Responsive Call to Worship
In the midst of time,
God was unexpectedly experienced
in encounter with the living of a particular person—
the person of Jesus,
in the reaffirmation of Immanuel, God-with-us.
And we gather in worship, honestly,
to affirm that God is still Immanuel—
still with us—
that in the world in which we live,
we want to … we need to …
and to keep living the incarnation of that belief—
that God has come to us—
that God shares our common lot
and invites us to join those who walk in the way of God,
and so, to live into grace
both received and offered.
Witness of the Closed Canon, i.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation;
for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created,
things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions
or rulers or powers—all things
have been created through him and for him.
He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together.
He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning,
the firstborn from the dead,
so that he might come to have first place in everything.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell,
and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things,
whether on earth or in heaven,
by making peace through the blood of his cross.
Witness of the Living Word, i.
We gather as Christians—
as those, who, I like to say,
follow God in the way of Jesus.
So, take a moment to think about what you would say
were I to say, “Jesus,”
and then ask,
“What’s the first thing you think?”
Now don’t overthink!
What are the first things to come to mind,
when you hear the name Jesus?
Witness of the Living Word, ii.
this sermon is divided into three parts!
Yesterday was the running of the Preakness at Pimlico—
the second of the three races of the Triple Crown,
and with Exaggerator winning,
a lot of the energy of the story has dissipated.
In fact, there is no story of the Triple Crown this year.
People aren’t going to be as interested in the last race.
The story is a disappointment.
Oh, not to Exaggerator’s owner, trainer and people,
but to the general public.
See, if Nyquist had won,
the energy of the story would be growing.
More people would be more interested,
and the story a thriller.
A couple of weeks ago,
we considered the first of a Trinity—
noting that in the story of God,
unfolding through Scripture,
there is no mention of Trinity in the beginning—
nor through all the stories
and writings of the Old Testament.
There is just God.
But then, within history—
and within the tradition of the faithful—
the people of God—the Jews,
there was born something new—
the experience of a man—a Galilean—
who lived and spoke and acted with the authority of God—
a man in whose living, some people experienced the truth of God—
the presence of God—
the voice of God—
a deep consistency with God.
So some of the people of that time and place
recognized this man—recognized God in him—
recognized him as a living manifestation of God.
Not a different God—
precisely the same God—
the God they knew in their history,
but experienced differently now—
Now a couple of things to remember,
first, within the unfolding story
and the consistency of God within the experience of Jesus,
there is still no proposition, idea, concept,
or image of the Trinity—named or considered.
No one encountering Jesus ever thought,
“Oh, the second person of the Trinity!”
Jesus confronts us with the mystery, not yet of the Trinity,
but of God made manifest now in someone.
Second, we have to (or we get to!) ask the questions:
at what point was Jesus named God?
And did he ever consider himself God?
Was “son of God” language part of his self-identification
or ascribed to him?
And, if so, ascribed to him after his life, ministry,
death and resurrection,
or within his lifetime—
before his death and the resurrection?
And the honest answer is we can’t know.
We just can’t know.
We may well have invested more in Jesus
than he ever understood of himself.
We considered one Advent a few years ago,
how the earliest stories don’t say anything about his birth
(Mark’s gospel, you remember, nothing),
but the later ones do.
And we wondered if part of the reason we have the Christmas stories
is because after people not only saw and experienced who Jesus was,
but also came to believe certain things about him—
things that he may or may not have believed—
things he may have come to believe—
things he may have always known,
then people wanted to know more—wanted to know everything about him.
And if he was the Son of God—if he was, somehow, God,
then surely there had to have been
marvelous stories of a wondrous birth.
And there were, and they were good.
We’ve also noted how the Christology gets higher and higher—
how the Jesus of John’s gospel, who knows everything
and is never portrayed as out of control,
is so different from the Jesus of the synoptic gospels.
I was looking at occurrences of the word/name Father in the gospels,
and it’s rather striking,
it’s not mentioned much in Mark at all.
In Matthew and Luke more,
but tends to be your father, my father, our father.
In John the word/name’s all over the place and mainly the Father—
so as if that were a later developing affirmation.
But then, the Pauline epistles, written earliest of all,
use the Father language.
But they’re more about what Jesus means
than about who Jesus was—
exploring theology more than memory.
So we acknowledge—we have to acknowledge,
there’s really no way to distinguish
how Jesus considered himself,
from how the disciples considered Jesus,
and from how the early church
and the writers of the New Testament considered him.
An important gift of theology—
the study of God with integrity—
is supposed to be the humility
that comes from realizing
that we gently hold on to and consider
in the one hand what we do and can know,
mindful always also in the other hand,
of all we know we don’t and can’t know.
To try and hold on too tightly to what we know
makes us unbalanced and unfocused,
and we lose sight of the truth
that life is less about what we know
than who we know.
