Harrowing Of Hell
December 25, 2023

Jesus is Here. So What?

The Rev. Lex Breckinridge

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. 

So here we are this morning. The Word has become flesh and now dwells among us. Jesus is here. But let me ask you this question. So what? So what if Jesus is here? So what if God is here in the world and not in some far-off place called Heaven? Hold that thought for a minute and let’s take a step back in time. For the first 1200 years or so of Christian history, the most important celebration of the year was Easter and the days leading up to Easter.  Jesus was resurrected and that meant that we could be too. God’s love for Jesus, and through Jesus for us, was made clear in the miracle of the Resurrection. But then in the 13th century a guy named Francis of Assisi came along. Francis had the idea that we didn’t need to wait for God to love us through the Cross and the Resurrection. Francis understood that God’s love for the world, not just for us human beings, but for all of Creation, began with the Incarnation. God’s Love is material, God’s love is tangible, God’s love is touchable, if you see what I mean. So Francis made popular something we now take for granted. Christmas became for many the major feast of the Christian year. The most important event in history is celebrated on this day, the day that God wan being in the person of Jesus of Nazareth. 

Francis said over and over that because God had become flesh—taken on a material, physical, human body—that the whole problem of sin had been solved from the beginning. We didn’t have to wait for the cross and the Resurrection to solve the problem of sin. Because, after all, what is sin? It’s not about having naughty thoughts or even about doing naughty or maybe even horrific things. Those are just symptoms of sin. No, the underlying cause of sin is our feeling of separation or alienation from our Creator. It’s God’s perceived absence in our lives that makes room for sin and sinful behavior. If we are alone in the Universe, or if we tell ourselves the lie that we stand in God’s place in judging our fellow human beings or if we tell ourselves the lie that we are Masters of the Universe, sinful behavior won’t be far behind. 

The problem of separation from God isn’t solved by an atoning sacrifice on the cross. The problem is solved by God becoming an actual flesh and blood human. Once we recognize that, we can recognize that it’s good to have a body! No more room for shame. It’s good to have feelings and emotions, emotions like joy and sadness and grief and celebration which remind you that it’s good to walk on the Earth! God loves matter and our physicality because God is in the middle of all of it.  

So with that insight, Francis looked to Christmas as the major feast of the year. Francis believed that trees should be decorated with lights to show how much a part of God’s Creation they were, and to celebrate the gift of light coming into the world in the Incarnation. So you see we can thank Francis for those trees behind me and for those trees in your house and my house. Francis of course thanked God for it all. On this day, we welcome the Universal Christ, the Cosmic Christ, the Christ that is forever being born in human hearts and into the unfolding story of Creation. 

Of course, we do have to make room for this Great Mystery. Because, and if you’ll pardon me for mixing stories here, there’s no room in the inn. Which is to say, we only see things on the surface. We don’t see the light shining through, we don’t see the divine incarnate spirit shing through all that is material and tangible and touchable. The early church made it clear that the Incarnation of Christ meant that God not only said yes to Jesus, God said yes to everything. The Universe and all that is in it is sacred. 

So let me get back to the question I posed a moment ago. So what if Jesus is here? So what if God is right here in the world and not in some far-off place called “Heaven”? So what?  

The first thing I’ll say is that if we really lived into that Reality, we might present ourselves to the world a little differently. We might pay closer attention to the world outside of ourselves. We might be a little less self-centered. A little more conscious of other human beings, a little more conscious of their struggles and pain, their joys and their longings. We might be a little more attentive—and I mean right now, today—of those human beings we meet who are cold and hungry and sick and have no place to lay their heads at night. We might be a little more conscious of those human beings who are excluded, shunned and shamed and rejected because they don’t look like us or act like us or have the same belief systems we do. We might be a little more conscious of taking care of the world we are blessed to live in. After all, God is here in the midst of it all. When we foul our own nest, aren’t we fouling God’s nest too?  

The second thing I’ll say is that if Jesus is really here, if God really is in the midst of it all, shouldn’t I be thankful for that? Shouldn’t I be just as thankful on a gloomy and rainy PNW day as I am on a day of brilliant sunshine and sparkling waters and mountains? After all, God is in the midst of the rain and the sun. Shouldn’t I be thankful that it’s not all up to me to hold up the Universe? I don’t have to be in charge of everything—and let me say we should all be thankful for that! The world and all that is in it is God’s and not mine. Sure, I have my role to play and so do you, but as the old hymn puts it, “God is working his purpose out as year succeeds to year.” So when you walk out of here this morning, step thankfully. Sing a song of gratitude for life and breath and hope and love. Even if you can’t carry a tune, you can say the words of thanks and praise out loud. Everywhere you look, including inside of you, is filled with God. 

And the last thing I’ll say is that if Jesus is really here that means he is in the midst of all our human relationships. Both the joyful one and the challenging ones. The joyful ones we get, but what does it mean to say that Jesus is in the midst of our challenging relationships too? The one who appears to you as broken and disfigured carries Jesus just like you do. Maybe she just hasn’t awoken to it yet. Love your enemies and pray for them, Jesus says. Pray for the awakening of your enemy’s heart and your own.  It doesn’t mean you have to tolerate bad behavior or roll over passively if you’re being abused or taken advantage of. As Jesus’s beloved, we need to take care of ourselves. At the same time, we can pray that the pain and the wounds which are the source of the bad behavior we are experiencing in someone else and in ourselves might be healed. And on a macro level, what if we could see that in the midst of the bitterness and division which we are experiencing in our culture right now, Jesus is here? The pain and the wounds of those with whom we disagree are as real as our own. Might we see each other with greater compassion and empathy if we could see Jesus’s face in them? I heard a story the other day about a man whose precious daughter was killed in a church bombing during the Time of Troubles in Northern Ireland. Indeed, she died holding his hand. Days later, when asked by a reporter what he hoped would be done to punish the members of the radical group responsible for his daughter’s death, the man, who happened to be a Methodist lay preacher, was able to say, “I bear them no ill will.” In the midst of his shock and grief and unbearable sadness, the man was able to finds Jesus’s presence in the midst of it all.  

So what if Jesus is here? What difference will it make in your life and in mine? The scholar and poet and mystic Howard Thurman, who was Martin  Luther King’s great teacher and mentor, shows a way forward in his beautiful poem called The Work of Christmas. Carry this with you as you leave here this Christmas morning. 

The Work of Christmas 

When the song of the angels is stilled, 
When the star in the sky is gone, 
When the kings and princes are home, 
When the shepherds are back with their flock, 
The work of Christmas begins: 
To find the lost, 
To heal the broken, 
To feed the hungry, 
To release the prisoner, 
To rebuild the nations, 
To bring peace among others, 
To make music in the heart.