Rocherty UMC November 27th, 2022
“The Sights of Christmas” Sermon Manuscript Advent 1
John 1:29-37; John 9:1-9; Isaiah 9:1-7

            Well, my friends, the holidays are upon us! We’ve transitioned from autumn leaves and pumpkins to turkey and pumpkin pie and now the red and green has started to be seen covering lawns and windows all across the landscape. This Advent season we’re going to talk about the senses of Christmas. What do those God given ways of interacting with the world: sight, taste, touch, smell, and sound tell us about how God has created us and how we should approach this season of Advent?
            The senses are how we experience the world. Our brains, the center of our thinking, the center of our personalities, those little biological computers that help us interact with the world can never have a direct interaction with what is in front of us. Have you ever thought of that? Our brains always receive their information mediated through the information provided by our senses. And senses are powerful. Just think of how one picture taken long ago can bring back a flood of memories. Or how the waft of a pleasant smell will take us back to a particular time and place where we first enjoyed it. And particularly at times like the holidays, the senses provide a powerful palate that paint memories that last a lifetime.
            Today, we’re going to open our Advent series by taking a look at the sights of Christmas. As I was doing my research for this sermon, I stumbled across a festival held in Texas that focuses on the senses of Christmas. Held each year in San Marcos Texas, the Sights and Sounds of Christmas festival is one of the biggest events that town hosts each year. And what are the sights and sounds of Christmas that are celebrated at this festival? Well, there are the traditional holiday music performances by bands and orchestras, but most of the music is provided by local school groups. It is a time for the kids to share their talents with the community. And the star of the stage? Each day of the festival, the kids (and adults too) wait eagerly for the arrival of Santa Claus. The big-name celebrity of the holiday season. In short, it is a festival that celebrates community togetherness and the trappings of Christmas that we so frequently associate with American culture.
            But if you would go to other countries around the world in which Christmas is also celebrated, things would look quite different. In Germany for instance, the little kiddies are in for a fright before Christmas. If the children don’t behave, the Krampus might come and take away their presents! Or in Spain folks don’t wait for Santa Claus to deliver presents. No, they wait for the three kings to deliver presents—on Epiphany, not Christmas. So, you see, the holidays look different for each and every culture in which Christmas is held.
            That’s the thing about our senses and our perceptions. They are subjective; each person’s experience is slightly different. To some, a Christmas festooned with lights and inflatable lawn ornaments is stunningly beautiful. To others though, it is garish and chintzy. To some, the taste of cilantro adds depth and flavor to a dish, while to others, me included, it tastes like soap. Beauty, as they say, is in the eye of the beholder. And when it comes to the holidays, our experiences are also subjective. To some folks, the holidays are a time of wonder and excitement, a time to spend with family and friends. But to others, the holidays are a time of anxiety and loneliness, particularly if they’ve lost someone close to them. It all depends on where you’re coming from, right?
            And this relativity—this sense of perspective—is reflected all throughout the Bible as well. The Bible was written primarily to a people who themselves could not read; did you know that? In the ancient world, literacy was limited to the elite classes. In ancient Israel, even some of the wealthier classes could not read or write. Literacy was improved slightly in New Testament times but nowhere near universal. So how did people experience the Scriptures? Well, through their senses. They didn’t grab for their Bibles in church but instead listened to the Scriptures being read to them. Scripture was always meant to be heard—to be read aloud and that’s why I always include so much Scripture in our services.
            And throughout this document that is meant to be experienced with our senses, God calls us to experience God and God’s world with our senses. God invites us to taste and see that the Lord is good, God calls us to Behold! For our light has come. God tells us to open our ears and eyes that we might see the great salvation that God will accomplish among the people. In short, our senses are the primary way we experience not just the world, but God as well.
            So today, as we focus on sight, I want to walk us briefly through the three passages we heard read today and see what insights we might glean from them about how sight impacts our relationship with God. The first passage comes from the opening stages of John’s Gospel. John takes the first 18 verses or so of his Gospel and tells of how the preincarnate Jesus was with God from the beginning and how through Jesus this wonderful world was made. But then John introduces to us another John, John the Baptist. John the Baptist was the one who God appointed to prepare the way before the Lord.
            It was through John that Israel was prepared to hear the message about the Kingdom. John was something of an opening act for Jesus. John taught the people the significance of baptism and repentance, and he too proclaimed God’s coming Kingdom. John was baptizing along the Jordan river when one day a person comes along, like many others. This person asks to be baptized. John obliges as he has done many times before. But this person was different. This person was Jesus.
            But at first John didn’t recognize the significance of what Jesus was doing. John didn’t recognize that the Holy Spirit was at work in Jesus in a special way. John’s eyes had to be opened to what this signified. In short, John’s eyes had to be opened to the special place that Jesus held in the world. John himself says that at first he didn’t “see” Jesus in the right light. But when his eyes were opened, he recognized that this person, this Jesus, was the lamb of God who would take away the sins of the world. This would be the one the prophets had spoken about. And John was the herald of a new day, the herald of Messiah.
            And this theme of not recognizing Jesus continues in our next passage. This is the story, also found in John’s Gospel, of the man born blind. One day, Jesus and the disciples are walking in a crowded place, and they notice a blind beggar along the road. They ask Jesus who sinned that this person was blind, was it the parents or the man himself? Jesus replies that it was neither. The man was born blind so that through this one person, God’s glory in Jesus might be made manifest through the miraculous healing that was going to happen.
