Wednesday, January 8, 2014

You shall call his name Jesus - a sermon for Advent 4 2013

There was a time that I had the great pleasure of travelling far and wide throughout the tri-county area. While this phase in my life only lasted for ten months or so, during that time I met some quite unique people – friendly and cantankerous, kind and grumpy, struggling and making-do – all sorts of people. And among those unique people I came across some very unique names.  
Miche and Lin were twin girls so named because they were born in the backseat of a car. The father looked down after the birth and saw written on the tires Michelin. He would honor that car.
Sherry, Holly, and Ramada were sisters named after the hotel their mother worked at when they were born.
And then there were the brothers, First and Second and the sisters, Autumn and Spring. Now my wife tells me of some names that she encounters during her travels. My favorites are Dragon and Chaos – that child is surely to live into his name.
Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John each begin their story of Jesus with a different start. John has his poetic prologue hearkening back to the beginning of creation. Mark starts with the beginning of Jesus ministry at his baptism by John in the Jordan. And Luke and Matthew, of course, begin with that most remarkable story of the birth of the baby who is Jesus, Emmanuel. Before us today was proclaimed the story form Matthew that has the proclamation of good news on the lips of an angel in a dream to Joseph. But before that, there was a part that wasn’t read this morning –  long genealogy of 17 begats of father to son all the way back to Father Abraham. The genealogy goes from Abraham to King David and from King David to the Captivity in Babylon and from the Captivity in Babylon to Joseph. Except, near the end, Matthew plays a little trick because he traces the royal pedigree but he tells us that Joseph is not really the father of the new baby, the one we celebrate at Christmas.
So let’s look at that. There are three points in the story that I would like us to notice about this story of beginnings.
First, I would draw your attention to the time when this message to Joseph happens. It is at night when Joseph is asleep, relaxed with his guard down and his defenses low. And in the night, the angel comes, “Do not be afraid, for the child in her is from the Holy Spirit.” That’s quite a message. It’s quite a message not just in content but in method as well. It’s a message from outside normal terms. It’s a message found in dream, given by an angel sent from heaven to earth. It’s a message that would have been most certainly outside of Joseph's normal assumptions – outside of Joseph’s normal communication. So the first thing we notice as we move in these last days to Christmas is that the coming of Jesus is outside all of our normal categories.
Now, it is not our business, here and now, to explain the how or the why or the whence of this text. NO! It is our business, instead, to be dazzled by the story. It is our business to be dazzled at this Christmastime that something is happening that is completely beyond our calculations, our measurements, and our expectations.
That is why we do it all: putting up the tree hung with ornaments and strung with lights, baking the cookies and hosting the parties, wrapping the presents, placing the lights on the eaves of the roof, and hanging the stockings with care. Yes, our business is to be dazzled at Christmastime. For what is happening is something beyond our hope – beyond our calculations – beyond ourselves. This is a baby and a wonder and a gift beyond anything that we could dare dream or desire.
Second, I would ask you to notice in this story from Matthew that the baby has no father. Now, for them at that time it was a scandal when a baby has no father. Perhaps it is still a bit of a scandal today. And Joseph was at the edge of that scandal. Joseph was a righteous man and could have followed the law to its letter, dismissing Mary very publicly, subjecting her to stoning under the law. Joseph, though, chose to show mercy, divorcing Mary quietly and sparing her public shame.
However admirable, Joseph’s merciful righteousness are not really the point. Mathew’s accent, rather, is that the “child conceived … is from the Holy Spirit.” Let us please set aside those speculations about biological transactions and the like. They are not the point of the story and confuse the issue. Let us, instead, just marvel and wonder and be dazzled at the scene. Instead of the preoccupation with how, maybe we can notice that the child born is an utter newness sprung upon the world that comes from the stirring of God's Spirit among us.
The theme of the Spirit’s stirring making thins anew is a common theme in the biblical story.
·         At creation it was the Spirit that stirred over the chaos, marking the beginning of creation – a new heaven and a new earth. 
·         As our Hebrew forbears left Egypt, it was the Spirit of God – God’s very breath and wind that blew the waters back allowing them to depart from their slavery. 
·         As Job sat pondering his plight, it was the Spirit of God – the breath of the Almighty that gave him understanding.
·         When the prophets before the leaders and people of Israel, it was the Spirit of God that went before them as the accomplished their dangerous acts of love. 
·         It was the Spirit of God that came upon Moses and Joshua, upon the Judges, and upon the Kings, empowering them to lead the people into newness of life and covenant.
·         It was the Spirit of God that descended like tongues of fire upon the disciples in the upper room thus creating the church as community in mission. 
·         And, now, it is the Spirit of God that refreshes us, renews us, and rekindles us to even as the world is exhausted, when our imagination fails and when our lives shut down.
Matthew is telling us that the Spirit of God has stirred. The Spirit of God stirred and made something utterly new in the world. The Spirit of God caused this new baby who will change everything among us.
Third, notice finally that the angel gave the baby two names. The angel says, "You shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people." The name Jesus is derived from the Hebrew root meaning “to rescue” or “to save.” There were a few babies sent to Israel with a similar name: Joshua, Isaiah, Hosea. And, each of them was sent to save Israel. And now there is Jesus. But now it is different. Now it is definitive. Jesus will save! 
·         Jesus will save from sin and guilt.
·         Jesus will save from death and destruction. 
·         Jesus will save from despair and hopelessness. 
·         Jesus will save from poverty and sickness and hunger, and in all of the stories of Jesus that the church remembers, it is Jesus who saves.
Our Advent has been about being ready for the one who saves – the one who comes because we cannot save ourselves.
The other name given by the angel is Emmanuel, God-with-us. The church’s faith tells us that in Jesus God was decisively present – true God and true Man. And in becoming man Jesus made everything new. Indeed, looking at the stories in the biblical tradition, wherever Jesus went – wherever he showed up and people were in need, three he saved them: the deaf and the blind; those possessed and those lost; the lame, the lepers, and the unclean; the hungry and thirsty; even the dead. New life was possible wherever he went. The church is all those who have been dazzled by the reality of God’s presence.
So here we are at the edge of Christmas. Matthew is preparing us with the message of an angel told in a dream. Matthew tells us that it is the Spirit of God making all things new through this baby. And with great joy, Matthew names the baby twice. The baby is named “Save” for Jesus saves all from everything that destroys and kills and is flat and is sad. The baby is named “God-with-us” for we never need be alone.

Notice that in this story we are not ask us to do anything. We are simply invited to be dazzled. The story invites us to ponder that, while we may feel un-savable, here is the baby named “Save.” The story invites us to ponder that, while we might feel abandoned, here is the baby named “God-with-us.” So we rest ourselves upon these names and accept the promise from the angel that we may be safe and we may be whole and made generous because Christmas is coming soon.

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