December 25, 2016,
Grace Cathedral, San Francisco
There are two kinds of Christmas sermons, because there are two kinds of Christmas stories in the Bible. One story takes up two entire chapters and tells of angels, shepherds, a star, and a lady giving birth. The other story, takes only twenty-one words to tell the entire Christmas story in Greek philosophic concepts. Twenty-one dense, concentrated, loaded words! They didn’t even mention Jesus by Name in that part of the Bible.
In 1963 in West Virginia, when I had my first church, I chose to preach the Christmas sermon about the Greek concepts. Afterwards at the door, a woman named Doris grabbed me by the hand, looked me in the eye and said, “Never do that again.” I have assiduously obeyed Doris for 52 years. But today, she’s not around, so I want to give it another try. Here we go on the Christmas story in twenty-one words.
I love those words. I sat over there for 27 years listening to them, during Lessons and Carols, and this cathedral was dark and the candles flickered. To me, hearing the mysterious power of those words was almost as sacred as holding a baby. Here they are: “In the beginning was the Word …and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.”
For a moment, don’t think about Bethlehem where Mary was pregnant two thousand years ago. Go back fourteen billion years ago when God was pregnant and giving birth to e-v-e-r-y-t-h-i-n-g. This is the ultimate birth story referenced in the twenty-one words. “In the beginning …...” The big Bang! The singularity! Since the beginning, hints of God, traces of God were inlayed into life. Armed with holy clues, we spent centuries, millennia trying to guess whom God might be. And at the same time, while we were watching the ascent of biological man, we have tried to guess what it is to be human. Who is God? What is it to be human? What’s the Word? These big questions haunted us. That is, until Mary had a baby. Until the “Word was made flesh”……fourteen billion years after Creation.
Here is the essential Greek Christmas story condensed down to five words: “And the Word was made flesh…..” Flesh! Very human! And very God! In a little baby, we saw God naked. And we saw full humanity, naked. Lying in a cradle, the baby was getting ready to speak to us in a language that we can all understand. The Word was not written on paper. The Word was written in flesh and that flesh “dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.”
Grace! Full of grace! Having made it this far in life, you know a little bit about grace because you have experienced something of it. Some teacher took you seriously. Some interest aligned with your gifts. Someone cut you some slack and had mercy on you. The right person showed up at the right time. What got you through the night or made you jump out of bed in the morning? Humor? Music? Nature? Sports? Delicious food? Friendships? Life’s excruciating puzzles? These and host of other graces make our lives full. Full of Grace.
But in West Virginia, where I come from, the coal mines have shut down, the steel mills are closed and lots of folks are addicted to opioids and meth. Dead men walking, empty of grace. This Christmas morning, what about Aleppo? Empty of grace! What about Jesus hanging from a cross screaming, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?’ The final grace is not ours to claim by just our being our wonderful selves. Final grace is God’s ultimate grift when our lives have turned to dust. Amazing Grace is God’s alone, to give. That grace is informed by forgiveness, endurance, bone-crushing faith, the agony of love and by muscular, mysterious resurrection. In the end, for us to be human, we have to hurl ourselves on the grace of God. Being human isn’t a matter of the survival of the fittest. Being human is being open to the ultimate grace of God. The Christmas baby is God’s invitation to us to be full of grace and thus, to be truly human.
But grace is only the half of it. The other half is truth. “The Word was made flesh…..full of grace…. and truth. Truth! How timely! 2016 was the year that the Oxford dictionary editors chose the word “post-truth” as its word of the year. “Post-truth” means “belonging to a time in which truth has become irrelevant.” A good example of this is our past election cycle which provided us with tortured verbal logic, fake news, hacked sources and even invitations to dismiss the importance of candidate’s actual words. Living in a post-truth time is like living with a drug addict. You can’t believe anything that is said because life becomes one great big lie. Nothing is solid. Life becomes “voluntary insanity.” Can anyone remember when it was said, “His word is his bond?” Or remember when business was done with a handshake? Those days appear to be gone. Words are irrelevant only if truth becomes irrelevant. “Post-truth!” What a time to be alive. Ha!
But here’s breaking news! Four billion years ago, the Word of God was full of truth. Truth is the buried treasure at the bottom of everything. To be God is to be about truth. To be human is to be about truth. What are the tests to see if you are human? Can you tell the truth? Does truth even matter to you? Or do we just move around data that conforms to our native biases? Real truth is planted at the bottom of the oceans, in the routes to space, under the microscopes, in the essence of music, in unfolding, observable facts, in the pursuit of possible medical breakthroughs. Christmas, 2016, is counter-culture because it declares that truth is relevant and is the only way that God goes about being God and we go about being human. The Christmas baby is God’s invitation for us to be full of truth and thus to be, like Jesus, gracefully human.
“In the beginning was the Word…..and the Word was made flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” The whole Christmas story in twenty-one words. Amen.