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II Christmas (A)

Thomas Wolfe says “You can’t go home again.”

But TS Eliot says,

“We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.”

― T.S. Eliot, Four Quartets

Which of them is right?

There are three Gospel readings to choose from for today in our lectionary. And all of them are about leaving home. The first is the story of Joseph and Mary taking Jesus into Egypt to escape from Herod. The second is the story of Jesus going with his parents to Jerusalem and getting left behind as he lingers to discuss scripture with the elders of the Temple. And the third is the story we just heard from Matthew about the wisemen leaving their homeland to follow the star to Jesus.

 

We all leave home. We get married or we move out of our parents’ house. We leave behind the things that were once the center of our lives. We get educated, we get jobs, we get married, have children; we take a thousand different journeys. And all of them take us further and further away from the innocent trust and joy of childhood. We forget that time when we lived unquestioningly in the love that surrounded us. We become grownups, serious and burdened. Oh, we can have fun, but it is never the utterly unselfconscious play that we had as little ones.

 

And we long to go home again. We long to have someone who takes care of us, to be able to live without a thought for tomorrow. We long to fall asleep on a parent’s shoulder, knowing that we will wake up safe in our own bed. But it’s impossible. We can’t ever go back to that innocent time. We can’t unlearn all the things the world has taught us. And I think one of the dangers of religion is believing that we can live a spiritual life that recaptures infancy, that God will be that parent that we lost as we grew up, that we can live a life free of responsibility or difficult choices. So maybe Thomas Wolfe is right. Maybe we are forever stranded in grown-up land, wishing for that safe and innocent place.

 

But let me suggest something else. The Magi knew what they were looking for, even though they didn’t know where they would find it or what it would look like. They were looking for a king – not just any king, but the king of the universe. They may not even have known what that meant, exactly. But they knew that the star was the sign of that king. And they knew they had to meet whoever or whatever that was. And so they left home. I imagine that they had some difficult and dangerous times on that journey. They had to leave behind the safety and security of what they knew in order to meet what was promised. And their lives would never be the same again. They could, in some sense, never go home again. But what is amazing about this story is that when the wisemen saw the baby Jesus, they recognized him. As unlikely as it may have seemed, this young child, living in a carpenter’s cottage in a far distant land, was the king of the universe. He was the promise fulfilled.

 

In some way, the wisemen were granted their deepest desire when they made their journey. It is as if they had come home – they had met the king of the universe, which was the goal of their lives, only now that they had seen him, they understood what that meant for the first time. The irony is that they had to leave home in order to understand what home really meant. Home wasn’t the place where they had grown up, it wasn’t a place at all. Home was where they met their heart’s desire, Jesus.

 

So what about you and me? What are the deepest desires of our hearts? Do we know what we are looking for, or do we even know what the signs are that will lead us to that place? For us as Christians, that deepest desire is the love of God. There is nothing short of that that we can trust with our lives. If we long for truth, for unconditional love or for pure justice, there is nowhere else to go than to Jesus.

 

But in order to find God, we have to leave home. We have to leave the innocence that keeps us from being responsible; we have to leave the world where we don’t have to make hard choices. And we have to take the journey to where God is calling us. This is true for us as individuals. It is equally true for us as a community. And if we want to find God, if we want to find the deepest desire of our hearts, we have to be ready to take a journey into new and strange places. We have to be ready to meet God in ways that we never imagined. We need to be explorers, to use TS Eliot’s word.

 

But it is a journey with a promise. God always keeps his promises. And the promise of our journey is that we will find the king of the universe, we will find our heart’s deepest desire, we will find our real home. And the promise is that we will find ourselves at home and understand what home really is.

 

We are embarking on a new year. We have a new pastor. And we have the opportunity to start new journeys or to rediscover old ones. Whatever this new adventure brings, let us make sure that we keep our eye on the star so that we can recognize the king when we find him.

