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A Different Christmass Story

The Rev. Joseph Winston

January 3, 2010

Grace and peace are gifts for you from God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. 1 For most of the United States, Christmass is done and over with. Just take a good look at all the communities that decorate for the Holiday Season. The festive red and green lights no longer shine from the streetlights. Banners proclaiming, “Season’s Greeting” to everyone are not swinging gently in the warm breezes of the Gulf anymore. You cannot see the silver and gold garlands shining in the Texas sun. Everything that reminds us of the season is long gone from the towns. City workers have taken them down and placed every decoration in storage for another year. The story heard at most homes in this country is exactly the same. Christmass is finished. The beautifully decorated Christmass tree with all its neatly wrapper presents beneath its branches is no longer the center of attention. The festive or-

1 Romans 1:7, 1 Corinthians 1:3, 2 Corinthians 1:2, Galatians 1:3, Ephesians 1:2, Philippians 1:2, 2 Thessalonians 1:2, Philemon 1:3.

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naments are now back in their boxes. The lights that previously graced the tree’s branches are carefully rolled up waiting for next year’s festivities. The toys once arranged all around the tree cannot be found there anymore. They all are gone to their intended recipients. The pine tree stripped of all its former glory either is at the curb waiting for disposal or packed up in the attic for next season. The most accurate indicator that Christmass has come and gone for the rest of the world is all the different stores. The garland and bright lights that at one time adorned their windows are now hidden from sight. The silver and gold colors of the holiday season have been replaced with huge banners that tell us to pick up clearance merchandise now marked down up to seventy-five percent. All the red and green blinking lights are put away until early fall. The incessant generic holi- day music that started sometime in September is now silent. Now we are back to the upbeat soundtrack that pretends everything is fine. Even all the advertisements have changed. They no longer proclaim to us, “Happy Holidays.” Instead, they tell us to, “Kick off the new year.” In the Church, it is a completely different story. For all of us, Christmass is not over quite yet. In fact, the season of Christmass will not end until the twelfth day of Christmass, January 5. Only then will we take down the tree. For a few more days, the Christmass tree will remain decorated with ornaments. For just a little bit longer, we will sing the songs of Christmass. The obvious disconnect between what the world tells us during this time of the year and what the Church teaches us is clearly heard in today’s Gospel lesson. The world actually believes that Christmass is about parties and gifts. That is why we

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decorate our streets, trees, and houses. We want to spruce up everything before our friends and relatives come over. Once they arrive, the festivities can finally begin. Food will be eaten. Drinks will be consumed. Presents will be opened. After these actives, there is nothing left to do but clean up. That is what everyone else has done. Some parts of our society know a tiny bit more about Christmass through the songs of the season. They expect the story to have angels in the night sky, shepherds visiting the manger in Bethlehem, and travelers from the East. Today’s Gospel lesson lacks all these characters. For the lovers of carols, this account from John cannot be about the birth of Jesus. Instead of the story that the rest of the world knows by heart, the one that gets played out every winter in the malls of this nation and in all those homes that do not know the true story of Jesus, the author of John presents us with a version of history that starts before time itself. Here way before the first click of any clock, earlier than any sunrise ever recorded, prior to the running of the seasons, we hear three important facts about God that we need to keep in mind every time we discuss Jesus. First, the Word of God cannot be separated from God (John 1:1-2). They are One even though they are not the same. Wherever One is found the other One is also there. Next, the Word is responsible for existence itself (John 1:3). The Word spoke and there was everything. Time stared and life began. Finally, nothing overcomes the Word of God (John 1:5). 2 Time never dilutes the power of the Word. The light that the

2 Francis J. Moloney, S.D.B.; Daniel J. Harrington, S.J., editor, The Gospel of John, Volume 4, Sacra Pagina Series, (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1998), p. 36.

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Word brings always exists. Even death does not stop the Word. Instantly the scene changes its focus. No longer is the author discussing all those big picture ideas like the relationship of Jesus to God or never ending the power of God’s Word. Instead, he looks at a single individual named John the Baptizer (John 1:6). John’s job is straightforward but it is not easy (John 1:7). His assigned task is telling the world that a dramatic change is coming (John 1:9). 3 The Word will be born. Just as quickly as before, the area of interest switches. Once again our attention is focused on the Word. We hear a second time that He is in the world (John 1:10a). That is the reason why creation exits (John 1:10b). 4 But according to the author of John one major problem exists. The world we live in actively rejects the Word and everything that the Word represents (John 1:10c). It is very easy to see why we would want to deny the existence of the Word of God. If you confess that any word holds you accountable, then you obviously owe allegiance to that one word. Either you do what it tells you or it makes you a liar. Once you say this, it is clear that your influence in the word is not as strong as the word’s power. Adding yet another name like liar to the ones others know us by is not enough reason for us to ignore God. Loosing face to a word is not why we forget God. There is another reason that is more frightening. It is so scary that we dare not utter its name. We do not want to know the Word of God because it speaks your

3 John the Baptizer’s only role in the Gospel according to St. John is the “witness to Jesus.” Moloney, The Gospel of John, p. 43. 4 Ibid., p. 44.

