December 31, 2023

The First Sunday After Christmas Day

December 31, 2023

The Rev. R. Allan McCaslin

Readings: Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25; 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

From the Gospel according to John, “…And the Word became flesh and lived among us … (and) he … has made the (Father) known.” I speak to you in the Name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

     The opening words of today’s Gospel reading say that the Word of God – Jesus the Christ – was not only with God, but has existed since before the world began because Jesus Christ is God. John’s words call to remembrance the great creation stories of Genesis, those accounts of how God created everything that is, all that is seen and unseen. God created every form of life – the birds, fish, animals, plants – everything – just as God also created humankind from the dust of that newly formed earth. And all of this creation, our home called Eden, was known as a garden of incredible beauty and peace, a garden that God pronounced, “good.”

Then something went terribly wrong. Together, the man and woman chose to eat a forbidden fruit and with a shudder felt throughout the universe, sin entered the world. Humankind fell from grace and communion with God was broken. Scripture tells us that because of sin, as noted in Genesis Chapter 4 and in the words of writer John Steinbeck, humanity’s home now became East of Eden. And everything East of Eden became, at best, incredibly complicated.

     At the heart of Holy Scripture, both the Old and New Testaments, is the story of God’s holy longing, God’s call to his creation, “Where are you?”, God’s aching for humankind to just come home, God’s desire that we be reconciled and restored to wholeness in body, mind and spirit with one another and be in community with God forever. And scripture also tells us that throughout human history rather than abandon us, God, time and again, continued to interact with, and intervene in, the lives of those who promised and sincerely desired to walk in God’s ways and uphold God’s values. Speaking of the depths of God’s intervention, my colleague, the Rev. Rick Morley writes, “God spoke to individuals and blessed whole families … and claimed us as His own people. When enslaved, God liberated his people. When homeless, God gave them a land. When that land was devastated, God built it up again.” God sent prophets and teachers and leaders to direct us in his ways and values. God continuously inserted himself into human history offering to make “His story, our story, and our story, His story.” (Rev. Rick Morley)

Nevertheless, throughout the Bible we read that just as our commitment to God’s ways would come and go, God, too, seemed to come and go. God would be with his people one moment to perform the miraculous and then seem to disappear the next. Now no one had ever seen the face of God and lived and yet, most, if not all, still believed in God – believed in God’s love, God’s presence. Yet, because of sin our relationship with God was never the same. In Eden, God was just there: walking and talking with creation. But East of Eden life was estranged, life was difficult, and for many, life was empty of meaning and hope.

That is, until Bethlehem … That is, until “the Word – God– became flesh and lived among us” in the person of this Jesus of Nazareth whose birth, this Christmas, we celebrated this week.

     Christmas commemorates an incredible moment in human history. It celebrates how the God of all creation – the God of all power, knowledge, grace, mercy, love, justice, judgment, and forgiveness – in order to restore all creation humbled himself and was born among us, “the Word became flesh.” This incarnation, this nativity, this birth, is a mindboggling reversal of all religion. Rather than our striving to become like God and in full communion with God - God knows that given our sinful nature that is impossible for us- God comes to us instead. And as incredible as this sounds, God chose to become one with us, one of us and in so doing, in the words of the Prophet Isaiah, offered to “clothe us with salvation and righteousness.” In the Christmas miracle, God offers, through Jesus Christ, to make us whole again, to reshape us into his own image once more, and to bring us into a new Eden if we so desire, if we will so change our ways and turn to God once again.

     See, in the words of St. Paul, when the “Word became flesh and lived among us” – God birthed a new way of life marked by faith alone. That is why whenever these words from John’s gospel are proclaimed, (“The word became flesh and lived among us,”) many kneel in reverence and utter awe at the holiness and grace of that moment in history, that moment when East of Eden was no longer our home. At Bethlehem, our home became, and continues to become, Jesus Christ, God’s own Son, God’s own self. And through Christ we are made children of God, heirs of God. Indeed, at Bethlehem, God’s story does become our story - and our story becomes God’s story. And this time, it is forever!

And yet, there is even more to Bethlehem. Known to his people only in story and sagas of past events, seen only in a cloud, a pillar of fire, a burning bush, a quiet voice in the midst of utter silence, in a voice heard from behind a curtain, God, whose face was always enshrouded from his people, suddenly reveals his face to the whole world, and it is the face of Jesus Christ. It is a face of love, grace, truth and mercy, and rather than death (for no one had seen the face of God and lived), in Jesus, God is made known as a Father who offers not death, but the gift of life eternal. No wonder, in anticipating this grace-filled moment – this day when God would reveal himself in ways unthought-of or even imagined –the prophet Isaiah proclaimed, “My whole being shall exult in my God … (for) we shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of our God” - just as we once were at Eden.

Everything changed at Bethlehem. But does it still change us today? That is the question the world asks as Christians continue to celebrate these Twelve Days of Christmas. In other words, what difference does any of this really make in how we choose to live right now? Certainly, news headlines and stories of violence and unrest that permeate not just other nations, but within our own nation that so often touts itself as Christian – does beg the question, “What has really changed since Bethlehem?” Just like in Genesis and throughout the whole of scripture, in our world today it seems like we are still living East of Eden. Cain still slays Abel; people still cheat one another; religions claim to be peaceful and peace-loving and yet, war with one another, famine and health crises abound, and men’s hearts fail them for fear about the future. What has really changed?

Well, I suggest the answer is Everything! But like all matters of faith, like all things that make a lasting difference, the miracle of Bethlehem requires that we choose to embrace it, choose to allow God’ s grace to permeate our hearts and minds, to transform our thoughts and priorities, so that we, ourselves, are changed. For when we are changed, then so is the world.

How? In the words of St. John, while the law of Moses taught us how to live and urged us to walk in God’s ways – in Christ, at Bethlehem, at Christmas, we received the grace to accomplish it, and to live as God’s people. At Bethlehem, we began to understand what it means to truly be forgiven, restored, graced and blessed. At Bethlehem we received the power to commit ourselves to walk in God’s ways, to carry Christ’s light, and to foster God’s justice, equity, grace, forgiveness and mercy in our homes, our communities, and throughout the world. When we embrace the Christ at Bethlehem, we begin to see Christ in every person we meet. We become God’s visible presence in the world right now, every day, and forever by how we live. And that makes a difference! Because when, without exception, we choose to forgive just we also acknowledge our need to be forgiven, when we choose to reconcile and be reconciled, when we choose to love and be loved, then the real grace of Bethlehem, of Christmas, begins to unfold and make a difference in us and offers the world a new way of living. But remember: New life in Christ is always a choice and that choice always begins with us.

At Bethlehem, God invited the whole world to offer its heart as God’s home. And when we choose to offer our hearts, we enter into a new relationship with God marked by forgiveness. It is an Eden like none other before it: a new Eden God pronounces “good” forever.

“And the Word became flesh and lived among us.”  May this Christmas miracle and gift of God’s grace continue to change us so that our very lives make a lasting difference in a world so desperate for redemption, so aching to return home. Beloved, may the Word become flesh in us. Amen.