But let’s imagine,
for a Jew at the time of Jesus,
to encounter Jesus—to be told stories of Jesus—
to engage him and them—
to listen to him—
and take him seriously,
be that as a disciple, a Pharisee, a Sadducee—
to encounter Jesus and to take him seriously,
as a manifestation of God—an incarnation of God—
well, that offered a series of profound theological challenges—
a challenge to monotheism—
a challenge to transcendence in immanence
(to see me is to die vs/ see here I am)—
a challenge to tradition
(you have heard it said,
but I say to you)—
a challenge to authority—
the authority of the institution
and the institutional leaders—
the authority of Scripture—
the authority of God—
a challenge to God’s power
(now made weak, fragile, vulnerable flesh)—
a challenge to omnipotence
(in grief and pain and rejection and betrayal and death and suffering).
Note: it’s important—very important:
as much challenge as Jesus represents to Judaism,
he does not represent rejection of Judaism.
second part of the sermon
Now, to switch gears for a moment.
It’s a very curious historical anomaly
that among many of what became our favorite Christmas hymns,
the writers discovered that they had all, essentially,
written the same verse.
But they all ended up dropping that verse
as they found out that others wrote it too.
It seemed, well, not very creative.
But the thing is, it’s in the very commonality
of the left out, unsung verses,
that there was something true—
something about the challenge of Jesus—
of what Jesus means
to who God is
and to who we are.
Because, of course, the hymns were all written later—
long after the life of Jesus in Galilee—
as expressions not of experience,
but of reflection upon experience.
Now it took a lot of painstaking research to track this down—
a hidden vault in a forbidden room at the Vatican, I’m told,
all filed under “true conundrum.”
And there’s been some discussion
if that means truly puzzling
or a puzzle that’s truth.
Anyway, I have some copies here
of these lost verses.
What are some of your favorite Christmas carols?
John Francis Wade, “O Come All Ye Faithful” [ADESTE FIDELES]
O come all ye faithful, questioning and doubting,
o come ye not knowing and yet intrigued.
come and behold him
born as God and human.
O come, let us adore him
O come, let us adore him
O come, let us adore him
Christ the Lord.
William C. Dix, “What Child Is This” [GREENSLEEVES]
What child is this in whom we see
the mystery of God here—
the paradox of God made flesh
transcendence somehow come near?
This, this is Christ, the King, whom shepherds guard and angels sing:
Haste, haste to bring him laud, the babe, the son of Mary.
Christian Rossetti, ”How Great Our Joy” [JÜNGST]
Jesus is born in whom we see
so much of God’s authority:
his life, his word—
life and word.
Word made flesh—
God in the highest born to us.
God thus revealed in Christ Jesus.
Isaac Watts, “Joy to the World!” [ANTIOCH]
Joy to the world, our God is born
in human flesh and blood
in whom we see—we recognize
the truth and grace of God,
the truth and grace of God,
the truth—the truth and grace of God.
Edmund H. Sears, “It Came Upon a Midnight Clear” [CAROL]
It came upon a midnight clear, the mystery we can’t know
what we cannot conceive or think, our God to us will show
and in the wonder of this night, our hearts inside us burn
and for the rest of all our years, for this truth we will yearn.
Charles Wesley, “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing” [MENDELSSOHN]
Hark! the herald angels say, God is born to us today
in a manger God is laid, crying, hungry and afraid
this the mystery of faith God is with us in this way
ours is not an easy claim, but the truth of how God came
Hark! the herald angels sing, “Glory to the stable’s King.”
Timothy Dudley-Smith, “Away in a Manger” [MUELLER]
Away in a manger, a strange place for God
to think that a stable would leave us so awed
inversions of all we expect to see
the absolute wonder of what will now be
Joseph Mohr, “Silent Night” [STILLE NACHT]
Silent night, holy night, all is changed, all is new
in this baby boy we see contradictions paradox
God is born to us God is born to us.
John Mason Neale, “Good King Wenceslas” [TEMPUM ADEST FLORIDUM]
In like manner God was born
born to warm our living.
Came to us that Christmas morn.
Since then we’ve been giving.
Lives transformed by God’s surprise:
strength made real in weakness.
Truth beyond the wonder lies,
bringing light to bleakness.
(or: all tied to the Preakness!)
Placide Cappeau, “Oh Holy Night” [CANTIQUE DE NOEL]
O holy night on which unfolds the story
the wondrous tale of how God came to us.
No more removed in foreign lofty language
but brought in close in the birth of a babe
amazing truth in paradox confounds us
that God and child are both a part of us
Fall on your knees
O hear the angels’ voices
O night divine
O night when Christ was born
O night divine o night
O night divine
Phillips Brooks, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” [ST LOUIS]
I cannot fathom what it means,
to say that God was born—
that in the midst of all that is,
grace comes to all forlorn.
But here’s the truth that matters—
that changes everything:
transcendence is not far removed,
and God with us does sing.
traditional English, “The First Nowell” [THE FIRST NOWELL]
The first Nowell, the people did ask,
how it could be that God would be born in this way.
how can a babe in swaddling cloths
be the answer we need as those who pray?
Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, Nowell, born is the King of Israel
traditional French, “Sing We Now of Christmas” [FRENCH CAROL]
In this man named Jesus, we’ve seen something odd.
