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God Believes in You

(a sermon for January 13, 2019, the 1st Sunday after Epiphany, based on Isaiah 43:1-7 and Luke 3:15-17, 21-22)

It is very striking to me that while the story of Jesus’ baptism that we just shared ends with the heavens opening up and the Holy Spirit descending upon Jesus “like a dove,” it actually begins in an atmosphere of turmoil, with the threat of such a baptism being something akin to “chaff [burning] with unquenchable fire.”

It was one of the very first infant baptisms at which I had the honor and joy of officiating as a newly-minted pastor; and since at that little church where I was serving we didn’t often have the opportunity to celebrate that sacrament, let me tell you it was a big deal not just for me but for the whole congregation! Not only were we anticipating a much larger than usual congregation that morning, there was also going to be this huge reception afterward; plus – and I’ll take some credit for this (!) – since, again, this kind of thing didn’t happen all that much in the life of that congregation, we decided that this baptism would provide the perfect “teachable moment” for the children of our small Sunday School.  What would happen, you see, is that we’d spend some time before worship teaching the kids all about baptism – what it means, how it happens and why it’s such a special time of celebration – and then they’d come into what was referred to there as “big church,” sitting all together in the front pew to watch and see Rev. Lowry baptize this little baby!

Perfect, right?  What creative, progressive Sunday School is supposed to be all about (at least circa 1983!), right? Well, maybe; except that just before worship as I’m about to enter the sanctuary one of the Sunday School teachers rushes up to me and says, “You better come out back with me right now… because we’ve got a problem.”  And yes, we did; apparently, just about the time the teachers had begun to explain what their minister was about to do out there during the service, one of the little girls in our Sunday School – maybe five or six years old and whose family had actually just started coming to our church  – started crying.  I mean, really crying: weeping, wailing and utterly inconsolable!  And by the time I got there, it had only gotten worse: this little girl was now at the point where she could barely take a breath between wails; she just kept pointing her finger at me and crying for all she was worth, “No, no, no, no NOOO!”  Trust me, nothing was calming this little girl down, most especially not the efforts of the student minister who for all his bright ideas was absolutely clueless as to how to resolve the situation!

Eventually, thanks to her mother who, thankfully, was very quickly on the scene, we got to the heart of the matter: that somehow this little girl had gotten it into her head that in this baptism I was about to perform, that strange man in the robe might actually drown the baby, and that idea was terrifying to her and so of course she cried!  But here’s the thing: as silly and as bizarre as that sounds as I’m telling you about it now, her fear was actually based on some reality; for it turned out the only other church this little girl ever been to in her young life was of the variety where adult baptisms were the norm, and then only by immersion!  So basically, all that she remembered about baptism involved people being placed fully underwater at the hand of a minister (!); so thinking about that in relation to a tiny, helpless baby… well, no wonder the girl was crying her lungs out!  Suffice to say that once we understood what was happening, we were able to explain that our baptisms had to do with sprinkling rather than dunking (!) and that rather than being in any kind of danger the baby was perfectly safe, and loved, and yes, even blessed!  It did turn out to be a teachable moment in more ways than one (!) and, as I recall, all went well from that point on; nonetheless, even as the baptism was taking place I could still feel that one little girl’s steely gaze on me the whole time from her seat in the front pew… just in case I got any ideas!

Well, there was a different, but no less intense, sort of turmoil on the day of Jesus’ baptism, and what’s interesting about our text for this morning is what leads up to Luke’s account of this very dramatic and important event almost seems to have more to do with what James Howell refers to as the full “ferocious mood” of John the Baptist than it even does with Jesus! Even before we pick up the story today, Luke’s already treated us to some of the ravings of this so-called wild man of the wilderness:  “You brood of vipers!  Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come… even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (3:7, 9)  Not exactly a feel-good prelude to a baptismal celebration!

