Posted by: Johnold Strey | December 24, 2011

Sermon for the Festival of the Nativity of Our Lord (Christmas Day 2011)

GREATNESS AMONG THE COMMON

Text: John 1:1-5,10-14

Note: This sermon form, sometimes called a “story sermon,” uses a running illustration to inductively introduce the points of the text to the listeners.  The running illustration in this sermon comes from a Pulitzer-Prize winning Washington Post article from 2007 titled “Pearls Before Breakfast.”  The article describes a cultural experiment set up by the Washington Post with internationally acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell, who performed as a street musician in a Washington D.C. train station during the morning rush hour on Friday, January 12, 2007.  The idea for this came from another sermon preached by Jonathan Schroeder, who serves Faith Lutheran Church in Sharpsburg Georgia.  Pastor Schroeder used this concept for a sermon preached at a recent School of Worship Enrichment where both he and I were serving as consultants.  Pastor Schroeder’s sermon used the Washington Post article to parallel some of the thoughts at the end of John 6, his sermon text that day.  After I heard the sermon, knowing that I was going to be preaching on John 1:1-14 on Christmas morning a little more than two months later, I thought that this same article would nicely parallel the thoughts in the Christmas Day Gospel.  That is the “origin” of this sermon.  Even though its form is somewhat unique, I hope that it will help to shed new light and appreciation for the message that the Holy Spirit has revealed to us in the prologue of John’s Gospel.

-Pastor Strey

I.

On Friday morning, January 12, 2007, a young man carrying a violin case entered into one of the Metro train stations in Washington, D.C.  A white man in his 30’s, he donned a Washington Nationals baseball cap, a long-sleeved T-shirt, and jeans.  He found a spot for himself and his violin near the top of the station’s escalators, where his “neighbors” were a trash can, a newsstand, a machine selling lottery tickets, and a shoe shine station.  He opened his small violin case and took out his fiddle, threw in a couple of dollars and some change in his case as seed money, and for the next 43 minutes began to play as 1,070 commuters passed by.

But this was no ordinary street musician, and this was no ordinary performance.  This performance was really an experiment set up by the Washington Post.  The musician was internationally acclaimed violinist Joshua Bell.  Three days before this little experiment, Bell had played at Boston’s Symphony Hall, where the “pretty good” seats sell for $100 each.  Bell has played before royalty—literally.  For a typical performance, his pay averages about $1,000 a minute.  And the violin he carried with him?  It was handcrafted in 1713 by Antonio Stradivari toward the end of his career, when Stradivari had essentially perfected his craftsmanship.  The price tag on Bell’s three-century old violin is reported to be a mere $3.5 million.

Bell was the child prodigy musician whose parents, both psychologists, started him on lessons at age four.  When composer John Corigliano won an Oscar for Best Original Dramatic Score for the 1998 movie, “The Red Violin,” he credited Joshua Bell, the violinist in the recording, and said that Bell “plays like a god.”  The musician in that D.C. Metro station had limitless credentials, the instrument he played was worth seven figures, and he played some of the finest literature written for violin. 

Bell entered the Metro station at 7:51 a.m. that Friday winter morning.  And then he began to play.  So what would happen?  The Washington Post set up this experiment to see if great artistry could be identified and appreciated in an everyday context.  He played for 43 minutes, and the Washington Post video cameras recorded 1,070 passers-by during that time.  So, what would happen?  Would people recognize greatness when it was found among the common?

Isn’t that the question that lies at the heart of the matter this Christmas Day?  Do people recognize the greatness that has come among the common?  I will come back to the Joshua Bell story later, but now I’m not talking about Joshua Bell.  Now I’m talking about the Gospel for Christmas Day from John chapter one—a chapter that describes how the Son of God came among the human race by the miracle of his conception and birth.  “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.  He was with God in the beginning.”  Here is the reality of Christmas in simple but profound words.  John calls Jesus, “the Word.”  Jesus—the One that all of God’s Word points us to, the One who is equal to God the Father, the One who has existed as God before he created time, the One who is God himself—made a unique appearance into this world at Christmas.  That unique appearance is described in the final verse of the Christmas Day Gospel: “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”  God not only came among us; he actually became one of us.  God became one of us and lived among us in the person of Jesus Christ some 2,000 years ago.  Greatness came among the common.  So, what would happen?  Would people recognize greatness—would people recognize God—when he lived among the common?

II.

