Archives for December 2014

Bulletin Insert: 1 Epiphany (B)

Baptism of Our Lord

January 11, 2015

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“Baptism of Jesus,” by Giotto's workshop, fresco on the vault of the Presbitery in the church of the former Abbey at Viboldone, Milan, Italy.  (Photo by Giovanni Dall'Orto)

“Baptism of Jesus,” by Giotto’s workshop, fresco on the vault of the Presbitery in the church of the former Abbey at Viboldone, Milan, Italy. (Photo by Giovanni Dall’Orto)

The Feast of the Baptism of Our Lord is celebrated each year on the Sunday following the Feast of the Epiphany on January 6. The event of Christ’s baptism is recorded in all four gospel accounts:

“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (Mark 1:9-11).

“Now when all the people were baptized, and when Jesus also had been baptized and was praying, the heaven was opened, and the Holy Spirit descended upon him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased’” (Luke 3:21-22).

“The next day he saw Jesus coming towards him and declared, ‘Here is the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world! This is he of whom I said, “After me comes a man who ranks ahead of me because he was before me.” I myself did not know him; but I came baptizing with water for this reason, that he might be revealed to Israel.’ And John testified, ‘I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it remained on him. I myself did not know him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, “He on whom you see the Spirit descend and remain is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.” And I myself have seen and have testified that this is the Son of God’” (John 1:29-34).

“Then Jesus came from Galilee to John at the Jordan, to be baptized by him. John would have prevented him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’ But Jesus answered him, ‘Let it be so now; for it is proper for us in this way to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then he consented. And when Jesus had been baptized, just as he came up from the water, suddenly the heavens were opened to him and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and alighting on him. And a voice from heaven said, ‘This is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased’” (Matthew 3:13-17).

Detail from 13th-century freso above baptismal font,   Zica monastery, near Kraljevo, Serbia (Photo by BrankaVV)

Detail from 13th-century freso above baptismal font,
Zica monastery, near Kraljevo, Serbia
(Photo by BrankaVV)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 
Download bulletin insert as PDF:
full page, one-sided 1/11/15
half page, double-sided 1/11/15

black and white, full page, one-sided 1/11/15
black and white, half page, double-sided 1/11/15

Spanish bulletin inserts are available on the Sermones que Iluminan website.

Reaching those who long to be loved, 1 Epiphany (B) – 2015

January 11, 2015

Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

In today’s gospel reading, we hear God saying to Jesus, “You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.” Mark’s account of the baptism of Jesus is short, sweet and to the point. It marks the beginning of Jesus’ earthly ministry, but first our Lord must go through baptism and face 40 days of temptation in the wilderness. Jesus starts off his ministry and ultimate journey to Calvary with the reassuring words of his Heavenly Father ringing in his ears.

What encouraging words these are: “With you I am well pleased.” When spoken to a child by his or her parents, these words can evoke a deep sense of assuredness in one’s self worth. Sadly, many children and teens never receive words of encouragement from their parents or caregivers. They only know what it feels like to be reminded of their failures or ridiculed for their shortcomings. Unfortunately, neglected and abused children often repeat the same behavior when they become parents.

“You are my son, the Beloved.” These six simple words from the gospel message speak volumes. To be called someone’s beloved child creates a deep, unshakable sense of belonging and acceptance. But to those who have never experienced the enduring love of a parent, these words can bring up a sense of deep longing and emptiness. Such folks can only barely imagine what it must be like to be loved by a father or mother, let alone comprehend what it means to have a parent say, “With you I am well pleased.”

Oh, to live with the knowledge that someone is well pleased with you just because of who you are! That’s the basis of God’s grace to us, His unmerited favor. We don’t earn it; we can only accept it. God’s grace is given to us at birth and sealed by the Holy Spirit at baptism. Without His grace, we have no hope; but once His grace is realized in our lives, we can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

It is one thing to grow up without a loving mother or father in one’s life. Sadly, many children today struggle through life without ever knowing the love of a parent, often with tragic results. According to research, fatherless boys face an extra challenge in life. Young men who grow up in homes without fathers are twice as likely to end up in jail as those who come from traditional two-parent families. Boys whose fathers were absent from the household had double the odds of being incarcerated. Children from fatherless homes represent well over half of youth suicides, youth with behavioral disorders, high-school dropouts and juvenile detainees. This is cause for concern when one considers the inordinate percentage of poor homes where children are growing up without a father figure. Who is there to call them “beloved,” and tell them that someone is pleased with them?

Just because a child grows up in a fatherless home doesn’t mean he or she is doomed to a life of despair or failure. Far from it; it is safe to say that most children raised in loving single-parent homes headed by a mother or mother figure grow up to lead successful and productive lives. Never underestimate the importance of a mother’s love. And many uncles, brothers, family friends, teachers and mentors act as father figures in children’s lives in the absence of their biological fathers.

The church’s calling is to help support single-parent families – and all families for that matter – and ensure they don’t have to raise these young people alone. Parental love isn’t dependent upon biology, but comes from the love that God has freely bestowed upon us. But where are the father figures? Where are the big brothers, uncles, teachers and neighbors, the men who can take a stand in a child’s life and be a dad who can help raise the child? Who is around to say, “You are my beloved son; with you I am well pleased”?

In our Baptismal Covenant, we promise to seek and serve Christ in all persons, loving our neighbor as ourselves. One way we do this is by reaching out to the unloved, the hard to love, and the rejected in our midst and loving them, emulating our Heavenly Father’s love for us who are called by His name. It doesn’t matter if we’re related or not, the only requirement is that we love them as God loves us as His own.

You see, all of us were once fatherless in a manner of speaking, before we entered into covenant with God through the waters of baptism. If we were destined to be adopted as God’s own children through Christ, then are we not also called to be fathers and mothers to those who have none? Are we not loved by our Heavenly Father so that we can in turn love one another? For what is love if it is not freely received and shared with those around us?

We live in a world of fatherless children, sons and daughters who have been rejected by their parents because of sexual orientation, teen pregnancy, disability, substance abuse or just because of the parents’ own selfish narcissistic interests. These young people often lead very solitary lives and are easy prey for society’s predators. When faced with life’s temptations, they often make wrong choices because there is no one there to guide them. If we truly take our Baptismal Covenant seriously, we must do all we can to protect those least able to protect themselves and help them find their inheritance awaiting them in God’s family, our family.

Every time we who are baptized into the Body of Christ approach the Eucharistic table, we are reminded of God’s love for us. It is around the holy table gathered with our brothers and sisters in Christ that our Heavenly Father graciously accepts us as living members of his own Son our Savior Jesus Christ, and feeds us with spiritual food in the Blessed Sacrament.

