Archive for January, 2013
The Many Different Ways of Being One
Rev. Mike Woods
January 27, 2013
3rd Sunday of Epiphany
1 Corinthians 12: 12-31
One of the things a lot of preachers dread is when the lectionary readings for Sunday turn to the Book of Nehemiah. There is probably not a book in either the Old or New Testament with more difficult names for the English tongue to pronounce!
But the scene that this morning’s scripture sets for us is awesome and inspiring, to say the least. The people have returned from exile in Babylon after being granted their freedom by the Persians … Jerusalem has been rebuilt … a new temple has been built upon the ruins of the old one… and the priest, Ezra, has called all of the people together for a day of worship and rededication to the covenant that was established with Moses and the Israelites nine hundred years earlier. Much of the ceremony consists of Ezra reading from all five Books of the Law – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy … it probably took over six hours for him to get through the entire worship service.
Don’t worry, my sermon today be considerably shorter. I wouldn’t do that to you. Besides, I don’t think I have the energy for that, anyway. Now, most of us in the US would probably cringe at the idea of a worship service lasting more than an hour or for as long as two hours. But I understand that in other places in the Christian world, that wouldn’t be unusual, at all. In the Presbyterian churches in South Africa, for example, Sunday worship is an all day affair. There’s a lot of singing, a lot of praying, a lot of dancing and hand clapping … more than one minister may get up to preach. World Christianity is a diverse congregation that encompasses many different cultures, many different languages and traditions and styles. There is no one size fits all when it comes to the church of Jesus Christ.
But besides the probable length of the service, one of the things I notice about this passage is where the people gather for the ceremony: at the gate of the city of Jerusalem called the Water Gate. This was a special place because the square in front of the gate was a place that was not off limits to anyone: rich or poor, male or female, young or old, Jew or gentile – you could be there. Even lepers and other people considered ritually unclean were allowed to be present in the square in front of the Water Gate. And the scripture lets us know that, indeed, all kinds of different people were there. The previous chapter gives us a list of all of them … all 42,360 of them (7:66). Among them are some people of uncertain ancestry – people who claim to be Jewish but can’t produce the proper documentation to prove they are who they say they are – and they are allowed, at least, some limited participation (7:61-65). All who have gathered are united as one people and told they should act as one people … and this includes sharing the food and drink they had brought to feed themselves at the ceremony with those who brought nothing with them, because that is how a united people behave – they look after and take care of one another, they don’t leave one another to suffer.
The inclusivity we see in this passage is remarkable, I think. The Book of Nehemiah is not a book of the Bible known for its inclusivity. It’s a book that causes a lot of modern day readers to cringe whenever they come across it, and gives us pastors another reason to dread having to preach from it, in addition to it lists of difficult names. It’s a book that has been described as xenophobic and racist – it forbids interracial marriage, certain ethnic groups are prohibited from entering Jerusalem at certain hours, and laws requiring the segregation of all non-Jews are enacted. And all throughout, the governor Nehemiah claims to be doing God’s work.
So the little bit of inclusivity we see in this short passage where Ezra leads the people together in worship, as slight as it may be and as grudgingly as it may be given, stands out! Social outcasts are present … the undocumented are permitted a limited form of amnesty … men, women and children barely old enough to understand what is being said are allowed to take part.
It’s worth noting that most of the Old Testament, as a whole, gives a little different message about foreigners – in particular, the books of Jonah and Ruth depict Gentiles in a much more favorable light. Even the Torah, the five books that Ezra reads from at the Water Gate, contains the commandment: You shall also love the stranger who lives among you, for you were once strangers in the land of Egypt (Deut. 10:10). This commandment is repeated several times throughout the Torah. What the Old Testament reveals to us is a community of faith struggling with the divine call to inclusivity. Who do we let in? Who do we fellowship with? Who is our neighbor, as Jesus will ask four hundred years later? The people of God don’t always get the answers to those questions correct, but, as Martin Luther King once said, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
Paul is dealing with another community of faith also struggling with its own call to inclusiveness, but I think he’s facing a little different problem. The church at Corinth seems to already be a very diverse church. The city of Corinth in Paul’s time can be described as a major commercial metropolitan city. People from all over the Roman Empire came to do business there … people of all nationalities, cultures and languages. It was a very diverse city and the make up of the church that Paul helped to plant reflected this.