But we need to understand there was a method to this “madness,” as it were:  that John was in fact, explicitly proclaiming a baptism of repentance, calling the people of Jesus’ time to abandon their sin and turn their hearts wholly back to God, so that they might truly be ready for the Messiah who had in fact already come.  Moreover, we’re told, John had not at all been reticent about speaking truth to power and for all his troubles was  just about to be “shut up” in prison by none other than Herod Antipas himself!  All this to say that Jesus’ baptism, this incredible scene of divine affirmation and blessing, all happens within a backdrop not only of sin and degradation, but also “in the thick of intense political and religious opposition, downright belliger[ence]” on John’s part and even “not shying away from the use of brute force!” (James Howell, again)

Which makes it all the more amazing that this is the scene in which Jesus – this man without sin, this Messiah, this one destined to baptize his followers by the Holy Spirit, and whose sandals John did not even consider himself worthy to untie (!) – walks right up to his cousin (‘cause remember, Jesus and John do happen to be related!) and asks to receive this baptism of repentance.

And now, here’s Jesus, going under the water (no sprinkling here; it’s full immersion in the waters of River Jordan) and then coming up out of the water.  Here’s Jesus, praying his own post-baptismal prayer, when suddenly the sky “opened up and the Holy Spirit, like a dove descending, came down on him.”  And then here’s a voice, speaking directly to Jesus himself, but in a way that all who were gathered could hear:  “You are my Son, the Beloved,” or, as The Message translates it, “You are my Son, chosen and marked by my love, pride of my life.”  Again I say it:  amazing… amazing that in a world filled with such turmoil and marked by such sin and conflict amongst the people that a baptism of repentance would be necessary for the sake of their souls, the power and glory of God to destroy evil in the person of his Son Jesus, the one chosen and marked by his love. The infamous theologian Karl Barth put it this way: that this baptism was more than mere theatrics; for “when Jesus was baptized, he needed to be be washed of sin – not his sin, but our sin.”  For you see, right from the very start, you see, it was about our forgiveness and our redemption; by offering to wash our sins away in his baptism, Jesus provides you and me a new baptism… a baptism of promise.

Actually, it all comes down to a very basic and dare I say, singular Christian truth:  that God believes in you.  God believes in you, friends, and he believes in me; enough that he would claim us and reclaim us as his own again and again, even as we stand in strong need of repentance because of sin and our utter unworthiness before God. And lest you think this preacher’s becoming overly judgmental, let’s be clear: with the exception of Jesus, we are all sinners, all unworthy and all without hope save in God’s sovereign mercy.  But the good news is… because of Jesus, who was baptized and now offers us the baptism of promise, God believes in us; we also are “precious in his sight, and honored and beloved” by God; and because of this we are saved indeed.

Over the years in various congregations where I’ve served as pastor, I’ve have the privilege of leading confirmation classes for the churches’ youth and young adults.  Confirmation, of course, is the rite of the church where those who were baptized as infants are given the opportunity as young adults, after prayer and study, to “confirm” the Christian faith as their own, which has proven to be an interesting and often enlightening experience for confirmand and pastor alike.

Which is not to say it was always easy:  like the year there was this rather headstrong and opinionated ninth grader in the class who right from the “get-go” seemed determined to challenge every bit of spiritual wisdom I ever sought to impart!  And it began the very first day:  I’d just finished explaining all the requirements that our church and its pastor had for them to be confirmed later that spring, and immediately this kid (whose name was Jason) raises his hand to ask, “Rev. Lowry, does being an atheist make a difference on whether I can be confirmed?” Well, yes, Jason, it kind of does, I answered, and then adding in a very pastor-like fashion, but the question is, if you don’t believe in God, what do you believe in?  “Do you have to believe in something?” Jason persisted.  Well … nooo, I said, you don’t have to, I suppose, but it’s kind of hard not to believe in at least one thing in your life.  “Like what?” Jason would reply, and we were off on to a dialogue that continued pretty much uninterrupted for the next eight months and which led, years later and long after he wasn’t confirmed, to a mature Christian faith nurtured and confessed in the mission field.

