A sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas Day, 2018, at the Church of the Epiphany, Euclid, Ohio
In the beginning was the Word … and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory …
It may seem strange, but we hear this more times than the story of the manger and the angels, the shepherds and the star, across the Christmas season.
I first heard it, this year, on Christmas Eve, listening to the service of Lessons and Carols from King’s College, Cambridge on the radio. The Provost of the College announces the ninth and final Lesson,
St John unfolds the great mystery of the Incarnation.
I always wonder what they mean by “unfold,” when John’s words fold in the glory of God like a piece of origami, glorious in its intricacy and effect, but not exactly straightforward.
We read this gospel again on Christmas morning, after a night of angels and sheep, the manger and the glory of the heavens breaking through. In the morning light, we were left with poetry, the glory of the Word made flesh, God’s timely and timeless presence among us.
We talked about that timeliness and timelessness on Christmas morning; how John’s gospel, reaching back beyond creation and deep into the mystery of Christ’s birth reminds us that, while no one has seen the glory of God face to face, God’s grace and mercy have never left us, which leaves us the promise that they never will.
No one has seen God, John says, and he name-checks Moses. We remember how Moses longed for a closer revelation of God – closer than the burning bush, and the Red Sea, the pillars of cloud and of fire, the personal conversations. God told Moses that a man could not handle such naked glory. Moses hid himself in the crevice of a rock, and God guarded Moses from the glory with God’s hand, letting him peek out only as God disappeared around a corner, like a familiar friend passing just out of reach, out of earshot, beloved, but lost.
Still, when Moses met with God on the mountaintop, his face shone with the reflection of God’s glory, and the people were afraid even of his afterglow.
God’s grace and mercy have never left us, passing over us and shielding us from more than we can imagine; but how much glory can we handle, human as we are?
When Elijah hid in the cave, fleeing for his life and resenting rather how much of it he had dedicated to God, God showed him a different lesson. All of the power of creation passed by as Elijah, like Moses, hid in the cleft of the rock; and after it was done, he veiled his face to come to the cave entrance, drawn by the quietness that followed the storm, the back end of God’s power, the quiet insistence that God is faithful, God’s presence persistent, even in the stillness, God’s mercy endures forever.
If the sky were full of angels and noise tonight, I wonder who would be the first, and how long it would take to launch missiles to disperse them. We, no more than Moses and Elijah, are not equipped to deal with too much of God’s unfiltered, powerful glory.
In the end, Elijah was taken up by chariots of fire, directly immolated by the nearer presence of God, consumed by glory.
When John speaks of the timelessness, the eternity of God’s Word, and of the glory of God veiled and revealed by the flesh of his Incarnation, John reminds us that while the birth of Jesus is unique, and ultimate, and unrepeatable, and shines with the glory of the only Son of the Father; still, the mercy of God has endured forever.
When we wish that God would do more, and more dramatically, in our own lives, in our own time, it might be that God is protecting us from too much glory, so as not to overwhelm our humanity. If the Word of God that spoke light into being, caused the land to rise and the seas to shift, if that Word were to break loose upon us, how would we respond? Instead, God covers us with God’s hand, shielding us from the full weight of glory, veiling divine power in the miracle of a birth, muting the clamour of glory with the cry of a child, presenting God’s mercy and grace to us as one born of a woman, in need of love, care, tenderness.
And will we receive God’s glory this way?
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.
Will we recognize the glory of God when it passes before us, covered by God’s hand to shield us from its divine force, clothed instead in flesh and mercy?
While we demand divinity, glory unleashed, God appeals to our humanity, teaching us by God’s own example to exercise the image of God within us, whose graciousness is revealed by acts of mercy and protection, whose power is found in faithfulness, whose glory is borne by love.
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish, but may have eternal life. …
No one has ever seen God. It is God’s only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
Even in the ultimate revelation of glory, God is shielding us, protecting and directing us, preferring for us mercy to might, grace to glory. God’s mercy endures forever.
And what even is this thing called glory? As the gospel tells it, it is no less than the birth of new life, the wonder of love revealed.
No wonder the shepherds and angels sing, Glory to God in the highest. Glory, and peace, goodwill towards the people, whom God loves.