The Christmas Question

The Rev. Noah Van Niel

St. John the Evangelist

December 17th, 2017

Advent III (B): Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11; Psalm 126; 1 Thess 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

Every so often you need to start a sermon with a confession and today is one of those days: I love Christmas. I love the cards and the colors and the candles. I love the bells and tXMas Decorationshe boxes and bunting. I love that as a society we collectively decide to thumb our noses at 4pm sunsets and bedazzle our homes with resplendent lights. I love that in the face of bare branches all around we defiantly swag our doors with evergreens. I love the music: the joy of melodies well written and well sung, harmonies that create new beauties of sound and lift your soul to greater heights. I’ve had the choir of King’s College Cambridge Christmas CD on in my office for weeks now, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. I love that for days, people spend time thinking about those they love, and those in need, and for once, instead of walking through malls or searching on amazon thinking only of themselves, they try to stand in the shoes of another and wonder what they might want. I love the parties, the magical warm spirit that permeates the world this time of year, I love Santa, I love the cookies, and good lord, I love Eggnog. I love Christmas. Everything about it.

I feel the need to confess this because we are still very much in the middle of the Advent season, and Christmas, at least in the church, is yet to actually come. It’s already, but not yet here. Outside these walls people have been rocking around the Christmas tree for weeks, but in here we are working hard to uphold the wisdom that comes from preparation and expectation. Now don’t get me wrong, I like Advent too, a lot. I think asking people to sit and wait and watch for the coming of Christ is a worthy practice to cultivate. But I’ll admit that, in an effort to protect Advent from an ever earlier encroachment of Christmas, the Church can go a little overboard and somewhat discourage the Christmas spirit that is swelling through the world because it doesn’t match up with our liturgical sensibilities. The Church should not be playing the role of Scrooge this time of year no matter how annoyed we are that Santa is more popular than Jesus. “Don’t quench the Spirit,” as Paul says! In fact, it could be argued that, the way things unfold, Christmas gets shorted on celebration in the Church. It comes with glorious services on Christmas Eve and then everyone goes on vacation and by the time we gather back fully together the 12 days of Christmas are over, we’re into a new year, on to the season of Epiphany and looking towards Lent.

This is a shame because for Advent to have any meaning, we need to have a proper reckoning with Christmas first. That may sound backwards, but let me explain. Advent derives its whole meaning from our answer to the Christmas Question. And the Christmas Question is a difficult, profound question that defies a simple answer. For the question of Christmas is this: is God real? Real not in theory but in this world. Do you believe that God is alive and active in your life? Do you believe, first of all, that there is a God, a force, a spirit, an energy that animates the universe? And if you can say yes to that part of the question, do you believe that that force entered into the human condition fully in one Jesus of Nazareth in Bethlehem of Judea two thousand years ago? AND (we’re not done yet) if you believe that, do you believe that that same force, power, spirit, energy, that was in Him, is still active and present in the world, and in your heart today?  Do you know that to be true? That’s the Christmas question. The theological term for what I’m describing is the incarnation: the embodiment in flesh and blood of the power of God to such an extent that we could, without hyperbole, call the one in whom that power fully resided, the son of God. That’s the incarnation. But just because we know the jargon doesn’t mean we have an answer to the Christmas Question.

No, for a sufficient answer, we’re going to need to do a little more work. A mindless, empty, “Yes, of course,” just isn’t going to cut it. Because there are plenty of reasons in our life to answer, “No.” For example, it’s not hard to wish that if God really did enter the world as a human being and was still hanging around in the Holy Spirit, He would take a little more initiative in steering us in the proper direction or protecting us from pain and evil. I certainly share that wish sometimes. But Jesus came as a passenger not a driver. His promise was to be with us, not to control us so as not to coerce us into belief, but invite us. “Come and see,” he says. We may wish it were otherwise, but that’s the story we proclaim: a faith in a Lord whose power extends beyond the heavens and past the grave, but whose power is manifest in his abiding presence, not dictatorial rule.

Advent assumes that you can answer yes to that big Christmas question. That’s what I mean when I say we have to have a reckoning with Christmas before we can properly mark Advent. Because for Advent to have any meaning at all, it has to mean that somehow, in some way, you know that God is real and you’re looking forward to seeing Him again. So I wonder, when were those moments in your life when God got real for you? What’s your experience of God breaking into your life in an undeniable way? Where did it happen? How did you know?

Jeff was a parishioner from a church I worked at who was in a tough season of his life. Things were not going well at work, he almost lost his job, his wife and mother were both battling major health issues, he had a couple of kids and college tuition on the horizon. It was just one of those tough years. In one conversation I had with Jeff, I asked him how his faith was holding up in the midst of such mounting difficulty. “I have to show you something,” he said, and he reached in his pocket. He pulled out his phone and started scrolling through his pictures. “When things were really getting rough, and the world was feeling particularly heavy on my shoulders, I took our dog out for a walk by a pond near my house. And I got to a place where I just sat and looked out across the water.” At this point he turned his phone to face me. It wasn’t a picture, it was a video, but the only thing moving was the sparkling reflection of white sunlight on the water. Everything else was still. It looked like fireflies at noonday, or fairies dancing in delight. “I know that this is just a reflection of the sun bouncing off the water,” he said. “But at that moment I knew things were going to be alright. I felt in my bones that God was with me. And He is.”

Your story may be different. It probably is. Maybe you have more than one. I hope you do. But we would all do well, as a worthy Advent exercise (and you’ve only got one week left to do it!) to articulate in our minds and hearts those moments in our lives when we experienced Emmanuel, God with us. Because if we can answer that Christmas question, and really answer it, with clarity and specificity, year after year, then, then Advent gets awesome. Because then we know what we’re looking for and if it’s really what we say it is, really what we know it to be—God in the flesh—could there be anything more exciting, or amazing, or important?

We have a model in this work in John the Baptist who was so clear about the coming of the Christ that his whole life became about preparing people for that arrival. And in Advent we take up his call as our own. “Prepare the way because the most beautiful, the most wonderful, the most exciting, the most powerful thing is about to happen. God is coming. And he’ll be here soon.” And not only that, in the Gospel of John, John the Baptist (no relation) says something really really important. He says to his interlocutors in our passage this morning, “I am not the Messiah…[but] Among you stands one whom you do not know, the one who is coming after me.” I am not the Messiah, but he’s here, he’s among you, and you do not know it. Christ isn’t just on his way, he’s already here. He’s already among us, and we do not know. The incarnation is emerging from within our midst, but we struggle to see it. We get images of Christ’s coming as riding down out of the heavens in chariots of fire and with legions of angels leading the charge. And who knows, when it’s time drop the curtain on this world, maybe that will be the way it goes down. But I wonder if it’s not more like John’s account—that Christ is already here, hidden. And the fullness of his revealing will come over time, from us looking for, watching for, noticing those places where he is standing, obscured. That’s what we’re looking for in Advent: the one that is to come, that already exists in our midst. His flesh is your flesh, the flesh of your neighbor. He is the light of the world, but also the light of the sun reflecting off a quiet pond, or sparkling atop a Christmas tree during a time of unnatural darkness. His song is Love divine, but it’s also the song of those singing carols in cathedral stalls or hospital halls. His gift is eternal life, but it’s also wrapped, neatly, around the back of the Christmas tree. There is no shortage of glimpses of God’s incarnation, especially at this time of year, in this season of Advent, in this time of Christmas, if we would but watch, and wait for them. For The Spirit is alive. God is real. Christ is here. Can you believe it?