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Sunday December 26, 1999 ~ First Sunday after Christmas

Isaiah 61:10 - 62:3
Roman Catholic reading: Sirach 3:2-6, 12-14
Episcopal reading: Isaiah 61:10 - 62:3

Psalm 148
Roman Catholic reading: Psalm 128:1-5
Episcopal reading: Psalm 147 or Psalm 147:13-21

Galatians 4:4-7
Roman Catholic reading: Colossians 3:12-21
Episcopal reading: Psalm 147 or Psalm 147:13-21

Luke 2:22-40
Roman Catholic reading: Luke 2:22-40 or Luke 2:22, 39-40
Episcopal reading: John 1:1-18


The Actions of Christmas
VI. Growing

I was about twelve years old when I discovered an amazing truth. Not everyone is sad to see the excitement of Christmas morning and the opening of gifts come to a conclusion. There was a custom with my childhood friends where we would visit each other’s homes on Christmas morning with our favorite Christmas gift in hand. It helped to extend the excitement of the morning.

On this particular Christmas morning, as my two brothers, my sister and myself were headed out the door to our friend’s homes, I overheard my dad remark to my mother, "I’m glad that’s over with!" I was taken aback. "Isn’t everybody excited about all the excitement? How can anybody be glad it’s over?"

I must confess that in the years that have followed, having spent many "exciting" Christmas mornings with "excited" children, I have gained some empathy with my father’s comment. Perhaps you have had a time or two when you found yourself feeling a bit of relief after the hectic pace of the holiday season.

Our friends Scott and Laura Anderson had a time like that just this year. Their four year old daughter was going to play Mary in the preschool presentation during the Sunday School Christmas pageant at their church. Laura sewed the clothes her daughter, Rebecca was going to wear. They took her faithfully to rehearsals in the weeks before Christmas and spent many hours rehearsing with her the one line she was to speak.

"Lord, I am your servant, let it be to me according to your word."

Admittedly it was a bit much for a four year old, but Rebecca is a precocious little girl and she could finally speak her line flawlessly. Until the night of the pageant! When the time came for Rebecca to speak the Virgin Mary’s words, she looked out at the packed church… her eyes grew as big as saucers… and she wailed! And wouldn’t stop wailing! Her mom had to rescue her and take her from the sanctuary and on the way to the nursery, the wailing continued to echo down the hall of the ducation wing.

After the pageant, during a time of fellowship, Rebecca had recovered and was saying to everyone she saw, "Lord, I am your servant, let it be to me according to your word." Laura Anderson now looked as though she might break into a wail.

Scott and Laura Anderson are at least a "little bit" happy that the season is history – at least the pageant part of the season.

***

It is important for Christians to understand that Christmas has not ended at all. The celebration of Christmas day It is not the end of a story, but the beginning. It is the world’s version of Christmas that is over. Even now, merchants are "deep discounting" all the Christmas paraphernalia and will quickly remove it from their shelves. Corporate accountants are recording this year as another one for the record books. By next week, you will find all kinds of Valentine stuff on the shelves.

That’s Christmas "out there" – it is over.

For us, however, Christmas is not an event for one day, but an invitation to a new life. The baby Jesus whose birth we just celebrated has become "the child" Jesus in our gospel reading.

"The child grew and became strong, filled with wisdom;
and the favor of God was with him."

The baby Jesus who has become the boy Jesus who is growing strong and wise will become the man Jesus who calls us to follow him. His call is an invitation to become strong and gain spiritual wisdom and know the favor of God in our lives.

If Christmas for you and me ends with the passing of December 25th, we miss the promise and fulfillment of the divine gift that has been offered to us. It is in the nurturing and growing of this gift in our lives that we discover the center of our identity as Christian persons. There is a single sentence in the epistle to the Galatians that points us to who we are in light of the "Christ-mas" event.

"So you are no longer a slave, but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God." [Gal. 4:7]

There is a kind of progression here which takes us to: [1] Who we were, [2] Who we are, and [3] Who we are destined to become.

***

[1] Who we were

"You are no longer a slave…" In other words the people Paul was writing to were slaves. This notion would not seem to relate to us at all. But Paul isn’t talking so much about physical slavery as he is religious bondage. It is true that many people in the earliest church had come from a servant class and knew what it meant to be "owned" by someone else, but the slavery Paul is talking about is bondage to the laws of God.

