A Sermon from the Church of
Bethesda-by-the-Sea in Palm Beach, Florida
Preached by the Rev. Timothy E. Schenck on December 25, 2022 (Christmas Day)
You know, everybody told me it would be 80 degrees on Christmas. That I’d be swimming in the ocean after the last service on Christmas Day. But instead of that, I apparently have to worry about an iguana falling on my head. Actually, this being my very first Christmas in Florida, after serving a church in New England for the past 14 years, I have to say this is still lovely. I took the dogs for a walk on the beach this morning and, while it was a bit brisk, it was 15 degrees back in Boston. I checked. So, I am all in on this Florida Christmas thing. I’ll probably be stringing up lights on palm trees next year.
Many of us have, of course, celebrated Christmas in a variety of places over the years. Whether it’s a white Christmas or a hot Christmas, what doesn’t change is the timelessness of the Incarnation. God entering the world in human form transcends time and space, geography and weather. And the beautiful and poetic prologue to John’s gospel, which we hear this morning, speaks eloquently and decisively into this reality. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”
And we quickly notice the parallel with the very first book of the Bible. Genesis also starts with the words, “In the beginning.” “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth.” “In the beginning was the Word.” So the birth of Jesus is indeed a beginning, as any birth is. And yet, Jesus as the incarnate Word of God, was also there from the beginning of all time and space. At Christmas, we celebrate his birth in a manger in Bethlehem, but we also celebrate his existence as the Word of God long before the Son of God was born in a stable.
Last night, we heard the birth narrative from Luke’s gospel — the words that form the basis of every Christmas pageant in the history of Christmas pageants. We had angels and shepherds and Mary and Jesus and the newborn child. And this morning we zoom out from the tight shot of the manger, to the wide view of God’s cosmic being. And in order to realize the fullness of God, we need both views; we need the big picture and the closeup.
It’s a reminder that God is both transcendent and at hand. We certainly experience the transcendent grandeur of God in this space — gothic revival architecture will do that every time. And the stunning music offered by our hard-working choir orients us heavenward. A parishioner told me recently that while all churches are “thin places,” places where heaven and earth seemingly come together, to him Bethesda is the thinnest place. And I know we all feel that this morning as we gather in this beautiful and sacred space. As we soak in the sights and smells and sounds of Christmas, the divine presence is palpable.
Of course, the danger of exclusively focusing on the transcendent nature of God is that God can sometimes feel like a deity removed from our daily life and struggles. And so the birth of Jesus reminds us that God is also at hand, living and walking beside us. Or as John puts it, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us.”
On Christmas Day we recognize that there are times to revel in the soaring, mystical nature of God. And there are times to take comfort in the intimacy of divine love. We need both of these aspects of God in our lives, depending on the day and the moment. But when we accept God’s love, when we receive Jesus into our hearts, when we make room for the holy in our lives, suddenly our burdens are lifted, our brokenness is healed, our sins are forgiven, and our lives are enriched with hope and meaning. That’s why Christmas matters.
Now, if you’re anything like me, when you think about past Christmases it’s all rather a blur. A jumble of Christmas services and family dinners, a few gifts that I remember but most are forgotten. There’s the soundtrack of Christmas carols and the blinking of colored lights, tree trimming and a few favorite ornaments that come to mind. But in the end, the one constant, the thing that binds everything together is the Christmas story itself. The shepherds and angels, Mary and Joseph, the newborn king, the Word made flesh. And the fact that love came down on that very first Christmas Day.
In the end, Christmas is an act of love. God loved the world so much that he sent us his Son to live and dwell among us. Think about that! And the fact that Jesus is still with us. In each and every moment of our lives. At times when we are acutely aware of his presence and also at times when he feels distant or far away. And it all unfolds “in the beginning.”
The Christmas story — this story of God’s love for the world, but also God’s love specifically for you — is our story. And so we tell it again; year after year we shout it from the mountaintops and tell it in the valleys. It is the story that illuminates our lives and fills us with hope. For Christ our Savior is born.
I am glad you are here this morning. Glad you are in this place to participate in the retelling of our sacred story. Glad you are here “in the beginning” to celebrate our Lord’s birth once again. May God bless you and your loved ones this season. And may you have a very merry Christmas.