Actually, as I think back on it such has been the questions and dialogue I’ve shared with a lot of folks over the years:  “Does it make a difference if I believe in God, because I’m not sure I believe?”  Sometimes that question is borne out of an honest, sincere and relentless search for the truth; often it’s the result of a crisis in somebody’s life that has led to a crisis in faith; and maybe it’s the eventual and inevitable result of just so much piling on that there’s simply no more strength or will left to believe in… anything!  And quite frankly, there are those in this life who are determined to direct their lives in any direction except toward the divine, and who have a tendency to not so much ask questions about God as to fire them at you!

But I’ll let you in on a little secret: the truth is while there’s a whole lot I can and do say to that, there’s also very little that I can say; because even as a pastor, I can’t force anybody to believe in God.  All the sermons, proclamations and apologetic in the world mean nothing without an open heart to receive that message! But I can say this, something I believe in my heart of hearts: that while you may not believe in God – today, or tomorrow, or ever – I am sure that God believes in you.  I know this as surely as the sun will rise in the sky tomorrow morning and that the new life of spring will surely, if eventually, follow the dead of winter; I see it in the wonder and beauty of nature, in the strength and resilience of the human Spirit, and in hope, joy and peace that can only be the handiwork of an infinitely loving God… and I know it because Jesus has already made it real in his sure and certain promise of life abundant and eternal.

Perhaps you’ve come here today not at all sure that you believe… or at least that maybe you have a few doubts; and if that’s the case, I’m glad you’re here.  Because this, beloved, is the place where we rejoice in the God who does believe in us so much that he reminds us again and again, “Do not fear,  for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine…” and why?  “Because you are precious in my sight, and honored, and I love you.”

You are precious in my sight! You are honored to me!  I love you… I love you!

God believes… thanks be to God, he believes!  I hope and I pray this day, beloved, that this will help you to believe as well!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2019  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

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Home By Another Way

Leonardo Da Vinci, “A Study for the Adoration of the Magi.” (ca. 1481)

(a sermon for January 6, 2019, the Day of Epiphany, based on Matthew 2:1-12)

Today, as we’ve said before, is the Day of Epiphany, also known as “Twelfth Night” (or, the 12th Day of Christmas, as it were!), which celebrates the light of God that shone forth in Jesus Christ; and which according to Christian tradition, was the time when “wise men from the East” came seeking the Christ Child, bringing their gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.

There’s no question that the “three kings” – or more accurately, the magi – loom large in in our text for this morning: their arrival at the manger, with all of its flourish and drama, plays like the grand finale of the nativity story; and even theologically speaking, the mere fact of the Magi’s presence in Matthew’s gospel, as brief as it is, says a great deal about how Christ was given as a light unto the nations as opposed to simply the people of Israel.  So speaking as a preacher, I can vouch for the fact that there’s actually a great deal that can be said about these ancient and mysterious star followers; but all that said, I also must confess that this year as I’ve returned to this part of the Christmas story it’s seemed to me that before we can say much about the wise men, we really do have to say something about… King Herod.

That’s right; King Herod, also known as Herod the Great, the Roman appointed King of the Jews, a described by at least one commentator I came across this week as “the nastiest of all nasty kings.” Now, I should point out here that this not the same King Herod that figures in the story of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion; that was in fact the son of the King Herod in this story, actually part of a long line of Herods: Herod Antipater, Herod Antipas, Herod Archaelaus, and on and on!  But, as pastor and author James C. Howell has pointed out, really, “Herod, Herod and Herod are the same guy.  All were egotistical, insecure petty potentates, in bed with Romans and clueless about God.”

However, there’s a valid argument to be made that this Herod, who reigned at the time of Jesus’ birth, was the worst of the lot.  Historians tell us that Herod was growing old and in his aging had become a mentally unstable tyrant who had also become so paranoid about his standing as king that “every whiff of palace intrigue and potential opposition threw him into a murderous rage,” (Thomas G. Long) so much so that Herod actually killed one of his wives, several of his own children (!) and other members of his family, all because he believed they were plotting to betray him! It’s said, in fact, that when Caesar Augustus heard what Herod had done to his own family, he said regarding Herod that he’d much rather “be his pig than his son.”

