Saturday Sermons from the Sidelines — “Cracked and Broken”

The Second Sunday after Christmas, 2021; Jeremiah 31:7-14, John 1:1-18

“Adversity does not build character,” said James Lane Allen, “but reveals it.” This is perhaps a kinder, gentler version of the oft-cited line from Nietzsche that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Regardless the source, we have had quite enough character revealing, thank you very much. If current events are any clue, the truth is different. Whatever doesn’t kill you may still get you in the end if you’re not careful.

So, before we go on, let’s acknowledge how hard and scary the past nine months have been for us. Let’s grieve the losses of people and community and tranquility we experience. Let’s admit our distress, disruption, and despair. Until we look inward with clear eyes, we can’t look forward to ways that give life.

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Adversity may reveal character. It also reveals the cracks – the flaws in ourselves, in our systems, and in our safe and settled views of the world. We may not be as brave and resilient, as selfless and compassionate, as we thought. Racism, sexism, classism, egotism, and moral cowardice may be harder to root out than we had assumed. Life may be less reliable and more dangerous than we had hoped.

There’s a lot in this life that wants to kill us. It doesn’t care if we get stronger or not.

The first reading for this second Sunday after Christmas comes from people who know all about what wants to kill us. Their homeland was invaded and conquered. Their cities and farms, their homes and schools, their temple and capital were destroyed. They were scattered in exile among the nations. Many of them would never see their homes and homeland again.

The chaos and crisis of the last nine months have been challenging. But it’s been a picnic in the park compared to the trauma of the exiles in Jeremiah. But now, for them, God is on the move. Rescue and redemption are on the way. The scattered flock will be gathered. The captives will be released. The hungry will be fed, and the farms will flourish.

The Lord says, “Sing aloud with gladness for Jacob, and raise shouts for the chief of the nations; proclaim, give praise, and say, ‘Save, O Lord, your people, the remnant of Israel.’” God tells the exiles to ask for salvation because it’s already coming. Don’t just ask, the Lord says. Advertise it to the nations so they can spread the word. “Hear the word of the Lord, O nations,” God tells them, “and declare it in the coastlands far away…”

Adversity reveals character, all right. But it reveals God’s character, not just ours! In the midst of the distress, disruption, and despair, there is a declaration of hope – “for I have become a father to Israel,” God tells them, “and Ephraim is my firstborn.”

Adversity reveals our cracks as well as our character. Jeremiah’s people know all about the cracks.

Their world became so fractured and fragmented that it fell down around their ears. Their greed separated them from one another and left the vulnerable to die in the dust. Their lust for privilege separated them from their own humanity and blinded them to the political realities around them. Their worship of self turned them away from God and left them hungry for a meaning they could not make on their own. Their pursuit of empire left them naked to the games of world power, and they lost.

The thing about cracks is that they also let things in. I return over and over to the lyrics of Leonard Cohen’s song, “Anthem.” The lyrics contain such wisdom.

Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.

Cracks are how the light gets in. Adversity can break us down. It did that to Jeremiah’s people. But it can also break us open. We can, as Parker Palmer writes, “imagine the heart broken into shards and scattered about—a feeling most of us know, and a fate we would like to avoid.” Or, he says, we can “imagine the heart broken open into new capacity – a process that is not without pain but one that many of us would welcome.”

Jeremiah’s people had their hearts broken – first down, and then open. When their hearts were broken open, then God’s light could shine into their hearts. It’s not surprising that the most vulnerable lead the redemption parade – those far from home, the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor. They come weeping for their losses and singing with joy. The vulnerable are the first to lose their illusions of invincibility. They are the first to recognize God’s rescue and redemption.

We are broken down in many ways. We can be broken open, if we’re willing. The cracks in our hearts are how the light gets in. We celebrate that Light in the season of Christmas. “In him was life,” the Gospel text reminds us, “and the life was the light of all people.” Sin, death, and evil seek to break us down, but they cannot win. “The light shines in the darkness,” the Gospel declares, “and the darkness did not overcome it.”

