United Church of Christ

Close to God's Heart

Sunday, January 5, 2020
Second Sunday after Christmas Year A

Focus Theme:
Close to God's Heart

Focus Prayer:
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.

Focus Scripture:
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
Ephesians 1:3-14
John 1:[1-9], 10-18

Focus Questions:

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

Our reading from the Gospel of John is one of the most familiar and yet most transcendently beautiful passages in the Bible, but we're challenged by John's lofty theology and language in our attempt even to approach the profound meaning they convey. 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 often 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 speak 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." Once again, this phrase sets a tone for a new year, especially when we are struggling with divisions and resentments, controversies and disquiet. Immersed in endless election cycles that further split us into factions and inspire a nagging dread, many of us still struggle on our way out of deep economic troubles, unemployed or under-employed, with so many still caught in the web of poverty.

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, 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. Enough that we might share, and share generously.

Abundance for all, not some

When it comes to grace, for example, 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?

Perhaps our greatest challenge, then, is to understand God's abundance as something meant not just for us, or for those strong (or lucky) enough to have it already, but something that God intended to be shared, from the very beginning of creation, with all of God's children. What dreams of peace might a new year, a new beginning, bring, if we could share this abundance personally, communally, and even globally, with all of the people of the earth?

Grace brings us home

What does it mean to you, that "from his fullness, we have all received, grace upon grace"? What, then, 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. However, it's possible for a person to live at home, but feel as if they are in exile.

There are members of our communities who may feel that they are in exile, right in our midst, and it can make a tremendous difference to them that God took on human flesh and shared in our own experiences of suffering and death.

God calls us today to seek out the lost, the alienated, the excluded, the exiles in our own time and place. How can the church be a home for them? 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?

Walking in the light

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, being led by the hand of God, 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?

The Parent's Heart

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. An ancient hymn of the church, "Of the Parent's Heart Begotten" (#118 in The New Century Hymnal) reminds us of this close relationship, but Henry Wansbrough expands our understanding of the translation in the NRSV: "'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."

And 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."

Repentance and preparation

Hearing the story of John the Baptist's emergence from the wilderness to preach a gospel of repentance and preparation, we might wonder today how our churches would be transformed if all of our members thought of themselves, as John did, as witnesses who testify to the Light, and then we might dream of how the world around us would be transformed as well.

In what ways do you understand that God is calling you today, to let your light shine, individually and as a community of faith?

Both exile and coming home

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" (v. 14). There is that fullness, that plenty, that abundance, again. What do these words feel like to you?

Still the Christmas season

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.

The power of music

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 ninety-three, I gave her a Christmas CD with an exquisite version of the ancient and familiar hymn, "Panis Angelicus." As we listened together, neither one of us needed to speak, as it carried us both back to our childhood faith, the faith 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 in our own day. And we feel close to the heart of God.

Relating to a baby

John speaks of "the Word" that was present at creation, a mighty God, above our imaginings or description, and yet this Word came into the world as a baby, small and vulnerable and sweet. It is, obviously, hard to relate to a transcendent God, but we can relate more easily to a baby, a mother, and, strangely enough, the shepherds who came to give homage (even though few of us have been shepherds).

Perhaps this paradox explains why singing Christmas carols, and really all hymns, but especially the beloved ones, 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. Just as we may not understand all of John's lofty language, still, we find inexpressible beauty and meaning in it, and we want to know more of this Light, and to walk in its Love.

God's thoughts

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)."

Burridge's observation reminds me of words attributed to Albert Einstein: "I want to know God's thoughts--the rest are mere details."

A world in need of good news

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.

Energized and renewed

However, this season of Christmas does more than remind us of what God has already 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."

A new day, a new year

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."

What difference has the light shining on your life made in the life of the world?

A preaching commentary on this text (with book titles) is at http://www.ucc.org/worship_samuel.

The Rev. Kathryn Matthews (matthewsk@ucc.org) retired in 2016 after serving as the 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 in the comments on our Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/SermonSeeds.

For further reflection:

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."

John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire, 21st century
"The Logos, or Word, means God's inaugural vision for the world at the dawn of creation. It is not as if God came up with a new idea or a new program at the time of Christ. The divine vision of freedom and justice, of nonviolence and peace, and of an earth in which all have a fair and equitable share was there from creation itself."

Thomas Merton, 20th century, Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander in The Book of Hours, Kathleen Deignan, ed.
"I have the immense joy of being a member of a race in which God became incarnate. As if the sorrows and stupidities of the human condition could overwhelm me, now I realize what we all are....There is no way of telling people that they are all walking around shining like the sun. It was as if I suddenly saw the secret beauty of their hearts, the depths of their hearts where neither sin nor desire nor self-knowledge can reach, the core of their reality, the person that each one is in God's eyes. If only they could all see themselves as they really are. If only we could see each other that way all the time. There would be no more war, no more hatred, no more cruelty, no more greed."

Leonard Cohen, 20th century
"There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in."

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