Good morning friends. Merry Christmas to you. That’s right… it’s still Christmas. In the ancient wisdom of the Church’s calendar, today is the fifth day of Christmas.
That’s right! After four days of getting birds—a partridge, a couple of doves, some calling birds and chickens—you’re finally gonna get some jewelry… five gold rings. But don’t worry… that psychotic true love of yours is gonna give thirteen more birds to round out the first week. Because you know what your home needs walking around it? Seven swans and six geese. Twenty-three birds total that first week. That’s crazy.
Strange Christmas songs aside, this actually is the fifth day of Christmas. The feast of Christmas is 12 days long and ends with Epiphany on January 6.
The wisdom of the Church’s calendar recognizes that one day is not long enough to celebrate God becoming one of us in Jesus. We need time to meditate on—well, the technical word for it is “the incarnation.” God has become human. Like, a real human: complete with human body and human soul and human personality and human nature as the early writings and wrestlings of the church show us. And we need longer than just one day each year to reflect on this.
What does it mean that God is the kind of god happy to become human. That’s what the feast of Christmas, and then the season of Epiphany until Lent invite us to reflect on. Christmas tells us: God happily became human for humanity’s gain. And man… we need to sit with that a while.
We need to sit with that a lifetime.
The great Jewish God, Yahweh, shocked everyone with eyes to see by becoming a first-century Jew. That’s what unites what we call the Old and New Testaments, by the way. The ancient Jewish Scriptures and the first-century Christian writings are united by this strange story of promise and fulfillment.
On page 12 of 900 of the Jewish Scriptures, Yahweh promises Abraham that Yahweh will make Abraham into a great nation and that through this nation, all nations will be blessed. And then on page 1 of the Christian writings, Matthew is connecting the dots, making sure that no one misses the fact that Yahweh has done it: The God of Israel has blessed the world by becoming an Israelite. The One Creator of the world—worshipped by the Jewish people—has become a Jewish peasant to bring blessing to the world.
That’s the intimate connection between Old and New Testaments. Glove and hand. Promises and fulfillment. Wedding and consummation. Longing and lover. And that’s the substance of Christmas.
So this morning is a Christmas sermon… because we’re reflecting on the substance of Christmas: God happily became human for humanity’s gain. But we’re not camping out in either of birth narratives—what we call the Christmas stories—in Luke or Matthew.
You remember those two stories, of course. Luke tells us of shepherds told by singing angel armies in the sky to go find a baby lying in a manger—in a food trough. And Matthew tells us of Magi from the east—astrologers from Babylon—following an unusual star in the western sky to the house of a child and his teenage mother.
We’re familiar with those stories. But, today, to help us think about the substance of Christmas, I want to reflect on a statement from grown-up Jesus found in Matthew 12:
“I tell you that something greater than the temple is here.” (Matthew 12v6)
I’m always hesitant to reflect on a single, solitary sentence like this because sentences only mean what they mean because of the sentences around them. Sentences are meant to be read in paragraphs. A sentence without a paragraph is just a soundbite. (And that also happens to be a soundbite.) But today I think it’s worth the risk.
You’ll have to trust that I’m not ripping this soundbite of Jesus out of context. Just to acknowledge it, Jesus speaks this sentence in response to accusations from religious leaders abut the way he’s behaving on the Sabbath. Jesus brings up a story of David’s actions in the pre-Temple tent (called the Tabernacle) and then points to priests who obviously don’t stop their Temple-work on the Sabbath. And then he drops this nuclear bomb of a statement:
“I tell you that something greater than the temple is here.” (Matthew 12v6)
It’s hard to conceive of Jesus making a bigger, bolder, stronger statement.
The Temple in Jerusalem was the center of everything in the ancient Jewish world. It’s the center of what we call economics and politics and religion—like Wall Street and the White House and Notre Dame all rolled into one. All the important stuff happened there.
Families would travel to the Temple for three feasts each year to remember their story—past, present and future. Passover told them the past: God had overthrown evil and rescued them from slavery. The Feast of Shavuot (also called Weeks or Pentecost) told them the present: that God is the one who provides food and instruction for life. And the Feast of Tabernacles told them the future: that God is the one who will remake the world.
And they watched the Temple for signs of that future. The watched for the coming Anointed One—who would cleanse and rebuild the Temple, freeing all of humanity from oppression and evil, and establishing the reign of God on the earth.
