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 Sermon for January 3, 2016

Verlee A. Copeland, Preaching

Just when you thought it couldn’t get worse, we have this awful text from Jesus toddlerhood. Jesus and Mary made it back safely from Bethlehem to the rural region called Galilee north of Jerusalem. Sometime in Jesus infancy, the wise men arrived with gifts representing the riches of the world, and then they did something traitorous. They disobeyed the untrustworthy regional governor named Herod, and returned to their home countries by an alternative route. When Herod caught wind of their lack of cooperation, he reacted swiftly, cruelly, and unthinkably, ordering the death of male children under the age of two.

         Just before Christmas, we talked about the importance of the father’s in this story of Jesus’ birth and it’s aftermath. Our last Sunday together, we told the story of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptizer, and now we feature the trust of adoptive father Joseph, who listened to a vision from an angel of God and fled in the night with Mary and the baby, from Galilee to Egypt, in fulfillment of the prophecy that God would raise up his son out of Egypt. His courage saved Jesus’ life. We’re going to read it, but we’re not going to talk about it today. Instead, simply allow yourself to imagine the implausibility that our lives would be so profoundly shaped by this unlikely story that a boy named Jesus ever survived his childhood, to redeem the world. Listen.

Matthew 2:13-23

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

                           For Heaven’s Sake

Apparently we all survived another Christmas. After family dinners, and traveling, and changes in weather and time zones, more than a few of us couldn’t wait to get home and sleep in our own beds. Just before Christmas I overheard someone in our congregation telling another that she planned to spend Christmas alone. The hearer might have been empathetic, worried even that this beloved person would not be surrounded by a crowded dinner table somewhere in Massachusetts with family or friends. But no, the listener simply responded to the information about Christmas alone by saying, “I’m so envious!” We love our families, with all their gifts, flaws and foibles, but there comes a time when we’ve received enough of a good thing and just want to come home.

         Welcome home. Welcome to the week of Epiphany, that celebration a dozen days after Christmas that marks the conclusion of the Christmas story, the awakening of the world to God’s new action on behalf of humankind through an inexplicable brilliance in the sky.

         Each Christmas we learn something new: about God, about ourselves, or about the world. This year my personal lesson came through the giving of gifts. I love Christmas shopping. No, the malls don’t thrill me. What I love is thinking about people all year long and buying something that I think will please them, whether I discover it at a flea market in Vermont in January or at the Village Faire on our church lawn in July. It’s just so fun to tuck things away, unless you forget where you put them, in which case this practice only leads to exasperation.

         My family considers me generous when it comes to gift giving, when I actually just think its fun to bestow that one special thing on a grandchild that I couldn’t afford to give my own children when they were young. Until this Christmas, it never occurred to me how such extravagance made the recipient feel. You see, when we reached our destination over the holidays, three huge boxes awaited us from friends of the family. We had sent gifts to them of course, a box of pears and a small token of our love. But they sent us three ginormous boxes labeled 1, 2 and 3, with little surprises inside and thoughtful games to help us unwrap and enjoy our treasures. Their abundance simply far out-gifted us.

         And then I remembered. God has come to us in the life of Jesus, a gift to us and to human kind that we did not earn, could not have anticipated, and cannot repay. This humbles us. We’re eager to respond in-kind, but how? What can we possibly offer of value to the power, the source, the God of all time and all being?

         I woke with this knowing in the early watches of a brilliant starry night, and stood gazing out windows at mountains backlit by a fullish moon and zillions of stars that ran together like some fireworks display of holiness.

         The words of the Psalmist came to mind, “When I consider the heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars that thou hast established, what is humankind that thou art mindful of us, the Son of man that thou should visit us?”

         In that moment, the gifts of Christmas unwrapped themselves whole. The fact that we have fingers, toes, breath, life, shelter, nourishment, provision of any kind, that the span of our years can endure just long enough to fulfill the purpose for which we were created from the beginning, to bring forth love, or make something new, or create life, all this comes to us, all the time as overwhelming, unbearable, unmerited gift. Wow!

         And so here we are, this new year dawning and we with it. What thank you note will suffice to express our gratitude to the God who loved us into being? What will WE do for heaven’s sake in this New Year?

         Having observed the miracle of Bethlehem and the stories that surround it, having witnessed the miracle of our own curved hands and plodding feet, we join millions of Americans in considering how this new year will be different than the one just now put to bed for eternity. Any airport magazine will advise you on the merits of losing weight and getting in shape, and offer counsel on how to do it, as if we didn’t know.

         I suspect God showed up at Bethlehem less to convict us with remorse over our gastronomic holiday sins than to invite us into a new way of life that requires us to develop new habits of faith. I invite you this morning to join Jesus’ faith challenge for 2016, and commit to one habit of faith that will change your life. Habits of faith both develop in us as gift from God, and return to God, as our thankful response for, well, everything.

         By now you may be leaning forward in your seat wondering what that one habit of faith might be, that one regular action that may change your life, and our world. God only knows. It will be different for each of us. Jesus issued more than fifty invitations to action, a new habit for every week of the year. They’re all connected, one builds upon another. But like the man in People magazine who needed to lose half of his body weight, habits of faith change one small step at a time.

