Monday, January 13, 2014

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 fiancé 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.

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