 

“We shall not cease from exploration

And the end of all our exploring

Will be to arrive where we started

And know the place for the first time.”

 

Amen.

I Christmas (A)

So now we come to the time of year for making New Year’s resolutions.  And I only have one thing to say to you about making those resolutions. Don’t.

 

The problem with New Year’s resolutions is, first of all, that they don’t work. We vow to lose weight or get in shape or whatever, and sometimes we are successful with at least part of that. But I have almost never met anyone who kept a New Year’s resolution for more than a few weeks.

But the real problem with resolutions is that they don’t do what we hope they will do. At the heart of every New Year’s resolution is a voice inside of us that says, “You’re  not good enough.” The voice tells us that we have to weigh less or work out more or stop smoking, and the hidden message is that we are not really worthy of being loved or of loving ourselves unless we do these things. And our secret self hopes that if we can just lose the weight or go to the gym every day we will find that love that we are missing.  So we launch into whatever self-improvement program we have in mind, but after a week or two or three, we realize that we still feel inadequate, that no matter what we do, we still don’t feel good enough. And so, feeling worse about ourselves than when we started, we quit.

 

What we really want is to know that we are loved and precious just as we are. People never achieve lasting change when they feel inadequate. The only way we achieve real change is from the conviction that we are loveable and acceptable.  And that knowledge never comes from ourselves. We can’t convince ourselves that we are precious or lovable. The only voice that can really tell us that in a way that we can trust is the voice of God.  But how do we know that God loves us just as we are? Too often, the voice we think is the voice of God is the voice of an angry parent for whom we are never good enough.  What proof do we have that God loves us that much?

 

It is the fact of Christmas that tells us. God’s gift in Jesus is the gift of himself, of infinite love coming down into a limited human being. God’s love for us is so passionate that he was willing to give up the universe in order to be part of our world, in order to teach us and heal us and die for us. That is the greatest love. And when we know that, then we know that we are good enough just as we are. And when we know that, we are free to make new choices or different choices. We can lose weight or stop smoking because we want to, not because we are driven by our own inadequacy.

 

God loves you just as you are. God will love you just as much whether or not you go to the gym or lose ten pounds. God will love you just as much no matter what you do or who you are. You are good enough, and, in fact, you are better than good enough. You are precious and special, and God delights in you  – just as you are.

 

The coming of Jesus is about transformation, about lives being changed from the inside out.  When we try to change ourselves, we are trying to force change from the outside in. We can be transformed, but not by our own struggling attempts. We can only be transformed by love.

 

So if you want to make a New Year’s resolution this year that will last, resolve to let God love you. Resolve to open yourself to the voice which tells you that you are the reason why God came down from heaven in Jesus. Learn to hear that loving voice speaking in your heart and mind.

If you do that, you will find yourself being changed in ways that you would never have imagined and which are truly lasting.

 

And if you want something to read that will help with that, read the passage from the Gospel of John that we just read. I have read that passage every year for as long as I have been ordained, and every year I understand a little bit better. It’s all about how much God loves us.

 

I wish you a New Year filled with true happiness and God’s love.

 

Amen.

CHRISTMAS, 2013

I want to look with you at the family in the stable. And I want to see them as they really are, not as we see them on Christmas cards or in ads. Whether the story as the Gospel writers tell it is historically or geographically accurate is not nearly as important as whether it is true. And so I want to hear and see the truth of these people, so that we can hear and see the truth of their story for our own lives.

She is a teenager, maybe thirteen or fourteen. She is strong and well-muscled for her age, for she has carried water and made fires and ground meal and tended gardens and animals all her life. She has calluses. She is wearing some kind of rough homespun dress and head covering, not the pretty blue outfit we are used to. She is not a pretty blonde American, but a Jewish country girl and poor. She is just out of her own childhood.

