Good Moral Behavior? (a sermon for the last Sunday of Christmas)

It is the twelfth day of Christmas today.  Tomorrow is Epiphany and the Christmas season will end.  Sometimes I feel a little bad for the Christmas season.  We tend to rush to get it here – wanting to sing the Christmas carols and see the decorations long before Christmas Eve and then by the time we are at the end of the short, twelve day long Christmas season, we are wondering why are we still singing Christmas songs?  Why is the tree still up?  The rest of life around us has long since packed up Christmas, traded it in for New Year’s resolutions and even looking ahead toward Valentines Day.  But in here, it is still Christmas.  For one more day.

Our Gospel for today (John 1:1-18) won’t let us forget it, that is for sure.  If the gospel text sounds familiar, well, it should – especially if you were here Christmas eve and Christmas day – it is the same exact reading we heard both those days.

And no less confusing now than it ever is.  “In the beginning was the Word and the word was with God, and the Word was God.”  This text talks about Word and Life and Light – all these things coming into the world and becoming flesh.  This was John’s way of simply talking about Jesus’ birth.  God’s word put on flesh and came to live among us and through him we receive grace.

Not long ago, a friend of mine from Minnesota, a high school friend, wrote an article on his blog telling his readers that he wasn’t a Christian.  He said that he just didn’t really believe that Jesus was God and the only reason he sends his kids to Sunday School is because he thinks it is a good place to get sound moral teaching – but that is about it.  He then said that if anyone who knew him didn’t like that and chose not to talk to him anymore he would understand.

I thought a lot about his article in the days that followed and my feeling as I did so was sadness.  And not sadness because he was expressing doubt about believing in Jesus.  I think if most of us are honest we have all had doubts.  I know few who when standing over the gravestone of a child or after watching the news about another terrorist bombing, or even just after a troubling amount of days of feeling a lack of God’s presence or a distressing lack of visible answers to prayer, I know few who don’t have doubts about who God is and how it is that such evil or seeming absence can happen under God’s watch.  However, even for those people who might never have a doubt, if that were possible, such faith would be a gift from God anyway, so it is nothing to get proud about.  My experience is that most faithful people are quite a lot like that father in the book of Mark whose child needed healing from an unclean spirit and he came to Jesus asking for help and said, “Lord, I believe, help my unbelief!”  We believe but we also doubt.  We trust, but yet we are skeptical.  We are saints, but yet we are sinners.  This is us – human beings, all of us.

And I wasn’t sad because this friend of mine said the main reason he sends his kids to Sunday School was so that they could have strong moral teaching.  I hope our churches will always be places where children can receive that – of course, I hope they get it at home, too, but I pray their church families always help reinforce that and are places of good influence.  However, I think if that is our main goal in coming to church – that idealized vision of good morals and nice people and kindness overflowing, then we can get pretty disillusioned in the church fast, too.  Because the church is, once again, full of human beings – and sin can slip in these doors just as easily as anywhere else on earth.  Christian people, all of us, are as big a lot of sinners as anyone.  Even if we unite here under the common goal of following Jesus it doesn’t take long before something happens that reminds us of that.  A cross word, a thoughtless deed, a selfish action, something happens and sooner or later, again and again, we get reminded that being on church property doesn’t mean perfect behavior.  Lord no.  I’d rather the lesson my kids get in coming to Sunday School is not one of good moral behavior not nearly as much as the message that they are forgiven and loved always.  That if and when they mess up, they are loved and accepted here by us and by our God just as much as when they have been on their best behavior.  Yes, we teach the ten commandments here – but those are just a fraction of the story and a story made complete by the message of grace that Jesus brought.  That, and that being part of a Christian community such as this means simply that this is a place where we come and try not to seek a utopia of any sorts – but rather this is a place where we get to not only worship and learn about God but practice being God’s people.  We keep practicing at forgiving, speaking the truth in love and encouraging each other in the faith and then do our best to bring those skills out into the world around us.

So why was I sad about the words my friend had written?  I was sad because his impression of his Christian friends was that some of them would probably not want to be his friend anymore if they knew this about him.  If they knew he was a person who could have doubts about faith and Jesus Christ, that his Christian friends would reject him.

Is that the impression we give to the rest of the world?  And if so, why?  And if so, how can we change that?  Because we must.

You know, the thing is, I don’t blame anyone for being confused about Christians – because I know a fair number of Christians who probably would  prove my friend right about his assumptions.  Refusing to associate with a non-believer.  Condemning a fellow human being for having doubts.  Pointing out the speck in the eyes of others without seeing the plank in their own.  But none of that is living as Jesus Christ showed us. 

And that is what this season of Christmas is supposed to remind us.  That God sent Jesus, God’s word with skin on, to show us that being God’s people wasn’t nearly so much about the law as about love. That all those things that you struggle with – whether it be jealousy or depression or greed or anger or boredom or addiction or gossiping – that you don’t have to be able to purge yourself of any of those things in order to be loved or forgiven fully and completely.  Who you are is precious and beloved – right now.  That Jesus came to be born and walk around the earth and show us God’s face – and that face was one that looked on others with compassion and acceptance, grace upon grace.

Let me be clear:  God doesn’t love you because of how good you are.  God loves you because you are. 

The Christmas season is coming to a close and we feel ready for that.  We can’t be eating Christmas cookies all year round.  We’re most likely looking forward to singing some new songs and putting the carols away until next year.  But before we do, let’s pause at that manger one last time to remember the whole reason for it.  Jesus coming to earth, God’s word coming to us, love coming to us – not merely a singular event in time – not at all.  Jesus came to us to show us that is how God’s love is always – it comes to us.  We don’t have to work to get to God and to deserve God’s love because God’s love comes to us and promises to be born in us again and again.

And as we turn now and walk away from the manger we show our response to God for that great gift.  What will we choose as we journey through the seasons to come?  To accept that gift of life and love and then respond with selfishness or do we respond with consistently looking for ways to serve and help others?  Do we accept that gift of life and love and then respond with hording as much as possible for ourselves – more stuff that we don’t need, more luxury for ourselves when others are wondering where their next meal is coming from – or- do we respond by working hard to learn how to give, to see the beauty and peace that can be found in generosity?  Do we respond to God’s gift of life and love with accepting division and animosity and gossip and hatred to be a part of our days – or – do we respond by always, always, always working to speak well of our neighbors and let kindness and mercy be our first response?

God’s gifts to us are already given and great – all that remains to be seen is how and if we show our gratitude through our days and deeds.

Let us pray…

Lord, help us to live gratefully, boldly, lovingly, hopefully, mercifully and generously.  Help us to never stop thanking you for this gift of Jesus born to us, our dear Savior.  Help us to remember that you don’t require perfect understanding in order to receive your love.  Help us to remember that doubts are normal and that it is often by praying our way through those doubts and looking for our answers in you that you drive us toward deeper faith and peace.  Living God, we are yours, now help us live our lives for you.  We pray all these things in Jesus’ name.  Amen.

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