Reading 1: MAL 3:1-4
Responsorial Psalm: PS 24:7, 8, 9, 10
Reading 2: HEB 2:14-18
Gospel: LK 2:22-40 or LK 2:22-32
Today, the church celebrates The Presentation of The Lord. This feast is also known as Candlemas, and this always falls on February 2nd: 40 days after Christmas.
Let us first look at what we are told in the Holy Gospel today in LK 2:22-40 (NABRE):
The Presentation in the Temple. 22 When the days were completed for their purification according to the law of Moses, they took him up to Jerusalem to present him to the Lord,
23 just as it is written in the law of the Lord, “Every male that opens the womb shall be consecrated to the Lord,” 24 and to offer the sacrifice of “a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons,” in accordance with the dictate in the law of the Lord.
25 Now there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon. This man was righteous and devout, awaiting the consolation of Israel, and the holy Spirit was upon him. 26 It had been revealed to him by the holy Spirit that he should not see death before he had seen the Messiah of the Lord. 27 He came in the Spirit into the temple; and when the parents brought in the child Jesus to perform the custom of the law in regard to him, 28 he took him into his arms and blessed God, saying:
29 “Now, Master, you may let your servant go
in peace, according to your word,
30 for my eyes have seen your salvation,
31 which you prepared in sight of all the peoples,
32 a light for revelation to the Gentiles,
and glory for your people Israel.”
33 The child’s father and mother were amazed at what was said about him; 34 and Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is destined for the fall and rise of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be contradicted 35 (and you yourself a sword will pierce) so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.” 36 There was also a prophetess, Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was advanced in years, having lived seven years with her husband after her marriage, 37 and then as a widow until she was eighty-four. She never left the temple, but worshipped night and day with fasting and prayer. 38 And coming forward at that very time, she gave thanks to God and spoke about the child to all who were awaiting the redemption of Jerusalem.
The Return to Nazareth. 39 When they had fulfilled all the prescriptions of the law of the Lord, they returned to Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth. 40 The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom; and the favour of God was upon him.
Today is a day of light. Jesus is the saving light of our often dark world of shadows. Shadow and light are the reality of our earthly lives and of our materialistic world. I feel sure we could all tell a story to some extent, of what it was like to live in the shadowy places of life, some with experience of it more than others. Sometimes we go there by our own choice or by our own actions, but at other times, it may be as a result of someone else’s actions or through the circumstances of life.
Sometimes we choose to hide ourselves away in the darkness avoiding the light because of our feelings of shame or guilt. We do not want to admit the truth of our lives to ourselves and we do not want others to see that truth about us – our thoughts, the things we have done, or the things we have left undone. The shadows, we tell ourselves, will cover and hide us. Other times we live in the dark night of fear not knowing what will come next or how we will handle it. There is the sense of powerlessness and life seems out of control. There are those times when the darkness and shadow of sorrow and grief sucks out the life and the light of our world and we seem unable to escape the darkness at that moment. Sometimes we may experience the darkness of ignorance and of confusion. We may be blind to our own identity, lost on the path of our life, wandering seemingly without meaning or direction.
Even when we choose to be in the shadowy places of life, they are always uncomfortable to live in. That discomfort is because of the eternal light of Our Lord and Saviour, Jesus, shining in the darkness. No matter how large the shadows or how dark the night may seem to be, the light of Jesus is still present and can never be extinguished. This is symbolized today in the candlelight procession of the feast of Candlemas which is held by some churches. That little flickering flame of the candles that are carried are the reminder that Christ – “a light for revelation” – is with you, me, and each of us! When we extinguish those candles the light did not and will not go away. It remains within us and it always has been and always will be. But we must begin to see this light with different eyes.
Sacred Tradition says that Simeon was 270 years old when he met Jesus in the temple and that he was blind. Yet Simeon himself declares to God, “My eyes have seen your salvation.” We could debate about the factual accuracy of Tradition and Scripture. Could Simeon really have been that old? Was he really blind and, if so, how did he see? Such debate and questions will surely miss the truth held before us in both the Scriptures and the Tradition. Yes, Simeon was blind. Yes, Simeon saw salvation. But he did not see with physical eyes. He saw with the eyes of his heart. Simeon experienced an inner seeing. He saw Jesus as the light of Salvation for the world that he is.
That Light of Jesus is revelatory. It reveals to us mercy and forgiveness in the worldly dark shadows of guilt and shame, it is the light of presence and courage in the night of fear, of compassion and hope in the darkness of sorrow and loss, a way forward in the blindness of our ignorance and confusion, and is eternal life in the darkness of death. The flame of God’s love consumes the darkness, it fills us! It frees us to go in peace just as God promised. We have seen salvation and Simeon’s song now becomes our song.