In the Sacrament of Baptism, we welcome new believers into the family we call the Body of Christ. As they pass through the waters of baptism, we are asked to do all in our power to support them in their life in Christ. All of us have an important role to play in their spiritual development. It is no small thing what we do around the baptismal font, since all of us take solemn vows for which God will hold us accountable.

God is saying to us today, “You are my beloved sons and daughters; with you I am well pleased.” Embrace each other in the love God has freely given us, and reach out to those who long to be loved. Go and spread the good news that the Kingdom of God has come near.

 

— The Rev. Timothy G. Warren is a vocational deacon at Trinity Episcopal Church, Redlands, Calif. He is a 26-year retired Air Force veteran with more than 15 years’ experience as an educator in the private and public sector. Deacon Warren is the founder of Trinity Victorville Outreach, an emergent ministry that reaches out to at-risk young adults and families in the High Desert Region, Calif.

Seeking God’s Light, Epiphany (A,B,C) – 2015

January 6, 2015

Isaiah 60:1-6; Psalm 72:1-7,10-14; Ephesians 3:1-12; Matthew 2:1-12

In the reading from Isaiah, we are called to “arise” and “shine”; we are called to get up and be in relationship with this light that is God’s love breaking into a world that has been covered in darkness. This darkness has covered the earth, this thick darkness that the Magi walk through; we have been promised that it will vanish in the dawn of this new light that is the Glory of the Lord.

Isaiah says that the nations shall come to this light and the kings to the brightness of this dawn. And then in the gospel reading this morning we see the nations streaming to this light. We see these kings on a long journey through the dark. Weighed down with their gifts and riches as they seek. These treasure chests they have brought with them from the East.

Exactly who they are is difficult to discern. Are they wise men? Kings? Persian magicians? The text says “Magi,” and our tradition of song and story has overlaid a multitude of meanings – for example, that there were three of them, and what their names were.

But in the text, there are not three men, but three gifts. The Bible does not say how many Magi there were; there could have been three – or 30.

There is room in this magical caravan for all of us.

What is clear is that they are other definitely otherworldly, mysterious. These travellers are not part of the Jewish world. They come from far away. They are the world flocking to the light of God.

These Magi have been traveling in the dark, following a star; we don’t know for how long they have been seeking any more than we know where they started,or how many of them there are.

But as they get close, they seek council from Herod. We in the audience want to shout “No! Don’t ask him!” Herod is afraid of the child, and we all know there is nothing more dangerous than a powerful man when he is afraid.

From the text, we know that when they find this child with his mother, they pay him homage. The word that gets translated as “homage” is a wonderful combination of the Greek words for “to fall down” and “to kiss.” This is worship at its most pure. They find this child, which is the goal of their journey, and they fall down in praise. And then, of course, they offer the gifts.

These wise men, these kings, these magicians from a far-off land offer the baby three gifts: gold, frankincense, and myrrh. There is tradition, too, around the meaning of these gifts.

The gold is because the baby is a king, and they say just this to Herod and all of Jerusalem – that they are looking for the child who has been born the King of the Jews.

They offer the baby frankincense because he is God, and the incense symbolizes prayer rising to the heavens like smoke.

And they offer the baby myrrh, which was often used for burials and symbolized death, because even here at the beginning of this story about Jesus as a baby, we remember that this story goes to the cross and beyond.

We are all on our own journeys through the dark, carrying our own gifts within us. We, too, seek to find the truth of love in this world of darkness. We, too, bear our gifts and are seeking the right place to lay them down.

We come bearing gold, our gift for our king. To whom and to what do we owe our allegiance? Who is our king? What orients our lives in the political spectrum, and how do we work together? There are any number of authorities who would eagerly have our obedience and fealty. How do we know which loud voice in the clamor of the world should be obeyed?

We come bearing frankincense and seeking what is holy in this world. We are looking for the thin space, the gap between this world that we see and touch and the other world that we long for and know to be true. Is it our selves, our families, our nation? Is it our ideologies, our own opinions? Is it personal growth? Is there anything that makes you fall on your knees in honor of something greater than yourself?

We come bearing myrrh, in all that we mourn. We are all bearing grief in this world, and we are looking for a place to lay it down. What is it that makes you weep? What do you do with the grief in your life? Myrrh was used for the anointing of a dead body. What are you ready to bury? What do you need to let go of and mourn the loss of?

Whom do we obey? What do we worship? Where can we lay our broken hearts? The answer is: the Kingdom of Love that Jesus preaches about.

This new kingdom is the Light that illuminates the deep darkness. This new kingdom has broken into and shattered all we thought we knew about the way the world works.

If we obey the Kingdom of Love, we will find ourselves overflowing with compassion, and forgiving our enemies, and giving away all we had thought was “ours.”

If we worship in the Kingdom of Love, we find ourselves falling down at the feet of Love and joining with angels and archangels and breaking bread with God’s beloved.

If we allow the Kingdom of Love to break our hearts, we will realize that all the world’s children are our children, and that the heart of God is overflowing with gracious compassion for everyone.

It sounds like loss – the loss of being the center, the loss of “treasure.” But in this loss there is overwhelming joy. That is what is said of these Magi: that in their encounter with this infant incarnation of Love, they were overwhelmed with joy.

There is something out there that is so bright and beautiful that it draws the shepherds, and the Magi and us. This is what we look for in the dark, burdened by our treasure, longing to lay down our obedience, our worship and our grief.

And so we walk through the dark, our eyes eagerly seeing a speck of light – a star we can follow. That is what Epiphany is about – it is a time to look for the light of God shining in unexpected places. And it is a time to fall down and kiss the light when we do find it.

 

— The Rev. Kerlin Richter is the founding priest of Bushwick Abbey, a creative new Episcopal church plant in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Bible Study: 1 Epiphany (B)

January 11, 2015

Jessie Gutgsell, Berkeley Divinity School at Yale

“In those days Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee and was baptized by John in the Jordan. And just as he was coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens torn apart and the Spirit descending like a dove on him. And a voice came from heaven, ‘You are my Son, the Beloved; with you I am well pleased.’” (Mark 1:9-11)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Genesis 1:1-5; Psalm 29; Acts 19:1-7; Mark 1:4-11

Genesis 1:1-5

It’s hard to imagine more familiar words than the opening of Genesis, isn’t it? “In the beginning” the famous first words ring. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the words of my Old Testament professor, Dr. Robert Wilson, as he led us through the Book of Genesis: “Don’t confuse familiarity with understanding.” So it’s with that spirit that I return to the first five verses of scripture. It’s Professor Wilson’s thoughts that will guide much of my inquiry.

Genesis is often divided into two large sections: Chapters 1-11 make up the “primeval history,” while Chapters 12-50 comprise the “patriarchal stories.”

