May the grace, mercy and peace of God our Father be with us in the name of his son, our risen Lord and Savior Jesus Christ; Amen.
For many people, the festivities of Christmas are over. The trees are down, the lights and knick-knacks packed away, and as people like to put it, the house is back to “normal.” In a world where the celebration of Christmas begins somewhere between Halloween and Thanksgiving, we in the church still cling to the idea that the 12 days of Christmas begin December 25, and end on the “Twelfth Night”, the eve of Epiphany.
This is why when you arrived here for worship this morning you still found our tree up, poinsettias, wreaths and the nativity displayed in the sanctuary. Christmas isn't over, even though it seems like so long ago that we shared the story of Mary, Joseph, angels, shepherds, magi and of course, the baby Jesus. And this morning, you heard me share the story of Jesus' entrance into the world according to the fourth Gospel, written by John. It is not so much a description of the events surrounding the birth of the baby Jesus as it is a sermon itself on the significance of the event on our lives today.
John talks about how Jesus' birth makes a difference for all of God's creation. His sermon on the Christmas event make us realize that there is something more than meets the eye going on here – it is more than just a birth of a baby to a typical couple in a setting fit for a peasant. There is something profoundly deeper going on here – the very presence of God is breaking into our world in a way that has never happened before. And so, he uses human words and images to describe something that is far beyond human in its origin or impact. This is the very powerful word of God, made flesh and dwelling among us FULL of God's grace and truth. I don't think that we truly comprehend that adjective, “full.” We have known people who seem to embody God's grace and truth over the years – the Mother Teresa's of the world, the different mothers, fathers, pastors, teachers, friends or other family members who seemed to have embodied a spirit of love and grace; people who have nurtured us with their influence on our lives. But even these people were human beings; even our most beloved influences fell short of the expectations that we place upon them to be “perfect.”
But this baby Jesus, he is FULL of the grace and truth of God like none other has been or will be. I like the image of Jesus being the light of the world. During one of my children's sermons last month (on one of the many times that we have heard parts of this same Gospel passage read) I told the young people that Jesus is a light that we always have with us, just like the flashlight app on my cell phone is a light that I always have with me. I sometimes forget about it – thinking that I don't have any way to see in the darkness of the basement or the long nights of winter, when I really have a source of light right in my pocket all of the time. Jesus is the source of light that never fails us, shining to guide, direct, and provide God's grace and truth to us whenever it appears that the darkness of the world is ready to overcome us.
In addition to this being the second Sunday of the Christmas season, this is also the first Sunday of a new year. 2014 has been a year filled with darkness and with light. We all have experienced things that make us wonder if the light of Christ still really shines in the world. We have experienced death in our families, we see stories of racial conflicts, of terror threats and strikes, of attacks on law enforcement officers; we have seen the evidence of the greed of people who want more and more, bigger and bigger “things” in their lives while many people don't even have enough to put on the table for their family to eat; human trafficking and slavery is still rampant in the world. These seem like dark, dark times for many. Where is the good news in all of this? Where is God in all of this?
The light of Christ in this dark world, the presence of God is still found in the living word that was made flesh so many years ago! I want to challenge you this year – in 2015, when you hear or read news that is sad, threatening or “dark” in some way, prayerfully consider how the light has come into the world in Jesus Christ to banish the darkness. Turn the page on the newspaper or change the channel on the news and find a story of love and compassion – because these stories are there! Christ's light still shines! The world made flesh is still dwelling among us full of grace and truth! The gospel writer John's Christmas sermon is still relevant for us today, and I would argue that it is even more relevant than ever! The light still shines giving us hope in the midst of the darkness of sadness and despair.
For many of us in Columbus, Thursday night was a very joyful time. Our beloved Buckeye football team went into a Sugar Bowl game as heavy underdogs to the top ranked and very talented Alabama Crimson Tide. The game didn't always go well – there were mistakes on both sides of the ball for both teams – but in the end, the scarlet and gray won by 7 points. If you are a Facebook friend of mine you know that it was a happy, joyous night for me personally. It seemed like at the end of a very difficult and emotional year, there was light – something to cheer for and to cheer about: A momentary distraction from the issues of life and death, brokenness and forgiveness, illness and healing. And the 30 plus people gathered in our home – neighbor friends ranging in age from 7 to 50 – jumped up and down, hi fived, shouted and smiled from ear to ear just like Cardale Jones seems to always be doing! This was just a little glimpse of the light that Christ brings to dispel the darkness of the world! It is temporary of course - who knows what will happen a week from tomorrow on the big stage in Dallas – but this glimpse was to me personally a moment of joy the likes of which I anticipate when we all gather around the throne of heaven to celebrate the great victory of Jesus over sin, death and the devil once and for all.
In the meantime, we live in the darkness with the light of Christ with us. Last Sunday I went to Mass at my brother-in-law's church in Chardon, Ohio. In his homily, the priest told the story of a little girl in a family he knows that, as she put it, “had the most important part in the Christmas program.” It turned out that she was the star – the light that showed not only the magi where to find the word made flesh, but who showed everyone in the program and everyone in the whole place where to find him! Like John the Baptist, when we witness to the light of Christ, we reflect it in our words and actions so that the darkness of the world might not overcome us. I have just recently been introduced to one such witness to the light. It just so happens that this person, Pastor Elaina Styblo, died on Friday morning following a three year battle with colon cancer. One of her best friends, Pastor Chelsea Spencer, is a former MIC student here at Clinton Heights. Yesterday, Chelsea shared a blog that Elaina had posted almost a year ago about the great cloud of witnesses that we Christians have. She told about how Chelsea lives in a cemetery – actually in a parsonage next to the church which is surrounded by a cemetery – and how she is not creeped-out by it at all, because they are a great cloud of witnesses. Elaine shared her experiences of presiding at 27 funerals in the first 2 years of her ministry at Faith Lutheran Church in Massillon, Ohio. One particular person was a woman who fought lung cancer with the same iron will that she battled everything in her path, for she wanted so badly to stay in this world, to be with and for her beloved family. This is what Elaina says in her blog about that woman: I am also confident saying that at no point did she give up her battle. I suspect a more apt explanation is that her life was wrenched away and yet victory is hers. During her last week, I told her that when she did join the church triumphant it didn't mean that she was giving up on her battle against cancer. It didn't mean that cancer wins.
Cancer can't win for God has already won. We may have a few battles left to fight in this world, but God has won the war. And because God has, the kingdom's ours forever.
The true light, which enlightens everyone, has come into the world on Christmas Day! The profound meaning of that event lives on as it is reflected by the stars of God's story: and those stars are anyone who shines light and shows people to Jesus, the word of God dwelling among us full of grace and truth. May the light continue to shine in the darkness, and may we continue to reflect that light into the world this whole year. Amen.