He gave power to become children of God


Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas

December 26th, 2021


We have a priest friend, who several years back adopted two little boys. And a couple years ago, right before the pandemic began I believe, our friend decided to take his sons on a trip to the Holy Land. This priest has a strong attachment to and love for the Holy Land, much like Keith and I do, so he wanted to share that experience with his sons.

Well naturally one of the stops on his trip was Bethlehem, and he managed to catch this picture of his boys there which now adorns his Facebook page. Every time I see this picture all sorts of emotions well up inside me. You see, the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem sits on top of a cave that is traditionally recognized as the birthplace of Jesus. And in this picture my friend’s two boys are in the little cave that sits underneath the Church, and they are both sitting underneath the altar and looking down at and touching the silver star on the rock that marks the place where Jesus was born. 

It’s a stunning photograph, because it just says so much. Now my friend has said that what you don’t hear when you look at the picture is their running commentary in the background: “Where’s the barn? Are there any Oxen here? Where’s the manger? Where’s Momma Mary?” Kids are bound to be full of questions, but their questions were really just a way of trying to connect the story that they knew to their life in that moment. I think they were making a connection between Jesus’s story and their own story. What an amazing thing to be able to take children to one of the holiest places on earth and to do so while they are still at the age where they are open to mystery and wonder. Yes, I am envious, and yes, it is something I hope to do with my own kids someday. 

Two little children touching the place where Jesus was born. His story, which they knew, was now a part of their story. This sacred place was a part of their own history. It was a part of their family story. And this family story that they were a part of, had nothing to do with any accidents of genetics or biology; it was a family created by God, not by man.

On Christmas Eve we were told the Christmas story according to the Gospel of Luke, but at the very end of the service before we all departed we heard John tell his version of Jesus’s backstory. It is part of the same gospel we just heard this morning. And John begins Jesus’s story not with his birth in the manger, but with the birth of all creation. John wants you to understand that this Jesus that he is going to tell you about, isn’t just a simple man living at a time in history. This is the God of all creation that has come to live among us. John wants you to understand that this story is much more profound than you realize, but he also wants you to see that it is much more personal. He isn’t just talking about a man named Jesus, he is talking about the Most High God; He isn’t just talking about a man named Jesus; he’s talking about you and me. This story is also about you. This is your family history too.

You see John, the writer of this gospel, knows something about how it feels to be adopted into Jesus’s family. When John, who is often referred to as the disciple whom Jesus loved, or the beloved disciple, when he was standing next to Mary at the foot of Jesus’s cross when he was crucified, Jesus said to him “behold thy mother.” And he said to her “behold thy son.” Mary would be John’s momma now too, and he would be her son. John understood better than any of us how Jesus invites us to be a part of his family. Mary becomes our Mother; God becomes our Father. We are adopted as children of God. So no matter who we are, or where we are from, if we are Christians, then his story is a part of our story. 

Our secular Christmas celebrations are often very focused on the families we are born into and time spent with blood relations. But the Christian story isn’t about that at all. The Holy Family isn’t your standard Mother, Father and Child. This family wasn’t created by genetics, it was created by God. And likewise the only blood that binds the Christian family together is the blood of Jesus. This isn’t a family we are born into; it is a family we are reborn into. All of us. As Christians, we recognize that it isn’t genetics that make us a family, it is a story. A common story. And if Jesus’s story isn’t a part of your story, it can be. That is what the Church is here to proclaim.

But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God, who were born, not of blood or of the will of the flesh or of the will of man, but of God.

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.

You know, I do my best not to project my emotions onto God, but when I look at my friend’s picture of his two little boys playing over the star of Bethlehem, I can’t help but imagine the joy that Jesus must feel whenever a child of any age discovers that his story is a part of their story. Whenever that happens, the Holy Family, Jesus’s family, gets a little bit bigger.