            And it is here in this passage that the familiar phrase of Jesus being the Light of the World has its origin. For as Jesus tells us himself, while he is in the world, he provides the light. It is through Jesus that we truly see not only the world as it is, but ourselves as we truly are.
            But there is a problem here. Even though Jesus is the Light of the World, not everyone sees him, do they? Not everyone takes Jesus at face value about his claims to be both Messiah and Lord of the world. Especially at Christmas we see this. For many people, Christmas is just another day off to spend with family. Santa is the big star and it’s a day of presents and packing it away at the dinner table. The “reason for the season” is altogether lost. And its not that the story is forgotten. It’s not that people forget that Jesus was born at Christmas, it’s that they just don’t see why that was important. It’s as if they say, “thanks for being born Jesus, so we get some time off work!” Paying lip service with platitudes instead of adopting a posture of gratitude.
            But as our third passage illustrates, this is not just a problem for us in the Modern West. No, it was a problem for Israel too. The prophets, those spokespeople for the Lord, were called primarily to get Israel to SEE the error of her ways. To realize, to have their eyes opened that they had broken the relationship between God and Israel by turning away from God and going after their own hearts desires by serving idols and by serving themselves. Instead of loyalty to God they had chosen to pledge allegiance to idols and the idol of “Me” and my desires.
            God has some harsh words for Israel in the prophet Isaiah. Israel is faithless. Israel will be punished. Israel will be sent into exile. But God is always faithful to God’s promises. And God had made a series of promises or covenants with key characters in Israel’s history. First with Abraham, to bring about a great nation and the stream of blessing. Then with Moses to be among the people in a special way. And then with David to establish and everlasting covenant of Kingship to David’s household.
            But by the time we get to the prophets, it seems that this covenant relationship is in serious jeopardy. Is it possible that Israel could sin its way out of God’s favor and lost the covenant altogether? Israel was growing darker and darker by the day and the hope of ever coming again into the blessed stance of being in right relationship with God seemed like it was slipping away.
            But into this time of darkness and hopelessness, God speaks a word that resonates even today when it is read during the Advent season. “Behold, the people who have walked in darkness have seen a great light…For unto us a child is born, unto us a son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulders.” There is that theme of darkness and light again, a recurring metaphor in Scripture for the presence or lack thereof of God.
            This prophecy of course was pointing to Jesus as the Messiah that was to come. Israel’s dark days were over—finally. But there was just one problem. Though Jesus was right in front of Israel, they did not see him. Of course, they saw a man, a thirty-something Galilean craftsman. Some even saw an eloquent teacher who was entertaining and thought provoking. But few—even among his most ardent followers—recognized that this one, this teacher, this craftsperson, that he was the promised Prince of Peace, the hope of Israel.
            Many of the people that John the Baptist led to repentance for their sins turned away from Jesus. They just couldn’t see that through this man the turn of the ages had come, and God’s redemption had come near. Even when healing the man born blind many people rejected Jesus’ claims. They were happy for the healing, sure, but this person being the mighty king to come? I don’t think so. And Isaiah’s word, that a people walking in darkness had seen a great light? They had seen him for sure. But they didn’t know what to do with him. So, did they ever really see Jesus?
            Have we ever really seen Jesus? That’s the question I want to leave us with today. Did you know it’s possible to be fully present with someone and never really get to know them? Many teenagers report that even though they spend an abundant amount of time with their parents that they still feel alienated and alone because their parents don’t understand them, their interests, or their way of viewing the world. So, have they really been seen?
            Have we ever really seen Jesus? Have we sought to understand his message? Have we sought to see the world the way Jesus sees it? Have we sought to see people how Jesus sees them? You know it is possible to go to church and hear about Jesus, experience Jesus in communion, and experience God by reading the Bible without truly encountering Jesus. It’s tragic but it happens. But the question is why it happens.
            It happens because our eyes aren’t open to new experiences. Experiences that challenge the way we view the world. Experiences that challenge our preconceived notions of who God is and the vast extent of God’s mercy and grace. We are comfortable with how we are and where we are and what we believe and view anything that challenges the status quo as a threat.
            But that’s just what Jesus came to do. Jesus came to challenge the status quo and the powers that be. He was there to reveal that the emperors of the day had no clothes and that all the talk they talked was empty and vapid. Their promises of salvation and glory and peace rang hollow. It was only God that could truly bring peace. It was only God that could bring hope. It was only God that could restore and renew. But the people who walked in great darkness had grown comfortable there.
            When the Prince of Peace came, the people rejected him. They had grown comfortable in the shadows. They had grown accustomed to its ways. They had fallen asleep and were sleepwalking through life. And for many of us today, we’re right there with them.
            And to us and them God says, “Arise! Shine! For your light has come!” Jesus is here. Jesus is real. And Jesus will work miracles in the world. Jesus has worked miracles in the world. But often, because we preferred the shadows we could not see.
            Have you seen Jesus? Maybe you’ve seen him, but did you recognize him? If not, then today is the day to open your eyes that you might see the glorious grace of Jesus. That you might fully experience the love, joy, peace, and hope that God brings through Jesus and that your life might be forever changed because the Light of the World shines to illuminate all darkness. Amen.