Jeremiah promises that hearts broken open are hearts made new. Later in chapter thirty-one, he finishes his prophecy. “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.”

The law of God’s love will shine through us and into a world wrapped in darkness. If we let ourselves be cracked open by life, the light will shine through us. If we let our hearts be broken open to love, we will grow and learn and flourish.

We stand at the beginning of the end of this particular crisis. I pray that this will prompt a time of reflection in our community, our state, and our nation. Will we return to a time of retreat and rejection, of paranoia and pain, of competition and complicity?

Or will we take this as an opportunity to grow in compassion and courage, in humility and honesty, in partnership and peace? Our society faces a billion small choices and a thousand large ones in that process of reflection.

More to the point today, we church people also have a choice. We can retreat once again into the cold darkness of the safe, secure and stable ways of the past. If we do, I believe we will continue our gentle slide into decline and death. There is no “going back to normal.” There is going toward life or toward death. Times of adversity simply make that clearer.

Perhaps we can stay open to the new possibilities this time in history has created. As our pastor often says, it’s a shame to waste a good pandemic. So, I hope we are praying and reflecting together on some important questions.

1. What can we learn from our own history and from other organizations about surviving and thriving after organizational trauma?

2. What strengths have we seen in ourselves and the church and our community and our world that we need to keep, to ponder, to build on and build out from?

3. What have we done without over the past nine months that we didn’t miss? What did we miss that we can’t do without?

4. What have we remembered or learned about our mission as a congregation that we didn’t see or confess, or appreciate a year ago?

5. What hopes and dreams, plans and promises, do we need to uncover as we prepare to go forward into God’s future?

I believe that congregations that see where they’ve been broken open to the future will find new joy and gladness in the journey. I pray that we and many other Christian communities will celebrate our cracks and choose to be broken open to God’s grace and love.

Let’s pray. Save, O Lord, your people. Bring us from our isolation and desolation into the light of your faithfulness, hopefulness, and lovingkindness. Use our cracks and brokenness to reveal your redemption in us and to the world through us. Fill us with songs of joy for the journey. In Jesus’ name we pray. Amen.

Text Study for Jeremiah 31:7-14

I will be preaching on this text at a local congregation this Sunday (well, I’ll be there virtually anyway). I will post that sermon on Saturday for those who are interested. It won’t be quite so much from the “sidelines” this week. You’ll see some of this study in that sermon.

I’m also using this week as a chance to walk my text study people through the thought process I use in moving from an Old Testament text into the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s a favorite preaching task for me, and I’m grateful for the seminary training I received to prepare me. The class was some like Old Testament Proclamation of the Gospel, taught at Wartburg Theological Seminary by Dr. Frank Benz. We relied on Hans Walter Wolff’s great little book, The Old Testament: A Guide to Its Writings. That class is still my guide for such sermons.

And now, on with the text.

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Just as I wouldn’t omit the first half of John’s prologue, so I would omit the first half of Jeremiah’s poem in this reading. So, I encourage you to read verses one through six in worship in order to give the full frame for the prophet’s words.

I encourage you also to read all of chapters 30 and 31 if you plan to preach on this text. These chapters are often called Jeremiah’s “Little Book of Consolation,” because they break from the relentless bad news of the prophet and give a glimpse of the hope to come after the Exile. “Write in a book all the words that I have spoken to you,” the LORD says to Jeremiah in 30:2. “For the days are surely coming, says the Lord, when I will restore the fortunes of my people, Israel and Judah, says the Lord, and I will bring them back to the land that I gave to their ancestors,” the Lord continues in verse 3, “and they shall take possession of it.

