Sermon for the Second Sunday of Christmas – January 3, 2021
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
I noticed last Sunday how many of our young members are back home from school for the winter break. I saw young adults who have returned home to Oak Harbor from Norway and California, from Gonzaga and Washington State University. My own son has been home from Texas A&M. Modern technology allows us to stay in touch with our kids at school like never before, but it is great having them home. My wife and I Facetime with our son every Sunday night when he’s at school in Texas, but as great as that is, there’s something lacking. There isn’t quite the same the sense of closeness. It just isn’t the same as having him physically present with us.
The global pandemic we are enduring has reminded us all how precious it is to be together in person with others. People have been struggling, and grieving, and even dying, without loved ones physically present. As necessary as all this distancing might well be, I think it is at least as painful and difficult as any actual COVID-19 symptoms.
We’ve been reminded as a congregation just how precious, how important, it is for us to be physically present with one another. I’ll never forget our first Sunday back in the sanctuary with people present. Even with a small group of masked, socially distanced worshippers, I was overwhelmed with emotion just to have people physically present. I posted on Facebook later that day that I will never again take for granted the beautiful sound of Christians reciting the Lord’s Prayer together.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s little book, “Life Together,” which is about Christian community. Members of the Confessing Church, which opposed Hitler, were banned from meeting together, so Bonhoeffer opened an underground seminary. It was closed by the Gestapo after only 18 months, and while Bonhoeffer himself avoided arrest, 17 of his students were arrested and sent to prison. As they were isolated and imprisoned, Bonhoeffer reflected on the power of Christian community. He wrote: “The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer.” And little later Bonhoeffer continues: “The believer feels no shame…when he yearns for the physical presence of other Christians. Man was created a body, the Son of God appeared on earth in the body, he was raised in the body, [and] in the sacrament the believer receives the Lord Christ in the body…”
This physical presence with others, in our families and in our church family, is so vitally important because we are embodied creatures. It is important to us as Christians because we have an embodied faith.
This brings us to our gospel reading for this second Sunday of Christmas. Today we get the Christmas story according to St. John, the theologian. Only we don’t get the story of Jesus’ birth so much as we get a poetic theological reflection on the incarnation. John gives us a stunning theological poem describing Christmas as the occasion when God came to be physically present with us.
Perhaps the most stunning statement in our reading for today is when John writes: “The Word became flesh and lived among us.” The logos, the preexisting Word of God, that which was with God and indeed was God, came into the world as a human being, in human flesh. God came to be physically present with us in Jesus Christ.
Do you realize what a shocking claim this is? The Greek philosophers believed that the logos, the divine principle, was so beyond human understanding that it was ultimately unknowable, so no one could ever say anything definitive about God. The Jewish people couldn’t fathom that the Word of God they had in the Torah they so treasured could come in human form, that it would ever “tabernacle” with them in person. To this day the biggest beef Muslims have with Christianity is the incarnation. They find it blasphemous to think that Allah would become flesh and sweat and belch and defecate like a filthy human being. (This isn’t to denigrate our Muslim neighbors. We should be good and loving neighbors to them. I’m just describing what they themselves say about Christianity, and particularly about the incarnation.)
The truth is, God can be known. We can say something definitive about who God is, because the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of the only Son of the Father, full of grace and truth.
The truth is, the Word became more than a message to be printed on a scroll or read in a book, more than something to be texted or Facetimed or Zoomed. The Word became physically present and lived among us, so that we could know God not only through a book but through a person.
The truth is, the Word became flesh, taking on our human nature completely, dirty diapers and all, so that God could draw us close to himself. Of course this is God stooping down to our level, dirtying himself in the process – that’s the point! That’s the gift! That’s grace!
As John writes, “From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace.” Note here that we don’t get just one serving, but grace upon grace upon grace! The Word becoming flesh is grace. God’s physical presence as he has come to us in Jesus Christ is a gift to humanity. It is the gift that makes it possible for us to draw close to God.
While Jesus is no longer physically present with us in the same way today, his birth as the Word made flesh has erased the distance between us and God. In the incarnation, Jesus has met us in our flesh. Christmas isn’t just a birthday party, it is the celebration of the Son of God appearing on the earth in a body, so that we who live in these created bodies would know a closeness with the one who created us, who redeemed us through the sacrifice of this Son, and who is with us even now.
The Word of God is written in the scriptures, both the Old and New Testaments. These written words, Luther reminds us, are like the manger. They are where we go to find Christ. They are where we go again and again to find his grace and truth.
The Word of God comes to us in the bread and wine of Holy Communion. Christ is physically present with us in, with, and under, the bread and wine, giving us his body and blood to become one with our body and blood.
This Word of God became flesh and lived among us in the person of Jesus Christ, and from his fullness we have all received grace upon grace upon grace upon grace.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church