On That Night

Christmas Eve Sermon

Psalm 96: 11-13 Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea thunder and all that is in it; let the field be joyful and all that is therein. Then shall all the trees of the wood shout for joy before God when God comes, when God comes to judge the earth. God will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with his truth.

The Heavens Were Silent

Mary was a very pregnant woman that night. She probably looked as she felt…exhausted. As far along as she was, everything ached. I imagine her deep and profound desire to lie down and rest. Anyone passing by on the road and receiving her as she and Joseph roamed looking for lodging, would’ve seen just a pregnant woman. How many other pregnant women were seen that night? How many other babies would be born that night? How many children born before this one? There wasn’t anything special emanating from her. No one in Bethlehem felt the urgency to make sure she was well cared for; no one had the time or the space to make room for her. It’s not that they didn’t love her, I’m sure they did. But that night, there just wasn’t anything to be done but to offer up some meager space among dirty animals, trampled hay, and dirt, in the air of a Bethlehem night.

When the contractions started, the whole entire host of heaven hushed. Not a word was spoken, the entirety of the divine residence of angels and archangels watched with bated breath as this woman did a regular thing: bear her first child, a son…But what the host of heaven knew—as well as Mary and Joseph—was this: this regular body and this regular act of birth were bringing for this not-so-regular child…the son of God, the prince of peace, the one of ancient of days, the true leader of Israel, the humble judge, and the embodiment of divine love for the world. For this child, heaven held its breath as his mother brought him forth out of darkness into light so that he would be the light going into the darkness. This was the longed for, hoped for, yearned for child prayed for by many voices of ages gone by, the voices that cried out from bodies stuck in marginalization, trapped in violence, held down by oppression, and threatened by death. Could Mary feel their ancient cries? Could she feel those bowls upon bowls of prayers poured out on her like glory flowing from on high, covering her body and encouraging her spirit as she endured each contraction for minutes and hours?

God chose this body, this moment, this regularity of being born, to enter the world and the cosmos in physical form to identify with the depth of the pain of the human predicament. God could have shown up and skipped this banal and regular step; God could have come in glory and not in such precarious vulnerability. However, God chose not to skip it but to embrace it, to experience it, to identify with God’s beloved, to stand in unity with the beloved from the beginning of life unto the end. It is this divine child born of Mary, this one who is God of very God, who will stand in solidarity with humanity and change everything.

That night, as Mary labored, heaven was silent.

The World was Still

Yet, it wasn’t just Mary who was walking steadily into that night, into that event, one step at a time while moving toward Bethlehem. Joseph was with her. This regular guy was moving along in his regular life before God intervened and shuffled everything. Now he was moving along with Mary, the one who was to bear the son of God into the world and he…trusted. Trusted that all of this was the work of God. So, he walked. With Mary. With this mother of this child that was not his. Still, he walked with God, humbly, trusting, believing that somehow God would show up.

The many closed doors to decent lodging were discouraging. It wasn’t personal; it was just unfortunate. However, he was eager to get this very pregnant Mary to security, to a place where she could rest[1]she looks so tired. When the option for the humble estate of wood, straw, and animals came to him, it was a stroke of fortune even if not ideal. Provision. We’ll make this work, at least for tonight. When the contractions started, Joseph knew of one thing to do, rush to find a midwife, or so goes another telling of the birth of Jesus.[2]

And then something happened while he sought this Bethlehemite midwife. Everything seemed to slow down, and the world seemed to stop as if time ceased to exist and all that existed was merely matter in stasis. The cosmos seemed to come to a screeching halt, as if God’s self was slowing it all down in order to set the whole thing in a different direction.

“And I, Joseph, was walking, and yet I was not walking. And I looked up to the vault of heaven and saw it standing still, and in the air, I saw the air seized in amazement, and the birds of heaven were at rest. And I looked down to the earth and I saw a bowl laid there and workers lying around it, with their hands in the bowl. But the ones chewing were not chewing; and the ones lifting up something to eat were not lifting it up; and the ones putting food in their mouths were not putting food into their mouths. But all their faces were looking upward. And I saw sheep being driven along, but the sheep stood still. And the shepherd raised his hand to strike them, but his hand was still raised. And I looked down upon the winter-flowing river and I saw some goat-kids with their mouths over the water but they were not drinking. Then all at once everything returned to its course.”[3]

Protoevangelium of James

When God steps into our timeline and into our space things do not just keep moving as if it’s all normal. Everything stops, stops in its tracks. Time is slowed all the way down and space is parted from itself making room for more and bigger and better. God doesn’t break into our realm, God takes our realm into God’s self. The moment Jesus was born into the world marked the beginning of something new and different, a different reign, a different rule, a different leadership, and a different way of living in the world.

That night, as Joseph sought the midwife, the world stopped.

