Christmas Day sermon

December 26, 2011

"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." John 1:3b-5. (Courtesy of NASA's Hubble telescope.)

I preached the following sermon yesterday for our Christmas Day service at AFUMC. Enjoy!

Audio of the sermon is found here.

Sermon Text: John 1:1-14

My children would like you to know that they are attending this worship service under protest. Maybe some of your kids are as well? I don’t blame them. I would have felt the same way when I was their age. When I was a child, my pastor used to take his watch off when he got up to preach. He would place it on the pulpit, face up, so he would know how he was doing on time—and know if he were in danger of running past noon. One Christmas, I said, “Mom, Dad, I know the perfect Christmas gift for the preacher. We need to get him a new watch! His is obviously broken.”

Speaking of Christmas gifts, I know a few of you were excited to have received a special gift of a new iPhone 4s from Santa. I have an older iPhone, but I’ve talked to friends who have them and I’ve read about it. One of the really cool features is Siri. Do you know Siri? It, or should I say “she,” is a “virtual assistant” built into the phone. She recognizes your voice. You press the button and talk to her, and she talks back. You can practically carry on a conversation. This would have been the perfect gift for me when I was in high school! Just think: a girl would talk to me! Siri can answer many useful questions: “What’s the weather like?” “Where’s the nearest Mexican restaurant?” “What’s the capitol of North Dakota?”

Some of her answers are creative and playful. For example, if you ask Siri, “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if woodchuck could chuck wood?” here are a few of her answers: “A woodchuck would chuck as much as a woodchuck could chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood.” Another: “It depends on whether you’re talking about African or European woodchucks.” Still another: “42 cords of wood, to be exact. Everyone knows that.”

But there are limitations. Ask her, for example, “What’s the meaning of life?” and she has been heard to say: “I find it odd that you would ask this of an inanimate object.” Even an inanimate object like Siri seems to understand that words are no substitute for a real live person. And when John tells us in today’s scripture that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” he is getting to the heart of what Christmas is all about. At Christmas we celebrate that the Word, who is God the Son, the Second Person of the Trinity, Christ Jesus, came to us in the flesh.

Why does John call Christ the Word? Well, think about our own words. We sometimes say, “I give you my word,” which ought to mean: “You can take what I’m about to say to the bank. You can be sure that I’ll do exactly what I say. What I’m telling you perfectly represents who I am and what I will do.” Of course, in the real world, talk can be cheap. Our word isn’t always that strong.

My wife and daughter and I watch the show Survivor. And like so many similar reality shows, one of the recurring tensions concerns the value of people’s word. Everyone lies at some point. It’s part of the game. Contestants have to constantly discern whether or not they can trust the word of other people. Then, if they make it to the end, they have to convince the jury of their peers that, although of course they lied, they didn’t lie any more they had to; that they didn’t like lying, but it was a necessary part of the game. This happens every season. If the contestants were people of such perfect integrity that their thoughts, words, and deeds aligned perfectly, they wouldn’t make it to the end; they wouldn’t survive. Even in the real world, there’s only one person who ever lived his life with that kind of integrity, and he didn’t survive, either! At least until resurrection.

The point is, just as our words are so close to us that they are a part of us; just as they originate from within us; just as they perfectly represent us, even as they are distinct from us, so Jesus was a part of God, originated from God, perfectly represented God to us, and yet was distinct from God the Father. Christ is truly God’s Word. We call the Bible God’s Word, and it is, but it’s God Word in large part because it points us to the Word who is Jesus. You want to know who God is? Get to know Jesus. The thoughts, words, and actions of Jesus are identically equal to the thoughts, words, and actions of God.

I probably like to watch TV the way Dr. Martin likes to play golf, and my favorite show comes on NBC before The Office on Thursday night. It’s called Parks & Recreation. One recent subplot concerned the burgeoning romance between a young woman named April and a guy named Andy. They have since gotten married. Andy plays in a rock band. He’s sweet and lovable, but he’s not the brightest bulb on the Christmas tree, if you know what I mean. In one episode, April takes a big risk for the first time and tells him those three small but powerful words: “I love you.” And Andy is elated and responds with those words that every girl in love wants to hear: He says, “Awesome sauce!” April immediately becomes cold and distant. And poor Andy spends the rest of the episode trying to figure out why April is mad at him. What did he do?

What April doesn’t understand is that when Andy said, “Awesome sauce!” he really meant the same thing that April meant when she said, “I love you.” For Andy, “Awesome sauce!” translates as “I love you more than I’ve ever loved anyone, and I want to spend the rest of my life with you.” But April doesn’t get that… At least until Andy makes it crystal clear through his actions that this is exactly what his words meant. Andy, in other words, “fleshes out” the meaning of “Awesome sauce!” by showing April how much he loves her; by demonstrating it; by living it out.

In a similar way, when God the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, God “fleshed out” exactly how much God loves us.

In January 2007, a 50-year-old construction worker and Navy veteran from New York named Wesley Autrey was taking his two young daughters home on the subway in Manhattan. While he was standing on the subway platform, a 20-year-old film student suffered a seizure and collapsed onto the tracks in front of a fast approaching train. The student was dazed. He struggled vainly to climb back onto the platform but fell down. That’s when Autrey did something so brave and heroic I can’t comprehend it.

