FULL OF GRACE AND TRUTH
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