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Saint Ignatius of Antioch Episcopal Church

An Episcopal Church in the Anglo-Catholic Tradition Where All Are Welcome

The Incarnation of Our LordChristmas Day
25 December 2007

A Sermon Preached by the Rev’d Storm K. Swain

Almighty God, who hast given us thy only-begotten Son to take our nature upon him and as at this time to be born of a pure virgin: Grant that we, being regenerate and made thy children by adoption and grace, may daily be renewed by thy Holy Spirit; through the same our Lord Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the same Spirit ever, one God, world without end. Amen.

Isaiah 52:7-10
Psalm 98
Hebrews 1:1-12
John 1:1-14

At midnight last night, we participated in a ripple effect, where millions of people around God’s earth were celebrating Christmas.The ripple starts from the time line, just east of New Zealand where many people would have celebrated Midnight Mass, and it moves around the earth, clockwise, getting to us 18 hours later, and six hours on from us, peoples on the Pacific Islands will see Christmas unfold as they began to celebrate.

All these people around the Globe, different, diverse, known and unknown, are connected to us in the ripple of time, in the Christian body, that has come from the birth of one body.  It’s a ripple from one small drop, one small tear in the pool of time, that has rippled out in hearts and minds and lives, century after century, millenium and after millenium.  A tear of pain in the eye of Mary, a drop of sweat off Joseph’s brow, the glisten of life on a infant’s cheek as a first breath was taken in a far away place and time.  It was a moment it seemed when the whole universe stood still as God’s tear dropped into time and space.

It’s hard to speak of mystery in language other than poetry.  John’s gospel speaks with the compelling incomprehensibility of esoteric wisdom –
‘In the beginning was the word, 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.’

These words call us, because they capture something of the mystery where you think you know what they’re saying but you’re not quite sure.  This sort of cosmic existential discussion of the physics of theology is almost too much to be contained in everyday language.  Everyday language is too ordinary, too everyday to contain life-changing events that ripple in time.  Yet it is in the very ordinary that we encounter God, for God seeks to encounter us in the Word made flesh, wrapping Godself around our language and our lives, birthing again in the darkness of our hearts and minds that can barely contain the pain and joy of the ordinary, let alone the divinely ludicrous advent of the explosion of eternity in the here and now.  But it is to the ordinary that God comes, in the silence and darkness, it is announced to the ordinary, and has become strangely commonplace.

We need to capture the ordinary to see the grace and truth of the mystery…or more truly we need to let it capture us.  We need to forget the sanitised versions that make Christmas a warm and fluffy fairy story and be grasped by the offensiveness of the incarnation where birth is ushered in, in the guts and mess of pain and suffering, in the only place left to turn when there is no room anywhere else. 

One way of getting close is to let it get close to us, if we were there or it were here.  Steven Turner tells the story in this way:

If Jesus were born today
it would be in a downtown motel
marked by a helicopter’s flashing bulb.
A policeman, working late
would be the first upon the scene.
Later, at the expense of a TV network,
an eminent sociologist,
the host of a chat show
and a controversial author
would arrive with their good wishes
- the whole occasion to be filmed as part of the
‘Is this the Son of God?’ one hour special.
Childhood would be a blur of photographs
and speculation
dwindling by His late teens into
‘Where Is He Now?’ features in Sunday magazines.

If  Jesus was thirty today
they wouldn’t really care about His public ministry
they’d be too busy investigating His finances
and trying to prove He had Church or Mafia connections
The miracles would be explained by
an eminent and controversial magician,
His claims to be God’s Son recognised as
excellent examples of spoken English
and immediately incorporated into the S.A.T.’s syllabus,
His sinless perfection considered by moral philosophers
as O.K., but a bit repressive.

If Jesus was thirty one today
He’d be the fly in everybody’s ointment –
the sort of controversial person who
stands no chance of eminence.
Communists would expel Him, capitalists
would exploit him or have Him
smeared by people who know a thing or two about God,
doctors would accuse him of quakery,
soldiers would accuse Him of cowardice,
theologians would take Him aside and try
to persude Him of His non-existence.

If Jesus was thirty-two today we’d have to
end it all.  Heretic, fundamentalist, literalist,
puritan, pacifist, non-conformist, we’d take Him
away quietly and end the argument.
But the argument would rumble in the ground
at the end of three days and would break out
and walk around as though death was some bug,
saying, ‘I am the resurrection and the life. 
No one cometh to the Father but by me.’
While the magicians researched new explanations
and the semanticists wondered exactly what
He meant by ‘I’ and ‘no one’ there would be those
who stand around amused, asking for something
called proof.

