Preaching Notes for Christmas Day (December 25, 2014)
Rather than offering sermon notes on all these texts, because they are thematically related by their emphasis on Jesus Christ as the incarnation of God, my suggestion for worship this day is that you read all three Scriptures to provide a framework for the entire service.
Begin the service with a poetic and inspired proclamation of Isaiah 52:7-10, followed by singing the hymn, “Joy to the World,” UMH #246.
Using the word “darkness” to describe the negative connotations of life is problematic in our time, especially given the erupting racial tensions we are facing in the United States right now. As such, I think it is important when preaching on this passage to be attentive to the problematic dimensions of darkness being associated with sin and unrighteousness and light being associated with goodness and purity. Further, it is critical that we try and get at what the gospel writer John means when he says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”
- By darkness, the gospel writer John means hate, fear, distrust, malice, arrogance, cruelty, injustice, and plain old mean-spiritedness. He points us to the whole business of stepping on others to gain some advantage for ourselves and not caring what happens to other folks.
- By darkness, John means acting as if we are not part of God's creation, as if there is no creator, and no purpose to living except to survive alone for as long as possible and gather for ourselves a certain share of the world's pleasures and good moments while everybody else can do without as far as we are concerned, because this is all there is, and there isn't enough to go around. It's you or them, take your pick.
- By darkness, John means never being foolish enough to risk one’s own neck for love and trust and good will and peace and goodness and kindness and patience and tenderness and generosity and fairness and truth and hope and faith in God.
John starts with the premise that God created us. Part of God’s act of creation was God's Word or message—or angle, or stamp, or intention, or idea, or ideal, or purpose—all of which he sums up as The Word.
Before there was anything, before creation, there was The Word. The Word was there with God, all along, from the beginning. The Word was the same as God. The Word was God.
The Word was the source of life itself, the urge to live, the impulse of life, the basis of life, the face of life, so that all of life has the genetic stamp of the Word built in to it. Because of The Word, all of life has a built-in awareness of the light, and carries an impulse to be children of the light instead of only children of the darkness. But there is more.
God's creative activity and the work of The Word did not, and does not, end with the act of causing the moon and stars, sun and earth, plants, animals, and people to come to be born. It is true that all of this comes from The Word, but it doesn't stop there. The Word became a human being. The Word was born, flesh and blood, participant in our daily events and struggles. The Word, which had already given to us the impulse to be children of the light and to have an awareness of the light, came to focus on one individual, Jesus Christ, full of grace and truth. Because of Christ, we can have abundant life. Because of Christ, we can be children of the light, children of the sun.
Because Jesus Christ is born among us and has shown us how to live and what it means to be alive, we can move according the light. We can look to the light, learn about the light, trust in the light, and live by the light. We can set the “darkness” in ourselves aside and be born again. We can disown our selfish, mean, fearful, hateful, distrustful impulses and cast our lots with Jesus Christ, change and be changed, step out of the shadowy places in this world and be children of the light and not only children of the earth and flesh and blood and time.
We are not the light ourselves. No more than John the Baptist was the light and no more than John the Baptist was the Word. John the Baptist was a good man. He did live according to the light he had. He advocated for unselfishness and justice and right living, and his life demonstrated those character traits. Furthermore, John the Baptist did not mince his words. "Turn away from the darkness," he said, "and as a sign of this, be baptized." But all of this was just preliminaries. All of this was only preparation.
John the Baptist wasn't sent as the light itself. He was sent to tell others about the light. Likewise, we are not the light. And we aren't John the Baptist, either. But we can take some cues from him.
Your members can be people like John the Baptist. They can be people who tell about the light. Probably none of them will dress up in clothes woven out of camel hair and wear a leather girdle, or live in the wilderness and eat only locusts and wild honey. Many people will be a little shy about their telling. They won’t be blatant about it. They won’t walk up to strangers on street corners and ask them if they have found Jesus Christ. There are some who will do this, but most Methodists just aren't really comfortable doing that kind of thing. They don’t know quite how to get the conversation started.
How do we pastors help our members learn to tell about the light? Is it by suggesting they invite people to church? Well, maybe. That would depend on how they issue the invitation. There's a saying we use in the south that goes, "Y’all come on out and see us now and again." But when people from the south say that, they don't really mean it. It's just meant as a polite way of saying goodbye to someone. I think that often when people invite others to church, those whom they invite take the invitation just about as seriously as if they said, "Y’all come on out and see us now and again." That is to say, they don’t think we mean it. They don’t think we are serious.
The key word in all of this is serious. It isn’t whether a person dresses up in camel’s hair, or goes door to door, or stands on street corners, or shares his or her witness with close friends or complete strangers. And it isn't the exact words that are used.
The key is whether or not the person is serious in telling others about the light.
I personally tend to be put off by people who come asking, "Are you saved? Have you found Jesus? Do you know Christ as your personal Lord and Savior?" I am put off because those words for me have become just expressions, worn-out and used up. There isn't much left in those kinds of words, so it's hard for me to take them seriously. I don't mean that people who say them are not sincere and earnest and even serious. It's just that I have heard these expressions all my life, and I have need now of something fresher and more thought-provoking and less automatic. Maybe that's what I mean by serious.
On this day in which we celebrate the birth of the One who is the light, what I want you reflect upon is how you can urge your members in the strongest way to be serious about finding, each one for him or her self, a way of telling others about the light. Invite your congregants in the coming year to take up this task seriously. Don’t let them just shrug and let it go, or put it off and set it aside. Encourage each one yo take up his or her own mantle no less than John the Baptist, as people who have been born to tell about the light, and who go and tell someone about it.
Go, Tell it on the Mountain!
Over the hills and everywhere!
Go Tell it on the Mountain!
That Jesus Christ is Born!
Invite the congregation to respond by reading Hebrews 1:1-4 responsively as follows:
(Women) Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets,
(Men) but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds.
(Women) He is the reflection of God's glory and the exact imprint of God's very being, and he sustains all things by his powerful word.
(Men) When he had made purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty on high, having become as much superior to angels as the name he has inherited is more excellent than theirs.