But it’s also a church that was so diverse it had lost any sense of unity. From reading his letters to the church we can get an idea of what some of these divisions were. There seems to be some division along class lines: the rich are bringing food for themselves and not sharing any with the poor workers who arrive late to the gatherings after work, and Paul has to remind them, like Ezra does in the Old Testament passage, that this is not how a people united are to behave or treat one another. And while the congregation seems to experience some tension over issues of race, culture, and nationality, which is what we might expect in so multicultural a society, the greatest division among the people seems to be something that most of us would not have expected – it has to do with Spiritual Gifts.
We talked about some of those last week, and you may recall Paul told them there were many different gifts – prophecy, healing, discernment of spirits, speaking in tongues, interpreting tongues, and out of these, three that will last forever: Faith, hope, and love – the greatest of which is love. But, although there are many different spiritual gifts, there is only one Spirit from which they all come.
Today, Paul wants to take this argument to its logical conclusion: just as there are many different gifts, but one Spirit that grants them, so there are many different members of a church – unique individuals, distinct personalities, separate perspectives on the world live in – but there is one church body, the body of Christ. For in the one Spirit, Paul says, we were all baptized into one body – Jews, Greeks, slaves or free – and we were all made to drink of one Spirit. “One Bread, One Body, One Lord of All,” as a hymn frequently sung during communion in many churches says.
I mentioned the Presbyterian Church in South Africa, a little earlier. Its actual name is the Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa. It has a very interesting history … it wasn’t always united or even tried to be united. When Presbyterian missionaries first arrived in South Africa in 1897, they – like Nehemiah and the church in Corinth – struggled with the divine call to inclusiveness. Separate denominations were founded: one for white settlers, another for Blacks. They worshipped separately, they took communion separately – they lived in a body of Christ that was divided against itself, where the hand and the foot said to one another, “I have no need of you.” This is how things were in the entire nation of South Africa under the system of government that came to be known as apartheid. But even after the fall of apartheid, it was not until 1999 (just a little over twelve years ago) that the two denominations, divided along racial lines, would begin the work of reconciliation and become as one, sisters and brothers in Christ. They decided to call themselves the Uniting Presbyterian Church of Southern Africa because they recognize that the work of achieving unity in the midst of their diversity is always work in progress … it’s not something you can do overnight by voting on a resolution or issuing a proclamation. And although they may still have a long way to go – for the most part it’s still separate churches for whites and Blacks, much as it is in the US – whites and Blacks share leadership in the denomination, they share resources, they are in the process of becoming one.
One of the ways our own denomination has sought to give support to our brothers and sisters there is through sister-church fellowships which allow us to get to know our brothers and sisters there and to support them in their ministry. The church my wife and I were members of in Pensacola formed a sister church relationship with a small church in the township of Gugulethu. Another way we are seeking to enter into solidarity with their struggle to respond to the divine call is by considering adoption of the Belhar Confession into our Book of Confessions. Although this confession was written by another denomination, the Dutch Reformed Mission Church of South Africa, it speaks directly to the issues of apartheid and inclusivity. In part it states:
that unity is, therefore, both a gift and an obligation for the church of Jesus Christ …
that this unity must become visible so that the world may believe that separation, enmity and hatred between people and groups is sin which Christ has already conquered…
that this unity can be established only in freedom and not under constraint; that the variety of spiritual gifts, opportunities, backgrounds, convictions, as well as the various languages and cultures, are by virtue of the reconciliation in Christ, opportunities for mutual service and enrichment within the one visible people of God;
It’s a messy kind of Spirituality, Paul invites the church in Corinth (and us, too, for that matter) to take part in. He doesn’t want us to become so unified that we become uniform. We don’t have to give up the things that make us different from one another – culture, race, our own unique if somewhat eccentric perspective on the world. God gave us those things for a reason, they all have a place somewhere in the body of Christ. And if anyone is excluded, we are all the lesser for it.
