Saturday, December 29, 2012



2012 12 30 SERMON

Texts: Luke: 2:21, Matthew: 1:21; Galatians: 4:4-7; 
Philippians 2:9-11 
(read during the Sermon)

It may feel a bit like Christmas is all over, but, according to the Church today is still the Christmas Season and will be until next Sunday, the First Day of Epiphany. And, while we will all celebrate Tuesday as New Year’s Day, January 1st of each year is set aside by the Church to celebrate not the fact that it is a new year, but to celebrate the fact that the name of Jesus is holy.  “The Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ” is the proper name for an obscure feast day on the Church calendar that falls every January 1st.

And, obscure though that annual event might be, if you think about it, there is no one more important to Christians than the one named Jesus.  So, we are going to talk about him. There isn’t any thing or any one in the world more interesting, more important, or more relevant to our lives as Christians than Jesus.   

Today I want us to concentrate first on just one verse in the Gospel according to St. Luke, the verse that comes immediately after the story of the birth of the Messiah.  Luke 2:21 reads: “After eight days had passed, it was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.”  

In one of his plays Shakespeare asks, “What’s in a name?”  Whatever Shakespeare actually thought about names, for Christians it is by our name that we are known.  Will Willimon writes, “What’s in a name?  A whole being, a tag for a full personality.  In our name is our identity, the essence of who we are.”  So, if Willamon is right, and I think he is, there is a lot in a name.  And there is everything in the name of Jesus. 

And that is why long, long ago the Church decided that January 1st would be a feast day in the Church known as The Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ. Did you know that there is still an ancient collective prayer that is to be prayed in worship services on that day; that is, in the few churches that still have worship services on that day.  

Let me share it with you: It reads “Eternal Father, you gave your incarnate Son the holy name of Jesus to be the sign of our salvation: Plant in every heart, we pray, the love of him who is the Savior of the world, our Lord Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the holy Spirit, one God, in glory everlasting.  Amen.”
Kind of nice, isn’t it?  Sort of puts a perspective on things: on New Year’s parties, and football, and lots of things the world thinks are more important these days.

What’s so special about Jesus’ name?  The name of Jesus means “Savior.” Luke doesn’t mention the meaning of the name of Jesus, but Matthew’s gospel is very clear about it. Sometimes we miss it as we rush through the story. At Matthew 1:21 an Angel of the Lord tells Joseph to not be afraid to take Mary as his wife, for “She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  The Holy Name of Jesus literally means “The one who saves.”

We also may miss another important point in both our haste and our seeming familiarity with the birth texts.  Did you notice that neither Mary nor Joseph comes up with this name for the child?  The child is from God, and he is given his name by God through his emissary, an Angel “of the Lord.” God named him, God claimed him as his own: just as God knows us by name, and claims us as his own.

What are the consequences of such an act of grace?  Our other text for today tells us the consequences.  It comes from St. Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia, a church which had fallen away from the true Gospel.  

Paul writes, starting at 4:4: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our lives, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’  So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.”  

Think about it.  Named and claimed as one of Christ’s own, you are an heir to the kingdom of heaven.  Yes, there is a lot in a name.  And there is everything in the Holy Name of Jesus.  

Jesus.  That name carries power with it.  To say that “I am doing this or that in the name of Jesus” carries an enormous responsibility.  To call upon the Holy Name of Jesus is to call upon the maker of the universe, to invoke all that is holy, all that is sacred, all that is righteous, all that means anything to our lives.

Doing things in the name of Jesus and invoking of his name in our worship, in our prayers, in our songs and in our day to day lives is serious stuff.  And it is what Christians are to do.  It is what the Church is all about.  All the activity that we will do in this church during this coming year will be done “in the Holy Name of Jesus.”  

Because you are a Christian, a disciple of Jesus, you are his ambassador.  You are his designated representative in the world, the emissary from his Kingdom.  Most of us are Christians because we met one of those Christian ambassadors before we met Christ himself.  We met those who labored “in the name of Jesus” before we met Jesus. Not only in prayer, but in all that you do, you are responsible to do it “in the name of Jesus.”  You are responsible to pattern your life after his life.  Your name is to be made holy, as his is holy.

To be a Christian is to be someone who has been blessed by Jesus in order to be a blessing to the world.  Just like the priests of old, you and I are to bless people in the name of Jesus.  In sum, we are blessed in order to be a blessing.

Each of you, with your unique names, have already been named and claimed by the one whose name is above all names.  And in addition to your given name, each of you has another name, an infinitely more telling name: Christian.  By that name are you to do all that you do “in the name of Jesus.” You are to bear that name in the world, so that all those in the world may see Jesus coming to them through you.

Listen to St. Paul in his letter to the church at Phillipi speaking of the glory of the Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ; (Philippians 2:9-11) “Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of the Father.”

And so, in the Holy Name of Our Lord Jesus Christ: I wish each of you, children of God and heirs to Christ’s Kingdom, a most glorious and righteous New Year.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Christmas Means Many Things

Note to Readers: I have been requested by several friends and readers to resume posting on my blog in Open Salon. However, I find it virtually impossible to access that web site these days. In addition, what I have time to write these days are sermons. And so, I am posting here my Christmas message to the members of the Baltic Parish here in Ohio, where I am now serving as Interim Pastor. As I approach my 74th birthday anniversary on the 28th of this month I have much to be thankful for: including sufficient relief from the pains of my erythromelalgia to be able to continue serving God in in the ministry. My wife, Sue, and I wish you the most blessed Christmas and pray that you be blessed abundantly in the coming year.

