December 25, 2022
The Rev. Margaret O. Fox
Isaiah 62:10-12; John 1:1-14
I know that today is Christmas, but somehow the conditions don’t feel quite right to hear the passage Karen read— this grand, famous prologue from the Gospel according to John.
In the beginning was the Word,
and the Word was with God,
and the Word WAS God.
It’s a text full of abstractions: words like Word and God and Light and Life – thrown together in a kind of philosophical poetry, set within a cosmic arena, dealing with concepts of infinity and eternity – stretching to the furthest reaches of space and time.
And yes—the text IS on topic—it’s about incarnation the Word became flesh and dwelt among us -but boy, it feels like a lot to digest on Christmas morning—a time that’s often set aside for family, and presents, and rich food—
a day full of happiness and feasting or a time that, when it isn’t, feels like it should be a day full of memory and longing.
And this passage, with all its grandness and abstraction, feels like too much mental challenge, too little spiritual comfort, for a day like today. Forget infinity and eternity, give us instead a story that’s quieter, gentler, more domestic—give us the barn and the baby and the animals, the angels and the shepherds and the star.
And besides, it’s strange to hear, in daylight, text whose only image is a light shining in the darkness–maybe if it were the warmth glowing in the coldness, maybe that would be something we could relate to….John’s prologue is, in my experience, better enacted than explained—the Word read at midnight in a darkened sanctuary, the Light passed as a candle flame from pew to pew.
Perhaps I should have asked Tim and Alexandra, who preached last night,if they’d have been willing to swap passages with me—so they could preach on this one in the majesty of the sanctuary, the mystery of the dark.
But here we are, in broad daylight, on Christmas morning.
So what do we do with a text like this on a day like today?
A couple of weeks ago, I was sitting upstairs in my office, anticipating this moment, trying to figure this out. I had set aside a Monday morning—Alexandra and I are the only associate pastors who work on Monday, and so there are fewer interruptions—–it’s precious time for deep work and quiet concentration. Looking for a way into John’s prologue, I opened my copy of TS Eliot’s poem the Four Quartets and flipped to the part in the Dry Salvages where he describes the incarnation as “the point of intersection of the timeless with time” and I was beginning to struggle with that phrase when the phone rang: it was Jessica, at the front desk, asking me to come down.
“What’s going on?” I asked. “We have a visitor,” she replied. “She’s got some, well, she’s got some questions about Presbyterianism.”
I was, of course, annoyed.
Here I was, trying to write a sermon about the prologue of John’s Gospel the word made flesh, the infinite made finite, the point of intersection of timelessness and time—but I myself am NOT the timeless one – I experience time not as eternity but finitude—I’m a human being, firmly bound by present, past, and future—and on top of that, I’m a human being who also happens to be an associate pastor at Westminster—which means I’m VERY aware that time is a limited resource, there never seems to be enough—and here it was, the time I had set aside to comprehend the mystery of the incarnation, snatched away by the interruption of some random visitor.
I sighed, and put myself in order, and walked down the stairs.
The visitor was seated in the lobby, in one of the chairs by the window.
She was with Kevin Eveland, who is our Building Hospitality and Safety Manager – a job title that might sound like a euphemism for a glorified bouncer, except that the way Kevin occupies the role is anything but that.
Kevin takes the hospitality part seriously – on the day of his job interview, he showed up early and walked around the outside of the building, striking up conversations and getting to know the names of the people sitting on the benches, the retaining walls, the steps, and since his arrival he’s worked with the city to help multiple people gain access to more secure housing. Kevin has a quiet, open, loving spirit, a calm presence, a deep patience— and he’s also conscientious. When he’s talking one-on-one with a female visitor, he’ll ask one of us to come down.
Seeing Kevin there helped shift my energy— I could set aside my impatience, and borrow his openness, his gentleness—and so I approached, and introduced myself, and asked if I might join them.
Our visitor said she’d seen our sign and wanted to know what Presbyterian meant, what it is that we believed here—and so I rattled off the doctrine as best I could—the sovereignty of God, salvation by grace—everything decent and in order–but I realized that my hornbook answer might not be what she was looking for, and that I needed to do less talking and more listening, and so I asked about her life, what brought her in the doors. And so she told me.
Our guest spoke mostly in abstractions. She spoke of things in her life that were light and darkness, old and new without identifying anything, what was light, what was dark, what was old and what was new -and of objects that carried great symbolic meaning— a candle, a door—without explaining why. She kept checking in to see if I was following. I couldn’t fully understand her —couldn’t follow all the symbols and abstractions— and I tried to be honest with her about where I did and didn’t track—but also to stick with her, to keep listening, to stay present to whatever question had brought her through our door.
