this nativity scene every person is spending their first Christmas as a Christian. Two of them, a shepherd and an angel, were baptized at the very service in which they performed this nativity play and to the music of a Christian version of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah. They are truly men and women from the East, being born again in a stable. Their miraculous stories are among the remarkable events that have been taking place this year at St Mark’s in England which has seen more than 50 Muslims convert to Christianity in one year alone.
The vicar, Rev. Sally Smith, compares the church to a pool – one that was a bit stagnant. Then the Home Office began settling dozens of asylum seekers and refugees in this part of Stoke-on-Trent, where there is a Muslim community. Now, she says, the church has grown from about 12 to 50 people or more. She likens it now to a living river of faith. Eight in ten of the congregation now are converts from Islam.
Smith explicitly does not allow proselytizing. ‘I am very open about the fact that we are not here to convert people. I say to volunteers, leave your religion outside the door.’ Nevertheless, many Muslims do convert, moved to do so by the warmth of the welcome and worship at St Mark’s. One of the new converts translates Smith’s sermons each Sunday into Farsi for the Iranians. Often destitute and arriving in Britain, they are moved by the kindness of the Christians, said Smith. They respond to the sense of becoming part of a family. What we do in church, we do in the name of Jesus.
At least two of the converts came to Christ as a result of dreams. One man, Hassan, dreamed that Jesus came to him as a light. He told him to come to this church and be baptized. He knew it was the Lord who had wrapped himself around him. Another man saw Jesus in a dream and he was shown a picture of this very church. ‘So many supernatural or mystic experiences seem to be happening. It is wonderful to be part of. It is all quite messy; we are not organized at all,” relates Smith. On the day of the nativity play, there were seven baptisms of converts from Islam. In this church, that is not unusual,” she said (“Christianity Today”, Ruth Gledhill, 12-19-16).
Regardless of how we may feel about immigration, are we not impressed, indeed amazed that Jesus has come to these Muslims, no less than He has come to others, even in their dreams, to invite them into a new life in Him, so that they might be born again? Christianity is not just another belief system, no different than any other.
We have all heard the expression, “Born again.” Perhaps, you have been asked, “Have you been born again.” The term, born-again Christian, has been applied to some, suggesting that there might be two categories of Christians—the unborn and the born again. It is kind of a funny thought to think of someone as being unborn—kind of reminds me of the term, the undead—a reference to vampires.
Well, Christmas is obviously a celebration of Jesus having been born. He was born of the flesh. He was already spirit was He not? That, of course, is what the incarnation is all about—God in Jesus humbling Himself into human flesh. There is a Greek term that captures this concept, known as kenosis, meaning that God in Jesus emptied Himself into human form. An amusing way to consider this is to think of trying on an article of clothing too small for your size. It is an experience we all have had, perhaps even more so during this festive, eating-too-much time of year.
Try on a pair of jeans that are too small. They won’t button or zip. Walking around in them, makes one stiff legged. Try on a shirt that is too small, your arms feel trapped and your shoulders squeezed. What about shoes which are too small? They hurt; they pinch; and they blister. How must it have felt for Jesus to pour His immense divinity into the small uniform of a human being?
A friend in Ambridge, Pennsylvania, where I went to seminary, shared recently his reflections about Jesus’ birth on Facebook. His name is Dana Priest (yes that is his last name). Here is what he wrote.
“I find myself contemplating the passion of Christ’s birth this Advent. We get caught up in ‘Joy to the World’ so much that we miss the potential sadness of Jesus leaving the only home he’d ever known (as my [college age] daughter just has). We all coo over the beautiful babe in the manger with no thought of how the sights, sounds, smells and textures of the stable must have assaulted the senses of someone who had always lived in Paradise.
We know that those who are great at caring for others are often uncomfortable (to say the least) to have others care for them (my mother-in-law was a wonderful nurse, but a lousy patient); imagine how it must have felt for the one who commanded GALAXIES (that is Jesus) to suddenly be a helpless infant, cared for by well-meaning but doubtlessly inept FIRST-TIME PARENTS!
People frequently point to Caesar’s decree forcing a very pregnant Mary to take a long journey by donkey on rough roads as Satan’s attempt to force a miscarriage. Of course, the devil inspired Herod’s later massacre in an attempt to kill the Christ child while he was young and vulnerable; why should the actual BIRTH be uneventful?
The only birth I’ve witnessed (my daughter’s) was full of drama and intense stress. Had we not been at a good hospital with skilled surgeons, I’m sure I would have lost one or both of them in the process. So, I imagine, there well might have been some ‘fetal distress’ involved on that Holy Night, with the host of hell operating at a DEFCON level 1 to do all they could to stop the heavenly invasion of the planet!
