Second Sunday of Christmas, Year C
Sirach 24:1-12; John 1:1-18
Sunday, January 3, 2010
Grace to you and peace, from the one who is, and who was, and who is to come. Amen.
So how about that for something different?
Today we read from a book called Sirach,
a book written about 130 before Jesus' birth by a Jewish teacher and temple leader,
a book which looks and feels and sounds much like the book of Proverbs,
a book which offers brief teachings on daily living,
and which eloquently describes God's wisdom as coming to the people Israel.
This deuterocanonical book is included in Roman Catholic and Orthodox Bibles,
but not in the Bibles we Lutherans and other protestants generally use.
That word, deuterocanonical, refers to books that are not in the canon,
that is, not in the accepted collection of Biblical books,
but which constitute a sort of "second canon,"
nonetheless recognized for their faithfulness.
The early Church fathers read and commented on the deuterocanonical books,
as did the Jewish rabbis of their era.
Martin Luther commended Sirach and other deuterocanonical books
for reading and personal study,
and we would do well to keep them in our reading from time to time.
The scholars and church leaders who set up the Revised Common Lectionary,
the assigned schedule of readings that we Lutherans share with many other Christians,
have included readings from these deuterocanonical books from time to time.
Today is one of those times.
And we can see why.
This beautiful text from Sirach,
echoes Proverbs chapter 8 by describing God's wisdom personified in a feminine form,
who was present with God the Creator since the beginning,
and sent into the world to dwell with God's chosen people.
She comes to minister in the holy place,
to stand between God and his people.
This wisdom of God, which in Greek is rendered as Sophia,
is personified here in Sirach 24, in Proverbs 8, and elsewhere,
as a woman.
The tradition has dubbed her "Lady Wisdom."
As the Jewish culture was increasingly influenced by the Greeks in the centuries before Christ,
this Jewish notion of Wisdom interplayed with the Greek notion of Logos, Word,
and the two – Wisdom and Word – came to be somewhat synonymous.
And so in writing about a Word present "in the beginning,"
a Word who was with God and who was God,
a Word who came to his own people,
who came in flesh and blood
to show us his glory and to make us children of God,
John was echoing and participating in that Jewish Wisdom tradition.
Indeed, it is no accident that the words and rhythms and images
of Sirach 24 and of John 1 resonate with each other.
God's Word, God's Wisdom, come to earth. Dwelling with God's people.
Yet again in this Christmas season we are reminded that God is with us.
His name is Emmanuel.
Of course, these texts present us with images of God quite distinct from the
story about the baby Jesus surrounded by Mary and Joseph, sheep and shepherds,
that we heard here ten days ago on Christmas Eve.
Today's texts speak of Wisdom and Word coming to God's people,
ways of speaking of God that might seem a bit esoteric to us today,
for they are quite a bit more abstract than the story of a baby in a manger …
and if you're in the business of selling nativity scenes for front lawns or living room mantles,
these passages today are not for you.
But if we get into these texts a little bit we find a beauty, a poetry, and a theological profundity
that is not present, at least not in the same way, in the story of God incarnate in the baby Jesus.
Indeed, the gift of these texts today from Sirach and from the Gospel of John
is that they open up the poetry of our Lord's essence,
they unpack who he was before he was born of the flesh,
they join his life and ministry to a tradition that predates his earthly ministry,
and they provide us with Biblically sound and theologically rich imagery
for speaking of our Lord.
In Sirach we read that Wisdom dwells in the heavens and reaches across the seas,
over all the earth and over every people,
sitting on a throne and holding sway over all creation.
Yet this Wisdom is not content with her heavenly perch and universal reach,
but rather she seeks a resting place.
I love that – this Wisdom of God is not content to hang out among the heavenly hosts,
and to be at work in the corners of all creation.
Instead, she wants desperately to enter into creation,
and God the Creator sends her to Israel,
to dwell and to minister in his honored and chosen people,
where she pitches her tent and makes her home.
John speaks similarly of the Word as traversing all of creation and, indeed,
as giving life to all things,
a divine presence that is simultaneously universal and particular,
present in all time and place,
and yet taking on flesh and blood in a particular time and place,
to live among us, his own people.
Like with the stories of the baby Jesus from Matthew and Luke,
in today's readings we arrive at God coming to be with us,
coming to his people.
But … but the back story, the "prequel," to use language of contemporary movies,
is something quite different.
Sirach and John are not concerned with Davidic lineage and genealogy, as are Luke and Matthew.
Rather, Sirach and John describe this God who comes to be with us
as universal and life-giving,
as unquestionably involved in the details of all life-and-being within creation,
as both source and sovereign of all that is.
Whereas the birth stories in Matthew and Luke
emphasize that God has sent to us a savior in the infant Jesus,
Sirach and John both play up the cosmologically mind-bending notion
that God himself has come to earth,
that the creator and sustainer of all things is entering into creation as a thing,
that the universal Wisdom, the everpresent Word
is coming to a particular people in a particular place
to minister and to love, to pitch a tent and to dwell,
to take on flesh and to be with us, to be one of us.
As I read these texts I couldn't help but think of a huge funnel
that somehow takes all of the divine goodness that is in the Wisdom, in the Word,
spread throughout time and space,
and channels that divinity into history and into flesh and blood,
into the person of Jesus.
All that expansiveness, all that life,
all that power and glory that stretches from one end of creation to the next,
that traverses the vaults of heaven,
is poured into and flows from this Word made flesh, this living Wisdom,
this holy one, Jesus our Lord.
Sirach and John describe a God who,
though active in creation was yet intangible and somewhat unknown to that creation,
and so entered the world in a manner that made sense to his people,
a God who entered the world so that it might see the face of God.
And before John ever gets to the stories about Jesus,
– his miracles and preaching and teaching, his death and resurrection –
his readers already had a sense of who this Word incarnate was,
for by using language and imagery from the Wi
which was familiar to his first readers,
John places Jesus within that tradition.
When John writes about the Word,
his readers would immediately make connections to Wisdom.
Yet … yet John doesn't just stick with that Wisdom tradition alone.
He also goes beyond it.
For Wisdom, we read in Proverbs and in Sirach, was created by God.
Yet this Word that John describes was not created, but was present in the beginning,
was with God, indeed, this Word was God,
equal with the Father in creating and sustaining life.
And so John uses the tradition of Wisdom, but he goes beyond it …
to tell of something much more radical
than even the most poetic descriptions of Lady Wisdom could do …
to describe the universal, everpresent God of creation taking on flesh
and entering creation to come and live and dwell among us.
And this is the good news of this season, sisters and brothers in Christ,
that the God whose Word and Wisdom have been present with God
and active in creation from the beginning,
has come to us in flesh and blood,
has joined the reaches of heaven to the depths of creation,
has poured his holy and life-giving presence into our world and into our lives,
and has come to us as a sustaining Word of Wisdom, hope, and life.
Christ is born. The Word is made flesh. Wisdom dwells among us.
His name is Emmanuel.