A Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas

Based on John 1:1-18

Richard L. Jeske, Vicar


     It is the last day of 2017, and I’m sure there are various emotions among us as we look back over these past twelve months.  Many of us can say “good riddance” to 0-17 is we concentrate on the threats to world peace, like the nuclear build-up in North Korea with its goal the ability to hit the United States; or if we concentrate on the many terrorist attacks in this and other countries; or if we see the war against ISIS grinding into guerilla warfare in various spots of the world; or if we think of the many attacks on Christian churches throughout the Middle East; or the break-up of the unity of Europe with the stability that European unity has meant since the end of World War II; or if we shake our heads at our own bumbling government and its inability to get much done.   Worst of all the New York Giants have the worst record of all teams in the National Football League. So any of could say 2017 has not been a good year, something to say “good riddance” to.


     Others would say 2017 hasn’t been that bad at all.  In fact, there are several long lists of good things that happened in 2017.  I went online and checked out four different websites listing “good things that happened in 2017.”  Among them are the medical advances that have been made this past year to cure types of hereditary blindness, advances in the cure of Lou Gehrig’s Disease, scientific breakthroughs fully to restore human skin that has suffered severe burns, and an 85% cure ratio for childhood leukemia; the goodness of responders far and near to attend to natural disasters – including the story of 80 people who suddenly emerged from the beach to form a human chain to save a family caught in riptide off the coast of Florida; and on all four of the websites I checked they all listed Prince Harry’s engagement to a divorced American commoner of mixed race, something that would not have been acceptable in England a few decades ago;  then there was the emergence of women’s voices, starting with the Women’s March in Washington, to begin to change deeply entrenched attitudes in the workplace; and the sudden interest of people who journeyed many miles just to see a solar eclipse, an event that caused greater interest in our global environment; and then there was the renewal of optimism in Houston after its hurricane deluge when their Astros won the World Series.  For many 2017 was a good year.


     And for us we’re not quite done with the Christmas season yet, and it was good to hear the final newscast of a television news program of the year (Chris Matthew’s “Hardball”) end with the hymn “Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.”  After all, the Christmas season does last two weeks – everything’s not over on the 26th – and today we get to hear the opening of John’s Gospel again.  Its poetry concentrates on the meaning of what happened on that first Christmas, at the moment of the entry of the eternal into this human world with the birth of Jesus Christ.  The Word that existed from the beginning “became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory …, full of grace and truth.”


     Grace.  Could be a woman’s name.  It could mean a dignified poise that a person possesses, especially under pressure, the way someone handles an insult, or a setback, or some misfortune.  It could mean the prayer we say before dinner.  It could mean a few days “grace” we get before we have to meet a deadline. There was a translation of the Bible that refused to use the word “grace” (the translation was first titled rather audaciously as God’s Word), because, the translators said, the word “grace” had become so befogged hat no one knew what it meant anymore, especially when it referred to “God’s grace”; so the translators replace the words “God grace” with “God’s kindness,” and that translation soon became known as the “graceless Bible.”  


     But our New Revised Standard Version that we heard today and that we use in our readings in church kept the word.  “The Word became flesh … and it was full of grace and truth.”  The original Greek word is “charis,” a word that means “favor” and “giving.” (We get our word “charity” from it.) Before John’s Gospel it was already connected with Jesus’ birth when the angels sang to the shepherds in Bethlehem’s fields:  “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to those whom God’s grace is given.”  Jesus’ birth brought God’s grace right into the world in which we live, in a person who would live and grow and eat and teach and die – all the things that we do.  In him was God’s giving shown to us and we would forever be the beneficiaries of it.  


     That word “grace” was vitally important to St. Paul, and he connects it with the birth of Jesus too.  We heard it in our second reading:  “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, in order to redeem those who were under the Law, so that we might receive adoption as children.  And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, `Abba!  Father!’  So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child, then also an heir through God.”

For St. Paul, the grace of God is a gift that keeps on giving – to each of us – making us part of God’s own family.  And what a privilege it is to speak it and to hear it, again and again, whenever we come to this place, and to receive it at God’s own family table.


     Oh yes, there’s one more thing we are able to see in the birth of Jesus: not only grace, but also truth.  The Word from the beginning is “full of grace and truth.”  Truth.  That’s what Jesus brought to us.  And at the end of the year we have to ask whether truth has taken a hit during 2017, and what we want to do with it next year.  After all, 2017 has made us familiar with the concept of “fake news” and “alternate facts,” and that we live in a “post-truth” era now, and we’re used to hearing spin after spin and ideological twisting for personal gain.  Such things are harmful for us and our society, so in John’s Gospel “truth” became an important word in the Christian vocabulary.  In John’s Gospel Jesus told people “I am the way, the truth, and the life (14:6), and “if you continue in my word … you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free” (8:52).  The Word that became flesh spoke those words, and we are to continue in them.  If we continue in his word, we will know the truth, and the truth will make us free.  God’s grace gives us the feedom to be connected to the truth – and to seek it constantly.


