Sermon for Dec. 5, 2020, Christmas 2A.
Audio will be available here for several weeks.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. 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. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.
(John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
I want to begin with honesty, on this, the first Sunday of the new year, and (as some people count it) the new decade. The honest truth is that this new year and new decade have begun for me, with a sense of dread, for all kinds of reasons, starting with the climate crisis.
They say that 10 million acres have burned already in Australia, temperatures have reached 120 degrees, and it’s only the start of the summer fire season there. So, I dread what is coming for them, and I dread the climate crisis that puts us all in harm’s way.
That’s just the start. How can we not dread what is coming in the Middle East? What will Iran’s next move be? And what will we do about it then? Where is this going? And how will it ever end?
Closer to home, you just say the word “Washington DC” these days and it fills most people with dread, on both sides of the aisle.
What about the future of the church? I was just at the Chamber of Commerce breakfast Friday and spoke with a young man who told me he grew up in a conservative church but does not worship anywhere now. His story is the new normal, as we all know. Unless something new happens that reverses that trend, it should make all of us who love the church dread the future.
An Alternative to Dread
So, honesty is a good place to start. But honestly, for me, and for people of faith, cannot ever end in the darkness of dread, even if it begins there. In our tradition, we make a point to begin the year with an alternative narrative.
We begin with Christmas stories of blazingly bright angels appearing to shepherds in the middle of the night. If that story is about anything, it is certainly about light appearing in the darkness. That is what God does; bring light, and therefore hope, into situations that previously only had room for the darkness of dread.
Our reading from the Hebrew Bible, from the prophet Jeremiah, is part of that tradition of asserting an alternative narrative. It recalls one of the darkest times in the story of the people of Israel; the time of their exile in Babylon. And yet, from that time of despair, the prophet imagined a new day; a light at the end of the tunnel of exile. He could imagine God saying,
“I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.”
The poetic language is, admittedly exaggerated, promising that “they shall never languish again.” It makes the point, poetically, that God’s will is to repair the broken world.
There is a Hebrew phrase that sums up God’s desire: “Tikkun Olam” the repair of the world. It acknowledges that there is darkness; something is broken. But repair is possible. Return from exile is possible. Darkness does not have the last word.
I want to pause to make a note about the Hebrew Bible, the Old Testament. I just heard someone say again recently that the God of the Old Testament was brutal, judgmental, and not at all as the God Jesus taught us to know. That is only partly correct, which means it is partly incorrect. There is not only one view of God in the Old Testament, there are several, and they imagine the Divine in different ways. Yes, there is a lot of judgment and wrath, but here, in Jeremiah, the prophet imagines God saying, with tender parental compassion,
“I will lead them back, I will let them walk by brooks of water, in a straight path in which they shall not stumble; for I have become a father to Israel.”
It is clear that Jesus was aware of both views of God, and that he accepted one and rejected the other. To Jesus, God was like a father, which is how he taught us to approach God in prayer, “Our father…” More about this in a minute.
They did return and rebuild, but the story did not stop there. There were more difficult times to come; there always are. By the time of Jesus, they were languishing in a new kind of darkness. They had been swallowed up by the Roman Empire. Now they lived with a Roman boot on their necks.
What to Want?
What should you want, under those circumstances? What should your hope be? What do you imagine the “Tikkun Olam” the repaired world would look like? In Jesus’ day, there were competing versions of what a repaired world should look like, just as there are competing versions of what a repair of our world should look like today. Not everyone wants the same future. Some wanted revolution. Jesus rejected that version, but his was the minority view.
Everyone has their own vested interests. The future they hope for is normally one that protects their interests. That is the way it has always been, everywhere. Can anything change that? Could anything change what you and I hope for? Or would our personal self-interests always tilt our hopes in self-serving directions?
I believe that there is such a thing as enlightenment. There is such a thing as what addicts call, a “moment of clarity.” There is the experience of “illumination,” as mystics call it. Everyone has had moments in which the lights have come on, when you, as we say, “see things in a new light.” And once the lights have come on, and you see what is really there, you cannot unsee it.
That is, I believe, what Jesus did for the people of his generation. That is why, several decades after his earthly life, the early Christians talked about Jesus as the light that “was coming into the world.” John described Jesus as,
“The true light, which enlightens everyone.”
He turned the lights on for them. He got them to see the world in a new way. He showed them what was there all along, but had been hidden in plain sight by self-interest.
And for many of them, this changed what they wanted for the future. It transformed what they imagined as “Tikkun Olam” — what the repaired world would look like. For some, they were able to imagine a repaired world that was made whole, not just for them and their own people, but for all people.
When the light comes on, you can imagine God differently. If you had been imagining God as only punitive and judgmental, now you could imagine God as Jesus did, as the perfect parent, “full of grace and truth,” “From whose fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.” Grace is the opposite of judgment.
When the lights come on, you see what God’s kingdom looks like — and it looks like a banquet table to which everyone is welcome, and no one is excluded — and the miracle of that enlightenment is that you can even see beyond parochial self-interests. It is not just the kingdom of God for “good” Israelites, free of the “bad guys” or even the kingdom of only Israelites, free of gentiles. It is the kingdom for everyone.
Even with the lights on, however, John reminds us that, “No one has ever seen God,” but Jesus shows us what God’s kingdom looks like. He was, John says, “close to the Father’s heart” meaning he wanted what God wants — and that looks like inclusion that transcends self-interest.
That looks like the quest for peace and a rejection of violent resistance.
It looks like a quest for justice, instead of upholding an iron-age purity code.
It looks like people experiencing the religious illumination, coming to understand that, as Jesus told the Samaritan woman, it is not about which mountain or which temple you think God lives in exclusively, but that
“the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.”
Let’s make this practical. How do the lights get turned on so that we can see beyond self-interest? For me, it means constantly asking myself if what I want to see lines up with Jesus’ vision of a repaired world. So, in the coming year, and in the coming decade, I want to keep paying attention to Jesus.
It also means that now that the lights have been turned on and I see that my self-interest, my ego is my biggest barrier to wanting what Jesus wants, I will engage the practices that help me with my ego. For me, that includes group study of the Enneagram and it includes regular meditation. It means showing up to be of service to others.
It means getting outside of my comfort zone, as Jesus was continually coaxing his followers to do. It means turning the lights on my failures, admitting them, knowing that those are probably going to turn out to be the ways I learn and grow. We are all broken people, but as Leonard Cohen reminds us,
“There is a crack a crack in everything
That’s how the light gets in.” (from the son, “Anthem”)
It means refusing to let the darkness of dread give way to despair, even when the things we dread start happening. We will be people of faith. We will keep doing what we do, and what we always have done, welcoming everyone around our table, participating in interfaith events, addressing the climate crisis, advocating for marginalized communities, ministering to shut-ins, making lunches and dinners for food-challenged people, collecting canned goods, and gathering in gratitude as we are doing now, thankful that the lights have been turned on for us, and we can have the courage to live with the lights on, no matter what is coming this year and this decade.