Christmas Day, December 25, 2016
Sermon: “Still Speaking”
Preacher: Rev. Ryan Slifka
Scripture: Hebrews 1:1-4
In the Bible God speaks. Sometimes God speaks with clarity, with an audible voice. Through a burning bush. From a voice in the heavens. Even from the mouth of a donkey. Sometimes God speaks in more subtle ways. Sometimes God speaks by bypassing the ear. And going straight to the soul.
God speaks in all sorts of ways in the Bible. Truth be told, though, if someone tells us that God spoke to them we’re likely to be skeptical. Likely to be worried about that person. Likely to ask them if they took their medications that morning. There seems to be a real disconnect in the way that the Bible describes God’s speech, God’s self-communication, and our every day experience in 21st century North America. If there is a God. This God appears to prefer radio silence.
This divine silence seems to be most apparent this time of year. One of my favorite writers, the pastor and consultant Tony Robinson tells a story of visiting the “winter village” in Whistler just when the holiday season was just beginning to ramp up. If you’ve never been there, you’ll know that this relatively newly constructed resort town is supposed to resemble those cozy little classic chalet-style European mountain towns, like the ones in the alps. Clock towers, cobble stone streets, stone buildings. Especially around Christmas time, this village is supposed to evoke in us the feelings and memories of days passed. And if you’ve been there, you’ll know it makes a pretty fine imitation.
Tony noticed something missing in the central village, though. Something that would be present in any European mountain town. Try as he might, he couldn’t find a church on Sunday. It’s not that us North Americans are no longer religious, or spiritual. Far from it. And it’s not that us North Americans don’t love the festivity and wonder of the season. We do. But it’s that we no longer find these things in ancient traditions, or in gathered, organized communities. And so our ideal Christmas village keeps the festive part. But brackets out the divine. Intentionally or not.
The ancients, Christian or non-Christian, believed that everything in life was dripping with the divine. Everything in life was shot through with the sacred. Every moment, every movement carried meaning beyond what you could touch or see. And while we may hear Holy echoes on our streets and our shopping malls, that transcendent dimension of life has largely been bracketed out. If there is a God. This God appears to prefer silence. God no longer speaks. Even during what is a holy and festive time.
And yet, we are not the first people to stand a holy silence. This morning’s reading from the Epistle to the Hebrews is rooted in some kind of a crisis in a community of faith. We’re not sure what the exact crisis is. But what we do know is that these are people who have grown weary. These are people who are a few generations now removed from the events described in the New Testament. Like us, they’ve never seen Jesus with their own eyes—everything they’ve heard about him is by word of mouth. Everything’s been passed down.
The initial electricity, that wonder and excitement of the original movement has worn off. Some in the community have grown lax. Commitment to the community, and the faith that the community carries is waning. People are losing interest, running low on energy. People are showing up less and less frequently on Sunday mornings until they finally stop attending altogether. These are people whose faith, whose relationship with the divine has slowed to a trickle. We’re not sure what the crisis is that brought this about exactly. But we know that there’s no longer that deep commitment that was once there. Like us, the spark that once lit hearts on fire has just about been extinguished. If there is a God, this God no longer speaks. No longer has much to say to them. Or about their lives.
So this letter comes to people who are in need. Weary people in need of some kind of rekindled vision, some kind of renewed perspective. People who live in a time where God doesn’t seem to speak. God doesn’t seem to matter. So you might expect a letter like this to begin with a list of benefits for belonging to a church community. I’ve always enjoyed the church sign that said “Free coffee... eternal life. Membership has its benefits.” But the letter actually begins on a higher plane. The divine plane, in fact. “Long ago,” it begins. “Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets. But in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, though whom he also created the worlds.” Long ago, God spoke to our ancestors by various ways, he says. Angel, burning bush, pillar of fire, etc. etc. etc. But most recently God has spoken to us in and through this person, Jesus. In fact, the letter says that Jesus has been the “reflection of God’s glory” and “the exact imprint of God’s very being.” God has spoken not only with words you can hear. But God has spoken in the flesh of a human being.
God, says our author, spoke in many ways in the past. And now God has pulled back the veil in the life of Jesus and spoken definitively and decisively in the flesh. To his weary people, people who are losing faith, energy and nerve, our author declares that the same God who spoke the universe to being. The same God who spoke to our ancestors in a myriad of mysterious ways. The same God who came in the flesh, who moved in to the neighborhood in Jesus. In spite of the radio silence, he assures everyone that this God continues to be present. This God continues to reach out to creation. This God who spoke in the past continues to speak today. In fact, God has never been silent!
God spoke once. God spoke decisively in the flesh. And God continues to speak, continues to reach out and change lives today. This is the message of Christmas, message of the incarnation. And we know that God continues to speak, because God has spoken to us today through two people by the sacrament of Holy Baptism. It’s been said that flesh is God’s territory no less than spirit. And today God has spoken to us in the flesh, in and through Clinton, and in and through Ellen. Though we may not hear God speak in and through our disenchanted, secular culture. We who are weary can take much courage that God continues to speak, and that God continues to call faithful people. To work in and through them for the creation of something beautiful. Something good.
Today is that day, Clinton, and Ellen. Clinton, God has always been speaking to you. Even if you didn’t have the ears to hear it, and even if you didn’t have the eyes to recognize it until now. God has been speaking, God has been at work in you from the beginning. In your kindness, your caring, your gentleness. And today this call rings loud and clear. You have said your little “yes” to God’s big “yes” to you and all creation that was spoken to before you ever existed. Today, through Word, water, and the laying of hands, you have been set apart. As our passage says, Jesus has inherited a name “more excellent than the angels.” Today in your baptism, you’ve had that same name above all other names, placed on you. You have been marked as Christ’s forever. The same God who created the universe. The same God who shined in the face of Jesus. This same God is determined to make a home in you, and your life. To shape your life into a reflection, an imprint of Jesus. To make you a walking billboard for God’s mercy, healing, justice and hope. Today the God who once spoke to our ancestors is speaking to you… is speaking in you, and through you… to all of us. For the creation of something beautiful. Something good. God is still speaking!
So, Clinton, Ellen. Everyone who is gathered here today on this beautiful Christmas morning. Take heart. Have courage. God who once spoke continues to speak. The God who has reached out in grace in Jesus Christ continues to reach out to us even now, with a voice that echoes through the ages. For those who have eyes to see and ears to hear. Because God is still speaking.
And so on this Christmas, may all of our eyes be opened to see God’s work in our midst. May all of our ears be opened to hear his voice. And may each and every heart prepare him room!