Let us pray:
God, our Father, hear our prayer
and let the radiance of your love
scatter the gloom of our hearts and of our lives.
The light of heaven’s love has restored us to life –
free us from the desires that belong to darkness.
We ask this through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. AMEN
I love the pool! I love to people watch! We live at the beach in a vacation community. During the summer there are lots of folks here, and there is a buzz of excitement and laughter and shouting and just noise. A good chunk of that noise comes from the folks in the pool and the pool is a great place to watch people. In the shallow end of the pool there is the sound of all those excited children of different ages and abilities and sometimes it can be deafening. They laugh, they yell, they run. They cry. There are no inside voices in the shallow end of the pool. It’s loud!
Funny thing, though, the only sounds coming from the deep end of the pool are the sounds of experienced swimmers, swimming with discipline and confidence. There is no yelling, no crying, no complaining, no evidence of fear or frustration. They seem to know what they are doing, and are doing it well.
This leads me to believe that all the noise that comes from the shallow end of the pool comes from those who haven’t learned to swim with confidence or are not secure enough to venture into the deep water.
Sadly, many Christians reflect this clearly. The noise comes from the shallow end, not the deep end. Think about it. The American church-attending public is very style conscious, politically conscious, quite vocal about political issues, and is basically made up of consumers of religion.
In any city there are churches saying in like manner:
“Come to our church. Our preacher doesn’t wear a tie. Our preacher wears golf shirts and jogging shoes.”
“Come to our church! We wear shorts and sandals.”
“We have video.”
“We have snare drums and screens.”
“We’re into political reform.”
“We have a religious superstar preaching today.”
“We use the King James version.”
Everyone is out front, just like carnival barkers, pushing their style, their religious product, but when we get inside those churches, we find, just like at the carnival, that no one knocks out the balloons or knocks down the bottles. No one wins the prize. No lives are changed. The church of the big idea, the church of the big action, the church of politics, and the church of the big deal somehow leave us empty. Something is missing. We find that those folks who are the most vocal about issues and politics are often those who reflect very little Jesus.
I have realized in recent years that all we do to establish our niche in the church market may be a cover for an empty heart, a shallow commitment, and a secular mindset. Let’s start the other way. Let’s build on a foundation, a strong commitment to Jesus Christ and see what happens.
Unless a church’s foundation is Jesus Christ, there is no substance, no power. It is sound and fury. It is chaff. If Jesus Christ is the foundation, walks the halls, sits in the pews, and is in our classes, if he interprets the Bibles and sings our hymns, preaches our sermons, then we will know and do our mission effectively. If we do not realize that EVERY person is a part of the body of Christ, we will continue to be ineffective and to divide the church, the nation, and the world.
The Epistle from this morning makes it clear that the church is Christ’s body on earth.
God gives different gifts to different people. Some, a passion for peace; Others, a passion for political freedom. Some, a passion for life and its sacredness, Others, a passion for forgiveness and mercy. Some, a passion for a more closed interpretation of the Bible, Others, a passion for a more open interpretation of the Bible. Some, a passion for evangelism, Others, a passion for justice. All of these people believe they are working for the common good. Each and every one of these people are inspired by the one and same Spirit, the Spirit who gives to each person their unique and different perspective. For just as the human body is a unified whole, composed of millions of different parts, so is Christ and his body. The upshot here, though, is that we must be the body of Christ, who taught us to love our neighbors as ourselves. The Christ who taught us to do unto others as we would have them do unto us. The Christ who taught us to love and to pray for our enemies.
Each of us needs a passionate commitment to Jesus, not a passionate commitment to political, ideological, or stylistic ideas. We don’t need to focus on consumer desires or even on one frame of reference theologically. We have lost our focus. We are concentrating on everything and everyone except our Lord.
We have to change this. We have to rediscover our faith, our Jesus. When we rediscover Jesus Christ, our lives will be revitalized. We must rediscover the beauty, the majesty, and the power of a strong commitment to Jesus Christ. When that happens, we will not get bent out of shape about walls and politics. The central question will be, “Did we meet Jesus?” not “Was my opinion supported today?”
To say that Jesus Christ is the root and foundation, the cornerstone, the vine, is not a way of evading issues. This is calling the church to understand that we are Jesus people. We are members of his body, and the church in all of its power and strength needs to rediscover Jesus. Yes, issues are important. Yes, we should be politically aware. However, if we do not view issues through the lens of the Gospel, if we are not acting on our political awareness with love, we are nothing, will be nothing, and certainly will not be effective. If we do not work for those political and social issues while demonstrating the love of Christ, our love FOR Christ, then we have nothing, are nothing.