The Barriers Were Destroyed

That dark night was no different than the other nights. Here they were, once again, tending and guarding their flocks of sheep, chatting here and there to stay awake.[4] This life was quiet, even if deprived and rather dangerous…keeping the flock safe took a lot of work and strength and risk.[5] The census going on caused additional anxiety, fear, and made that heavy blanket of oppression draped over these humble shepherds seem a bit heavier.[6] How many more sheep would they lose from their flocks when the census was over?[7] Against this evil empire they were helpless, more helpless than against a vicious and voracious wolf.[8] Spirits were low that dark night.

Then the angle showed up, out of nowhere. The shepherds were rightly terrified. Here they were, in the dark of night, doing their job, minding their own business and then: FLASH! They were enveloped in the heavenly glory of the Lord. In seconds they went from no ones to some ones, illuminated by a great light, and being addressed by one from the host of heaven…who were they to warrant such attention?[9]

And the Angel said to them,

“Do not be terrified! For behold, I herald good tidings to you of great delight for all people! A savior is brought forth for you today in the city of David who is Christ the Lord! And this will be the sign for you, you will find a newborn child having been wrapped in swaddling clothes and being laid in a manger!”[10]

Luke 2

Before the shepherds found their voices, they were greeted by an army of the host of heaven who joined the angel and praised God, saying: Glory in the highest to God and upon earth peace with humanity of good pleasure! And then, like it began, it was over.

The shepherds had been summoned by God to come into this moment, into this event, into this space…and, that night, they went. The unclean were called; the oppressed were summoned; the meek and meager were beckoned to come and see how good God is, how much God was for them, how much God loved them. When they arrived, they found Mary and Joseph, and the divine newborn child was, as the Angel said, lying in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes. And here, these unclean shepherds stood in the direct presence of God without having to change, become pure, clean, or right. There was no shame, no condemnation, no guilt, no offerings had to be made, no rituals performed; they just came, looked, and touched the very small and vulnerable foot of God.

That night, when the shepherds arrived, the barriers between clean and unclean were destroyed.

Conclusion

All that had been was now coming undone; the savior, the son of God, was born, surrounded by wood, straw, dirt, animals, an exhausted woman of color, a humbled man, and dirty shepherds. That night God called to God’s self all those who thought they were too far off to hear the call, too far gone to be seen, to unloved to be desired, too nothing to be something…It’s here where we enter the story. As we listen in and look on, we step into that menagerie of humans and animals gazing upon the newborn child. We become a part of those also called to witness this divine event in the world and to encounter God on this night. We are summoned to experience the divine heavenly hush break into the most magnificent chorus of the cosmos. We are provoked to feel God taking the cosmos into God’s self and sending it on the trajectory of love. We are asked to see the rubble of the barriers that once tried to steal from us our belovedness.

That night, while Mary labored, heaven was silent. That night, while Joseph searched for a midwife, the world stopped. That night, when the shepherds arrived, the barriers were destroyed. Because—on that night—God showed up and changed everything forever.


[1] The Protoevangelium of James 17:3-18:1

[2] The Protoevangelium of James 18:1

[3] The Protoevangelium of James 18: 2-11 Trans Lily C Vuong (https://www.amazon.com/dp/1532656173/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_uk52Fb7QPGNMN)

[4] Justo L. Gonzalez Luke Belief: A Theological Commentary on the Bible. Amy Plantinga Pauw and William C. Placher, eds. (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2010). 34

[5] Gonzalez Luke 33.

[6] Gonazalez Luke 33, 34

[7] Gonzalez Luke 33

[8] Gonzalez Luke 33

[9] Gonzalez Luke 34

[10] Translation mine

Revolution of the Light

Sermon on John 1:1-5

Psalm 147:5: Great is our Lord and mighty in power; there is no limit to his wisdom. The Lord lifts up the lowly, but casts the wicked to the ground. Sing to the Lord with thanksgiving; make music to our God upon the harp.

Introduction

I’ve never met someone who meets opportunity for exposure with open and eager embrace. Exposure can harm our body. Even the small forms of exposure provide enough discomfort to warrant avoidance. Anyone here like it when that wool blanket and down comforter are yanked back suddenly exposing your warm skin to chilly air? What about that cruel adjustment moment when eyes accustomed to dark are exposed to brightness? What about that little trip while you’re walking exposing the reality that you’re not as graceful as you thought you were? All I have to say is, “Hospital Dressing Gown,” and you all know what I’m talking about.

Exposure hurts and ushers in self-death when it reveals bigger problems. That thing keeping you stuck or that thing haunting your peace rears its head again and exposes your lack of control. Maybe it’s the fights that won’t go away; maybe it’s the threat of failure; maybe it’s the persistent sickness; maybe it’s the lie that was found out…these are exposures soliciting a death to self: I need help.