The first two verses of the Bible jump right into the action of creation, providing no explanation of what God was doing before Genesis 1:1. Verse 2 describes the earth as a “formless void,” although Professor Wilson was quick to point out that the Hebrew phrase (tohu wa-bohu) is untranslatable. Many scholars have argued about the exact translation for centuries, which is made difficult because of word play. I find it a little funny that we struggle to define exactly what the “formless void” or tohu wa-bohu really means. It seems fitting that it would be beyond explanation.

In verse 3, God speaks the light into existence. Again, it’s hard not to confuse familiarity with understanding, but it’s what we must do as Christians. It’s incomprehensible (like tohu wa-bohu) to imagine what it means for God to speak light – something so integral to our lives – into being, but it happens!

In verse 4, God separates the light from the darkness. What does this mean? I wonder what the light and darkness looked like before they were separated. Was it like oil and water? Or a Mark Rothko painting? Or beyond imagination?

Our passage ends with the end of the first day. But we know this is only the beginning!

Close readers of Genesis will be interested to note that there’s another creation account within Genesis (2:4-24), which in some ways directly contradicts the account we begin reading today. Readers may want to compare the two versions in their study.

Consider verse 3, when God speaks the light into existence. What in your life has God spoken into existence? What do you think God might be speaking into existence in your life now? How does/would God speak to you? Through other people? Through the wind and nature? Through silence?

Return to verse 4, when God separates the light from the darkness. Perhaps you could say this was the first time that God created boundaries between things. Where in your life could you use more separation? Where could you use more blending and integration? Just as we considered what the separation of light and dark looked like, what would such separation and integration look like in your life?

Psalm 29

Psalm 29 is a psalm that can be categorized as a hymn, or a song of praise. The general thrust of the psalm is to call on people to praise God, and to offer reasons and affirmations of the reasons why people should praise God.

Psalm 29 has some interesting and distinctive literary features that become quickly apparent, especially when reading the psalm out loud. The first feature is the use of “triplets.” In the verse 2 we say the words “Ascribe to the Lord” three times before breaking the pattern on the fourth time, drawing attention to that line that breaks the pattern: “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness.” These words (also found in Psalm 96) are famous in Anglican history thanks to Archbishop William Laud. “Worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness” was one of his ways of calling Anglicans to take their liturgy seriously – and to make it uniform. Today these words form part of the Book of Common Prayer’s Morning Prayer service, as an invitatory sentence.

The next interesting literary feature to note comes in verses 3-5 with the three-time repetition of “The voice of the Lord.” The triplet breaks in verse 5 with an instance of absolute parallelism, where one sentence restates what was previously said, but in a different order: “The voice of the Lord breaks the cedar trees; the Lord breaks the cedars of Lebanon.”

This psalm is focused largely on God’s voice and the mythological qualities of it. (See verse 10.) It’s interesting to note the emphasis on God’s voice in the lectionary readings so far: God speaking light into existence, and here, God’s voice breaking trees.

In what ways do you worship the Lord in the beauty of holiness? What does this phrase mean to you? Do you associate it with liturgy?

This psalm calls us to “ascribe,” or attribute, strength and glory to God. How can you attribute strength and glory to God in your own life? In what ways should you give God more credit? More reverence?

Acts 19:1-7

The reading from Acts today comes toward the end of the book of Acts. The scene comes from Paul’s third major journey, to Ephesus. His first two journeys were to Asia Minor and Greece, and he will end his travels by going to Jerusalem and then finally with preaching in Rome.

The character mentioned in Acts 19 is Apollos, who we learned in Acts 18:24-25, is a Jew and an “eloquent man” who “spoke with a burning enthusiasm and taught accurately the things concerning Jesus.” What’s notable in this passage is the distinction that’s being made between baptisms. One kind of baptism involves the Holy Spirit, and the other, the one Apollos and disciples mentioned here, is “John’s baptism” (v. 3) with no Holy Spirit. What’s striking here is that the disciples say, “We have not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit” (v. 2). Acts is known for focusing a lot on the Holy Spirit. (See Acts 2 for the Pentecost story.) Here the Holy Spirit is not as much a dramatic character as it is in other places in this passage and in Acts, but it is an integral aspect to a full and complete baptism. The passage ends with Paul baptizing the disciples. The Holy Spirit makes a dramatic appearance in verse 6 when it “comes upon” the disciples and the people speak in tongues and prophesy.

Consider verse 2, where the disciples say they have not even heard of the Holy Spirit. Have you ever met or can you imagine meeting someone who had never heard of the Holy Spirit? How would you explain the Holy Spirit to someone who didn’t know about it?

What do you imagine “receiving the Holy Spirit” would feel like? (See verses 2, 6.) Have you ever “received the Holy Spirit” before?

Mark 1:4-11

This reading comes from the very beginning Mark’s gospel. All that comes before this is a quotation from Isaiah (actually a conflation of quotes from Exodus, Micah and Isaiah) about a messenger “crying out in the wilderness” (Mark 1:2-3). Notably Mark does not begin with a birth narrative like Matthew or Luke’s gospels do. Instead Jesus’ ministry begins with John the Baptist.

What the reading for today focuses on is both the role John the Baptist played and Jesus’ baptism. John the Baptist is said to have worn a shirt of “camel’s hair” and to have eaten “locusts and wild honey.” Not only does this conjure an image of a rather extreme, ascetical man, but it also strongly alludes to the Old Testament prophet Elijah (2 Kings 1:8). Verse 9 tells us that John baptized Jesus. John the Baptist is later beheaded (Mark 6) at the instruction of King Herod.

The passage also focuses largely on Jesus’ own baptism by John (v. 9). What’s described is an epic, almost mythological scene, of the “heavens being torn apart” (v. 10). Then the Spirit, like a dove (or a pigeon, as some have said), descends from above (v. 10). Next comes a voice from heaven with the comforting and yet almost-secretive words “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased” (v. 11). This line is perhaps an allusion to Psalm 2:7.

If you’ve been baptized, now would be an appropriate time to reflect on your experience of baptism. What do you think baptism does?

Consider looking back on the Baptismal Covenant and praying through it. Keep in mind as you do this how the fact that Jesus was also baptized connects Him with us even more.

Read verse 11 again: “You are my Son, the Beloved, with you I am well pleased.” Imagine God saying these words to you as well (exchanging “son” for “daughter” if appropriate). You also are a child of God. Consider how really believing this might change your view of yourself and your life.

