A sermon preached on the Second Sunday after Christmas – the readings for this sermon include: John 1:1-9, The Gospel of Thomas 70; Matthew 2:1-12. You can listen to the sermon here
Two cars were waiting at a stoplight. The light turned green, but the man didn’t notice it. A woman in the car behind him was watching traffic pass around them. The woman began pounding on her steering wheel and yelling at the man to move. The man didn’t move. The woman started to go ballistic inside her car; she ranted and raved at the man, pounding on her steering wheel. The light turned yellow. The woman began to blow her car horn; she flipped off the man, and screamed curses at him. The man, hearing the commotion, looked up, saw the yellow light and accelerated through the intersection just as the light turned red. The woman was beside herself, screaming in frustration because she missed her chance to get through the intersection. As she is still in mid-rant she hears a tap on her window and looks up into the barrel of a gun held by a very serious looking policeman. The policeman tells her to shut off her car while keeping both hands in sight. She complies, speechless at what is happening. After she shuts off the engine, the policeman orders her to exit her car with her hands up. She gets out of the car and he orders her to turn and place her hands on her car. She turns, places her hands on the car roof and quickly is cuffed and hustled into the patrol car. She is too bewildered by the chain of events to ask any questions and is driven to the police station where she is fingerprinted, photographed, searched, booked, and placed in a cell.
After a couple of hours, a policeman approaches the cell and opens the door for her. She is escorted back to the booking desk where the original officer is waiting with her personal effects. He hands her the bag containing her things, and says, “I’m really sorry for this mistake. But you see, I pulled up behind your car while you were blowing your horn, flipping that guy off, and cussing a blue streak at the car in front of you, and then I noticed the “What Would Jesus Do” and “Follow Me to Sunday School” bumper stickers, and the chrome plated Christian fish emblem on the trunk, so naturally I assumed that you had stolen the car.”
We can scoff at this, but I must tell you that one of the things I had to learn when I first began to wear a clergy collar was that I could no longer give people the finger when I was driving. If you give people the finger when you are driving, it’s not you giving that person the finger but the whole of Christian Church; people will use your outburst to condemn the hypocrisy of the entire church.
During Advent we used a question from Meister Eckhart not once but twice during each of our worship services: “What good is it to me if Mary gave birth to Christ twenty centuries ago and I don’t give birth to Christ in my person and my culture and my times?” And now, in this the last day of Christmas, I find myself wondering what it actually means for Christ to be born in me or in you.
What does it mean that Christ should be born in us? I can’t help wondering exactly what it might look like for Christ to be borne in a person. I know that it must look like something more than a bumper sticker, or a religious symbols; that the hype and the hypocrites don’t quite capture the meaning of Christmas let along what it might mean for Christ to be born in us? So, I went back to the writings of Meister Eckhart to see if I could discover what it might mean for Christ’s birth to happen in us.
Meister Eckhart was a Christian mystic who lived in Germany in the 13th century. Sometimes his words hurt my brain. My mind was clinging to the words in a vain attempt to pry loose an insight or two about what it might look like when the Word is born in a person. It was in that agitated state of mind, that I read these words of Meister Eckhart: “There, where clinging to things ends, is where God begins to be. If a cask is to contain wine, you must first pour out the water. The cask must be bare and empty. Therefore, if you wish to receive divine joy and God, first pour out your clinging to things. Everything that is to receive must be empty.”
It was then that I remembered one of the sayings of Jesus that is recorded in the Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you what you do not bring forth will destroy you.”
Sitting in the quiet of my study, I leaned back into the embrace of my soft rocking chair and a memory began to fill the emptiness. I saw a vision of an unusually cold morning on the West Coast. I could almost feel the damp, wet snow of that morning long ago, when I’d arrived at church extra early. I could see a younger me rushing around in the kitchen of my home parish in Tsawwassen. I was fussing about in the kitchen getting the coffee ready for the folks who’d be arriving soon for Bible Study. After a while I noticed that Pastor Ernst was missing. The front door had been open when I arrived, so he must have been there. But he wasn’t in the sanctuary or in his office. I called his name a few times but there was no response. It wasn’t until I glanced out the window toward the street corner, that I saw him. He was talking to a young guy I’d seen only a few times before. This person didn’t look anything like the well-heeled middle-class folks who attended the church. I’d seen him around town asking for handouts. He sometimes showed up early on a Sunday morning for a cup of coffee and a bit of warmth. I could see the puffs of steamy breath surrounding the two of them as they enjoyed an animated discussion. And then I noticed something that made my heart race, and then a lump lodged itself in my throat—you know the kind of lump that brings tears to your eyes. Pastor Ernst was standing out in the cold. The young guy was wearing the Pastors hat and scarf. I knew at that moment that I was looking at Christ. But for the life of me, looking at the two of them standing there, I couldn’t tell which one it was.