So… in the midst of all of this here come these “wise men from the East” (and the truth is we don’t know all that much about them, just that they were probably not kings in the traditional sense, but more likely philosophers and astrologers of the ancient world looking to the stars as the sign of something momentous and world-changing; something like the birth of a new King).  Here they come; “traversing afar” across the desert sands, following that “star at its rising,” and yet where do they go to find out what’s happened?  Not to Bethlehem – not yet, anyway – but right straight to Jerusalem and before “an aging, insane, and ruthless Herod, the King of the Jews,” so that they can ask about where they might find the new King of the Jews! I love what Thomas Long of Emory University has said about this; he writes that this “would be like going to the Kremlin in Russia and asking Vladimir Putin, ‘[Soooo….] where’s the new leader of Russia?  [You see,] we’ve come to pay him homage.’”  Needless to say, when Herod realized that these visitors from the East had come looking for a new king of the Jews and that his own reign of power was most certainly coming to an end, “it rattled [him] so badly that he shook like a leaf in the wind, and the whole city of Jerusalem trembled with him.”

Well, you know the story: ever the consummate politician, Herod sends the magi on their way with instructions to report back to him once they’d found the child so that, he said, “I may also go and pay him homage.”  And armed with prophecies about the child’s birth given them by the chief priests and scribes, the magi followed the star to Bethlehem and found “the child with Mary his mother.”  And of course, they’re “overwhelmed with joy” at this discovery and what it all meant – not only for Israel, but for all of the nations, even their own country far from Bethlehem – but once they’d knelt down with their gifts to pay him homage, something very interesting happens.  The magi don’t, in fact, send word back to Jerusalem; but, in a twist that we sometimes tend to gloss over in our telling of this familiar story, Matthew tells us, “having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road.”

You see, one thing is for certain: once you’ve encountered Jesus, everything changes!  I mean, we’ve seen this all through the Christmas story, have we not:  Mary and Joseph, two impoverished teenagers, become the earthly parents of this “Son of the Most High,”  (Luke 1:32); lowly shepherds run through the streets “glorifying and praising God”  (2:20) for all that they’d seen and heard from the heavenly host; and now, after having had this collective dream that confirmed every bad feeling they’d had about their conversation with Herod “the Great,” these truly wise men decide that it’s not only prudent but the right thing to do to immediately change course and head back home by another way!

It’s true; once you’ve encountered Jesus, everything changes, and that includes how you deal with the Herods of this world! Because as I said before, to understand the place of the Magi in this story we have to understand who Herod was… and, yes, who Herod is.  Quoting Thomas Long once again, “Herod represents everything in human beings and human history that is haughty, cruel, violent and vindictive.”  Herod is the definitive reminder of everything that Jesus wasn’t; in that he was not born in the comfort and prestige of a palace, but rather in the silent simplicity of a stable far apart from the vestiges of riches and power; dwelling not among those who desperately cling to power by means of fear and cruelty, but rather among those whom Jesus would later call “blessed,” the ones who are “the poor in spirit, the mournful, the meek, the merciful, the pure in heart, and the peacemakers… it is among these little ones where Jesus is truly to be found.”

This is what happened at the manger of Bethlehem, friends: where once there was darkness that could overcome the world, now there’s light; where division and hatred ruled the day now there’s a spirit of unity and love; hopelessness has at long last given way to , unending hope, and peace on earth:  all of this and so much more because of this child “who has born king of the Jews.” If it seems as though everything this child is and represents stands in direct opposition to the world as we know it… you’re right!  Because when you encounter Jesus, everything changes; life changes, the world changes, you change (!) and even your journey ahead changes… so much so that like those magi before us you’re compelled to go home by another way!

