Bishop Bill McAlilly's 2020 Christmas Sermon 'O Come, Let Us Adore Him' - video & transcript
SERMON VIDEO: Click link above.
William T. (Bill) McAlilly is the resident bishop for the Nashville Episcopal Area of The United Methodist Church. This area includes middle and west Tennessee and western Kentucky.
SERMON TRANSCRIPT: below
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Will you pray with me and for me now?
Oh God, our help in ages past, our hope for years to come, our shelter in every storm of life, and our eternal home. We gather and worship this day - on this, the first Sunday after Christmas - celebrating the gift of Christ, come into the world. We pray, Oh God, that we might come and adore him, that we might come and worship him. And that we might come in this year to follow new creatures in Christ, following Jesus into the world. Now, Lord, may those who have gathered here in person and on the screen, hear you and not me, see you and not me, and when we rise from this service, may we be so very careful to give you the praise. In the name of the Father and of the Son and the Holy Spirit we pray. Amen.
Well, let's been a long time since there were little ones at our home on Christmas morning. A long time since we got up before daylight to see what gifts had been left under the Christmas tree. I miss those days. I miss the anticipation leading up to Christmas morning.
This year I missed the festivities around Advent and Christmas that we always have enjoyed in our congregations. I miss the wonder of Christmas Eve – candle lights and carols and communion. I even miss the exhaustion of Christmas Eve.
Our family tradition on Christmas morning was that before we could go in and see what wonders Christmas had brought, the lights on the tree had to be on, the Christmas carols had to be playing. Everyone had to be together and everything had to be just right. Lynn and I learned after the kids were grown that they'd been up long before the lights on the tree came on to check out what surprises Santa had left under the tree.
Well, Christmas has come and gone, and presents have been unwrapped, the joy has been full. I have to tell you; I thought a lot about Christmases past this year. The churches that I've served, the different customs each church enjoyed, the joy I experienced as a pastor serving Holy communion on Christmas Eve, and then taking the light from the alter and then going pew by pew until the entire sanctuary was filled with the light singing “Silent Night, Holy Night.”
I've been thinking much about Christmas this year. How fortunate we are that the creative ones across the years have given us such powerful music. Indeed, what is Christmas if not for the music? Around the house this week, we've been listening to Christmas carols and always my favorite, “O Come, All Ye Faithful”. You know, I heard something in that hymn this year that I'd not particularly paid attention to previously. You know the verse, “True God of true God, Light from Light Eternal…Son of the Father, begotten, not created; O come, let us adore him, O come, let us adore him, O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.”
In John's gospel, you don't get the manger, you don't get the angels, you don't get the magi, no. What John gives you is this strange beginning that is way more lofty, more aspirational. In the first 18 verses of chapter one, you get this glorious, joyful abounding language. And yet in these words, you have this amazing explicit, theological vision of who Jesus is and where he came from. Right off the bat it's there. Maybe after you hear the reading, you're scratching your head, wishing for something a little more down to earth like a manger and animals and barnyards and a cradle.
Don't read John's gospel if you want to keep it simple. No, John dives in the deep end of the pool right at the beginning. I have to tell you, I love reading this text. I love the disturbing and often incomprehensible language that John employs. I love this text because it is precisely in the theological density of Christmas that we receive the good news.
You can find it in other hymns as well. I think of hymns like the second verse of “O Come, All Ye Faithful”. “True God of true God, Light from Light Eternal…Son of the Father, begotten, not created; O come, O come, let us adore him, O come, let us adore him, O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.”
These densely packed, mostly four century words, come still mysteriously to bring us to the nexus of our theological heritage about who Jesus is. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him, not one thing came into being.”
You hear the allusion here, the reference, the foretelling of the Holy Trinity. What's John saying? Well, the hymn writer tries to answer who is it that is at the center of this Christmas story. The answer is, it is Jesus Christ the Lord. It is God who is at the center of the story, but not simply God as such, but God from God. God's life boiling over from eternity into time. God's life communicating itself so completely that it makes human life unrecognizeably different.
The early Christian writers were deeply preoccupied with a search for images that would allow you to say that the life of God truly and fully flows out of eternity into the world of Jesus of Nazareth and yet would leave God undiminished. Interestingly, both John One and “O Come, All Ye Faithful” reach for this image of light. What has come into being in him was life and the life was the light of all people. But not just any light, light from light.