If you have these passions in your heart, these workings, but if you don’t have love inside of you for your brothers and sisters who think and feel differently than you, you are nothing. The greatest gift that God has for you is love. Love for people who don’t think like you. Love for people who do not share your point of view on specific issues. You are to make love, your goal, your aim, your greatest purpose for life.
When we rediscover Jesus Christ, our belief will be strengthened and focused. When the church rediscovers Jesus Christ, the people will come for the show, but they will stay to grow. The only noise we will hear in a church, on our streets, in our Facebook feeds, will be people swimming from the shallow end to the deep end of the pool because they feel safe in deep water.
There was a wedding at Cana in Galilee,
and the mother of Jesus was there.
Jesus and his disciples were also invited to the wedding.
When the wine ran short,
the mother of Jesus said to him,
“They have no wine.”
And Jesus said to her,
“Woman, how does your concern affect me?
My hour has not yet come.”
His mother said to the servers,
“Do whatever he tells you.”
Now there were six stone water jars there for Jewish ceremonial washings,
each holding twenty to thirty gallons.
Jesus told the them,
“Fill the jars with water.”
So they filled them to the brim.
Then he told them,
“Draw some out now and take it to the headwaiter.”
So they took it.
And when the headwaiter tasted the water that had become wine,
without knowing where it came from
— although the servers who had drawn the water knew —,
the headwaiter called the bridegroom and said to him,
“Everyone serves good wine first,
and then when people have drunk freely, an inferior one;
but you have kept the good wine until now.”
Jesus did this as the beginning of his signs at Cana in Galilee
and so revealed his glory,
and his disciples began to believe in him. JN 2:1-11
Picture it – Jesus and his mom are at a wedding, the wine starts running low, and Mary wants to help. Mary tells Jesus in a way that lets him know that she wants him to do something about it. Jesus replies “Woman, how does your concern affect me? My hour has not yet come.” He wasn’t being rude to her, this is how it gets translated to English. In context, Mary has just come up to him and informed Jesus that the people running the wedding have no wine, so you might literally translate his response as “What [is that] to me and to you?” In other words: “What does that have to do with us?”
He’s not dissing her. He’s putting the two of them–both of them–in a special category together and questioning the relevance of the fact that people outside this category don’t have wine. He’s saying that it’s not the responsibility of the two of them to make sure they have wine.
Part of what makes it sound like Jesus might be dissing his mother is the fact that he refers to her as “woman.”
We don’t talk to women like that today–not if we respect them, and certainly not our own mothers.
But the connotations–of respect, disrespect, or other things–that a word has in a given language are quite subtle, and we can’t impose the connotations that a word has in our own language on another.
Consider: Suppose, in English, we replaced “woman” with a term that means basically the same thing but with better connotations. For example, the word “lady” or “ma’am.” Suddenly what Jesus says sounds a lot more respectful.
In British circles, “lady” has distinctly noble overtones (it’s the female counterpart to the noble honorific “lord”). And even in demotic America, a son can say, “Yes, ma’am” to his mother and mean it entirely respectfully. So what can we learn about the connotations of “woman” as a form of address in Jesus’ time?
But Mary is far from the only woman for whom this word is used as a form of address. We also find the following:
- Jesus uses it to address the Syro-Phoenician woman (Matt. 15:28).
- Jesus uses it to address the woman with a hemorrhage (Luke 13:12).
- Peter uses it to address the high priest’s servant girl (Luke 22:57).
- Jesus uses it to address the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4:21).
- Two angels use it to address Mary Magdalene (John 20:13).
- Jesus uses it to address Mary Magdalene (John 20:15).
- Paul uses it to address an individual wife among his readers (1 Cor 7:16).
- Paul uses it to address the wives in his audience (Col 3:18, using the plural: gunaikes).
- Peter uses it to address the wives in his audience (1 Peter 3:1, using the plural: gunaikes).
That’s quite a few uses, but none of them are disrespectful!
So, let’s move on to the miracle and the disciples. The disciples were at the wedding with Mary and Jesus: Mary is being a typical mother and Jesus is being a typical son by questioning everything His mom told Him to do. I can imagine she gave Him “THE LOOK” ….. you know that look that a mom can give that lets you know that if you don’t stop what you are doing and do what she tells you to do there is going to be trouble. Jesus agrees to help the wedding party out and make some wine for the guests. Long story short, Jesus makes enough wine for everybody and the disciples witness the miracle. This is His first miracle, and up until now the disciples knew that He was something special. Now they knew for sure that He was who and what he claimed to be. Although John acknowledged that Jesus performed many miracles, he describes only seven. Arguably this is not the most amazing of his miracles, it is the one that caused the disciples to know for sure in their hearts that they were truly in the presence of the Messiah, and that through this belief you may have life in His name. So too can we have eternal life through Jesus and his miracles, but most especially through His sacrifice on the cross, where He gave His life that we may have eternal life. Things we can take away from this miracle:
1: This miracle lets us know that Jesus is concerned about the little things in life as well as the big things.