There is a painting by Leonardo DaVinci (actually one of his earlier works, created around 1481) entitled “A Study for the Adoration of the Magi.”  I just sort of found this painting while in the midst of my study this week, and I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it.  What’s interesting about this work is not simply what’s in the foreground – Mary and Jesus, surrounded by the Magi all kneeling in adoration of the Holy Child – but also everything that makes up the backdrop of the scene; which, in stark contrast to the calm and quiet visage of a starlit manger, actually depicts something of a ravaged world, complete with ruined buildings, fighting horsemen, men quite obviously engaged in warfare, and a landscape that’s clearly jagged and rocky and in great need of repair.  Apparently, there even looks to be something of a self-portrait of the young Leonardo, standing off to one side and yet surrounded by all this chaos and decay.  I’m not great interpreter of art, friends, but for me the message of the painting is clear: that it’s precisely into this kind of a world, a world that is teeming with all manner of sin and death, that Jesus has come; and it’s why you and I stand in the need of a Savior.

Maybe for you this morning it’s not so much the “chaos and decay” of life and this world that surrounds you; maybe for you it’s found in the weight of all the sadness and grief that you’ve been carrying on your shoulders; or perhaps for you it’s in the relentless struggle to live life with purpose and a modicum of integrity;  could be it’s in trying so hard to keep the faith even as the rest of the world spins increasingly out of control.  I dare say that figuratively, literally and yes, even spiritually, there are more than a few King Herods out here that would smack us down given the slightest opportunity!

But here’s the good news, beloved… Christ is born and light – true and brilliant light – has come into the world!  Jesus, who is the new King, the Messiah, the Lord (!), has come to us and now the world changes; and by his life-giving, sin-forgiving, hope-renewing word, so do we.

And lest that anyone of think that the time for bowing down at the manger has long since passed, the notion of paying homage to the new born king now to be stored away for another year along with the rest of the nativity figures, I’m here to tell you that even now we have this opportunity to fall down in worship in this amazing, life-changing gift of a Savior who has promised to be with us even unto the end of the age, and makes that promise palpable for us in a simple meal of bread and wine.

So let us come to the table; let us rejoice in his presence and power… let us be nourished and strengthened in this Holy Meal, and then, when we’re done, let’s resolve to outsmart Herod and all the rest of his minions… and go home by another way!

Thanks be to the God of Light and Life who has come to us in Jesus our Emmanuel.

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
 

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Simeon’s Song: Worth the Wait

(a sermon for December 30, 2018, the 1st Sunday after Christmas; last in a series, based on  Luke 2:22-40)

Sometimes the only thing you can do is sing.

An old friend of mine from my seminary days, a bright and bubbly older lady who went by the name of “Mickey,” used to tell the story of how one snowy winter morning in Maine she’d decided to go cross-country skiing along a beautiful wooded trail that she knew, one that stretched far from any nearby roads, houses or people. The idea, she said, was for some spiritual solitude, but as fate would have it somewhere deep in the woods Mickey fell off her skis and managed to fracture her ankle; so now not only was she injured and unable to make her way home, but also, ironically enough, she was totally alone!

Now, given that this was a time long before cel phones and with no other way of calling out for help out there deep in the Maine woods, most people might have panicked under those circumstances; but not Mickey!  Surely, she reasoned, on this beautiful snowy morning someone else would be out skiing or snowshoeing and happen by, so she’d simply wait there in the snow until someone came by who could help her!  And that’s what she did; however, as the hours began to pass and the snow accumulated all around her Mickey started to wonder, however fleetingly, when or if help would ever come!

So she started to sing.

Actually, she started by reciting psalms and other passages of scripture she’d known from childhood (“I lift up my eyes to the hills – from where will my help come? My help comes from the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” [Psalm 121:1-2] Actually kind of fitting when you think about it, she said afterward) And then, it was Christmas songs, followed by verses from all the old hymns and snippets from choir anthems that she’d sung at one time or another and had always remembered. And as that long day went on Mickey just kept on singing, singing everything and anything she knew how to sing and even a few songs she didn’t!  She sang through her pain and she sang through her fear, and she even sang a bit through her doubt, but above all Mickey sang out of a faith-borne assuredness that the Lord was with her and that she would be alright!  And when eventually, just as darkness had begun to descend, another pair of skiers did happen by so to bring her to safety, they asked how she was doing and Mickey simply smiled and replied in very typical Mickey fashion, “Oh, I’m fine… I hadn’t run out of songs yet!”

