Saturday, January 01, 2011

Sermon for the Second Sunday after Christmas
St. John’s Church – Moultrie, GA
January 2, 2011

I heard a story once of a priest who at Christmas did something quite out of the ordinary. However, at second thought, it actually made a great deal of sense.

He was a faithful priest who wanted to make sure that everything was just right for the family service and the church was decorated magnificently. The children’s pageant went off without a hitch, the families who greeted him after the service commented about how glorious it was, and that they were truly blessed by what they had seen and heard that evening. As he was making his way back to the sacristy to finish up final details for the midnight service he noticed one lady standing over the crèche and she did not have a pleasant expression on her face. She was looking at the figures that she had been accustomed to seeing each year, and motioned for him to come over to her. Her first words to him were, “did you do this?” As a priest, I can safely say those are not words I hope I ever have to hear!

When he asked her what she meant, she pulled back the little cloth covering the manger and instead of seeing the innocent baby Jesus lying in the manger, there was a crucifix lying in its place. The priest looked at her and asked what the problem was. She told him that she could not imagine who could play such a mean trick on her and others. Christmas is all about celebrating the birth of the baby Jesus and that what was done absolutely destroyed the beauty of that day. The priest simply asked the woman, “What did that baby Jesus come to earth to do? Did he come to earth to remain in a manger, or did he come knowing that Good Friday and Easter awaited him?” The woman stood in silence. She really didn’t know what to say. The only thing she could say in response was that she had always been caught up in the event of Christmas that she had never really thought of it that way before. I believe the priest proved his point.

I have no idea if that is a true story, but like many myths, whether it is historical or not doesn’t matter, the underlying truth still remains.

There is the ever present danger to craft or imagine a Jesus who suits our particular fancy. There is the temptation to live in a nostalgic world in which Jesus came only to teach us how to live, or simply be a moral compass to follow, or just be one path among many to lead us to God.

There’s a major problem with this line of thinking – it is not Biblical, it is not Christian.

I don’t know how many of you have already seen Christmas trees at the curb ready for the garbage men to pick them up. I’m sure there are plenty who take the tree out with the wrapping paper from Christmas morning. What is Christmas about anyway if not about Christ? If that isn’t our central focus, we’ve missed the point.

After all, in society Merry Christmas has been replaced with Season’s Greetings and Happy Holidays. God forbid people take offense at receiving the greeting for which this holiday is named. We no longer gauge this time of year in terms of Biblical virtues, but how often the cash registers rung up sales. We speak far less about the beauty of the worship that we experience at this time of year and far more about what is on our wish list from Santa. Few people know the real story of the Bishop of Myra, St. Nicholas, from which Santa Claus derives his name. It’s so unfortunate that we have to be the ones who must attempt to put the Christ back into Christmas. Unfortunately, when Jesus is recast into an idol that is somehow removed from the orthodox teaching of the Incarnation, the Atonement, and salvation history, then it’s no wonder that the Christ of Christmas is often nowhere to be found.

Jesus came to earth with his final destination clearly in front of him. The Evangelist St. John paints a picture of Jesus who knows where he has come from, what he has come to earth to accomplish, and where his ultimate destination lies. He came to earth to teach us that good tries aren’t the answer, but that we need to be re-born.

When the Pharisee Nicodemus came to meet with Jesus he was conflicted because it was clear that he knew in his heart that Jesus was on to something here, but there was a piece in his mind that was missing. He rightly affirms that the very signs and wonders that Jesus was doing couldn’t possibly be done unless it was through the power of God. I believe that Nicodemus thought Jesus was in fact the Messiah, the one that they had been waiting for, but didn’t realize what his Messiahship would entail. He is told that in order for him to hail him as King and see the Kingdom of Heaven it would require rebirth – something he clearly didn’t understand at all. This would mean that a totally new life would be required for us to live as his disciples.

The Rev. Dr. Paul Zahl who used to be the Dean of the Cathedral of the Advent in Birmingham once said that Jesus didn’t come to substitute for our actions, he came to substitute for our DNA. We are broken at our very core, and we need someone who knows how to perform the only type of operation that will bring healing to our fatal condition. I’ve heard it said that when our Lord speaks of the nature of sin in our lives, He does so speaking in malignant terms. Since most of us have in some way been affected by cancer either personally, in our family, or with close friends we know that untreated the results are fatal. The only sources of treatment are either surgery to remove the tumor or high powered medications which actually destroy some good in order to ultimately kill the bad.

Jesus is the great physician who has come to perform the surgery, and administer the healing medication that our cancerous souls truly need. Of course there’s always the option of rejecting treatment, but we know that will lead to sure and certain death.

I’m sure there are plenty of folks who have made New Year’s resolutions that they sincerely hope they will be able to keep much longer than last year. Those well intentioned thoughts that we will eat better, exercise more, be nicer to others, or some other very worthy ideal this coming year. In my opinion, the only New Year’s resolution worth making is one in which we fervently ask Almighty God change us into something that by our very nature we are unable to become. The Apostle Paul knew this all too well.

For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree with the law, that it is good. So now it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.
(Romans 7:15-20 ESV)

This isn’t simply a New Year’s resolution it’s an everyday resolution. Each and every day of our lives we must remember that we are going to do the very things we don’t want to do and we are not going to do the very things we wish we would do. The greatest comfort we have is that we have a Saviour who bore our failures upon his able shoulders and took them to the cross. We admit this reality each time in the liturgy where we plead with God not to weigh our merits as if we’ve earned some special status, but that he might pardon our far too numerous offenses.

If we start from a posture such as this it should drive us to a desire to worship, and shape our prayer lives in such a manner that the Holy Spirit might begin to work anew in our hearts to help conform us into the very creatures that God intends for us to be. As we prayed in our collect, “ALMIGHTY God, who hast poured upon us the new light of thine incarnate Word; Grant that the same light enkindled in our hearts may shine forth in our lives.”

As St. John declares in his first Epistle, “God is light, and in him is no darkness at all. If we say that we have fellowship with him, and walk in darkness, we lie, and do not the truth: But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship one with another, and the blood of Jesus Christ his Son cleanseth us from all sin.”

May we all in this new year seek God’s guidance and grace as we strive to walk in the light, and allow the Light that was the Light of all men to shine in our hearts that we might show to all men the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ our Lord.

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