2: This miracle assures us that God can take something ordinary and turn it into something really wonderful.
3: This miracle assures us that God’s love is abundant and plentiful as was the wine.
Heavenly Father, consider us as the empty vessels waiting to be filled with your love and grace. Take away our worries, and fill us with a new energy of trust and faith just as Mary and the disciples had faith that Jesus was the Messiah. Give us the gift of being filled with new wine and a new vision. Amen.
In the time of King Herod, after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem, asking, “Where is the child who has been born king of the Jews? For we observed his star at its rising, and have come to pay him homage.”
When King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him; and calling together all the chief priests and scribes of the people, he inquired of them where the Messiah was to be born.
They told him, “In Bethlehem of Judea; for so it has been written by the prophet: ‘And you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah, are by no means least among the rulers of Judah; for from you shall come a ruler who is to shepherd my people Israel.'”
Then Herod secretly called for the wise men and learned from them the exact time when the star had appeared. Then he sent them to Bethlehem, saying, “Go and search diligently for the child; and when you have found him, bring me word so that I may also go and pay him homage.”
When they had heard the king, they set out; and there, ahead of them, went the star that they had seen at its rising, until it stopped over the place where the child was. When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh.
And having been warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they left for their own country by another road. Matthew 2:1-12 (NIV)
Today we mark the end of the Christmas season – the Day of Epiphany. We celebrate this day to reflect on the visit of the Magi – the wise men – to Jesus and the giving of their gifts. We reflect on the meaning of this visit of those wise ones to see Jesus.
Epiphany is about Jesus and his message being available and relevant to people of every age and race. Jesus isn’t just a Jewish prophet with an exciting message, but God made present amongst us and available to all of us to worship and follow. God’s love reaches beyond the everyday barriers of race and class; something the Magi didn’t quite get at first.
So Who Were the Magi?
We don’t know much about the Magi from Scripture. All Saint Matthew tells us is that they were “Magi from the East”. Some translations have “Wise men from the East”. The word in Greek refers to priests of the Zoroastrian religion. They came from Persia, the countries now known as Iran and Iraq, and they saw meaning in the movement of the stars. Their visit fits an Eastern pattern of great births being accompanied by momentous events in the sky. Certainly we know of a comet in 11BCE in Gemini with its head towards Leo, seen by many as a symbol of Judah. We also know of planetary conjunctions in both 7 BCE and 6 BCE which would have added to a sense that momentous happenings were on the way. The Magi would have noticed these things and taken them seriously. But who were they?
One commentator, Brian Stoffregen puts it like this;
“Originally in Persia, Magi were dream- interpreters. By Jesus’ time, the term referred to astronomers, fortune-tellers, or star-gazers. They were horoscope fanatics – a practice condemned by Jewish standards. We might compare them to people in fortune – telling booths, or people on the “psychic hotline” or other “occupations” that foretell the future by stars, tea leaves, Tarot cards etc. They were magicians, astronomers, star-gazers, pseudo-scientists, fortune tellers…”
Another writer, Nathan Nettleton, puts it like this;
“They were the speakers of the sacred words at the pagan sacrifices. At worst, the term referred to a magician or sorcerer, or even a deceiver. Magi were people whose activities were repeatedly condemned and prohibited throughout the scriptures and were completely anathema to the people of Israel.”
Whilst in English we get the words “magic” and “magician” from Magi, the Zoroastrian religion forbade sorcery. They clearly were looking for a new king and had found meaning in the movement of the planets and stars which led them to come to Israel to greet the new-born king. They journeyed from their homes in Persia to Bethlehem in search of this baby. Instead of angels and visions, we have the image of the Magi following a sign in the skies – in nature – and for a long period of time. The magi see the intentions of God in the skies. This is not new: Psalm 19 tells us that the heavens themselves declare who God is, and that his handiwork is seen in created nature. “We observed his star at its rising”. The magi know that there is something significant happening.
When did they come?
The Gospel of Saint Luke doesn’t mention the Magi and holds that the Holy Family returned to Nazareth after the presentation of Jesus at the Temple where he was circumcised. It’s probable that Saint Luke didn’t know of this episode in Jesus’ early life. Saint Matthew seems to place the visit of the Magi some time after Jesus’ birth. The Holy Family are in a “house” not in the stable of the inn. Herod kills all the newborn boys under the age of two years. So it’s likely that the Holy Family had stayed for some time in Bethlehem and the Magi came some time after Jesus’ birth, perhaps as long as two years after.
