Saturday, January 01, 2005

Centering, Prayer

A sermon preached on December 31st, The Feast of the Holy Name (tr.)
At St. Paul's Episcopal Church, St. Joseph, MI

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.

Well, here it is New Year’s Eve, we’re getting ready for another new year. I’m sure that many of us, if we stay up tonight to welcome in the New Year, will do so in the company of Regis Philbin, filling in for Dick Clark as the great crystal ball comes down in Times Square.

It’s a little funny that our attention should be simultaneously focused on something happening so far away. After all, the year changes here, too. Even when we lived in Chicago, and hour earlier than New York, we would watch as the year changed in Times Square and celebrate the New Year at eleven p.m. People gather in Times Square hours early, jockeying for good position to see the ball come down and maybe even be seen on national T.V. A friend of mine from seminary who grew up in Brooklyn is fond of calling New York City the center of the universe. If that’s true, then Times Square, especially on New Year’s Eve, must surely be the center of the center of the universe.

Continue reading Centering, Prayer

But contrast all of this hoopla and fanfare and nationally televised hubbub with the scene in the stable near Bethlehem. Jesus’ arrival isn’t broadcast or choreographed; in fact he comes on the scene accidentally, as it were, at the end of a long trip back home for Joseph. They aren’t able to find accommodation suitable even for peasants, much less the King of Kings. Once the umbilical cord is cut, Mary lays her unlikely baby in the closest thing to hand, an animal food trough. Commentary to this odd scene is not provided by the first-century equivalent of Dick Clark, but rather by shepherds, rough unreliable yokels who report seeing angels. For some reason, the angels themselves do not put in an appearance.

And then we have eight days of silence. Where did the Holy Family stay? What did they do? We are not told. But we do know that during these eight days, their child did not yet have a name. That would wait until he was circumcised according to the requirements of the covenant. And that then immediately precedes another thirty years or so of silence and anonymity when even the relatively dim lights of the gospels are not trained on the man. Jesus’ humble origins can hardly be overstated.

How much more amazing is it then, that Christians believe that this child is not only special but is God incarnate? In the reading from the letter to the Philippians tonight, Paul has just finished talking about the profound humility of Jesus. He says that Jesus, “though he was in the form of God did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.”

In this story is revealed a God who so completely and thoroughly loves us that he willingly adopts the dependence and vulnerability of being a human baby, who so identifies with us that he willingly takes on anonymity and silence, who is so patient with his creation that he does not come among us with cataclysmic and overawing power, but comes among us in the form of a nameless child and waits for thirty-some odd years before he begins his three or so years of ministry that we hear about in the gospels.

The philosopher Nietzsche claimed that Christianity celebrates weakness, when what ought to be celebrated was strength. In this day, when places like Times Square seem to be the center of the center of our universe, and when our sights seem habitually placed on the wealthy and powerful, maybe we might suspect he’s on to something?

And yet the story of Jesus’ birth shows us otherwise. For this weakness, this anonymity is willingly taken on for the sake of the world’s salvation. God’s strength is shown in this: that in his longsuffering patience, in his identification with fallen humanity, in his thoroughgoing love, there is no sacrifice of God’s limitless power. We might feel insecure in being dependent or anonymous or longsuffering: God does not. This is not a sacrifice to his ego or somehow threatening to his status as creator of the universe. Instead this is a manifestation of his profound love and endless generosity.

And through this there is a promise, too. Paul mentions it, that alongside Jesus’ humility, he is also highly exalted, with an authority which is above all others. He says that in time – again, that patience! – everyone will bow to him and confess that he is Lord of all.

All of which suggests that Times Square might not be the center of the center of the universe after all. Nor is any of us the center of the universe; narcissism is a complete dead end. Nor is any other person, place or thing the center of the universe; that is to be distracted by idolatry. The center, the dead center of it all is Jesus Christ.

He is the humble one who is exalted by God. He is the nameless one whose name is above every name. He is the obscure one who will one day be known and revered by all. He stoops down to us so that we might bend the knee towards him. He takes on silence so that we in turn may speak and claim that he is Lord of all to the glory of God the Father. He is the one who so thoroughly shows us God’s patience, compassion and love that we confess that Jesus himself is very God of very God.

And so as we enter 2005, we give thanks for the year which is drawing to a close. We remember and lift before God those moments of light and love and grace which we have experienced, and we also lift before him the struggles and losses of our lives and the upheavals and suffering throughout the world. We also come before God in hope for another year of growing in God’s love, another year of serving others in Christ’s name, another year of grace.

And now, at this very moment suspended between memory of the past and hope for the future, we give thanks and recommit ourselves to the one at the center of it all, our Lord Jesus Christ, to the glory of God the Father. Amen.

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