Sunday, December 27, 2020
First Sunday in Christmas/St. John, Apostle and Evangelist
Prayer of the Day
Almighty God, you have filled all the earth with the light of your incarnate Word. Through John the apostle and evangelist you have revealed the mysteries of your Word made flesh. Let the brightness of your light shine from your church, so that all your people, inspired by the good news of the gospel, may walk in the light of your truth and new life that is ours by your grace through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Readings and Psalms
Jeremiah 31:7-14 Joy at the gathering of God’s scattered flock
Ephesians 1:3-14 The will of God made known in Christ
John 1:[1-9] 10-18 God with us: the incarnation of the Word
Title: Making Time for St. John
When we were kids, we thought the absolute worst thing in the world…Okay, may not the absolute worst, but one of the worst things. Right up there with a promised snowstorm that is sure to cause a school cancelation only to fizzle out and leave us wet and stomping off to that place. Yes, right up there with the worst things that could happen to a kid, was to be stuck with that life-long curse of having your birthday anywhere near Christmas. (To any of you living with this hardship, my heart goes out to you.) The list of hardships is clear: can’t really have a party, no one is paying special attention to you, you really don’t get a big day for you, everyone is too busy, in fact they are so busy that I’m sure at least one time in every Christmas-Birthday kid’s life their birthday has been forgotten completely, just passed right by. And no surprise, right? How can you compete with Jesus? The whole world is celebrating his birthday. Whole industries are based on his birthday. Livelihoods rise and fall based on celebrating Jesus’ birthday. (We’re certainly seeing it this year big time.) But, of course the worst thing about this worst thing has to do with the presents. No matter what their parents may tell them, you know these kids are getting cheated. Too often they are hearing what the wise men said to Jesus: “You do realize that this gift is for both your birthday AND Christmas.” Poor kids.
On sort of a related topic…By now some of you may have realized that I love calendars. I think it is the history-lover in me. The measure of time, the method of referencing and recalling important events, knowing what happened on this date in history. (Speaking of which – Something to look forward to in the coming year. In September, we will be able to say our sanctuary has been used as a house of worship for 200 years. But I’m getting ahead of myself.) Calendars. I also really appreciate and like to make use of the liturgical calendar. As we journey through it each year, seasons set the tones and the focus, days call our attention to events and people inviting us to join a specific emphasis on a tenet of faith, examine again truths revealed and renewed, and witness the long march of witnesses that unites us across time and space with the countless fellow members of the body of Christ.
Now I got thinking about those poor kids with birthdays eclipsed by Christmas, because I often feel the same sympathy for the saints whose feast days fall around Christmas time. Take a look, poor Stephen, one of the first deacons in the church, the first Christian martyr – his day was yesterday. About the only mention he gets is in that song Good King Wenceslas. (sing) Yes, it was Dec. 26th when the good king looked out. But rarely do we stop our Christmas celebrating to think about this man who reminds us what a broken world Jesus was born into and that following Jesus (Joel Ostein, are you listening?) does not mean that life will be filled with measurable and tangible blessings. (And maybe all that somberness is why we don’t stop Christmas and think on Stephen. In fact, some who like to play at being the liturgical police will tell you that even when the 26th is on a Sunday (like next year) you should not set aside the observance of the First Sunday in Christmas (the more principle liturgical day) for the sake of observing St. Stephen’s Day. You see, poor Stephen is just like those poor birthday-hindered kids. And then on the 28th you have the Feast of the Holy Innocents. But I’m going to let that alone today. Because it is more connected to Epiphany that we will be observing next Sunday. And in between these two days in red because they have to do with martyrs, there is the feast of St. John. Another saint easily overlooked in the midst of Post-Christmas euphoria and exhaustion, when we’d all rather just continue to be lulled by Christmas lullabies.