Sometimes, you see, the only thing you can do is sing… but when singing is an act of faith, that may well be enough!

In our text for this morning, Luke’s gospel tells us that at the time of Jesus’ birth there was “a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon,” and Luke makes a point of letting us know that this Simeon was a good man, “righteous and devout,” and as The Message puts it, living “in the prayerful expectancy of help for Israel,” that is, waiting for the coming of the Lord’s Messiah.  We’re also supposed to surmise from this passage that Simeon was quite old and that he had been, in fact, waiting just about all his life for this singular event to take place; but, you see, that was alright. For as Luke tells the story, “the Holy Spirit rested” on Simeon and that same Spirit had “shown him that he would see this Messiah of God before he died.”  That’s it… no angel making an “annunciation,” as what was given unto Mary, nor even any heavenly rebuke as what happened to old Zechariah back at the temple; and as for that “heavenly host” that they’d heard about from a bunch of random shepherds?  There was certainly none of that for Simeon; no miracles or signs or wonder, just simply and profoundly this continued assurance from a truly Holy Spirit that this thing was going to happen, it would happen in Simeon’s lifetime… and it was definitely going to be worth the wait.  So keep the faith, Simeon… keep on singing and just wait for it.

So now it’s about 40 days after the child was born in the manger of Bethlehem; which means that Jesus was around a month and a half old and the time had come both for “their purification” (which actually had more to do with Mary than with Jesus, as it was required by every Jewish woman after childbirth) and for Mary and Joseph to come to the Temple and offer up a sacrifice (which because of their poverty, amounted to “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons”), so to consecrate their child to the Lord.  Understand this was a sacred ritual, a duty required and performed by all faithful Jews; and so you have to imagine, as David Lose puts it, that Mary and Joseph “must have been in a reverent, even solemn mood that day, the way many young parents in our congregations are when their first child is to baptized.”  So also imagine, then, how started, even frightened Mary and Joseph might have been when in the midst of this quiet procession into the holy courts of the Temple, here comes “Simeon, old beyond years and beaming with ecstatic revelation, coming up to them to touch the child,” and then, as if that weren’t enough, he starts singing!

You see, on that day of days Simeon was guided by the Holy Spirit to go – go now (!) – to the Temple because there at long last he would see the Messiah, the fulfillment of the Holy Spirit’s promise and the consolation of Israel.  And so, make no mistake, there’s absolutely no reluctance, hesitation or even any kind of appropriateness here on Simeon’s part; I mean, you don’t just run up to new parents and just pick up their baby, but here’s old Simeon fairly well running into the Temple and scooping up the baby Jesus away from Mary and Joseph, all so he can hold this child in his arms; and once Simeon’s seen that angelic little face, once he’s touched his little fingers, maybe counted his toes and then marveled how something so tiny and so delicate can be so… divine, that’s when Simeon’s song begins, a song of praise and thanksgiving for this child who was and is “a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel.”

In Latin, it’s referred to as the Nunc Dimittis, which means “now send away,” and it’s actually used today both during services of holy communion and as a funeral liturgy, for not only is this song this incredible proclamation of God’s salvation prepared for all people, it’s also Simeon’s joyous affirmation that now that the Spirit’s lifelong assurances of a Messiah had come to fruition Simeon himself could die in peace.  In other words, my waiting is over, your work is done, so as in the elegant words of the old King James Version of scripture, “Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word:  For mine eyes have seen thy salvation.”

There are some, you know, who tend to read the words of Simeon’s song as something rather morbid; I mean, why would he even want to talk about death and dying at a time like this, when the light and life of Christmas, to borrow a line from Jean Shepherd here, is at its zenith and all is right with the world?  But you see, Simeon knew that everything in his life had led up to this particular moment of this particular day, and that now that he’d literally seen and held God’s promise in his hands, “after touching and feeling the promise of life which God had granted to him through Christ…” (David Lose, again) then he could accept death “courageously and confidently in the light of God’s promised salvation.”  He could let go now, because the promise had been fulfilled and it had most definitely been worth the wait.

