Happy New Year! and welcome to this second Sunday of the Christmas season here at Marsh Chapel. We celebrate the birth of Jesus for many reasons, and our scriptures this morning give us one reason in particular. For it is not just as individuals that Jesus Emmanuel comes to us; he comes to us also as individuals in community; indeed, he comes to form us as individuals into a community, the community of the church, his heart and mind, ears and eyes, hands and feet still at work in the world.
Jeremiah reminds us that God’s work to build and restore community did not
begin with Jesus’ entry into the world. It has been a constant in God’s relationship with humanity. Jeremiah writes from exile in Egypt, while the rest of Israel is exiled and captive in Babylon. This breaking apart of the community of Israel is a consequence of their choices and the choices of others. Israel has chosen to break the covenant they had agreed to with God, and they also suffer global forces beyond their control as the Babylonians choose to expand their empire.
But Jeremiah keeps the vision of a restoration beyond exile. God promises the fulfillment of this vision, a vision of an Israel brought back together from dispersal, a vision of homecoming and of a new covenant that will not be broken. In spite of seemingly overwhelming forces against its happening, God will reunite the community. And this reunification will be marked by dancing, merriment, abundance, and joy.
The author of Ephesians writes out of a conflict within the new and growing Christian movement. Jews and Gentiles have long been separated by law and culture. Now they find it a challenge to integrate into this new inclusive community of church. The author of Ephesians reminds them that they are united in Christ. Because of that unity there are divine benefits as a present reality in the church’s life. God provides forgiveness, wisdom, and spiritual power. Through the Holy Spirit God also provides an inheritance toward redemption as God’s own people. Thus the church is a Spirit-filled community that brings the presence, power, and peace of God not just into its own life, but also into the life of the world.
The Psalmist glorifies God for three great blessings. The first is the security God provides through inheritors, peace, and abundance. The second is the creative word of God in creation. And the third is the coming of God’s creative word to the community of Israel in the precepts that will form them as a unique people.
The author of the Gospel of John also lifts up God’s creative Word, in the person of Jesus, who is a gift to those who receive him and believe in him. Jesus the Word here is a social being: with God and as God he creates all things. He comes into the world in flesh to live in creation among human beings. He experiences rejection as well as belief. To those who do believe in him, he gives power to become the community of the inheritors of God.
So these are four of the ways God forms us as individuals in community, as individuals into community. One is the renewal of covenant and homecoming. Another is the transformation of conflict. A third is the giving of security and precepts for a unique identity. And the fourth is the empowerment of the community to become the presence of God in the world. So our individual belief and relationship with God is important in itself, and, its purpose is to incorporate us into a community that will act as God’s people in the world.
Now this may sound simple, but it isn’t easy. With all the trouble in the world and our exhausting busyness, there is great temptation to cocoon and isolate ourselves with escapism and numbing out. There are also many people, groups, corporations, and governments, including some of our own, that have vested interests in our isolation, and in the fear and sense of powerlessness that accompany it.
For instance, there is very little in the mainstream media that encourages us in our work for the kindom. A steady diet of “If it bleeds it leads.” does not nourish us in love, power, or hope. We have to be intentional to find the good news of God’s presence at work in the world.
There are also calls to other allegiances who claim to be sources of power. I was at the movies last week, and an ad for an international computer corporation came on. The computer corporation shall not actually be named, but let’s call it Corporation X. Its ad showed happy and energetic people using the corporation’s products. The end statement was “Corporation X empowers people to change the world.” Now from a Christian perspective, a more accurate statement might be, “God empowers people to change the world, and then they use some of the tools sold by Corporation X to do some of the work.” It’s perhaps a subtle distinction, and, it’s a type of distinction that needs to be made more often. Otherwise we give over our intrinsic power to act as the people of God to some other allegiance or entity with another agenda entirely.
Likewise the rhetoric of part of the current presidential debates, full of wall-building and carpet bombing, ignores the fact that at least some of the people to be walled out and carpet bombed are our sisters and brothers in the community of the Church, or at the very least are our neighbors who we are to love as ourselves.
Perhaps most challenging of all, in an individualistic culture such as ours, is to have the courage and conviction to step out of our individual concerns, out of our preoccupation with “My God”, and out of our fear of the stranger, so that we can become truly God’s people. Our greatest challenges are our own: our remaining racism, our exclusion of LGBTQ persons and women from the full life of the church, our remaining consumerism instead of stewardship, our incivility toward those who disagree with us. All these are things that keep us as a collection of individuals going in different directions, instead of being the beloved community united to assist the power and presence of God in the world.
We celebrate the coming of Christ because in him we see real assistance in the isolation of our lives. God’s own self is a Trinity, one God in holy community, Source and Emmanuel and Spirit. It is that God who invites us into the divine life of perichoresis, the divine life of dancing in partnership with God and with one another. And in that dancing we are deeply loved and understood and renewed as individuals and communities, loved and understood and renewed by and because of the God who is with us.
We also celebrate the coming of Christ because he begins with us as a baby. Mother Teresa said that it is important to do small things with great love, and what we do in community does not have to be huge and exhausting. The God who begins with us in baby steps will not mind if we begin our projects of love and justice the same way. And for God to begin with us as a baby means that God trusts us. God trusts us: to protect, to nurture, to help grow, to bring to maturity in ourselves and our church community, and to rejoice in the presence of God-with-us, as we then embody the presence of Christ in the world.
In this new year we are invited to see beyond ourselves as individuals to see ourselves as part of the community of God’s people, and to encourage ourselves in that identity. Where is God at work? Where is the good news? Where are we called to support that, or even blaze a trail? We do not need to be afraid. We are able to get up and be and be doing. Because we are not alone. The coming of Christ to one of us is the uniting in Christ of all of us in the community of God’s people, that community whose work and joy is to bring hope and new life to the life of the world. Thanks be to God, who gives us this victory in the name of Jesus Emmanuel and in the power of the Holy Spirit. Merry Christmas!
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