Sermon preached at Warrenton Presbyterian Church and at Cotton Memorial Presbyterian Church at their joint service with First Presbyterian Church, Henderson, on Epiphany.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.
He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, 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 of the will of man, but of God.
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 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.’”) From his fullness 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.
I very clearly remember the year I lost the Christmas spirit entirely.
When I was a child, Christmas spirit fairly burst out of me. It would begin the first Sunday of Advent, when my mother and I would create our Advent wreath to the strains of an Amy Grant Christmas record—yes, I’m just old enough to remember the record player. The whole month of December would be a whirl of anticipation and excitement—at school, coloring in pictures of Santa while the candy rolled in; at home, decorating the dining room with great-grandma’s nativity sets and the living room with what used to seem like the world’s tallest tree; at church, practicing for the Christmas pageant and picking out which bathrobe would double as shepherd’s garments that year. By the time Christmas Eve rolled around, I had been floating on a delirious emotional sea of hope and joy and magic and spirit for weeks. Christmas day itself, with a morning full of presents and dinner at my grandparents, was just icing on the cake. I knew it was really Christmas weeks before that, when I started to get that special feeling, like sparklers were going off in my heart.
Trouble was, each year it took longer to feel that feeling, and it disappeared more quickly. There was the terrible year when I didn’t start to feel the Christmas Spirit until the Christmas Eve service itself, and then the even more terrible year when I didn’t start to really feel Christmas joy until I was opening presents the next morning (and how awful is that, really, only feeling Christmassy when you’re getting presents) and then the next year… nothing.
It was probably middle school, like most traumas of growing up, and it was the year without Christmas. December came, and we made the wreath, and lit the candles, and sang the carols, and decorated the house, and went to church, and opened presents, and went to grandma’s, and came home, and nothing had ever felt a bit different from regular life.
This is it, I remember thinking. I’ve lost Christmas. I’ll never know what it is to feel Christmassy again.
This, of course, is the kind of dramatic statement one makes as a thirteen-year-old girl, and fortunately for me, I do not in fact have the ability to predict the future.
It took me years of what I thought were empty Christmases, to give up my nostalgic grasp on that “Christmas feeling” I no longer felt. I was determined that if I didn’t feel that exact feeling, then it wasn’t really Christmas.
But the thing is, Christ has a way of showing up even when you’ve decided for yourself that you can’t see him. And Christ kept showing up in my Christmases, in ways I refused to acknowledge, because it wasn’t in the old familiar way, and I’ve never been great with change.
If I’d have been paying attention, I would have seen Christ sitting at the table that night when I came home from college exhausted from exams and found my parents had waited for me with my favorite dinner. I would have spotted Christ loitering at the food court when I helped my grandfather ring the Salvation Army bell at the mall and had the excuse to look each stressed and busy shopper in the eye and say, “I see you, in the midst of all this. I see you.” I would have recognized Christ working alongside us after the midnight Christmas Eve service when we gathered the luminaries back up from the sidewalk outside the church, cold and tired, so that our Associate Pastor wouldn’t have to do it alone. I would have realized Christ was our houseguest in those precious days after Christmas, when I could take all the Sabbath rest I wanted, with nothing left to plan or perfect or polish, time to just simply be.
But instead, I nursed my nostalgia and my loss: Christmas just didn’t feel like it used to. I had my idea of how things are supposed to be at Christmas, and these new Christmases just weren’t measuring up. I couldn’t feel Christ because I thought I knew what Christ was supposed to feel like.
It was during this time that I really discovered the prologue to John’s gospel, that we read this morning. I had always been familiar with it, in a vague sense, but Christmas was usually reserved for Matthew or Luke, for Bethlehem and the guiding star and the shepherds and angels and wise men. As nice as John is, there’s just not time for him and his poetry when there’s so much good old fashioned storytelling to be done.
