By Rev. Joe Connolly
“Christ is the image of the unseen God, / the firstborn of all creation;…” — Colossians 1:15.
(The pastor loudly whispers the first sentence in the microphone.) It’s nearly here— just 34 days away— Christmas— 34 days and counting. On the church calendar that is, in fact, one reason we call today the Twenty-Seventh and Last Sunday after Pentecost, the Thirty-fourth Sunday in Ordinary Time.
On that church calendar the Season of Advent, of course, comes before Christmas. And, to be clear, Christmas is not just a day. Christmas is a season.
Not only is Christmas a season but I’d bet you know exactly how long that season lasts. 12 days, but I bet you knew that. So, next week we not only turn the corner into Advent, we start— in our three year church cycle— with a new Church Year, as we leave year ‘C’ and enter year ‘A.’
And why? Why does Advent come before Christmas? And what does it mean that it’s 34 days until Christmas? And afer all, does Christmas mean— as the secular world would have it— something about gifts, about presents, about family? Or is there more to this thing we call Christmas? (Slight pause.)
Gifts are an interesting topic. What are they about? Are they about you, if you are the recipient, or are they about the person doing the giving? Do you, when you give a gift, want to give what you believe to be the perfect gift or do you want to give the person on the receiving end what that person really needs? Note: that is not what someone else really wants but what someone else really needs. (Slight pause.)
Gifts— as I said— an interesting topic. When I was a child I had a set of Lionel Trains, model trains. Or perhaps I should say we— the family— had a set of model trains. You see, in theory, my brother— a year younger than myself— my brother and I had a set of Lionel Trains together.
But the story about these trains is even a bit more complicated than that. The basic set was purchased when I was less than two. The train set was, certainly not at that point, for me. It was for my father.
Each Christmas after that basic set was purchased my brother would get one railroad car to add to the collection of cars and I would get one railroad car to add to the collection of cars. Each Christmas my father would, dutifully, assemble the layout.
When I say assemble, my father was no Mr. FixIt, no Mr. Handyman. Even so, he had constructed a fairly large folding train board made of wood which sat on rollers so it was easy to shift around. The tracks were permanently screwed on the board.
At the end of the season, the train set, the board and all, would come down. The board would be folded up, the train cars set back in their original distinctive orange boxes. And all this would disappear until the following Christmas season.
You see, we lived in a small apartment in the Bushwick section of Brooklyn. There was no space to leave a train set up the whole year round.
Needless to say, as children we thought of the additional train car as our “big” present each year. Today Lionel trains would, indeed, be a big gift.
I looked it up. These days many of the locomotive units and/or whole sets in the same scale and the same style as the trains we had sell for hundreds and hundreds of dollars brand new. I am not sure what the prices were back then. I am fairly certain they were less expensive.
One of the things I say about my early family life is we were not impoverished. But we were relatively poor. Therefore, the more common gifts both under the tree and exchanged at Christmas were quite practical: dress clothes, shoes, sneakers, outerwear, socks etc., etc., etc.
All this is good. Gifts are good. Practical gifts are good. Less than practical gifts are still good. But this gift stuff— is that in any way connected to these words (quote:) “Christ is the image of the unseen God, / the firstborn of all creation;…”
Indeed, what is it we strive to celebrate with Christmas? What does it mean that the Christ is the firstborn of all creation?
And what does it mean that the Christ is the image of the unseen God? Hold it. What did that say? God is unseen… but Christ, Who we can see, is the image of God Whom we cannot see?
That sounds like a contradiction which may well open a variety of cans crammed with worms. Why would the writer of Colossians say God is unseen?
Does that separate God and Christ? And/or does the word ‘unseen’ mean unfelt also? And/or does unseen mean we have some real, intimate knowledge of the presence of God but our sensory perceptions lack any cognitive way for us to be in touch with the presence of this unseen God? (Slight pause.)
Personally, I think all those questions get answered in the reality of the Christ. Indeed, if what is recorded about the preaching of Jesus comes even close to being accurate, there is a singular and constant message from Jesus which fits right in with the words which state that “Christ is the image of the unseen God…”
What is the constant message we hear in the preaching of the Christ? God… is… near. And that message is not limited to the concept that God is near. The message includes this: God is with us. God walks with us.
This is the message of Jesus, the preaching of Jesus. And that preaching sends us right back to Colossians. Colossians asks, effectively, ‘Who is this Jesus? Who is the Christ?’ (Slight pause.)
Here’s where I stand. Jesus, the Christ, is the image of the unseen God. Jesus, the Christ, is the reality of the unseen God.
The reality of Jesus, the Christ, is that God and Jesus are both separate and one. The reality of Jesus, the Christ, the presence of Jesus, the Christ, does address our sensory perceptions, does address any lack of a cognitive way for us to touch the presence— the real presence— of God, God who is, as Jesus preached, always near, God who is with us, God who walks with us. (Slight pause.)
So, what is it we strive to celebrate with Christmas? What does it mean that the Christ is the firstborn of all creation? What does it mean that the Christ is the image of the unseen God?
Christmas means that God is with us, no matter what the circumstances. Christmas means that God walks with us, no matter what the situation.
And that kind of leads us back to how those gifts we find under the tree or gifts we exchange or even those gifts we buy because we want them for ourselves, so we buy them for ourselves. Ah! Those gifts— to be straightforward, I have very, very fond memories of those Lionel trains. I loved those trains. I kind of wish I had a set now.
But not only is that a fantasy about childhood simply rekindled in my brain, that’s not about the real world today. That is about me. But Christmas— Christmas— is not about me. And Christmas— perhaps it’s not about an unseen God.
Christmas is about the real world today because Christmas is about celebrating God who can be seen. This God can be seen in the truths represented by Jesus.
And this is a list of some but not all of the truths represented by Jesus, truths which can be seen in the life and in the preaching of Jesus. The list: unity, social justice, equality, caring for our world, diversity, freedom, equity, love.
So, Christmas— this season toward which we are headed as we work through Advent— is, therefore about each of us reaching beyond ourselves to express love, to express grace, to express forgivingness, to express acceptance no matter what the culture might tell us because, indeed, the culture tells us that love, grace, forgiveness, acceptance are not good values. Indeed, this aforementioned list of attributes which we Christians are called to practice is not an agenda— political or otherwise.
This list simply pays attention to and responds to the fact that God is with us, God walks with us, God is present to us. That does not sound like an unseen God to me. Amen.
United Church of Christ, First Congregational, Norwich, New York.
ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Choral Response and Benediction. This is an précis of what was said: “I think this is another take on what I am trying to get at when I speak about Christmas: God is not Santa Clause. We say, ‘Oh! I got what I wanted! God is in control’ or conversely, ‘Nuts! I did not get what I wanted. That’s O.K. I’ll live with it for now since God is in control.’ You see, the gifts of God are greater, much greater, than anything we might want or anything we might find under a tree, even Lionel trains. You heard this earlier. These gifts include but are not limited to unity, social justice, equality, caring for our world, diversity, freedom, equity, love. But we won’t find them under a tree. God relies on us to work with them and for them.”
BENEDICTION: Let us walk in the light God provides. Let us thank God for reaching out to us in love. Let us be daily recreated in the image of God who wants us to live with justice as our guide and freedom as our goal. And may the peace of Christ which surpasses our understanding keep our hearts and minds in the companionship of the Holy Spirit and the love of God this day and evermore. Amen.