Bible Study: 2 Christmas (A,B,C)

January 4, 2015

Steven M. Balke, Jr.Virginia Theological Seminary

“Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt.” (Matthew 2:14)

The Revised Common Lectionary (RCL) readings:
Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84; Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15,19-23 

Jeremiah 31:7-14

Sometimes it is easy to lose sight of what is really important in life. The people of God have struggled to keep their end of the covenant with God, and every time they stray, disaster befalls them. In the Deuteronomic Code, they have been given numerous and detailed examples for how to love their God, yet Jeremiah has spent almost 30 chapters demonstrating that their repeated failures to love God as their God loves them has brought them into ruin and exile. At the end of Jeremiah, however, he assures them that God has not forgotten them. No matter how many times God’s people stray and forget to love their God, God remembers them and will always bring them back into the covenant that was promised to them.

In our own lives, it is easy to become distracted by all the things in the world that pull on us. Sometimes, it is only when we lose something that is really important that we realize how valuable it was. Fortunately, we have been assured that God will always be ready to welcome us back when we get distracted, and it is never too late to remember God’s love for us.

When have you found yourself so distracted that you missed what was truly important in life?

What is it like to only realize something is important when it’s gone?

How can you remind yourself that God will always be waiting to take you back?

Psalm 84

It is important to recognize the little joys in life. In this psalm, the people are shouting for joy in praise of God because they know what it means to see and hold onto what is important. They do not need to be the king or have great material wealth to be happy, because they can rest in comfort in the love of their God. They know what it feels like to be away from that which they love most, and they are sure to give great thanks when they have it close to them once again.

We are often pulled by the world into thinking we need the fastest cars, the biggest TVs, the trendiest vacations, or the fattest bank accounts. In reality, the greatest joys in life come from the smallest, simplest moments of spending time with a dear friend, coming home after a long journey, or being comforted in the arms of a loved one. The flashy things fail to fulfill us when love and relationship are missing. God has created a world for us in which the greatest happiness can be found in unassuming places, so don’t forget to seek them out and be thankful when you have them.

What does it feel like to be without something you hold dear, then to have it back again?

Do you remember to give thanks for what you have when you have it?

Ephesians 1:3-6, 15-19

Being a good person is how we live out our joy and thanksgiving, not a way of paying God for what we have. When Paul is greeting the church in Ephesus, he is quick to praise them for how faithfully and richly they are living out their Christian lives. He is equally as quick to remind them that they have already been assured that they are God’s beloved people whom Christ has saved once and for all. Paul acclaims the people of Ephesus and wants to them keep doing good work, remembering that they are not buying God’s love (because it has already been freely given to them) but they are instead showing thanks for God’s love in the way they live their lives.

When we go out into the world to live out our call as Christians, we have two choices: We can love all people and spread the Gospel of the Lord because we are trying to pay God back for what has been freely done for us; or we can love all people and spread the Gospel of the Lord because we are thankful and joyous and this is how we want to live our lives in response. The first way diminishes our relationship with God into one of a mere transaction. It is far more meaningful to let our gratitude to God be demonstrated in the lives of love we live out in the world.

When someone gives you a great gift, do you try to pay them for it?

How can you demonstrate your gratitude for someone’s gift to you?

How can you demonstrate your gratitude for God’s love for you?

Matthew 2:13-15, 19-23

When we have been given great gifts in life, it is important not to forget those who are suffering or living in want. Right in the midst of the birth narrative of Jesus Christ – the great gift that God has given us to be reconciled and healed – is a terrible tragedy that should not be missed. A great many lectionaries, including this one, skip past the story of the massacring of the innocent infants by Herod, in his attempt to kill the Messiah. It is a story that makes us uncomfortable, sad, mad, and is not in keeping with the happy story of Jesus’ birth into the world. Yet we cannot ever forget that, even as someone is experiencing great joy, someone else is in pain.

We need to give thanks to God for the joys and great blessings we experience in our lives, and it certainly is right to do so. Give thanks, but do not forget those who are homeless and hungry, lost and alone, dying and ill, persecuted and victimized. We are called to do the hard work in this world of being thankful while yet seeing there is much healing that needs to be done, resting in God’s love while yet seeing that we need to challenge injustices in the world, finding joy in Jesus’ birth while yet wrestling with human sin.

When has wrongdoing in the world kept you from feeling joy?

When has joy in the world kept you from noticing wrongdoing?

What can you do to balance being joyful about gifts and diligent about injustice around you?

Zigs and zags, 2 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2015

January 4, 2015

Jeremiah 31:7-14; Psalm 84 or 84:1-8; Ephesians 1:3-6,15-19a; Matthew 2:13-15,19-23 

The start of this new year invites us to take out the map of our life and look at it carefully. This is a time to recognize where we have been, so that we may be better prepared for the future that awaits us.

Where have you traveled in your life during these past 12 months? What is there to celebrate? What is there to lament? Who have been your companions on this journey? What have been the regrets, the surprises, the delights, the moments of judgment, the seasons of grace?

The end of one old year and the start of a new one invites us to look at our maps, review our travels and reorient ourselves for whatever road lies ahead.

The gospel for this Second Sunday After Christmas Day presents us with a map to look at. It is a map of where the Holy Family traveled in the months, perhaps years, after the birth of Jesus at Bethlehem.

This is a zigzag map. The silent night, holy night when all is calm, all is bright, does not last long for Joseph, Mary and the baby.

It seems that when Christ’s birth is made known, King Herod trembles for his throne. The news of another monarch born in his territory raises in his mind fears of insurrection, the end of his time as ruler, maybe the end of his life.

Meanwhile, Joseph wakes up in the dark of night out of a troubled sleep. In his dream, an angel demanded that he take up the child and his mother and leave town, because Herod’s soldiers, the servants of his paranoia, were already about the cruel business of slaughtering every baby boy in that vicinity in order to eliminate the newborn Messiah. Even as husband and wife stumble about, making the briefest of preparations, the devouring sword draws near.

The angel does not send them back to their hometown of Nazareth. Instead, he sends them on a journey lasting hundreds of miles, which takes them in the opposite direction.

They are to go to Egypt, a strange and alien land. This route saves their child’s life, yet it is a zigzag, not what they expected when they lay down to sleep the night before.

In Egypt there are large Jewish colonies, and probably it is in one of these that Joseph and his family find a place to live. The baby prospers in that strange land, and days and months go by quickly for the young family.

Finally Joseph, the man of dreams, is awakened again from his sleep. Again an angel has appeared to him with momentous news. Herod, that killer of children, is now dead. It is safe to return, safe to go back to the land of Israel, that place they left in haste and fear. Joseph, Mary and their toddler son pack up and leave, invigorated by a sense of relief and hope.

Perhaps they had expected to remain permanently in Egypt, but there is another zigzag. Back home they go.

