Grace to you and peace from God Our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Pastor Alan Watt

Many years ago—during my parish internship, my vicarage—I met some very interesting people. Among them was a church member by the name of Bob Florstedt. One day, when we were having a conversation, Bob suddenly interrupted me in mid-sentence—to tell me I had just committed some grammatical error. He said, “Alan, you’re going to be a pastor. And using words the right way is a big part of a pastor’s job.” He was right about that. And I believe he was so insistent because of three things: First, he was a retired college professor who had taught foreign languages. Second, was the son of a minister. And third, well, he was just being Bob.

So this Christmas Eve I’m going to talk about words—what they mean to us,how they help to describe our emotions and our attitudes, and how they reveal our relationship to God—especially to the Christ Child, God Incarnate, the Word made flesh….But, first, a few words expressing what kind of year it’s been for many if not most of us.

According to a survey by a major newspaper, taken of over 2,000 peopleat the end of last month, here are the most common words used to describe2017.[i] All of them adjectives, they are grouped into 3 parts:

·         In the positive category: Good. Great! Awesome!

·         In the category of terms that are fairly neutral: Okay. Interesting. Busy. Hectic. Eventful.

·         And in the negative category: Challenging. Disappointing. Divisive. Unsettling. Turbulent! Chaotic! Crazy! Scary! Bad! Horrible! And, finally, disastrous!

Why these people who were polled gave such a variety of answers—that depends on several factors. Were they thinking mainly of their own personal lives? Or more in terms of what’s going on in their communities, in the country, or in the world? Their views, their perspectives are also a big part of the picture. Where are they when it comes to the economy, politics, social values, race relations? How many are among those who have been hard hit by hurricanes or wildfires? Those who have lost loved ones to some form of violence? Or as casualties of the opioid crisis? And what about those who get a diagnosis of a serious illness or a progressive disease?

Mary and Joseph and most other Jews of their time certainly had their share of challenges and problems. One was that journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem—when Mary was “full of child.” You remember why they had to make that trip. The Roman Empire was conducting a census—getting an accurate head count of everyone. It all had to do with another way of collecting taxes…See? “The more things change, the more they stay the same.”

But the main thing that we see, that we hear in the gospel are words that bring to us so many good things—things like good news, joy, and peace. And other words, too—about things we can touch, feel, smell, and taste.

      A newborn child, wrapped up in something like a blanket.

·         Soft hay, or maybe not so soft.

·         Smelly animals, and smelly shepherds, too.

·         And in the cold, night sky—not only bright stars, but an even brighter angel, and then a whole chorus of angels.

But oddly enough, those words—all of them nouns in the sentences in the passage—as important as they are, aren’t the only ones that catch my eye. What I’m talking about—and you might think this is strange—what I’m talking about are words that are prepositions. That’s right. Prepositions. If you don’t quite remember where they fit into the sentences that we speak and write and type out on keyboards, here’s the definition—according to the Merriam-Webster dictionary:

  A function word that typically combines with a noun phrase to form [another] phrase which usually expresses a modification or predication.

Okay, well, let’s try another definition. How about this one from the Oxford Dictionary?

 

A preposition is a word such as after, in, to, on, and with. Prepositions are usually used in front of nouns or pronouns and they show the relationship between the noun or pronoun and other words in a sentence. They describe, for example:

·         The position of something…

·         The time when something happens…

·         The way in which something is done…

Is that a little better than the first definition? Now, these are the three prepositions I want to look at—one from Luke, another from Matthew, and the last from 1 Corinthians. When the angel appeared to the shepherds, he announced to them:“…I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people; unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” And so it is with all of us: Unto you comes the Christ Child, the Word Incarnate, the Word made flesh.

Here’s the next word—from Matthew: “All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet [Isaiah]:

            ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive

                        and bear a son,

            and they shall name him

                        Emmanuel,’

which means, ‘God is with us.’”

The same with you and me. God is with us. Not in some far off place—not in some spirit world.

But right here. And right now. With us.

And, last, from 1 Corinthians: “…the Lord Jesus on the night when he was betrayed took a loaf of bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and said, “This is my body that is [given] for you.” You might be thinking: “Okay. But what in the world does that have to do with this time of the year? That’s something for Holy Week—for the Last Supper in the upper room. The prayer in the garden, the trial at the temple, the crucifixion on the hill, the burial in the tomb. What’s all that have to do with the baby in the manger in Bethlehem?”

This is what binds them together: If God had not first become flesh and blood in order to dwell among us, then how could he have ever given up his flesh, his blood, his very being for our sake?

As our spiritual ancestor, Martin Luther, once said:  

Truly it is marvelous in our eyes that God should place a little child in the lap of a virgin and that all our blessedness should lie in him.

And this Child belongs to all [human] kind. God feeds the whole world through a Babe nursing at Mary’s breast.[ii]  

In yet another way, as another person—a pastor at a congregation in Churchbridge, Saskatchewan—preached several Christmases ago:

·         “[Jesus] comes to you through His Word.

·         “And each and every day, no matter how good or bad the day or circumstances might be, God is with you…

                 ·         “[And] Jesus does this in no greater or more personal way than when he invites you to the…Supper and [says] in [these] words: “Take, eat; this is my body” and, “Drink of this cup, all of you, for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for you…”[iii]

If Bob Florstedt is looking down at me right now from his heavenly home, I hope he’s saying to himself: “Well, it looks like Alan’s grammar is just fine. But much, much more important than that, he got the message right.” And that message is that through the birth of the Christ Child…

·         God has come to you.

·         God is with you.

·         And God is for you.

 


 [i] Washington Post-SurveyMonkey poll among 2,036 U.S. adults, Nov. 28-29, 2017.

 [ii] Martin Luther’s sermon, “Annunciation,” in The Martin Luther Christmas Book, translated and arranged by Roland H. Bainton (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1958): 23.

 [iii] The Rev. Jeff Dul, “God with You,” December 24, 2013.