Sermon: The First Sunday After Christmas (December 31, 2017)

Sermon: Christmas 1B
John 1:1-18
Mtr. Jen Fulton
St. John of the Cross, Bristol

In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.

Many of you know that I worked at Notre Dame for 6 years, in a unit called the Nanovic Institute for European Studies, with some of those years overlapping my years here. I worked in a relatively small office; there were just 7 of us. I was my supervisor’s only direct report; my supervisor’s name was Anthony.

Anthony is an amazing man in many ways. With a doctorate in English, he has done a variety of odd things at various universities. At the Nanovic Institute, he was the Associate Director of Academics. As such, he had fashioned himself into a true Renaissance Man. He could discuss literature, sure. But he could also discuss, with the best of them, architecture, sociology, psychology, history, theology, wine making—the works. And as the Associate Director of Academics, Anthony functioned largely as a visionary. He spent much of his time dreaming dreams—spinning cobwebs in the air—and then trying to sell them to others. He functioned up here (wave hands vaguely in the air above my head), in a world of ideas and musings, of air castles and enterprises.

I hadn’t worked for him very long when I realized that he needed a foil. He needed me to be the person with her feet planted firmly on the ground, setting limits AND helping develop the structures that would make his visions reality.

And so I became the creator of humongous spreadsheets. I established and published and enforced rules and guidelines. I knew the budget. I concerned myself with precedent. My computer was full of templates that I had created. I understood university procedures. I was the keeper of the files.

And more than that, I was the one who often called my supervisor to the mat. “Anthony,” I would say, “I have a deadline at 5:00pm tomorrow. If you want me to make it, I need you to make decisions on that stack of yellow file folders that I gave you 2 weeks ago.” “Anthony, can you please explain to me why we bother to put together a faculty selection committee if we’re just going to do whatever you want to do anyway?” “Anthony, we’re already overbudget.” “Anthony, Notre Dame International is going to throw a fit.” “Anthony, I really think we need to pass this by legal.” “Anthony, there’s no way I can do this and remain part-time.” “Anthony, a deadline is a deadline. We cannot bend a deadline just because you want to.”

But more than that, Anthony and I both worked to serve the students, but because he usually functioned up here (wave hands vaguely in the air above my head), I was the one who knew and formed relationships with the students. I knew what they were working on, and how they were going about it. I knew some of the details of their lives. I reported those details to him when necessary, sometimes making pleas for one student or another.

We were the perfect team. And I’m not even kidding. Because what the Academics branch of the Nanovic Institute needed was both someone who functioned up here (wave hands vaguely in the air above my head) AND someone who kept her boots firmly on the ground. Without me, things wouldn’t have gotten done, or the things that got done would have been late, way overbudget, and made a thousand people mad. Without him, the Institute would have lacked vision and heart and soul.

Why am I telling you all this? Because I want to suggest (humbly) that Anthony and I can function as an imperfect analogy for God as revealed to us in the first chapter of John, and in all the gospels, really.

But to explain this, I need to review with you two words that both describe God.

The first word: transcendence. God is transcendent. That means that God exists beyond the normal or physical level. It means that God is not just a bigger, better, more powerful version of us; God is completely other. God is un-understandable. God is mystery. God exists outside of the created order, because God created the created order. God is up here (wave hands vaguely in the air above my head) in some vague, unknowable, all-powerful, completely sovereign way.

Think, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God,” and you get a pretty good idea of God’s transcendence.

The second word: immanence. God is immanent. To be immanent means to be within, or to be near something. So if God is immanent, that means that God is present within our universe, within our created order. God lives in relationship with us. God knows us. God fills the earth. God takes up residence in our hearts. God loves us. God came to earth, in a specific time and place, in the person of Jesus.

Think, “And the Word became flesh and lived among us,” and you get a pretty good idea of God’s immanence.

Just as the Nanovic Institute would have been weakened if we hadn’t had both Anthony functioning up here (wave hands vaguely in the air above my head) and me functioning firmly in the real world of policies and procedures and budgets and record-keeping and relationships—just so our conception of God is weakened without understanding or believing that God is both transcendent and immanent simultaneously.

