Sermon for December 26: All its occasions shall dance for joy
“All its occasions shall dance for joy.”
Christmas I; December 26, 2021
Although there are still three chapters of Revelation to go, for you who have persisted through our Year of the Bible, it is fitting during this Christmastide to finish with the angel’s blessing: “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” On the one hand, when you’re talking about a baby born only two nights ago, it’s a little early to speak of his wedding. On the other hand, one way to think about the uniqueness of that baby is to see him as a sort of marriage in his own flesh: the marriage of heaven and earth, of flesh and spirit, the union of God and Holy Mary.
Why celebrate Christmas at all? Because it marks the birth of God’s redemption of sinful humanity, because it is a sort of wedding day. Goodness, for you who read the Bible this year I hope you’re hearing echoes of Hosea in your head, and the promises of Isaiah. Perhaps you can think of Christmas poetry that could easily be read at a wedding; when I began contemplating today’s sermon a few weeks ago right away John Milton’s Ode: On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity came to mind. This is an old thing – nearly 400 years old – so you may not grasp all the words cognitively; how do they make you feel? Here are a few stanzas:
Ring out, ye crystal spheres,
Once bless our human ears
(If ye have power to touch our senses so),
And let your silver chime
Move in melodious time,
And let the bass of heaven’s deep organ blow;
And with your ninefold harmony
Make up full consort to the angelic symphony.
For if such holy song
Enwrap our fancy long,
Time will run back and fetch the age of gold,
And speckled Vanity
Will sicken soon and die,
And leprous Sin will melt from earthly mould,
And hell itself will pass away,
And leave her dolorous mansions to the peering day.
Yea, Truth and Justice then
Will down return to men,
Orbed in a rainbow; and, like glories wearing,
Mercy will sit between,
Throned in celestial sheen,
With radiant feet the tissued clouds down steering;
And heaven as at some festival
Will open wide the gates of her high palace hall.
There is a wonderful, unique dissonance in John’s Revelation when it comes to the Marriage Supper of the Lamb, a dissonance that I thrill to ponder. The angel pronounces blessing on all who are invited to that supper, and I am sure it will be grand. What great feast did you have or are you having for your Christmas dinner? No matter how sumptuous or how delicious, it is nothing compared to that feast with Jesus Christ, the Lamb of God. But back to the dissonance. At the marriage supper, the Lamb is the Groom; no question about that. But who is the Bride? Well, the New Jerusalem, it says. But who is the New Jerusalem? You and I are; the Church of Jesus Christ is the New Jerusalem, is the Bride. But who are the guests? Well, once again: you and I are; the people of God are the guests. We are the Bride; we are the guests. We get to dance with the Groom and with all the other guests.
At Christmastime I am moved to suspect that the guest list includes not only redeemed humanity, but all Creation. John’s Gospel says not that the Word was made “human,” but that the Word was made “flesh.” Isaiah said that “all flesh shall see the glory of God” (40:5) So who else may be on the guest list? A Christmas poem I recite every year just before dinner says that even British songbirds – spinks and ouzles – have a Savior; he has come for everyone. Here are the last four stanzas of Christopher Smart’s The Nativity of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ:
Nature’s decorations glisten
Far above their usual trim;
Birds on box and laurels listen,
As so near the cherubs hymn.
Boreas now no longer winters
On the desolated coast;
Oaks no more are riv’n in splinters
By the whirlwind and his host.
Spinks and ouzles sing sublimely,
‘We too have a Saviour born;’
Whiter blossoms burst untimely
On the blest Mosaic thorn.
God all-bounteous, all-creative,
Whom no ills from good dissuade,
Is incarnate, and a native
Of the very world he made.
I think Smart has captured perfectly this sense of Christmas as a marriage between heaven and earth in that last stanza. God is incarnate, “and a native/Of the very world he made.” God is born into the world that God made; at Christmastime God and God’s world are joined in a way that can barely be grasped, can only be celebrated. And so our songs and our feasts, and our dancing and our delightful Christmas television specials. And the many customs that seem to have so little to do with the birth of a peasant child in a corner of the Roman Empire, but which capture our joy at this wedding, the wedding between the Holy Lamb and the Redeemed Bride.
Now to conclude this ramble with one other piece of poetry, from the middle of the twentieth century, the conclusion of W. H. Auden’s massive Christmas oratorio, For the Time Being. I read it every year during the twelve days of Christmas sometime – this year, probably tomorrow – and I love how Auden takes us across the bleak landscape of the world and the sudden intrusion of Gabriel into Mary’s life, the struggle of Joseph and the summoning of the Magi, the vision of the shepherds, and then Mary’s quiet singing at the manger. He continues to the Temple where Simeon waits, the horror of Herod’s massacre, and the Holy Family’s flight into Egypt. Then, at the end, he looks back at the Christmas celebration and sighs that we all have to get back to work or school or scrubbing the kitchen table, while sensing that Good Friday cannot now be far away.
Yet, since Christ has come among us, the Time Being has been forever redeemed. Every wedding is a glimpse of the Lamb’s Wedding Day. Every feast is a sample of the Marriage Feast of the Lamb. Every communion is a foretaste of the great Table on the Day of the Lord. And so Auden concludes his oratorio with this invitation; and I conclude my sermon with it too:
He is the Way.
Follow Him through the Land of Unlikeness;
You will see rare beasts, and have unique adventures.
He is the Truth.
Seek Him in the Kingdom of Anxiety;
You will come to a great city that has expected your return for years.
He is the Life.
Love Him in the World of the Flesh;
And at your marriage all its occasions shall dance for joy.
Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
 Some translations say “people,” but the word is bashar, which means “flesh,” not only human flesh but any kind of flesh.