Monday, January 13, 2014

This is our baptism! - a sermon for the Baptism of the Lord

Can you remember your baptism? Are you able to put together the pieces of your baptism? If baptized as an infant, maybe a memory comes from the stories told by parents or grandparents or maybe even from that little paper certificate. If older, perhaps you remember some of the details: the coolness of the water or the oil on your head. Maybe you remember your child’s baptism – the response when the water hit their head; what they were wearing; who was there. Maybe a memory of baptism is fresh and new or maybe it is older and little clouded by the years. The water may have been poured over your head or maybe you were immersed and then raised up out of the water.
I have some favorite images of baptisms. I remember the baby who, upon the water hitting his head, fell promptly asleep. I remember another baby who decided at the moment the water was poured to relieve his bladder. And his mom thought the gown would look better without a diaper. I remember the little girl who decided to splash Father John back. I remember the older lady whose simple reply was, “Oh, my.” Apparently, the water was a little chilly. So many memories of baptisms.
 Jesus joins the crowd at the river Jordan. His cousin John has been baptizing people with water – the water of repentance. Only a few weeks ago in Advent, we heard John tell those gathered at the river that one would come – whose sandals John was not worthy even to hold – who would baptize them with fire and with the Spirit. That day John hurled at the Pharisees and Saducees, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Even now the axe is at the root of the tree!”
Back then in Advent, we could imagine the excited murmurs that might have rippled through the crowd. “Baptize with fire?”
“Someone so great John won’t hold his sandals?”
“Someone who will wield an ax to cut down – what? Maybe the curse of the Roman occupation?”
We wonder whom they thought they’d see. “Oh, let’s hope someone powerful and mighty – maybe on a horse.”
Then Jesus joins the crowd at the river Jordan. His cousin John is there and only he can pick Jesus out. Only John recognizes the greatness of the Messiah. “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” No flourish, no parade of horses, no axe, no fire, nothing different. Yet.
In Sunday school, many of us may have asked at one time, “Why did Jesus need to be baptized if he didn’t have any sin?” We learned that baptism is initiation. Forgiveness of sins is only one part of the grace of baptism; but more, baptism is the sacrament by which God adopts us as children and makes us members of Christ’s Body, the Church, our catechism says.
So Jesus, by being baptized, was showing his solidarity with his community, his willingness to be counted among these people of God. The Word Incarnate was again showing that God was content to pitch a tent among the people and live with and like them. As the gospel tells us, by doing this, being baptized by John, Jesus was fulfilling all righteousness. So, the folks then might have wondered, where was the fire and Spirit? It’s not what they may have expected. This was just the beginning. There was, of course, a little excitement – the heavens were opened and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and a voice declaring, “This is my Son which whom I am well pleased.” Jesus is baptized and anointed with power and the Spirit, more will come. For Matthew, this is the point at which Jesus’ mission and ministry begins.
After this, various scripture passages bring us back to baptism. In the reading from Acts today, Peter explains to new followers that the spreading of the message of peace preached by Jesus Christ began in Galilee after Christ’s baptism. We know other stories, such as the baptism of the Ethiopian eunuch by Phillip and the baptism of the prison guard’s whole household by Paul, and of course, the baptism of more than 3,000 after Pentecost. Baptism is critically important to our understanding of who we are as a people of God.