Of course, it needs to be said there that Simeon’s song wasn’t entirely one of joy and praise.  After he’d blessed this child and his parents, Simeon then looked to Mary, and as though to perhaps warn her of what was to come (?), he sings a second verse of his song, of how this child was to “be a sign that will be opposed,” – a “figure misunderstood and contradicted” – “so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed.”  And, oh yes, Mary, by the way?  “A sword will pierce your own soul, too.”

It turns out, you see, that there will be more to this story than merely a tale of angels and shepherds and Magi from the Far East bring gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.  This child, this baby whose is named Jesus, Emmanuel, Messiah, Christ the Lord… his story will continue; beginning with a baptism of repentance in the River Jordan through great acts of healing, miraculous signs, teachings that change lives and the world, and at the last a triumphal entry into Jerusalem that leads inescapably to the cross.

Even after the shepherds have gone back to their flock; even once the star overhead has faded to blend in with the rest of the night sky and the Magi have opted to go home another way; even after Mary and Joseph settle in to the business of raising an infant even as they’ve had to flee to Egypt as refugees, the story goes on. The baby Jesus, you see, grows up… and his journey, as well as ours, is just beginning.

You know, it’s always struck me as a bit odd that we inevitably end up viewing Christmas as an ending rather than really what it should be, a new beginning.  I realize that this comes in large part because since before Halloween (!) this world has been wholly focused on the run-up to everything surrounding the Christmas holiday, and so once December 26 comes along even the most ardent of Christmas elves are apt to breathe a sigh of relief!   And even here in the church, for over four weeks we’ve devoted ourselves to Advent waiting and watching for the coming of Christ; and so yes, I have to confess that there’s a palpable sense of conclusion in our finally arriving at the manger.  In other words, we’ve come to worship, we’ve sung all our songs and now it’s time, like the shepherds and wise men before us, to return to life and the world and business as usual.

But I ask you, is that actually the case? Is Christmas truly over?   Have we really run out of songs to sing?

Not yet.

Because despite whatever closure we have by our taking down decorations or switching to music other than the holiday variety (!), the fact our journey to Christmas has not so much ended as it is just beginning!

You might have noticed that our text this morning contains a bit of an epilogue to this story of Jesus’ presentation at the Temple and Simeon’s song of praise and glory.  It seems that there in the Temple was also “a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher.” Anna was an 84-year-old widow, and in fact pretty much lived at the temple, “worshipping night and day with her fastings and prayers,” [The Message] and we’re told that at the very same moment Simeon was offering up his tribute, Anna also showed up and “broke into an anthem” of her own, one of “praise to God,” and one that was apparently reprised again and again as she began “to speak about the child to all who were look for the redemption of Jerusalem.”

That’s the key, you know… that’s how Christmas becomes for us the starting place of our journey rather than its conclusion.  It’s in our proclaiming the good news of his coming; it’s about telling the story of his holy birth, yes, but it’s also continuing to tell of his presence and ministry among us and of the price he paid for our redemption before God.  It’s in the work of Christmas that we are called to do: in those powerful words of poet Howard Thurman:

“To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among others,
To make music in the heart.”

Yes, to “make music in the heart!”  Christmas is always about singing out our praises unto the Lord each and every day that we live and breathe; it’s about singing through our pain, and singing through our fear, and even at times singing through our doubt; but it’s ever and always singing out of that faith-borne and faith-full assuredness that the Lord is with us and that we will be alright!

Christmas is not over, beloved; in fact, it’s just getting started!

So let that journey of prayer and praising and service begin with us here and now… and let’s keep singing, because there are plenty of songs yet to sing!

Thanks be to God!

Amen and AMEN!

c. 2018  Rev. Michael W. Lowry

 
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Posted by on December 30, 2018 in Christmas, Jesus, Maine, Music, Sermon, Sermon Series, Worship

 

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