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The Mystery of Christmas

Sermon - 12/19/10
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Romans 1:1-7

The first story I have to share comes from Paul's letter to the Romans, it is the introduction to Romans, the first 7 verses, where we read:

Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, 2which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, 3the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh 4and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, 5through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, 6including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,

7 To all Godís beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints:

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

 

Christmas is of course a very special time, isn't it? I was struck with the "Heart-to-Heart" column, appears every Saturday, written by one of our local members of the faith community, and in the column this particular Saturday, a Unitarian woman told a story about how her family was touched by God's grace on Christmas Eve. And that is a special time, unlike any others.

So what is it that makes this time of year so special for us? Is it our wonderful decorations? All of the wonderful Christmas music? The Christmas stories, not just those in Scripture but the many other wonderful stories about this time of year? The joy of the children, and their exuberance and anticipation? All of the gift giving? The spirit of the season, of joy and generosity?

All of that is all part of the season, that makes it such a special time. And yet I think it's also even grander than that. That there's something mysteriously wonderful that you just can't put into words.

So, typically we read the birth stories from either Matthew or Luke. Those coming to our Christmas Eve service, you'll get to hear those stories told in a very creative way this year, a new script that we're using. The two stories interacting with one another, and that's the Family Service at 7:00 p.m. I think it will not only be fun, but very insightful and will enlighten us in a new way.

But we don't often turn to the apostle Paul, because those stories aren't there in Paul. Paul says nothing about angels and shepherds and Magi. Nothing about Mary and Joseph or the virgin birth, or the Star. Nothing about the Inn in Bethlehem in which there was no room, or the flight to Egypt. None of those familiar stories are told in any of the letters of Paul.

What little Paul does say, we find here in this text from Romans. "Jesus, a descendent of David", in other words, a Jew, thoroughly human, "declared Son of God by his resurrection", in other words, Savior of all people, not just Jews, thoroughly divine.

The mystery of Jesus as the Christ is just that -- the unity of the human and the divine in one person, the flesh and the Spirit in one reality. And we typically think of God as being apart from this world, apart from us. We think of spirit as being separate from flesh.

But as Richard Rohr, a Franciscan spiritual Director I've cited many times, a popular author and speaker on spirituality, Rohr notes that is "dualism" -- the belief in two opposing forces struggling for the soul of the world. But we are not dualists. We are Christians. And the unique contribution, says Rohr, of the Christian faith is precisely that the material and the spiritual coexist in one reality, which we call the Christ. So that the problem of the separation between the spirit and the world, between God and us, that that has been resolved by Christmas. By the miracle of Christmas. The incarnation, the joining of flesh and spirit, has redeemed the world.

It wasn't the death and resurrection of Jesus that redeems the world (as we often think). No, Rohr says our redemption was already secured the moment the divine and the human became one. Easter is but icing on the cake.

The great divide between God and humanity ended on Christmas morning. Rohr even says that one can make the case that the divide never existed. That from the moment of creation, when the Spirit of God moved upon the face of the earth, that that spirit has been with us ever since. That's the message of Genesis 1. It is only our misperception that has kept us from seeing that.

It's what we sometimes call 'sin'. Sin is nothing more than the false notion that we have been separated from that which we cannot be separated from. As the apostle Paul himself says later in this letter to the Romans:

"For I am convinced that neither death nor life nor angels nor rulers nor things present nor things to come nor powers nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all of creation can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ".

So that separation is false. And if it wasn't clear enough before Christmas, it should be clear now: the incarnation of Christ is the pattern for all humanity, for all creation. As Rohr says, the journey to Christhood is our journey too. The incarnation does not stop with Jesus, rather it begins with Jesus.

I was invited to open for the Interface service on the 11th, a week ago Saturday. I shared in that gathering, the theme of the service was "Lights of Peace and Fellowship". And so I noted on that theme, that the Gospel of John opens with this passage with which we conclude our Christmas Eve services:

In the beginning was the Word, and the word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God, all things came into being through Him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in Him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.

And we share that in total darkness, with only the Christ light (candle) burning. And then we share that light around the circle as we sing Silent Night, and when the stars in the universe are all aligned with us, that happens right at midnight, and the chimes ring, and it's one of the most beautiful, sacred, holy times of the year.

Later on in John's gospel, Jesus says "I am the light of the world". But in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew's gospel, Jesus says "You are the light of the world". And I think we're very comfortable with affirming Jesus as the light of the world, but this idea that we are the light of the world makes us a little uncomfortable. Who, me? Who am I to be light to the world?

Maryanne Williamson, in a quote that is quite well-known (falsely attributed to Nelson Mandela, because he used it in his inaugural speech in 1994 when he became President of South Africa), she writes:

"Let your light shine. Our deepest fear is not that we're inadequate, our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us. We ask ourselves, 'who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, and fabulous?' Actually, who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small doesn't serve the world. There's nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won't feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. It's not just in some of us, it's in everyone. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same".