I would go so far as to say the same is true for our nation, as well. We live in one of the most diverse countries of the entire world, and it grows more diverse everyday. I think more of us are starting to learn to appreciate that and welcome it as the gift from God it’s meant to be. In his inaugural day poem, One Today, the poet Richard Blanco offers us a vision of the future God is calling us to. I read his ending verse to you in closing: (The text of Blanco’s poem can be found at: http://abcnews.go.com/Politics/today-richard-blanco-poem-read-barack-obama-inauguration/story?id=18274653)
Honoring the Dream
Rev. Mike Woods
January 20, 2013
2nd Sunday of Epiphany, MLK Jr. Sunday
1 Corinthians 12:1-11
Every Tuesday morning, I get together with another group of pastors over at Glen Echo Presbyterian Church and we have a Bible study. Recently, we read and talked about this passage from the Gospel of John about the miracle of changing the water into wine. Sometimes in our discussions we can get a little bit off track … and we started talking about whether or not Jesus and his mother were having an argument. It certainly seems like they’re having some sort of disagreement in the scripture. But one conclusion we all shared was that – if they were having an argument – it was quite clear who the winner was … and it wasn’t Jesus!
Mary casually mentions to her son that the wedding hosts have run out of wine. This is apparently the third day of a wedding feast, and in that culture in that time wedding feasts could be extended affairs that went on for as long as seven days. For the feast to have run out of wine at such an early stage meant that the party would be coming to a premature end … the guests would be going home early … and the beginning of the young couple’s new life together would be marred by a social disaster on a day where, you would suspect, they would have wanted everything to be perfect.
But I can understand Jesus’ hesitation to want to do something about it. He seems to be comfortable with the early stages of his ministry. He’s gathering his disciples around him … he’s talking to them about the Kingdom of Heaven … in short, he’s still in the planning stages of his ministry. He can dream big … he can spend time thinking about all he and his friends are going to accomplish … where they’re going to go … .
But to actually let the leather of their sandals meet the road … that’s another thing. That means giving up the comforting vision of a beautiful dream for the harsh reality an unjust world that doesn’t care a whole lot about beautiful dreams. For Jesus to respond to his mother’s implicit request is for him to take the first step on a very long road … a road he knows is going to be hard and difficult and filled with obstacles all the way. He knows he will be persecuted and challenged by the authorities … that he will be called a traitor to his own people and accused of treason by the Roman government. He knows that people will try to say that he is speaking against God and the scriptures, when what he is really trying to do comes from God.
Tomorrow, January 21st, our nation will formerly observe the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. He would have turned 84 years old, last Tuesday. He grew up in the city of Atlanta, GA, and was so precocious, I understand, that he skipped both the ninth and twelfth grades and went straight into Morehouse College, where he earned a Bachelor of Arts in Sociology. Later, he left the South and moved up north and earned a degree in Divinity studies from Crozer Theological Seminary in Chester, PA, and then began doctoral studies at Boston University. The woman who would become his wife, Coretta Scott, was just as academically talented. After graduating valedictorian from her high school in Alabama, she enrolled at Antioch College in Yellow Springs, OH, where she studied music, then received a scholarship to the New England Conservatory of Music in Boston … and this is where she first met her husband to be.