Once they arrive in the land of Israel, they hear that Herod indeed is dead, but his son has succeeded him, Archelaus, who is no better than his father. So Joseph and Mary decide to keep away form Judah, the region where Archelaus holds sway. In response to yet another dream, they continue northward to Galilee, to their own town, Nazareth. There they find safety and familiar faces welcome them. This is yet another zigzag,

A long and unpredictable journey, a zigzag trip, has taken them back home again so long after that census in Bethlehem. It’s a strange sight to see on the map, the life of this young family and their travels over many months.

Matthew’s gospel recounts events around the early life of Jesus as the fulfillment of prophecies from the Old Testament. Thus, the opening chapters of Matthew are studded with Old Testament quotations.

This happens, in particular, with the zigzag trip taken by the Holy Family. Two quotations are cited to shed light on this journey. The first, from Hosea, is applied to the flight into Egypt and the return to Israel. “Out of Egypt I have called my Son” are the words attributed to God.

The other quotation, of uncertain origin, is applied to Jesus when he’s finally a resident in Nazareth. A single word describes him: “He will be called a Nazorean.”

The significance of this second quotation is unclear. It may represent a play on words referring to Jesus as the long-expected branch growing up from the stump of Jesse, father of King David.

But the significance of the first quotation is clear. “Out of Egypt I have called my son.” The reference here is to Egypt as that place where Israel was enslaved centuries before the birth of Jesus.

God heard the cry of his oppressed people and acted decisively to win their freedom. Moses became the Lord’s agent in the struggle that culminated at the Red Sea. There the people of Israel passed through on dry ground while the Egyptian army that was pursuing them was swept away by the returning waters.

The Exodus was the Lord rescuing his beloved child, calling his son out of Egypt. This was the event that made Israel a people, the people of the Lord.

That God also calls his son Jesus out of exile, out of Egypt, back to his home, means that Jesus is a new and better Moses, about to lead a new and better Exodus, one that will deliver all people out of the realm of sin and death.

So in the story of the Holy Family, the zigs and the zags have their purpose. The path taken by this little household – driven as they are by angels, led by a man who listens to his dreams – is no purposeless wandering. It serves the intention of God’s mercy: to offer new and lasting freedom to all the people of the earth.

Now is a season for each one of us to look at our own map; not simply the past 12 months, but all the years we have lived, and those still to come.

If we consider that map with care and honesty, we will recognize zigs and zags along the way, times that seemed to make no sense, moments when the road simply disappeared or led to places that should be avoided.

Look at the map, and there may be those nights, those days, when what drove you was a dream with a good angel, one seeking your safety, your redemption and new life not for you alone.

There may be for you no straight, consistent, logical lines, no paths that make ordinary sense. There may be instead greater themes, themes that take more time to satisfy, that make sense only further down the road, themes that require you to listen to your life for what is both very old and yet still fresh.

You may find that some phrase sums it up, like a prophecy fulfilled. For once Israel was led forth from Egypt. Then Jesus, still a child, came forth from Egypt. God remains in the Exodus business, and it may be that your story, your map, reveals that once again God has brought forth his child out of some slavery into the bright hope of freedom.

God writes straight with crooked lines. Let’s amend that saying just a bit: God uses zigs and zags to prepare an open road for his people.

Like the Holy Family, you may find this true if you look intently at the route you’ve traveled. Like Jesus, you may discover that time you spent away, literally or metaphorically, was for the sake of calling you home and so that others could march home with you.

Now is the season for each of us to pay attention to what we’ve lived, the map we’ve traveled. The zigs and zags may point to angels who speak in good dreams, who in turn point to One who still calls each of us “Child” and welcomes us back home.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is an Episcopal priest and writer. He is the author of ”A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2003).

The power of a name, Holy Name (A,B,C) – 2015

January 1, 2015

Numbers 6:22-27; Psalm 8; Galatians 4:4-7; Luke 2:15-21

“All hail the power of Jesus’ name, let angels prostrate fall!
Bring forth the royal diadem and crown him Lord of all!”

So proclaims one of the great hymns of the Anglican tradition. It calls upon the people of God to worship the Name of Jesus in anticipation of the day when every knee shall bow and every tongue shall confess that Jesus Christ is Lord. This what the church does today, on the Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus: We gather together to glorify his name.

In worshiping Christ’s name today, we join a long line of believers before us who have invoked God’s blessings by calling on the Savior’s name. But the questions arise – what is the importance of Jesus’ name, and why do we celebrate it today, a week after Christmas?

Names can be powerful things, and throughout the Bible God uses names to communicate his purposes and to mark his covenant blessings on those who enter into relationship with him. Abram becomes Abraham, and Sarai becomes Sarah when they embrace the call to become the forbears of many generations of believers. Their son is named Isaac – “laughter” – on account of the joy God gave them. After a night-long struggle, the shadowy stranger changes Jacob’s name to Israel because he had wrestled with God. In the burning bush at Sinai, God reveals the Divine Name to Moses. He is Yahweh, the great “I am,” the Holy One.

Today’s lesson from Numbers, Chapter 6 tells us that God commanded the Old Testament priests to bless the people of the covenant with this holy Name: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.”

God promises to bless his people when they invoke his Name. The Name of God is blessing to those who call upon him faithfully. In the Ten Commandments, we learn that reverence for God’s Name is serious business: “The Lord will not hold him guiltless who takes his name in vain.”

Because to honor God’s Name is to honor God himself, centuries ago pious Jews ceased pronouncing the name revealed to Moses, saying instead only Ha-Shem, “the Name.” The more familiar custom of English Bibles replaces the divine name Yahweh with “the LORD” in all capital letters.

Several centuries after Moses received the Law, the prophet Isaiah declared that among the titles of the long-awaited Messiah would be the name Emmanuel, which means, “God is with us.” From the gospels we learn that before this Messiah was to be born, the Angel Gabriel announced to the child’s mother that he was the Son of God and would be named Jesus because he would save his people from their sins. It was an auspicious announcement that brought both exceeding joy and grave concern.

In St. Luke’s account of the Nativity, a portion of which we have read today, the evangelist informs us that indeed the Son of God was born as the angel had promised. Despite the difficult circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth, it was an occasion of great happiness that brought hope to the many people who eagerly waited for God to save his people – people such as the Virgin Mary and Saint Joseph, the shepherds of Bethlehem, and later on people such as Simeon and Anna. Matthew’s gospel shares how the news spread quickly throughout Judea and especially in the Holy City of Jerusalem.

A week after Christ was born, in obedience to Jewish Law, Mary and Joseph circumcised him and named him Jesus, just as we read in today’s gospel from Luke. This is why we celebrate the Holy Name of Jesus today on the Eighth Day of Christmas. We remember that a week after he was born, Jesus was circumcised and received his name in obedience to God’s commandments.

