Close to God’s Heart
Sunday, January 3
Second Sunday after Christmas
Close to God’s Heart
Gracious God,You have redeemed us through Jesus Christ, the first-born of all creation, whose birth we celebrate as the child of Bethlehem. Bless us with every spiritual blessing, that we may live as your adopted children and witness to your glory with unending praise and thanksgiving. Amen.
John 1: [1-9] 10-18
[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. There was a man sent from God, whose name was John. He came as a witness to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He himself was not the light, but he came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world.] 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.
(John testified to him and cried out, “This was he of whom I said, ‘He who comes after me ranks ahead of me because he was before me.'”) From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.
All Readings For This Sunday
Jeremiah 31:7-14 or Sirach 24:1-12
Psalm 147:12-20 or Wisdom 10:15-21
John 1:[1-9], 10-18
1. What Christmas carol do you think best expresses the Light coming into the world?
2. What is your greatest experience of homecoming?
3. What good news are you waiting to hear, or waiting to see fulfilled?
4. What word does your congregation bring to life?
5. What difference has the light shining on your life made in the life of the world?
Reflection by Kate Matthews (Huey)
Our reading from the Gospel of John is one of the most familiar and yet most transcendently beautiful passages in the Bible, which may prove quite a challenge if John’s lofty theology and language transcend our ability to grasp its profound meaning. Perhaps the thoughts expressed in John’s Prologue are too immense for us, although they lay out the very themes John will develop in his Gospel; scholars refer to this passage as an “overture” to the rest of the Gospel. “No one has ever seen God,” John writes, and indeed has anyone ever been able to find words that do justice to such a passage?
And yet, that may be the point of the reading: that the transcendent, beyond-words God took on flesh, came to us, found us, sought us out, took on our own existence, with its pains, its sorrows, its vulnerability and its joys. Stephen Bauman says it especially well: “God,” he writes, “is embedded with us in the human predicament.” When has God seemed far away and beyond your reach? When has God felt near at hand, as One who understands what you are struggling with, what your church may be struggling with, understands even the things you cannot put into words?
Grace upon grace
Jesus Christ shows us who God is, and we have received from his fullness, “grace upon grace.” This phrase sets a tone for this new year, especially when so many people are still struggling out of deep economic troubles. It may be secular heresy to see plenty right now, to see abundance, to see fullness even in a time like this. However, if we can claim that there is more than enough of everything we need most – forgiveness and reconciliation, grace, life, truth, joy, generosity, healing, and justice – perhaps we can also believe that there is more than enough of what our bodies need to live on: food, water, land, clothing, and shelter.
When it comes to grace, Beverly Gaventa reminds us that we’re not the only ones blessed by the light of God, for “all people, whether they believe it or not, live in a world illuminated by the light just as they live in a world created by the Word. What they are called to do is to trust the light, to walk in it, and thereby to become children of light.” Gaventa challenges us to live our lives “discovering the divine benevolence and reliability.” Might this even be a first step on the path to peace, if we truly believe there is more than enough for all?
The fullness of God’s grace
What does it mean to you, that “from his fullness, we have all received, grace upon grace”? What is grace? God’s grace has brought us light, has brought us truth, has brought us home. Coming home is a profound human experience, loaded with feeling. It’s even possible for a person to “live at home,” but feel as if they are in exile. Who are the members of your community who may feel that they are in exile, in your midst? What difference should it make to them that God took on human flesh and shared our own experiences of suffering and death? God is still speaking to us today, calling us to seek out the lost, the alienated, the excluded, the exiles in our own time and place. How are you and your congregation reaching out and bringing home the alienated, the excluded and the exiles in your neighborhood, and in the world?
Sooner or later, all of us have the experience of walking “in the darkness.” What is the “darkness” in which you walk, at times? How has the light of God’s love and compassion, God’s understanding and wisdom, delivered you from this kind of darkness? This week’s reading from Jeremiah (31:7-14) describes Israel’s joyful return from exile, by God’s leading hand, providing a tender picture of the way God continues to reach out to save the people. In one way or another, this joyful return is the story of our own lives, too, in a very different time and place. In what ways have you experienced “exile”? What has homesickness felt like to you, as an individual? Is it possible to find words to describe the joy of homecoming?
“Into the bosom/embrace of the Father”
Our focus theme, Close to God’s Heart, comes from the phrase in the passage that tries to describe the relationship between the first and second Persons of the Trinity. However, the translation in the NRSV might be better, according to The New Proclamation Commentary on the Gospels: “‘with God’ (v.1) is really ‘towards God,’ and ‘close to the Father’s heart’ (v. 18) is really ‘into the bosom/embrace of the Father,’ both expressing a vibrant and active exchange.” Barbara Brown Taylor reflects beautifully on the word, “‘bosom,’ an image that evokes the maternal as well as the paternal body of God. While no one has seen God, Jesus apparently knows where to lay his head….this Son knows how to listen to the heartbeat of his Father.”
We might wonder today how our churches would be transformed if all of our members thought of themselves as witnesses who testify to the Light, as John did. And then we might dream of how the world around us would be transformed as well, for God is calling us today, to let our light shine, individually and as communities of faith. God’s incredible gift of Jesus is one we can never repay, but there is a response we can give: the praise and thanks that we lift in prayer and song, especially in community. For example, as we pray our psalm reading for this week, Psalm 147, they’re not just words on a page – they come alive when we think of the joys of homecoming, of God’s mighty and tender deeds, of the Light that has come into the world, the world in which we all have known both exile and coming home. “God grants peace within your borders,” the psalmist sings, “God fills you with the finest of wheat”: there is that fullness again. What do these words feel like to you?
