Sermon Seeds: Beauty
Sunday, December 25, 2022
Christmas | Year A
(Liturgical Color: White)
Isaiah 52:7-10 • Psalm 98 • Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12) • John 1:1-14
In These Last Days (Click here for the series overview.)
By Cheryl A. Lindsay
“Beauty is in the eye of the beholder,” the saying goes. It reflects the subjective nature of identifying something or someone as beautiful. At the same time, that valuation is not made in isolation. Societal, ethnic, and cultural norms impact our perspective on beauty. What is considered beautiful today may have not held that same view a century or so ago. We only need to look at art, music, and fashion to see how our preferences can and have evolved.
But some things transcend individual or temporal evaluation. The sun rising over mountains or setting on the ocean, the sound of a baby laughing, and a vibrant flower surviving the harsh conditions of the desert represent beauty with an almost universal reach. Even if you prefer an hibiscus to a rose, you can still recognize the beauty of both. Beauty is pleasing to the senses and creates wonderful and awesome experiences. Beauty is a gift from God.
More than that, beauty, like love, joy, peace, and hope, emanates from God. Beauty is of God. The epistle writer James proclaimed that “every good and perfect gift is from above.” Is there a better description of beauty–good and perfect gifts? Perhaps, that’s why it can be both universal and subjective. What is universally considered beautiful often stems from nature–creation. Did Creator not declare it all good? Beauty.
At the same time, what seems beautiful to one may seem problematic for another. In a drought, there is nothing as beautiful as an advancing storm cloud bringing rain. During a flood, those same clouds are a curse. Beauty is truly a subjective measure and can be ascribed in ways that may be surprising. From the words of Isaiah, we quickly understand that the prophet does not focus on the ascetic value of the messenger’s feet but on their instrumental role in delivering what is truly beautiful.
Holiness enjoyed (52:1–10). In verses 1–2, Zion is awakened to a new condition of holiness (1b–d), separation (1ef) and royalty (2); the initial For of verse 3 introduces an explanation: a free redemption (3), bondage (4–5) ended by divine self-revelation (6), bringing the triumphant news to Zion (7–10). There is a tension between the ‘already’ of verses 1–2, Zion awaking to holiness; the ‘not yet’ of verses 3–6, the Lord pondering the need of his people; and the ‘now’ of verses 7–10, the divine action accomplished. Logically and chronologically the sections should be in a different order, but drama dictates otherwise. In effect, then, Zion can awake to holiness (1–2) because (for, 3) the Lord contemplated her need (3–6) and took action (7–10).
J. Alec Motyer
This passage from Isaiah holds the past, present, and future in view. Babylonian captivity has recently ended. There is time for celebration as the people have been liberated from bondage and freed according to the promises of their God. So much of the gospel narrative is the glorious tension of the already-not yet dynamic reality of the kindom of God. Liberation has come, but not everyone knows it. Can we ever be free without awareness of it? The messenger is the final, and entirely necessary, agent of liberation and salvation.
This passage is echoed in the experience of Watch Night for enslaved Africans in America who waited on the eve of a new year for word of their emancipation from slavery. How beautiful were the feet of those messengers who came around midnight bearing that glorious news!
The messenger in this passage also has a beautiful message and a difficult path to travel in order to convey it. The mountain referenced in this passage can certainly point to Zion, as the community of faith impacted by the message. In a more literal sense, the mountain can refer to the landscape that had to be traversed in order to reach the people with the message. Climbing a mountain is tough work. Messengers have to be physically conditioned in order to endure the physical rigors of the journey–the long distances and rough terrain they would encounter. Messengers would also be confronted by wild animals, including predators. Defending themselves from attack would be another requirement of this role.
In other biblical passages, we hear messengers called runners. When I hear this passage, I envision someone running. The message is so timely and necessary, there can be no delay in conveying it. This runner is not like the folkx who run in the neighborhood roads in early morning hours as the day breaks or those who use a local track or trail in the park. The path is not one neatly set out like those dedicated and blocked off for a marathon. These messengers had to create their own path and set their own trail. Certainly, they may have had some direction and parts of it were probably smoother than others, but the messenger had a particularly challenging and arduous task.
Their feet must have been aching for most of the journey. They could not rely on the technology we have to absorb the impact of running. Even with that, today’s runners often have to give special attention and care to their feet before and during a run. Imagine running over exposed roots, fallen limbs, uneven paths, and varying elevations all the while you remain on the lookout for predators–animal and human–that could place your life in great peril.
The feet carry the burden of the run. They hold the weight of the journey. They absorb the impact on the rest of the body. There is a cost to the journey, and the feet–the message bearer–pays it.
The feet are proclaimed beautiful because they carry peace. They carry liberation. They carry the good news. The people are free. The Holy One still reigns and has not forgotten them.
