November 20, 2022 ~ Reign of Christ – Proper 29 ~ Thirty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time ~ Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost ~ Jeremiah 23:1-6; Luke 1:68-79 (No Psalm Connected with this Luke Reading); Jeremiah 23:1-6; Psalm 46; Colossians 1:11-20; Luke 23:33-43 ~ VIDEO OF FULL SERVICE: https://vimeo.com/showcase/7960701/video/773433734
The Unseen God?
“Christ is the image of the unseen God, / the firstborn of all creation;…” — Colossians 1:15.
(The pastor loudly whispers the first sentence in the microphone.) It’s nearly here— just 35 days away— Christmas— 35 days and counting. Christmas is, of course, not just a day despite what secular society says. Christmas is a season.
And you know exactly how long that season lasts. “On the twelfth day of Christmas…”— 12 days, right?
So, does Christmas mean— as the secular world would have it— that the day is about gifts, presents? Or is there more to Christmas? (Slight pause.)
When I was a pastor in Waldo County I knew the president of the Maine Christmas Tree Association. He said the Christmas tree we all want today, as an adult, a perfect tree, is one we probably try to find every year. That perfect tree is, however, the image our imagination conjures up of the tree we had when we were five or six.
Getting the right tree not about the tree. It’s about our emotional life. The same may be true of Christmas presents.
When I was a child I had a set of Lionel Trains, model trains. Or perhaps I should say the family had a set of Lionel trains. In theory my brother— a year younger than myself— my brother and I shared that set of Lionel Trains.
But the basic set was purchased when I was two and my brother was one. The train set was certainly not, at that point, for me or for my brother. It was for my father.
Every Christmas after that my brother and I would each get one train car to add to the collection. At Christmas my father would, dutifully, assemble the growing layout.
When I say assemble, my father, an English teacher, was no Mr. Handyman. Even so, he had constructed a train board made of wood which sat on rollers and folded in half so it was easy to shift around and easy to store.
At the end of the season— for us that was the day after the twelfth day, the Feast of the Epiphany, January 6th, the start of the season known as Epiphany— at that point all the Christmas decorations and the train set would come down. We lived in a small apartment in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. There was no space to leave a train set up the whole year round.
So the board was stored and the trains put back in their distinctive orange Lionel boxes until next year. As children we die think of that additional train car was our “big” present each year.
Today Lionel trains would be a big gift as whole sets sell for hundreds of dollars, some sell for thousands. And the trains can be controlled with a smart phone. Maybe they still are for adults.
And yes, this adult craves a set. But I have no room for it. And maybe I crave it because of the image of the trains my imagination conjures up. It’s about my emotions.
All that is to say gifts are good. Practical gifts, less than practical gifts— all good. But this gift stuff— is that in any way connected to these words (quote:) “Christ is the image of the unseen God, / the firstborn of all creation;…”
Indeed, what is it we strive to celebrate with Christmas? What does it mean that the Christ is the firstborn of all creation?
What does it mean that the Christ is the image of the unseen God? Hold it. God is unseen… but Christ, Who was seen, is the image of God Who we cannot see?
And does the word ‘unseen’ mean unfelt also? And/or does unseen mean we may have some knowledge of the presence of God but our sensory perceptions lack a way for us to be in touch with the reality of that presence? Too many questions!
Further, all that sounds like a series of contradictions. What is the writer of Colossians trying to do? Open cans crammed to overflowing with worms? Why would the writer of Colossians say these things? (Pause.)
There’s another question I think is pertinent. What is the constant message we hear in the preaching of the Christ? The message Jesus peaches is simple. God… is… near. God is with us. God walks with us.
And that preaching of Jesus sends us right back to Colossians. Colossians asks, effectively, ‘Who is this Jesus? Who is the Christ?’ Can any of these questions be answered by this reading or be answered at all? (Pause.)
When the passage was introduced you heard it said the a large chunk of it is poetry. Many translations do not bother to break the words into verses. The translation in today’s bulletin does break the verses out. But no matter how a translation treats the passage, there is no questions about it: this is poetry.
So maybe we have to start by asking what is poem? Here’s a definition: a poem is a writing that may use speech, song, is often metaphorical, sometimes rhythmical, and may but does not have to exhibit more formal elements like meter, rhyme, stanzas.
Next, I need to note if we ask what does a passage mean and that passage is a poem, when any poem is translated from another language those poetic attributes which can identify a poem often disappear. But what about meaning? Can that be identified?
In nearly every poem I’ve ever read there is a multitude of meanings. That’s because poems are meant to address not facts or data but meant to address our emotional life, meant to engage our emotional life. So yes, poems are about meanings. Hence, they are not really about facts or data or rules. (Slight pause.)
I think too often we look at these books (the pastor holds up a Bible)— the Bible— please note, the Bible is not just one book, it’s a collection of books writtin over the course of nearly one thousand years— I think too often we look at these books treat them like a history or a newspaper, as if the words therein contained, are meant to just report facts. But these books are about the people of God as they try to say something about their emotional life, grapple with their emotional life, as they experience God.
These books are not about data, facts, rules, as the secular world would suggest. These books are about emotions. As we read these books today, we need to understand that they are meant to engage our emotional life, lead us to grapple with our emotions. (Slight pause.)
Guess what? Church, this community of faith here gathered, is not about data, facts, not about rules. Church, this church, this community of faith here gathered is meant to address and to engage our emotional life. (Slight pause.)
I think the reality of Jesus, the Christ, does not address our sensory perceptions, does not address analytical meaning. The reality of Christ is not about factual data.
Indeed, in preaching Jesus speaks about God Who is— God Who is always near, God Who is with us, God Who walks with us. The preaching of Jesus addresses our emotional life. (Slight pause.)
So, what is it we strive to celebrate with Christmas? What does it mean that the Christ is the firstborn of all creation, the image of the unseen God?
This is the message of Christmas: God is with us, no matter what the circumstances. Christmas is about our emotional life with God. (Slight pause.)
Yes, I have very, very fond memories of those Lionel trains. But that is a fantasy about childhood rekindled in my brain. That is not about the real world, now today.
And Christmas is about the real world now, today because Christmas is about emotional truths. What follows is a list of some but not all of the emotional truths represented by the reality of the Messiah, truths which can be seen in the life and in the preaching of Jesus— the list: unity, forgiveness, caring for our world, diversity, freedom, equity, love.
So, Christmas— this season toward which we are headed as we will work through Advent— is about each of us reaching into our own emotional life to express love, grace, forgivingness, acceptance. These emotional touch points simply pay attention to and respond to the fact that, as Jesus told us, God is with us, God walks with us.
God who is present to us is not an unseen God. And God who walks with us is the greatest Christmas gift ever. Amen.
Elijah Kellogg Church, Harpswell, Maine
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “When we think about Christmas it’s good to remember this: God is not Santa Clause. The gifts of God are greater, much greater, than anything we might want or anything we might find under a tree, even Lionel trains. These gifts include but are not limited to unity, forgiveness, caring for our world, diversity, freedom, equity, love. But we won’t have or see any of these under aby tree. God relies on us to work with them and for them. And so let me leave you with this thought: church is more about poetry than it is about mathematics.”
BENEDICTION: Let us walk in the light God provides. Let us thank God for reaching out to us in love. Let us be daily recreated in the image of God who wants us to live with justice as our guide and freedom as our goal. And may the peace of Christ which surpasses our understanding keep our hearts and minds in the companionship of the Holy Spirit and the love of God this day and evermore. Amen.