Singing the song all year
Despite what the world around us may say, Christmas is not over. In the church, we celebrate Christmas after a four-week observance of Advent that ends on Christmas Eve. In the world around us, we’ve been gathering with family and friends, exchanging gifts, holding pageants, and sending cards for several weeks. One of the most moving and memorable ways we celebrate Christmas, however, is singing Christmas carols. Our musical memory lasts through the years, from our childhood into our old age, the melodies familiar and comforting, the words hauntingly beautiful and instructive at the same time.
Sometimes, when a person has suffered a stroke or memory loss, they can still sing, and hymns have a particular power, as if they are imprinted on their hearts and minds. When my mother was recovering from a stroke at the age of 93, we listened together to a recording of “Panis Angelicus” on a Christmas CD, and it carried us both back to the childhood faith we shared, the one she passed on to me so long ago. The readings for this week are like hymns, too, and their lyrical celebration of God at work in the world, saving, vindicating, calling, and comforting, links us to our ancestors in faith who shared our common hope and longing. We sing together, with one another and with them, in a great chorus today.
God beyond our imagining, and as a little baby
John speaks of “the Word” that was present at creation, a mighty God, above our imagining or description, and yet this Word came into the world as a baby, small and vulnerable and sweet. It’s hard to relate to a transcendent God, but we can relate to a baby, a mother, and, strangely enough, the shepherds who came to give homage (even though most of us have never been shepherds). Perhaps this paradox explains why singing Christmas carols helps us in our humble attempts to express the inexpressible – we cannot put into words the incredible mystery of God-made-flesh, and yet we have known it in our bones. We have felt God with us even when we could never explain how that could be.
Richard Burridge finds lovely meaning in this reading as it “affirms the world’s goodness and the Word’s involvement in creation” and “inspires the great Christian involvement in both the arts and the sciences.” He observes that “[s]cientific inquiry is possible if the world is not some malicious fantasy but the result of a creator’s love–to study the laws of physics is to search out the mind of God,” and “rather than trying to escape the material body, our humanity can be explored in sculpture and paint, poetry and prose, dance and drama, music and song – because ‘in him was life’ (1:4).”
Waiting for God
Many of us are waiting for a messenger who will tell us that the tide has turned, that the day of vindication and hope has arrived, that God is still with us. Some of us have secretly, privately, in the deepest places of our hearts, given up hope. Or, worse, we may assume that it’s all up to us, or that we can somehow make everything right, all by our own efforts, without a God who has chosen to be right here, right in the midst of everything that we face.
However, this season of Christmas does more than remind us of what God has done, rather, it proclaims that God is active in the world today, in this setting of history. We might feel tired and relieved that Christmas is over, but it would be better to feel energized and renewed by the good news of the gift of Jesus Christ every day, not just on one morning each year. What is the new thing that God is doing in the life of your congregation, in your own life, in the life of the United Church of Christ? Barbara Brown Taylor develops the theme of bringing a word to life, a word that each one of us “has a gift for bringing to life,” whether that word is compassion, justice, generosity, patience, or love. “Until someone acts upon these words,” she observes, “they remain abstract concepts–very good ideas that few people have ever seen. The moment someone acts on them, the words become flesh. They live among us, so we can see their glory.” Taylor makes the same observation about congregations, who “embody words as well.”
In this new day, in this brand new year, God is revealing God’s own self in your life, in the life of your community. Hearing such good news, how are you, then, “anointed with the oil of gladness”? How will we continue to sing the joy of Christmas, to proclaim in the days ahead the good news of “grace upon grace,” of our coming home and of God making a home in our midst? Perhaps Christmas morning is unlike all other mornings, but indeed it is like every other morning of our lives, too, because Jesus Christ is alive and God is at work in our lives, here and now.
Richard Ascough recalls a lovely image from Henri Nouwen’s diary from Genesee Abbey, when he describes the Nativity set under the altar there, with “three small, featureless wooden figures representing the holy family. Although smaller than a human hand, a bright light shining upon them projected their large shadows upon the wall of the sanctuary.” Nouwen observes: “Without the radiant beam of light shining into the darkness there is little to be seen. I might just pass by these three simple people and continue to walk in darkness. But everything changes with the light.”
A preaching version of this commentary (with book titles) can be found at www.ucc.org/worship/samuel.
The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (Huey) serves as dean of Amistad Chapel at the national offices of the United Church of Christ in Cleveland, Ohio (https://www.facebook.com/AmistadChapel).
You’re invited to share your reflections on this text on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.
For further reflection
Albert Einstein, 20th century
“I want to know God’s thoughts – the rest are mere details.”
Jonathan Edwards, 18th century
“Grace is but glory begun, and glory is but grace perfected.”
Mother Teresa, 20th century
“Words which do not give the light of Christ increase the darkness.”
Helen Keller, 20th century
“Faith is the strength by which a shattered world shall emerge into the light.”
John Philip Newell, 21st century
“[W]e need to find ways of sharing our intimate experiences of the Mystery, for we are one. It is through one another that we will know more of the Life that flows within us all.
It is through sharing our fragments of insight that we will come to a fuller picture of the One who is at the heart of each life.”
Madeleine L’Engle, 20th century
“We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe, by telling them how wrong they are and how right we are, but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.”
Anne Lamott, 21st century
“Sometimes grace works like waterwings when you feel you are sinking.”
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