This Happened


Sermon for Christmas Eve 2021


Long ago, but really not so very long ago, a young woman living in a village in the hill country of Northern Palestine, went to gather water at the well for her family. She was a teenager really, by our modern standards we would expect her to be concerning herself with school work or to be excited about hanging out with her friends at the prom, but in the time that she lived she was marrying age. And indeed, this young woman was engaged to be married, although the ceremony had not happened yet, and she was still living at home with her family. And while she was gathering water at the well, this young woman had the most frightening encounter: this being appeared to her, as if out of nowhere, and greeted her; called her by name “Mary.” It told her not to be afraid. She wondered what on earth was happening, but the more the angel spoke, the stranger the encounter became. 

The angel told her that she was favored in God’s eyes, and that she would bear a child that would become a king. But not just any king, a king that will be called the son of the Most High and that would reign over an everlasting kingdom. A king greater than David. A ruler mightier than the Roman emperor who controlled much of the world at the time. Of course, Mary knew that this was ridiculous. She was young, but she wasn’t naïve to the ways of the world. She knew where babies come from. And she knew that at that point she had been untouched by her intended Joseph, at least in that way. But Mary also knew God. She had been brought up hearing the stories of amazing things that God had done for her ancestors: parting the sea, feeding people in the desert, saving them time and again. Mary knew that from time to time this God sends messengers to his people: angels that sometimes look a lot like human beings. Maybe that is what this was. Maybe this story was true. Maybe God was calling her to do this amazing thing. So Mary’s faith moves her to say “Yes, Lord.” Let your will be done. She could have said “no,” but she didn’t. She said yes.

This story of an encounter with an angel at the well, was probably difficult for even Mary to believe, and it had happened to her, her fiancé Joseph understandably would have had a harder time with it. He was clearly a good, honest man, who had love for this young woman even though he didn’t really know her that well yet. So he must have been terribly hurt when she told him this story, hurt because he would have assumed that she had betrayed him and was now lying to him to cover up the trespass. Still his goodness prevailed. He decided to end the engagement quietly rather than publicly shame Mary, which he easily could have done. That is, until he had a dream too. Joseph was also visited by a strange being, only for him it was in a dream and not standing beside the village well. And this being, this angel told Joseph something similar. Mary was telling the truth, as hard as it was for him to believe, this was the truth. 

So Joseph weds Mary, and most of the world just looks at them as an average new couple. Only a few people know that there is more to their story. Of course, that pesky Roman emperor gets in the way. He wants a census of this conquered territory for tax purposes. I guess that is just what you do when you take over a country, you take a census to see how much you now own; William the Conqueror did it when he invaded England in 1066, so why wouldn’t Augustus do it a thousand years earlier? So Mary and Joseph had to travel to Joseph’s ancestral home at a most inconvenient time: when she was about 9 months pregnant. Now obviously I have never been pregnant, but I have been around plenty of pregnant women, and they always need to use the restroom. I can’t imagine that riding a donkey while 9 months pregnant was a very pleasant experience for either Mary or Joseph.  But they did it. And when they finally got to their destination: the village of Bethlehem a few miles South of Jerusalem, they ended up bedding down for the night in a cave where some of the animals were being stabled. Now this probably wasn’t all that unusual of a thing. There would have been a lot of visitors in Bethlehem, it wasn’t a large village, and there wouldn’t have been much room inside the inner rooms of these houses for guests to stay. There were probably other people sleeping under similar conditions that night. At least this stable/cave was warm and dry with plenty of fresh straw to rest on. It does get cold in Bethlehem you know, especially at night. I have pictures of friends playing in the snow there. 

So there, in a little cave in the Bethlehem hillside, Mary gives birth to her child. A little boy. There was a stone trough in the corner of the cave where the animals were fed. The French used to call this type of feeding trough a mangier, but in English we simplified it to manger. A vessel that animals are fed from. That would have to serve as a bassinet. The baby was swaddled snuggly in cloth to help him feel safe and warm. Maybe Mary had some help with this. I hope she had some help. The scripture doesn’t say. We assume Joseph was there with her, but maybe some of the local midwives joined together to help Mary through it. It seems reasonable. Of course, they wouldn’t know just yet what was really happening. It would have looked like just another ordinary birth to them. 

