Sunday, January 2, 2005

Second Sunday of Christmas
Jeremiah 31:7-14
Psalm 147:13-21
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:[1-9] 10-18

All things were made through him; and without him was not anything made that hath been made.

When my sister was a student at Syracuse University, she was a featured twirler for the band. My mom often went to the games to watch Bonnie, but since it was such a long trip I went only once. It was an amazing experience, not because of anything spectacular on the field but rather because the weather changed every minute. Now, I’ve often heard it said, “You don’t like the weather, wait a minute!” But I never saw this saying played out so dramatically as it was there.

Syracuse receives lake effect snow. Anyone who lives near a large lake knows how quickly the snow can come and go. On that day at the game, it got so cold that we bundled up in heavy coats, gloves, scarves and a blanket. It even snowed enough to turn the ground white. Minutes later the sun was shining and we were sweating. I was so hot I stripped down to my t-shirt.

Today’s Psalm tells us that God commands the weather by His word. “He giveth snow like wool; He scattereth the hoar-frost like ashes. He casteth forth his ice like morsels: Who can stand before his cold? He sendeth out his word, and melteth them: He causeth his wind to blow, and the waters flow.”

Now there are many people in this world who believe in a Creator or some sort of divine spark that set everything to move. But many of those people believe that He stepped away, letting the world revolve without any help from His hand. To them, the world is a machine that works well on its own, that needs no higher guiding power to get through day to day. To these folk there is no such thing as a personal God. To them God is simply the beginning and a distant power beyond our knowledge and ability to understand. Yet, in the passage from Psalm, we see that God is not only interested in what happens in this world, but that it happens by His word. The snow falls and melts, the wind blows and the rain falls because God makes it happen.

Now, this theory of an impersonal God is often the only way these believers can juxtapose the idea of a loving God with an ugly world. There is no easy answer to the question why there is suffering in the world. We can only hold on to the hope we have in our God that He is in the midst of the tragedy, working to make something good come out of the bad. We want to believe that a personal, loving God would act as a wall against all harm. Yet on an individual level we know that we still suffer. We still get sick, hurt, lonely and we still die. We expect this personal God to give us whatever we need, or think we need. We think of Him as our private genie ready to answer at our beckon call.

Certainly for the Jews it seemed that was the way God worked. He promised them the world, gave them guidance and protection. He took them out of Egypt, gave them the Promised Land. He fed them in the wilderness and met their every need. He built them into a great nation, gave them a king when they asked and kept their enemies at bay. They only had to ask and God relented of any ill will toward His people, holding on to them as His own through their unfaithfulness.

The psalmist admits that God belongs to Israel. “He showeth his word unto Jacob, His statutes and his ordinances unto Israel. He hath not dealt so with any nation; And as for his ordinances, they have not known them. Praise ye Jehovah.” He has done great things for Israel but not for the other nations. Jeremiah also speaks this message that Israel is special to God. “For thus saith Jehovah, Sing with gladness for Jacob, and shout for the chief of the nations: publish ye, praise ye, and say, O Jehovah, save thy people, the remnant of Israel.” Yet, the promises in this Old Testament lesson are spoken because the people are in the midst of great suffering. They are exiled, far from home and from God. The message is one of reconciliation and restoration.

Jeremiah writes, “Hear the word of Jehovah, O ye nations, and declare it in the isles afar off; and say, He that scattered Israel will gather him, and keep him, as shepherd doth his flock. For Jehovah hath ransomed Jacob, and redeemed him from the hand of him that was stronger than he.” Here we see a message to the nations that it was not Jacob’s enemies that defeated him, but rather God whose hand was in the midst of it all. He scattered Israel, and He brought Israel back. God promises this to those He loves. “Then shall the virgin rejoice in the dance, and the young men and the old together; for I will turn their mourning into joy, and will comfort them, and make them rejoice from their sorrow. And I will satiate the soul of the priests with fatness, and my people shall be satisfied with my goodness, saith Jehovah.”

God promises blessings beyond any of the difficulty we face. He promises to be present in the midst of our lives and our troubles. He promises to make us whole and to satisfy our needs with His goodness. The Old Testament promises were made very real in the stable on that first Christmas Day. God not only was present with His people by His word and spirit, He became present in the flesh.

