December 15, 2019

Catechetical Christmas Carols, V:
Creator of the Stars of Night

Passage: Selected verses from John 1:1–14 at 8 a.m.

The most recognized three-word phrase in the western hemisphere is “In the beginning,” the opening phrase of our Hebrew scriptures. “In the beginning when God created…. God said let there be light…. And God said let us make humankind…”

The ancient Israelites composed Genesis’ creation story—of God speaking into existence the heavens and earth, placing the sun and moon above, plants and people below, and calling it all “good”—during their Babylonian captivity and exile. The other creation stories in the Hebrew scriptures that predate this story describe creation emerging from conflict, distressed with one god battling another for control. Echoes of these creation stories exist in Psalms and elsewhere.

The creation story prioritized above all, “In the beginning,” imagines a time of calm, with God eternally in control and choosing to speak creation into existence. Some call this story of creation God’s first incarnation, creating and then stepping into a cosmos, ordaining an order, and setting in motion all that becomes, and it is “good.”

In a similar manner, the writer of John’s gospel conceived of his description of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection for a people who witnessed the fall of the temple in Jerusalem, were living in fear of authorities, and like the ancient Israelites were in a form of exile wondering “where do I belong?” To these trembling souls John writes. Before we hear this prologue, please pray with me.

Holy God we come to you in the quiet of this chapel, seeking to be closer to you, and the grace of the Christ child. We pray for you to still us. Move within us. Reveal your truths in these ancient words and bless our meditation with your Holy Spirit. Amen.

John 1 (selected verses from 114)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.

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. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

“In the beginning was the Word,” the logic, the formula, the periodic table of elements, the blueprint, the design, the idea of wind and water, sparking notions of a burning sun or boiling lava, the evolution. “In the beginning was the Word,” the dream, the creative vision of flesh and blood, and the love seeking to embody human life.[1]

John’s gospel affirms that we are not mistakes or failures. This writer argues Jesus’ arrival is nothing short of God’s desire to move among us in the blessedness of a human body and to simply love us back to where we belong.

John’s gospel places Jesus at the pinnacle with the creator of the stars of night, in complete control, and confident of all manner of being.

John’s gospel imagines God incarnate celebrating life, partying at weddings, healing broken bodies, weeping at a friend’s death, praying quietly, speaking up to bullies, all the things that bring joy and pain, suffering and love, tears and heartache.

John’s gospel paints a portrait, of the way and truth and the life of Jesus loving us to the end and laying down his life at his will so God will raise it up. In John’s gospel we hear Jesus speak of his prior life with God.

Salvation begins with Jesus’ incarnation into our world, not for us to escape it, but for us to witness grace and truth—right now. Salvation begins by knowing we are loved and blessed in this earthly shell.

Like the early Christians we need to hear this story each year to remember such gifts from God. We need to remember we are given the power to become children of God.[2]

You may have seen the viral film clip. Little Ayaan Brielle at three years of age, walking a sidewalk with a ripe banana so large you wonder if his little, left hand can securely hold it. A backpack hangs from his shoulders that is as big as he is. Staring straight ahead, he talks to himself: “I am smart. I am blessed. I can do ANYTHING.”  He repeats this mantra over and over.

When Ayann learned to talk at age two, his mom coached him with these ideas, so by age three, when he ventured out, he knew by heart his identity.

As an African-American, Ayaan’s parents knew their little boy would face the slings and arrows of racism, both verbal and literal, which can kill a sense of self and kill the body. As he grows, others will describe him with pejoratives of his blackness, tell him he does not belong, belittle his dreams, and place him a box. Before anything, his parents want him to know he is smart, he is blessed, and he can do anything.[3]

As we grow up, we collect adjectives. In my first 20-year career of banking, we first marveled at being described with words such as “first,” “second,” “vice,” “senior,” and “executive,” and all the combinations of these to differentiate employees as one rose in prominence.

The other ways we describe ourselves as a spouse or divorced, felon or innocent, or by our profession of doctor or bricklayer shape our sense of self. If we are disabled or typically abled, or if our home is within a particular zip code, we live with descriptions, whether nurturing or toxic. We live with them long enough; we cannot imagine any other way.

A group of us are about to complete The Artist’s Way, following a book of the same name written by Julia Cameron. At the beginning of this twelve-week spiritual pilgrimage we were to journal some of the things we had been told about ourselves while growing up that held us back.  Such as:

  • Boy’s don't do that…
  • You’ll never amount to much unless you focus on science
  • Too bad you are not as smart as your older sister
  • We are…fill in the blank ethnicity…so we don’t mix with…fill in the blank…those others
  • Don’t even think you can pay a mortgage by doing that
  • You simply do not have talent[4]

To confront these stories we’d been fed, at times, aroused anger and resentment, we became vulnerable. Honestly this remembering brought pain back from places long hidden even if we fundamentally knew they were not true.

