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The First Sunday after Christmas
December 29, 2013
The Gospel: John 1:1-18
Sermon: "Can Anything Come Toward Nazareth?"
The Very Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
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.
Can Anything Come Toward Nazareth?
John 1: 1-18 (:46)
It’s been forty years ago, now. I was a young college student, and I was in Bethlehem. Through a series of wondrous and odd coincidences, I had found myself in the Holy Land. I won’t go into those coincidences, but in the years since then I have come to know that such a string of events is not coincidence at all; it is providence, the invisible guiding hand of a loving God.
Breathing the atmosphere of that land, I was struck by two things. First, there was the awareness of just how modern and bustling bright and full of life it is: teaming streets, traffic, crowds; life, appropriate for the birthplace of The Life, for the birthplace of God’s living presence among us in Christ. The second thing was an opposite tug. There is an awareness that comes with the very air you breathe of an ancientness. This land has been much lived in, not just in history, but in pre-history. That awareness gets into the bones and changes the perspective; also appropriate for the land where God has been a knowable presence from before the beginning of history.
Traveling there, where Jesus walked, the prophets spoke and God broke into human history changes you. You may leave it, but it never quite leaves you. That’s appropriate too, though. After all, it is the Holy Land, set apart, different.
There are a few places, even in the Holy Land, where all that wonder can get cut short. Take Nazareth for instance. It’s a “must see,” of course, as our Lord grew up there. But Nazareth can also be a disappointment if you’re not reminding yourself of why our Lord came to earth in the first place.
A pastor friend went there not all that long ago. Let me share his reaction to Nazareth with you.
“Poor Nazareth. It’s out of the way from anything. My Bible dictionary calls poor Nazareth “an insignificant agricultural village.” Nazareth is never mentioned in the Old Testament, in Josephus’ extensive writings, or even in the writings of the prolific rabbis.”
“Not surprisingly, Jesus’ Nazarean origins were held up for scorn. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” scoffers asked when they saw Jesus. (John 1: 46)”
“Today one sees Nazareth from the highway, first as a dry clump of concrete houses, abandoned cars, olive groves, next as a morass of clogged streets with cars, dust, tourist buses and honking trucks. Nazareth is about half Israeli, half Arab. The feuding groups have lived in this town in relative calm, if not in love. Tourists are herded up the hill to poor Nazareth to view the Church of the Annunciation. Because of the congestion, the tourist buses must wait at the bottom of the hill. On foot, pushing past the junk shops and trinket shops, the hawking vendors, the postcard pests, it’s a hard walk up the hill to the church, the church built over where it’s said that Mary and Joseph’s house once stood.”
“In the sixties, the pope gave funds for the demolition of the old church and the building of a large concrete affair. That’s what one sees when one makes it through the dust and the postcards to the top of the hill; a large, concrete, Sixties of a building, encrusted with modern mosaics in an attempt to make this look its role of a church. From the outside, it’s a parking lot trying to be a church. From the inside, it’s a church trying to be a bunker. Yet, sometimes the poured concrete ceiling reminds one of standing under a highway bridge; heavy, gray. It’s all in Nazareth.”
“The sight of this massive, concrete church, all huddled over the ruins of what is supposed to be Mary and Joseph’s little house, is somewhat comical, but mostly depressing. No one in our group of tourists said it, but they were all let down, I can tell you. To have come so far, expecting to be inspired, for this? Can anything good come from Nazareth?”
“The guide herded us up to the altar of the church, pushing through the throngs of tourists, hot, dusty. Someone from Des Moines dared to video it, we did not know why. Then up we climbed the concrete steps that lead back out to the street and the blessings of Coca-Cola on an outside billboard”
“Trudging up those stairs, tourist behind tourist, my eyes fell upon a quote, chiseled in the wall. It was in Latin, but words so familiar, anyone could read it: ‘And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.’”
Those words caught my friend, and turned his thoughts completely around. Those words, when caught, will do the same for you and me, because they focus us back on why our Lord came in the first place. You see, we all really live in Nazareth. Call it Des Moines, or New York, or Los Angeles, or Greensboro, Winston-Salem, Reidsville or Eden or Brown’s Summit, anywhere humanity dwells, it’s all Nazareth. “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The real question is: can anything good come toward Nazareth?
We have gathered here this morning, this fifth day of Christmas, to celebrate the birth of a baby who is Christ the Lord. But let us never forget that for us, Christmas is the Feast of the Incarnation. The Word became flesh, flesh and bone, living dust, incarnate, among us. Us! We need a God who doesn’t mind living in places different groups live in only by means of uneasy peace, where vendors hawk their wares, and horns honk, and there is the impervious malignancy, the wayward youth, the dissolving relationship, and all the rest. We, who live in the Nazareths of human existence, we need an incarnate God.
Martha was heartbroken. Due to the unexpected blizzard, the airports were closed throughout the Midwest. Her daughter in New York, the one for whom she had baked the turkey, and the pies, and all the rest for Christmas dinner, would not be here for Christmas.
When Alice called to see if she had heard any news, Martha told her the sad story, barely able to fight back her tears. “Jill may not get here for two or three days, she says. What was to be our very best Christmas is on the way to being our very worst,” said Martha, with some bitterness in her voice.
“I’m very sorry that the storm will keep her away from home,” said Alice, “But maybe this bad news can come to some good.”
“How?” asked Martha.
“I’ve just found out that we have nobody to work at the Homeless Shelter tonight. George always does it, every Christmas, but George is in bed with the flu. There’s just no one else. Everyone else is with, well, family. Is there anyway that you might help?” asked Alice.
Martha felt some resentment that Alice would be so cold as to move so quickly from sharing her disappointment, to asking her to do this job. But what had she to lose? She said yes. In an hour, she was down at the Homeless Shelter, serving soup, opening cots. Normally, she had helped at the Shelter during the day, on Thursday mornings. This was her first time at night, and Christmas Eve, of all nights.
She thought of Jill and her disappointment at how Christmas had turned out. The Shelter was not too crowded tonight; even some of the regulars had managed to find a place to go. But there was plenty to do, being sure that the dozen or so folks who had gathered were fed, folding out the cots, explaining the rules again.
About ten or eleven that night, a couple appeared at the door, a man and a woman no one had seen before. They were on their way to De Moines, they explained, when their car broke down. For a couple of nights they had stayed at a cheap hotel. Then their money was gone and the car was still not fixed. They had nowhere to go, Could they stay here?
“Of course,” said Martha as she welcomed them in. They were cold, tired, and pitiful looking as they slurped up the soup she served them. She talked with them. They told her about their car. She told them about the blizzard and her disappointment because Jill could not be with her. They had a daughter they said, living somewhere they weren’t sure where. They each consoled one another on the difficulties of parents and grown children. Martha found a box of cookies on one of the shelves. They opened it, passed the cookies around the room, and there was an amazing degree of cheer, considering the place, the night, the circumstances.
Then it occurred to her: Here, Christmas Eve, A shelter for the homeless, cold night. The couple before her could have been on their way to Bethlehem, as easily as they were on their way to De Moines. Here, before her, thought Martha, were Mary and Joseph. When all were asleep, about midnight, before she lay down on her cot by the kitchen counter to try and sleep, Martha looked out the window of the Center. It was night, but a bright moon was shining. The city was quiet, very quiet. And Martha found herself at peace. Despite everything, this Christmas Eve had not been a waste. God had been here, even here.
Before slipping off to sleep, Martha heard herself say, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors.”
When you leave here after this hour of holiness, take one thought with you as you go back to whatever Nazareth you call home: the man from Nazareth’s name was Immanuel, God with us; God with us! “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.”