Depending on how the calendar falls, we don’t always get to celebrate a Second Sunday after Christmas. This year, we got one on the very last day possible: the twelfth day of Christmas. The readings for the day help us to consider the ongoing implications of the Christmas story–what does it mean that the word became flesh, beyond just a baby in a manger?
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Merry Christmas! That’s right, it’s still Christmas. The last day of Christmas, but we’ll savor it for as long as we can. For all that we’re excited, as a society, about Christmas, with Christmas songs starting at Thanksgiving and decorations in the malls even before that, we’re sure willing to cut the celebration short once it starts. Tree collection in Lower Merion started this past Thursday, on January 2. Christmas in our culture lasts two, maybe three days. Then it’s on to other things. New Year’s, then it’s back to school, back to work.
But Christmas in the church still lasts for twelve days, because one is just not enough. One day is not enough to celebrate the birth of Jesus. One day is not enough to spend on this earth-changing event. But I have a feeling that the writer of the Gospel of John would feel that even twelve days are not really enough.
Our reading from the Gospel of John this morning, is, essentially, John’s Christmas story. Only there’s no angels and shepherds. There’s no Mary and Joseph. No inn and stable and manger. Bethlehem isn’t even mentioned. There’s no baby at all! Instead, John speaks of the beginning of time and the creation of all things. John speaks of light breaking into the darkness of our world and of our lives. John speaks of cosmic matters.
John’s Christmas isn’t really about the birth of Jesus. You can’t have a Christmas pageant based on John. You’d have to have kids dressed as planets and stars; you’d have to figure out how to portray light and darkness. But just because John’s version is different from the Christmas story that we’re used to, doesn’t mean this is all detached from the world as we know it. Because John’s cosmic narrative all leads to this: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” John writes about the wonder of the Word-made-flesh. About the incarnation—God becoming human, and what that means.
These first eighteen verses of John are called the prologue to John. They’re written in verse, as poetry, instead of prose. And much like an overture does for a work of music, John’s prologue sets the stage for what is to come. In the prologue we hear snippets, pieces and themes, that will be picked up later in the Gospel.
Because we’re going to be reading from John a lot during the coming year, I wanted to take some time this morning to look at just a couple of those themes and what they mean on this last day of Christmas. The first is the theme of incarnation: “And the Word became flesh and lived among us.” Incarnation, God becoming human, is truly at the heart of Christmas and why Christmas can never be contained to one or even twelve days. The incarnation changes everything—it changes who we are, how we relate to God, and to each other.
By taking on our human form, God identifies with us. God redeems us in this act of salvation. We often think of the cross and resurrection as the salvific part of Jesus’ ministry. But in the creed, we proclaim each week, we say, “For us and for our salvation, he came down…” The incarnation is an act that saves. It is God saying: you—humans—are important. You matter so much to me, that I will become one of you, so that you might experience my love more fully.
But it doesn’t all go according to plan. Jesus comes into the world, the world that he helped to create, and it says: but the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, but his own people did not accept him. This is the second theme that I want to look at this morning. That the incarnation is rejected.
These verses are dangerous because these verses and others like them in the Bible have been used to fuel and defend antisemitism. It always needs to be said, but especially now as attacks against Jewish people are on the rise, it needs to be said that antisemitism is not Christian. And it has no place in our church or in our society.
Jesus was Jewish. He lived in a Jewish society, among Jewish people. So yes, Jesus’ earliest detractors were Jewish. Much like all of his earliest followers were also Jewish. But instead of using the Bible to scapegoat others, turning these verses against others, we need to hear these verses as a challenge to ourselves. When do we fail to recognize Jesus in our world? When do we not accept him? When confronted with the true light of God’s love, what makes us sometimes turn away?
We reject God’s light and truth, the love that Jesus came to bring, when we cannot or will not love ourselves and others the way that God does. When we do not see each of our bodies as a dwelling place of the divine. When we value some people, some lives, more highly than others. When we do not care for the world that God lovingly brought into being.
And yet, even facing our rejection, Jesus does not reject the world. Instead, Jesus enters the world of fear and anxiety, depression and longing, hopes and love. Despite rejection, this will be God’s chosen way to bring grace into the world. From his fullness, John writes, we all have received grace upon grace, and he gives us the power to become the children of God. The power to become children of God. The power to be like Jesus. To be forces for light and hope, love and truth, in a world that needs them oh so badly. The power to love like Jesus loved, the power to give of ourselves for others, the power to know that we are loved.
John’s Christmas story is not about sentimentality. It is about life and light and love, breaking into a world full of division and grief and despair. It is the Christmas the story we need, not just once a year, not just twelve days a year, but every day.
We spent New Year’s with friends of ours, and their four-year-old had all these Hallmark snowmen. Maybe you’ve seen them—you press a button and they sing and dance. They’re very, very annoying, especially when eight of them are signing eight different songs at one time. One of them sang: “We Need a Little Christmas.” You know, “we need a little Christmas, right this very minute, need a little singing, ringing in the rafters…”
Well that song has been stuck in my head since New Year’s Eve. I only know like two lines of it, but they’ve been going over and over. They’re not wrong. Even though Christmas is over, we do need a little Christmas. We need a little incarnation. We need a little light shining in the darkness. We need a little grace upon grace. Alright, maybe we need a lot of that. Thankfully, Christmas is not just a season. Christmas is God’s love come to us, come past our rejections and barriers, come to reshape us as children of God. Made in love for the sake of the world. It’s something we need every day. And thankfully, it’s something we get every day. Amen.