WHY did they come?
Clearly, the Magi were searching. The Magi recognized much of the truth of Jesus, who he was and what he would become. The Magi had a general idea of this God and this King of the Jews, but they didn’t really know who or what they were looking for. Bono and U2 were criticized some years ago by some supposedly orthodox Christians when they produced a song entitled, “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For,” which is about searching for fulfillment. You see, the example of the Magi was that they were searchers, not really knowing what or who they were looking for. They didn’t claim to have it all but they saw their lives as a journey of discovery. And in that they are an example to us. We don’t know it all. But if we, like them, are prepared to be diligent seekers, then, like them, we may be graced by God’s light, by our own Epiphany. When the wise men finally found Jesus, we are told that their first response was joy – “they were overwhelmed with joy”. That is what happens when we find Jesus. This is what awaits us at the end of the journey. Next, they paid him homage – they worshiped him and acknowledged Him as King. After the joy comes the worship. That means acknowledging Jesus as King. Jesus as the center. Jesus as Lord. And then, after joy and after worship, comes offering of their gifts. In response to who Jesus is and the joy He gives, we offer ourselves and our gifts to Him.
So my message for today is to dare, like them, to take the risk of seeking, and God may well bless us with our own Epiphanies which transform us, as doubtless the Magi were transformed by what must have been a surprising experience for them as they knelt before the infant Jesus.
So how do you find Jesus? Maybe you can start out like the Magi – with a general idea of God, and a general idea that He is guiding you. Like the Magi, we need to turn to the scriptures. If you don’t read them, you will never really get the specific directions that God is trying to give you. Approach them with the right spirit, the right purpose. Ask for help along the way – the church, we, God’s people, are meant to help you along that way. The wise men knew when they needed to ask someone else for help. And pray. Ask God. When you find Jesus, rejoice. After all, He is God. Put Him in the center of your life. Ask yourself whether what you are doing honors him a King. Offer to him what you have, who you are.
Where can this Jesus be found? He is with you now. Won’t you seek Him? Won’t you recognize Him? Won’t you let Him fill YOUR life with joy? Amen.
After 2000 years of Christmas sermons, in hundreds of languages, in different countries throughout the world, and by way of innumerable faith traditions, is there anything new or original left to be said about Christmas, and what it means, that hasn’t been said before? Perhaps not. However, like re-reading that favorite book for the 17th time, or watching that favorite movie or television show for the 358th time, even when you know exactly what comes next, what the very next word is going to be, often we find a new meaning or a new slant on something that is as tried and true as Christmas itself.
And so it is with me this year. This Gospel reading recalls the story of the angels bringing the news of Christ’s birth to the shepherds. Now, we all know that story. We’ve heard it many times over, and those of us who cherish “A Charlie Brown Christmas” will always, in some ways, hear Linus quoting from Luke, no matter who is reading that passage of the Bible to us. We know the story. We SEE the story in every Nativity scene we pass by. There is almost always a shepherd near the manger carrying a lamb on his shoulders and another lamb or sheep to be seen somewhere hanging around. It’s always seemed to me that the sheep and the shepherds were just THERE, minor players in a Christmas play, the “extras” assigned to the kids who didn’t quite measure up to the roles of Mary or Joseph; they enter stage left, ooh and aah over the baby, and exit stage right, singing “Go tell it on the mountain”, singularly unimportant and taking secondary roles to the more illustrious wise men (who in reality weren’t there at all) and most definitely playing supporting roles to the Holy Family, or just standing around as so much scenery, contributing to the mood and filling up the bare spots in the Nativity scene. I overheard a conversation recently that made me really think about the shepherds. While visiting some friends, their cat jumped into the midst of the family crèche and knocked over the obligatory shepherd. It was chipped. The younger daughter of the family was somewhat distressed, and to make the little girl feel better, the mother said to her, “Don’t worry about it, Honey. It’s just the shepherd. He’s not all that important.” I didn’t think much about it at the time, but when reading the Scripture appointed for today, it struck me. Not all that important? But weren’t they? Who WERE these shepherds? Why were they there in the first place? Why did THEY get the news of Christ’s birth in such a spectacular way? Who were they that they should be eyewitnesses of God’s glory and receive history’s greatest birth announcement?
In Christ’s day, shepherds stood on the bottom rung of the Palestinian social ladder. They shared the same unenviable status as tax collectors and dung sweepers. Only Luke mentions them. When the twelve tribes of Israel migrated to Egypt, they encountered a lifestyle foreign to them. The Egyptians were agriculturalists. As farmers, they despised shepherding because sheep and goats meant death to crops. Battles between farmers and shepherds are as old as they are fierce. The first murder in history erupted from a farmer’s resentment of a shepherd. Smug religious leaders maintained a strict caste system at the expense of shepherds and other common folk. Shepherds were officially labeled “sinners”—a technical term for a class of despised people.
