Preacher: Jeff Davidson
Scripture: Jeremiah 31:7-14, John 1:1-18
Do you know what today is? Here’s a hint. (sings) “On the first day of Christmas my true love gave to me a partridge in a pear tree.” Any ideas?
Yes. It’s the twelfth day of Christmas. “Twelve drummers drumming, eleven ladies dancing, ten lords a leaping” and so on and so on and so on. That’s a fun song. I always enjoyed it growing up and though I don’t sing it much anymore it still makes me smile.
This song has been around a long time. It was first published in English in 1780, and the order of the gifts was a little different, and some of the words were different. For instance, in the 1780 version the twelfth day was for twelve lords a leaping, not for twelve drummers drumming. The fourth day was four colly birds, C-O-L-L-Y, meaning black birds, instead of calling birds.
There have been a lot of different verses over the years. The version we sing now, including the tune, was set around 1909 but before then some versions of the song talked about twelve bells a ringing, or ten men a mowing, or eleven badgers baiting. You could sing about your choice of eight hares a running or eight hounds a running. You could have seven
ducks a laying or four ducks quacking. The words have changed dozens of times over the years.
One of the things that means is that when you read about the symbolism behind the song, what you’re reading is probably not correct. There have been all kinds of different versions of the song, so how can there be one specific interpretation of what all the gifts mean? For instance, there is an interpretation that says the whole song is about teaching Catholic doctrine in a time and place when Catholicism was outlawed. The twelve drummers drumming refers to the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostles’ Creed. The eleven pipers piping refer to the eleven disciples, because appropriately we’re not counting Judas.
I guess that’s possible, in the general sense that anything’s possible. I’d note that there doesn’t seem to be any real historical evidence for that or for any of the other various theories of interpretation. They all seem to be ideas that someone thought up in the 20th century to try to give the song more theological significance than it originally carried. I could be wrong, though. We’ll never really know.
Figuring out what this kind of stuff means is something that we do a lot, especially with things that have religious or theological significance. Over the years theologians have spent a lot of time trying to figure out the
significance and meaning of the first part of our reading from John’s gospel. It’s what we do, whether it’s about big theological questions like the relationship between Jesus and God, or about a repetitive children’s song that’s been around for a couple of hundred years. We want to figure things out. We want to ascribe meanings to things. We’re not content to just let a song be a song.
Sometimes it is worth some effort to try to figure those kinds of things out, and our reading from John is a pretty good example of that. The traditional Christian view of Jesus is that he’s part of the Trinity. The Trinity is made up of God the Creator, Jesus the Redeemer, and the Holy Spirit the Comforter. Years ago they were referred to as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit but as time has gone on we’ve tried to use more inclusive language to refer to God and Jesus. All three of these people, or entities, or parts – however you want to think about it – all three of these come together in one to make up God. It gets complicated to try to figure out all the variations and to try to explain exactly what the Trinity is like and to work through all the theological thought that’s behind the concept of the Trinity and I’m not even going to try.
Here in John chapter 1, though, is one of the key indicators in the Bible that Jesus and God are connected. You can see it in verse 1: “In the
beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” (emphasis added) That’s one of the paradoxes you find with the Trinity. There are these three different parts of something. They are separate – God, Jesus, Spirit – but they are all the same. The Word was with God – separate – and the Word was God – the same. It’s confusing.
Look at the very last verse of our Gospel reading, verse 18. “No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known.” Now here we’re back to older language for a moment. God the only Son – so God and the Son are the same – who is close to the Father’s heart – so somehow there is a difference between the Son and the Father. Verse 1 and verse 18 both show all the confusion that can come when we try to sort out what the Trinity is and how the various parts of the Trinity all fit together. Like I said that’s a worthwhile discussion, but it’s not a discussion that I’m particularly well equipped to have or to reach a conclusion on. I accept the conclusions that other people who are a lot smarter than I am have come to over the years.
Today is the 12th day of Christmas. There is also something special coming up tomorrow. Tomorrow is the traditional date of the Epiphany. The Epiphany commemorates the day that the wise men brought gifts to Jesus,
and it’s a celebration of the first time that the Messiah appeared before and was recognized by Gentiles, by people outside the Jewish faith.
Compare that picture, the picture of Jesus as a little baby with wise men bringing him gifts, with the picture of God we get in our reading from Jeremiah. The God we see in Jeremiah is an expansive, powerful God. It’s a God who is issuing commands, telling people what to do and what will happen. It’s a God who has done powerful things in the past and making promises about the powerful things to be done in the future. It’s a God that no one sees, a God that speaks through prophets, a God that does not appear in human form. It’s a God whose primary concern is one particular group of people. It’s a God with whom people outside that particular group don’t really have a lot of interaction.
Is it possible to have a greater contrast? The God of Jeremiah is hidden, far away. The God of John is right here on earth. The God of Jeremiah speaks to the prophets but not directly to the people at large. The God of John speaks to whoever is willing to listen. The God of Jeremiah is hidden from view. The God of John is visible to anyone who looks. The God of Jeremiah is approached through priests and temples and sacrifices of animals and the like. The God of John is approached in person, by anyone who feels like walking up to him.
God didn’t change. The way God interacts with people changed. God became visible to people. God became accessible to people. God became a person. The Word became flesh. And nothing in the relationship between God and humanity was the same afterwards. Everything changed.
Since that time two thousand and some odd years ago, everything has changed again. Jesus isn’t here on earth anymore, at least not in the flesh. Jesus was crucified, was resurrected, and was raised into heaven. Now we have the third part of the Trinity – the Holy Spirit.
The Holy Spirit is the culmination of God’s moving closer and closer to us. We started out with a God that was far away, who wouldn’t speak directly to average people. Then we celebrated Jesus, The Word made Flesh, who lived and breathed and talked and walked among us. Now our interaction with God is through the Holy Spirit, which lives inside each and every one of us.
The Holy Spirit is within us, closer than our own breath. God’s leading, God’s commands, God’s wisdom – they’re all here, inside us, in our own hearts if we’ll only listen. They are part of who we are. They are as close as close can be.
What changes next? It’s tempting to say that’s up to God, and of course in some ways it is. In some ways, though, it’s up to us. It’s up to
how carefully we listen and how willing we are to follow God. It’s up to what we’re prepared to do when we feel God’s leading. It’s up to our own sensitivity, our own courage, our own trust and our own faith.
Everything changes. We don’t control what the changes will be. We do control how we respond to them. Amen.