For too long we understood baptism only as the sign that original sin was washed from our souls. For centuries people put off baptism until moments before their death, believing that with baptism their sins were washed away and they were guaranteed heaven regardless of what kind of life they led. Fortunately, the liturgical renewal of the 1950s onward restored our understanding of baptism as an initiation – a recognition of our status as children of God.
When we consider our baptism we might think more consciously about that beautiful verse in Genesis 1: “So God created humankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them.” Yes, we believe baptism cleanses us from sin, but even more, it gives us power and grace to accept our own ministry and mission as offered to us by God.
It’s tempting to compare our baptism with Jesus’ baptism and for us to come up wanting. He was anointed with power and the Holy Spirit. He went on to preach, teach, heal, and collect a vast number of followers. He suffered, died, and rose again. He was, after all, both human and divine. And us? Our baptism surely must be less. We aren’t divine. We can accept baptism and then go on to live ordinary lives, forgetting perhaps even the day of our baptism. Or can we?
Absolutely not. The church reminds us every year at this time about Jesus’ baptism. That should be a clue that our own baptism is vitally important. We should remember the day. We should celebrate the fact that we too were baptized with power and the Holy Spirit – the same Spirit that descended on Jesus like a dove. We might not get the visual of the dove and the sky broken open, but we are equally graced, filled with the Spirit, adopted as God’s own, and given a ministry and mission for our lives. It is just that important.
Baptism should be life changing. Imagine what the church might look like if each baptized member grasped hold of and used the power that is freely given us by God in our baptism. In Isaiah today we heard these words of the Lord: “I have taken you by the hand and kept you; I have given you as a light to the nations, to open the eyes that are blind, to bring out the prisoners from the dungeon, from the prison those who sit in darkness.” We know these words were used in Isaiah’s time for his community, and we now use them to talk about the Messiah, but we must understand that they are meant for us too. Doesn’t Jesus constantly tell his followers, and us, that we must take up Jesus’ ministry and continue spreading the good news? Aren’t we supposed to care for the poor, build up the weak, and spread peace? Each baptized person makes five promises. Each of us promises to God five things that, if we take them seriously, could change the world. Can we recite those promises by memory? We should be able to. It’s just that important.
Could we change the world or have we given up in despair? The church gives us this celebration of Jesus’ baptism every year, maybe in the hope that it will make us think again about our own baptism. Maybe that memory will ignite the fire that smolders in our souls. That fire is there. Baptism gives it to us, and it never goes out. We often call the people who let that fire burn brightly “saints.” But again, imagine what our church would look like if we all let our fire burn. Remember the words to the hymn: “I sing a song of the saints of God ... and I mean to be one, too.”
We are created in the image of God. We are loved beyond measure – all God’s people are loved beyond measure. Imagine the church. Imagine it on fire with the power of the Spirit. Imagine the explosion of peace and joy that could be ours. God says, “See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.”