Into this social context of religious snobbery and class prejudice, God’s Son stepped forth. How surprising and significant that God the Father handpicked lowly, unpretentious shepherds to be the first to hear the joyous news: “It’s a boy, and He’s the Messiah!” What an affront to the religious leaders who were so conspicuously absent from the divine mailing list. Even from birth, Christ moved among the lowly. It was the sinners, not the self-righteous, He came to save. So is it really all that surprising that the first announcement of Christ’s birth was to the lowly shepherds on Bethlehem’s hillsides?
Consider the events leading up to Christ’s birth. Mary was barely 15. Christ was born to an unwed mother, Mary, a servant girl; Mary the young woman who delivered while only betrothed to Joseph. He was born in a stable, a cave! A holy God being born to a couple no different than immigrants, far from home and in a strange city, in a place where animals were kept. A couple who couldn’t even find a place to stay, turned out of every inn! It’s all too bizarre.
Yet this is the God we experience. This is our claim; This is the meaning of his very name: Immanuel, meaning “God with us” — with us not just in nice times, but most especially in the times of our lives when we are in the caves, and stables of our lives, when we are turned out of the places we’d like to be, when we are at the lowest of low points, when we are out in the dark, and in the cold like the shepherds.
Our God, the God who comes to us in the person of Jesus Christ, is the God of the oppressed, the repressed, the depressed; the God of the sad, the grieving, the sorrowful; the God of the lonely, the lowly, the poor, the God of the Shepherds; the God of the despised, the destitute, the dejected. Our God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, the God who stood with the enslaved Hebrews in Egypt, who led them out of Egypt to a promised land of freedom. Our God is the God of widows and orphans and stranded travelers. Our God is the God who doesn’t stay neat and tidy and spotless, but comes and stands beside us in our times of deepest need, who comes among us as the child in the dirty manger and the God of the shepherds on the hillside. The God we’re speaking of dares to join the unsuccessful, the failures, the dispossessed, and the downtrodden; the God of the Shepherds.
Wherever there is suffering, our God is there. He stands with Zacchaeus, the despised tax collector, and with Bartimaeus, the blind beggar. He is with us when we face cancer, chemotherapy, and radiation treatments. He is with us when we face amputations, operations, loneliness, the loss of a loved one, or even death itself. The God of the manger and the Shepherd is Immanuel, God with us. At our deepest times of loss and need, in the dirtiest and most embarrassing parts of our lives, God is with us, His rod and His staff, they comfort us. It is God who glues us back together when we become, like that figure in my friends’ Nativity scene, chipped, flawed, and much less than perfect.
And it is up to us, to demonstrate the love of God, the God of the lowly, the downtrodden, to the world. We, like the shepherds in the Christmas story, are to be the ones who are to proclaim the good news “which shall be to all people” to all the people of the world. It is our responsibility as Christians to be the instruments through which God can work in this world. As was most famously stated more than four centuries ago by Saint Theresa of Avila:
Christ has no body but yours,
no hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on this world,
Yours are the feet with which he walks to do good,
Yours are the hands, with which he blesses all the world.
Yours are the hands, yours are the feet,
Yours are the eyes, you are his body.
Christ has no body now but yours, no hands, no feet on earth but yours,
Yours are the eyes with which he looks with compassion on this world.
Christ has no body now on earth but yours.
My very favorite Christmas carol, “In the Bleak Midwinter,” includes the lines, “What, then, shall I bring him, empty as I am? If I were a shepherd, I would bring a lamb. If I were a wise man I would do my part. What can I give Him? I can give Him my heart.”
Won’t you, this Christmas, give Him your heart? Won’t you, like the shepherds in the children’s plays of the Christmas story, be one to “go tell it on the mountain, over the fields and everywhere” that Jesus Christ is born? Amen.
What are you sacrificing for Christmas?
Brothers and sisters:
When Christ came into the world, he said:
“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire,
but a body you prepared for me;
in holocausts and sin offerings you took no delight.
Then I said, ‘As is written of me in the scroll,
behold, I come to do your will, O God.'”
First he says, “Sacrifices and offerings,
holocausts and sin offerings,
you neither desired nor delighted in.”
These are offered according to the law.
Then he says, :Behold, I come to do your will.”
He takes away the first to establish the second.
By this “will,” we have been consecrated
through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.