What I began to hear from her was a circumstance of great transition in her life – a point of intersection, containing both distress and hope.
Eventually I asked her about it, and she said yes, that’s exactly where she was—and I asked if she wanted to pray, and she said yes, and so we took hands, she and Kevin and I, and prayed—addressed a God beyond our comprehension, out of circumstances beyond my comprehension, gave thanks for the light that shines in the darkness, asked for God’s help in honoring what was old and welcoming what was new.
And when the prayer was over, when we had opened our eyes and lifted our heads, but before we’d release each other’s hands, she looked at us and said, “Thank you”—as though she’d been not just seen and heard, but also understood, even though any understanding must have been on the part of the Holy Spirit, because mine remained so partial, so incomplete.
Back in my office, I set aside my sermon and reflected instead on this encounter— this visit that had, for me, the character of a gift— the call from Kevin that had interrupted my agenda, broken my busyness, this little scene of patience and love that I’d stepped into, when time had shifted, slowed, and focused in an extended, sacred moment of connection.
I returned to that phrase from TS Eliot, and noticed how the line began: “to apprehend the point of intersection of the timeless with time.” – not to comprehend, but to apprehend, which is to say, not to explicate, but to witness, not to understand, but to see.
Incarnation is, after all, a mystery, better experienced than explained.
I’ve seen this elsewhere at Westminster.
One time a few weeks ago, I was in conversation with a church member, and I found myself giving her a compliment, not about herself, but about her husband.
We serve on a committee together, and at one of our meetings, the conversation had gone off the rails— scattered in different directions, competing agendas, lack of focus— this can happen when, as is often the case at Westminster, you get a lot of smart people in the same room, all with good ideas.
This particular committee member spent most of the meeting listening quietly. And then, when there was a pause, he made a contribution—a comment that offered a new idea, a new possibility.
You could tell, when he said it, that he hadn’t simply been waiting to get a word in edgewise, to advance his own agenda, but instead that he’d seen and heard and valued the ideas of the others, and out of that listening offered something entirely new.
It was so natural and easy and unshowy and non-competitive that it might have gone unnoticed—and I’m not sure I would have noticed it, had I not been banging my head against the wall and praying for divine intervention—and then it came in the form of this quiet comment, which grounded us, and gathered us, and gave us new direction.
And so I told his wife this story, about this thing I’d seen her husband do.
She smiled and said. “I love that about him, the way that he listens.” And then she added something remarkable: “Sometimes I think he sees people the way God sees them.” “The way God sees them?” I asked, and she said, “Yes—as though he sees the goodness in them, sees them with generosity and love.”
What does that mean?
What does it mean to see people the way that God sees them?
How does God see us?
I know something about how WE see people, or at least how I see people—as interruptions to a busy day, as roadblocks to productive meetings, as unhelpful customer service representatives, as relatives who overstay their holiday welcome – but what would it mean to see other people as God sees them—or to see ourselves as God sees us?
John’s prologue, in the midst of all its abstractness, tells us something about how we see God—or rather how we don’t – “no one has ever seen God,” John says. “It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made God known.”
In Jesus, we’re told, the Word becomes flesh, the light becomes life, God becomes human, becomes knowable, becomes known. Abstractions give way to the particular: this person, this place. The mystery gives way to story, and John’s Gospel of the life of Jesus begins.
But the mystery of incarnation tells us something, too, not just about how we see God, but about the way that God sees us, which is to say: in Jesus Christ we learn that God sees us as worthy of a visit.
In Christ, we’re told, God comes to be with us—in Jesus, God steps out of timelessness and into time— the Word became flesh and lived among us, full of grace and truth.
The people God’s Word lived among were people just like us—with foibles and frailties, worries and concerns, with agendas, a propensity to blather on at meetings, a tendency to treat other people as means to an end, engaged in a valiant struggle against a sense of insignificance—and incarnation tells us that God knew and saw all this—God knows and sees us as we are— and yet still decided we were worth a visit. We were worth God’s time and attention – we were worth coming to see.
The visit was a costly one—we know how the story ends—“He came into the world, and the world received him not,” John says—and yet it was deliberate, intentional, God, too, knew how it would end, and yet chose to do it anyway, chose to dwell with us as one of us, chose a life both very real and very mortal, up to and including death.
And all in all, the visit was a very human one—there were miracles, yet, but also meals and walks and conversation, the stuff of our own visits, the way we spend our time— the gift that is experience, the sacredness already present here.
And while we’re often too distracted by our own devices, there are times we too can see it, even just a glimpse, times we notice something in another person, someone we’ve just met, a stranger, or someone that we’re closest to, a spouse, when we see the sacred in them, when we see the light shine through.
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.
Thanks be to God.