This is our anointing. This is our baptism.

A Light Shines - a sermon for first Sunday of Christmas 2013

On Christmas Eve, I shared with you all about how certain stories tend to have a constancy – they are retold time and again as families gather. And how we might find that certain details have great meaning and can never be left out. But have you ever noticed, as well, that when you get together with your families, telling stories about childhood or family events or whatever might have happened years ago, the same story of the same events can sound very different as different people tell the story? Depending on who’s describing it:
·         Uncle Al’s six inch bass becomes the monster that almost got away.
·         Was it a five-star resort we stayed in on our honeymoon or a hovel, barely able to be called a motel.
·         Remember the old guy who lived at the end of the street growing up – was he a cantankerous old scrooge or generous saint?
·         Ah, the family vacation with all the cousins – what a disaster! Or was it a wonderful escape?
·         And who won that fight with Chip – or was it Dale?

Same event. Different folks. Different details. Different points of view.
This is not unlike the wonderful poetry of the first eighteen verses of John’s gospel we just heard. This is the Christmas story, the third time the Bible tells it. It’s the same story we heard on Christmas Eve, the story of the manger and the shepherds and the angels. And it’s the same story Matthew tells in his gospel, with Joseph’s dreams, the wise men and the flight to Egypt. But the point of view is different.
Luke, who wrote the familiar story we heard on Christmas Eve, was a bit of an historian. He was liked getting the dates and rulers right, and with locating everything in time and space. Luke also likes to tell about those on the margins and so Luke is more interested in shepherds – who were social outcasts – than in kings. And Luke tells the story from the perspective of Mary – a radical move since women were even lower on the social ladder than shepherds.
Matthew, in the other hand, seems more traditional. He was certainly a Jew and may have been a scribe. He was very concerned with making it clear that Jesus fulfilled the Old Testament prophecies as the Messiah, the king in the line of king, Son of Man. Shepherds didn’t interest him as much as the royal wise men from the East - the child surrounded by his peers. Matthew would pay a lot of attention to the flight to Egypt because of parallels with the Exodus. Also, the more conservative Matthew tells the story of Jesus’ birth from Joseph’s point of view.
Then there’s John. John may have heard the stories in Matthew and Luke but he’s not primarily an historian or a Jewish royalist. John is a mystic. He writes of the meaning of Jesus’ birth and he writes from his theology – from the holy imagination of his prayer. Nevertheless, he’s still telling the same story. All three are talking about the same birth.
John does begin the story earlier, reminding us that Christmas really begins where Genesis begins: in the beginning with God at creation. Using language evocative of Genesis, John begins by talking about the Word of God. The Word is God in action, God creating, God revealing himself, the one whom the church has named the second person of the Blessed Trinity. This Word was with God and this Word was God.
Then John tells the Christmas story in nine words: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” He who was with God in creation, the one who is God revealing himself to humanity, this one became a person, became flesh – as completely human as you and I.  A person who was the Word – who was God’s own self.
Matthew, Luke and John so share one special way of telling the story in common. There is one image, one symbol that they all use to talk about the birth in Bethlehem. Can you think of what it is?
Light! They all talk about light. For Matthew, it is the light of the star. For Luke, the light that shone around the shepherds. For John, the Light of the world, the true light that enlightens every man. These echo Isaiah’s vision of vindication shining out like the dawn, of salvation like a burning torch.
We understand this image of light because we know about darkness. We know what it’s like to live in and with darkness. Have you ever walked into a dark room. If you have and you know the room, then you might know where things are but you still walk a bit slower, more methodically. But what if that room has been rearranged. Walk through an unfamiliar room in the dark can be painful. We know what it’s like when we don’t know where things are, or what we’ve just bumped into, or whether we’re going where we want to go, or if our next step will be OK, or if we will break something and make a mess. It’s hard to walk in the dark.
What John, and Luke and Matthew all say about Christmas is that a new light begins to shine. We don’t have to walk in the dark. By the light of Christ we can begin to see who we are and who we are created to be. For it is in the person of Jesus that what it means to be a human being is finally made clear. In him we see that our lives are made whole only as we surrender  in love and service; in him we see that really being alive means risking everything for – and because of – the love of God and the Kingdom of God.
In him we see that hope needs never be abandoned – NEVER – and that we contain possibilities beyond our imagining.
And by that light that has come into the world we also can begin to see God clearly for the first time. “No one has ever seen God,” John reminds us. But God is made known to us in Jesus. This means that everything we ever thought about God, everything we had figured out, everything that we were sure we knew about God – all of this is put to the test in Jesus. Not in one saying or one parable, or one miracle,  but in all of Jesus – in his life, his ministry, his teaching, his death and resurrection. In the Word made flesh, we finally have the light we need to see God.

The light of Christ, the Word made flesh, comes among us at Christmas, and we celebrate its coming into the world. That first Christmas, the light shone – and it continues to shine. By that light we have been given the power to become children of God and to take our places with the light. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. This is the Christmas story. This is our story.

