The Second Sunday of Christmas (January 2, 2010)

Immanent and Transcendent

Lessons: Jeremiah 31:7-14 or Sirach 24:1-12 Psalm 147:12-20 or Wisdom of Solomon 10:15-21 Ephesians 1:3-14 St. John 1: [1-9] 10-18

Prayer of the Day: Almighty God, you have filled all the earth with the light of your incarnate Word. By your grace empower us to reflect your light in all that we do, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

[1:1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. 2 He was in the beginning with God. 3 All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being 4 in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5 The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 6 There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. 7 He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. 8 He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. 9 The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.] 10 He was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. 11 He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. 12 But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, 13 who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God. 14 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. 15 (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.’ ”) 16 From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. 17 The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. 18 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.

St. John 1: [1-9] 10-18 New Revised Version Bible (C)1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America.

The Gospel Lesson for this coming Sunday is the same as the one we considered on Christmas morning. So for those of you who weren't able to join us that day (and for those of you who were too tired from the previous day's activities to remember anything), here is the text of my sermon for Christmas Day, 2010:

A number of years ago I attended a lecture series presented by noted Biblical Archaeologist and Theologian, Dr. James Sanders. He is a man who immersed himself for years in the bibliography and geography of Christian faith. It was an terrific series, dealing with the various texts that relate to our faith, and the many archaeological digs that have provided insights into what it was like to live in first century Israel. During one of these lectures, he introduced me to a concept that I had never considered before. He spoke of “textual echoes.” What he meant by that is that there are a number of examples in the Bible where one reads the text at hand, but at the same hears echos of other texts — often older texts — that deepen and broaden the meaning of what is being read.

This morning’s Gospel lesson is one of the best known examples of a textual echo. It is a beautiful and powerful text: a poetic beginning to what Martin Luther considered to be his favorite Gospel account. Part of the beauty and power of this text is that as we contemplate the words of St. John; as we read, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” those aren’t the only words we hear. We also hear the echo of another beginning, when the word of God spoke in powerful ways. We hear echos of these words from the very beginning of the Biblical story.

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, “Let there be light”; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

This morning’s Gospel lesson is a majestic text: one that soars like the heavens, and the echo of Genesis 1 that rings with it makes it even more so. It lifts our hearts and minds to consider that the one we know as Jesus of Nazareth is no mere human being. He is the Word of God in human form. The Word of God, who existed before time itself. The Word of God, who was in the beginning with God. The Word of God, through whom all things were created. The Word of God, who spoke into being light, and land, and life… and now love. We turn to this passage every Christmas morning, and it lifts our hearts to places that few other texts are able to take us. It enables us to join our hearts and minds together as we give praise to our immortal, invisible, God only wise. (Did you hear an echo there?)

This passage certainly does soar. With echos of beginnings, and its striking imagery of light and darkness, there is an otherworldly quality to it. Yet there is a tension in this text. We read in verse 14 that our magnificent, eternal, all-knowing, all-powerful God, who seems to soar above creation like a majestic eagle, chooses to become flesh and live among us. With that word, we are drawn back into yesterday evening. We are reminded that our God is not one who is content to remain above and beyond and removed from humanity. Instead God, out of a deep and lasting love for us, chooses to become one of us. To live among us. To be born into a world of shepherds and vagabonds and beasts. To enter into this world through the womb of a child-wife, as the newborn son of a poor simple couple: born into poverty, living his first years on the run, experiencing the trials and travails of a teenager: fully immersed in the broken reality of human experience.

Immanent and Transcendent: those are the words theologians have used for years to invoke the tension in this text; the tension within the very nature of God. Our God is transcendent: transcending all of creation — existing beyond the limits of space and time — removed from the brokenness of our world. Yet at the same time, our God is immanent: as close as the person sitting next to you this very moment — fully immersed in our world — knowing us intimately, and choosing to love us fully.

That is what makes the celebration of this Christ Mass so amazing. Not that Jesus was born of a virgin. Not that Jesus ended up being a pretty good guy. Not that Jesus had spiritual insights that made him a great teacher. Not that Jesus had the capacity to heal people’s bodies and souls. What makes the Christ Mass so amazing, is that in the person of Jesus Christ, our transcendent God becomes immanent. Becomes one of us. Becomes part of our every day realty.

That was true in the first century, and it continues to be true today. God is as close as the word we proclaim when we gather in this room. God is as close as the absolution we share, after making confession of our sins. God is as close as the greeting of peace that we’ll offer to one anther in a few moments — as close as the fellowship that the Holy Spirit establishes among us, as brothers and sisters in faith. God is as close as the bread that is broken and the wine that is poured. God is as close as the sunset (or sunrise) that stirs our hearts. God is as close as the healing that restores our bodies. God is as close as the reconciliation we experience with each other. God is as close as the inspiration to reach out and make a difference for someone in need. God is as close as the determination to stand up for justice and peace. Our transcendent God becomes immanent as our hearts are captured by the Gospel, and as we become instruments of God’s grace and mercy.

In Jesus of Nazareth God has come near, and has chosen to stay near. That’s the central message of the Christ Mass — of the Christmas celebration. We gather in the quiet of this morning to honor his birth. As we do so, God is as near to us as was the case on that first Christmas morn. My Christmas morning prayer is that the presence of Christ in your lives and in mine might ground us in the promise of the Gospel, might transform us by the gift of forgiveness, and might empower us to become the immanent, tangible body of Christ in our world today.

Merry Christmas, friends. May your hearts and homes be inspired by the transcendence and blessed by the immanence of our loving and gracious God.


Exploring This Week’s Gospel:

  1. What are some Biblical stories that picture God as treanscendent?
  2. What are some Biblical stories that picture God as immanent?
  3. What does it mean that in the Word of God, we experience both God's transcendence and God's immanence?

Connecting with This Week’s Gospel:

  1. When have I experienced the awesome magnitude of God's presence?
  2. When have I experienced God as being intimately close to me?
  3. What will I do in this new year to thank God for being present in my life?