That’s the mystery of Christmas! At some point in time—in the midst of the often bleak reality of this world—in the quiet stillness and in the chaotic wildness of life—God comes among us in the person of Christ, become flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone—heart of our hearts and soul of our souls-to dwell among us. One of the deep truths of Christmas is that somehow in the innocence and weakness of a newborn child, God and humanity become linked—joined-in a way never before experienced—never to be separated again. Centuries ago Meister Eckhart wrote, “We are all meant to be mothers of God. For God is always needing to be born.” And because God is always being born anew in the human heart, it makes sense that I could look out at Pastor Ernst and a homeless man and be surprised by the image of Christ in both of them. All this takes place simply because since the beginning of creation God, however you understand God to be, has sought to be one with us—coming among us time and again in many ways—in many voices—in many hearts.
Writing about Christmas, 20th century mystic, Thomas Merton once wrote: “Today, eternity enters into time, and time, sanctified, (or made holy), is caught up into eternity…” We, too, are caught up in the mystery of Christ—the Word Made Flesh—the mystery of God breaking into human hearts seeking a home within our mortal frames. Beyond the age-old story of that first Christmas as told by Matthew and Luke; and beyond the cosmic theology of the Word made flesh told by John; beyond all the trappings that have come to surround this special moment we call Christmas — beyond the presents and the trees, the stockings and the lights – beyond the wonderful roast beast – beyond all that – Christmas tells us that we matter. Christmas tells us that who we are and how we are has meaning and purpose in the heart and mind of God.
If Eckhart is correct, that somehow God is always needing to be born anew in this world; and if Merton is also correct, that somehow through the incarnation eternity enters into this time – into this moment – and our time is made holy, and is somehow caught up into eternity; then we know a second deep truth about Christmas. We know that Christmas becomes God’s invitation for us to join with God in the transformation of this world; making the Dominion of heaven; the kindom of heaven– the hope and dream of God – a present reality for this earth.
Christmas, then, is about transformation – and it is about our participation with God in making the world new. Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan put it this way, “The Christmas stories are not about a spectacular series of miraculous events that [having] happened in the past… we are to believe in for the sake of going to heaven. Rather, [the Christmas stories] are about God’s passion, God’s dream, for a transformed earth and although two thousand years have passed since this wondrous event we celebrate as Christmas, without the long-hoped-for transformation taking place, we can be assured that the “birth stories are not a pipe dream, but [rather] a proclamation that what we see revealed in Jesus is the way – the way to a different kind of life and a different future” .
In other words, that first deep truth about Christmas – that we are deeply connected to God, and that who we are and how we are in this world matters to God – tells us that we are supposed to be a part of that longed-for transformation of the world. Borg and Crossan tell us that we are to be a part of the transformation process, but we cannot bring it about on our own. Nor will God wave some magic wand and transform the earth on God’s own – as much as many people might want that to happen. We are called – we are expected – to participate in and with God as part of this great process of transformation. We who have seen the star and heard the angels sing are called to participate in the new birth and new world proclaimed by the writers of the Gospels according to Luke, Matthew, and John.
Borg and Crossan tell us that “The purpose of Advent and Christmas is to bring the past into the present” and so we celebrate the birth of a child in what the carol calls “such mean estate where ox and ass are feeding”, realizing that Jesus comes to us as well – born in need as every child is born – vulnerable – dependent upon others.
Jesus comes among us personifying the words of the prophet, preaching good news to the oppressed, healing for the broken-hearted, liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, and the advent of God’s favor. Jesus comes to us, born of Mary, “Word made flesh.” Jesus comes among us as the “light that shines in the darkness,” inviting us to join with him in dispelling the shadows that hide us – that hide our sisters and brothers – from the face of God. Jesus comes among us as the face of God, reclaiming the image of God within each of us. Jesus comes among us, willing to give up his life for those he loves, knowing this is the kind of love that can transform the world and Jesus invites us into this living of the Good News. For “God’s dream for us is not simply peace of mind, but peace on earth”.
The mystery of Christmas is this: God came among us then so that God might live – God might thrive – God might act – within us now. This year, as we go about our work as the people of God in here in this place at this time, let us remember that Christ lives in us.
Christ is born in us! All the love and peace you ever wished for is yours this Christmas. This year let your Christmas gift to the world be the genius and the beauty of your own life. Cradle the Christ-child in your heart and rejoice as Christ grows in you. Always remember the mystery of our faith: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again and again and again and again.