The pain of the Exile, which doubles men over like women in labor (30:6-7), shall come to an end. The sense of abandonment on the part of the exiles is devastating, but the catastrophe shall end. The LORD shall cure the incurable hurt and heal the grievous wound. The exiles will return home to a rebuilt city and a restored monarchy. Enemies shall be punished, and all will be set right.

Of course, this will be good news for the survivors, as we read in the opening verses of chapter 31. Even though the LORD’s people have been faithless, the LORD has remained faith with “an everlasting love.” So, we come to today’s text. Verses 7 through 9 paint a picture of the restoration and return of the exilic remnant, gathered “from the far parts of the earth.” The weak and the vulnerable shall join the procession and shall not be left behind.

This good news is then announced to the nations. It is the great reversal which turns mourning into joy and gives gladness in the place of sorrow. That’s the end of our lectionary text, but the words of the prophet continue. The work of rescue and redemption is not yet completed. After all, Rachel is still weeping in Ramah for her children who are no more. She refuses to be comforted by the news. But her tears are not the final word.

The LORD hears the pleas of Ephraim and the cries of Rachel and will surely have mercy. There is still much to be worked out. People still have to account for their actions. But the days are coming, we read in the familiar verses of Jeremiah 31:31-34, when a new covenant will be crafted. “But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people.

“Adversity does not build character,” said James Lane Allen, “but reveals it.” This is perhaps a kinder, gentler version of the oft-cited line from Nietzsche that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

The first reading for this second Sunday after Christmas comes from people who know all about what wants to kill us. Their homeland was invaded and conquered. Their cities and farms, their homes and schools, their temple and capital were destroyed. They were scattered in exile among the nations. Many of them would never see their homes and homeland again.

Adversity reveals character, all right. But it reveals God’s character, not just ours! In the midst of the distress, disruption, and despair, there is a declaration of hope – “for I have become a father to Israel,” God tells them, “and Ephraim is my firstborn.” Adversity reveals our cracks as well as our character. Jeremiah’s people know all about the cracks.

Their world became so fractured and fragmented that it fell down around their ears. Their greed separated them from one another and left the vulnerable to die in the dust. Their lust for privilege separated them from their own humanity and blinded them to the political realities around them. Their worship of self turned them away from God and left them hungry for a meaning they could not make on their own. Their pursuit of empire left them naked to the games of world power, and they lost.

Jeremiah’s people had their hearts broken – first down, and then open. When their hearts were broken open, then God’s light could shine into their hearts. It’s not surprising that the most vulnerable lead the redemption parade – those far from home, the blind and the lame, those with child and those in labor. They come weeping for their losses and singing with joy. The vulnerable are the first to lose their illusions of invincibility. They are the first to recognize God’s rescue and redemption.

Jeremiah promises that hearts broken open are hearts made new. The law of God’s love will shine through us and into a world wrapped in darkness. If we let ourselves be cracked open by life, the light will shine through us. If we let our hearts be broken open to love, we will grow and learn and flourish.

I believe that congregations that see where they’ve been broken open to the future will find new joy and gladness in the journey. I pray that Christian communities will celebrate our cracks and choose to be broken open to God’s grace and love.

References and Resources

Hearon, Holly. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-christmas-2/commentary-on-john-11-9-10-18-3.

Lewis, Karoline. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-christmas-2/commentary-on-john-11-9-10-18-5.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.

Michaels, J. R. (2011). John (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series) [Kindle Android version].

Wright, N. T. “The Letter to the Ephesians.” Address to the Scottish Church Theology society conference, January 2013, and published in Theology in Scotland.

Wolff, Hans Walter. The Old Testament: A Guide to Its Writings. Philadelphia, PA.: Fortress Press, 1973.

Text Study for John 1:1-18, 2 Christmas B, 2021

Preachers will tackle this text when people are still more aware of endings than of beginnings. The posts and tweets and memes describing 2020 as a sack of garbage inside a dumpster fire have been shared now for months. The urgent desire to put that calendar year in the rearview mirror has only grown in its intensity. The sighs of relief, the “Phew! Glad that’s over!” declarations will be ubiquitous.