In this man named Jesus, we’ve seen into God
Jesus we sing of mystery profound.
In his way of being, it is God we’ve found.
traditional German, “Lo, How a Rose E’er Blooming” [ES IST EIN ROS’]
Yet flowers’ days are numbered
petals fall in every storm.
So fragile is a flower
to mean that God is born.
What affirmation made,
there blooming in a manger
where gently God was laid.
I just love alternative history—
all the amazing historical documents
to be found in the vaults of the imagination!
third part of the sermon
All kidding aside, you may remember
a couple of Sundays ago,
I wondered about a formula—
a faith affirmation
honing in on what is essentially God.
So, for Jesus to be consistent with what is essentially God,
does Jesus have to have been in the beginning
part of creation with God?
That thinking developed,
but it wasn’t a part of the synoptic gospels.
Does Jesus have to be not confined to time—
not limited to or by time?
Well, part of what we believe is that he isn’t, right?
We believe, however we understand it,
in the living presence of Jesus.
we believe in God who is with us—Emanuel.
And for me, more important than questions
about whether Jesus was a part of creation,
is the affirmation that Jesus is part of the affirmation
of God who is with us now—
who is with us always—
who is not removed,
but experienced rather within time.
Remember, we’re not saying anything new about God here.
And Jesus, like God,
called into being and into relationship:
“Follow me and I will make you fishers of people.”
Jesus, like God, is known to us
in and through covenant relations of mutuality and reciprocity.
Don’t you think that’s what the disciples model?
The early church?
And Jesus is always in conversation—
always extending love—
always seeking blessing.
And in this ongoing conversation Jesus, like God,
and you may remember my prioritizing this truth in thinking about God,
Jesus too, consistently creates possibility where there was none—
possibility that shall be blessing:
“Rise up and walk.”
“I’m having lunch with you today.”
“It makes no difference that you’re a woman—
that you’re a samaritan—
that you’re unclean.
Nothing makes a difference
when it comes to gracing people with love.”
“Has anyone condemned you? Neither do I.”
Jesus consistently creates possibility where there was none,
which we call
or good news.
And so it is that
in Jesus, too,
we see God persistently rewriting
what anyone else might perceive as the end of the story—
what we might perceive as the end of the story.
So, in what’s most important to us of God,
Jesus resonates with God.
It may seem a little odd,
but I’d like to name the value of Jesus!—
beyond the stories and the teachings—
beyond what he means to us as those who follow God in his name.
Jesus as the experience of surprise and wonder—
literally OMG …
which for me makes the constant reiteration of OMG these days
so incredibly shallow and meaningless.
“OMG, she said that?”
Unless she said love incarnate,
I don’t think so!
“OMG, I love this!”
Now you may be declaring your god,
but usually I hope you’re not!
Jesus, the OMG that puts all other OMG’s to shame!
But as a realization that pulls the rug out from underneath you—
that shakes the foundations
in the reaffirmation of an ungodly God—
a God who’s born a baby to teach us about service
about grace and love.
as you acknowledge there’s always more to learn—
always more to experience,
and always more to experience of joy and wonder
and creativity and beauty and surprise and grace and love
and laughter and fun and parties with friends
and making new friends and starting all over again
with all that makes life abundant.
And in stories of a person,
we’re reminded that Jesus was initially an experience—
that people had
in a particular time and place,
which was then reflected upon,
and named, looking back on that particular experience.
And it is not our experience.
It can’t be.
We don’t encounter the physical presence of the man of Galilee.
And yet, our experience of Jesus isn’t supposed to be just conceptual.
It’s supposed to be personal, right?
Too much, we have reflection on experience,
and it’s someone else’s reflection on someone else’s experience.
We are to experience Jesus for ourselves—
and to reflect on that!
We named what we thought of Jesus earlier—
or rather what Jesus makes us think of.
That’s so important—
for us to have immediate, instinctive affirmations,
and for us to affirm the importance of those affirmations
and to embrace the insights into God they offer.
For often they represent not what we think,
but what we know.
If Nyquist had won yesterday,
the story of the Triple Crown would be better today.
It would actually be a story today.
The energy would be greater.
The anticipation would still be growing.
More people would still be interested,
and more people would be getting interested.
More people would care about this particular horse.
Truly, however you conceive it,
the consistency of Jesus with God
as claimed and proclaimed within our living—
as valued and lived into—
makes the story better—
makes the story go on—
makes for more energy—
for growing anticipation—
with more people interested and getting interested—
and with more people caring about God.
May it be so.
Witness of the Open Canon, ii.
John Gorka, “Zuly”
Witness of the Closed Canon, ii.
In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus
that all the world should be registered.
This was the first registration and was taken
while Quirinius was governor of Syria.
All went to their own towns to be registered.
Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee
to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem,
because he was descended from the house and family of David.
He went to be registered with Mary,
to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child.
While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child.
And she gave birth to her firstborn son
and wrapped him in bands of cloth, and laid him in a manger,
because there was no place for them in the inn.