Our Gospel lesson from John tells us that Jesus Christ was before the creation of the world. He was there as the Word of God, as God spoke into existence light and dark, earth and sky, heavens and everything that has been created. John writes, “All things were made through him; and without him was not anything made that hath been made.” We can’t get any more intimate and personal than a God that not only creates but makes the very existence of everything dependent on His own living Word.

In the beginning God spoke and there was light. The light was not the sun or the stars, but that light was the Christ who was before everything. “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us (and we beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten from the Father), full of grace and truth.” He became one of us, one with His creation to restore and redeem us to Himself. This is not a God that started the world revolving and then went to Tahiti on vacation. This is a God who dwells among His people with whom we can have an intimate and personal relationship.

The incarnation was not just about salvation, but it was about the revealing of God’s fullness to the world. Unfortunately, as Jesus walked many missed seeing Him. The Jews did not recognize Him and the world did not know about Him. But those who did see and did believe were given the most incredible gift. “But as many as received him, to them gave he the right to become children of God, even to them that believe on his name: who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.”

The verbs in this passage can be easily confused. There are those who would make receiving Jesus an active work of the believer. The Greek word can mean “to take hold of” and so they actively pursue God to grasp on to His promises and try by their own will to become children of God. However, this word is a passive verb. We don’t have the power to believe, but God has the power to make us His. We receive Christ, not by our own deeds or works, but by listening and hearing His Word. When we hear, we believe and God gives us grace upon grace. We are born anew, made into children of the Most High by His blood. For Christ came not only to live amongst His people, but also to die for their sake. He came to fulfill God’s promises not in a palace or a garden, but on a cross. God did not protect His own Son from death, but through His death gave us the right to become children of God.

Incredibly, our New Testament lesson is one sentence in the Greek. Paul has this way of seemingly rambling on and on, writing paragraphs of information without taking a breath. And yet, when you read this passage, it is that grace upon grace which we have been promised. He chose us, foreordained us, freely given us His grace, redeemed us, forgiven us, lavished His grace on us, made known to us the mystery of His will in Christ. He brought all things into fulfillment through Christ, the Word made flesh.

Paul writes, “…in whom also we were made a heritage, having been foreordained according to the purpose of him who worketh all things after the counsel of his will; to the end that we should be unto the praise of his glory, we who had before hoped in Christ: in whom ye also, having heard the word of the truth, the gospel of your salvation,-- in whom, having also believed, ye were sealed with the Holy Spirit of promise, which is an earnest of our inheritance, unto the redemption of God's own possession, unto the praise of his glory.”

We were chosen and included into the inheritance of God’s great blessings when we heard the Word and believed. We are sealed by the Holy Spirit and by the promise. This seal is not one which can be removed. It is God’s hand on our life, His hand which will not allow us to be lost. We might face pain and suffering, but we can go through our difficulties with the knowledge that God is not far off, but rather He is in our midst granting us blessings we would never have thought to seek. He is indeed a gracious God, giving us faith, hope and life. This gracious God has been revealed in the life of the Christ who was born in a stable and laid in a manger and His promises were fulfilled in the death of Christ on the cross.

We celebrate our God as we kneel before Him at the altar each time we receive communion. This may seem like an active work on our part, but the work of the Eucharist is by the power of God. We are welcomed at His table to feast on His body and blood to receive the forgiveness of sins. There is no more intimate way He can share Himself with His people but through this gift. This moment is central to our worship because it is in the sacraments that God continues to reveal Himself to us in the most personal experience. For those who believe, there is no way to receive the bread and the wine and still believe that God is absent from His creation. He is there in the midst of His creation. He is here with us today and always.

The ELCA Mission Statement says, “Marked with the cross of Christ forever, we are called, gathered and sent for the sake of the world. With this in mind, we remember Johann Konrad Wilheim Loehe on this day, a nineteenth century German pastor dedicated to restoring the Eucharist as central to the parish life and worship. He believed that if we put worship first, then evangelism and social ministry would flow naturally from our life of faith. As we remember Loehe, we look toward the future and our own ministries that are founded on the promises of God. He has sealed us with His promise, gathered us together to worship Him and sent us into the world to share the message of hope with others. When they hear, they will believe and become children of God. Thanks be to God.

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