Sermon: The Power and Grace of Christmas
St. Paul’s Episcopal – Brookings
Fr. Larry Ort
Isaiah 61.10 -62.3; Psalm 147; Galatians 3.23-25; 4.4-7; John 1.1-18
Christmas! “And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father's only son, full of grace and truth” (John 1.14; NRSV). We have noted before that this is variously translated as “pitched his tent among us,” or as “dwelt among us.” One modern translation, The Message, uses the phrase “moved into the neighborhood” (Karoline Lewis: http://www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2303). I like some of the connotations associated with “moved into the neighborhood.” It calls to mind the old lament, “There goes the neighborhood.”
After all, Jesus was born in a manger and there was some question as to his parentage. He never bought a home, and the last few years of his life, he was an itinerant teacher wandering from place to place, living hand to mouth. He didn’t hold a decent job! John captured these concerns, although I suspect at a deeper level, when he wrote, “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him” (John 1.7; NRSV). Yes, the ecclesiastical and city fathers feared what might happen to the neighborhood. Before Jesus came and turned over the tables, the sacrificial business was doing great. Profits were good. We might say that the neighborhood was the neighborhood of Law.
But what about this Law? What was the nature of one’s relationship to the Law? In his letter to the Galatians, Paul wrote, “Now before faith came, we were imprisoned and guarded under the law until faith would be revealed. Therefore, the law was our disciplinarian until Christ came, so that we might be justified by faith. But now that faith has come, we are no longer subject to a disciplinarian” (Galatians 3.23-25; NRSV). And John reminds us, “The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ” (John 1.17; NRSV).
The law was given to Moses shortly after God had delivered the Hebrews from Pharaoh’s oppression. God had saved the Hebrews; adherence to the law was to be a sign that the Hebrews were God’s people. When they failed to observe the law, they were to seek restoration of their relationship to God through a system of sacrifices. As Scott Hoezee points out, “Keeping the Law . . . had come to be the defining mark of a true believer. . . . [But] keeping the Law peerlessly slowly on morphed from a SIGN that you were a true believer into the WAY you become a true believer” (Scott Hoezee: https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/sermon-starters/proper-7c/?type=lectionary_epistle).
As humans, we desire to be in control. It was only natural that we would come to interpret observance of the Law to be the means of salvation rather than a sign of salvation. And of course, the better one keeps the Law, the more pride one possesses. We see this in the actions of the Scribes and the Pharisees. In Luke 18 we read of the Pharisees, standing by himself, who prayed, “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income” (Vs. 11-12; NRSV). In contrast, the poor tax collector beat his breast and prayed, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner” (Luke 18. 13; NRSV).
We still encounter the idea that one can attain righteousness through one’s own good works – through keeping God’s law, by caring for one’s neighbor. Yet, try as we might, it is not within our power to observe the letter of the Law. Despite all our good works, we are incapable of fully loving God and our neighbor.
John reminds us that our salvation does not come through our own will or power, but through God’s power: “But to all who received him [Christ, the Word], who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or the will of man, but of God” (John 1.12-13; NRSV). We are born of God and it is only through God’s power that we can be born of the Spirit.
As previously noted, the law serves as our teacher, as our disciplinarian – we cannot be justified of our own will. Justification takes place only through faith in Jesus Christ. Here is how Paul puts it: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hears, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave [to the elemental spirits of this world] but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God” (Galatians 4.4-7; NRSV).
Yes, in Christmas, we recognize “the Word became flesh and moved into our neighborhood.” John further reminds us “we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth. (John [the Baptist] testified to him and cried out, “This was He of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me’”)” (John 1.14-15; NRSV). The Messiah left the throne of God, entered our world, moved into our neighborhood, and lived among us. John then tells us, “From his fulness, we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father's heart, who has made him known (John 1.16-18; NRSV).
There are those among us today who tell us, with a certain air of superiority and certainty, that this is all a myth that we need to cast aside – Jesus was simply a man like any other man who developed a special relationship with God. The truth of the matter is, we do not, and we cannot know, with certainty. We must accept Jesus Christ, the Incarnation, the Cross, and the Resurrection, by faith, not rational certitude. To those who are wont to say, “It didn’t happen,” I respond, “Who is to say it could not have happened?”
As the Apostle Paul tells us, “The message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God” (1 Corinthians 1.18; NRSV). Note! We are back to the power of God! St. Paul, who was educated under Gamaliel, well-trained, one who would have been considered knowledgeable and wise by the standards of this world, continues:
Where is the one who is wise? Where is the scribe? Where is the debater of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, God decided, through the foolishness of our proclamation, to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks desire wisdom, but we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are the called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength (1 Corinthians 1.20-25; NRSV).
Remember, Paul encountered the power of God on the Road to Damascus when a great light shone about him and he fell to the ground. Jesus spoke to him, and he was changed from one who persecuted the followers of the Way to one who proclaimed the Way. He experienced the power and grace of God.
The fullness of God, the power of God, would have us receive grace upon grace. While I consider myself the recipient of large measures of God’s grace, I must confess, I sometimes wonder how much of God’s grace I dismissed and refused in those days when I insisted on doing things my way. God rarely forces God’s grace upon us (Paul’s Damascus Road experience may be an exception). To what extent are we willing to accept God’s grace? To what extent are we willing to receive the power and grace of Christmas?