What is the total meaning of Christmas?  That is a question that can cause real conflict in us if we just think about it.  That is because there is the meaning of Christmas most of us grew up seeing portrayed in the society around us; and there is the meaning that the stories of the birth of Jesus in the Bible portray; and, finally, there is the total meaning of Christmas that we, as Christians, know, but really don’t want to think about very much. And, ironically, we especially don’t want to think about that third meaning at Christmas time!  And so, both emotionally and intellectually, those three views of Christmas tug at us in strikingly different ways.

One part of me, a very sentimental and romantic part, a part supported by movie myths like “It’s a Wonderful Life,” and “Miracle on 34th Street,” and Hallmark ads on television, wants to approach a mystical manger and linger in adoration over a magical baby who will take all the pain away from the real world – if only long enough to allow Santa Claus and Toys R Us to fill the area around the Christmas tree with answers to every want we ever could be convinced we had – even if we knew not what we wanted.

Many of you might not notice, but, at heart, most of us are hopeless romantics, and so we actually really like the romantic, “It’s a Wonderful Life”  idea of Christmas; because we grew up with it and it surrounds us every waking minute from well before Thanksgiving until Christmas Eve.  It is the Christmas that America loves.

And while it is deeply seated in the romantic myth of Christmas, it is also the one that feeds the economy so effectively that, even now, the Business Section of every newspaper in America has daily articles of projected doom or salvation for the entire country – all dependent on the sales figures in this crucial season.

Since we were born it has been ever so.  And so, through good economies and bad we have always liked it. Why shouldn’t we like it?  Happy people, pure white snow, merry times and mistletoe, and all the other trappings of a bright, joyous time. Part of us really loves that vision and desperately wishes it were always true. After all, it has been THE image of Christmas since most of us were born.  It is familiar.  It is very comfortable.

But there is another Christmas that is not quite so comfortable; not so commercial; not quite so myth-filled; not so sentimental or romantic.  That Christmas, the Christian Christmas that focuses on a babe in a manger is also joyful and, in many ways, mystical.  But, still, the Bible is clear that this is no magical baby.  There is no mythical manger.  This Christmas is real; even as in the background of the manger loom shepherds, wise men and angels.

But, we know that while that scene played out for a few hours, very few people even knew it happened. Even the wise men went home without telling Herod or anyone else what they saw. And Joseph and Mary and the baby soon left Bethlehem and fled into Egypt. And Herod, furious that the wise men did not tell him where the baby was to be found, ended up slaughtering all the little children in and around Bethlehem in hope of killing this tiny baby that one day might seek to take away his crown.

We don’t focus much on that post-Christmas scene because it is horrifying and does not fit the image we want to have of that wondrous night when Christ was born. And we hardly hear anything about Jesus for another thirty years or so.  But still, in the Church, the focus at Christmas time is on the beauty and wonder of that one night of the birth of the Messiah.  And we love that sharper focus, because it allows us to avoid, if only for a while, the truth that will come after.

And so that brings us to the third image of Christmas: the fuller, truer, image of Christmas for a Christian. There is room in that image for much joy at the beginning, much pain shortly thereafter, and a long period of normal life as Jesus grew from baby to boy to man and began his ministry. But ultimately that meaning of Christmas has to recognize, at least out of the corner of our eye, that there is a story we already know that is at the heart of the Incarnation: that the babe in the manger did, as on of our beloved carols notes, “come for to die.”

And we, if only for a fleeting instant, have to recognize this third meaning of Christmas. Because it is not only in naive innocence that the Christian must approach the Incarnation of the Christ.  Rather there must be wide-eyed recognition that no babe in any manger saved the world.  The salvation of the world is the work of a man, a God-man to be sure, but of a man nevertheless; not of a babe in a manger.

So the Christian must, from time to time, look at the babe in the manger with full awareness of who he will grow up to be, and of what work our God will set him to do and of what will become of him. And our sentimentality must also admit the pathos, and our joy must be leavened by the reality of the work that lies ahead for this swaddled child.

In this view, of course, there is much room for the promises of peace, hope, love, and joy; and for great celebration of the coming of the Messiah into the world.  There is room for laughter, and wonder and awe; for rejoicing and, most of all, for worship.  For what could be both more awesome and more awful to contemplate than the fact that God so loved the world that He came into this creation of His in the form of a human baby for the simple, indescribable, purpose of saving us from ourselves?

And while I know that this is the real Christmas, I sometimes don’t like it nearly as much as the one offered to me by the culture or the one that focuses only on that one wondrous night of Christ’s birth.  This third, broader Christian look at the meaning of Christmas is too complicated; it is too messy. It is full of hope; but also of pain and despair – it is all too real.  And the grace that finds us searching our hearts to understand this Christmas is not a cheap grace at all; but a grace that comes at a great price.  Yet, thanks be to God that the price has been paid for us – because we are incapable of paying for it ourselves.

And so, for me, and perhaps for many of you as well, the question still haunts:  How do we approach Christmas?  We all know the answer is not easy.  Discipleship is never easy.

And it is in the light of that fact that I leave each one of you with my Christmas wish: that you and I, we together, may come to know and live the true meaning of Christmas: the wonder and joy of the night of Christ’s birth, and yet also be aware of the awful reality that must yet come as that child becomes a man.

May we celebrate the beginning of the story with the true joy that comes only from knowing the whole story.  Because, in the end there is resurrection and salvation for all who believe!  What begins in a manger moves to a Cross – but it ends in Easter!  And that is Christmas enough for all of us.

May God pour out abundant blessings on each of you this Holy Season, and may the God of Love who thought enough of us to send His only Son to be our redemption be with you and bless you and yours in the year to come.

May the Peace of Christ be with you all.