Did you find what you were looking for? - a sermon for Christmas Day 2013

“Did you find what you were looking for?” I heard this phrase uttered many times  have over these past few weeks during my Christmas shopping forays. It’s a rather ubiquitous turn of phrase, isn’t it? “Did you find what you were looking for?”
Most of the time, if you were like me, you simply answered, “Yes, thank you,” not wanting to be bothered further nor wanting to spend any more time in the store. Or perhaps you inquired about a hard to find item or something you missed through all the crowds. But, honestly, we don’t usually give our answers to that question much thought beyond the immediate transaction.
Today, however, on this Christmas Day maybe we can consider the question anew: “Did you find what you were looking for?”
On this day we hear the familiar story of an unwed teenage mother-to-be named Mary and her fiancĂ© Joseph making the trek from Nazareth to Bethlehem to be enrolled under orders from their Roman overlords. The birth of Mary’s son happens in a stable because there is not room for them in the inn. We hear a messenger from God appearing to shepherds in the fields watching over their flocks. It seems that these poor shepherds will be the first to get the news that the savior has been born in Bethlehem. A great number of the heavenly host appear, glorifying God and proclaiming peace among those whom God favors. The shepherds leave their flocks or maybe they take them to Bethlehem to check this whole thing out, They find things just as the angel had reported to them. They found what they were looking for!
We know this story. Even if all we know of the story is from “A Charlie Brown Christmas,” with Linus delivering the strains from the Authorized King James Version. The story assures us that the shepherds found what they were looking for: “the child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.” They found “in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” What they perhaps did not know, however, and what they could not possibly have fully comprehend is what this fullness of this child and what he would mean for them – and for us.
In the birth narrative, Luke relates the events of the birth of Jesus, answering for the story hearer the amazing “what happened?” question. But what Luke doesn’t do, at least not right away – not directly in the infancy narrative – is answer the question of “Why did it happen?” Why did God choose to come to us and live as one of us?
Part of the answer is found in the verses we hear in the letter to Titus:
But when the goodness and loving-kindness of God our Savior appeared, he saved us, not because of any works of righteousness that we had done, but according to his mercy, through the water of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit. This Spirit he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior, so that, having been justified by his grace, we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.”
The birth of Christ happened to save us. Something we could not do ourselves, God did for us.  God took the initiative and set about the saving work. But there’s more: God did not do this because we earned it in any way but solely because God loves us.
What an idea!!! It’s a radical idea. It’s a revolutionary idea. Given our merit-based capitalistic culture and our rugged American individualism, this is an idea that might seem foreign to us. It is something for everyone that none earned. Instead, it is something given to us, provided for us in grace.
Those verses from Titus go on to speak about our being “justified.” That seems a big, fancy theological word. At least it has been made one by the theologians. But the idea of justification is not so scary or hard to understand as we theological minded souls often make. It simply means that God made humanity’s relationship with God right and balanced. In other words, through God’s initiative we can have a relationship with God.
But there is more. As if simply having a relationship with God isn’t enough. God did this great and wonderful and magnificent thing so that we might become heirs as children of God – heirs with the hope of eternal life. Eternal life should not be posited as some “going to heaven when you die” idea. That turns the whole thing into some form of insurance or some kind of celestial evacuation plan. Instead, eternal life should be understood as living fully and freely now. It is the present loving God and loving each other. It is a lifetime of loving presence happening right here and now and continuing forever.
“Did you find what you were looking for?” Perhaps you haven’t considered that question in this context, but do so for just a moment. Here you are, on Christmas, in this church. Why did you come? You didn’t have to come, you know. Oh, sure, some here will give a nod to family tradition. Some will say that are appeasing parents or grandparents. And some of you are accustomed to regularly attending church.
Oh, sure, some here will give a nod to attending church on Christmas being part of your family tradition, or maybe it was to appease parents or grandparents, and some of you are accustomed to regularly attending church. But regardless of why you think you are here, ponder in your heart for a moment what you are really seeking, because perhaps something deeper brought you here. What are you really looking for?
If we are honest, we all have a deep longing – a sense of something missing in our lives. Some call this the “hole in our soul.” It is the nagging feeling that we are incomplete and lacking. We humans are consciously aware of our fragility, our finitude, our faults and our failings. It is a fearful thing to acknowledge this truth. Most of us spend our lives running away from this stark reality by attempting to fill this hole in our soul with anything that promises to fulfill or fix us.
But try as we might, we cannot fill this hole ourselves because it was placed there by God when we were breathed into existence. It was placed there for a purpose: to draw us to say “yes” to God’s free gift of love in Christ.
Christmas is the proclamation that God spoke an eternal “yes” to us by slipping through the back door of history as a helpless baby, to grow up and live with us, die for us, and be raised from the dead to prove once and for all that our fragility, finitude, faults and failings are not the last word.
Christ is still renewing, redeeming and giving life to us – all of us, no exceptions.
No matter what your life circumstances are this day, God called you here to speak a word of eternal life and love to you: a love that you didn’t have to earn or prove yourself worthy to receive. God’s movement is toward us and for us in the birth of Jesus Christ.
This love is mystical, and it is the only enduring and life-giving way to fill the hole in your soul. It comes to us through Word and Sacrament and is present through this community.
So come. Come to this Table. Come as you are. Come here today and you will find what you are looking for.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Is there room in the Inn? - a sermon for Christmas Eve 2013