They were married in 1953 and, giving evidence to the fact that Coretta was a woman way ahead of her time, I understand she had the vow to obey her husband removed from the ceremony. Martin didn’t protest, he knew better. They had a very comfortable life together, living in the north … away from the racial segregation they had both experienced and suffered from in the South. Where they were, they were surrounded by intellectuals, people of their own caliber … they were both active in the NAACP and other civil rights organizations … they thought about staying there. Martin would finish his studies at Boston University … maybe go into teaching at the university or seminary level. If you know what legalized racial segregation was like in the South in the 1950’s, you could understand their hesitation. I think I would rather face a cold Boston winter than return to the hatred and prejudice.
Just one year after being married, Martin and Coretta faced a decision – the same decision that ever since that day two thousand years ago the church of Jesus Christ has struggled with – Do we dare to take a first step on a road which we know there’s no turning back?
It’s one thing to dream of the Kingdom of Heaven … to dream of racial equality, “that one day …, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood.’” (As King said in his famous “I have a dream” speech.) But it’s another thing to roll up our sleeves and stand side by side with the Holy Spirit and join in the work that needs to be done to make that dream a reality.
I can very easily imagine Jesus saying to his mother, “It’s not time yet! I still have a lot of planning left to do!” I think in a way that is what Jesus is saying. We see a very human side of Jesus, comparable to what we see on that night three years latter in the Garden of Gethsemane, because that’s where Jesus knows all this will eventually lead.
I said earlier that my colleagues and I all agreed that – if Jesus and Mary were having an argument, then Mary’s the clear winner – and I think there’s something very telling in that fact, and it helps us to understand what the writer of the Gospel means when he says in verse 11 that in performing this miracle Jesus revealed his glory.
The glory of God is very different from “glory” as we human beings understand it. In this passage, God is moved by human need. Not only that, God is also moved by the entreaties of a woman. When Jesus addresses his mother as, “woman,” he reminds us in modern times that in his society, women did not have an equal status with men. Women simply did not go around telling men, even their fully grown thirty year old sons, what they should be doing. But Jesus does what she asks, and not simply because she’s his mother … but because God hears the cries of all people, of all stations of life, men and women, young and old, rich and poor. There is no one who cannot approach the throne of God and not have his or her needs heard by the Almighty. God hears. God answers. That is the glory of God!
When Jesus turns the water into wine, notice in the scripture Jesus never touches the water … he never touches the jars that hold the water … he never draws the wine out of the jars with the pitchers in order to serve it to the guests. He instructs the servants about what they should do, and they are the ones who carry out the task … through them the miracle takes place. The nature of the glory of God is such that the work of building the Kingdom is always done through God’s servants. People like you and me. People like Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King. We act not on our own but at the Spirit’s direction, following the commands we have been given.
The apostle Paul tells us there are a number of ways that we act on behalf of the Kingdom, a number of spiritual gifts we have been given that God wants us to put to use for the Kingdom. In his first letter to the church in Corinth, Paul lists a number of those: wisdom, knowledge, faith, healing, prophecy, speaking in tongues and the interpretation of tongues. Out of all these gifts, I think it’s important to note that he considers the greatest to be love – not knowledge nor wisdom nor making miracles nor even speaking in tongues – but love. There’s another thing about the glory of God: God is love, as we are told in the First Letter of John. But Paul also reminds us there is a particular reason we have been given one or more of these gifts. In verse seven he says, “To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.” These gifts are given to us, not for our own glory – to make us rich and famous – nor for the glory of our church, of our denomination, or even of our own nation. We don’t like to talk about the common good in our individualistic culture these days. About every issue, we want to know: How’s it gonna benefit me? And if we don’t see how something is any benefit to us personally, we’re opposed to it! Churches sometimes struggle with this themselves. We want to know how any new program the church may start will benefit us or the church directly before we give our okay to it. Will it increase attendance? Will it attract more young people? Will it increase revenue and make us more money? Will it make the church more noticed in the community? Those might be some good goals, but if those are our only concerns about issues or projects before the church, and how the common good will benefit has no place in there, then maybe we’re doing a lot of good things for some very bad reasons.