How? How is our conception of God weakened without understanding both God’s transcendence and immanence?

If we only believe in or emphasize God’s transcendence, then we become deists. Desists are people who believe in a supreme being who created the universe and then stepped out of the picture. Like a divine watch-maker who made a watch and then just let it do its thing until it wound down or its battery ran out of power. A God who is transcendent but not immanent doesn’t save us, doesn’t call us to discipleship, doesn’t love us. If God is just transcendent, then there is no Jesus, no miracles, no healings, no feedings, no cross, no resurrection. If God is just transcendent, then our prayers are meaningless. If God is just transcendent, then we’re on our own.

On the other hand, if we only believe in or emphasize God’s immanence, then we become pantheists. Pantheists believe that God and the universe are identical, and God is the world and the world is God. There is no God outside of the world or the universe, because there is no difference between deity and creation. A God who is just immanent cannot perform miracles, because God exists within the created order and scientific laws. A God who is just immanent cannot save us, because we are God and God is us. Our goal, according to pantheists is to more fully realize the divine within us. Sure, Jesus was God, but so are we—he was just better at it than we are. There may have been a cross, but no healings, no resurrection. If God is just immanent, than we’re on our own. There are no surprising works of God; there is no grace.

This concept of John’s that the Word became flesh, is the light in the darkness, that he was in the world but the world did not know him, is pretty darn important. Without it God doesn’t work. Without it we don’t work. Without it the universe doesn’t work. Without it none of this works.

When my children were little, I took them quite a bit to St. Patrick County Park, which sits right on the Indiana-Michigan border. We used to hike to the sign that marked the state line, and my kids would stand with one foot in Indiana and one foot in Michigan, and laugh and say, “Look, Mom—which state are we in?” Later, I told them that that’s kind of like what God is like—that God has one foot in heaven and one on earth, and so exists in both places. God is both up here (wave hands vaguely in the air above my head) and has boots on the ground. God is both transcendent and immanent.

Why have I just gone on about this? Why this crash course in Systematic Theology? Here’s why.

Episcopalians and Anglicans tend to be people of the incarnation. Just as Pentecostals resonate with the Holy Spirit, and Roman Catholics tend to resonate with the mystery and omniscience and power of God, we tend to resonate with the incarnation. In that respect, I’m a perfect Anglican. I love preaching about a God who is Emmanuel, God with us, who was laid in the straw and worked with wood and got calluses and the stomach flu and stubbed his toe and mourned his father Joseph’s death and wept when Lazarus died and got angry with the money changers in the temple and suffered and died as one of us. I love the Christmas story. I love the story of the man named Jesus. And I hope you do too.

But that’s meaningless—or at least next to meaningless—if we don’t balance it with a God who is transcendent.

I suspect—I don’t know, but I suspect—that this is why we need to hear the first chapter of John at Christmastime. (Because it IS still Christmastime, you know! It will be until Epiphany.) Because otherwise, we might focus so much on the King amidst the straw that we forget about the pre-existent Word.

And we cannot do that and call ourselves Christians.

Eventually, at the Nanovic Institute, Anthony and started to achieve some balance. He realized that I had visions and dreams too, and would come into my office and ask me about them. I talked to him about my biggest vision—that we would have a group of undergraduate fellows who we would nurture and support and challenge. We didn’t have the budget for it, or any sort of rules or guidelines or procedures. But when I left the Nanovic Institute, he was working with the Development Office to get the money, and with other campus units to see how they implemented programs like that. Imagine that—me presenting the stuff up here (wave hands vaguely in the air above my head), and him working in the real world to try to make it happen. We did our best work when we truly worked together as a team, as a unified whole, both of us with visions and dreams and with boots on the ground.

Just as we work best when we embrace Scripture, the Gospel of John, and the historic creeds, and hold God’s transcendence and immanence in balance.

Yes, this Christmas we worship and celebrate a king amidst the straw. But let’s not forget that that king is the Word, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.

Without that, Christmas, Christianity, all of this, just doesn’t work.

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