We are surely glad to be done with that year.

Of course, the difference from December 31, 2020, to January 1, 2021, is twenty-four hours, just like any other diurnal cycle. The ending is, quite literally, all in our heads. We have great hopes that vaccines will be effective, that policies will be forthcoming, and that normalcy will return. But really, most endings come gradually, not with a whoosh.

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For most of us, by this time Christmas has been over for a week and a half. But liturgically, the Christmas season isn’t quite over when we get to this text. We still have a couple of days to go before we get to Epiphany. The season will sort of peter out in the middle of the week, and few people will even notice. The text itself dwells not a word on endings. It is about The Beginning – not just any old start-up, but rather The Beginning of all things in The Word made flesh.

First off, I would never read only a portion of John’s prologue. Read it all, or don’t read it. But don’t split it in half. If you’re going to do justice to the text, you’ll end up referring to something you didn’t read anyway. So, just read it all. Every time. “While John 1:1-9 is optional,” writes Karoline Lewis, “verses 10-18 make little sense without the premises set out in the opening verses. The Prologue to John’s Gospel is John’s birth story of Jesus.” Lewis reminds us. “To view these 18 verses as such is both homiletically and hermeneutically helpful.”

Second, no one can preach a sermon that takes in the depth and breadth, the beauty and majesty, the poetry and power of John’s Prologue. You can’t do that in a ten (or twenty) minute sermon. You can’t do that in an hour-long Bible study. You certainly can’t do it in a few thousand words of amateur commentary. So, pick your spot and remember that this text comes around again.

In the beginning was the Word,” John writes. The “Word” has central place in these opening verses and yet seems to disappear in the rest of John’s account. Some scholars have suggested on this basis that the Prologue was therefore not part of the original gospel account. There is, however, very little manuscript evidence to support this contention. Instead, I appreciate the take we get from Malina and Rohrbaugh in the Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John:

“One term that appears prominently in this opening poem, yet seems to disappear through the rest of the Gospel, is ‘Word.’ To think of it disappearing, however, would be misleading. In v. 14 we are told that this Word becomes ‘enfleshed’ in Jesus of Nazareth. Hence, it is as the story of Jesus that the ‘Word’ appears in the rest of John.” (page 30).

They note that in the Hebrew scriptures, God’s Word is connected with God’s action of and in Creation, and God’s self-disclosure to and through the prophets. We can see those two works of the Word in the Prologue as well. The revelation in the Hebrew scriptures is not contradicted or superseded by the Word.

Instead, this is another place in the Christian scriptures that notes how Jesus fulfills the Word spoken to the prophets. We can read similar language, for example, in Hebrews 1:1-4. “The Word that was with God in the beginning,” write Malina and Rohrbaugh, “refers to God’s total utterance that has resulted in everything created, visible and invisible” (page 35).

Jesus is not plan B. And the Law was not a mistake. “The law indeed was given through Moses,” John writes, “grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.” Holly Hearon writes, “it is important to notice that the word ‘but’ never appears in the sentence. In other words, John is not claiming that grace and truth belongs to Jesus but not to the law. Both grace and truth are found in the law.”

J. Ramsey Michaels puts it this way in his commentary: “God’s gift of the Jewish law, he says, makes way for grace and truth, the gift of the Spirit through Jesus Christ. The distinction is not between law and grace as contrasting ways of salvation, but between two gifts of grace: the law and the Spirit (cf. Paul in 2 Cor. 3: 7– 18).” (page 24).

“The difference, from John’s perspective,” Holly Hearon continues, “is between reading a book and going directly to the author. Going to the author neither sets the book aside nor negates its contents. For Christians, the book (or the ‘law’) anticipates the direct revelation we experience in Jesus Christ.”