Because they could not keep the laws of God perfectly, they were always in bondage to those laws. They could never gain a sense that their lives were totally acceptable to God. It is like a child who grows up in a family where – no matter how hard they try – they can not please mom and dad 100%. Even statements that were meant to be encouraging would end up with something like, "But…. Next time you could do it this way." Or, "That’s good honey, but you could do a little better." People who grew up in that kind of environment might say they were in bondage to parental expectations they could never fully live up to.

When we hear the bible’s words about slavery and bondage, we may have that, "That was then… this is now" kind of attitude. When Jesus says to the people in his home town synagogue, "I have come to bring… freedom for the oppressed…" it may not seem to apply to us. At least on the surface.

But are we not in bondage in these days of unlimited freedom? Even though our basic civil rights are protected by law, are we really free from slavery? A simple exercise will answer that question quickly.

Think for a moment – what are the two or three top priorities in your life? What means more to you than anything else?

Now – where does the majority of your time go?

Can you see some bondage in your life?

When we embrace God’s great gift of love and life in Jesus Christ – when Christ is truly born in our hearts, there is a serious rearranging of our life’s priorities. When we commit to having our lives under the care of Christ, we come to realize that "once we were slaves!"

[2] Who we are

"You are no longer a slave, but a child…"

Here’s something amazing and wonderful about the birth of Christ. Usually when a child is born, that child comes into a family. When Christ was born, his birth created a family. The gospel of John says of Christ, "He came to his own, but his own did not receive him but to all who received him… he gave power to become children of God." John 1:12

There are a multitude of forces that give shape to our identity. Most of them are external things like what we do, where we went to school, who we know, where we live and a hundred other markers of who we are. The identity that comes from the gift God gave to us in Christ is not so much who we are, but primarily whose we are.

And that is another amazing fact about the divine gift that comes to us at Christmas. Jesus Christ is God’s gift to us, but when we receive this gift, we become a spiritual child of God. We are given to the One who gave himself to us!

[3] Who we are destined to become

"You are no longer a slave, but a child… and if a child then also an heir…"

One of the most wonderful truths about the gift God has given to us is that the joy of this gift can never be taken away. It can not be destroyed and it will not fade with the passing of time. This divine gift was given, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. [John 3:16]

In other words, the family of faith – the family from which we receive our true identity and by which we are made free from all bondage – this family can not be separated. Ever. Even by death.

Though death will remain a part of our lives in this lifetime and though our lives will be visited by grief during our earthly days – the family of faith will endure everlastingly.

Growing in this faith and in this family will be a source of joy forever! As we embark on a new century and journey toward a new millennium, may God give us that joy which can only be known by those of whom it can be said.

"So you are no longer a slave, but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God." [Gal. 4:7]


Discussion and Reflection on the Texts

Connections in the Texts

The thread that runs throughout the texts for today is the theme of joy and rejoicing at what God has done. Our God is the God of salvation. In looking around the world and even within some versions of Christianity, the concept of God is harsh and sometimes brutal. It can be said of some religious notions that God is angry, or God is arbitrary and capricious. God is judging and punishing.

In the Judeo-Christian biblical foundations there is joy and celebration because God has, "clothed me with the garments of salvation…" There is a sense of harmony throughout creation as the psalmist has every being in heaven and on earth as well as sun and moon and stars joining in the praise of God’s name.

We celebrate because Christ has come and we rejoice because God has redeemed us. We pick up the ancient theme in Isaiah and the Psalm and see it fulfilled in righteous Simeon and the prophet Anna in Luke. "At last! At long last, God has come to us and redeemed us." "I can die in peace," Simon says, "Because I have seen your salvation, O Lord!"

 Isaiah

The joy of this passage is rooted in God’s promise of deliverance to the nation of Israel and the vision of the day when the promise is fulfilled and God’s people have been vindicated.

There is one theme which is absolutely foundational to our relationship with the Lord for people of every time and place. A complete homily might be done on this text:

"You shall be a crown of beauty in the hand of the Lord,
        and a royal diadem in the hand of your God."
[Isaiah 62:3]

Creation is most fully what it was designed to be when God is reigning in the earth. Israel is most fully what it was designed to be when God is ruling in the hearts of the people. And you and I are most complete and fulfilled when our lives are in the hands of God.

As a cold chunk of marble becomes the Pieta in the hands of Michelangelo, so we become something beautiful in the hands of God. This is the real promise of Christmas if we embrace the celebration of Christmas as the beginning of something and not the end.

Luke

One of the things that jumps out at me in this text is the anticipatory attitude of the man Simeon. He was, "looking forward to the consolation of Israel." Actually the translation "waiting for the consolation..." is better. Simeon lived his life in anticipation of God’s redemptive work. And here’s a key. Simeon saw the plan and purpose of God in the ordinary.