 

She is with a man – somewhat older, probably, but not out of his twenties. He’s not impressive by the world’s standards, either. He’s a carpenter, a laborer. These are young people, and about all they have is each other. In a normal situation, they would be at home in Nazareth, preparing for their wedding. But things are not normal for these two. Mary is pregnant, the baby is not Joseph’s, and these kids are not married. The way this baby came to be is a story that Mary and Joseph haven’t shared with anyone but her cousin Elizabeth and her husband, Zechariah. Who would believe this story of angels and of a baby who is the Son of God? And, with Mary just about ready to have this baby, they have been forced to take a trip. There is a census being held, and every man has to go to the city of his family. Joseph is of the house of David, and the family city is Bethlehem. It would be nice if Bethlehem were a big city or a resort town, but it is neither of those things. It is a rural, poor town up in the hills, where people mostly raise sheep. So there aren’t a lot of fancy hotels or rooming houses, just ramshackle inns, and not a lot of those.

 

So there they are, this teenager and her blue-collar husband to be. They have tried to find a room in one of the inns, but everything is booked because of the census. And, when it seems nothing else could go wrong, Mary goes into labor. She is alone, far away from the women at home who could help her give birth, without even someone to act as a midwife. The innkeeper lets them use the stable – probably a cave carved out of the rock. So there – alone, surely afraid – Mary and Joseph do the best they can, and the baby is born. This is not a sweet antiseptic birth, but a bloody, smelly birth among the animals. And then strange things start happening – shepherds who come and tell of angels singing in the sky and a star that seems to sit still in the sky over this dark, dirty cave. Surely these weird happenings only serve to make Mary and Joseph feel more alone and disoriented than ever.

 

We sing about being home for Christmas, and if we are separated from our families or have no family to be with, it can be pretty lonely. But the feast we celebrate tonight isn’t about being home for the holidays. It is a feast for refugees and the lonely. And we have idealized pictures of families all over the media, with the hidden message that if your family isn’t perfectly happy, there’s something wrong with you. But this feast is about children in trouble and families made the way God makes families – people who try to hang together when life is messy and scary. This is a feast for the frightened and the lost. It is a feast for those who grieve. It is a feast for those who are homeless and poor. It is a feast for people who have nothing left to lose. God comes into the world in the dark corners, and there is not one of us here tonight who has not known at least one of those dark corners.

 

This is the way God comes into the world. God could have come to us in might and power and thunder, riding through the heavens in chariots of fire. God could have taken advantage of our vulnerability, but he didn’t. God came into the world as a fragile, vulnerable baby, born to people who were afraid and alone.

 

And that is what we celebrate when we celebrate Christmas. We celebrate God in that dark, dirty cave, and in all the dark dirty caves that we find in our world and in ourselves. God meets us in those dark places where we are most vulnerable and alone. God knows how fragile we are because God has shared our fragility. That is what this festival is really about. Christmas means that we are loved and precious – not because we have money or success, or even happy families (though it is a joy when we have those things). We are loved and precious because we belong to God, And no matter what happens to us, we bear God’s imprint on our souls. No matter how alone we feel, we are always in God’s hand. We are so precious that God came and became one of us to prove how loved we are. The pivot point of the world, the moment when everything changed forever takes place in a smelly stable in a backwater town, and the people who bring God into the world are a teenage girl and her young man.

 

And, as God comes into the world through them, so God calls to come into the world through us. We live in a world that is desperate for good news. We live in a world still as filled with war and hunger and human pain as it was 2000 years ago. God becomes human in Jesus so that we can carry God in us and bring the message that the world still needs to hear. And when we allow God to be born in us, Christmas comes to our souls, and the universe can be transformed through us.

 

A poet and hymn writer named Edmund Sears wrote these words in the 1800’s, but they remain as powerful today as they did then:

 

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.

 

For lo! The days are hastening on, by prophets seen of old;

When with the ever circling years shall come the time foretold.

When peace shall over all the earth, its ancient splendors fling;

And the whole world give back the song which now the angels sing.       Amen.