But not so fast, people of St. John’s. Ignoring the liturgical police and fighting the temptation to stick with the sweetness and starlight of Christmas, it is only right that we, for one congregation at least, take time to offer St. John some of our attention. After all he is our namesake, our patron saint.
This morning we have heard again that beautiful opening to the gospel that bears John’s name. The gospel that is written based on the witness of the one who is referred to throughout the book as “the disciple Jesus loved.” Perhaps this points to an understanding that John had a very special relationship with Jesus. Tradition does hold that of the inner circle of Jesus’ disciples, including Peter and James, John was the youngest. Perhaps he was the one who exhibited youthful optimism and fresh-faced hope and joy. Maybe its good that his day is so close to Christmas as a symbol of John’s closeness to the one he left all to follow.
But that beginning passage. While our heads might still be in Bethlehem, John makes no mention of the birth of Jesus. We get the story and the details from Luke and Matthew. (Mark’s short gospel starts with Jesus’ baptism.) But the earthly birth of Jesus is not where John is starting his story. He’s going all the way back, way way back, to the beginning of everything. “In the beginning was the Word, the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” The Word, of course pointing to the one we call Jesus who is the Word of God in human form, Word and flesh mysteriously interwoven, what we call the Incarnation. For John, we have to go all the way back because the coming of Jesus, and all that John witnesses, asks us to reconsider everything. “In the beginning…” The same three words that start Genesis. Not a coincidence. There is a new creation happening. John having followed Jesus, having listened to Jesus, having seen the wonders and the signs, having watched every painful step of the passion, and seen the empty tomb and the risen Savior. Having witnessed all that, when it came time to tell his story, he takes us back to the beginning. Jesus has changed everything. Everything. And what has been revealed to John through Jesus is now shining bright. Oh, how it must have broken that youthful heart that the world did not see what he saw.
John’s gospel is different from the other three. In fact, it is often referred to as “The Fourth Gospel” while the other three are referred to as the synoptic gospels. They follow a certain chronology. There is a orderly story telling quality to them. But John emphasizes signs and symbols that point to who Jesus is. And who Jesus is is expressed in those opening lines. John wants to help open peoples lives to the light that shined there in his midst. Sounds like he might approve of our mission statement that speaks of us “seeking to share the love of Jesus Christ with all creation.”
Having John as our namesake lays a certain challenge before us. On the calendar he is not just John the apostle, like Peter or James are identified. (Apostle being one who saw the risen Jesus.) And he is not only labeled John the Evangelist, like follow gospel writers Mark and Luke are identified on their days. (Evangelist being one who tells the good news.) No, our namesake is John, apostle and evangelist. He saw AND he told.
So we, who also follow Jesus, and share John’s name, are called to see AND tell. And to encourage us in this calling, perhaps it is good that John’s day is so close to Christmas. For the shepherds are still close by, those who saw the angel choirs, saw the confirmation of their message in the baby, and then told all what they had heard and seen, glorifying and praising God. We see this light that has come, that John speaks of, this light piercing the darkness of our winter days; and we know that we tell of this light when, through the power of the Holy Spirit working in us, we reflect its mercy and love in the things we do, the words we say, the people we serve, the welcome we extend.
Yes, we can join with John while that Christmas light is still catching our eye. The light that changed his life when he left all to follow Jesus. Join John and go back to the beginning and reconsider everything. Whether for you that means the beginning of time or the beginning of your day. And together as this new year dawns, let us look with eyes of faith to see what God has done, is doing, and will do. And then tell of it through word and deed. For we can see that this new year will demand much from all of us as we continue to deal with raging pandemic and rampant social injustice, as we face the challenge of recovery and reform, as we strive to rebuild and reconcile a nation torn apart by sectarianism and elitism. With the rebirth of hope that comes at this time each year, walk with Jesus, holding hands with John, and let us together as the people of St. John’s see and tell of God’s glory made known in the son who is Jesus the Christ – this light of the world that darkness cannot overcome, who is full of grace and truth.
The Rev. Mark Erson,