The Word without a Word

Eagle Lectern

A sermon for Christmas Day, December 25, 2015.  The lectionary readings are Isaiah 52:7-10, Psalm 98, Hebrews 1:1-12, and  John 1:1-14.

Listen to the sermon HERE.

Last night’s Gospel reading was the familiar Christmas Story:  Mary and Joseph go to Bethlehem.  There is no room for them in the inn, so they find space in a barn.  Jesus is born (God is born) as a tiny, struggling, vulnerable, and dependent baby.  The shepherds come and the angels sing.  The drama unfolds all around a small child.  My reflections last night had to do with what I would call “the smallness of God,” meaning, the way of God to show up in a small child, and then keep showing up in our lives in tiny ways that, at first, might seem completely insignificant.

But since last night, God has grown up.  Well, that’s not quite right.  What I mean, is that if last night’s story was intimate and personal, about God who comes in small ways; today’s story is about God the majestic, God the Creator of the Universe, and God the mysterious and all-powerful, all-knowing Spirit that hovered over the beginnings of time and will breathe blessing over the end of all time.  It’s the same story.  It’s still the story of God’s Incarnation, God’s coming into the world in the form of a human being, Jesus of Nazareth.  But today’s Gospel, from John, comes from a different perspective.

Richard Burridge gets at some of this perspective when he suggests that “if the other gospels [Matthew, Mark, and Luke] are like symphonies or operas, [then] John is like a great conductor, totally absorbed in his music and straining to ensure that every theme is heard by his audience.” [Four Gospels, One Jesus? p. 134]

The traditional symbol for the Gospel of John is the eagle. This is a part of the symbolism with our lectern, an eagle lectern. The eagle flies highest, sees farthest, and moves with strength, clarity, and purpose—all good qualities for framing our hearing and learning Holy Scripture.   John’s Gospel is different from Matthew, Mark, and Luke.  It’s perspective is different because it sees more.  It sees farther.  It can put things together in a way that someone or something on the ground in just one place could not possibly put together.  And so it is with John’s perspective of who Jesus Christ is, why Jesus Christ is, how God-in-Christ moves among us, and what it means for our lives.  John’s invitation for us is to have faith.  Simply have faith in Jesus Christ.  Have faith in God.

The perspective of the eagle (the perspective of John) invites us to try to take in the big picture, to let our questions rest for a bit.  Put aside our arguments and suppose—just suppose—that there might be more to the Big Picture than we can currently take in.  That’s all faith asks, really.  As a friend of mine puts it pretty bluntly:  All I need to know about God is that I’m not IT.  God is something beyond me.  God is something greater than me.  God is something more than me.

If last night was about the giggles of children, the braying of donkeys in stables, and the off-key carols of angels giddy from the heights of heaven… if last night was about God’s speaking through what is small—then today, it seems to me, invites us to rest in OUR smallness and to let God be God. The day invites us to a place of simple faith where we can perhaps allow that “God is,” and leave it at that.  Behind God is mystery, is love, and still silence.  T.S. Eliot reflects of this aspect of God and draws on images from John when he writes

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.    [Ash Wednesday]

Even when unspoken.  Even when unheard.  Even when unobserved or unrecognized or un-believed, God is.

And in that simple statement there is freedom for us. If God is, then I don’t always have to be.  I don’t have to be in charge.  I don’t have to be right.  I don’t have to understand.  I don’t have to as good as I’d like to be, or as perfect, or as generous.  I’m still whirling—still growing (falling and getting up again, all through prayer), but our God is big enough to handle me (and you) even when we’re at our smallest.

The Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.  Thanks be to God for being vast.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.  Amen.

 

About John F. Beddingfield

Rector of The Church of the Holy Trinity (Episcopal) in New York City on East 88th Street between 1st Ave and 2nd Ave.
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