Sermon #165: Heaven Was Ready But We Weren't
Sermon #165 St. James the Less #72 12/29/19
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. - John 1:1-18
I don’t know about you, but Christmas always has a way of creeping up on me quicker than I think. It doesn’t help that Thanksgiving was later this year than it usually is.
I kind of found myself unprepared a little bit, at least when it came to the shopping aspect. I took advantage of some of the Black Friday deals, but there were a few presents I waited to get at the last minute. I didn’t do it on purpose, I think it’s just in my genes.
My father is notorious for going Christmas shopping either on the 23rd, but in most cases on Christmas Eve itself. I wasn’t as delayed as he was this year, but after that initial shopping on Black Friday I got a little lazy until it came down to the wire.
I read one classic news headline right after Black Friday that said in bold print, “Black Friday Shopping Is Down, But Stay Tuned for Christmas.” As if Christmas itself was relying on our checkbooks.
This headline and the whole secular buildup to Christmas reminded me once again that they just don’t get it. And to be honest, as I was running from store to store last week wondering if my brother Jake would like this hat or that shirt, or what in the world do I get my parents, or am I really about to buy Megan yet another Disney mug; I too was reminded that I just don’t get it.
Heaven & Earth
The truth of the matter is that heaven was ready, but we were not. The angels came in mighty numbers to welcome their king onto the earth. There was no welcoming party on our end; no lavish celebration for our Lord and Maker.
Not even the lowly shepherds were ready. It took a host of angels to say: “Go, look over there and you’ll find your king.” Surprised and oblivious to God’s quiet incarnation, I think the shepherds are a great stand-in for each of us.
They are as surprised and awestruck about the whole thing as we would’ve been. And I want them as our guides on this first Sunday after Christmas. They have a lot to teach us.
Like I said, the great irony is that all of heaven had its attention fixed on the small village of Bethlehem, while the world blew out their oil lamps and went to bed on that holy night.
Once again, God was up to something, and we didn’t have a clue. We were neither ready nor prepared for His coming.
A 4th century Syrian hymn writer named Ephrem said on that holy night Israel’s line of “priests, prophets, and kings came to an end; [and] they were confined and limited to One [person].” He went on further to say that this Christ-child “ended all successions. Blessed is He who was clothed in what belonged to Him” (Ephrem Nativity 24).
Priest, prophet, and king.
Three very different roles in the life of the people of Israel. The priest atoned for the sins of the people, the prophet was God’s mouthpiece to the nation, and the king led the nation, after being anointed by the prophet. These three distinct roles now came to their unification and fulfillment in this baby born in Bethlehem.
But this child the shepherds found in the manger was lacking the royal apparel and pageantry that he deserved.
The prophet Isaiah in our reading this morning vividly describes garments of the Savior. In the voice of the Messiah he says,
“For he has clothed me with garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels.”
Yet these garments are nowhere to be found, and the lowly shepherds had no way of bringing him such fine things as royal robes and precious jewels. They were poor, with very few things to their name. Even from their relatively few possessions, they lacked anything that would befit a king.
And you know, Mary and Joseph must have felt the same way.
What do you give to the One who created the universe in all its majesty? What do you give to the One who with a word spoke light into existence? What do you give to the babe who formed you in your mother’s womb?
I asked our children at the early service on Christmas Eve a similar question. I asked them what they would give to baby Jesus. They were surprisingly very practical. They would give a bottle of milk, diapers, blankets, socks, and a hat. I don’t think any of them talked about toys at all.
But the shepherds didn’t even have the more practical gifts that our kids mentioned. Quite shockingly, they greeted their newborn king empty handed.
Along with the shepherds, Mary and Joseph must have felt a great deal of shame bringing this child foretold by the angel into such lowly and meek conditions, but in the end, it was the best they had.
Mary, Joseph, and the shepherds looked around at each other, and realized all they could give to this child was their awe and adoration.
Heaven was ready but we were not.
You know even though this holiday season crept up on me a little fast, I felt I did pretty well on the gifts I chose. But as the new gifts in our house find its rightful place among everything else we have, and as we throw away the wrapping paper and take down the stockings, I’m still left with the question: What in the world do we give to the God who has everything?
I think there are some practical ways that we can give to God. We could volunteer more, or give more money to charity? We all have our list of things we should do. Maybe we should pray more or read our Bible more or reach out to that person we’ve been meaning to talk to… and we could go on and on of all the good things we should do.
BUT maybe first and foremost we need to give up the “shoulds” and give God what He really wants…Because in the end He wants us. He came down to Earth for us.
I think it is a good thing to remember that 2,000 years ago heaven was ready and we as humanity were not. I think this is what John meant when he wrote in our lesson today, “He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him.”
We knew God was relational, but we were neither ready nor prepared for a real, physical, and tangible relationship with God in the flesh.
The question I presented to our children on Christmas Eve is just as relevant today as it was on that first Christmas, and the coming of the new year allows us to reflect on the past year and to look ahead to the future.
What is it that we can give to the One who already has everything? Maybe the only things we can give back to Jesus are the things that only belong to Him in the first place.
The shepherds are the perfect example of this. The only thing they could give, and the only appropriate gift (even though they didn’t know it) was their awe and adoration. Because in their awe and adoration they recognized that they were helplessly lost in the blessing of the Christ child. Nothing more, nothing less: they had nothing to give and had everything to receive.
Heaven was ready to give its most precious Son, but we were not ready to receive Him.
Two thousand years later have we changed?
If so, I believe it all starts with giving to God what is rightfully His, and essentially that means we have to give Him ourselves with all the drama and messiness and conflicts that come with us… so that we can be in a position to fully receive Him.
Jesus as priest, prophet, and king can handle whatever we give him.
By giving ourselves to God are we ready to be a more forgiving and loving person? Are we ready to let go of those situations and people that we cannot control? Or even let go of the guilt or jealousy that we’ve held onto for so long?
Can we relinquish the fear and anxiety that comes with uncertainties at our job, or trouble in a relationship, or a loved one’s serious health condition?
Can we bring those before the throne of God, and trust that he is in control? That the One who is clothed in all authority can handle it, and will give us everything we need to handle it too.
Here at the beginning of a new year I think this is the perfect chance to prayerfully consider how we can give ourselves to God more fully, and to realize that we are helplessly lost without him.
Heaven was ready, and as long as we come before God’s throne with the humility of those awe-struck shepherds then we’ll be ready as well to receive his grace and peace in a powerfully new way.
Blessed is He who is clothed in the power and authority that only belongs to Him.
Blessed is He who is Christ the King.
1st Sunday after Christmas. Year A. Isaiah 61:10-62:3. John 1:1-18. Photo here.