Harrowing Of Hell
December 25, 2022

Christmas Day

The Rev. Lex Breckinridge

John 1:1-18

I love this service. In fact, don’t tell anybody, but it might be my favorite service of the entire year. Sure, I love the pageantry and excitement of Christmas Eve, and I love the pageantry and joy of Easter, but there is something special to me about Christmas Day. For one thing, it’s always quiet. Most folks are sitting at home under the tree opening presents right now or just rolling out of bed and looking forward to celebrating with family and friends later in the day. Yet here we are, we few, gathered together in the quiet to mark the most important event of all time. We gather together on this Christmas Day each year to tell the Creation story. Not the one in Genesis that describes God creating the cosmos in six days and resting on the seventh, and not the other Creation story in Genesis which tells the very intimate story of the first man and the first woman and the first snake in the Garden. No, on this day and every Christmas Day we gather to hear a third Creation story, the one that John the Evangelist tells. “In the beginning,” he says. Sound familiar? That’s right. John begins his Creation story just like the first one in Genesis. “In the beginning.”

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. John 1:1-2.

And it’s this Creation story, the story of the Word made flesh, the Divine Logos, which is Greek for “Word”, giving birth to the World. God speaks the world into being. That is the decisive event in history. The twenty-five-cent word for this is “incarnation,” meaning enfleshment. God doesn’t stand outside and apart from the world. God is in the World; God is in every nook and cranny of everything. That’s what we are here to mark and observe and celebrate in the quiet and peace of this Christmas morning. Everywhere we look, there is God.

What’s your image of God? As children, we might have thought of God as being an old man with a white beard sitting up on a cloud or high on a mountain hurling thunderbolts and generally just being ticked off. Of course, that’s not the God of the Bible. That’s Zeus, the head god of Greek mythology. Or we might think of God, especially this time of year, as a kind of divine Santa Claus. You know, he’s making a list and checking it twice; he’s gonna find out who’s been naughty and nice! God as the ultimate reward/punisher. A God who demands obedience as the price of love. But that’s not Biblical either. Or we might instead think of God as a purely abstract concept, out there somewhere in the ether, an invisible hand to whom we might occasionally direct a prayer when we need something but who otherwise pretty much leaves us alone. That’s also not Biblical. On the other hand, straight from the Bible in the conclusion of John’s Creation story is an image of God we can hang onto.

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…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. John 1:14;16-17.

Want to see God? Look at Jesus. Look at his humble birth, his life and ministry, his sacrificial death, his resurrection in power, his ascension in glory. He was a teacher of wisdom, a bearer of mercy and compassion. He rejected power and was instead a humble servant. He offered hospitality and welcome to the poor, the sick, the stranger, to the ones whom polite society rejected and despised. He held up a mirror to the powerful insiders and invited them to move from the head of the table to the foot where they might learn humility and vulnerability and thereby move a little closer to God. And Jesus experienced the full range of human emotion. He ate and drank and celebrated with friends and strangers at table. He went to weddings and funerals. He greeted people in their homes and in the market. He told stories called parables that were poignant and penetrating and often humorous. He grieved and wept at the death of his friend, Lazarus. He acted out in righteous anger when he found corruption and greed in the Temple. He worried over the fate of his beloved Jerusalem because of this corruption and greed. On his final night on the planet, the prayers he said were both filled with fear and courage. “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” And in his final moments of life, he knew the most profound feeling of loneliness and abandonment. On Golgatha, he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

All of which is to say, that Jesus of Nazareth, the one whose birth we celebrate today, was a full and complete human being. And in his full and complete humanity, he makes God known to us. What a concept, right? God is not an abstraction “out there” somewhere. God is as close to us as the fully human Jesus. God knows our human pain, our joy, our sadness, our loneliness, our heartbreak. God knows, to the depths of God’s own heart, what it means to be fully alive. And God knows what it means to one day die. Jesus, the Word incarnate, binds God to the everydayness of human life.

We associate this time of year with joy and laughter and celebration. And yet, for many, maybe even for some of us here this morning, this is also a time of loneliness and loss, a time when we experience or remember abandonment, rejection, grief. Is that you or maybe someone you know? The most profound implication of the incarnation is this. YOU ARE NOT ALONE. You are not alone. God in Christ knows to the depths of God’s own heart, your loneliness, your pain, your need for connection and healing. God in Christ has experienced all of it. God in Christ knows crucifixion and death. Which is not the end of the story. The story goes on. There is healing and hope. There is compassion and mercy. There is resurrection. There is new life. That’s not just the story of one man named Jesus. It’s the story of all humanity. It’s the story of you and me. God in Christ lets us know that on the other side of suffering and death there is healing and resurrection. On the other side of suffering and death, there is hope.  In the Incarnation, in the fullness of his humanity, Jesus is the pattern for our lives. When we live in vulnerability and acceptance of life as it is, and not in denial of life’s struggles and pain, we allow Jesus to walk alongside us, holding us, grounding us, assuring us that we are beloved, assuring us that we are not alone.

On this chilly and cold morning, here in the stillness, here in the quiet of Christmas, my hope for you, my prayer for you, is that now and in the days and months to come, you will know peace. That you will know the peace that passes all understanding, the peace that comes from knowing you are part of something larger than yours own small self, the peace that comes from knowing that wherever you turn, there is Christ. In prosperity and poverty, in sickness and in health, in your life and in your death, there is Christ. Here’s the way that great old hymn, St Patrick’s Breastplate, puts it:

Christ be with me, Christ within me,
Christ behind me, Christ before me,
Christ beside me, Christ to win me,
Christ to comfort and restore me,
Christ beneath me, Christ above me,
Christ in quiet, Christ in danger,
Christ in hearts of all that love me,
Christ in mouth of friend and stranger. (Hymnal 1982, #370)

My dear sisters and brothers, you are not alone.