So what happened?  Over the course of 43 minutes, 1,070 people passed by.  The Washington Post staff was concerned that a massive crowd might gather.  Someone might recognize Joshua Bell, the word gets around, people text their friends, and 15 minutes later you have mass chaos at a Metro station during rush hour.  Surely that was a distinct possibility!  And the literature that Bell played during his public incognito concert was certainly worth noting.  He began with “Chaconne” from J.S. Bach’s Partita No. 2 in D Minor.  Even if that means nothing to you, you know it is something special when Bell himself called it “not just one of the greatest pieces of music ever written, but one of the greatest achievements of any man in history.”  The nineteenth century composer Johannes Brahms said, “If I imagined that I could have created, even conceived the piece, I am quite certain that the excess of excitement and earth-shattering experience would have driven me out of my mind.”  And that is how Bell began his public performance on that D.C. winter morning.

So what happened?  The short answer is: almost nothing.  Hidden cameras recorded the entire incident.  Three minutes passed before anything happened.  After 63 people passed by, the sixty-fourth person turned his head for a split second to notice Bell’s performance; he kept walking, but it was the first of any sort of acknowledgement.  A half-minute later Bell got his first donation—someone tossed in a dollar as she walked past.  It was a full six minutes into this experiment before someone actually stopped and listened to this great musician.  Forty-three minutes, 1,070 people, but only seven stopped what they were doing at that moment to take in the music for at least one minute.  Slightly more—twenty seven people—tossed some money into Bell’s violin case, totaling a whopping $32.17 for a man who normally makes $1,000 a minute.  Not once did anything even resembling a crowd come together.  Artistic greatness was taking place among the common, but it was met with the cultural equivalent of a yawn.

So what happened?  Bell may have brought some of the finest music ever composed to a Metro station, but in the Christmas Gospel we learn that Jesus Christ brought so much more into this world at his birth.  John says, “In him was life, and that life was the light of men.”  To a world lost in the mundane mire of sin and death, Jesus brought spiritual life.  To people blinded by the darkness of sin’s power, Jesus offers spiritual light.  Who would turn down such blessings?  Who would reject this greatness—especially when this greatness was not for show, but for our salvation?

So what happened?  “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”  Divine greatness came into this world, but did anyone notice?  Early in his ministry, Jesus preached in his hometown, only to be rejected by the same people who knew him since he was a little boy.  A few chapters later in John’s Gospel, shortly after Jesus fed the 5,000, he explained to them that they must spiritually consume him in order to have spiritual life in them, but his claims were met by skepticism and rejection.  The religious leaders of Jesus’ day recognized that Jesus claimed to be God, but then responded with charges of blasphemy, not with hearts of faith.

There were people who said that they cried when they read the Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post article about the Joshua Bell experiment.  They were saddened by the thought that the American culture has gotten to the point that artistic greatness plays second fiddle—pardon the pun—to pragmatism.  How sad that greatness was rejected that morning.  But how tragic that the greatness in the manger, the divine greatness wrapped up in the person of Jesus Christ, was dismissed and rejected.  The Son of God came to live and dwell among us, and yet he is still written off as a mere rabbi, another noteworthy figure in a long line of religious gurus, a good teacher and an inspiring leader—but the Son of God?  The Savior and Redeemer of the world?  The one and only solution for sin and guilt?  The one and only way to fellowship with God and eternal life? These are claims that the world cannot tolerate.

But the failure to understand Jesus is not limited to the world “out there.”  For we too can easily pass by the miracle in the manger as if it was a mundane incident.  We also fail to see—or, perhaps, fail to remember—the greatness that came among the common.  For how do we respond to the miracle of the birth of God’s Son in our daily life?  We toss our pocket change into his offering plate-shaped violin case.  Maybe we give him a little time here and there—perhaps an hour or two once a week, or once a month, or once a year.  We hardly stop to pause and wonder and marvel at the gift that God the Father has sent among us.  Oh, perhaps we give a passing glance, but our lives are so busy and our schedules so booked that we have little time left over to take in the beautiful gift of God’s grace that he has placed before us in Bethlehem’s manger and Calvary’s cross and Easter’s empty tomb.

III.

Joshua Bell isn’t used to rejection.  He admits that at a performance, he gets annoyed if someone coughs or if someone’s cell phone rings.  But his expectations dropped rapidly during his rush hour commute performance.  He said, “I started to appreciate any acknowledgement, even a slight glance up.  I was oddly grateful when someone threw in a dollar instead of change.”

