I love the pomp and circumstance—and chaos!—of Christmas Eve! And we had it in a big way on Tuesday. I think we had more people than at any other single service since I have been here. We did not have a silent night; there was a constant human of children’s voices! But we truly had a holy night. It was great.
But Christmas Eve is only the beginning of the Christmas season. And our Gospel reading for this morning is an essential part of the full Christmas story.
Christmas—both the day and the season—is all about the incarnation, that claim standing at the very heart of our faith. In the person of Jesus Christ, God became flesh and lived among us.
And so, during Christmas we remember the holy family, and the wise men, and the shepherds. We sing about the manger, and the star, and Bethlehem, the city of David. It is a miraculous story. But it is also a very human story that revolves around the birth of a human baby.
And then we hear our Gospel reading for this morning, the beginning of the Gospel of John. We hear about the Word that was with God and that was God. We hear about the Word through whom God speaks all things into existence, who gives life to all of creation, who is the light of all people.
And we claim that these two parts of the story are both true and belong together. The Word became flesh and lived among us. Christ’s glory and Christ’s grace and Christ’s truth are made visible—here is the shocking part—in a little baby.
For those of us who have spent much time in Church, the idea that God was born, that God became a baby, is familiar, so familiar that it may well have lost its power to shock and amaze, so familiar that we can forget just how good that good news is.
So it helps to remember that Christmas was not the first time God had appeared to the people of God.
God appeared to the Hebrew people gathered at Mount Sinai when Moses received the Ten Commandments and the rest of the law. Here is how that appearance is described:
“Mount Sinai was wrapped in smoke, because the Lord had descended upon it in fire; the smoke went up like the smoke of a kiln, while the whole mountain shook violently. As the blast of the trumpet grew louder and louder, Moses would speak and God would answer him in thunder” (Ex 19:18-19).
That is impressive stuff.
As you might expect, the people at Sinai were terrified. “When the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the sound of the trumpet, and the mountain smoking, they were afraid and trembled and stood at a distances, and said to Moses, ‘You speak to us, and we will listen; but do not let God speak to us, or we will die’” (Ex 20:18-19).
The point is simple: God’s presence was overwhelming. People trembled, and rightly so, before the divine power and majesty of God come down to earth.
A couple hundred years later, when the nation of Israel was established, King Solomon built a magnificent temple for God in Jerusalem. Solomon dedicated his new temple with literally thousands of animals sacrificed.
But the really impressive thing was still to come. God appeared. God took up residence in Solomon’s temple. And it was as if all the majesty of God that appeared at Mount Sinai was somehow condensed to fit into a single building.
It worked, but just barely. “A cloud filled the house of the Lord, so that the priests could not stand to minister because of the cloud; for the glory of the Lord filled the house of the Lord” (1 Kings 8:10-11).
I love that. God’s glory was so palpable, so tangible, so thick, that it literally filled all the space in the temple and, at least temporarily, there was no room for anybody else.
That may not be Sinai impressive, but it is pretty impressive.
Now come back to that first Christmas. What does the glory of the Lord look like now?
A little baby, lying in a manger. Maybe seven or eight pounds, totally helpless, unable even to hold his head up, much less do anything else.
And the utterly astounding claim we make is that all the glory of God somehow fit into that tiny body.
God through whom all things were created. God who appeared with terrifying fireworks on Mount Sinai. God whose Holy Spirit filled a large building so full there is no room left over for anybody but God. And now all that glory is packed into a new-born baby.
That is what Christmas is all about. God come down to earth. God being born and living among us. God, the light of the world through whom all things were made and in whom all things hold together, God among us not as a mighty earthquake or an overpowering presence, but as a little baby. God made accessible to us in such a way that we do not have to cower in his presence and that there is a place for us beside him.
Christmas should blow our minds! At Christmas we are reminded more forcefully than at any other time during the entire Christian year of the truth that stands at the center of our faith. The one person of Jesus Christ was both fully divine and fully human, filled with awesome power and yet helpless and vulnerable.
As Christian people, we start with that understanding of Christ, fully divine and fully human, God incarnate as a helpless child. And with that insight, we can see our entire world in a new and Christian way.
The natural world around us becomes God’s creation, held together in and by Jesus Christ. A homeless person in the street suddenly shines as a beloved child of God, created in God’s own image and likeness. A tasteless wafer becomes the very body of Christ.
And then there is us, a motley crew who do our best to live as God’s people and routinely fail. And yet, Christ dwells in and among us. We are fallible and sinful human beings who are also the very body of Christ, Christ’s hands and hearts in the world.
I recently read a cute story. After his ascension to heaven, Christ was chatting with an angel. The angel welcomed him home and asked Christ what he planned to do next. Christ answered that he had left things in the hands of his followers. The angel said, “They must be pretty impressive.” Christ replied, “No, not really.” The angel worried, “Well, what if they can’t handle it? What if they fail?” Christ just smiled and said, “They won’t fail.”
That is Christ looking at us and seeing in us what we see in him at Christmastime.
The incarnation turns out to be not only a truth about Jesus Christ, but also a truth about us. Like Christ, we are weak and powerless and yet also capable of bearing God’s power and glory. We are all too human. And we are redeemed by Christ and filled with the power of the Holy Spirit.
My prayer for us in this Christmas season is that our hearts and minds can be open to the incredible truth that the child born two thousand years ago was the very Word of God. And that we are his body, charged with continuing his work of bringing light, grace, and truth to the world.
Thanks be to God. Amen. Alleluia!
Rev. Dr. Harvey Hill
Third Order Franciscan