When Christ came into the world as the baby born in Bethlehem there were shepherds watching over their flocks by night just outside of Bethlehem. Those shepherds raised sheep and lambs, some of which were no doubt used for sacrifices at the Temple in Jerusalem. Sacrifices that were commanded by God. Sacrifices that were offered to God as an atonement for sins. But those sacrifices themselves didn’t forgive the sins of God’s people. As a Lenten hymn tells us, “Not all the blood of beasts On Israel’s altars slain Could give the guilty conscience peace or wash away the stain.” Those sacrifices themselves didn’t wash away the sins of God’s people, and yet God’s people went home with the assurance that their sins were forgiven, not because of the sacrifices themselves, but because of the One to whom those sacrifices pointed. They pointed to Jesus, the “Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” As that Lenten hymn goes on to tell us, “But Christ, the heavenly Lamb, takes all our sins away, a sacrifice of nobler name and richer blood than they.” Sacrifice what you want for Lent, or even for Christmas, but keep in mind that your sacrifices can never make you right with God. Your sacrifices can never give you better standing with God. How often aren’t we tempted to think that they can? When it comes to how much we go to church? How much we put in the offering plate? How much we volunteer our time and talents? God’s people in the Old Testament often felt the same way. It often led them to go through the motions, worshipping God with their lips, while their hearts were far from him. They missed the point, and it even came to the point where God told them, “stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to me. I cannot bear your evil assemblies. They have become a burden to me; I am wearing of bearing them…I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgement of God rather than burnt offerings.” Yet even in his anger, we see his love, telling his people, “Come now, let us reason together, though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they are red as crimson, they shall be like wool.” It doesn’t matter how much you give of your time, talents, or treasures. It doesn’t matter how much you go to church or Bible class or even how much you volunteer. These are all good things, but if these things aren’t motivated by God’s love for you, you’ve missed the point. John makes the point when he writes, “we love because he first loved us.” Looking back on our lives, we can probably think of the many good things we’ve done for the wrong reasons. Serving because it was expected of us. Helping because no one else stepped up to do so. Volunteering because no one else seemed to care. Showing up because we were afraid of what people might think if we didn’t. We may have put a lot of time and effort into these things, but if these things weren’t motivated by God’s love for us, Paul tells us, “I am nothing and I gain nothing.” Isaiah tells us, “all of us have become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous acts are like filthy rags.” No matter what we do, our sacrifices cannot save us, but thankfully Christ’s sacrifice alone saves us. He took the filthy rags of our righteous and unrighteous deeds and he carried them to the cross where he washed them and us, making us clean through his holy precious blood. The innocent one became the guilty one. The righteous one became the unrighteous one. Stricken, Smitten, and Afflicted by God who, “made him who had no sin to be sin for us so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” Though his perfect life, his innocent death, and his glorious resurrection, our unrighteous garments have been removed and we’ve been clothed in the garment of Christ’s righteousness. Because of Jesus, we are at peace with God. Peace with God doesn’t begin with what you do for God, rather it begins with what God has done for you. On the night of His birth, the angels sang, “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men on whom his favor rests.” Glory to God in the highest that he sent his Son to be our Savior. The Savior who said, “Here I am—it is written about me in the scroll— I have come to do your will, O God.” Jesus came to do God’s will to forgive the many times we haven’t. As we learn in Catechism class, God’s will involve His Word being shared with all people. God’s will involve all people being saved. God’s will involves living a holy life. Loving God and our neighbor perfectly. How many times have we failed to do this? How many times have we spoken words that hurt others? How many times have we made sacrifices in life to the point where it hurt? If we’re honest with ourselves, we see how our sins are many and our sacrifices are few. For the times we went about life with the attitude of, “my will be done,” we can be thankful that Jesus always went about life with the attitude of “thy will be done.” Love God and His Word. “Thy will be done,” perfectly by Jesus. Even as a teenager, he never grumbled and complained when mom or dad said it was time to go to church. Love and serve your neighbor. “Thy will be done,” perfectly by Jesus. He never looked the other way or made excuses when the opportunities to help and serve were placed before him. He wasn’t afraid to tell people to repent and believe the good news of God’s forgiveness. In his active obedience, he kept the law perfectly for us. In his passive obedience, he willingly died for our sins against it. Out of love for us, he allowed himself to be led away in chains like a criminal. Out of love for us, he allowed soldiers to drive nails through his hands and feet. Out of love for us, he was led like a lamb to the slaughter. Whereas we are all like sheep that have gone astray, the Lord laid on him the iniquity of us all. As the perfect Lamb of God, he offered his life on the cross to take away your sins and mine and the sins of the world. He perfectly fulfilled the will of God, and “by that will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” No matter how much or how many, the end