Can we, dare we, believe that we have that light? That we have that glory of God that is born to the world on Christmas morning, that it also dwells in us?

I want to share with you a different Christmas story, from Walt Wangerin Jr., a Lutheran pastor, one of my favorite storytellers, in his book "Ragman and Other Cries of Faith", in which he talks about the miracles of Jesus.

And one particular miracle, and then he reflects on the Disciples reaction to that miracle. He writes: "For the moment, the Disciples surrendered logic, they accepted that a door had opened in the universe. They took the impossible production as a sign, and worked backward to a cause they had not seen, for flesh and spirit abide on different planes, and their eyes were flesh. We see the light, even if we cannot see the source of light. Light and source together, they called the glory of God, and they believed on him. Even so did Jesus reveal himself, even so he does".

Listen. Here is a story historically true. My son Matthew has always been borderline hyperactive. This is a very exhausting condition for all concerned, and unnerving. The kid leaped before he crawled, and played football before he talked. He watched the televised games with his whole body, that is, he ran every play in the living room, dropping back for the quarterback, shooting forward for the wide receiver, making magnificent dives for bullet-balls, and then managing even to tackle himself against glass hutches and expensive china.

Matthew was the whole darned team at the age of four in a poor man's living room. Now, I'm a patient man, I'm a Pastor, I'm paid to be patient. I spent many a Sunday afternoon in painful patience, practicing this virtue, this fruit of the Spirit. And sometimes I would slip. Suddenly delivering myself of a sermon in a living room before one wide-eyed four-year-old, damping his enthusiasm for a while, but I would generally regain my patience again, presenting my son with an admirable example of Christian restraint. Restraint, Matthew. Self control -- see, this is how it's done. Through my (clenched) teeth: SEE, THIS IS HOW IT'S DONE!

But Matthew heard other drums. Matthew took other examples, each of them more vigorous than the last, terrifying to a father's heart. He watched what he called the "Six Millions Dollar Man" with worshipful attention. But that which he watches, he believes in. And that which he believes in, he becomes. The completeness of this kid's loyalty is an inspiration to all the faithful anywhere. No better Disciple existed. Let him teach the saints of sainthood. But for God's sake, let him believe in the meek, not the Six Millions Dollar Man.

There came the day when in order to find some peace for my work, I commanded my son to his bedroom, then bowed my head over my typewriter and trembled for a moment in the cool silence. Silence is a blessed thing. And patience is a virtue. I raised my hand and began to type a sentence, tentatively. Another sentence followed. Soon a paragraph developed, it was wonderful, I found my stride -- I was on the way to a full page, entertaining visions of a possible chapter before the day was through, when an almighty crash erupted from Matthew's bedroom.

Up on my forelegs, flying to the bedroom, my fingers still stuck to the typewriter keys. The bedroom door was still shut. No matter, I could read instantly what the Six Millions Dollar Boy had done, for his foot stuck through the door. Two and a half feet above the floor! When I opened it in proper fashion, I dragged a child out, smiling on his back. "Hi Dad!".

Through my teeth, strangled screams and very heavy judgment upon the child's head, I soon took the smile from his face even before we took his foot from the door. At the age of eight, Matthew ran away from home.

This is the cause & effect sequence as best I can remember it. There is a bleak, reasonable logic to every successive step, and I can understand that he should have run away.

At night, we prayed a regular prayer, certain portions of which I italicize for the edification of my son. We pray:

"Jesus Savior, wash away, all that has been wrong today. Help me every day to be, good and gentle, more like thee".

But on a particular night, particular energy sizzled in my Matthew. I folded my hands and began: "Jesus Savior, wash away, all that has been wrong today, . . . . .". Matthew, what are you doing?

Dear Matthew had slipped from covers and concentration, was sitting on the floor, emptying a cardboard box of some 3,000 football cards. "Sorting my cards", he said. "Terry Bradshaw. . . ". "No you're not!", through my teeth, WE'RE PRAYING. It's time to go to sleep. In bed please, fold your hands, please. Now, "Jesus Savior, wash away, all that is wrong today. . . ". "Matthew, what are you doing?!"

He was trotting out of the room, he was going to the bathroom, "To brush my teeth". Jesus Savior, . . .well, tooth-brushing is my rule, after all, and the boy is obeying a rule, grant him that, and I shouldn't countermand rules. Earlier, I had extolled with wonderful proofs how important that was. I let him go. I bowed my head and waited. Patience is a virtue. Yes, but Vesuvius is a volcano.

When he returned, broad, grinning, wide-toothed, content with himself, we made white knuckle folds of our hands and again we dove into our prayer: "Jesus Savior, wash away, all that has been wrong. . . . " "Matthew! Where are you going?!"  "To the bathroom, to pee". What was I to do? If he did not go to the bathroom to pee, the kid would pee in his bed, and then his mother (and my wife) would find good reason to become his protector and my adversary, herself defeated by wet, stinking sheets.