The angel’s message that Mary’s baby would save his people helps us to understand the significance of the child’s name. “Jesus” (or Yeshua) literally means “Yahweh saves.” The child whose birth the angels praised with songs was destined to save God’s people – a covenant people drawn from all the nations of the earth – by shedding his blood and giving his life for ours. The name of Jesus is above all other names, and in the words of the psalmist, is “glorious throughout the world” because it reveals what the covenant God we believe in is like: He saves.

Christians ought not to forget that, while still a baby, Jesus shed his blood for our redemption when he was circumcised. As the Apostle Paul writes in today’s reading from Galatians: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of a woman, born under the law to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children.”

The law required that boys who were born to Jewish parents had to be circumcised as a sign that they belonged to God’s people and that they shared in the God’s covenant promises to Israel. In a way, Jesus’ circumcision was his first public act of obedience to the Father’s will, and the blood Jesus shed on this occasion was the same blood he would shed later on the cross.

Although he was fully divine by nature, the Lord Jesus was born in the humblest of human circumstances in order to save us from our sins. He was willing to undergo suffering, shame and death in order to fulfill God’s desire to save the world. What kind of obedience could be more perfect, and what kind of love could be more merciful? Jesus Christ loves the whole world.

When we understand that the Holy Name of Jesus is a sign and symbol for us of God’s great love and of his desire to save the world, we can see why God would honor his Son’s name by declaring it the most glorious name of all. In his love, God’s Son came to the earth, took on our human nature and willingly gave his life so that we could be reconciled to God.

Because God has honored the Holy Name of Jesus, we, as Christians, ought to do the same. We ought to respect his name and love his name.

As St. Bernard of Clairveaux, an 11th-century French abbot, tell us, to praise the Holy Name of Jesus is to receive light, food and medicine for the soul.

So, what is so special about the Name of Jesus? The answer is to be found in what the name tells us about the God we worship. The Holy Name of Jesus tells that “Yahweh saves.” For those who turn to him in faith, the Holy Name of Jesus is joy, hope, peace and eternal life.

 

— The Rev. John J. Lynch is rector of Christ the King Episcopal Church, Yorktown, Va.

Christ doesn’t belong back in the box, 1 Christmas (A,B,C) – 2014

December 28, 2014

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147 or 147:13-21; Galatians 3:23-25, 4:4-7; John 1:1-18

The poet W.H. Auden captured the after-Christmas feeling very well. Toward the close of his long poem, “For the Time Being,” he wrote:

“Well, so that is that. Now we must dismantle the tree,
Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes –
Some have got broken – and carrying them up to the attic.
The holly and the mistletoe must be taken down and burnt,
And the children got ready for school. There are enough
Leftovers to do, warmed up, for the rest of the week –
Not that we have much appetite, having drunk such a lot,
Stayed up so late, attempted – quite unsuccessfully –
To love all of our relatives, and in general
Grossly overestimated our powers.”

Auden’s “For the Time Being” is a Christmas oratorio written for the bleak mid-winter, post-Christmas malaise. The excitement of the holiday is past, and now we get back to our daily lives, made all the more dull by the brief holiday.

“For the Time Being” was written on the heels of Auden’s conversion to Christianity. The lengthy poem gives Auden’s understanding Christianity, particularly the meaning of the Incarnation – God becoming human in Jesus. Auden wrote:

“To those who have seen
The Child, however dimly, however incredulously,
The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all.
For the innocent children who whispered so excitedly
Outside the locked door where they knew the presents to be
Grew up when it opened. Now recollecting that moment
We can repress the joy, but the guilt remains conscious;
Remembering the stable where for once in our lives
Everything became a You and nothing was an It.”

Auden wrote this oratorio in England in 1941 and 1942 and published it in 1944. He, like other Christians of the time, desperately wanted the brief glimpse of the Christ child to sustain the world in a time of war. The world was full of people naming other humans “it.” That’s how you get well-educated, thoughtful Germans to participate in the horror of the Holocaust. You rename another person as an “it” instead of a “you.” You dehumanize the other person. You certainly don’t try to see Christ in them. That the temptation to demonize the enemy existed on both sides of the conflict did not escape the poet. He concluded:

“There are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair,
Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem
From insignificance. The happy morning is over,
The night of agony still to come; the time is noon:
When the Spirit must practice his scales of rejoicing
Without even a hostile audience, and the Soul endure
A silence that is neither for nor against her faith
That God’s Will will be done, That, in spite of her prayers,
God will cheat no one, not even the world of its triumph.”

In lives full of work, keeping bills paid, writing papers or memorizing multiplication tables for school, it would seem impossible to redeem everyday time from insignificance. Yet, that is just what scripture tells us is the Good News of Jesus’ birth. The Good News is that all time is redeemable. Nothing has to be insignificant.

The Gospel of John begins with a cosmic view of time. John tells of the Incarnation from a heavenly perspective, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.”

The prologue to this fourth gospel introduces Jesus as the preexistent Word of God, the second person of the Trinity. John does not begin his gospel with Jesus’ birth, but with the creation, telling that not one thing is, that Jesus did not create. This ties Jesus very closely to the everyday stuff of life. Before he was born to a poor couple in a lowly stable, Jesus had worked to create dirt, water, air and all life.

These words from the start of John’s gospel are most likely the words of an ancient hymn, perhaps written by the John the Apostle, perhaps known in the community where he led the church. The hymn itself is verses 1 through 5, 10, 11, 14 and 16. A closer look at those verses shows that each verse contains a keyword picked up in the next verse. To introduce us to the person of Jesus of Nazareth, John weaves together a tightly written hymn of praise of Jesus as the eternal word of God, with John the Baptist’s affirmation that this eternal word has come among us as the light of the world.

John wrote: “What has come into being in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.”

John carefully and beautifully shows us how the two great ages – our time-bound world and eternity – coexist in the person of Jesus. By weaving the story of the eternal Word with the story of that Word being made flesh, we see that those two ages are not mutually exclusive. In the person Jesus, we can meet eternity in the here and now.

Through Jesus’ life, his words, his actions, we see the will of God lived out in the flesh. John’s prologue tries to stand at the crossover point between this age and the next. For John that nexus is the manger, when the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us. God did not send Jesus to redeem merely a stable in Bethlehem, or even all of first-century Palestine, but to redeem all creation.

Let us lay these two visions of life alongside each other – Auden’s vision of a Christmas celebration now morphing into a mid-winter malaise, and John’s vision of the light of Christ spreading into the darkest corners of our lives.

Do you entertain Jesus as merely an agreeable diversion? Or are you ready for something more? John wanted us to let the Word of God that created all that is pitch his tent in our day-to-day existence. I’ll warn you: This is risky business. It will always be far easier to confine Jesus to holidays and perhaps Sunday mornings. It will always be far more difficult to invite the light of Christ into every area of your life.