result of our sacrifices would have brought God’s wrath and punishment in hell. But the end result of Christ’s sacrifice brings us grace and every blessing here on earth and for all eternity in heaven. Through the perfect sacrifice of Jesus, we have been made holy through the blood of Christ. Through the perfect sacrifice of Jesus, our sacrifices take on a whole new meaning. They’re not done to earn heaven, but rather to thank God for His gift of heaven. Jesus is the reason why we make sacrifices to give God the very best in our time, talents, and treasures. To say thank you to God for the treasure of salvation that is ours in Jesus! Working through Word and Sacrament, the Holy Spirit has given you the gift of faith and the realization that our greatest treasure in life is Jesus. The work we do together as individual Christians, as members of a Christian congregation. The sacrifices we make in our lives, our schedules, our home, our church, our school, our preschool, our Sunday School, and our youth group programs are done to connect people to Jesus and keep them connected for time and eternity. What are you sacrificing for Christmas? May any of the sacrifices we make be done out of thanks and praise to Jesus. Sacrifices that come from cheerful hearts praising God for all the wonderful things he has done. This Christmas will find people making sacrifices to give their loved ones a Merry Christmas. Companies competing for your time, attention, and money. Something we’re far too often too eager to give. But the sacrifices we make for the things of this world will last us for just that, if that. But the sacrifices we make for God’s Word and God’s Work will last for time and eternity. The sacrifices we make to share the sacrifice of Jesus with others will result in people enjoying the glories of heaven one day. With that kind of attitude and mindset, no matter what happens this Christmas, you will have a truly Merry Christmas indeed!
Brothers and Sister: Blessings to you all on this 3rd Sunday in Advent! Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete! Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice! And how good it is in this penitential season of introspection and preparation for the coming of the Lord, to turn our hearts with anticipation to joyous prospects of the return of the bridegroom. What’s this you ask, joy in a season of repentance? Amen I say to you, how better to prepare ourselves for the coming of the bridegroom then to sing praises and thanksgiving for all the Creator has given us; after all, are we not to be the torch bearers of the light of Christ into the darkness of the world and preachers of the Good News? How good can the news be if its bearers trudge from place to place covered in ashes, donning sack cloth and and emanating an air of personal unworthiness?
Gaudete: iterum dico, gaudete, for the Lord has done great things for us! Our Creator knows of our imperfections and loves us just the same; when we, in our flawed nature, stray from the righteous path and commit transgressions, the Creator does not get mad or hold a grudge against us, but grieves with disappointment for our failings. Then, when we repent, are we not forgiven and joyfully welcomed into the kingdom with open arms? This is the Good News John the Baptist announced as a prelude to the coming of the and the Message Jesus Christ brought at His nativity, proclaimed in His ministry and sealed by His sacrifice on the cross.
As John preached repentance and prepared to baptize the faithful, they in turn asked what they should do so that they might be saved; his response surely must have bewildered them. Surely they expected to be told to make an offering and sacrifice at the temple; yet they were instructed to share their bounty with those in need, to use fair and honest business practices, and to not blackmail or falsely accuse the innocent. Would not offerings be better made at the temple to win the Lord’s favor than to give them to the poor or a stranger? As we are told in Hosea (6:6) the Creator desires “ mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” The Creator’s institution of sacrifice was to be a lesson in willingness to offer up what you have to the will of the Creator and an exercise against sins of hoarding and greediness. Initially, for the small nomadic families, the practice would have demonstrated that giving up a portion for God’ work would not be a detriment but a blessing to the family, therefore, altruism and hospitality to a wandering stranger as the fulfillment of God’s will also provide blessings. As populations grew and settled into cities, caring for the needy became centralized as a function of the temple and so communal sacrifice predominated with its many legal impediments and corruption flourished. The Creator sent John to “make straight” the righteous path and bring the people back to the concept of hospitality and altruistic sacrifice as an individualize responsibility. Jesus Christ made the final an ever lasting blood sacrifice by offering up Himself as the eternal and everlasting example of individual altruism, grace and the Creator’s love for humanity.
So on this 3rd Sunday in Advent, as the prophet Zephaniah has proclaimed: “Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The LORD has removed the judgment against you, The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love,” (Zep 3:15, 17). The Good News is we are all loved by our Creator and Christ paid the ultimate sacrifice so that those who repent their transgressions and share their bounty with those less fortunate,will receive forgiveness and everlasting salvation in God’s heavenly kingdom. Brothers and Sisters, shed that air of sack cloth and ashes, lift up your heads, hands and hearts, sing praises of joy and thanksgiving for all that the Lord has done. Radiate the hope, love and joy of the light of Christ as your carry the Good News to all you meet. Repent and share your bounty with the strangers in need among us so that they too may cry out: “Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete!”