The wealth and grandeur of Jerusalem’s Temple was the place where sin was dealt with in fiery sacrifices, the place from which pure life flowed like water in the desert. The entire design of the Temple—from its golden floral details to the symbolic candle-tree in its holy place, to the embroidered cherubim guarding the westward way into its most holy place—was designed to reflect the garden of Eden.
People pilgrimaged to the Temple, prayed towards the Temple, placed their hope in the Temple. Armies were rallied, wars were fought, blood was shed, for the Temple, the Temple, the Temple.
“I tell you that something greater than the temple is here.” (Matthew 12v6)
There’s something greater than the greatest thing we glimpse...
and standing before us is a wandering Jewish peasant and his followers.
This is “something greater”?
This is man that none of us would have time for. A vagabond. An itinerant rabbi who would soon die at the hands of church and state. He was publicly executed in the most painful and shaming way possible—superpower-sponsored terrorism in the name of keeping world peace.
And his most humiliating death would mirror his most humiliating birth. There’s no room for him in ancestral home. He was born in a barn. His cradle was a feed box, a food trough—a manager only just now wiped clean of slop so that an infant can lay in it.
And this man—between his humiliating birth and his humiliating death—this man tells us that he’s greater than the great Temple. He convinced his earliest followers. An early Christian leader writes to the church in Colossae:
…in Jesus all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, and in him you have been brought to fullness. (Colossians 2v8-9)
That’s Temple language, right there. Where does one normally look for a deity—a god? Why in a temple, of course. But not anymore. “Jesus is the God in-the-flesh; the Deity made definite,” writes Paul.
But this… this upends everything. Everything is upside down. The highest One is found in the lowest places. The greatest One is working in the lousiest of places. The first are last, and the last are first. The life of Jesus shows us what God is like… the kinds of places where he is.
Let’s get real for a second—the feed box and the executioner’s block are not where we expect to find the Divine Life. I mean, where are we looking for God? Where are we looking for his “fullness”? For him to fill us up? What are the kinds of things that we’re looking for in our lives or in the world to help reassure us that God is at work? I can tell you where I’m typically looking… I’m looking for God in something great.
I’m typically looking for something showy and loud and immediate.
But does any of that look like Jesus?
Does any of that look like the cross?
Does any of that look like the manger?
The scandal of Christmas is that God is not found high on Olympus, but down in the ordinary. God is not Zeus-like. God is Christ-like. That’s the Divine Life—the heart of God. The life of Jesus is not what God pretended to be like for a handful of decades in the first century. The life of Jesus shows us the life of God.
And that means, much of my life, I’m looking for God in the wrong places. I’m looking through the highlights: trying to get to a high place, a powerful place, a loud and proud and strong place. I’m searching for unambiguous faith, unquestionable experiences, undeniable proof. And I’m missing God. Because God’s love for us—for the world—brings him to a manger muddy.
The manager teaches us to look low for God.
That’s near the heart of both of the Christmas stories. In Matthew, the Magi eventually tear their eyes away from the heavens—they have to look lower—to gaze the Child and his teenage mother. In Luke, the shepherds might are directed not to gawk at angels in the sky—but to look lower—and find an infant, born in barn, lying in a food trough.
We frequently miss God because we’re not looking low enough.
A few examples might be in order.
A few days ago on Christmas Day, all was right with my world. I spent the morning sipping warm coffee, listening to music, and opening presents with bride, my daughters, and my amazing mother-in-law. I spent the afternoon disassembling the girls’ toddler’s beds and unboxing and assembling a small bunk bed—the girls’ big present. They’re very excited about it. All of this disassembly and assembly was done with a small Allen Wrench and my wrist was rather sore by the end of the day. (I joked that the Allen Wrench had given me an Allen Wrist.)
Many days of our lives are like this… full of goodness, full of love, full of tedious work. A bit of soreness or stiffness. But we’re grateful for it all. We don’t feel like we’ve had a transcendent, magical experience of God when our head hits the pillow… but we’re invited to look lower. Beneath the goodness, beneath the love we feel, even beneath the tedious work and the sore body—we’ve been playing in the dirt all day, and that garden is God’s own life that he shares with us.
On our days of goodness and gratitude—every moment of love and peace and joy and goodness, every expression of loyalty and faithfulness, that’s actually God meeting us. We just don’t recognize it. We’re looking upward for a Temple; we don’t recognize the baby in the manager. The greatest who is also the lowest.
