John 1: 10-18
I have a confession to make to you all.
No, I didn’t rob a bank.
Didn’t have an affair.
Didn’t steal anything.
Started early and had plenty of time to prepare this sermon.
The confession is that I love to preach on the first Sunday of the new year. Yes, I know it is still Christmas – and I celebrate that. But I am also one of those who makes resolutions year after year. I love the clean slate that a new year brings. I rejoice that God has wiped out my sins, which probably takes more of Her time than for most.
Let us praise God for forgiveness.
Christmas morning I woke up early and, after carefully unwrapping and rewrapping the Christmas presents, went to the computer and read the New York Times editorial. The headline was: “Moments of Grace in a Grim Year.” There is good reason to feel weary and ill at ease, if not downright threatened.
Indeed, 2015 was a grim year. I need only recite some place names: Ferguson, Mo., Baltimore; North Charleston. Or Paris, Beirut, San Bernardino. I am sure that there have been other places which have more recently been the locale of killings and death. There is Syria, Turkey, Afghanistan, …. Where a number of military men and women and also national civilians were killed. It was by far the warmest year on record, surpassing only 2014. And then there are the politicians. Don’t let me get started.
For many of us 2015 was a year when friends of ours or relatives died. There were those who simply slumped in their chairs and expired. We were en route to play with our grandchildren when a clot broke loose from somewhere and sent my wife into a hospital for two surgeries early on a Sunday morning. Only later did we learn the odds were against her survival. We looked our mortality in the eye over Thanksgiving. For others it came much closer. I will not recite the list of those who remain critically ill or who have died in 2015.
And so this morning I bring you good news of a great joy: Jesus had toenails. Yes, you know, those trivial things we forget until they begin to snag our socks and we have to cut them. Jesus had toenails.
It is not immediately obvious why exactly this is good news, but hang in there with me. I invite you to consider the joy that the Word made flesh brings to us, even in the midst of suffering. This is not an easy thing to consider.
The Times editorial made much of the grace that we also knew in the midst of the year:
· the Paris accords on climate change;
· Pope Francis’s visit to the U.S. where he trod fearlessly but charitably and encouragingly into Congress, into St. Patrick’s, onto Wall Street, into slums and prisons;
· the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in favor of legally recognizing the committed forms of love between any two adults;
· the movement preaching peaceable resistance to systems and policies that would deny that Black Lives Matter;
· the many countries and states that welcomed refugees.
· The victims’ family in Charleston that forgave the killer.
Indeed, these are all signs ofGod’s grace at work among us.
They are entirely in keeping with the vision of Jeremiah and with the grace of the Word made flesh in Jesus Christ our Lord. Indeed, they are tangible, concrete signs of God’s grace among us.
First, consider the vision of Jeremiah found in chapter 31: 7-14. The prophet is proclaiming God’s Word to a people in exile, a people fearful and ill at ease, a people whose future was uncertain. But God is not:
READ AT THIS POINT
Jeremiah was preaching to people who had been in exile for some time and they were still stuck there . Through him Yahweh was promising a bright future even in the midst of a grim present. Jeremiah might have been speaking to us, reminding us not to give up hope or to look for joy.
And then there is John’s message. READ IT.
And so we come to this conundrum: On the one hand, 2015 has been a grim year. Many things have happened that seem to provoke anything but joy. The world seems full of terror and threats. It is hard to imagine joy as an actuality rather than an illusion that we force ourselves to swallow, or pretend to swallow. It is sometimes difficult to perceive God’s grace intimes of suffering. Suffering is real. Death is real. So are the threats they pose. Indeed, we seem to be a long way from Jeremiah’s vision of the whole world coming together under Yahweh. It is hard to feel joyous and to flourish in the face of today’s realities. On the other hand, we are told that the world is in God’s hands. John says that Jesus came into the world, grace upon grace, we have seen his glory, full of grace and truth.” From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. Grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. So, is suffering illusory? Did San Bernardino or Paris not happen? Is there really joy and flourishing? And is there something about us that will not permit this joy and grace to enter our lives? Is it our fault that we do not feel this joy?
Here is the issue, all too briefly.
Some theologians believe that joy and flourishing are in the “Middle Voice” between our active forcing ourselves to feel joy and the external events that enter our lives and promote joy. On the one hand, we can construe (understand or interpret) events as good – we can see the good in them, we can look for God’s hand in them, we can see the evidences of grace there. . Many times the joy is in the eye or the imagination of the beholder. Sometimes is easy to see the good, God’s hand, God’s toenail. But other times we have to look pretty hard to construe an event as good; sometimes we cannot simply cannot imagine that it could be good.
The other side of the “middle voice” – the passive side, is when there are external events that do evoke joy. That is pretty easy to do when we observe the beauty of nature or a healthy newborn or we experience the love of a friend or family member. In those cases the joy is not simply self-generated as it might be considered to be in the first instance. There is a gift quality to joy as well. Sometimes we receive a gift out of the blue. or it is exactly what we desire. And there is a spontaneous joy. Sometimes we see glimpses of grace in the world and we rejoice.
So joy comes partly from our perception and partly from the world itself. It comes partly from outside, from the character of the world we encounter. On the other hand, I can rob myself of joy by failing to perceive good things as good things and to respond to them properly. I can be in a perfect world with the fruit of all trees but one available to me, but if I construe it as not good enough because the fruit of that one tree is withheld from me, I will not rejoice. It can be a Happy New Year, but not if my focus is trained on the negative.
How sorry God must feel in those instances when we fail to perceive the blessings that surround us. He sent his only begotten Son full of grace and truth into the world, and we fail to perceive that. He does everything he can to reveals that death does not have the final word. In fact, where we get a new year every day because God forgives our sins and promises a fresh slate.
And so you ask: what has all this to do with toenails.
Jesus had toenails. Jesus laughed and cried. Flourished and suffered. Jesus died and rose from the dead. There is nothing about what troublesand frightens us that Jesus didn’t knowpersonally, exceptsin.
And he is Present with us even now…in our sufferings and joys, in our life together, in our Holy Communion.
My invitation to you and to myself is this: Trust that the world was created in joy, and that we like Jesus are to perceive that joy, and to share it.
A JoyousNew Year to you.