The retelling of what has become such a familiar story is almost ridiculous.  Yet if we look closely enough through the familiar and ordinary, still our hearts and minds enough, catch our breath, there is something disturbing about this ordinariness, something wild, something uncontrollable, somehow in the eyes of the newborn, we catch a glimpse of mystery and miracle.

Yet how can we dare to stand on the floor of a dirty barn with a unmarried mother, who is probably not that much older than some of the teenagers here in this parish, to stand with a reluctant father and group of animals and look at a wrinkly baby and say this is God.  How can we say that the one who may  screas out its first cry, is the Word through whom all things came into being.

But say it we do.  We affirm it each service.  Because somehow, something beyond us, calls us, something beyond the ordinary draws us.  This uncomfortable mystery calls us into a divine disturbance, where in the midst of the most profoundly human, in the body and soul of an insignificant, weak, vulnerable baby, someone as close to us as our own flesh and blood, God chooses to say, I am here also.  I am here in the muck and grime, I am here even if there is no room for me, even if you inch me out of the world and onto the cross, I am here till my end, your end and beyond.

So in the midst of the ordinary, mystery breaks in, in the midst of the human, the divine, God saying to each one of us, in our dark nights and busy days, in our overcrowded and empty hearts, I am here.

In some ways where we are today seems such a long way away from the ordinary dirt and smell and noise and mess of that birth in a barn in Bethlehem 2 millennia ago.  Our liturgy today could seem to speak very little to the context of the first Christmas with our gold seamed vestments, the shining chalices, the pristine altar cloths, the flowers, the smell of incense and the beautiful strains of the choir. 

Yet we are here because in some way we have been caught by the mystery, the sense of the glory of God breaking through the ordinary, where not only does God come to us, but in Christ we are lifted to God, in a way that changes us all.  We do a disservice to Mary if we expect this birth to be any different than that which brings any human into the world, just as we do Jesus a disservice if we think his death was any easier for the divine one.   But we do a disservice to ourselves if we act as if the ordinary is all there is.  John’s Gospel won’t let us do that, he calls us into the mystery, into the glory of God, intersecting with our lives and our world, at the cosmic level of creation no less. 

We try to capture that sense of mysterious glory breaking through in our service, in the prayers that rise to God like incense and the incense that infuses us like prayer, in the closest approximation we can make to the choirs of angels and archangels and all the company of heaven, in the glittering white and light, the offering up of our lives and ourselves in hope that in offering the best of us, we can honour the God who loves even the worst of us.  Here we try in the beauty of the liturgy give glory to the God who comes gift-wrapped in the Word made flesh, in the bread broken and the wine poured out, so we embracing God’s body, may become God’s body embracing the world.  Here in our words and music, that which clothes our bodies and our souls, we seek to offer what is ordinary but express the extraordinary glory and mystery of God that comes to us in the light of Christ, and seek to share that light with the world.

As we come to Christmas, the challenge for us is not to get caught up with the gift-wrapping and forget the gift, not to get caught up in the liturgy and forget what we are doing, not to simply engage in the social ritual of Churchianity at Christ-mas time, but to engage in Christianity, where we know the one born for us, will be the one that will die for us.  In the power and passion of John’s Gospel we are called to hear the Word, that not only calls us together but also drives us out.

This word is spoken to you and I where hope and faith are called forth from us, where in the cry of the child in the manger, God cries out in our hearts and in the heart of the world, that we are all children of God, made in the image of God, and that God loves us so much God comes to us, here and in our midst.  It is God that jumps the great divide between the creator and the created, it is God who loves first and last, and always, it is God who chooses to be so vulnerable as to be made in our image as we are in God’s.  It is God who the first Christmas and every other hereafter, invites us to make room in our souls, for the divinely disturbing mystery, the indescribable meaning, and the miracle that in that ordinary birth we are all born anew in God’s love.

It is this word that God calls us to speak, not only with our lips but in our lives, a word that can’t be silenced, even when driven out of its homeland, even in the midst of the violence and terror of 1st century Judea and 21st century America, God’s speaks to us in the person of Jesus, and calls us to recognise and realize this through peace on earth and goodwill to all.

In the name of Jesus Christ, our Lord, Amen.

©2007 Storm Kirsten Swain