I notice that Jesus doesn’t intend the wine just for himself, or even for just himself and his disciples. I don’t know if he even drank a single drop of it himself. The people who benefit from the miracle are people who had no idea he had done anything for them. Such is the nature of the glory of God.
I notice Jesus doesn’t even get credit for the miracle. It’s the bridegroom who is congratulated for having saved the best wine for last. What work are we willing to do as followers of Christ, that we’re not going to get noticed for? That no one is going to name a wing on a new building after us for? The nature of the glory of God is selfless in its giving to those who are in need.
When we think of the Civil Rights Movement, the names Martin Luther and Coretta Scott King immediately come to mind. And during their lives they did receive some recognition for the work they did, and they deserved that. But recognition wasn’t the reason they did what they did.
Nothing could have been accomplished in the Civil Rights Movement without the work of millions of others, whose work and contributions for the most part are unrecognized. Young people who braved threats of violence to register African Americans to vote … men and women who marched to Selma. Most of them were ordinary church folk … people just like you and me. People who shared the same vision and dream, but who wanted to do more than just stay in the safety of the dream … who felt called to confront the harsh reality of this unjust world we live in … who knew they might not live long enough to see the fruits of all they had worked so long and hard for. They, too, are part of the nature of the glory of God!
Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Expecting a Lot from a Little Bit of Water
Jan. 13, 2013
Baptism of the Lord Sunday
Rev. Mike Woods
Something about me that most of you probably don’t know: I’m not a lifelong Presbyterian … I was raised in the United Methodist Church. I didn’t become a Presbyterian until I met my wife, and I guess she converted me to Presbyterianism (and whether that was a good thing or a bad thing for Presbyterians, I don’t know).
But I grew up in a small, rural United Methodist congregation in the eastern part of the state of Alabama. And I was baptized in that church at age 12 by Rev. Clarence Monday. The liturgy that was used then wasn’t too different from the one that can be found in the Presbyterian Book of Common Worship. In fact, in some places, I believe they read the same word-for-word. The candidate for baptism agrees to trust in the gracious mercy of God, to turn away from the sin and evil of this world, to accept Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and to be his faithful disciple. There is some sort of Profession of Faith – usually a recitation of the Apostles’ Creed – and then the candidate promises to be a faithful member of the congregation, to share in its work and ministry, and to devote him or her self to the church’s teaching and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and prayer.
There is usually some sort of prayer giving thanks for the gift of water recalling the story we just read from the Gospel of Luke. It usually says something to the effect of:
We praise you for sending Jesus your Son,
who for us was baptized in the waters of the Jordan,
and was anointed as the Christ by your Holy Spirit.
Through the baptism of his death and resurrection,
you set us free from the bondage of sin and death,
and give us cleansing and rebirth.
In saying those words, our baptism is connected to that of Christ over two thousand years ago. The prayer goes on to ask for the presence of the Holy Spirit, to move over the water and bless it so that it might:
Wash away the sin of all who are cleansed by it,
Raise them to new life,
and graft them to the body of Christ.
… that they may have power to do (God’s) will,
and continue forever in the risen life of Christ.
The person is then baptized in the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Methodist Church, as in the Presbyterian, does not prescribe a particular method of baptism – the candidate has a choice. People can choose aspersion, affusion, immersion, or submersion. My brother (who was baptized that same day with me) and I both elected aspersion, or “sprinkling,” as some call it.
Being twelve years old, I was entering a time in my life when I was very concerned about my appearance. It was the early 70’s and young men wore their hair long … and we went to great lengths to wash it, brush it, and keep it styled. I did not relish the idea of being baptized before noon on Sunday, and then having to go home and wash and style it all over again before going to Methodist Youth Fellowship at three o’clock. I guarantee you, no more theological thought than that went it making that decision! (But, obviously, now, that problem would hardly be a concern for me!)