Are you ready for the light of Christ to shine in your darkness? What about the parts of you that you hope no one notices? What about the parts you like to keep tucked under the bed or in the back of the closet, so to speak? Are you ready for the light of Christ to shine there, too?

The celebration is over. As Auden writes, “Now we must dismantle the tree, putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes.” But the light of Christ was not meant to be tucked back in the attic with the decorations. The love of God as it shines through Jesus was meant to take root in your soul. And it still can, if you make room in your everyday life for light to shine in your darkness.

 

— The Rev. Canon Frank Logue is the Canon to the Ordinary of the Diocese of Georgia. He blogs at http://loosecanon.georgiaepiscopal.org.

 

The perfect Christmas and the real Christmas, Christmas Day (A,B,C) – 2014

December 25, 2014

Isaiah 62:6-12; Psalm 97; Titus 3:4-7; Luke 2:(1-7) 8-20

Crossing the minds of almost everyone around this time of year is the fantasy of the perfect Christmas. This fantasy appears in many versions, but a standard one goes something like this:

An attractive old house sits securely on its wooded parcel of land. There’s plenty of snow on the ground, and more is falling – gently, silently – through the cold, crisp air.

Inside the house, members of a large extended family are caught up in their holiday celebration. Parents host their grown children and young grandchildren, various aunts, uncles and cousins, and the occasional in-law, fiancé or friend. The entire clan is attractive, respectable, well-mannered and well-spoken. Each member is either successful in school, advancing in a career or enjoying a comfortable retirement. No one is mentally unbalanced, seriously ill, chronically unemployed or even socially inept. All have broad smiles and straight teeth.

Most extraordinary about this gathered clan is that all the members get along with each other! Despite hours of proximity, rich food and potent drink, no simmering hostilities boil to the surface. No grudges are revived, no harsh words are spoken or even muttered. The animated conversation is mixed with frequent laughter, celebrated memories, and new stories.

Many hands in the kitchen make the preparation of Christmas dinner go quickly and peaceably, and soon the table is covered with a variety of fragrant, tasty dishes. Everyone sits down and the family enjoys a splendid meal. After the dessert, the air echoes with compliments for the cooks. The entire family helps clear the table and clean up, and it’s not long before the kitchen counters are empty, and the automatic dishwasher hums contentedly.

The presents stacked beneath the tree are opened one by one, and each gift delights its recipient. It’s always the right size, color and style. Children gleefully tear off the brightly colored paper and smile gratefully at their elders. No one lashes out in envy, bursts into tears or damages one of the remarkably complicated toys. A dreamy state of tranquility overcomes the revelers as the fire in the hearth burns low. Outside, the gentle snow continues to fall.

There’s a problem with this lovely fantasy. Christmas never happens this way. Christmas Day may feature drizzle rather than snow. Someone precious may be missing from the family circle, or someone hard to tolerate may be present – a ne’er-do-well, perhaps, or an obnoxious, screaming child, or a critical, controlling adult, or an insufferable boor. As for the rest, they are down-to-earth people with less-than-perfect profiles. A little overweight, perhaps, a little eccentric, a little shy. The fact is that most of us do not qualify as the best and the brightest. We do not live the lives of which fantasies are made.

Then there are the fights – arguments or heated discussions or vigorous fellowship, depending on your family’s particular euphemism. One brother-in-law remembers how much he resents another. A grown-up daughter again feels suffocated by her elderly mother. A nephew despises the uncle who sold him the car with the cracked engine block. An argument erupts in the kitchen over the way to make turkey dressing, and raised voices defend rival orthodoxies about the matter.

It’s not that all this happens every year, but any of it could! There’s testimony to the indomitable human spirit in the way families gather again and again despite the often painful consequences. Add to this the labor, so much of which falls on the women of the household, who are expected to make everything perfect – the cookies, the decorating, the tree, the gifts, the music, the food, the cleanup.

Our fantasy of Christmas – our pursuit of an elusive perfection – leads to frustration and disappointment. When the leftovers are stored away, the tree taken down, and the trash put out, we may find ourselves wondering whether Christmas is for us. Perhaps Christmas is for the perfect – those perfect people who live in an imaginary subdivision just over the horizon.

When the fantasy of the perfect Christmas fills our heads, we can do ourselves a favor by going back to the beginning. We can look at the original Christmas and recognize that this first Christmas was far from perfect.

Forced by government bureaucracy, Joseph brings his pregnant wife to Bethlehem for the sake of the census. Not a single relative with a bedroom to spare remains in the old hometown. And there’s not a hotel room to be had for love or money. The young couple find some space out back, inside a barn filled with farm animals. A couple of local women help with the birth and chuckle over the new-born boy.

Joseph, meanwhile, tries to get his wits about him. The months since he found out about this disturbing pregnancy and nearly brought his relationship with Mary to a sudden end have been hard. The dream, demanding that he accept the child, was followed by this awkward travel to Bethlehem, and now this sleepless night in the barn.

Nor is it a perfect Christmas for Mary. The unease of pregnancy and discomfort of travel give way to the pains of labor. Once her baby is delivered, Mary soon yields to her hunger for sleep. Yet this sleep is suddenly broken by the unexpected arrival of shepherds from the hills. These ruffians approach, caps in hand, their eyes wild as they proclaim a story of angels filling the night sky with song. Joseph wonders if there’s wine on their breath. Falling to their knees, they ask to see the baby. They delight in Mary’s little one, then, as quickly as they came, go off into the night, shouting songs of praise. They are drunk, but not with the wine of this world. Their hearts overflow with heaven’s joy.

Christmas in the barn is far from perfect. The circle around the manger is made up of people with problems. But Christmas in the barn is real. The baby is born, wet upon the blankets. Hard-living shepherds hurry to meet him. The small stable becomes a wide enough place to encompass the world, a world of imperfect people like you and me. The gospel makes clear that there’s room at the manger for imperfect people.

The perfect Christmas of our fantasies is something we try to accomplish on our own. If we just bake more cookies, give more presents, smile more broadly, then it is sure to happen – or so we imagine. Yet we become frustrated time and again. We try to live up to some fictional standard, and we end up sorely disappointed.

The gospel comes to us as an awkward surprise, a Christmas gift we did not foresee. God in Christ accepts us in our incompleteness, our imperfection. God in Christ comes to us in an eminently imperfect, unmanageable way, with all the disruptions of a baby born in a barn and put to bed in an animal trough. God in Christ relates to our little, imperfect selves by becoming smaller, less powerful, more dependent than any of us who are old enough to walk and talk. The good news is that God knows our imperfection, and God loves us as we are. God does not require us to be perfect. God asks only that we become real, as real as the events in that Bethlehem stable, as real as divine love.

