“Emmanuel Any-ways”; John 1:1-14 and Isaiah 52:7-10; December 24, 2019; Boeuff Presbyterian Church

Emmanuel Any-ways”
John 1:1-14 and Isaiah 52:7-10
December 24, 2019, Boeuff Presbyterian Church

There’s lots of talk every Advent season of keeping Christ in Christmas or reclaiming the meaning of Christmas. Goodness knows, I have preached a Christmas sermon or two about that. 

But something that revolutionized my thinking this past week was reading United Church of Christ pastor, Quinn Calldwell‘s All I Really Want: Readings for a Modern Christmas. He writes about how often the Christmas of secular culture and the Christmas of Christ are pitted against one another and how it’s a false dichotomy, because God’s presence is not limited in that way.

He writes, “Mightn’t God be powerful enough to co-opt the culture’s co-optation of the day of [Christ’s] birth? I think God can work with the traditions we hand to God.” He continues with some examples, “here are some Christmas things that have nothing to do with Jesus’ birth, but in which I believe God is at work anyway:

  • Elvis’ Christmas Album. If it can make my whole family sing together while performing a complex operation involving a saw, a tree, a small living room, electricity, and water without us killing one another, it’s holy.”
  • “Shopping,” he writes, “yes, it can get out of hand, but searching for a great gift to make someone happy can be a profound experience.”

When it comes to keeping Christmas about Christ there are two things that are contradictorily simultaneously true: Jesus needs us to be God’s hands and feet in this world working to point to his birth, death, and resurrection AND Jesus is going to come no matter what we’ve done or left undone, whether we focus our entire celebrations on Jesus’ birthday or whether we’ve spent all of our time watching the Hallmark channel and shopping. And I mean that genuinely, goodness knows I love those Hallmark channel movies and shopping to get the perfect gift for those I love . Every bit of this season can be holy if our celebrations are done with genuine love and we are open to seeing God revealed in our midst.

Very similarly, God comes into this world in Jesus as fully God and fully human. Both things at the exact same time. God didn’t manifest as some entirely different creature than us, because God’s intent was to be in relationship with humankind. 

And so, with God in Jesus Christ as our example, we can experience the divine in that which seems worldly. We can sing God’s praises in the beauty of Letting it Snow. We can be reminded of the one who separated dark from night as we marvel at the simple beauty of Christmas lights. We can bask in the joy of creation in making snowmen on our lawns. We can share table fellowship with friends and family with gingerbread and hot chocolate. We can remember the boundlessness of God’s generosity in the generosity of a jolly man in a red suit. 

God’s presence is not limited to the places where we extend God an invitation. It is the gospel truth that, as our reading today said, “All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.” Everything begins as God’s creation and is saved by Christ’s redemption. There is no where that God cannot be found.

There’s also been some balking at the broad use of the words “happy holidays,” but do you know the origin of that? It’s “holy days.” If someone’s wish for me is to have more happy holy days, I am all for it. God’s holiness is certainly not constrained to one day in this season or to the activities that happen within the walls of churches.

And so I ask you, and I genuinely would love to hear your own examples,  what experiences of this season have made it holy to you? Where are the places  that God has invited God’s self into your celebrations? Feel free to offer a story or even just a phrase:

I’ll share some of my own as you think of yours:

  • The Christmas Carol (even the Muppet version) causes me to reflect on my actions towards others and makes me want to display more of Christ’s generosity.
  • I am reminded of the divinity of the baby Jesus, when I watch Leah laugh and reminded of the humanity of the baby Jesus when I change her diapers.
  • James Taylor singing, “River,” reminds me of the bittersweetness of this season for so many and the way that as a community of faith carry one another and believe on each other’s behalf when we can’t connect with the story Christ’s birth on our own.

What about for you? How have you unexpectedly experienced God in this season?

God will use whatever we offer, but also, and this part often gets overlooked, God will be present in this Holy Day no matter what. And that is very good news. Thanks be to God. Amen.