But as I think back on the experience now, one of the things that strikes me is, no matter how you were baptized – whether you were sprinkled, dunked, or poured – or by what tradition or denomination you were baptized – the sacrament asks for repentance … it asks for a turning away from evil and a cleansing of sins … for deliverance from death to life, from bondage to freedom, and from sin to righteousness.
In short, we expect God to do a lot with just a little bit of water.
I don’t know if John the Baptist used any particular ritual when he performed his baptisms. I don’t know if he recited scripture, had a prescribed prayer that he used, or what technique he used in baptism. I don’t know if he sprinkled, dunked or infused people. I do know that the stretch of the Jordan River between the Sea of Galilee and the Dead Sea is a slow, meandering flow only about 20 yards across in some places and only 17 feet at its deepest. It is muddy and full of silt – the very silt that gives the Dead Sea its buoyant quality. It’s not the kind of river that would inspire you to cleanliness … not the place you would expect to emerge from feeling washed and spotless.
When you compare it to other rivers in the world – the Nile of Egypt, the Ganges of India, the mighty Mississippi of the US, even the Olentengy – the Jordan isn’t much to brag about. In the book of 2 Kings, when Naaman comes to Elisha to be healed of leprosy, Elisha tells him to wash himself in the Jordan seven times, and he will be healed. And Naaman looks at the Jordan … and looks at Elisha … and says, “Are you kidding? Did I have to come all the way from Damascus just to bathe in your dirty river?”
But as muddy and silty … as narrow and shallow … as slow and meandering as it can be, there is something about the Jordan that draws people to it … to come hear the message proclaimed by the Baptist … a message of baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. There is something about the Jordan itself and the place where it is that exceeds what we would otherwise be led to expect.
One of the things I do know about the Jordan is it has always been a border river: in the times of Abraham, it divided the land of Canaan from the land of Ammon; in the time of David and Solomon, it divided the kingdom of Israel from Gilead; in Jesus’ time, Samaria from Perea, and even in our own times, it divides Israel and the West Bank from the kingdom of Jordan. It was where Joshua led the children of Israel into the promised land … where Elijah led his protégé, Elisha, across on dry ground to begin their work together. It has always been a place where one thing comes to an end and another begins. It is a place of transition … a place between two worlds … it is a sacred place … where lives change … where we die to one thing and are born to another.
It is at the Jordan River that Jesus’ ministry begins … it’s where the Gospel begins to unfold. And baptism is where the gospel unfolds in our lives and where our work in God’s ministry begins. For us, as for Jesus, baptism marks the beginning of our journey – it is not the end.
There was a lot waiting to happen to Jesus after that day on the banks of the Jordan. The temptation in the desert is the very next thing that will happen to him, and I guarantee you, temptation is the very next thing that has happened to every person who has been baptized ever since then. Baptism doesn’t mean we will never face temptation again, or even when we do that we will face and resist it as easily as Christ did. What our baptism means is that when we are tempted, we face temptation in solidarity with one who has who has received the same baptism we have – who died for us, who defeated the powers of sin and death on our behalf and rose from the grave, and who has called us his own, so that we face temptation not with fear of judgment but with the assurance of his forgiveness.
As we continue to peruse the Gospel of Luke, we find that after the temptation in the wilderness, things start to get even worse for Jesus! The next stop is Nazareth, his home town, where he’s rejected by his neighbors and a crowd tries to throw him from a cliff! Even his own disciples don’t seem to quite understand the message he’s trying to tell them sometimes … they want to argue with him … they want to give him advice on how they think he ought to conduct his ministry. The authorities condemn him everywhere he goes. And all this happens long before Holy Week where, awaits him, betrayal, denial, and crucifixion.
Why is it we expect better than the son of God? Why do some people think baptism should be the end of their spiritual journey? That, now, everything should be easy? No temptation too hard to resist? That we don’t need to rethink our attitudes about people of other races? That it’s okay to hold onto our prejudices? To turn our backs on the poor? Or that we don’t need to learn to forgive as we have been forgiven?