Without having a moment to spare, Autrey lept onto the tracks as the train neared. There was a trough between the two rails about a foot deep. Autrey pushed the student down into the trough and lay on top of him, holding him down, while five subway cars passed over the both of them, inches above Autrey’s head. Autrey, who was underneath the train, shouted to bystanders that they were O.K., and could someone look after his two daughters until he got out.

Both men were saved. Autrey said afterwards, “I don’t feel like I did something spectacular; I just saw someone who needed help. I did what I felt was right.”[1] I hope Wesley Autrey is around if ever I’m in trouble!

Can you imagine? I don’t think I could have done what this man did. I don’t know… What an intimidating example of love in action. I said a moment ago that I can’t comprehend it, but that’s not quite right. I can comprehend it, but I can only comprehend it because I’m a parent. I have kids. Having kids put a crimp in my natural self-centeredness. When my daughter was born, I was immediately changed. Not that I’ve ever had to put it to the test, and not that I want to, but when my daughter was born I understood for the first time that impulse to sacrifice one’s life for someone else. I remember thinking for the first time, “In the interest of love, I would do anything for this child. I would do anything out of love to protect and save this precious life. I hope I never have to, of course, but I would jump in front of a speeding locomotive to save her. I would push her out of the way of a fast-approaching bus. I would take a bullet for her. Without giving it a second thought.”

That’s love, and I fell in it deeply and unshakably and unfailingly when I became a father. And I’m just a very imperfect sinner who fails at love nearly all the time. But the fact that I would die to save my kids is a rock-solid certainty. That’s my truest word. You can take that to the bank. This is who I am. You can count on it.

Brothers and sisters, can you imagine how much God our Father loves us?

“The Word became flesh and dwelt among us,” and please notice from today’s scripture that one amazing consequence of this is that now, through faith in Jesus Christ, we can become children of God. What do you suppose that God would do for his children—out of a perfect love, unlike human love even at its bests—a love that never fails? And this scripture says that we are now children of God! Can you believe it?

Do you think God would be willing to sacrifice himself to save his children? Do you think that God would be willing to suffer and die to save his children? Of course he would! That’s exactly what God chose to do for us in Jesus.

My friend Kevin Hargaden, a Presbyterian pastor in Ireland, posted something interesting on Facebook last week. Kevin is very smart, even if he is Presbyterian, but what he said in his status update was so profoundly true that I accused him of stealing it from someone else. He said he thought of it in his own little head. He posted: “And remember, folks, the real meaning of Christmas is Easter.” And in a way that’s exactly right.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. And the word that God spoke so powerfully through the life, suffering, death, and resurrection of God’s Son is “I love you.” Have you experienced this love for yourself?

I’m thinking of February 1984. It was the weekend I turned 14. I went very reluctantly on a youth group retreat in Black Mountain, North Carolina, just down the road from Billy Graham’s home in Montreat. My parents made me go. I wasn’t previously involved in youth group. I didn’t know most of the people. But I remember people like Lee Bonner, Beth Stewart, Bill Bullard, Brian Davis, Bill Kees, Donna Beck… They loved me, accepted me. Acted like I was part of the family, like I was one of them. They “fleshed out” the meaning of God’s love for me. Through them I experienced God’s love. God reached me through them. On the Sunday of that retreat I made a public profession of faith. I decided to follow Jesus for the rest of my life. I don’t think that would have happened if not for these people who demonstrated God’s love to me, who showed me what it was.

God is calling us to do the same thing.

Not long ago in staff meeting, Rev. Parker was sharing a list of demographic information about the population living within a 10-mile radius of the church. It included information on education, marital status, income, children, ethnic and racial make-up. But the last item on the list bothered me. It said that fully 75 percent of the people living within a 10-mile radius never attend religious services. Seventy-five percent!

Do you think that some of these 75 percent need Jesus? I would say that all of them need Jesus! And, notice, we’re not even talking about sensitive and difficult questions like “how to evangelize the Jews”; how to reach the Hindu community. We’re talking about people who never never attend a religious service; who never darken the door of a church, synagogue, mosque, or temple. Who among our friends, family, neighbors, and coworkers are the 75 percent?

“Open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest.”

The problem is that to so many of these 75 percent, all this talk of God’s love is just that: all talk. In this year ahead, let’s resolve as a church to change their perception! In our own small way, we Christians, empowered by the Holy Spirit, need to emulate or imitate what God did at that first Christmas. Let’s “flesh out” God’s love for this community, this nation, and this world. How is the Lord calling us to do that in this year ahead?

“Go tell it on the mountain. Over the hills and everywhere. Go tell it on the mountain to the shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night—who don’t dress the way we dress; who don’t look like us; who feel like outsiders when they come to church. Go tell it in our places of work; go tell it in our schools; go tell it everywhere, but let’s not just tell; let’s live it out. Let’s show the people. Go tell it and show it and live it out that Jesus Christ is born.” And that changes everything. That changes the world.

“Go tell it on the mountain, over the hills, and everywhere that Jesus Christ is born.”

Holy Spirit, make us faithful to that task! Amen.

[1] Cara Buckley, “A Man Down, and a Stranger Makes a Choice,” New York Times, 3 January 2007.

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