This sermon was first preached on January 3, 2021, for an online service of St. Michael’s Lutheran Church in Roseville, MN. Relevant lectionary readings can be found here.
Merry Christmas! Even though I am guessing that most of your gifts are unwrapped and only a few festive leftovers are left in your fridge, we are still in the season of Christmas for a few more days. Today is the second Sunday after Christmas.
Christmas is a strange, magical, holy time. Less than a couple of weeks ago we told each other well-known stories of the nativity. Stories that are full of sweat, and cries, and blood – all of the messy ingredients that bring forth new life. And today we are reading in the Gospel again a kind of nativity story. But instead of being set in a manger, this story begins outside of space and before time.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The Word was there in the beginning.
This way of talking about Jesus is much less tangible than some of the other Gospels where birth stories are present. John emphasizes Jesus’ divinity here, reminding us that this story doesn’t begin with Jesus’ time here on earth, that Christ was present as the very foundations of creation were still brewing in primordial soup. The Word is infinite and mysterious and expansive. Which is why the incarnation is so mind-blowing; the infinite and unknowable became finite and intimately known. The Cosmic Christ, the Word, in all Their majesty and fullness was contained inside a tiny little baby, born of a woman.
God being born breaks all the rules. Somewhere down the line we got it in our heads that God and human beings were polar opposites, that God – a Spirit – was so holy and eternal and humans and our bodies were so sinful and fragile that the two could never go together. Where one could be, the other could never be. There was a strict dividing line, a deep chasm, a binary between godly and human, Spirit and Body. God is good, Spirit is good. But bodies? We were taught that we were to hate our bodies and see them as dirty and wrong. And corporations and systems of oppression, like slavery, like the beauty and weight loss industry, like conversion therapy, like purity culture, and even and especially the institutional church come up with all kinds of ways to leverage this self hatred for profit by punishing and controlling our bodies, to beat them into submission through shame and through violence.
This violence is not new. It was present in Jesus’ own time under the terror of the Roman Empire he was born into, a reigning power that would eventually kill him. That is one of the reasons that Christmas is so radical. It is radical that the boundless, mighty God would choose to come to earth, vulnerable, knowing full well the kind of violence that was in store.
Jesus’ ancestors suffered violence under Empire, too. The reading from Jeremiah this morning speaks of a surviving remnant returning home. But before returning, that surviving remnant was subject to deep and lasting trauma. Israel and Judah had been ransacked by political powers greater than themselves. People were killed, ripped from their homes, deported, exiled. These were suffering, oppressed people, under the thumb of an occupying power unafraid to repress through military might. Israel and Judah lost all sense of bodily autonomy. When Babylon laid siege to Jerusalem, the people trapped inside were starving and without food. After the deportation, the people lost the right to move freely, to choose where to live, and suffered as captives. As Jeremiah says, the people of Jacob were taken over by “hands too strong for” them.
Jeremiah’s prophecy of return is incredibly comforting to a people who had lost their homeland and their freedom. Jeremiah speaks of people returning home, traveling back to their land, a remnant gathered together. This vision includes all kinds of people – people of all ages and abilities, people of all walks of life. God promises the people that they will be gathered up and restored.
And the way that this restoration takes place is notable too. It is not just merely a spiritual restoration. It is not just a restoration of hearts or minds. It is a fleshy, embodied restoration for a people whose bodies had been broken and beaten. We are given a glimpse of a future full of young women dancing, of warm, full bellies, of oil, of sacramental signs of abundance like bread and wine, of well-watered green gardens. This restoration is for bodies as well as spirits. Because despite the lies that Empire tells us, our bodies are not disposable. Our bodies are holy and good and precious to God.
In our own time and place, people are suffering. This summer’s racial reckoning and the militarized response to the protests reminded us that the violence of Empire is not something relegated to the past, as people choked on tear gas or tended injuries from rubber bullets. And today, there are less and less beds available in hospitals as the pandemic continues to surge. Beloved bodies are hooked up to ventilators, exiled from their loved ones in the ICU. There are empty chairs at our feasting tables, individuals lost not only because of the pandemic, but because of the continued selfish actions of our own Empire that puts the profits of a few over the health of the people.
Our Gospel reading from today and the Prophet Jeremiah both remind us that although the pain inflicted by the ruling class and its agents are real, they do not get the final word. There will be a remnant that survives. God’s people go on. God’s people find a home. We don’t go back to what was, we can’t. Things are different now and we will be different too. Instead of going back to what was, we move forward, together, to the new thing that God is building. Something that is promised to be better than our memories of what existed before all of this loss.
When it feels like God is absent or the hurt will never end, the Infinite God, more powerful than any Empire, is working to bring restoration and abundance. And even in the midst of the worst suffering and violence, God has fiercely promised us that we will not be alone, and made good on that promise by putting Their own body on the line and tearing through space and time to be in it, with us.
Thanks be to God.