“When did you stop believing?” First Sunday after Christmas, December 28th, 2008
First Sunday after Christmas, December 28th, 2008
Isaiah 61:10-62:3, Psalm 148, Gal 4:4-7, Luke 2: 22-40
“When did you stop believing?”
Isaiah is very poetic. I thought I would continue along his lines:
I will greatly rejoice in Jesus my Lord,
My whole being will exalt in my God,
For Christ has clothed me with garments of grace,
Given me a suit of salvation,
Covered me with a robe of righteousness:
as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland
and as a bride adorns herself with jewels.
Yes, because at the birth of Jesus,
the bridegroom from heaven
has come to the bride of the earth
to take her to his Father’s House
for the marriage feast that has no end. Amen.
That is another way to speak about Christmas. Because of God’s great love for the world, God sent Jesus Christ, the Son of God, to fulfill all God’s promises once again. We of course always break our marriage vows, but God is faithful. [This part was not preached.]
Today is the fourth day of Christmas. It’s four-calling-birds day of the twelve days of Christmas. With our lessons this year, we have not stayed with the church calendar. On Christmas Eve, we had the Epiphany lesson from Matthew, and on Christmas Day we had the Christmas Eve lesson. The actual day of Christ’s birth on the calendar does not necessarily match the actual day Christ is born for us, born in the cradle of our hearts, which is the most important thing. In any case, all our lessons are filled with the glad tidings of Christmas.
This year we also started singing Christmas carols early in Advent. Let’s not allow the needs of the department stores and their need for us to do Christmas shopping, undermine the reason we sing Christmas carols. I believe it is better to wait with singing Christmas carols until at least the fourth Advent and then keep on singing them after Christmas until Epiphany, little Christmas on January 6th. When we sing them all before Christmas, we may be singing them for the sake of Christmas shopping. When we sing them after Christmas we can sing them for the sake of Jesus’ birth:
For unto us a child is born,
Unto us a son is given,
And the government shall be upon his shoulders,
And he shall be called wonderful counselor,
the Mighty God, everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isaiah 9:6). Jesus, the light of the world!
Those are Jesus’ throne names, because he is the long awaited Son of Promise who will reign on the throne of David forever. Just like other kings, the Pharaoh, for example, had them, I think Isaiah gave these four throne names to Jesus, the Messiah.
In the reign of Jesus Christ we await a whole new world, because God loved the world so much, he sent his only son, not only to die for us, but also to be born for us, so that we should not perish but receive everlasting life. When we allow Christmas to be used merely to jump start our economy, the glad tidings can become lost. Not that this by-product of the self-giving of God that carries us away to become much more self-giving ourselves, is so bad. It only becomes a problem if it causes us to forget the real message of Christmas or if this real message becomes buried. Christmas is about the promises of God to mend this torn and tattered world and bring consolation to Israel by the Messiah’s light to all the nations, and that by our renewal.
So we dare not let the world bury the real message of Christmas. To hear John three-sixteen once again, “For God so loved the world that he sent his only son” to die for us and that means Jesus, the Christ child had to be born for us too. Thus the Gospels of Luke and Matthew include Jesus’ birth narratives. So to reword John three-sixteen once again and also use the words of Isaiah: “For God so loved the world that he sent his only son” to be born for us, as a child to be given us, so that all God’s promises to us would become fulfilled. “Believe and receive it” as Luther used to say. Believe it and you’ll have it. “Don’t believe it and you won’t receive it.”
There is a billboard that a visitor in our pastors’ bible study told us about. All the cars passing by it could read: “When did you stop believing?” Now what that means to me is, “When did you stop believing God’s promises to you?” After a time children stop believing in Santa Clause. His name comes from St. Nicholas, who was a bishop of Myra, which is now in Turkey. (The end of the name, “Nicholaus” in German gets shortened into “Clause.”) He was a good hearted and generous old saint, who was known for giving gifts in secret. Of course our stories have made him live at the North Pole, given him a sleigh and eight tiny reindeer, that, of course, can fly, and given him Rudolph “the most famous reindeer of all.”
These stories all have a point to them and they are not harmful to children. The way Santa gives gifts to everyone points to the way God gives each and everyone of us gifts, and God’s gifts are not only spiritual. The story of Rudolph is another ugly duckling story, where the ugly duckling becomes a swan and the rejected Rudolph becomes the most famous reindeer of all. These stories are not harmful unless, when as children we stop believing them, we also think the birth of Jesus is another story like them.