    Not to be free means to forget about the truth.  We get bound up in our own cocoons of falsehood; we are caged in our own prejudices; and we can’t break out of them unless we really want to see the truth, which Jesus wants us to do by continuing in his word.  Freedom is living in Jesus’ word, which looks at all things in front of us and gets us to seek what is true and real.  For Christians, God’s grace and truth put us on a path of freedom, in which we can overcome the obstacles that others put in front of us.  It began with Jesus’ birth, and that’s why we want to take more than one day to celebrate it.  Even two weeks isn’t really enough, but they do get us ready for a new year, for 2018, and for a lifetime of learning from Jesus, the true source of our freedom.  By coming here we get the benefit that is given us, to be near the Word made flesh and to be filled again with God’s grace and God’s truth.

                                                   -- Richard L. Jeske  







A Sermon for Christmas Eve

Based on Luke 2:1-20

Richard L. Jeske, Vicar

     It is a story we’ll never get tired of hearing.  We know it well – hear it every year on Christmas Eve – maybe we’ll read it again when we get home.  We certainly get Christmas cards with bits and pieces of the story emblazoned on them.  But when we hear it read in church again it’s like we’re hearing it for the first time.  It reads like poetry, or like a mystery novel where you don’t know what’s going to happen next.  In it things happen for the first time:  the first imperial census; having to get yourself registered in your own hometown; a rugged journey with a pregnant woman from sleepy Nazareth to backwater Bethlehem; a birth of her first child out in a stall because of all the “no vacancy” signs; sleepy shepherds on night shift getting blown away by an extra-terrestial figure telling them to get into town; a blinding heavenly chorus singing for the first time something that will be sung in church every Sunday forever; they – the shepherds – became the first missionaries, the first to tell the story about the birth of the Messiah; and for the first time the words “on earth peace” started ringing and kept ringing in their ears.

     “On earth peace….”  What a global message!  Not just peace to you shepherds, peace on the way from your fertile fields, peace there in the stable, peace in Bethlehem, not peace in Judea – but “on earth, peace.”  Do you think the shepherds had a concept of “earth”?  I don’t.  But the story makes us confront it.  After all, the story got started by a decree from Rome, from the Emperor Augustus, winding up on the desk of the governor of Syria, who got the word out to everyone in his jurisdiction that they should get registered.  Matthew adds to the story:  three star-gazers from the Eastern part of the Empire come to give gifts to the newborn child – another sign that the whole earth is involved; and then politics gets involved when the Judean king gets nervous and the child has to be taken to Egypt for safety.  Again, it’s a whole earth story, designed for God’s peace to start.  

     Old Isaiah longed for it.  He sat in the arrow-sights of the Assyrians, old Iraq kicking up its heels again.  Assyria wanted to make itself great again, and trampled over the kingdoms of Syria and Samaria and Gaza down the coast to Egypt, and now Israel was surrounded by a hostile warring nation.  They were sitting on the edge of darkness; they had watched “the boots of the tramping warriors and all the garments rolled in blood.”  Time to give up?  Not for Isaiah: he saw light piercing through the darkness, because he had hope in God.  God doesn’t want war for people; he wants peace.  And this time it would all start with a child, maybe born already, Isaiah thought; and that child offered a future filled with promise, because “the Lord of hosts will do this,” he said.  That child would be given names:  “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  His authority would grow continually, and there would be endless peace…, and he’ll bring justice and righteousness….”  “God would get this done,” he said: “the Lord of hosts will do this.”

     So that’s what the song of heaven offered that night over Bethlehem’s fields:  “on earth peace among those whom God favors.”  And whom does God favor?  The answer is:  everyone.  In the Greek original the expression is far clearer than in the English translation:  literally it read “on earth peace to those whom God’s grace is given.”  That means everyone, starting with you and me.  You and I have experienced the grace of God, and that’s why we are here this evening, to receive it again.  We know those times when we are sitting at the edge of darkness, those times when we’ve had tragedy enter our lives, those times when we’ve done tragic things to other people, those times when we’ve thought there’s no way out from the cloud of hostility that hangs over us.  We’ve been in those times of depression, only to be reminded that we’ve been given an important gift, the grace of God, a light through our tunnels into the justice and favor of God.  And we come here again to receive it through water, and bread and wine.  And we can sing the song of heaven again, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those whom God’s grace is given.”