Exposure hurts. But exposure and its pain and death aren’t antithetical to life but the basis of it.

John 1:1-5

In the beginning was the Word, and the word was in the company with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning in the company with God. Everything was made through him, and not one thing having existed was made separately (from) him. In him there was life, and the life was the light of humanity. And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot lay hold of it.

Jn 1:1-5, translation mine

The first part of the reading should sound familiar. Genesis 1:1 starts off identically (εν αρχη). The allusion in John 1 to the start of the Hebrew Scriptures is intentional. The Word is to be equated with God and the creative speaking power of God. The Word was God. The word spoken in Genesis 1:1 is the word piercing the silence of the cosmos, disrupting the darkness by tearing from it the light. The point is not creationism, but that God’s word and God’s deed are one and the same thing: God speaks and it happens; not a word falls to the ground void of substance of completed action.[1] For John, this word spoken at the beginning of creation is the Word that has come into the world in the baby born to Mary (Jn 1:14)—and not only to Israel, but to the whole world.[2]

With one hand John grabs the tip of the Hebrew scriptures and pulls them into view. With the other hand he drags the Greek philosophical tradition into view—signified by the word λογος. John uses the birth of Christ Jesus as the focal point to articulate the light that was called forth in Genesis 1 will expose the world and humanity unto life, unto glory and truth. For John the world is not its own Lord or “Law” but is created and sustained by the very Word of God; [3] it is not chaotic matter (the Greeks) but creation out of nothing. [4] In 5 words (εν αρχη ην ο λογος), John indicts humanity and its thought structures and assumptions. And we—those who listen in from here—also are indicted and confronted with John’s statements about the Word who was with God and is God. We are asked to reexamine everything we thought we knew, the terms and concepts we have grown (all too) familiar with and think we’ve defined rightly.[5] Here we’ve been exposed by the confrontation of the divine answer that is the Word made flesh and is the light of life of humanity.

John writes, “In him there was life, and the life was the light of humanity. And the light shines in the darkness and the darkness cannot lay hold of it.” The distinction between light and dark is one we move over quickly. We’re used to the idea that light happens at the flick of switch. In swift motion, the dark room is now illumined. It wasn’t, but now it is. But is it a simple change? The articulation of light into a room means that darkness must be converted. Darkness doesn’t run to other side of the room. What was dark is not anymore; it is light. It must cease being dark and become light.

When the light shines in the dark, the darkness in the path of the light is changed and transformed into not dark. Zooming in on the event you might see that which is light and not light, that which is darkness and not darkness. You might see particles in process of transition of giving themselves over to the light. There’d be a point where time would cease to matter as everything grinds to a halt as the activity of darkness changing into light gives over to the stillness of dark and light and not dark and not light—like a ball thrown into the air comes to a full stop before descent, there would be a cessation of darkness before there is lightness. There is a point in the conversion of darkness into lightness where it seems action seems to stop, where movement stops, where time becomes timelessness. There’s death—a cessation of everything. [6]

In the Christian Apocryphal work, Protoevangelium of James, the author tells of the moment Jesus is born, from Joseph’s perspective.[7] Listen,

“And I, Joseph, was walking, and yet I was not walking. And I looked up to the vault of heaven and saw it standing still, and in the air, I saw the air seized in amazement, and the birds of heaven were at rest. And I looked down to the earth and I saw a bowl laid there and workers lying around it, with their hands in the bowl. But the ones chewing were not chewing; and the ones lifting up something to eat were not liftin it up; and the ones putting food in their mouths were not putting food into their mouths. But all their faces were looking upward. And I saw sheep being driven along, but the sheep stood still. And the shepherd raised his hand to strike them, but his hand was still raised. And I looked down upon the winter-flowing river and I saw some goat-kids with their mouths over the water but they were not drinking. Then all at once everything return to its course.”[8]

Protoevangelium of James trans Lily C. Vuong

This is what happens to the world when divine exposure is born into it. The moment Jesus is born of Mary, time stops to make room for the light to enter the world that is trapped by darkness. Mary births the babe who is the light of humanity[9] that will convert darkness into lightness and death into life.[10] Everything comes to a standstill as God enters our timeline and completely overhauls it, flipping it on its head, moving space like the water of the red sea during the exodus, and thrusting the cosmos into divine truth. When God shows up, everything grinds to a halt and the world goes through a death as life motions to revolt against death.[11]

Conclusion

In the advent and nativity of the Christ child, we’re exposed by the light of life and shown we’ve been complicit with and held captive by systems and kingdoms of darkness of death. I mentioned before that 2020 is a year of exposure. This exposure hurts and will continue to hurt because none of us is done wrestling against the powers and principalities of this human world. It’s not easy to see how deeply embedded we are in the narrative of white supremacy. It’s painful to see greed and selfishness run rampant and realize those are our feet running and keeping pace with those we’re criticizing. It’s horrifying to realize our silence participates in propping up vile and malicious institutions, practices, ideologies when we’d rather not #saytheirnames or say #blacklivesmatter because it’s…more comfortable not to.

