December 18, 2016 – Fourth Sunday of Advent
Proclaimer: Dr. Dennis W. Foust
Worship Theme: And the Word Became Flesh
Homily: The Unfamiliar God
Scripture: Genesis 32:24-30; John 1:10-13
How can you make Christmas happen each and every day?
Last week, Prince Harry and his girlfriend, actress, Meghan Markle, went shopping for a Christmas tree in London. An employee at the tree shop, Zaqia Crawford, reported that she didn’t recognize Prince Harry. “They were really nice,” she said. “It was one of those times when you get a sale and you talk to really nice people. It was super casual. I had no clue.”
You may say, “If I saw Prince Harry in a store, I would recognize him.” Maybe you would. Most of the time, there is so much fanfare, pageantry and security detail around people like Prince Harry that they cannot hide. It is difficult for the familiar to hide in plain sight.
All four Gospels agree that when God showed up in the person of Jesus, very few people recognized The Living God. They were looking for him. Yet, in John 1:10-11, the story unfolds like this; “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.”
You know this story of Jesus revealing the unfamiliar God. You know this story of Jesus being unknown and rejected. Mary heard the news that she would have a baby but could not share her message. Mary’s cousin, Elizabeth, heard the news but couldn’t tell anyone. Jesus’ father, Joseph, had difficulty understanding the identity of Jesus. The innkeeper offered his stable but didn’t grasp the significance of the baby. The shepherds heard the angels sing and went to see the baby; but even when they told of their experience, few people believed their amazing story. Who believes shepherds? The magi saw a star and tracked the baby but missed Jesus by six miles, going to Jerusalem rather than to Bethlehem. King Herod reacted to Jesus by murdering every baby and toddler in Israel. So, although Herod didn’t recognize God in Jesus, he knew something threatened his power.
Even after Jesus began his public ministry, the religious people in Nazareth, his home community, threw him out of town. During Jesus’ ministry, religious leaders constantly plotted publicly and privately to discredit him, corner him and eventually have him killed. Jesus wept over Jerusalem because his revelation of God was unfamiliar to them; thus, they refused him. One of Jesus’ disciples betrayed him and only a few of his followers stayed with him. Most went into hiding during Jesus’ most difficult hours. Yes, you know the story of the unfamiliar God: Jesus was in the world; yet the world did not know him. His own people rejected him.
This story of ‘The Unfamiliar God’ did not begin with Jesus. The Hebrews followed the pillar of fire and the cloud. Yet, when Moses was away for a short-time, the Hebrews created a golden calf because God was unfamiliar to them. This morning, we read the story of Jacob wrestling with God and asking for a blessing; yet, even as he asked for the blessing, God was unfamiliar to him. The prophets continuously challenged people to become familiar with God. Even after Jesus, God was still unfamiliar. The Gospels were written to help people become more familiar with God, as revealed in Jesus. And, still today, people down the street and around the globe are unfamiliar with God. People are looking for God and God is in plain sight. What people need and are praying for is that Christmas would happen every day.
On this day of lighting the candle of Love, ‘how can you make Christmas happen in the lives of people each and every day? How can you help people become familiar with God as love?’ You basically have three options.
First, you can offer the message of the Bible. You may use the verses from John 3 and 1 John 4. You may also turn to 1 Corinthians 13 and Paul’s list of 15 characteristics of love. And, you should use the Bible. Yet, scripture has been in the world for thousands of years and many people are confused by its words. So, the world needs more than sacred words; thus Jesus came.
So, second, you can use your own words that tell your experience of God’s love. Your personal story of God’s love at work in your life is influential and transformational. Let people know how relating with God as love is familiar to you. Identify a few stories from your life that tell how God’s love has guided you, redeemed you, comforted you, given you purpose or shown you how to live beyond shame, doubt, failure, sin, guilt and condemnation. Your story is important to help people become familiar with God as love. Yet, there is a more perfect way.
No person treated Abraham Lincoln with more contempt than did Edwin Stanton. He called Lincoln “a clown.” He said that explorers were foolish to wander around Africa trying to capture a gorilla when they could have found one easily in Springfield, IL. Lincoln said nothing in response and treated Stanton with every courtesy. He made Stanton his Secretary of War because he deemed him to be the most qualified. On the night of Lincoln’s assassination, Edwin Stanton spoke through his tears, “There lies the greatest leader of men the world has ever seen.”
The third and best way for you to relate the love of God to others is to follow Jesus by allowing people to experience the unfamiliar God of love through your actions. When you see another person as Jesus Christ, you are moved with compassion toward them and relate God’s love to them. When you are motivated by the love of God that abides in you because you abide in God as love, you become like Christ to other persons. When you relate God’s love to others, Christmas happens all over again. When you relate God’s love to others, the word of God becomes flesh through you; and the unfamiliar God becomes revealed again and again as love.
However, some people say they love God, but they do not love the way God loves. Let’s be clear: if someone says they love God, but expresses racism, bigotry or cultural prejudice, they are NOT abiding in God’s love. If someone devalues any segment of humanity or treats them with disdain, they are NOT abiding in God’s love or relating God as love.
It is when you love others the way Jesus loved that you are abiding in God’s love and you are relating the love of God. When you have mercy on an outsider – someone ridiculed by society – like Jesus cared for the lepers; when you have grace for the misunderstood like Jesus loved the woman at the well; when you help a person with financial resources live with purposeful ethics, like Jesus loved Zacchaeus; when you bless a person so they move beyond guilt and shame like Jesus loved Simon Peter, you are abiding in God’s love and relating the unfamiliar God in the world. And, friends, the unfamiliar God wants to be known in the world and people are crying out to know this unfamiliar God who has taken on flesh in Jesus.
One day, in Athens, Greece, the Apostle Paul spoke to deeply devoted and broadly aligned religious people who had many idols and religious objects and altars including one inscribed, “To an unknown God.” Jesus didn’t come to give us another altar or Holy Day. He came so we can follow him offering Christmas to others each and every day. Amen & AMEN!