‘The Little Lord Jesus–No crying he makes’? WHY NOT?!! In the first place, any healthy baby CRIES, and in the second place, Jesus had plenty to cry ABOUT! We know of his agony in the Garden as he faced the end of his journey (the cross); wouldn’t it make sense for him to feel something of that same intensity at the beginning, when he first ‘emptied himself’ (remember the Greek word kenosis) and ‘took on flesh’? All birth is a blessing, and the coming of Christ is the greatest source of joy known to mankind, but as the season for remembering his birth approaches, perhaps we should take some time away from the festivities to think of what that greatest of gifts cost the giver.”
Why was Jesus born of the flesh? Well, as Dana Priest so apply described, in part He was born of the flesh in order that He might suffer. The suffering, however, was not in vain or without purpose. As we heard in the gospel from John, He was born “to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.” Jesus was born of the flesh so that we might be born of the Spirit and not suffer the consequences of sin and death. He descended from heaven in order that we might ascend to heaven.
Being born again of the Spirit is quintessential to, in fact defines being a Christian. Remember the conversation between Jesus and Nicodemus. “Now there was a man of the Pharisees, named Nicodemus, a ruler of the Jews. 2 This man came to Jesus by night and said to him, “Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do, unless God is with him.” 3 Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born anew, he cannot see the kingdom of God.” 4 Nicodemus said to him, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter a second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” 5 Jesus answered, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. 6 That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit”(John 3:1-6).
Jesus was born of the flesh, so that we might be born of the Spirit. It is as simple and as costly as that. Whatever we may like to think that Christmas is, if it is not a matter of being born again of the Spirit, quite frankly it is merely a collection of warm fuzzy sentiments. There is nothing wrong with those sentiments, but they might just as well be found elsewhere—at an anniversary, a reunion, or a family member’s birthday.
The Christmas pageant, like the one we saw earlier, likewise evoked those special sentiments. The photo-op with the kids in costumes and bathrobes has its roots in the mystery plays put on by the various guilds of typical English towns in the Middle Ages. Each town had its own cycle of plays, and each guild was responsible for its own play depicting part of biblical history. Wagons were spread throughout the town as stages, and the actors, who were guild members, performed their own short play, depicting everything from the creation to the end of the world.
All Christmas plays base their story, however loosely, on either the Gospel of Matthew or the Gospel of Luke or both. Those gospels are where we find Mary visited by the angel Gabriel, the holy family traveling to Bethlehem because of a census and the babe sleeping in a feeding trough because there was no room at the inn. Those gospels are also where we find angels singing in the heavens, shepherds watching their flocks by night and then rushing to the manger, the arrival of magi from the east, the rage of Herod and the flight of the family to Egypt.
Then we come to those verses from the first chapter of John’s gospel which we heard this evening. Why are they read at Christmas? Despite their beauty, we’re still stuck with this question: What does this have to do with Christmas? We ask that because at first sight this traditional Christmas scripture from the Gospel of John doesn’t seem to contain much fodder for the Christmas play. Where are the shepherds or the sheep, for that matter? There are no angels singing in the night sky. There are no magi following a star, no star either. There’s not even a haggard father and pregnant mother trudging together to Bethlehem for the census.
So what is there? There is just a word. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Jesus is the Word.
What a mind blowing statement! Instead of taking us back to Abraham or even Adam, as Matthew and Luke do in their genealogies, John takes us back before time, before creation, before galaxies and stars and black holes and space warped by gravity, before our world, before the animals and us humans, before tribes and nations, before peace and war, before you and me. Christmas, God incarnate, Jesus, began before it all.
We find ourselves this very night contemplating the immensity, the marvel, the incredibleness of God in Jesus, who is Spirit, having been born into the ill-fitting fleshly uniform of us humans. Why did He do it? We know the answer. “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.” What is eternal life? Most basically it is life in the Spirit—Spirit which cannot decay or die and where sorrow and pain are no more. That is what we inherit, indeed become when through faith in Jesus we are born again, born of the Spirit.
So, as we gather up the treasures and memories of yet another Christmas, as we text or post on Facebook to distant family and friends those special photos of our children awash in presents and wrapping paper, let us remember that it all began with God emptying Himself (kenosis) into the small uniform of a baby boy, named Jesus, so that you and I might be born again of the Spirit. Truthfully, to be born again of the Spirit through Jesus is the only hope for out fallen human nature, our fallen, sometimes good, sometimes bad, sometimes evil human nature. From that perspective, saying Merry Christmas is incomplete without also saying Happy Birthday, Happy Birthday to Jesus and to you and to me, who are born again of the Spirit.
In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.