No way! Do not stop believing in Jesus. That story is real. I recited the Christmas story from Luke last year in Philadelphia and a woman said, “You told that story like you believed it!” Well, I do and I hope you all do too. The story of Jesus is true and it brings God’s reality into ours. Jesus is born for us, which means that we receive a new birth as his sisters and brothers, and God becomes our very Father and the Virgin Mary becomes our very mother, and the world becomes marvelously changed in the twinkling of God’s eye, to a place where angels descend and ascend over shepherds that keep watch over God’s people by night so that no harm befalls them, so that they grow and increase, not so much with money and wealth, but with an increase in maturity of faith, hope, and love.
The precious carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem” needs to get into your hearts in this little congregation called Bethlehem. In the fourth verse, Phillips Brooks wrote:
O Holy Child of Bethlehem
Descend to us, we pray
Cast out our sin and enter in,
Be born in us today.
Jesus was the first born and that is why Mary and Joseph present him in the temple. By the way, they must have been poor because they could not afford to offer a lamb, but merely “a pair of turtle doves or two small pigeons.” But as you see their poverty has made us very rich, rich in grace, rich in God’s favor.
When Jesus is born in us, then we all receive the first born status in him, and what’s more, growing and increasing in the measure of our faith, we ascend with the angels into the nobility of the spirit. We become princes and princesses, kings and queens; and the angels carry us higher into becoming the priesthood of all believers, where we are allowed to stand before God and intercede and pray for others; and we are carried even higher still into being Christs for others and becoming those who live out of the strength of God.
But love makes us descend with the angels once more down in the all-powerful and humble love of God through Christ, through his priesthood, through nobility, down to become the servants of the very least of these, always willing and able to help – able to change the diapers of a baby or even those of an elderly man, bed-ridden in a nursing home; able to bend down and tie the shoe laces of a little child; able to serve the hungry and homeless getting their meals in a food line. And you won’t only see the poor there anymore. You will also see those who have recently lost their homes and their jobs. The angels even carry us all the way down into real suffering for others, where our lives become endangered because of our witness and service to the poor. Even way down there rejected and experiencing death threats, we rejoice in our suffering, because we know we are baptized and therefore we know to whom we belong. We are God’s children and belong to God because of the birth of Christ for us and there is no way that we can be separated and taken outside of God and God’s love.
When people have stopped believing the real Christmas message, if they have thrown out their faith in God, disparage the birth of our Christ and the promise of the redemption of the whole world, then they have thrown out the baby with the wash.
You’ll notice that Luke always speaks of men and then women or children in his gospel. He makes it a real pattern. Thus he is speaking of the sons and daughters of God, the children of God. First he records the words of Simeon, but then those of Anna too. Both are presented as prophets, the man and the woman. Look how the angel Gabriel is sent to Zechariah, but also to Mary. The parable about how a shepherd loses one sheep out of a hundred and sets out searching for the lost one, is followed by a woman losing a coin and who then turns the whole house upside down to find it. Luke’s Gospel celebrates men, women, and children and illustrates St. Paul’s verse: “in Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, male nor female, rich or poor,” we are all one. Because God’s eye is on the sparrow, we are the apple of God’s eye, whether we are from one race or another, one sex or the other, of one sexual orientation or the other, whether we are poor, middle class, or rich, we are all one and hear the glad tidings proclaimed by St. Luke: that because of the birth of Jesus for us, God is the Father of us all and we have now become his beloved children.
In the oneness that comes about in the birth of Christ for us and his growth and increasing maturity in us, we make our ascent with the angels into an increasing power of faith and make our descent in the increasing power of our love and service.
That’s why Simeon exclaims:
Now you dismiss your servant in peace,
because mine eyes have seen thy salvation,
which you have prepared
before the face of all peoples:
A light to enlighten the Gentiles
and for the glory of your people Israel.
Simeon had been promised that he would not die until he had seen the Messiah.
Then in the words of the Prophet Anna,
Praises to God for we will all look
to this child for the redemption of Jerusalem.
At this time Israel and the Gaza strip are going to war again. Very ineffectual Hamas rockets flying into Israel, deadly accurate Israeli bombs killing Hamas militants as well as other Palestinians. There is no peace in Jerusalem yet. But we need not talk of the physical place, which may end up the last place redeemed. Bethlehem could become Jerusalem, if it became a capital of faith.
In a similar vein we exclaim:
Praise God, because our eyes will see Bethlehem become so much in love with God’s world and all the people living around this church and where we live that we will initiate one mission after another for them, because they are the people that God loves so much. And this church will become filled with children. There will not be enough seats in the church for the crowds of people who want to know and love God. Bethlehem will have to start daughter congregations, so that all those whom God is calling can become Part of the glorious number.
So don’t stop believing. “Believe and receive.” Seeing is not believing. Believing is that kind of seeing, which grasps the marvelous things that God can do through his Son, Jesus Christ, when he is born unto us. Amen.