What we need to do is remarkably simple: put down the burden of the perfect Christmas and accept the freedom of the real Christmas.

We can gather around the manger with people who have problems, like Joseph and Mary; with hard-living people like the Bethlehem shepherds. Here imperfect people like you and me find a surprising acceptance.

 

— The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is rector of St. Paul’s, Baden, Maryland in the Diocese of Washington and is the author of ”A Matter of Life and Death: Preaching at Funerals” (Cowley Publications, 2003).

 

 

The time has come, Christmas Eve (A,B,C) – 2014

December 24, 2014

Isaiah 9:2-7; Psalm 96; Titus 2:11-14; Luke 2:1-14 (15-20)

Mary’s time had come. After the long journey, the road to Bethlehem, and the days of worry before that – what would Joseph say when he found out she was pregnant? How did this happen anyway? But Joseph had stood by her, and now the time had finally come, in a strange city, with no family there to help, and the barn would have to do. There was no room in the inn, but how could they have afforded that anyway? Money was hard to come by. The baby at last was coming, and Mary was terrified.

And the shepherds, too, were terrified. Like Mary and Joseph, they weren’t sleeping inside that night: They were out in the fields, and it was cold. And suddenly this Angel of the Lord was confronting them, and this glory of the Lord was nearly blinding them, and this multitude from heaven was declaring peace on earth. There hadn’t been peace for a long time; how was this baby lying in a manger going to bring peace now? It didn’t make sense.

We have heard this story before, and we are probably not terrified tonight, as Mary and the shepherds were. But maybe we should be. Because if Christmas really comes, the way we say we want it to, things will have to change. The world will be reborn. The Kingdom of God will come on earth, as in heaven.

Still, like Mary, we have been waiting, and praying, and hoping for this night. When the Angel Gabriel told her she would bear God’s Son into the world, Mary’s response was, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.”

Mary agreed to do this, despite the strange and unusual circumstances. She knew people would think the wrong thing and look down on her. She knew that Joseph might not understand. Even knowing how hard this would be, she said yes.

We also have a choice. We are not here merely to remember what happened so long ago on a cold night in Bethlehem. Like Mary, God is asking us: Will you bear Christ into the world? Will you carry Jesus in your heart?

Our road is different from Mary’s, but it is challenging in its own way. A new baby always changes things. Your life is no longer your own. If you agree to let Jesus be born again tonight, your life will change, maybe in ways you don’t expect. So be careful how you answer.

The Christmas story can so easily be lost under a sentimental blanket of snow, with cows gently lowing and stars brightly shining. This is true with the carols we sing, too. They are so familiar that we sometimes miss the real meaning.

For example: “It came upon the midnight clear.” The really interesting stuff in this carol happens in verse 3. This is true of most Christmas carols, actually: The real theology happens two or three verses in. Here’s the third verse of “It came upon a midnight clear”:

“Yet, with the woes of sin and strife the world has suffered long;
beneath the heavenly hymn have rolled two thousand years of wrong;
and warring humankind hears not the tidings which they bring;
O hush the noise and cease your strife and hear the angels sing.”

And here’s the second verse of “In the bleak mid-winter”:

“Our God – heaven cannot hold him, nor earth sustain;
heaven and earth shall flee away when he comes to reign.”

Christina Rosetti, who wrote this carol, is making a bold theological claim in this verse. When God comes – if God comes – heaven and earth will “flee away.” Heaven and earth as we know them now – everything we know, everything we see – will simply stop. Vanish. And then what? What comes next? Well, what comes next – what happens when God comes – is what Rossetti wants us to think about.

Perhaps the best example of Christmas carol theology is “O little town of Bethlehem.” The first couple of verses are sweet, almost cloying – all those “Christmas angels” and “silent stars.” But Phillips Brooks, the famous 19th-century preacher who wrote this carol, knew what he was doing. He has given us a perfect sermon in miniature. Here is the last line:

“O holy Child of Bethlehem, descend to us, we pray;
cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today.
We hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel.”

The carol has gotten rather serious by this fifth verse. “Cast out our sin and enter in, be born in us today” – not so sweet, is it? It may be what we need – it may even be what we want, what we are praying for – but it doesn’t sound easy.

“Cast out our sin” brings to mind some lines from the Magnificat, the Song that Mary sings after she hears from Gabriel that she is pregnant:

“[God] has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.”

There’s some resonance between God’s tearing our sin from us and casting it out, as in the carol, and God casting down the mighty from their thrones, sending the rich away, empty. Being sent away empty isn’t a punishment, you see – its a blessing. If we allow God to cast out our sin – if we allow God to empty us out – then we will be blessed indeed, just as Mary was.

And what is it, exactly, that we need to be rid of this year? What is the sin that needs casting out, the thing that’s getting in the way of God being born in us? Our desire to be important? To have all the right things? To have more than we need?

What is it that occupies your heart this Christmas? Maybe it’s sadness, frustration, anger? The feeling that you’re not good enough or smart enough or kind enough? Or maybe you’re lonely or afraid?

Whatever is in there, God wants to be in your heart, too. And if you let God in, even just a little bit: Watch out! Cast out our sin and enter in. He has sent the rich away, empty.

It is only after we have been emptied – of all the ridiculous things, all the needless stuff that gets in the way of God’s love – only when we are emptied of these worries, these desires, are we ready to be filled with the love of God. Only when we are empty can Christ be born in us. Only when we are empty will Christmas come. We can sing the carols and put out the crèche, but unless we are willing to be emptied out, there won’t be any place for God to live.

This is the inside work, the thing that must happen inside our hearts, in order for the outside work to move forward. And the outside work is the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Heaven and earth shall flee away, you see, when he comes to reign. We are being asked to bear God into the world, just as Mary did. And just like Mary, we know that this is not going to be easy, and it’s going to change everything. Are we brave enough to do this, knowing that if God’s kingdom really comes, our lives change forever? Are we willing to be cast down, emptied out, so that God may be raised up?

This labor, this bringing about the Kingdom of God, will not be easy. But this is Christmas; the time has come, and our call is to bear Jesus into the world, just as Mary bore him so long ago.

We are called to put flesh on the values of God’s kingdom, to put hands and feet and brains and shoulders to work for peace and justice and love.

Come to us, abide with us, our Lord Emmanuel. Be born in us today.

Merry Christmas.

Amen.

 

— The Rev. Jason Cox has served as associate rector for Youth Ministries at St. Columba’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., since 2011. Prior to working at St. Columba’s, he directed the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, a year-long service and discernment program for young adults, in the Diocese of Los Angeles. Before ordination, he served as an intern in the Episcopal Urban Intern Program, working with homeless clients in a transitional housing facility on L.A.’s skid row.