Baptism is not the end of our spiritual journey – it’s the beginning … it marks what should signify our spiritual birth not our retirement! We still have a lot of growing to left to do! Although we receive baptism only once, there are times in our lives when we may become acutely aware of the fact that God’s grace has been working continually throughout our lives, and we realize we have grown.
The musical Les Miserables, which was recently released as a movie, tells of one such spiritual journey. It tells the story of Jean Valjean, who went to prison for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s family. Hardened by his prison sentence and made bitter by the injustice he has faced, he seems destined for a life of anger, resentment, and crime. But an act of grace by a bishop gives him a chance at another life … a life where he doesn’t have to be the sinful, angry, bitter person he was. This new life is not easy – he is hounded by his former prison keeper and a group of criminals. He struggles with doing the right thing … he struggles with helping others versus watching out for his own self-interest. He is sometimes taken advantage of when he tries to do the right thing. But at the end of the story, as he sits dying, the conclusion he comes to is: To love another person is to see the face of God.
In the Presbyterian tradition we understand baptism as a symbol … that it signifies something grander and more holy than the few drops of water that are used. And what baptism signifies is, I think, the same truth that Jean Valjean realized … that no matter how trying this world can be, how unjust it sometimes is, or how hard life can sometimes be, we are surrounded by the grace of God. Thanks be to God.
In the name of the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit. Amen.
What’s Up With All That?
Jan. 6, 2013
Second Sunday after Christmas
Rev. Mike Woods
We’re not told how many of them there were – the scriptures do not say. But tradition tells us there were three, because they brought three gifts to the newborn Christ – gold, frankincense, and myrrh. And because church tradition often has a way of filling in the details left out of scripture, the three have been given names and faces. Melchior, we are told, was an old man with white hair and a long beard … Gaspar was young and brown skinned with no facial hair … and Balthazar was black skinned and heavily bearded. The represented all the peoples of the Earth … of every race and nationality … young and old alike. They represent the peoples of yesterday, today and tomorrow … they represent you and me. And the twelfth day of Christmastime, the day of Epiphany, is the day we celebrate their arrival in Bethlehem to pay homage to Christ, to bring him gifts, and to acknowledge him as King of this world. Twelve days after celebrating Christmas, we are called to remind ourselves what Christmas was all about in the first place.
Because by now, most people have hauled their Christmas trees to the curbside for pick-up … Christmas decorations have been taken down and packed into green or red plastic bins and stored neatly in the attic of the basement … department stores have already begun getting ready for Valentines Day … and most of us find ourselves physically and emotionally spent by the hubbub that was the month of December.
What was Christmas supposed to be about, anyway? We didn’t have time to think about it during Advent – we were too busy! There were presents to buy, Christmas trees to decorate, parties to go to, trips out of town to be with loved ones during the holidays that had to be made! So, by the time the day, itself, rolls around we’re exhausted. And maybe some of us feel like – in spite of it all, in spite of our best efforts – we came up short when it came to welcoming Christ into this world on Christmas day.
It’s enough to make me a little envious of the wise men. They, at least, had something to focus on … they had a star to guide them. All they had to do was look up in the heavens, and there it was … it took them to the very spot where Jesus was. What Light do we have to guide us?
The Gospel of John tells us a different version of the Christmas story. Matthew and Luke give us The Where and The How of the birth of Jesus. There are visitations by angels … there is a virgin birth … there are shepherds and wise men. There are lengthy genealogies of Jesus’ ancestry. There are plot twists and turns to write a script for a movie – will Joseph divorce Mary or will he do the right thing? Will the wise men be fooled into leading Herod to Jesus? Will Joseph and Mary escape in the night?
But John wants to do more than tell us the where and the how of the Christmas story. John wants to tell us The Why.
