Sermon for the Feast of the Holy Name
Preached at the Church of St. Alban the Martyr
December 31st, 2018
Since many have undertaken to set down an orderly account of the events that have been fulfilled among us, just as they were handed on to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and servants of the word, I too decided after investigating everything carefully from the very first, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, so that you may know the truth concerning the things about which you have been instructed.
Thus begins the gospel according to Saint Luke. Luke is my favorite gospel, and it is the gospel that you are going to hear most Sundays for the coming year. It is the gospel that is read on Christmas Eve and it is the gospel we just heard tonight. Now there are many reasons why I am fond of Luke, but one of the things that most attracts me to him, also happens to be the thing that turns others off. It’s this: Luke is a detailed historian, and Luke likes to be very specific about names and places.
So Luke will say things like: In the days of King Herod of Judea, there was a priest named Zechariah, who belonged to the priestly order of Abijah….or In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary….or In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should be registered. This was the first registration and was taken while Quirinius was governor of Syria…or In the fifteenth year of the reign of emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea and Herod was ruler of Galilee and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.
Names, names and more names, Luke has all these names of people that you can’t pronounce, and names of places that you don’t know where they are. I’m willing to bet that you know where Bethlehem is, but Ituraea? And I’m sure when he mentions Abilene that he’s not talking about Texas. So where is that? I get that it is easy to get bogged down in all these names and historic details. You may find yourself wishing that Luke would just get to the story and skip all of these meaningless names.
Sometimes it reminds me of listening to my grandfather talk about the war. No detail was too trivial to be left out. He didn’t just cook for the troops in the war. No, the way he told the story he used the kitchen of a restaurant that was owned by a lady named Frau Schaener, which had tables that were precisely this wide and this long, and he kept track of the number of meals served by counting the plates he put out, and his commanding officer was so-and-so, and he was in this part of Germany at this time of the year.
Some of those names and places I remember, and I am sad to say that some I don’t. At the time he told me those stories I was just a kid, and I can remember that by the time he was done telling one particular story I had turned myself around until I was laying upside down in the chair, just so that I could see the room from a different angle, I was so bored. And I can remember thinking: just get to the point Grandaddy. I don’t need to know the name of the lady that owned the restaurant, I don’t need to know how big the tables were in her kitchen. Why do those details even matter? Oh, but what I would give today to have all those details written down.
You see, I wanted his stories to be either enlightening or entertaining. They should have a point, and if the details in the story didn’t contribute to the point, then they didn’t matter, they should be left out. But what I didn’t appreciate at the time was that he wasn’t just trying to tell me a story, he was sharing a memory. The details mattered to him, because they actually happened to him. The size of the table in the restaurant where he worked was important to him, because it was a real table that he actually worked on and touched and used; it wasn’t something he made up in his imagination. And Frau Schaener, the lady who owned the restaurant the troops were using, her name mattered, because she was a real person, he knew her. She was not some generic background character; she was a real individual. Including her name in the story mattered to him, because that was her name. I wanted his stories to have a point or a purpose. But his point or purpose in telling the story, was that he wanted me to know what actually happened. He was an eyewitness to one of the most dramatic events in world history, the second world war, and his memory of that event wasn’t shaped by the grand thoughts of historians and philosophers, it was shaped by the real people and the real places that actually touched his life.
I think about those stories a lot now. I think it is because we are saying goodbye to so many of those of the greatest generation. Our living connection to that time is slipping away. And I find myself wanting to hold on tighter to everything they knew and saw and did. I want the details I want the names and maybe that is because I am beginning to realize that these aren’t just stories. These are real lives, and real memories and real people that we really loved. They have given us so much. They have given us everything. Their names and the names of the people that they remember they need to be recorded, if not in our history books, then at least in our hearts. Because real life is not a simple story with a point or a punchline, it is something that you live. Names are not just names, they are lives, real lives.
I think one of the reasons why I love Luke so much is that I sympathize with him. He’s a historian, but he isn’t really interested in talking about movements, or big ideas; he wants to talk about people; real people with real names that lived real lives. Luke had the great fortune to know, or he had access to the stories of, people that were eyewitnesses to THE most dramatic event in human history. And maybe as he was witnessing that generation slip away, he realized that no detail is too trivial, no name is superfluous, because Luke isn’t trying to entertain you or to persuade you; he wants you to know about something that really happened, to people that really lived. Luke is talking about events that have been fulfilled. He isn’t in talking about what God COULD do; he’s talking about what God DID do. And on nights like tonight when we gather to witness the passage of time, I find myself less interested in the big ideas and the speculations of theologians and philosophers and detached historians, and more drawn to the stories of real people, in real places, with real lives and real names.
The most dramatic event in the history of the world didn’t just happen once upon a time to the generic human child of a generic family, with no particular race in no particular place.
It was when Augustus was emperor of Rome, Herod was king of Judea, and Quirinius was governor of Syria. In the town of Bethlehem a baby boy, the Son of God, was born to a virgin girl named Mary. And eight days later, like all Jewish boys, he was circumcised. And his name was Jesus.