     But Christmas is not just for us.  That’s what Luke’s story tells us in bold detail:  it’s a world event, and we are not allowed to see ourselves as apart from that world.  Fifty years ago next year – in 1968 – the Apollo 8 astronauts gave us the first picture of the earth itself, a beautiful blue sphere hovering alone in space against the backdrop of a darkened cosmos.  It gave us a sense of our home – that’s plural, our home, our planet, ours together with everyone else on it.  God has favored us to live together on this one planet, and he offers peace to everyone on it.

     On earth peace – the Christmas story reminds us of how interconnected we are with others on this planet – from a Roman emperor to Wise Men from the far-off East.  On earth peace is what is offered, but God always gets his work done through the people he has created.  Can we really love the Christmas story without understanding how connected we are to everyone else on this earth?  Does Christmas mean then that we can think of ourselves first and leave others in the dust behind us?  Does Christmas mean we think only of our own industries and forget about the effects they have on the world’s environment?  When other nations work for peace do we withdraw because of our own interests without considering theirs?  Does the peace that God wants for us let us be OK with leaving 9 million children off health insurance in this country?  Does Christmas allow that of us, when we want to celebrate the birth of a child in a meager stable, a child whom we want to call our “Prince of Peace”?  Or does Christmas ask us to learn from that child, who grew up to become “the man for others” and who asked us to come and follow him?  He gave himself, so that we could.

     Christmas is not just about presents and cards and smiling faces and family dinners.  They’re all good.  But what they represent is the joy of togetherness, the joy of giving, and the joy of loving others around us. And it all began when a child was born with God’s messengers offering “on earth peace to those whom God’s grace is given.”   And once that grace and that peace take hold of our hearts, we’ll want to share that grace and that peace with others. 

                                       -- Richard L. Jeske 










A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday in Advent

Based on 2 Samuel 7:1-7, 8-11, 16 and Luke 1:26-38

Richard L. Jeske, Vicar

     Perplexed, she was.  Mary was “perplexed,” and the Christmas story had begun.

     Have you ever stood before a Picasso painting and been perplexed, wondering what this meant?  All the confines of space and time have been removed.  The surface is flat, the image two-dimensional:  the face has two eyes, but they are not the same size nor on the same level, and both seem to be staring at you from the same side of the figure's head.  And the more you look at it you realize that in one painting the artist has captured all the angles from which you would look at that face, all the perspectives of the viewer -- from right and left, from above and below -- all wrapped into one image.  Abstract, cubist, modern, it is called.

  And today, the Fourth Sunday of Advent, you get to hear an Old Testament reading about a historical figure, David the king.  He was also an artist:  he had played his harp to quiet the moods of a tense King Saul, Israel’s first king.  He composed psalms, and many we have in our hymnbook are attributed to him.  He liked art, and today’s lesson tells us that he liked architecture too.  So there he is, wanting to do something artistic for God.  He wants to build God a house, like the one you're sitting in, a beautiful sanctuary worthy of his God.  When David, the story says, "was settled in his house, and the Lord had given him rest from all his enemies," he went to his pastor, the prophet Nathan. "Look at this grand house of cedar I'm living in," he said to Nathan.  I think I'm feeling a bit guilty about that tent that we use for a church; the house of God is a tent.  I think I'm going to build God a house, one worthy of God's name."  

     So Nathan the prophet tossed and turned that night about this proposal from the chairman of his board (2 Samuel 7.4).  And he came to David with the answer:  "your proposal has God perplexed, so here's what God has to say to you:"

     "Are you the one to build me a house to live in?  I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day, but I have been moving around in a tent and a tabernacle.  Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of the tribal leaders of Israel, whom I commended to shepherd my people Israel, saying, "Why haven't you built me a house of cedar?'"  Now therefore thus you shall say to my servant David:  “Thus says the Lord of hosts:  `I took you from the pasture, from following the sheep to be prince over my people Israel; and I have been with you wherever you went, and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name ... I will make you a house.  I will raise up your offspring after you, and I will establish his kingdom.  He shall build a house for my name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever.  Your house and your kingdom shall be established forever.’"

    "Think of what I can do for you," David had said to God.  And God turns that upside down, and says to David.  "You want to do something for me?  Good.  Here’s what you can do.  You can think instead of what I have done, am doing, and will do for you:  I’ve taken you, a farm kid, and made you king; I’m giving you rest from your enemies; and I will build you a house, one that will last forever."

     Isn't it a good thing to know that there are people around who might think twice about their beautiful homes?  Most people don't.  Such things are theirs by right:  I earned it, they say.  And now that I have achieved such success on my own, I'll do something for God:  I'll build him a house worthy of him, so that people can say, "Look at the house David the king built for his God."  Now won't God be grateful; won't God be able to give thanks to David?  And then you get some prophet coming in and spoiling all the fun; you hear some prophet say that God likes the mobile life -- because then God is not limited to spatial and temporal boundaries.  And if you are going to build God a house, that house had better function to tell you that it can't be a place where God is trapped, because if he is, then God cannot be God.  God's house is the place where stories are told, about how unconventional God can be, not limited to space and time, or to our normal way of doing things.

