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God Comes Close (Christmas Day, 2017)

Advent is over. The time of waiting has ended. Our preparation is finished. Today, we celebrate the birth of a child. Today, we delight in the Light of the world. In hushed tones of joy, our hearts are filled with wonder and we sing, “Jesus is born. In excelsis Gloria!

The good news of Christmas is that God comes close.

Last night, we told Luke’s evocative story of a pregnant teenager, choirs of angels singing “peace on earth”, shepherds rushing to the place where the baby lies. We sang with the angels. We danced with the shepherds. We stood silently with Mary and Joseph as they ponder everything that has happened to them, changing their lives forever.

And today, with John, our voices ring out with the good news that “the eternal Word became flesh and blood, and moved into the neighbourhood. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome it.”

It’s an odd kind of claim to make. Every other major world religion keeps its God at a distance. But not us. It is an odd claim, but a profound one … that God comes close.

But let’s not make this claim in any triumphalistic kind of way. God comes close. Or as John puts it, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot extinguish it. At the same time, we must be honest that the darkness still lingers.

Our songs of joy are tinged with a little bit of lament. We dance, but it’s the slower dance of men and women who bear sadness within us. We sing with the angels about peace on earth with tears streaming down our faces because we know full well that peace does not yet reign on earth.

Christian faith is a faith for a real world. We speak in tones of hope, not certainty. We sing of a God who works among the weak and the vulnerable, not among the powerful and the movers and shakers. We proclaim that God’s kingdom has come, but we know it is not fully here yet. We trust a God who promises to work in us … through us … believe it or not. And we make a commitment to work with this God.

At Christmas, we celebrate God’s presence in the world … but God comes as a vulnerable child … a child who will grow and live in poverty among a poor and oppressed people … a child who will be executed by the powerful as a convicted criminal.

So when we sing … when we dance … when we proclaim … we do so with a sense of yearning, a sense of longing, an aching hope that the good news we sing and say and celebrate will indeed come to pass.

To use Leonard Cohen’s wonderful phrase, we sing “a broken hallelujah”. We live in an “in–between time”—between anticipation and fulfillment, between promise made and promise kept.

We yearn for God’s reign to become reality. We long for God’s promise to be completely fulfilled. We hunger for justice to fill the earth, and for compassion to sweep across the globe. We hope for God’s love to come and hold us in its warm embrace.

Frederick Buechner reminds us that we need to “obey the sadness of our times.” We all know the sadness of our world. I don’t need to rehearse it for you today. But let’s not turn away from it in denial. This is part of the reality of our world.

Our culture doesn’t like sadness. Our culture prefers to focus on houses twinkling in the darkness, on trays loaded with more turkey than we can possibly eat, on Christmas trees standing guard over piles of gifts.

But Christian faith is a faith for a real world. We also see the homeless, the hungry, the addicted, the lonely and anxious people. We obey the sadness of our times.

We are able to do so because we trust God. Good News is not pumped out over blaring speakers. It is swaddled in a manger among a poor people, attended by outsider shepherds. We wait at that manger, obeying the sadness of our times, heavy with broken stories and broken lives. We celebrate a broken body and call him Lord. We hold a flickering candle, and we call it the Light of the world.

Today we sing “Joy to the world, the Lord is come”. We must also continue our Advent song, “O come, O come, Emmanuel”. The two songs belong together. We celebrate the birth of Christ, even while we long for it to be made fully real among us.

A poem reads,

He came singing love;

He lived singing love;

He died singing love;

He rose in silence.

If the song is to continue,

We must do the singing.

We wait for healing to touch the world with its warmth. We work to be peaceful people in our world. We live with compassion and generosity as people who trust God’s abundance. We work so that dignity may flourish in the streets of all our cities. We seek to live as a people of hope and grace and love.

Joy to the world, the Lord is come. O come, O come, Emmanuel.

Thanks be to God.

Rev. Dr. Yme Woensdregt

December 25, 2017 (Christmas Day)

John 1: 1–14

Isaiah 52: 7–10

Hebrews 1: 1–4