But then a few shepherds came in from out in the field. Undoubtedly, anyone helping Mary would have thought: go away! This is just another birth. Women have babies all the time. She needs rest now. Why are you bothering this poor woman? But the shepherds have a strange tale to tell. While watching their sheep they had this mysterious vision, and in this vision this being told them that the Messiah, the long-awaited saviour had been born. They even heard angels and other heavenly beings singing a song of praise to God. That’s what led them here. Bethlehem was a little village, it wouldn’t have taken them long to find out who just had a baby and where. Everyone in town would have known, only most of them would have assumed that this was just an ordinary birth and an ordinary child. The shepherds told people what they had seen an heard, and many were amazed by it, but I wonder how many truly believed the story they were told. 

Eventually, a little later some other visitors show up: strange men from the East. Some people call them magicians, some call them prophets, some even call them Kings, but what is clear is that they aren’t from here. They aren’t even Jewish, and yet they claim to have been led to this place by a different heavenly being, a star. A sign for them that something remarkable had taken place. They present gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Odd gifts for a baby. You can’t put those on a BuyBuyBaby registry. I know, I’ve tried. But that’s what they brought. Symbolic gifts that are signs that this baby isn’t just any baby. 

When the shepherds have seen the little child they go home. They go home praising God, but they go home. When the wise men have offered their gifts they go home. But Joseph and Mary can’t go home. Another angel had warned Joseph that King Herod wanted the child dead. No big surprise. If this child turns out to be what these angels say he is, then he will turn the world upside down. Herod doesn’t want his world turned upside down. He wants to eliminate this child. So Joseph and Mary take their little baby and escape to Egypt, longing for the day when it safe for them to return home, and pondering in their hearts everything that they have witnessed and experienced. 

This is the story we tell tonight. The story of the birth of Christ. The story of Christmas. There are countless reasons why you shouldn’t believe this story we tell tonight. Undoubtedly people have pointed some of them out to you. Every year people trot out some of the same tired old arguments as to why you shouldn’t believe this story. People will say that virgins don’t have babies, as if Mary didn’t already know that. They will say that shepherds aren’t out in the fields at winter time, but I’ve got news for you: they are, I’ve seen them. People will say that Christmas is just a holiday that we stole from the pagans, even though there’s actually no real evidence to support that. People think they are being informed, educated, rational and clever, but they are really just looking for reasons NOT to believe. Because believing this story is a threat. Herod may be dead and gone, but the world is still filled with people that want to make the baby Jesus go away. He’s still a threat. The easiest way to neutralize the threat is just to kill the story. Make it a fable. Make it fiction. Make it a safe, sweet little fairy tale, that nobody actually believes. 

But we aren’t here to do that tonight. We are here to accept the threat that Jesus and the story of his birth presents to our lives. The threat is this: that we aren’t in control that God is real and God has power to do things that defy our logic and understanding that the world is more complex and mysterious than we sometimes imagine; that we don’t know everything; that we don’t have every answer. That is the threat. The threat is that truth, real truth, is sometimes completely improbable, unexpected and difficult to believe. If this child truly is the son of God, then his story, his entire story, is going to be a challenge to us. It’s going to be a threat. But as Christians, as believers, it is a threat and a challenge that we accept. 

We are here tonight to say, with all of the glory and pageantry and beauty and courage that we can muster, we are here to say something that is both extremely simple and unimaginable profound: this story, which you probably know very well and which the world still doesn’t want you to actually believe, this story is true. This happened. 

You don’t have what it takes.


Sermon for December 5th, 2021


It is a cook’s nightmare and sooner or later it happens to all of us: you are in the middle of a recipe; you are cooking up something fabulous; you go to your pantry for that one essential ingredient that you know you have, only it’s not there! That thing you have to have to make this recipe is gone! Failure. Now, I have to get dressed and drive to the store, and hope that they have it, so that I can finish this.

There is a French cooking technique called mis en place that is meant to help you avoid this embarrassing situation. It means “put in place,” and basically all it is, is that you assemble and measure all your ingredients BEFORE you start cooking. It is an essential part of preparation and good chefs know how to do this. I know how to do this, I do it all the time, but every now and then I get a little sure of myself, I get confident that I have what it takes, only to start something and discover halfway into it that I don’t have what it takes and am missing something essential. 