In the exposure inaugurated by the birth of the Christ in the encounter with God in the event of faith, we are brought out of the old humanity through death into new humanity.

To be exposed is to endure the transition of darkness into light—being reduced to the moment you are and you are not. To be exposed is to come to a full cessation and be changed from darkness into lightness through death. To be exposed is to see things as they are in the stillness of time and ask the questions so many are afraid to ask: is this all there is? Is this really the good and true and the beautiful? Is anything else possible? The exposure of the encounter with God in the event of faith brings life out of death through resurrection—it’s new life and you are a new creation, with new eyes to see and ears to hear. And you’re given a new mission in the world: joining in the revolt against the dark with the army of the light who is the oppressed, the marginalized, the suffering, the hurting, the dying. This is the mission of God in the world; this is the thrust of the nativity. Everything we think we know as right, and good, and true is in the line of fire of the great divine revolution of life against death humbly started by God born a baby boy to a young unwedded mother, wrapped in rags and laid in a humble manger surrounded by dirty shepherds.


[1] Rudolf Bultmann The Gospel of John: A Commentary Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1971. P. 20 “In the O.T. the Word of God is his Word of power, which, in being uttered, is active as event. God’s word is God’s deed, and his deed is his word; that is, he acts through his word, and he speaks in his action, and it is man whom he addresses.”

[2] Bultmann John 21. “The Prologue does not speak of the relation of the chosen people to the Word of God, but of the relation of the world to the ‘Word’.”

[3] Bultmann John p. 39. “The radical nature of the idea of creation is evident at this point: in the beginning the world did not, so to speak, receive as its own that which it then maintains by itself; both its beginning and its continuing existence are attributed to the Logos. Precisely this is the meaning of v. 4a: ο γενονεν, εν αυτω ζωη ην: the vitality of the whole creation has its origin in the Logos; he is the power which creates life.”

[4] Bultmann John p. 38. “The Greek view, that wants to understand the world as a correlation of form and matter, is also excluded: the creation is not the arrangement of a chaotic stuff, but is the καταβολη κοσμου (17.24), creation ex nihilo.”

[5] Bultmann John 13. “The concepts ζωη and φως, δοξα and αληθεια are the kind of motifs for which the reader brings with him a certain prior understanding; but he still has to learn how to understand them authentically.”

[6] Bultmann John p.32. “…in the person and word of Jesus one does not encounter anything that has its origin in the world or in time; the encounter is with the reality that lies beyond the world and time. Jesus and his word not only bring release from the world and from time, they are also the means whereby the world and time are judged: the first words of the Prologue at once prepare us for this.”

[7] For an excellent engagement with this text, please see Dr. Eric Vanden Eykel’s work located here: https://hcommons.org/members/evandeneykel/deposits/ It was his paper—”Then Suddenly, Everything Resumed Its Course”: The Suspension of Time in the Protevangelium of James Reconsidered—that I heard at SBLAAR 2017 and was profoundly impacted by. If you are interested in further pursuing apocryphal engagement, I highly recommend engaging with Dr. Vanden Eykel.

[8][8] The Protoevangelium of James 18: 2-11 Trans Lily C Vuong (https://www.amazon.com/dp/1532656173/ref=cm_sw_em_r_mt_dp_uk52Fb7QPGNMN)

[9] Bultmann John p. 43, “…φως comes to mean revelation. And where one speaks of a Revealer, one can describe him as the ‘Light’ or as the Giver of light.”

[10] Bultmann John p. 41. “In its original sense light is not an apparatus for illumination, that makes things perceptible, but is the brightness itself in which I find myself here and now; in it I can find my way about, I feel myself at home, and have no anxiety. Brightness itself is not therefore an outward phenomenon, but is the illumined condition of existence, of my own existence. Such brightness is necessary for life; so that from the first, and throughout the ancient world, light and life, darkness and death are seen as belonging together.”

[11] Bultmann John p. 47. “Yet the ζωη of the Logos does not cease to be the φως of men just because men have chosen the possibility of darkness. Rather it is only because the Logos is constantly present as the light of men that the world of men can be σκοτια at all. For darkness is neither a substance nor the sheer power of fate; it is nothing other than the revolt against the light.” I made revolution the work of the light because revolutionary violence is in response to oppression and suffering. Darkness’s response would be counter revolution. It is not light who responds to hold the status-quo, but darkness. It is darkness and death to uphold the status-quo and systems bent on destruction to keep your power.