This is the sermon I preached at Bethlehem Lutheran Church on Dcember 30, 2007. The back story is that I spent all of the preceding week working on a sermon, and when I turned on my computer Saturday afternoon to finish it up, the whole thing was gone. This is the sermon I wrote that evening.
"Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus."
Grace to you and peace from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
I wrote you all a very nice sermon. It was about Emmanuel, about God With Us, about what that name truly means. It was about the extraordinary reactions of the people involved in the Christmas narrative. Like I said, it was a very nice sermon, but then yesterday after lunch my computer crashed, so that sermon is gone now, lost forever. This is my new sermon.
As I sat in the car, driving back from my grandparent’s home in Tucson, where we had spent Christmas, and staring at the blank screen of my laptop which had previously held my sermon, I’ll admit that I was upset. I found myself repeating over and over the words of the letter to the Philippians: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” These are possibly my favorite verses in the Bible; I consider them a radical challenge about how we should live our lives as Christians. Rejoice in the Lord always, through everything. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything. Instead, in all things let your needs and wants be made known to God with prayer and with the giving of thanks. And the peace of our God, which surpasses all human understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Paul goes on to say, “Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honourable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you.”
Can you imagine the life built on these words? A life which is free from worries and concerns, a life which has surrendered total control to God through prayer with thanksgiving. A life which knows that the Lord is always near and rejoices in him always. A life which only reflects on things of excellence and worth, which is filled with peace and joy. A life in which these feelings of peace and joy spill out into action. Paul is challenging us to lead this life, to get over all the things which keep us from God. He is challenging us—and I do see it as a great and difficult challenge, although not an impossible one—to rejoice in our God, to see him through all our tears, to see him in everything and to rejoice.
The Lord is near, Paul says. As I said, I had intended to speak about Emmanuel, about the God With Us. From the readings we have just heard, it struck me that Emmanuel is not God in the garden with Adam and Eve—even though God actually walks with them in the garden and speaks to them face to face, they disobey and fear him. No, it is not until the Christmas story that we finally find our Emmanuel. Jesus is the God who is with us. And having God with us changes everything. It doesn’t make things easier or clearer—just the opposite, in fact.
God With Us, Emmanuel, is the ultimate paradox. In the terms of Søren Kierkegaard, a paradox is something that offends us, or rather something that has the possibility of offending us. It is something that cannot be reconciled by reason, cannot be explained away. But the paradox is the only thing which allows there to be faith at all. Anything which can be explained or proved does not need to be believed; it is when we are confronted with the impossible, the absurd—in short, the paradox—that we have the possibility of having faith. Without the paradox, without the possibility of offense, there is nothing to believe in. When we are presented with a paradox, we have a choice; we can either be offended by it (because after all, it defies reason; it is impossible and absurd) or we can have faith, we can believe in it.
Kierkegaard draws great significance from the words of Christ in the gospels: “Blessed is he who is not offended at me.” For Kierkegaard, Christ himself is the ultimate paradox. Christ is the God-man, Emmanuel, the God With Us. His very existence is offensive. Kierkegaard says that we can be offended by Christ, who is the Emmanuel, in two ways. We can be offended by the idea of a man who claims he is God, or we can be offended by the idea of a God who would become human. If Jesus was a man, then we are offended by his claim, which is either blasphemy or madness; if Jesus was God, then we are offended by a God who would lower himself and become helpless. The only other option is faith; faith that Christ, the God With Us, is exactly what he says he is—and not only that he is the God who is with us, but that he is the way, and the truth, and the life. We can be offended or we can believe.
We see in the Christmas narrative example after example of people who chose to believe when confronted with the paradox. Mary, the virgin mother; Joseph, the husband who was not the father; Simeon, the righteous man who was waiting for a messiah; Anna, the prophet who recognized the child. These people, though their stories are familiar to us, are truly extraordinary for their actions, their responses to the absurd. They are confronted with a message which defies reason and understanding, and they believe.
This is what I had hoped to understand when I began to write my sermon. I wanted to talk about Emmanuel, the significance of a God who is with us, the absurdity of it and the faith we have in it. Instead, I found myself staring at a blank screen and repeating Paul’s words, “Rejoice in the Lord always. The Lord is near.” Emmanuel, God With Us, is the God who is also a man, the paradox on which our faith is built. But Emmanuel is also the Lord, the Lord who even now is nearby and who hears our prayers and takes our worries. We choose to have faith in him in the face of the absurdity of God With Us, but faith does not end there. We are challenged again and again to do the absurd—to stop worrying, to give up the tenuous control we have over our lives and to give everything to God instead. I don’t want to lose sight of how nonsensical it is from the world’s perspective. If we were reasonable, if we were rational, we would never trust in something which we cannot see and we can never prove exists. To have faith in the Lord, to believe the words of the gospels and the creeds, is absurd. To live one’s life in the way Paul describes is an absurdity which must be constantly revisited and reaffirmed. Every day that we strive to live a life like this, we are striving to do the absurd. We are going against everything the world says, everything reason tells us. But once we’ve gone this far into absurdity, we might as well believe in the outcome, too: “And the peace of the Lord, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.”
This is the absurdity. I spent so much time, put in so much work, writing a sermon which was devoured by my computer. And even as I mourned the loss of that work, I rejoiced and praised God. After all, I knew he was near. And even more: I believe that this is what he wanted to happen, that he planned it this way, that this is the sermon I was meant to give all along. It is absurd. And yet it is my faith. I believe in a God who is with us, in Emmanuel. I know he is nearby, even now. Amen.