The First Sunday after Christmas Day: A Sermon

Readings

Good morning, and Merry Christmas!

Our lectionary has set a rich feast before us; the sermon could go in any number of directions. We might focus on John the Baptist and the surprising logic of being a witness. The Word the Gospel celebrates is described as a light. Why does the light need a witness? We might focus on Jesus’ coming as opening the path to our becoming God’s daughters and sons. Or we might—and we will—wonder about the odd disconnect between the passion for Jerusalem in Isaiah and the psalm and those sober lines in the Gospel: “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.”

Jerusalem, both a specific city at a particular longitude and latitude and one of the Bible’s central symbols for God’s passion to create and preserve a life-giving community. God deals with us individually. But because to be human—as Aristotle memorably defined it—is to be a political animal, dealing with us individually means dealing equally with our communities and institutions.

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.

So Isaiah. And in the psalm the salvation of the individual and the salvation of Jerusalem are inseparable:

13 Worship the Lord, O Jerusalem; *
praise your God, O Zion;
14 For he has strengthened the bars of your gates; *
he has blessed your children within you.
15 He has established peace on your borders; *
he satisfies you with the finest wheat.

And in the run-up to Jesus’ birth as described in Luke’s Gospel this vision and these hopes are on full display. And then the lines in the Gospel prologue: “He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him.” Defeat snatched from the jaws of victory.

How do we make sense of this strange story? The convenient answer: well, what do you expect from the Jews? Tapping into the latent anti-Semitism in our culture is convenient, because it lets us off the hook. But with Jesus, the apostles, all the New Testament writers being Jews, that’s a non-starter. How do we make sense of it all going sideways?

Let’s go back to Isaiah’s words:

For Zion’s sake I will not keep silent,
and for Jerusalem’s sake I will not rest,
until her vindication shines out like the dawn,
and her salvation like a burning torch.

In Jesus’ time Jews argued about how to hear those words. At one end of the scale: Jerusalem’s vindication as the condemnation of the gentiles. (The Zealots were here: the only good Roman is a dead Roman.) The other end of the scale: Jerusalem’s vindication as the salvation of the gentiles. And that’s where Jesus was.

It starts already in the angel’s proclamation to the shepherds: “Do not be afraid; for see– I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people” (Luke 2:10).

Fast forward to Jesus reading Isaiah in the synagogue in Nazareth: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” From a nationalistic perspective, so far so good. But then Jesus chooses examples: Elijah in the famine providing for a gentile, that widow at Zarephath in Sidon; Elisha healing Naaman the Syrian of leprosy.

That argument keeps popping up, so that at the end when the Jerusalem crowd has the choice of sparing Barabbas, who’s killed Romans, and Jesus, who hasn’t…

“He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him”—because Jesus did not offer vindication on their terms.

So God’s story ends in defeat or in a long drawn-out stalemate? Hardly. “But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God.” Receiving Jesus, believing in Jesus’ name: beginning with Holy Baptism that’s a life-long process. We’d don’t easily give up getting vindication on our own terms. But through this process God’s glory is visible, which was and is the point of Jerusalem’s vindication. Paul writes to the Corinthians: “You are God’s building… God’s temple is holy and you are that temple” (1 Cor 3:9, 17).

Hear Isaiah again:

2 The nations shall see your vindication,
and all the kings your glory;
and you shall be called by a new name
that the mouth of the LORD will give.
3 You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the LORD,
and a royal diadem in the hand of your God.

Jesus is not content that God’s glory be confined to Jerusalem, or Rome, or Washington, but be visible wherever two or three are gathered in Jesus’ name, Sun Prairie for example. That glory, that “grace and truth” that came through Jesus: the world in its better moments is hungry for that, and Jesus’ dream is that it be found here. For that we come together. For that we extend our hands to receive into ourselves Jesus’ Body, Jesus’ Blood.

Amen, and Merry Christmas!

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