As families gather to tell the stories of our life don’t we find that there are just some stories that you just can’t leave out. You know the stories I’m talking about:
·         Uncle Anthony’s trousers falling down while he was flipping the burgers at the grill that one Fourth of July
·         The Christmas that the kids got those kittens
·         The last Thanksgiving or birthday or Easter or any other holiday that you got to spend with that someone special
·         The first trip to Disney with the whole family in tow – all fourteen of them trying to be the one to take their princess on the ride
·         The honeymoon to Jamaica or the first day of college or graduation or that time you got into a scuffle with Dale as Disney World
We remember the stories and we tell the stories because they have meaning. They inform our lives and make us who we are and who we want to be. And just like we have those stories that we can never leave out, so too we have those few details in those stories that we always want to remember and get just right.
·         Like Uncle Anthony’s red-polka-dot boxers
·         Like that fact that one of those kittens just couldn’t wait and poked his head out of the lid of the box.
·         Like the smell of the birthday cake from mom’s last birthday
·         Like the name of the hotel where you spent your honeymoon or the name of the hospital where your kids were born or the name of the golf course where you got that hole-in-one
·         Like the feel of the gown on graduation day or the feeling of mixed terror and elation when dad pulls away from the curb after bringing you to college
·         Like knowing the scuffle you just got into with Dale as Disney World will one day be used in a sermon (This really happened, but not to me.)
Yep, there is just some details in every story that you can’t leave out. They may seem insignificant – the color of shirt you wore, the exact temperature, or the precise location – but they are important to the storyteller – for whatever reason.
And the story of the nativity of Jesus – the birth of the Christ – is no different.
We know this story. It is perhaps the most well known story in the scriptures. Mary. Joseph. The Archangel Gabriel. Bethlehem. The star. The shepherds. The magi. We know this story. We have seen heard it and seen it performed it countless times. We know about how Mary and Joseph had to go from Nazareth to Bethlehem to register for the census. We know that the inn was full, that the innkeeper sent them out back to the stable with the manger.
The thing told here – that God became one of us would be just as important, vital, valuable, and necessary even without all of those details. Listen to the heart of it: “And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Or, “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.” Or, “Having loved his own who were in the world, he loved to the end…Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.” That is the heart of it and the meaning is the same without all those details about angels, shepherds, innkeepers, and magi.
But that’s not the way Luke or Matthew chose to tell the story. They tell us, instead, about a baby born to a couple – and an unmarried couple to add a little scandal. Luke goes on to tell us of the great journey Joseph and Mary had to make. He then tells us where the birth happened and, equally important, where the birth did not happen. Luke tells us that Jesus was born in Bethlehem, the city of David. But it wasn’t just Bethlehem. No, it was in Bethlehem in a manger, “because there was no place for them in the inn.”
You heard it right and, of course, you already knew. The Son of God, the Christ, the descendant of the great king, David, was born in a manger. Scandalous! You know, a manger really isn’t much. If you’ve ever seen one, you know what I’m saying. It’s a bit of feeding trough though it really is even too small to be called a trough. It was a small holder – really just some sticks laid together – for hay or straw to be gnawed on by the animals in the shelter, probably donkeys or ponies or goats. It was no crib with a mattress and fitted sheets with a darling little mobile of stars and planets hanging overhead. It wasn’t even a resting place for the animals. But this manger that wasn’t really much became the first resting place for Jesus. This manger became the resting place for the newly born Messiah, the savior of the world, God-with-us.
And we usually remember the manger with great sentimentality. Do we also remember why Jesus was there in the first place? Do we remember that when Mary and Joseph got to Bethlehem – when they searched for a place to stay – when they went to the inn (perhaps the only one town), they were turned away “because there was no place for them”?
