2nd Sunday after Christmas

January 4, 2009
See Also: 

Year A
Year B
Year C

See also:
John Cobb on Incarnation

Daniel Day Williams on Incarnation
Preaching Christmas

Reading 1: 
Jeremiah 31:7-14
Reading 2: 
Psalm 147:12-20
Reading 3: 
Ephesians 1:3-14
Reading 4: 
John 1:1-18
By Bruce G. Epperly

Today’s passages describe future hopes that transform our attitudes toward the challenges of our present circumstances. God’s horizon of hope beckons us forward, reminding us of the giftedness of the present moment both personally and within our communities of faith. The nature of this future is not spelled out, nor are our visions of hope guaranteed of success. Nevertheless, the God who provides hopeful visions for the future will continue to inspire us every step of the way, even if we travel homeward – like the magi - by unexpected paths.

Jeremiah 31 speaks of liberation, a new social order, and a renewed experience of divine intimacy. “I will turn their mourning into joy, I will comfort them, and give them gladness for sorrow.” These words are not counsels to deny the harsh realities of life or advocate ungrounded optimism. These words – and the possibilities they describe - arise in the midst of experiences of dislocation, loss, and hopelessness. Such experiences, as we know, are – or will be – universal. Everyone eventually will have to let go of siblings, friends, familiar neighborhoods, parents, and their own lives. Such dislocating moments thrust us into the wilderness of uncertainty in which there are few, if any, familiar markers. In the midst of such moments, we can live hopefully without any certainty that our cause will prevail or our fortunes be restored.

These prophetic words from Jeremiah are spoken both to individuals and to a community. Today’s church needs to hear these words holistically as well. Unexpressed grief robs communities of faith and their leadership of energy and vision. And, there is much to grieve in many congregations and in the lives of many spiritual leaders. This grief can constellate around the death of key congregational leaders or a young parent in the church; it may also center around clutching to images of the ways things once were when the church was the center of the community, when children bounded up to the chancel for the “children’s time, or when young couples flocked to church each Sunday. For most congregations, those days are gone forever and we wonder if there are new ways we can reclaim the vitality of that imagined bygone era, or – better yet – embody a new and vital congregational life. Jeremiah believes that the people can dance again and celebrate their lives because God’s vision is still alive and God is luring them from hopelessness into realistic hope.

Today, Jeremiah asks congregations to ponder the following questions, “What is our personal hope? What gets us up in the morning? What is our hope for our faith community? What is our hope for the planet and our nation?” Conversely, as we articulate our hopes, the prophet Jeremiah asks us to confess all that stands in the way of hope, whether in terms of tangible resources or personal and group attitudes.

For those who grieve, the experience is – as C.S. Lewis notes in his A Grief Observed – like a long valley with many twists and turns and no clear path ahead. But, within the sense of loss, there are glimmers of hope. I have written elsewhere about spending Christmas Day with my son in the chemotherapy clinic at Georgetown University Hospital. I grieved that day for his health, for the pain of living with serious illness on the most joyous of holidays, and for the uncertainty of his future and our own. But, within that clinic, God’s ever-present care was evident. The incarnation was real; not in an angelic blast of trumpets but in phone calls from friends, the care of nurses and physicians, the love of our family despite our uncertainty, and in life-saving medications. There was joy amid our obvious mourning and anxiety. There was hope amid the concreteness of physical discomfort and obvious mortality. “God with us” is our own ground of hope; divine companionship, inspires us to move ahead despite threat and to act faithfully in a world with no guarantees.

Psalm 147 continues the spirit of hopeful thanksgiving in its affirmation of God’s active presence among the people as well as in natural phenomena. Divine order and guidance is present not only in the affairs of nations, but in the orderly processes of hail, wind, and water. God is at work in all things as the global and intimate movement toward order which gives birth to novelty.

The Letter to Ephesians continues the litany of praise for God’s activities in human life. God has blessed us “in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places.” Our blessings are grounded in the constancy of divine inspiration and support. In Christ, the hidden mysteries of God are revealed. But, these mysteries and blessings always extend further than we can imagine. The God who is in all things is also greater than all things. Accordingly, while we rejoice in our spiritual gifts, we must also recognize that God’s gifts are more than we can ever comprehend. Theological and experiential humility is an essential element in our spiritual growth and evolution. The God whose possibilities lie beyond our knowledge is the God who also gives us sufficient vision to claim abundance for ourselves and our world.

Christ’s activity in the world is cosmic as well as personal. Christ gathers up all things in heaven and earth. Universalism gives birth to individual giftedness. All places are revelatory; all persons are gifted; all situations are holy. Our unique “spiritual blessings” give us confidence that we can creatively respond to every challenge.

John’s gospel also joins the universal and the personal. God’s light enlightens all creation and every person. (John 1:9)  Revelation calls us to creative response and lively action. Our responses condition the nature and intensity of God’s presence in the world. “To all who received [the light of the world; Christ], who believed in [Christ’s name] God gave to become children of God.” The form and intensity of God’s transforming  energy and power is connected with our response to God’s call in our lives. There is no doctrine predestination in this passage, nor is there a sense that God plans all the important events of our lives without our input. Instead, what we see is a “doctrine of intensification” in which the life of faith is a “holy adventure” of constant call and response through which divine possibility and energy are heightened by our openness and commitment. All of us are “chosen” in God’s grace and given sufficient light for our journey.

We can rejoice in challenging times because God is at work in the context of our lives. God’s work is persistent but not coercive. The future remains open and feelings of loss and grief may remain. Still, God’s lively, energetic, and imaginative presence gives us reason to hope for ourselves and the world.

On this final Sunday of the Christmas season, the preacher may choose to focus on the activist spirituality of John 1:10-18. Our openness to God’s presence allows God’s guiding energy to flow more intensely into our lives. By awakening to practices of God’s presence, we can let God’s light shine brightly in our lives and become God’s partners in healing the earth.

Today’s scriptures invite the pastor and Christian educator to join preaching seamlessly with Christian education. Through a Sunday morning workshop on Christian practices – prayer, meditation, hospitality, and healing – participants can be invited to claim the incarnation in their ordinary lives and throughout the year. Experiencing the Christmas incarnation is not an exception to God’s presence in the world but a God-given possibility for those who open to God’s light in their lives. By practicing Christ’s incarnational presence in prayerful receptivity and creativity, they will experience themselves as God’s beloved children, sharing the incarnation wherever they go.

Bruce Epperly is Professor of Practical Theology and Director of Continuing Education at Lancaster Theological Seminary. He is the author of seventeen books, including Holy Adventure: 41 Days of Audacious Living and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God, written with Kate Epperly, and selected as the 2009 Book of the Year by the Academy of Parish Clergy. He can be contacted for conversation, lectures, seminars, workshops, and preaching engagements.