Matthew and Luke tell us that the birth of Christ was a historical event that happened 2,000 years ago in a particular place and time – but John wants us to know that it goes back much further than that. In the very beginning, Christ was … before the world began Christ already existed … and furthermore, it was through Christ that the world came into existence. John tells us that Christ is the very Word of God, that he is the Light of the world. “And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.” And then John goes on throughout the rest of the Gospel talking about light and darkness. Light stands for life … for love and compassion … forgiveness … and for wisdom. Darkness is evil, death, hatred, prejudice, fear, and the ignorance that leads to those things. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at nighttime, in darkness, full of questions … and Christ offers him light. Jesus tells the Pharisees, “I am the Light of the World, whoever follows me will never walk in darkness.” And then, to prove his point, he heals the man who had been born blind.
What Christmas is about, according to John, is the coming of Light into the world. It is the return of everything that is good: love, compassion, peace, justice, understanding, Truth. And that was important because the world is full of darkness …
We do not know what day Christ was born – whether it was in December or some other month of the year. It’s worth noting that not all Christians celebrate the birth of Christ on December 25 – many Orthodox churches will celebrate it tomorrow, January 7, and the Armenian church will celebrate on January 19. But here in the Western world, we Western Christians always celebrate on December 25, and I think there’s a very good reason for that. You see, it’s not too long after December 21st, the day of the winter solstice, the longest night of the year. On that day last year, out of the 24 hour day, there were only 9 hours and 20 minutes of daylight and a full 14 hours and 40 minutes of darkness. But by December 25, the trend of increasing hours of darkness had reversed itself – the sun rising earlier and setting later in the day. Choosing December 25 as the day to celebrate Christ’s coming into the world reminds us that “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness could not overcome it.”
And December, this year, seemed like it was full of darkness – a spiritual kind of darkness as well as a physical one – hasn’t it? Early in the month all out conflict between Israelis and Palestinians was only narrowly averted. Then Egypt erupted in civil unrest as the nation debated a new constitution. And the conflicts in Syria and Afghanistan continued. North Korea launched a missile that could potentially be tipped with a nuclear warhead and that put the whole world on edge. By the middle of the month our nation was mourning the deaths of 20 children and 6 adults at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT. Then December 21st saw some crazy fears about the end of the world. And as a background to it all, we had ongoing concerns about the state of the economy, a looming fiscal cliff, and extreme weather conditions. Not to mention that the Christmas season can be a Blue Christmas for many. For those who have lost loved ones around this time of year, it is hard if not impossible to be in the celebratory mood that everyone else seems to be in.
We don’t need to read the Gospel of john to know what spiritual darkness is. We already know. We live it, we experience it. It’s a part of our everyday existence.
But there’s a reason for December 25. It reminds us that the darkness cannot overcome the light.
Eben Alexander is a neurosurgeon who lives in Virginia. For most of his adult life, he held a very materialistic view of the world … he wasn’t sure if God existed, or even if that was an important question to be asked. But something happened to him that changed the way looked at the world. He had a Near Death Experience.
Now before this happened to him, as a neurosurgeon, he could have explained the phenomenon of near death experiences to you as the result of brain chemistry … as something that wasn’t real but only imagined. But his own experience was so vivid and so real that it changed his mind about God, about the world we live in, and about our relationships to one another. It renewed his faith and changed his life.
He describes his experience in a recent book, Proof of Heaven. As his body lied in a coma in an ICU room, his soul was taken to another realm where he was with a Divine Being he knew to be God. And while he was there, he experienced a revelation and all the truths of the universe were revealed to him. I would like to read a couple of paragraphs to you this morning of what he saw.
[p.83, last two paragraphs.]
He had his own epiphany, you might say … his own realization about the truth of this world we live in. And the truth he realized is the same that John tells us in his Gospel: The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness will not, no matter how bad it seems things sometimes are – the darkness will never overcome it!
As the wise men had a star to guide them, so we too have a Light to guide us. The light is Jesus Christ. Focus on his light … follow his teachings … the darkness that surrounds us will eventually give way.
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.