“Dreams and Promises;” Genesis 28:10-19a; July 20, 2014, FPC Jesup

“Dreams and Promises
Genesis 28:10-19a
July 20, 2014, First Presbyterian Church of Jesup

SLIDE 3 - Christmas-in-JulyToday in worship we are celebrating something very special, no it’s not anything to do with the World Cup. And no it had nothing to do with RAGBRAI, though both of those would be appropriate timing wise. We are celebrating Christmas: the birth of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. July seems a strange time to do this as we’re used to the celebration of Christmas being firmly lodged between Thanksgiving and New Years, surrounded by so many days of shopping, giving, getting, and overscheduling. Celebrating the birth of Jesus Christ in July by comparison seems quite odd and out of place. But we celebrate Christmas in July today not because the worship committee and praise team bumped their heads and became disoriented to which month is was, but because we believe that acknowledging Christ’s coming to earth is something we should do, in the words of our special music today, “more than once a year.”

SLIDE 4 - Jacob DreamOur scripture today takes us back in time, far before even the manger scene of that first Christmas, to another restless night. We hear the story of Jacob. Jacob was on the run from his brother, Esau, from whom he had stolen his father’s inheritance.

SLIDE 5 - Jacob and EsauThough they were twins, Esau was the older and therefore by his birthright would be in line to carry on his father’s legacy, which if we can remember our scripture from a few weeks ago was that same one given to Abraham: that the people would be faithful to God and God would bless them with abundant descendants. SLIDE 6 – Fooling IsaacBut Esau’s mother, Rebekah, had other plans. She did not like Esau’s wife, Judith and so wanted her son Jacob to take his place in the family lineage. Jacob and Rebekah schemed together so that when it came time for his ailing father, Isaac to die Jacob imitated his brother’s appearance and took his blessing for the inheritance.SLIDE 7 – Esau and Jacob fightingAnd then Esau, understandable angry, vowed he would kill him.

It is in the midst of this crazy family drama that Jacob finds himself in “a certain place,” lies down with a rock for a pillow, and has a dream.

I’m not sure what you place under your head before you go to sleep, but I’m doubtful that it’s a stone. Even with this questionable choice in bedding, he is able to sleep deeply and has a dream where he pictures a ladder from heaven to earth. Angels go up and down this ladder, and then God’s own self comes down the ladder and tells Jacob that God will extend the blessing of Abraham on to him, giving him an abundance of descendants. God closes the speech with one of my favorite lines, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.”[1]SLIDE 10 - Jacobs Ladder

Why is it that this dream comes to Jacob? Jacob was the one who took the inheritance of Esau. Jacob deceived his father and betrayed his brother. By all measures God could just write off Jacob as a schemer and a thief, but God doesn’t do that. God blesses Jacob anyways.

SLIDE 11 - GraceWe too could be seen as inheritance thieves, because we only become inheritors of God’s grace through Jesus Christ. As Paul teaches the Romans, “For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”[2] Unlike Esau, Christ doesn’t vow to kills us, but rather takes on death in our place. Thanks be to God that there is no such thing as “anyways” in God’s value system!

XIVWe read on in verses 16-19, “Then Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely the Lord is in this place — and I did not know it!’ And he was afraid, and said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.’ So Jacob rose early in the morning, and he took the stone that he had put under his head and set it up for a pillar and poured oil on the top of it. He called that place Bethel.”[3]

I love this moment in this story. Jacob wakes up looks around him, forever changed by this encounter with God, wanting to memorialize the moment, and so grabs that rocky pillow of his, sets it up on his side, pours oil on it and calls it “Bethel,” which means “house of God.”

SLIDE 13 – DivineHave you ever had a moment like that? Where you are just so aware that God is present in that space that you want to mark it down, want to remember that location forever in some sort of divine foursquare check-in.

If I asked you where God lives, what address would you provide? Perhaps a church address? Maybe the Vatican or Mecca? Up in heaven in a house with many rooms? Or is it your own “certain place,” some rocky field somewhere between where you’re no longer wanted and the unknown beyond?

SLIDE 14 – God with UsFor thousands and thousands of years people have been trying to get a hold of that address. In Second Samuel, King David tries to build a house for God to contain God’s divinity.[4] But God’s answer to God’s location is right in what God says to Jacob, “Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go…for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” Any address we give to God is only temporary. God’s presence is with us always.

SLIDE 15 – ImmanuelEvery year at Christmas we affirm that Jesus is Immanuel. Immanuel means “God with us.” May we always remember it is so. Amen.

 

[1] Genesis 28:15

[2] Romans 6:23

[3] Genesis 28:16-19

[4] 2 Samuel 7