But now that I’m older, I understand the value of poetry, and how it can do things that a regular story can’t do. Matthew and Luke give us a very specific idea of how Jesus came into this world, and it’s hard to shake those images. Luke even makes a point of it, when he has the angel tell the shepherds that they will know the Christ child by a sign: that the baby will be wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger, and so if they haven’t found a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger, then they haven’t found Christ. This is how Christ looks. Baby. Manger. Swaddling clothes. End of story.
But of course, only a few humans in all of history ever saw Christ like that. Most of us missed out on the stable, because we didn’t hear the angel song or couldn’t leave our flocks or maybe because we were born 2000 years too late. Have we missed our chance at the Christ of Christmas?
Of course not, John says. For John, Christ is not just the baby of Bethlehem. John experiences Christ in many ways—as the Word, and as Life, as the Light, and as Flesh, as Son of God and as Grace. For John, Christ is not bound to a single place and time, but comes to us in many different ways.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…
Have you heard it? Have you heard a word you needed? When everything was just too much to handle, did you hear a word of comfort or hope? Was it your spouse saying “I love you” after everything had gone wrong at work? Was it a stranger saying “it’s okay” when your child was pitching a fit in the grocery store? Was it just a whisper, too low to make out? Perhaps that Word was Christ. You never know.
In him was life, and the life was the light of all people.
Have you felt it? Have you felt fully alive? In a moment of great joy or great fear, on the first day of spring or the first snowfall of winter, when you first looked into your child’s eyes or when you first felt God’s love for you—have you felt the Life? Perhaps that Life was Christ. You never know.
The Light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.
Have you seen it, glimmering there in the dark? Have you seen the light on your porch, coming home from a long time away, knowing that this is a place where you are safe and welcome? Have you seen the light of the stars, reminding you of the majesty and glory of God’s creation? Have you seen the light of a candle held at a vigil to remember those who have died from violence, a small testament to hope? Have you seen the sun rise after a night of weeping, and known that sorrow will not get the last word? Have you seen the light? Perhaps that Light was Christ. You never know.
And the Word became flesh and lived among us.
Have you seen it? Seen how God put on a body, that night in Bethlehem, a body as frail and weak as ours, hands that would reach out for Peter amidst the storm, hands that would heal the leper and the blind ones and the bleeding ones, a body that would break and be broken on a cross for our sake. Have you seen how God puts on a body still, not as a man from Galilee but as the doctors who did your heart surgery, as the foster mother wiping away tears in the middle of the night, as the gardener who cares for the new life in her seeds, as the college students spending their spring break building a habitat house. Have you seen it, how the Word becomes flesh, becomes us? Perhaps our bodies are Christ’s body now. You never know.
From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace.
Have you received it? Grace upon grace? That day when you were six and ran away from home and instead of scolding you when you were found your father scooped you up and held you as if he would never let go? That day when you were sixteen and you decided you didn’t need God anymore and God said, “I’ll wait for you?” That day when you were sixty and there wasn’t a good choice to be made, and someone was going to be hurt, and you found God hangs out in the hurt as much as in the joy? Have you known what it is to be given grace? Then you have known Christ. That much I do know.
Last month, Christ was everywhere—as long as the Christ you were looking for was a plastic baby doll or a painted Christmas card. The rest of the world is packing up those plastic Christs now and putting him back into storage. They won’t look for him again until next December.
But if you open your eyes, and look beyond the manger, you may find Christ is a full-time God. He may not look anything like you thought he would, or anything like he used to. But he is here, just as he always has been, just as he always will be. All we have to do is be brave enough to let go of how Christ is “supposed to be,” and embrace the Christ who is.
Christ has left the manger.
Can you find him?
Can you find him in the bread and the cup?
Can you find him in the dark places, the broken places?
Can you find him in the person sitting next to you in the pew?
Can you find him in your own heart?
Seek Christ the Word. Seek Christ the Life. Seek Christ the Light. Seek Christ the flesh. Seek Christ the Grace. Seek Christ the Son.
Christ is with us. All we have to do is see.