At the same time as we stared at these toxins of our youth, we were also to repeat a series of affirmations. Of the twenty suggested, here is a sample:

1. I am a channel for God’s creativity, and my work comes to good.
2. My dreams come from God and God has the power to accomplish them.
10. My creativity leads me to forgiveness and self-forgiveness.
11. There is a divine plan of goodness for me.
12. There is a divine plan of goodness for my work.

The spiritual journey to recover a sense of self can frighten even a group of privileged white folks (to name the obvious) with memories of being hurt or disillusioned. In our journey we return again and again to affirm God sees us as good. The pilgrimage restores our identity as children of God.

Children that is, who are not dominated by the circumstances in which we find ourselves, not defined by our limitations or hurts, and whose destinies are not controlled by others. Rather we are those individuals who know ourselves to be God’s own beloved children. This is pure gift. Christmas is God’s gift to us.

Let me close with a story.

A long, long time ago, on the night Jesus was born, there was a small, field mouse named Michael. He had big ears, a long tail, and tiny eyes. That night, he was sleeping in a small hole, dreaming nice thoughts, when suddenly he was wakened by a strange noise. When he came out of his hole, he was astounded at the sky, bright as day, though it was the middle of the night. He heard angels singing.

Wanting to know what was happening, Michael asked his good friend the owl, “What’s all the noise about?”

The owl responded, “There’s a great commotion because a baby has been born in Bethlehem. Every creature is going to see him.”

Michael wondered if he could go such a long distance. But, off he went.

When he arrived at the yard of the inn, he heard the other animals whispering of the baby, Jesus. He too wanted to see the baby.

Suddenly some sheep got in his way. Michael asked the mother sheep, “May I come with you to see the baby?”

She looked him up and down, “do you have a present?”

“No.” Michael didn’t think to bring a present. “What will you give the baby?”

Mrs. Sheep said, “I planned to give the wool on her back to keep Jesus warm,” as she walked into the stable.

Dejected, Michael wondered what he would do.

As Mrs. Cow lumbered by, Michael asked for a ride on her back so he could see the baby.

“Where is your present?”

Again, Michael had to say, “I did not bring one.” But curious, he asked, “Where is yours?” “I will give them my milk. You cannot come with me without a present.”

The procession continues with Mrs. Chicken passing Michael on her way to see the child and offer her eggs. A big ginger cat arrives. Her gift is to keep little hooligans like Michael away.

Sadly, Michael scampered to the side of the stable, still unable to get in. Then he notices a light coming through the roof. It was a small hole. Slowly Michael climbed up, fighting a wind he not noticed before.

As he got to the hole to gaze in, his little body was just enough to squeeze through, he saw the baby. At the same time, the wind stopped blowing into the manger. Mary looked up, smiled, and mouthed “thank you.” Michael’s presence in that hole stopped the chilling draught.

From this spot, Michael watched everything. The sheep’s wool covered Jesus. The cow’s milk and hen’s eggs became dinner.

In the morning, Michael, like all the animals returned home. When he saw his friend the owl. With an air of authority, the owl proceeded to tell all about Jesus’ birth. He presumed as the other animals that without a gift, Michael was left out.

Michael shook his head. “I saw it all.”

Confused, Owl asked, “What did you give him?”

“I gave him me…for as long as he needed me….I gave him me.” [5]

My friends, this children’s story from Scotland tells the obvious truth that God gives us the greatest gifts at Christmas: the truth that each one of us is beloved as uniquely made by God. Each one of us is welcome at the cradle. Each one of us is given the grace to begin again each and every day. Each one of us is given the power to become children of God.

In return we give back to God only what we can…our very selves.

May it be so, my friends, may it be so.

[1] Inspired by David D. Ogston, Scots Worship:  Advent Christmas and Epiphany, (Edinburgh:  St. Andrews Press, 2014), 5.

[2] Each time I teach or preach from The Gospel of John, I am inspired by the following commentary:  Frances Taylor Gench, Encounters with Jesus, (Louisville:  Westminster John Knox, 2007).

[3] Forget about reading this sermon, just click on the link to be inspired by John’s gospel from the mouth of babes:  Enjoli Francis and Eric Noll, “Three year-old captures hearts, inspired with affirmations: ‘I am smart. I am blessed.’”  ABC News, October 9, 2019.

[4] Julia Cameron, The Artist’s Way:  A Spiritual Path to Higher Creativity, (New York:  G.P. Putnam, 1992).

[5]Adapted from Wild Goose Publications’ Cloth for the Cradle,