John makes an early appearance in this Gospel, not as Baptizer but as Witness. Karoline Lewis notes this as she writes, “Yet the presence of John here, particularly for our Christmas preaching, suggests that a critical response to Christmas is witness. Christmas,” she reminds us, “is not over when the trees are put out to the curb. Christmas is just getting started for those who confess Jesus as God who has become flesh.” Malina and Rohrbaugh note that John is only the first of many witnesses to Jesus in John’s gospel (see page 32).

The Word became flesh and lived among us,” the NRSV translates, too tame by half. It is astonishing beyond words that the One who dwells beyond the categories of being and becoming should enter into our limited and transient existence for our sake and for the sake of the whole cosmos. That coming into existence was not a tourist excursion.

The Creating Word “pitched his tent” among us (the literal translation) and settles in for the long haul. Malina and Rohrbaugh suggest that the term “may have been intended to draw associations with Israel’s exodus story, in which the tent (or tabernacle) symbolizes the presence of God in the midst of Israel” (page 33).

John’s prologue emphasizes the cosmic dimension of the Incarnation. “The purpose of the Gospel writer is to place the story of Jesus in a cosmic perspective,” Michaels notes. “The light that came into the world in Jesus Christ is the same light that illumined every human creature from the beginning.”

In just a few chapters, we will hear that God loves the cosmos by giving the only-begotten Son so the whole cosmos may be saved. The context of the prologue, according to Michaels, “strongly suggests that in a wider sense Jesus’ own country is the world to which he was sent and his own people are human beings of every race or nation, all those on whom God’s light shines (cf. vv. 4, 9). These wider implications will become apparent when Jesus comes to Jerusalem for the last time (cf. 12: 19, 32) and when he confronts Pilate and the authority of Rome.

Within this cosmic framework, there is a relationship of infinite intimacy between the Father and the only-begotten Son. It is not the Father’s “heart” that describes the relationship of Jesus to the Father. The Greek word is “kolpos” and would be better translated as “bosom” or “breast.” Karoline Lewis writes, “Jesus, as God’s unique expression of God and God’s son, dwells at the bosom of the father. The meaning conveyed in this picture of Jesus at the bosom of God is extraordinary tenderness. One would be hard-pressed,” she concludes, “to secure a description of relationship more intimate than the nursing of a child.”

“Thus, the poem ends where it began,” observe Malina and Rohrbaugh, “the close personal relationship between Father and Son is what makes it possible for the Son to reveal the Father. As the Gospel proceeds,” they suggest, “it will also be the bond that creates and enables bonding among the group members to Jesus and to each other” (page 34).

In the beginning was the Word. There is meaning, purpose, order, life and light underneath and in the middle of the chaotic darkness. Humans, at our worst and at our best, ask, “So, what’s the point?” We seek meaning. We find meaning. We make meaning. Or not.

But the promise at the beginning of John’s Gospel is that, whether we know it or not, the point is there. And the point is love beyond deserving, light no darkness can hem in or snuff out. I can’t cram all that into my little brain, my mini-mind, my haunted heart, my stifled spirit. Sometimes I can glimpse or sniff or taste a bit of it. Sometimes I shiver as the mystery brushes the back of my neck. Mostly I trust that the point is there somewhere, and it is enfleshed in Jesus.

References and Resources

Hearon, Holly. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-christmas-2/commentary-on-john-11-9-10-18-3.

Lewis, Karoline. https://www.workingpreacher.org/commentaries/revised-common-lectionary/second-sunday-of-christmas-2/commentary-on-john-11-9-10-18-5.

Malina, Bruce, and Rohrbaugh, Richard. Social Science Commentary on the Gospel of John. Minneapolis, MN.: Fortress Press, 1998.

Michaels, J. R. (2011). John (Understanding the Bible Commentary Series) [Kindle Android version].

Wright, N. T. “The Letter to the Ephesians.” Address to the Scottish Church Theology society conference, January 2013, and published in Theology in Scotland.