That’s a spiritual gift. Most of us treat the ordinary as… well, ordinary. When our spirits are looking for, waiting for and anticipating the presence and intervention of God in the common, ordinary events of our daily lives – voila! God is manifested!

Simeon observes an ordinary peasant couple observing the ordinary rituals expected of Jewish parents – and he sees with spiritual eyes the "consolation of Israel." Even Mary and Joseph are amazed at Simeon’s words.

The text is indeed a glimpse into the reality of who Jesus was, yet it is also an encouragement to us to be "waiting for and looking for" the presence of the Lord in our lives.

Galatians

This text provides the essential structure for the thrust of our full text sermon. The subject of who we are as a child of God and an heir of God’s family relates to the message of Isaiah 62:3. We are what we were meant to be when we place our lives in the hands of God. The corollary to this is that we can never become what God designed us to be if we are not in relationship with God.

Another theme in this passage has to do with God’s timing. "When the fullness of time had come…" The sense is that the exact right moment had come for the sending of Christ. " It could not have come sooner and it could not have come later because this was the exact right time. And you see where this is going… God’s timing is not our timing, but God’s timing is always the right timing.

A short illustration may help. When my son was ready to go into seventh grade, we moved to a new city. He had started kindergarten as one of the youngest kids in his class. He was always just a little behind the rest of the group. We considered holding him back for one year before going into seventh grade, but he was embarrassed. The move gave us the opportunity. He would not have to tell anyone he was held back. He still did not like it, but the decision was made anyway. He was 27 years old before he finally acknowledged, "Holding me back for a year when I wanted to go ahead was the best thing that ever happened to me."

His choice of timing was not my choice of timing. We need to trust God’s timing for our lives and it may take the passing of time to understand God’s working.

The observation has been made frequently, but is worth noting here. When we live in relationship with God, we receive the Spirit which cries out "Abba! Father!" In other words the Spirit of God brings about within us the sense of belonging that can only happen in the heart of a child. My daughter has many friends who come to play with her in our home, but she is the only one who calls me, "Daddy." She is the only one who calls my wife, "Mommy." The Holy Spirit is the One who puts the spiritual sense of "Mommy" and "Daddy" within us as we bring our joys and concerns to the Lord.

Worship Helps

Call To Worship (Psalm 148:1-6 Responsively) 

Leader: Praise the LORD!
People: Praise the LORD from the heavens;
                praise him in the heights!

Leader: Praise him, all his angels;
             praise him, all his host!
People: Praise him, sun and moon;
                praise him, all you shining stars!
Leader: Praise him, you highest heavens,
                and you waters above the heavens!
People: Let them praise the name of the LORD,
                for he commanded and they were created.
Unison: He established them forever and ever;
                he fixed their bounds, which cannot be passed.

A Prayer of Dedication

Holy God, we thank you for coming to us in your Son Jesus.
You have made your home with us and have given us every
good gift that has blessed our lives. We thank you and praise
you and confess that our words can never be enough. We bring
these gifts to you with the hope and prayer that the work we do
for you will bring glory to the name of Christ. Amen.

 A Pastoral Prayer

O Holy and Everlasting God, from the days of our infancy you have
watched over us and your grace has surrounded our lives. In the
presence of your love we begin to see – even if dimly at times – all
that you have created us to be. The memories of every Christmas
past, the celebrations of Christmas present and the hope of every
Christmas yet to come is a gift you keep on giving to us.

How can we ever thank you? How can we ever give you enough
honor and praise?

We are amazed Lord. All you ask of us is that we love each other the
way you have loved us and that we tell others about the wonder of your
love. O please forgive our indifference and in your mercy strengthen us
to share the joy of knowing you.

Now we are at the doorway of a new century and on the threshold of a
new millennium. In some ways it is rather daunting. What will the future bring?
What kind of a world will our grandchildren inherit?

Will it be safe? Will is be peaceful? Will there be clean air to breathe and pure
water to drink? Will people love and respect each other?

The future is in your hands O God, and we can not know what will be. But we
do know this one thing. If we are willing to put our lives fully into your hands
then the One who holds the future will also hold us close in love and mercy.

Help us now – in these moments of silence – to reflect on your love and on
your call to us – "Come my child and give your life into my hands."

[A time of silent prayer]

As we leave this century behind and enter the new, surround us with your
divine care and watch over us as we separate one from another until we come together again in the next century!    Amen!