Growing up in a tradition that sang four-part harmony with no instrumental accompaniment, I learned to love signing quickly. Hymns are some of the fastest ways to learn something; singing about something is a sure-fire way to begin to internalize some of the great truths of this world. Christmas songs might be the greatest example of this: whether you were here or somewhere else on Christmas night, you likely sang many songs, mostly from memory. “Silent Night, Holy Night” and “Joy to the world! The Lord is come!” We know these songs, because they are part of our sacred and familial traditions, but we also know them because they kindle something in us.
There are so many songs that will randomly come to my mind, and one song that came as I was reading through the gospel this week was an old hymn by Fanny Crosby; the opening line of this song is, “Tell me the story of Jesus, write on my heart every word.” The verses go on, recounting the chorus of angels proclaiming God’s glory at Christ’s birth to the temptation in the desert to the cross, and each verse is followed with that refrain, “Tell me the story of Jesus, write on my heart every word.”
In our gospel lesson today, we get a different version of the story of Jesus; leading up to Christmas we prepared our hearts and minds with grim tales and calls for repentance, and then like a balm to the soul we got to hear of managers and stars and shepherds, and here today, on this first Sunday of Christmas, we hear of the cosmic Christ. The beginning of our gospel passage today is so well known, and so ubiquitous, it is almost as if they are scrolling by on a screen with intense music and a background of stars. John, as opposed to the synoptic gospels, begins the narrative of Jesus not with a tax or a genealogy, but with a dramatic reminder that “in the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Shortly after, John introduces himself into the narrative, and then he shifts back to Jesus, “and the Word became flesh and lived among us” Tell me the story of Jesus, write on my heart every word.
Saint John here invites us to see the story of Jesus from a different light; the prologue to John’s gospel is essential to understanding how God communicates in the world. John does not think in static terms, but in relationship and in the dynamic moving and unity of God and the Word. Since the beginning of time, the Word, or Christ, has been with God and has continued to have unity with God. As John is describing the cosmic Christ’s incarnation, he describes it as the “Word became flesh and lived among us;” I am particular keen on the way the late Eugene Peterson translates this in his version of the Bible, The Message: “The Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood.” Christmas is certainly about God entering into this world through the incarnation of the Christ Child, born of Mary, the bearer of God, but it’s also about God moving into the neighborhood. Tell me the story of Jesus, write on my heart every word.
This story of Jesus doesn’t end after Christmas; the story of Jesus is not just his birth, but it is, of course, the whole of his life. But John would say that it’s not just his birth, life, and death that makes the story of Jesus, but that the Word has existed since the beginning with God. The story of Jesus isn’t just managers and angels and stars, but according to John, the story of Jesus is all about the relationship of God to the Word and of the Word to humanity. The incarnation, which we celebrate and focus on during this Christmastide, is about how God interacts with the world.
Relationship, whether it’s with our partners or friends or coworkers, relationship is all about participation in the life of the other; to have a relationship, we have to participate in our common life. God, through the Word, came into this world, took on our fragile, soft, vulnerable form; God sought relationship with humanity by participating in this human life as the Word became incarnate from the virgin Mary. God seeks out a relationship with humanity through Christ, and we are called to engage in that relationship as well. What does it look like to engage in a relationship with God when we look at it like John portrays here, that relationship is participation in the life of the other.
How do we participate in the life of Christ; how do we participate in God’s work in this world? What do we do when we remember that the Word became flesh and blood and moved into the neighborhood? First, we do what many of us are good at—we celebrate! We celebrate the birth of the Christ Child, we celebrate that God came into this world and chose to bring light to the darkness and that the darkness did not, and will not, overcome it.
And then we have to get to work. God has moved into the neighborhood and suddenly there is more work to do. Should we touch up the paint on the siding, or make sure we take down our Christmas decorations in the socially acceptable timeframe? Perhaps. But I think we mostly try to do what we promise when we are baptized: to seek and serve Christ in all persons, respecting the dignity of every human being. What do we do now that the story of Jesus’ birth is no longer front and center? We try to live into all the ways in which we claim to believe that Christ’s birth changed the world; we try to orient our lives to the fact that the light of Christ shines in the darkness and darkness will never overcome it.
We have six days left of this Christmas season, in that time, I would love for you to begin to think about and articulate your own story; when did you first know and truly experience the Word made flesh? It could have been your baptism, or at the birth of your first child; it could have been six days ago as you sang those old familiar songs and realized what it might mean for your life to know that God has moved into the neighborhood. How does your story interact and participate with the story of Jesus? How are you different because you took time to celebrate the birth of the Christ Child, and perhaps more importantly, how are you different because of the light of Christ that came into this world?
We have six days left of this Christmas season, and I think it’s the perfect time to tell others about how the incarnation has affected you; tell how your story is different because God moved into the neighborhood. Over the next week, try to tell your story three times. When someone asks how your Christmas holiday was, answer honestly: if it was entirely delightful, explain the role of your shared faith. If it was boring, ask those you are in relationship with how you might better seek and serve Christ in all persons. If it had a bit of darkness to it, tell how the light shined in the darkness and the darkness did not win. Spend these last days of Christmastide telling others the story of Jesus, just as it every word has been written on your heart.
A sermon delivered to the people of Christ Episcopal Church in Bowling Green, KY for Christmas 1C – December 30, 2018 on John 1:1-18.