When he bounced back into the bedroom, into his bed, folded his hands so sweetly, he noticed a certain smolder in my countenance. "Aren't we going to pray?", he said. "Tomorrow!", I roared, "we wore the prayer out tonight".

"Aren't you going to hug me?", he said. "Tomorrow!", I thundered, and left. Tomorrow.

Breakfast. My wife called the children, four of them, to wash their hands to eat. Three of them did. One of them didn't budge. Was reading the sports page in the living room. I was no longer a patient man. "Matthew", I said, "didn't you hear your mother?" "Yes", he said, "I heard her". "What did she say?". "She said, 'wash your hands'". "And why haven't you washed your hands?". And in perfect innocence, the child looked up at me from the floor, with perfect rationality, lifting two fingers, he answered: "Because she didn't ask twice".

All my rhetorical skills, honed these 10 years in the pulpit, flashed in the living room, slammed the walls, damned a child for no account, and withered his soul to nothing. In round and echoing terms, I did condemn the boy. In the language of Moses and the prophets, I sinned against my son.

That afternoon, he ran away. Clarence Fields, Cub-Scout leader, called from church. "Isn't Matthew coming today"?, he said. "He should have come straight from school", I said. "That's an hour ago, he isn't here yet", said Clarence.

I covered the mouthpiece and spoke to Joseph in the kitchen: "Do you know where Matthew is?". His brother said "yes", and then he said "no". "What does that mean?", I asked Joseph. Joseph's eyes were wounded, and near tears. "He ran away", said Joseph, "but I don't know where he went". "From home?". "He said he wasn't worth nothing. He said he wasn't coming home".

Then Joseph cried.

And a hammering began in my own chest. It was no easy thing to tell Clarence that Matthew ran away. This was my son, this was my doing. The Cub Scouts immediately deployed, all leaping into Mr. Fields car, and good-deeding it through the city at high speeds, crying "Matthew!" out the Windows.

For my own part, I didn't know what to do. There was water in me that threatened to drown my soul, and I could have been glad to die. Lord how I have mishandled my son--my son--my busy, exuberant, and vulnerable son. I went out the front door, I wandered into the park and began to cross it through the trees. Oh my son, what have I done to you? Guilt is a very real pain. Thick in the chest, sharp in the gut, almost intolerable, and no one to blame but myself.

Then I saw him. Matthew, dragging his little self across the street and into the park, coming home. I didn't touch him, I hadn't the right. I held my distance, and fell in step beside him. "You ran away", I asked, to be talking, to hear him talk. "Yes". "But you came home!", I said as brightly as I could, as though this made right thereby. He said: "I saw a man, I thought he was going to kidnap me. I was afraid, so I came home".

Oh, Matthew, the home that I made for you is only the lesser of two fears. A place to hide in, not to live in. I had no more words to say, a wretched father. We went home in silence, he to his room, I to my study where I sat in my chair and could not move. Earth stood still. I think it was half an hour later that Matthew passed that door, glanced in and saw me and stopped.

"You OK?", he said. "No", I said. "Are you sick?" "No, . . yes". He gazed at me a moment, perplexed. I dropped my eyes, without a sound, neither sobbing nor sighing, I cried. "Ooooh", said Matthew softly. "No Dad", he said, "Don't worry". He came into the study and put his hand on my knee. "I love you", he said. He smiled briefly, and he left.

That child, that child had no right to forgive me so. Where did he get the knowledge? Where did he get the maturity?

The might of an ageless mercy, the transfiguring power. A door had opened in the universe, and through my son and in my face, the glory of the Lord had burst from a little child. No Sunday school lessons, nor all the sermons he had heard me preach, nor the smattering of Bible reading that the child had done, but Jesus Christ himself was the cause of this most dramatic and real wonder. Matthew didn't speak the Christ, for an instant, Matthew was the Christ.

Christ abode in him and I saw it. Not with my eyes, for that was his own short fingered hand on my knee. But with my soul, to which the word had penetrated, changing it. He had done so casually what in fact he could not do, only God could do that. But I was most certainly done, I was forgiven indeed. Even so, did Jesus reveal himself and sign my soul? Even so he does. And I believe on him.

We come to the manger to behold a special child. A son of God who loves pure light. Jesus Lord at thy birth.

But isn't every child a special child? Every child a son or daughter of God?

Maybe this is the mystery of Christmas we must rediscover every year when we come to that manger on Christmas Eve and we see that child, not with our eyes, but with our soul.

We see that there is indeed the Christ where God dwells. And if in that innocent child, then in every child.

And if in every child, then every person.

And if in every person, then each of us.

This is indeed a mystery, too wondrous to comprehend, that somewhere, that lost inner-child, that divine spark of God's light, that somewhere within us, there is that one waiting to be born again.

You, says Paul, are called to be saints. To be that holy light of Christ in our world.

 

 


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