It happened to me just this summer. I was making jerk chicken, only to discover (with raw chicken sitting on my countertop) that I didn’t have any allspice. This isn’t one of those situations when you can just substitute something else. You can’t make Jerk chicken without allspice, that’s the flavor! So of course, I had to put everything away, and go off in search of allspice. 

I discovered, a little too late, that I didn’t have what it takes. Consider this your holiday warning, my fellow cooks and chefs, examine your pantries closely. You may think you have what it takes, and you might be wrong. You might be missing something essential. You might think you are prepared, but are you really?

Today is the Second Sunday of Advent, and although the entire season of Advent is about preparation, on the Second Sunday we hear the word “prepare” over and over again as the Prophet John the Baptist walks onto the scene: 

“You, my child, shall be called the prophet of the Most High,

For you will go before the Lord to prepare his way.”

“The voice of one crying in the wilderness:

Prepare the way of the Lord,

Make his paths straight.”

Along with the word ‘prepare’ we hear some other words today: repentance, forgiveness, sins. Before the Lord comes the people must be prepared and that preparation, according to the story of our faith, is a repentance for the forgiveness of sins. That is the message that John the Baptist must proclaim: repent! Poor John. His life’s mission is selling something that nobody wants to buy: the idea of repentance. The notion of sin. Not other people’s sin, that is easy to believe in; no, our own sin, my own sin, your own sin. That is a much harder sell. 

A couple years ago, when talking to our children in the parish, I explained to them that sin can be like carrying around this extra burden that you don’t want. I got a backpack and I loaded it with bricks and they got to put it on and feel how heavy it was. And then we took the bricks out and they could feel, literally feel, how it felt to be unburdened; to not be carrying around all that extra weight. I explained to them that we confess our sins in order to let go of all that stuff that we have been picking up along the way. We confess to make our souls lighter. I still stand by that example. I still believe that sin burdens us, and weighs us down and that confession can help us release that, but I also think now that that is only one side of the story.

Because repentance isn’t just about realizing that you are carrying around something you don’t want; it is also about the realization that you don’t have something that you really need. 

Sin isn’t just about something you have; it is about something that you are missing. An essential ingredient. That is the other side of the story. Sin is realizing that there is something in you that is missing.

Righteousness; Goodness. We all like to imagine that we have it. We all like to think that we have it in abundant supply, just sitting in our pantries waiting to be used. But what if it’s not actually there? If righteousness or goodness are the essential ingredient to a life lived with the Lord, what if the Lord comes and you discover that you don’t actually have it. You thought that you had it, but what is sitting on the shelf is just an empty bottle or a cheap imitation. Will there be time to run out and get it? What if nobody else has it either? What if you can’t buy it anywhere?

Sin isn’t just about having something you don’t want; it is about lacking something that you need. Now in our self-help, independent society, where everyone is always told that they are good enough and smart enough, and where everyone always gets a trophy, and nobody ever has to change, it is counter-cultural and maybe even downright offensive to tell people that they don’t have what it takes. Nobody wants to hear that they don’t have what it takes. We all like to imagine that we are doing just fine. But what if that’s not actually true? What if we really are missing something that is essential. What if you are not as good as you think you are?

It seems to me that “you don’t have what it takes” actually is an important and key part of the church’s proclamation and message, not just this time of year, throughout the year, but especially this time of year. Especially when we are preparing to meet Jesus. Because if you don’t understand that “you don’t have what it takes,” then you will never fully appreciate the fact that he does. If you can’t accept that something in your life is missing, then how will you ever know what Jesus has to offer you? 

If you desire to live a life with God, then righteousness or goodness is going to be an essential part of the recipe, the essential ingredient, only it can’t be bought and you can’t borrow it from your neighbors. The good news is that it is being given away for free, as a gift, only in order to receive it, you have to know that you need it. So be prepared before the great feast approaches.

You may think you have what it takes, and you might be wrong.