a sermon preached on 30 December 2018 at Christ the Redeemer Anglican Church
Please pray with me.
May my heart’s affection, my mind’s attention, and my soul’s submission be to you, oh Lord, my Savior and my Redeemer. +In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
The story of the whole Bible is too often lost on Christians today, and that’s because we are preoccupied with lesser goods. We know many other stories quite well. We know the story of Hansel and Gretel. We know the story of Paul Revere. We may even, unfortunately, know the story of the Kardashians. If we are lucky then we know the story of Odysseus or Achilles, of Dante or Oliver Twist. But let us know the story of Christ all the more, and let us know that story, which is the story in which all other stories have their being.
Please turn in your Bible with me to John 1:1-18. I would like to read for us today’s passage.
There is no story which surpasses this one, as hard as other stories may try or as beautifully as other stories may reflect its proclamations. The story of Christ, and therefore the story of Christmas, is something of a cosmological narrative. It is the narrative in which all other narratives exist, even the narrative of your life and my life.
Recently, my daughters and I have been watching some of the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit movies. J.R.R. Tolkein indeed wrote an impressive and expansive story. As the master author he is, Tolkein weaved into this important story all the elements of a great story, which is why it is one of the most popular works of fiction in the 20th century, and was ranked in Britain, Germany, and Australia as the best-loved book of all time. The story has great characters, excellent plot texture, unforgettable settings, universal truths, and some of the most vivid literary elements penned in the past few hundred years. And it was all executed by Tolkein’s mastery of language. It is easy to recognize, also, how complex the story is. The high points of the plot and the points of rest. The points of war and the points of peace. The points of conflict and the points of resolution. Other great stories doe this as well, and we see it throughout history. We see this beautiful complexity in the story of the Ancient Greeks. We see it in the story of the Middle Ages and Europe and even in America’s short history so far. And we especially see it in the story of Christ. In fact, we see all the complex and beautiful elements of a great story more potently in the story of Christ than we see anywhere else, because the story of Christ is the ultimate story. It is the story of stories. And that means Christmas is the birth of births, the plot point of plot points. Consider for a moment where Christmas is in the story of the world. Think of it like an epic poem or an epic novel for a moment.
There is a world which was created, a world which was put under a curse. The people are in ruin because of the curse, and for thousands of years there is foretold the birth of one who would save the nation, who would reverse the curse and restore peace to the land, indeed to the whole world. During those thousands of years you have vivid characters, death, exile, war, destruction, freedom, further exile, warning, expectation, confusion, promises fulfilled, and promises delayed. Then arises one of the greatest powers in this world, an empire so vast and advanced it is conquering, building, and growing at a rate never-before seen. But it has its own enemies. It has its own insecurities, one of which is the growing legend that the Great King, the one to reverse the world’s curse, is to be born inside its borders, in the borders of this great and expanding empire. (pregnant pause)
Then a baby’s cry. If this were a theatrical production, the screen would go black, and there would be heard a slight cry of a baby’s whimper. The King. And then we hear horse hooves, and we hear a voice which is strong and decisive, a governor of the expanding empire:
“No one mocks me, not even the Men of the East. Go to Bethlehem and kill them all. Every toddler. Every male not exceeding two years. Spill their blood on the floor before they spill ours.”
This is Christmas. And from the beginning the world knew it was too big to let loose. There is something greater than Alexander the Great in Christmas. There is something greater than Caesar Augustus. There is something greater than Charlemagne and Abraham Lincoln. There is something greater than what can conquer Tolkien’s middle-earth. What is in Christmas is far greater than these great stories because Jesus Christ is the real king, the incarnate king, the eternal king. He is the long-expected king. Christmas, as we said of all of our chaperones through Advent, does not happen in a void. The Christmas story is a part of a narrative, an old and important narrative which began back in Genesis. Christmas is, in an important sense, a new Genesis. In this way, Christmas is the beginning of the end.
As St. Athanasius states, “He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men. We will begin, with the creation of the world and with God its Maker, for the first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation; for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning.” (On the Incarnation, p.26)
It pleased God to place you and me here, at this point of His story, and we ought to consider then what that means for our lives. When we celebrate Christmas, as we are currently doing, we do so in a perpetual Easter. We celebrate Christmas, not as if it is happening again or as if it is the very beginning of the story, but as if it already happened and has been overshadowed by Easter. We celebrate Christmas remembering the parts of the story that has already taken place, hoping for the parts of the story that have been promised to us. Christmas is the high-point of the story of the world.
It’s not enough to keep Christmas in our hearts. Christmas, by its very nature, was never intended to be a hearty kind of thing. Christmas has always been a bodily sort of thing. And so in a moment we come to the table, indeed the King’s table, the king who came down from heaven and took on flesh. This table, like all tables, is a setting, a place in the plot which foreshadows the things to come. This table looks back to the first Christmas, and it looks forward to the second Christmas, the second coming, when we may perhaps say the third act of Christ’s story will consummate. You and I are perhaps in the second of three acts. This table was but a shadow in the first act, in the Old Testament, and compared to the third act, the second coming of Christ, this table is still but a shadow. But it is a sacramental shadow, to which we come with gratitude, cheer, hospitality, and all the virtues of Christmas.
Please hear and consider a poem by George Herbert.
"Christmas II" by George Herbert
The shepherds sing; and shall I silent be?
My God, no hymn for Thee?
My soul's a shepherd too; a flock it feeds
Of thoughts, and words, and deeds.
The pasture is Thy word: the streams, Thy grace
Enriching all the place.
Shepherd and flock shall sing, and all my powers
Out-sing the daylight hours.
Then will we chide the sun for letting night
Take up his place and right:
We sing one common Lord; wherefore he should
Himself the candle hold.
I will go searching, till I find a sun
Shall stay, till we have done;
A willing shiner, that shall shine as gladly,
As frost-nipped suns look sadly.
Then will we sing, and shine all our own day,
And one another pay:
His beams shall cheer my breast, and both so twine,
Till ev'n His beams sing, and my music shine.