The same also applies in our relationships—in our conversations, our interruptions, our disagreements, our serving someone.
Our girls are about to be four and three; and they are at a glorious age where they talk. non. stop. They have much to say. They have much to ask. And I’m someone who frequently looks for God in stillness and quiet and tranquility. And let me be clear: I DO find him there. But that tranquility space can frequently become Temple space where I say, “God must be here.”
I have my ideal… that becomes my idol when I cling to it.
As my girls were bouncing and singing and laughing and crying and arguing; and as Joy and I were playing with them and helping them and correcting them—I kept hearing it: “Look lower.”
God isn’t just present in my ideal space; God dwells in our relationships. Paul writes in Ephesians 2 that God is building a Temple and that Temple is us—together—all of us, in relationship, sharing the life of Jesus. And Paul is talking about Jews and Gentiles—the people that you would never think could get along or go together.
The space between us—of our coming together—of sorting out disagreements, of asking for forgiveness, of learning from each other, and loving each other when it’s hard. It’s messy and muddy. But that space between us is where God is. Don’t miss him.
Of course, not all of our life feels like goodness and gratitude. Not all of our life do we feel connected with others. Frequently we feel alone. Much of our life is suffering and heartache. Things not working out at all the way we think they should or thought they would.
My temperament—my personality—actually gravitates to this. Show me a picturesque sunset, and I’ll think about the solar flare that may just kill us all. Show me my girls beside themselves in laughter with their bunkbed, and I’m already anticipating every way they could hurt themselves.
(Hear me—I’m not saying this ideal way to be…)
I have real trouble being present in the midst of unbridled celebration. My past teaches me that bad things can happen. And they do happen. And they will happen. They will happen again, despite everything I do.
But what we learn from Jesus’ life is that God is present in suffering and heartache. God knows the cruelty of the cross. The darkness of the moment when the lights go out and all you can do is cry: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” One theologian writing about exactly that—Jesus’ cry from the cross—says:
“God is present in his apparent absence… God is present in the forsaken so that nobody—nobody ever, nobody anywhere at any time under any circumstance—is forsaken.” (Richard John Neuhaus, Death on a Friday Afternoon)
I return to this, again and again and again. Because not every morning is Christmas morning. Sometimes even Christmas morning isn’t Christmas morning. A lot of days are bad days. Bad. Like Good Friday-bad. Darkness and sweat and tears and betrayal and confusion and pain. The gospel entrusted to the Church doesn’t deny any of life’s darkness. The gospel entrusted to the Church stares unwaveringly at suffering and heartache and whispers to us:
When we feel like we’re sinking into the abyss—we’re knee-deep in the grave—the waters are overtaking us—and how did this happen?—and the universe is broken—and I’m all alone—and I can’t see the heavens…
…the gospel says: “God is under you.”
Even if you doubt—even if your faith is weak—even when our faithfulness is flailing—God is still faithful to us. That’s the gospel. God has experienced the depths of dereliction and darkness, so there is nowhere we can go where he is not.
If this is where you are, look lower. God is with you.
Another theologian put it this way:
“The Son of God… suffered unto the death, not that men might not suffer, but that their suffering might be like his, and lead them up to his perfection.” (George MacDonald, Unspoken Sermons Vol 1)
I don’t pretend that there are easy answers to heartache and suffering. But the cruelty of the cross is NOT a place where God is absent. The cruelty of the cross has actually become hallowed ground. Because God himself is there. Redeeming us. Changing us. Saving us. And always always always lower than us. You can’t see the heavens? That’s ok. The heavens are beneath you, and God can see in the dark.
The bush burning is holy ground.
The manger muddy is holy ground.
The cross cruel is holy ground.
The tomb empty is holy ground.
(…and make no mistake, Easter—tomb empty—evil vanquished—death defeated—life forever and fully alive, amen—that’s where God is taking creation… but in the mean time—until the renewal of all things—do not lose heart…)
God claims all our lives as holy ground.
You have never lived an unspiritual moment. You have never made an unspiritual choice. You have never had an unspiritual relationship. Everything is spiritual. Everything is holy. Everything is sacred. And God is working—through it all—to make you full of life and full of love.
We’re frequently staring upward for God, which is wonderful. God is transcendent. You will find him there. But if you can’t… don’t despair. God is also immanent. Closer to us than we are to ourselves.
There’s Someone greater than the Temple… and he’s always already here.