     So, in Luke's story, when Mary sees the angel, she is "perplexed what sort of greeting she has just received."  And when she hears the rest of his words, there is something familiar about them:

    "You will give him a name which will be a great name; and God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David.  He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end."  The words are old, but there is nothing conventional about this visitor.  He has just greeted Mary with the words:  "favored one."  That means favored by God.  And then he tells her that she will be give birth to the child of God's promise.  Mary is perplexed, as perplexed as if she were looking at a Picasso painting.  Had this visitor made a mistake?  After all, she is not married; if she is now suddenly to be pregnant, how "favored" can that be?  Can't God wait?  If she is so favored does God have to put her personal reputation at stake?  As a husband-less mother how will she live?  How can she be a mother, anyway?  "How can this be," she asks, "since I am a virgin?"

   We speak so often of the Virgin Birth, when this story clearly tells us about a virginal conception.  That is the issue.  "Conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit," the ancient Creeds say.  The plan of God is not conceived by human beings.  The target of our worship is not something that human beings have created.  The object of our faith is not something built with human hands, a temple in which God is trapped.  The object of our worship is not what we have done, but the God who has done things for us.  What is ultimately true and authentic and eternal is not what has been conceived in the mind of human beings, but what has been conceived in the mind of God.  The Scriptures are always telling us about people who have great plans for God, until they hear that that's not where it's at:  where's it at is what God has planned for them.  David and Paul and Mary and Joseph don't plan anything; they stand there perplexed.  But they do get to ask:  "How can this be, since I am a virgin?"

     And the answer comes in the simplest of terms:  "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God."  When we hear these words we are perplexed.  For those who want to misunderstand them, the possibilities are huge.  The sexual immaturity of our society gives them a vantage point from which to misunderstand totally, and therefore to reject out of hand, what Mary has been told.  The power of the Most High which will overshadow Mary has been spoken of before, in the opening words of the book of Genesis, when the Spirit hovered over the primeval waters and brought into being the new creation.  It is God's initiative to put this plan into being, and the apostle Paul said it again when he was thinking of old Abraham and barren Sarah:  it is God "who gives life to the dead and brings into existence the things which do not exist" (Romans 4.17).  The Spirit of God which will come upon the husband-less Mary and overshadow her is the Creator by whose creative power the things which do not exist are brought into existence, the One who gives life to the dead.  The new creation is always God's initiative.

     All God wants is to hear one thing, and when he hears it the story is complete.  "Then Mary said, `Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.'  And the angel departed from her."  -- End of story.

     It was not that short a story; in fact, it was fairly long.  Longer than most of Jesus' parables.  Longer than many of the Psalms.  As long as one entire New Testament letter (2 John).  But it ends quickly.  "Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."  And the story is over.  But the life of Mary is about to begin.

     Throughout the Gospels Mary's life is one of perplexity, of pondering in her heart what all this means, of struggle and surprise and sorrow.  Not long after the birth of her son she is told by old Simeon that "a sword would pierce her own soul" (Luke 2.35) -- a sword of decision which she would live with, whether in every case she would always want to say, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word."  But the Gospel writer Luke makes sure that we know what Mary decided:  she is there, named among the company of those who waited for the Spirit to move again, there waiting for Pentecost, among the earliest community of believers (Acts 1.14), about to become another new creation of God.

     God's answer to David was that there would be a temple built for him, but that David wouldn't do it.  His son Solomon would, who said at its dedication:  "Will God indeed dwell on the earth?  Even heaven and the highest heaven cannot contain you, much less this house that I have built!" (1 Kings 8.27)  The house bearing God's name must function as a place where God has his freedom, to come to us from his Beyond and address with words that often perplex and unsettle us, and, when we need it, words that comfort and encourage us.  It must be a place where we are reminded constantly of God's coming to us as a human being, but also of God's calling us to where God is, to view our lives from his vantage point. 

    This back and forth, between our vantage point and God's, means that God's house is always an Advent house.  It is the incarnate Son of God, the Word made flesh, who in this place is always coming to us.  He did it in the past in the Child of Bethlehem; he does it in the present whenever we stand to one of the Gospels tells us about him. And he is never done coming to us, as the one who is risen and victorious, and who beckons to us from the other side, waiting with open arms for us to come to him.  It is the Advent figure, the one who has come, and is to come, waiting for us to come to him.  Waiting for us to voice our decisions as Mary did, "Behold, I am your servant, Lord; let it be with me according to your word." 

                                                                                     -- Richard L. Jeske