Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Sermon for First Sunday after Christmas

(Sermon 12/28/08 - Luke 2:22-40)

Sing We Now of Christmas: Joy to the World

“Joy to the World” was written by Isaac Watts in 1719. Watts was a pastor and theologian, and a prolific writer of hymns. Several of his hymns are still found in our United Methodist Hymnal today, including “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross,” and “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” Watts often borrowed from the scriptures for his hymns, and “Joy to the World” is no exception. If you read Psalm 98:4-9, you will notice that Watts adapts these verses for this, one of the most familiar hymns. “Joy to the World” is, appropriately, one of the most joyous hymns of the Christmas season, but you’ll notice that this carol does not mention shepherds, angelic choruses, or wise men. (1) It emphasizes instead the reverent but ecstatic joy that Christ’s birth has brought to all humanity. For centuries, hearts had yearned for God to come closer, to come in person. And at last it happened – the Messiah proclaimed by the prophets had come. This carol exalts the salvation that began when God became God-with-us Emmanuel, as the Babe of Bethlehem who was destined to remove the curse of Adam’s sinfulness: "No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground; He comes to make his blessings known far as the curse it found." Our most joyous of hymns focuses not on the details of Jesus birth, but on the meaning of it – the fact the with his birth, salvation has come for the world. Things are set right, all the way back to Adam and Eve’s sinfulness. The world has waited a very, very long time for salvation in the Christ-child, and now the waiting is over, and joy abounds.

It is joy in the fulfillment of the promise of salvation that is the theme of our gospel lesson today. Now that the baby is born, where is this promised salvation? What do we see in the face of this baby? Is the salvation of our God in this little Christ child, in this little baby? As people of faith, the word salvation should not be unfamiliar to us. But we might have different understandings of what that word means. Has someone ever asked you, “Have you been saved?” And what do you think they mean by that question? Our own salvation – sometimes we mean where we will spend eternity, what happens to us at death – other times we mean something more like our salvation right now – our life being given meaning right now. And the actual biblical word for salvation has particular connotations too – it means a kind of health and wholeness – a person being totally well and complete. It’s the same word that gives us salve – a healing ointment. It’s an appropriate image perhaps. Jesus, who we’ve been waiting for, comes to us, and he is a salve, a healing ointment, one who makes us whole as we find our salvation in him. We call Jesus our Savior, and we affirm that through Jesus' guiltless, sinless death on the cross, we are saved from death for our guilty and sinful actions. We are familiar with this salvation theme.

Today, all the salvation talk is not about Jesus on the cross, and it's not about what happens to us at death. It's not about whether we have been 'saved' or not. The scriptures we read today talk about salvation in some surprising ways. There is no mention of death on the cross, no mention of an adult Jesus in ministry, no mention of heaven and hell. But there is salvation talk that is important for us to hear today, at this time, in this place, glimpses of God's salvation that are life-changing, for whole nations, and for whole lives.

In these glimpses of salvation, we see something really special. Sometimes all it takes IS one glimpse. One pastor shares his story of Christmas glimpses. He writes: “The Christmas our oldest son was ten, he had asked for a bicycle. Not just any bicycle but a Bandit BMX bicycle. He pointed it out to us one day in the store. That's all he talked about for three months before Christmas. Of course we got the bicycle. We put it on layaway that very day. I picked it up a week before Christmas. Still in the box, I wrapped it and brought it home. Then, in a very conspiratorial way, I asked him to help me carry it into the house. I told him it was a set of bookshelves which Mom had asked for. We slid it in behind the tree.

“When Christmas morning came, he kept wanting to give Mom her big present and I kept telling him to wait. Finally, all the presents but one were open. We told him to pull it out and then pointed out a card that was hanging on the tree. We told him to open the card first. He opened the card and it read, "Paul, open the big box." He started tearing the paper off and uncovered a hand hole for carrying the box. And whatever it was that he saw through that hole was just enough of a glimpse to give the whole thing away. That one little glimpse was all that he needed to know what was in the box. He leaped across the floor and hugged my neck and then went running to hug Mom's neck. All it took was one little glimpse." (2)

Our gospel lesson today is about those glimpses of salvation. Mary and Joseph bring a newborn Jesus to the temple for the traditional rite of purification. There they find two people who have been waiting for him. First, a righteous man, Simeon, who is overwhelmed to lay his eyes on this baby. "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word; for my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples." Simeon takes just one look at Jesus - he catches just a glimpse of the baby - but in the face of Jesus he sees his salvation, and the salvation of all people. In Jesus' face, he sees a plan of salvation that extends to all people, not just some, not just the Jews, but the Gentiles also. In a little baby, a plan of salvation that touches the whole world. Then, Anna, a prophet. She’s been waiting, waiting in the temple, worshipping night and day. Her faithfulness is rewarded – she sees God’s redemption plan. She knows, just by seeing this baby, that in Jesus, there is one who will redeem Jerusalem, who will repair the broken relationship between God and God’s people. In just a glimpse, she sees salvation.

What do these glimpses mean for us? A new baby, a new hope, a new kind of salvation. For us today in the 21st century, standing on the brink of yet another new year, we need this new baby, this new hope, this new salvation, so much. We desperately need a glimpse of God's plan for us. We see a world full of war and violence. We see a nation struggling in the midst of financial concerns. We see global poverty and hunger on the rise, and closer to home we find people losing jobs, homes, security. We need a glimpse of salvation. Just a glimpse to give us hope. Who could think of a world more in need of some hope, some direction, some salvation than this world right now?

A new year awaits us in just a few days. We are at a time of new beginning. We have a new baby among us, a new hope, a new salvation. What does that mean for our lives? What hope have we this year? What will save us and bring us wholeness this year? Catch a glimpse, even just a glimpse of the salvation God offers, and you’ll find your hope, your path, your direction. Simeon sees a little baby Jesus, but catches a glimpse of savior who can touch people all over the world with his loving ways. Anna sees a newborn child, but catches a glimpse of God’s redemption plan for all of humanity. We see our own selves - broken, sinful, sad, in need of repair and resolutions - and we are weighed down by the work that must be done in our world and in our selves. Yet, can we catch the glimpse? Can we glimpse what we will look like with God working within us? There is, for us, a savior, our salvation, in this new baby in our midst. Try and catch just a glimpse.

Joy to the world – our savior has come! Catch a glimpse of the wonders of his love. Amen.

(1) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Joy_to_the_World

(2) Rev. Billy Strayhorn, http://www.epulpit.net/991226.htm

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