Grace Presbyterian Church
December 30, 2018, Christmas 1C
The Practical Part (or, Now What?)
Well, we made it. We have survived what the world defines as the “Christmas season.”
Note that distinction. The church, or some of it anyway, remembers that the season of Christmas is something else altogether, that the song “The Twelve Days of Christmas” actually corresponds with the season of the church year that begins on Christmas Day and concludes with the day before Epiphany. Today is the sixth day of Christmas, by that reckoning, and in fact the season of Christmas lasts the rest of this week.
But it’s pointless to deny that the world’s definition of “Christmas season” has its hooks in us pretty securely, so that I’m guessing this past Wednesday was more or less a day of collapse, if that sense of physical and emotional crash didn’t in fact kick in sometime late on Tuesday, depending on how your day went. In many families presents get exchanged, a big meal gets consumed, and then…it’s over, to some degree.
In truth, though, many families are still in a sort of holiday limbo, since children have not yet returned to school. There may be extra daycare involved, or perhaps extended vacation time to deal with this particular situation, but even though everything isn’t quite back to normal, it’s discernibly “not Christmas” anymore.
Even the church will come to the end of the twelve days of Christmas. The days can be marked through this week and next Sunday will bring the observance of Epiphany, the occasion on which the so-called wise men or Magi arrived to see and honor the child Jesus. (Even though they’re always in those manger scenes, they arrived much later.)
So let’s jump ahead to next week, a week from tomorrow, let’s say. Epiphany is past, all this stuff in the sanctuary is ready to be put away, and…then what? What do we do when Christmas is over?
In thinking about this question, it might help if we can shake away some of the tinsel and greenery and remember the substance behind what we celebrate.
For one thing, we celebrate Emmanuel – that word from Isaiah, the one that translates as “God with us.” Not “God off in the heavens somewhere,” “God with us.” God among us. This isn’t about just a cute baby set in an animal feed trough (a baby that looked nothing like this one here in this manger scene) through seeming circumstances of divine intervention. This is God down to earth.
Furthermore, along with Emmanuel, we also should remember the word Incarnation. You might say it takes the whole idea of Emmanuel – “God with us,” remember – and extends it even further, more shockingly, more unthinkably. God isn’t just with us, or among us; God is one of us.
Remember the Nicene Creed: “for us and for our salvation he came down from heaven and became truly human.” (emphasis mine) This just a few lines after Jesus is described as “true God from true God,” every bit God all the way through. The Scots Confession we use for our Affirmation of Faith today also speaks to this theological truth:
When the fullness of time came God sent his Son, his eternal wisdom, the substance of his own glory, into this world, who took the nature of humanity from the substance of a woman by means of the Holy Ghost. And so was born the very Messiah promised, whom we confess and acknowledge to be Emmanuel, true God and true man, two perfect natures united and joined in one person.(emphasis mine)
God among us as one of us: this is your miracle of Christmas.
Now, with these two things in mind, let’s go back to our dilemma. What is our life to be in the wake of Christmas? Do we resort to cheesy song lyrics about “keeping the Christmas spirit all year long”? Or is there something more?
Now, in my experience there are some preacher types out there who will tell you (if they even know big words like “Incarnation”) that these are things you don’t really need to worry your precious little head about. You see, they’d say, those things are about the one thing that matters: making sure you get yourself “saved” and get that all-important Get Out of Hell Free Card. It doesn’t mean anything about how you live your life, just keep the Ten Commandments and do what we tell you (they’d say) and you’ll be fine.
Let’s be clear about this. I’m pretty sure (and I’m hoping my professional theologian friends will check me on this) that the precise theological description for such an idea is, and again I’m pretty sure about this, “loony.”
Of course God-with-us makes a difference in how we live.
Of course Incarnation makes a difference in how we live.
Of course these two truths are absolutely vital for the way we conduct ourselves to one another and to the world.
Our epistle reading takes a stab at describing this Emmanuel- and Incarnation-infused life with an interesting metaphor. Having spoken earlier in the book of “putting off” the things of the flesh – those sins that mire us and hold us down – the author now describes the new, Incarnation-led life as something like putting on a new set of clothes.
Clothe yourselves with compassion. The novelist and Presbyterian pastor Frederick Buechner describes compassion as “the sometimes fatal capacity for feeling what it’s like to live inside someone else’s skin.”
He goes on: “It is the knowledge that there can never really be any peace and joy for me until there is peace and joy finally for you too.” This is not merely personal change; it matters because it changes how we live with others.
In a similar vein the epistler exhorts his readers to clothe themselves in kindness, humility, meekness, and patience – all things that come from within us to govern how we relate to others – and finally to “clothe yourselves with love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony.” Again, like so much we ignore, our living out Incarnation doesn’t happen individually – it is about living with one another, in community, and how that community reflects the incarnate, with-us God we claim.
Finally, these instructions add a few more practices to help us along: the Word of Christ within us; teaching one another and checking one another; and oh, goodness, singing! “Sing psalms, hymns, and spiritual songs to God” out of a heart filled with gratitude. (If you wonder why we sing four hymns in a typical service instead of three, blame this verse.) These practices aren’t merely about having fun at church any more than Christmas is merely about pretty decorations and pretty manger scenes. These practices form us. They shape us and mold us and keep us fast to that Word and that incarnate God and that God-with-us. (This is where I put in this plug: sing the hymns. If you can’t sing, sing them anyway. If you don’t know them, sing anyway. This is how we show (and learn) who we are, or one of the ways at minimum.)
Want to “keep Christmas” all year long, as Ebenezer Scrooge might say? Clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, patience, love; let Christ’s Word live in you; teach one another; and sing with grace and with gratitude in your heart. It’s hard to do better.
For the new clothes of the God-with-us life, Thanks be to God. Amen.
Hymns (from Glory to God: The Presbyterian Hymnal): #143, Angels, from the Realms of Glory; #127, Hark! the Herald Angels Sing; #137, He Came Down; #136, Go, Tell It on the Mountain