by Lisa Wiens Heinsohn
Lisa is my older sister, my oldest friend, and such a gifted writer and pastor. The following is her sermon for Christmas Day, which she gave at her church, St. Matthews this morning. Lisa preaches most Sunday nights at St Matthews, so feel free to drop by, either for the service at 7pm (it’s a very cool bluegrass liturgical evening service of night prayer & Eucharist), or the free, no rsvp required drop-in dinner at 5:30pm – or both, of course. Enjoy! Follow Lisa on twitter here.
Every tradition has its story about the beginning of time. About the vast unimaginable reaches of the past when literally everything was brand new, the cosmos was fresh, and everything was possible. The Hindu tradition teaches that the world began when God spoke the cosmic word OM, and the vibrations from that sound created everything that is and those vibrations still echo in our heartbeats, in the tides of the oceans, in the rhythms of day and night and summer and winter, in our own breathing, inhale and exhale.
The Greeks had some similar ideas. They had an incredible idea called the Logos, which means the Word. There were various different interpretations of what the Logos was, but I especially like what the Stoics came up with. The Stoics thought that there was a divine word, the Logos, which was the divine animating principle of the world; the power of creativity and life itself. Hellenistic Jews adopted this idea of the Logos, the divine principle, and called it Wisdom. Wisdom was seen as the divine feminine principle through which God made the world.
And as we see in today’s text, for Christians, the Logos, the Word, is also seen as being divine, and creating the world. But then Christians take it a step further and say that this creative Word became a human baby in the person of Jesus the Christ. God comes to us in many forms, but today, at the darkest time of the year, Christians affirm the mystery of God as not just human, but as a human baby—a baby full of beginning and beauty and possibility. A baby, who is completely helpless and vulnerable.
My husband Jeff had a pretty rough childhood. He had lost four members of his immediate family by the time he was thirteen years old. Because of this he swore that he would never have a family of his own—because even the risk of losing another family would be greater than he could bear. But love got the better of him, and he and I married. Then our beautiful daughter Carly was born. And so there the three of us were, six years ago, at the hospital. Carly was born at 7pm on a Saturday night, and after a few hours of delighting in her existence and getting visited by family and nurses and hospital routines, I eventually fell asleep, exhausted. But Jeff sat in an overstuffed chair and held Carly, for hours. I don’t think he slept. He just stared at her, split wide open by the hope and risk she brought to him.
For us Carly was an incredible new beginning, but Carly can’t be reduced to a meaning we assign to her. She is a human being in her own right, and it is our delight and privilege to continue to get to know who she is over time.
God is like that. For Christians, there is no symbol, sound, or single word to which God can be reduced. There is no image, picture, doctrine, or formula that captures the essence of God. For Christians, seeking to know God on Christmas Day, only a baby will do: a perfect, tiny, absolutely helpless human being who cannot even speak or hold up her head. This is God. The God of new beginnings, the God who so yearns to be near us that God is willing to relinquish all power and become utterly dependent on us as a baby.
We’re used to thinking about Jesus as an adult—and over time, in epiphany, lent, and easter, we’ll grow with Jesus and get to know God as God shows up in the maturing person of Jesus of Nazareth—the Jesus who heals, who challenges authority, and who eventually surrenders his life. But not today. Today, let us hang on to the God who comes to us in new beginnings, in this tiny infant. On Christmas Day we celebrate this infant God, this God of endless possibility and vulnerability, this God who delights in offering us the chance, over and over, to begin again.
Who are we, here at St. Matthew’s today? A motley collection of folks. Perhaps some of us are those who love church and the Christian story so much that we can’t stay away. Perhaps some of us are traveling and are temporarily away from our families, and so we have space and time and church seems like a worthy thing to do on Christmas morning. Perhaps some of us grew up in church but we found it didn’t speak to us in every day life, and so now we do attend, Christmas and Easter, because somehow we’re still connected—in some distant, uncomfortable way—with the Great Story of Christian tradition, the birth of Jesus, or at least with the songs and the tree and the candles and the sense of hope that is here at this darkest time of the year. And perhaps some of us are here because we have nowhere else to be, because there is no family or tree or eggnog or presents waiting for us somewhere.
To every one of us I want to affirm this: we can know deep in our bones that the baby-God of Christmas makes it possible for us to begin again. Always. There is no time of life, no series of events, no habits of behavior or mind that are so entrenched that God cannot make a new beginning for us. There is a young woman I know who doesn’t have anywhere to live, let’s call her Janet. Janet recently pulled up her sleeve to show me the marks of heroin use on her arm. At this darkest time of the year, she has decided to go to treatment again, even though the odds against her are almost insurmountable. I fiercely believe that God can make a new beginning for her. A new beginning, not that she has to manufacture from energies she doesn’t have, but from the creative power of the universe, the endlessly new Word of God who risked everything and became a human baby.
Consider your own life, and consider where you sense the need for a new beginning. We might not be dealing with heroin addiction, but we all go through periods where we need life beyond our own capacity to manufacture it. Perhaps your marriage is stale and you think you know everything your spouse would say on any given subject, as Tolkien would say “without the bother of asking him or her about it.” Perhaps you have tried lots of different approaches to your job or your vocational life and nothing seems to be working. Perhaps you can’t point to anything in particular that is wrong, but you also aren’t experiencing any joy, or any delight or playfulness, either. Or maybe you sense God calling you to something radically new, an unexpected direction that takes you deeper into following the way of Jesus, into deeper relationship with those at the margins, into a more humble relationship with people in your family. Sometimes God calls God’s church also to radical new beginnings. Sometimes we look around us and see that some of the old ways of doing things no longer speak gospel to the world God so loves. But that doesn’t mean the good news has died. It means that we need a fresh encounter with the living God, the Word, Jesus the Christ.
You might be tempted to start thinking about New Year’s resolutions at all this talk about new beginnings. I’ve never had any luck with those, but if you want to try them in a week, be my guest. But not today. Instead of trying to make it happen ourselves, let us open ourselves to beginning again by seeking to encounter the living God. We know that new beginnings always entail the risk of loss, and vulnerability, and that one can’t know the outcome in advance. Like Jeff staring at baby Carly in the hospital room, or Janet walking through the doors of the treatment center hoping against hope that something can change for her, we don’t know what the future will hold. But we can know that instead of trying to control the outcome, we can experience something far more wild and priceless and holy: we can encounter the God who is with us.
During the twelve days of Christmas, when even God is a baby, let us use the powers of childhood to encounter this God. We can be imaginative with our prayer. We can be playful in our experiments with following the way of Jesus. We can dare to risk failure and loss, because God is the one who is always making things new, and this God is endlessly with us. We can recover what the Buddhists call “beginner’s mind” and approach the stories and practices of our own tradition with fresh eyes and open hearts and the willingness to step out in faith, even if we fall and get back up many times. We can remember that we encounter the Christ at Christ’s table, in one another, in the stories of scripture, and in the faces of the poor.
The point of letting ourselves become childlike again in our faith is not to enter the land of make believe. It is to suspend the part of us that needs so desperately to control things, to join Jesus in his creative journey of restoring the world. It is about engaging in practices that allow God to make a new beginning of us. Though we can’t re-create ourselves, we as individuals and as a church can cooperate with God’s creative power working in us, and seek over and over again to encounter the living Word of God, Jesus the Christ, who alone makes all things new. Let us begin again.