What if Joshua Bell decided to have a “prima donna moment”?  What if, in the midst of all this rejection, he pulled the curtain on the stunt and told people who he really was?  “Um, excuse me.  I’m Joshua Bell.  I’ve played before kings and queens.  I’m in town to play at the Library of Congress.  I make $1,000 a minute.  That quarter you just threw in the case—yeah, that isn’t going to cut it, pal!”  I dare say that if Bell had actually had a prima donna moment in his Metro station performance, his performance would have been cut short by angry commuters!

Jesus never had a “prima donna” moment, but he made no bones about the fact that he was the Son of God.  Neither does John in our Christmas Day Gospel.  “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him.  He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.”  It was bad enough that Jesus was not recognized by so many in the world that he created.  But in many cases he was not merely unrecognized, but outright rejected.  His own family thought he was out of his mind.  The religious leaders of his day dismissed him as a demon-possessed man despite the tremendous miracles that they knew had taken place at his word.  It was those same religious leaders who condemned him and convinced the Roman governor that the death penalty was the only right recourse for the Son of God in human flesh.

But what a deadly rejection!  For this is not a rejection that has to do with personal preferences or religious tendencies.  This is rejection of the very One who gives life, the One who entered into this world to be our Savior from sin and Substitute under God’s holy law, the One whose innocent life was given into death on the cross to pay for the world’s sin.  Reject Joshua Bell’s performance and all you have missed is a free public concert.  But reject the Son of God whose birth we celebrate this day, dismiss him as if he is no big deal, and you will miss heaven itself and spend the rest of eternity in hell!

IV.

1,070 passed through the Metro station during Bell’s 43 minute performance.  Seven stopped for more than a minute.  One person—equivalent to less than one-tenth of one percent of the total passers-by—recognized Joshua Bell.  One woman recognized him because she had attended his concert at the Library of Congress three weeks earlier.  If you track this story down online you can watch a video where Stacy Furukawa plants herself a mere ten feet in front of Mr. Bell.  The rush hour commuters keep on passing by, oblivious to what it taking place.  But Stacy Furukawa stood there with a smile from ear to ear and soaked up the whole experience.  She had no idea why the world’s greatest violinist was begging for money in a D.C. Metro station, but she was not about to miss the performance that was taking place that morning.  When Bell finished playing, she introduced herself, thanked him, and humbly tossed a $20 bill in his violin case.  The Washington Post didn’t count that donation in the final tally of $32.17—after all, it was “tainted” by recognition.  It was a rare bright spot in an otherwise disappointing but revealing experiment.  But at least someone recognized greatness among the common.

Crowds did not gather at Bethlehem’s manger.  News about Jesus’ birth did not go viral in 4 B.C., the year many scholars believe that Jesus was born.  But there were some who came to believe in him.  There were some who knew that Jesus was not just the leader of the latest cultural-religious fad.  John tells us, “To all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God—children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”  Many passed by uninterested, but John tells us that some recognized the greatness that came to earth in God’s plan and timing.  Some came to believe that the baby in Bethlehem’s manger was also God in human flesh.  And through that faith, those people became children of God—children not by some natural human process, but by a supernatural divine miracle.

Dear Christian friend, on this Christmas Day, remember that you are among those who have received faith in the Christ child.  You are among those who recognize the greatness in the manger.  That greatness is the “Word [who] became flesh.”  That greatness is the Son of God embodied in human flesh.  That greatness may be hidden by the lowliness of the manger, and it would be hidden even more by the lowliness of the cross.  But that lowliness and humility was necessary if Jesus was going to perform the great mission that he had come to accomplish.  For Jesus came to this world to accomplish your forgiveness, your salvation from sin, your release from hell’s punishment, and your redemption from Satan’s grasp.

You would never guess that the God who fills heaven and earth would be confined to a manger bed.  Were it not for the Holy Spirit’s work in your heart, you would never be able to identify the greatness that is found lying in the manger.  But on this Christmas Day, you know that greatness came among the common.  The crowds may walk past without even a passing glance, the crowds might put in a token penny or quarter in the form of kind words or Christmas rituals, but the Holy Spirit has led you to realize that something greater than great happened on this day.  God became one of us so that by his redeeming work we would be made at one again with God.  “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”  Don’t just pass by that truth.  Savor it.  Relish it.  Live in it—on Christmas Day, every day, and forever.  Amen.

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