I think one of the reasons Christmas Eve is so powerful for us is that in the lighting of a candle, one from another, you don't have any less of the first flame than you have at the last flame and all of those flames burn brightly and hot as the first. Jesus is that light. The light of the world. God from God, light from light. It is action, it is energy, it is fire from fire. Maybe that's why the image of the Holy Spirit often is that of fire. The source God gives all, God is and has into the heart of this life this Son and the Son truly shares in this life, this divine light of God's nature with no qualifications, no lessening. And I love this verse. Verse five, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it.”
I remember when our son, Chris was about two years old, he came bounding into our bedroom early one morning after the sun had come up and said, "It's not dark anymore." The message, that's the message of the gospel of John and how desperately we need that message this year. My goodness, we've had enough darkness to last a lifetime this year in our world, in our country, across our State, in our congregations. Too many people have died alone distanced from loved ones, too many services of death of resurrection at a graveside rather than a sanctuary without friends around us to comfort and love us.
Many of us have had to walk this year into the darkness of pain and suffering and loss. Some of us more than others are more acquainted with darkness than we want to admit. Some of you know I lost my mother on March 13 this year just as things were shutting down at the beginning of this pandemic. We had a simple service at First United Methodist Church, Tupelo, Mississippi with family only. There was no visitation, no friends surrounding us with love and support, just our small family – my brother, my sister, our children, and our grandchildren. We thought naively that we would be able, maybe the Monday after Easter, to gather in the sanctuary and invite our friends and extended family to celebrate her life. Well, that was a pipe dream and here we are still in some places having virtual worship.
Well, the comforting thing about this journey this year is that we know we're not alone in our grief. Many among us have walked this lonesome road. But may I simply be honest with you today? A little bit of darkness goes a very long way. Now here's the thing, when we're honest, we acknowledge that darkness is more than that pitch black, can't see the end of your nose darkness. It's more than that. It's psychological, it's emotional, sometimes it's relational and more often than not, it is also spiritual darkness. And when I say darkness, what comes to your mind? Here's what comes to my mind. Night, evil, doubt, depression, loss, fear, death. Well, you get the picture. I don't know about you, but personally I will walk a long, long way to avoid the darkness. But the darkness 2020 has given us cannot be avoided. It comes in on us. It is a disrupting force in our culture and in our church, in our personal lives.
We can't simply turn on the flashlight feature of our smartphone to dispel the darkness. We cannot. But here's what I know. Those of us who are of sufficient years are well acquainted with darkness and some much more than others. You lose a job. Your marriage falls apart. Your child acts out. Your child acts out in some attention-getting way. You pray hard for something that does not happen. You fail. You lose someone you love and the artificial lights of your life are extinguished. The old gospel hymn says, "The darkest hour is just before the dawn." Well, here's what I know. Some of us know far too well what it's like to endure the dark nights, the dark night of the soul, the dark nights beyond darkness and the days more gray each one than what had gone before.
And when we're there, we strain every fiber of our being looking toward the East for any trace of light that might be rising from the horizon and so often it's there. And if it's there, it's a dim light. Well, here's the truth of it. Today, on this first Sunday after Easter, we kneel once again at the manger and bring with us not just our own darkness but the ache and pain of the world's darkness. An election that strained our democracy, as well as our friendships. Racism, a conversation many among us think we've already had enough of and others among us think we have only just begun. And yet we're mired as we are in the land of deep darkness, we proclaim. Once again, we sing. Once again, we affirm. Once again, what has come into being in Jesus was life and the life was the light of all people and the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it.
I love the way one scholar translates this verse. “The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not understand the light.” The darkness did not understand the light. In some corners of our world, Christians make it more difficult by their words and actions. In fact, the darkness we cause others may in fact make it more difficult for others to see and understand the light. But I will tell you what makes the Christmas story real for me, it is you. When I've had the privilege of being with you, of looking into your faces, into your eyes, I stand with speechless amazement.
In every one of you I see the face of God. I see that it was worth everything, for God believed you were worth it all to come into the world. What is come in to being in Jesus was life and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not, and does not, and will not overcome it. The darkness will not overcome it. Can I say that one more time? And the darkness will not overcome it. (Singing). “O come, let us adore him, O come, let us adore him, O come, let us adore him, Christ the Lord.”
May it be so in your life and in mine, this first Sunday after Christmas. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.