I often wonder if that were really true. Perhaps there were some rooms available but the innkeeper saw this couple who looks suspiciously like they might be a lot of work. Maybe the innkeeper could somehow tell that they weren’t married. The young woman was quite clearly pregnant. Maybe the inn was “full” but not full-to-brim-full. The innkeeper just didn’t want the hassle of the pregnant woman who might just give birth that very night. There certainly must have been some place for this young woman to give birth other than a stable with a manger to lay her baby.
But that isn’t how Luke tells the story. There wasn’t room in the inn. Mary didn’t give birth in the inn. No, Mary gave birth in a stable our back. Jesus was born in the stable out back with lowly shepherds for his court and gentile wisemen on the way.
I am told there is a church in Bethlehem that marks the location of this stable where Jesus was said to have laid in the manger. It’s called (believe it or not) the Church of the Nativity. It is  considered a holy spot – the place where the Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Quite frankly, just between you and me it might not even be the exact spot of Jesus’ birth. But we remember that place where Christ was born because we want to keep that place where God- became-one-of-us holy. We remember it and so it is kept holy.
But you know what isn’t remembered? Even though it is in the story, the place of the inn isn’t remembered. There is not marker for that place. We don’t even know the name of the inn: Bethlehem Motel, Road to Jerusalem Hacienda, Holiday Inn. We don’t know and never will.
I still wonder if that innkeeper ever came to realize who he turned away. I can imagine that decades later the innkeeper heard the stories of Jesus – maybe he heard the same story of the birth that you and I just heard. They hadn’t given Mary a room. Uh-oh.
But if this were just a story about an innkeeper who missed an opportunity 2000 years ago, I doubt that we would still be telling it today. This story is definitely not about the innkeeper. Now, this story is about God and about what God did and about what God still does.
And it’s about us – you and me – and about what we do. Jesus, who would be the Christ, was born on that day some 2000 years ago. And Christ still comes. Christ still comes into the world. Christ is still being born among us every day. That is our Advent was really all about: waiting for the Christ who is being born us today.
Sometimes, doesn’t God knocks at our door. Is there a place in the inn?
Sometimes, don’t we look out and not really like what we see or what we smell or what we hear? Or sometimes don’t we just not really like what it might mean to let Christ in? And so we close the door. “There’s no place for you here.”
Sometimes, though,  even when we don’t really like to or want to or we’re not so sure, we open that door anyway. “Yeah, I’m pretty full but I’ll find some room here.” That is what matters. Christmas is certainly about the story we proclaimed and heard this night. It is most assuredly about Mary and Joseph and the baby, about Gabriel, the shepherds, and the magi, and  about the manger and no place in the inn. But the story was remembered because it teaches us so much more than those details of an event that happened centuries ago.
It teaches us also about opening our lives to the work of God in our world. It’s about telling God: “There is a place for you here, even if I don’t know yet what that might mean.”
Our Episcopal denomination has mottos, “The Episcopal Church welcomes you.” I believe that. But more so, I believe that about God. I believe that God is not only still speaking, but God is still active in this world, and God is still writing the story. I believe that God wants to welcome you. You can be a part of that story. What happens next is up to you.
So the question is: Do you want to be the inn that closes its doors? Or do you want to be something else? I know who I want to be. I want to be the one hears what God is doing and comes running. When God works in this world, I want to be a part of it. Like that ground in Bethlehem, I want to be found holy because I am part of the story.
And I can be. And so can you. As so can we all. Sometimes it’s easy to forget that the baby born this night became an adult. When that Rabbi was asked what we must do, he answered them - and remember when the decorations are put away and tree taken to the curb, when Christmas dinner has been eaten and the nativity is packed away, it is these things remain.
Jesus answered them this: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself.”
May we do so this Christmas, and always. Amen

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.