Holding On To Joy

* a sermon preached at Luther Memorial Church of Chicago on December 28, 2015 *

Text: John 1:1-14

Please pray with me, as we ponder what it means that God’s Word became flesh:

Incarnate God,
In this time of rejoicing and hope and great joy,
Help us to be joyful and to hold joy for others,
Especially when it seems to be the furthest thing from us.


Pastor Tim and I wrote an Advent Devotional this year, and many of you have been following it daily as we’ve journeyed through Advent and on to Epiphany next Sunday. I’ve found them to be a helpful daily meditation, and I hope you have too. And if you don’t have one, it’s never too late to start; let me know and I can email you an electronic copy. One of the themes that’s come up a few times throughout the devotional is this tension between a joyful Advent and Christmas season, and the sometimes-stark realities we find and experience in our day-to-day lives.

That isn’t to say that this isn’t a celebratory season, or that what we celebrate, that God put on human flesh and dwells among us, isn’t the most joy-filled thing I’ve ever heard; just that, sometimes, life is very……lifey… Not so joyful. Sometimes life can be pretty rough.

And the thing is, it is exactly for this kind of life, that Christ came into the world.

Earlier last week, Bishop Elizabeth Eaton posted her Christmas message on the ELCA’s facebook page. Bishop Eaton is the Presiding Bishop of the ELCA, which is basically kind of like the pope for our denomination; and if all of these big words don’t really mean anything to you, suffice it to say that Bishop Eaton is a really really important person in the Lutheran church. Anyway, in her Christmas message, Bishop Eaton recalls a banner from her congregation in Ohio that depicts Mary, and Jesus in the manger, and in the semi-darkness of Christmas Eve, a silhouette of the cross over the altar cast a shadow over the whole thing. She called it jarring and said that such a prominent image of the cross on Christmas made her feel uneasy. She goes on to say that, in the weeks leading up to Christmas, where we try so hard to forcefully contrive and create this sense of joy and hope felt by Mary and Joseph and the shepherds, all we actually succeed in doing is, at best, exhausting ourselves and, at worst, displacing the point of Christmas altogether.

Bishop Eaton then says, “The cross is part of Christmas. The hope of Christmas was fulfilled on Good Friday. The cross is the Christmas gift. Through it God reconciles and heals. Through it God’s love is made known and in God’s love we are known and have our home. And it is a gift. All of our Christmas ‘Glorias’ are realized in Jesus’ glorification on the cross. We have peace. We have hope. We are loved. And not just at Christmas.”

She took some heat on the ELCA facebook page for suggesting that Christmas and Good Friday would have anything to do with one another, mostly from people who lamented that the church was trying to suck the joy out of Christmas. Happy Holidays, huh…? More like, Bah Humbug..

See, we prefer our Christmas Jesus quiet, and still, and sleeping in a manger with angel-white doves gently floating overhead…

But this is not the Christmas we find ourselves in most days, is it?

No, it’s not… See, I know that many of our Christmases are full of stress, and arguing, and pain, and wrong-sized shirts, and wrong-colored socks, and “How could you possibly be working on Christmas?”, and “This is the first Christmas without her…”

See, we need a Jesus that poops in his swaddling clothes and wakes up every 3 hours to eat. We need a Mary that has more than a few hairs out of place, because seriously, she’s just given birth. We need a Joseph with a deer-in-the-headlights look on his face, because he’s just barely an adult and now he’s got a kid, and not just any kid, but a kid through whom God will save the entire world.

We need these things because that’s the Christmas story that reflects our own lives.

And we keep the silhouette of the cross over our Christmas story to remind us that this is exactly the kind of life that Christ entered into and ultimately redeemed through the reconciling work of the cross.

In our Advent Devotional, today is the third day of what collectively is known as the Comites Christi, or the Companions of Christ. Each of these days gives us an image of exactly the kinds of life that Christ came into the world to redeem. On Friday, we remembered St. Stephen, a young man, barely an adult, the first martyr, killed for professing his faith. On Saturday, the church remembered St. John the apostle, to whom the Gospel text we read today is attributed, and who is said to be the only apostle to die of old age. And today, we mark the Feast Day of the Holy Innocents, the hundreds, likely thousands, of children massacred by Herod in his rage-fueled search to kill the Christ child.

It is for this kind of life that Christ enters our world. For the young and outspoken; for the old and wise; for precious innocent babies…

It’s the kind of life that we’ll baptize Marcos into today. And Marcos will be charged with letting his light so shine in the midst of this life, so that everyone he encounters will see the light of Christ. And we’ll make promises, as a faith community, that we’ll walk with and support Marcos throughout this life.

All of life. As messy and imperfect and painful as it often is.

Christ is born for this.

Joy to world, indeed.


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