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future. You know this is all true. Words have that kind of power over you. This fact becomes painfully true in emergency rooms. There in the cold, white hospital room you wait on the word from the doctors. Will your loved one live or die? When you receive the distressing news from the doctor that your loved one is dying, your word instantly changes. You know an awful truth. Death is the word that ends everything for us. For when your loved one is dead, they cannot respond to your touch. For when your loved one is in the grace, they cannot talk to you. For when your loved one is gone, they cannot be with you. You are completely powerless against this word. Death will come. You can do nothing to change the reality that lies before you. Death means they are gone forever. You might think that when we see the darkness that death brings into our world or the unimaginable amount of pain that death causes to you and I, that we would fight death and its allies with every fiber of our being. One could only But we all know better. In some way or another, we are all attracted to the future that death holds for us (John 3:19). Some of us might be enchanted with the end of it all since death is the conclusion of all our struggles. Others of us might take solace in the fact that death is so familiar to all of us. We have grown used to the way we live and we do not want anything to change. You can see the power this word has over us right here. The population right outside these four walls is larger than it ever has been in history yet our numbers are so poor that we all can see the day when this church will close its doors forever.

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If the Gospel only told you about the power that words have over your life then it deserves to be thrown on the trash-heap of history and to be completely forgotten by everyone. What good is it to hear yet another account about how weak you really are? You know this story all too well. It is nothing more than an autobiography of the destruction that you bring on yourself. This is not what you heard from the Gospel. You have been given a different story. This one has the Word of God coming to live here on earth and you can do nothing to stop it from happening. Listen to what occurred. The Word came despite your actions that hurt others and yourself. The Word came to be with you in spite of your attraction with death. The Word came to live with us even though you reject God. There is more Good News for you. Nowhere in today’s Gospel lesson does Jesus pronounce the word “guilty” over you, what you do, or what you leave undone. In fact, in the entire Gospel according to St. John, Jesus never condemns anyone at all. He will not say this word (John 3:17). The role of deciding to reject God and His Word is firmly in your hand. You are the only one who can do that. 5 There are many other words that Jesus says to you besides He accepts you as you are (John 4:1-29) and He forgives everything you have done wrong in your life (John 8:24). Perhaps the most important words are that you will live with Him forever (John 3:15). None of these words of grace that Jesus speaks directly to you would be worth mentioning again if there where not someone to back them

5 After hearing what He has to offer, if you say no to Christ’s Word of salvation, you then clearly speak that one word, which condemns you (John 3:18, 16:9).

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up. They would be just empty promises. There needs to be a force behind all these words of assurance that makes them literally happen. Otherwise, they mean nothing at all. You need someone who can change the future. If not, then death still has power over you and those people whom you love. There is One who can do all of this and even more. His name is Jesus. You realize that. You know that God is faithful. You see that God brings every part of existence into being. You hear the Word of God do all this. Jesus does all this for you. He loves you so much that He created the universe. He so cares for you that He is right here with you today. You can clearly notice that in His meal. 6 The results of the Word coming into the world and living with us give everyone a different story. God adopts all those people who do not reject Jesus. As God’s children, you have all the same rights and privileges of God’s only Son. Because of what Jesus said and did, you will live forever with Jesus. Take a drive through the city and you will see that many others believe that Christmass is over and done. They are the ones who put away the decorations until next November. As you look through the houses, you will receive the same answer. Those people believe Christmass is over. They have packed away all their ornaments for another year. And if those two previous examples did not persuade you that the rest of the world believes Christmass ended on December 25, look at all the stores. Nothing of the season remains. For them, this year’s Christmass

6 For Lutherans, the sacraments are the “visible Word.” Apology of the Augsburg Confession, Article XIII, 5; Theodore G. Tappert et al., editors, The Book of Concord, (Fortress Press, 1959), p. 21; Eric W. Gritsch and Robert W. Jenson, Lutheranism The Theologic Movement and Its Con- fessional Writings, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1976), p. 82.

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was nothing more than entries into their books. It is a completely different story here in the Church. For us, Christmass is not over yet. In fact, if we are honest, the season of Christmass never actually ends. It continues as long as people let the Word of God live in their hearts. Share this Word with your neighbors. “The peace of God, which passeth all understanding, keep your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus.” 7

References

Gritsch, Eric W. and Jenson, Robert W., Lutheranism The Theologic Movement and Its Confessional Writings, (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 1976).

Moloney, S.D.B., Francis J.; Harrington, S.J., Daniel J., editor, The Gospel of John, Volume 4, Sacra Pagina Series, (Collegeville, Minnesota: The Litur- gical Press, 1998).

Tappert, Theodore G. et al., editors, The Book of Concord, (Fortress Press, 1959).

7 Philippians 4:7.

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