So Jerusalem can stop lying prostrate and demoralized. It had been victim of Yahweh’s wrath as well as victim of Babylonian aggression, but a statute of limitation applies to both. Yahweh has said “Enough is enough.” It’s time to punish the oppressor instead of the victim. There’s more to it. She isn’t just going to be liberated. She’s going to be made beautiful again.
There is much to celebrate. Restoration has been promised, is taking place, and will continue. God, who seemed to be on their captors’ side, is with them definitely. Peace, salvation, and joy are on the horizon rising up like the sun over the mountain.
On Christmas, we celebrate a beautiful message…of hope and encouragement, peace and liberation, joy and restoration, love and abundance. Culturally, it transcends Christianity as a religion and extends in observance beyond our faith communities. In some ways, the good news we claim and exalt is a gift we share in the world. We get to be the messengers with beautiful feet that proclaim to the world what is possible…with singing of songs, generous gift giving, and gladness and good will to all.
Let us take the opportunity to carry this message with our beautiful feet.
Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent:
The 33rd General Synod adopted a Resolution to Recognize the United Nations International Decade for People of African Descent (2015-2024). As part of its implementation, Sermon and Weekly Seeds offers Reflection from Voices of People of African Descent related to the season or overall theme for additional consideration in sermon preparation and for individual and congregational study.
“Amazing Peace: A Christmas Poem”
Thunder rumbles in the mountain passes
And lightning rattles the eaves of our houses.
Flood waters await us in our avenues.
Snow falls upon snow, falls upon snow to avalanche
Over unprotected villages.
The sky slips low and grey and threatening.
We question ourselves.
What have we done to so affront nature?
We worry God.
Are you there? Are you there really?
Does the covenant you made with us still hold?
Into this climate of fear and apprehension, Christmas enters,
Streaming lights of joy, ringing bells of hope
And singing carols of forgiveness high up in the bright air.
The world is encouraged to come away from rancor,
Come the way of friendship.
It is the Glad Season.
Thunder ebbs to silence and lightning sleeps quietly in the corner.
Flood waters recede into memory.
Snow becomes a yielding cushion to aid us
As we make our way to higher ground.
Hope is born again in the faces of children
It rides on the shoulders of our aged as they walk into their sunsets.
Hope spreads around the earth. Brightening all things,
Even hate which crouches breeding in dark corridors.
In our joy, we think we hear a whisper.
At first it is too soft. Then only half heard.
We listen carefully as it gathers strength.
We hear a sweetness.
The word is Peace.
It is loud now. It is louder.
Louder than the explosion of bombs.
We tremble at the sound. We are thrilled by its presence.
It is what we have hungered for.
Not just the absence of war. But, true Peace.
A harmony of spirit, a comfort of courtesies.
Security for our beloveds and their beloveds.
We clap hands and welcome the Peace of Christmas.
We beckon this good season to wait a while with us.
We, Baptist and Buddhist, Methodist and Muslim, say come.
Come and fill us and our world with your majesty.
We, the Jew and the Jainist, the Catholic and the Confucian,
Implore you, to stay a while with us.
So we may learn by your shimmering light
How to look beyond complexion and see community.
It is Christmas time, a halting of hate time.
On this platform of peace, we can create a language
To translate ourselves to ourselves and to each other.
At this Holy Instant, we celebrate the Birth of Jesus Christ
Into the great religions of the world.
We jubilate the precious advent of trust.
We shout with glorious tongues at the coming of hope.
All the earth’s tribes loosen their voices
To celebrate the promise of Peace.
We, Angels and Mortal’s, Believers and Non-Believers,
Look heavenward and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at our world and speak the word aloud.
Peace. We look at each other, then into ourselves
And we say without shyness or apology or hesitation.
Peace, My Brother.
Peace, My Sister.
Peace, My Soul.”
— Maya Angelou
For further reflection
“Christmas is built upon a beautiful and intentional paradox; that the birth of the homeless should be celebrated in every home.” — G.K. Chesterston
“I love the Christmas-tide, and yet,
I notice this, each year I live;
I always like the gifts I get,
But how I love the gifts I give!” — Carolyn Wells
“Christmas is the day that holds all time together.” — Alexander Smith
Goldingay, John. Isaiah for Everyone. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2015.
Motyer, J. Alec. Isaiah: An Introduction and Commentary, vol. 20, Tyndale Old Testament Commentaries. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1999.
Suggested Congregational Response to the Reflection
A Bible study version of this reflection is at Weekly Seeds.
Isaiah 52:7-10 • Psalm 98 • Hebrews 1:1-4, (5-12) • John 1:1-14
Find the full text here: https://lectionary.library.vanderbilt.edu/texts.php?id=7