         In the currently best selling book called “Better Than Before”, author Gretchen Rubin asserts that in order to change their lives, people must change their habits.

Whether you want to play basketball like Michael Jordan in the old days, or write like Ernest Hemingway, you have to actually play basketball, or write, all the time. The more we do something, the easier it becomes and the better we get at doing it. Greek Philosopher Aristotle said, “Acts of any kind produce habits…hence we ought to make sure our acts are of a certain kind; for the resulting character varies as they vary.” In short, our habits create our true self.

         If you want to become a critical and judgmental person, then practice being critical of other people. If you want to become a more kind and compassionate human being, then practice compassion towards others even when it’s difficult.

         As we enter this new season called 2016 together, consider what God most needs and wants from you in order for you to grow in faith. In case you hid away Jesus’ teachings in some closet over the past months and have forgotten where you put them, consider which of these may be calling to you now. Jesus invites us to engage practices of faith that will shape our character and change our world. Jesus knew what the world needed them and what the world needs now. He wants us to shine, love, trust, act compassionately, seek and forgive.

Jesus invites you to “Shine”.  Be salt and light to this world. All four witnesses to Jesus’ life and work, Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, quote Jesus’ teaching on this matter. In Luke 11:33 we read,“No one after lighting a lamp puts it in a cellar, but on the lampstand so that those who enter may see the light.” You are the light of the world, through God’s love, you were made for shining. (Mt 5:13-16 Mk 9:50, Lk 11:33, 14:34. Jn 3:21) Will shining the light of God become your new habit of faith for 2016?

Jesus invites you to “Love”. He expresses God’s intention that we not only love those who love us, but that we love, bless and pray for your enemies. (Mt 5:43-48, Lk 6:27) Jesus said, “But I say to you that listen, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you.If anyone strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from anyone who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” Will this be the year that becoming more truly loving will become your new habit of faith?

Jesus invites you to “Trust”. Don't be anxious. (Mt 6:25-32, Lk 12:22-30, Jn 14:1 16:33.) Do not worry about anything. Jesus said:“Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Can any of you by worrying add a single hour to your span of life?

Jesus invites you to “Seek God”. If you have need of anything, keep asking, seeking and knocking. (Mt 6:9-11, 7:7-11, Lk 11:9-13.) Jesus said, “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you.For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. If you’ve developed the habit of trying to fix things by yourself and solve the problems of the world alone, will this be the year that you practice seeking the presence of God, asking for God’s guidance and trusting God’s direction in all things?

Jesus invites you to “Act with Compassion”.  Treat others as you like to be treated. The Golden Rule isn’t just a good idea. It’s a way of life made up of daily decisions to behave in certain ways. “Do to others as you would have them do to you”, Jesus said. (Mt 7:12, Lk 6:31). Or perhaps this is your year to “Forgive”. Forgive others. (Mt 6:12, 14-15, 18:21, Mk 11:25-26, Lk 11:9-13) Jesus said“Whenever you stand praying, forgive, if you have anything against anyone; so that your Father in heaven may also forgive you your trespasses.”

         Like any meaningful activity or habit, we develop the capacity to do anything well by practicing it. We see examples of this everywhere. Take for example the remarkable life of a long distance runner – In an upcoming film at the 3S Art space in Portsmouth, a documentary will be shown called “Run Free; The True Story of Caballo Blanco”. It is the story of the Tarahumara Indians of northern Mexico known as the Raramuri or Running People, some of the best long-distance runners in the world. Caballo Blanco was a visionary who lived and ran with the Tarahumara and created the fifty-mile Copper Canyon Ultra-Marathon to honor their running traditions. The Tarahumara have been much studied, as they run as much as 200 miles at a stretch to share news with neighbors, to respond to events, or to hunt for their food. They can run long distances, because they practice running long distances every day. It’s as simple as that.

         As any coach will tell you, there’s a world of difference between the arm chair athlete who sits at home and demands that the home team win the super bowl, and the athlete who shows up in grueling heat and bitter cold for hours a day, year in and year out, sacrificing comfort and personal preference in order to run drills and lift weights. There’s really no other way for the character and performance of an athlete to be shaped than by doing the work required to develop these habits so that he or she can perform at optimal capacity when the job is required of them. No one gets up in the morning and runs fifty miles or makes a touchdown pass in overtime without training for it.

         Few people naturally shine without opening their life through prayer everyday to the One who shines through them. Everybody feels anxious sometimes. How can we expect to release our anxiety unless we learn to trust God more to supply our needs?  What will it take for you to love your enemies, forgive others, taste like salt, or look like light? This is impossible for us but through Christ, all things are possible, through a trusting lifetime of intentional daily practice, one habit of faith at a time.

         When we act in faithful ways, our habits stick, and through them, God changes our lives, and the world. The Christmas story of God with us comes extravagantly wrapped, surprising and humbling us in its outrageous and un-repayable generosity every time we hear of it. The story endures, not because of the super hero status or rock star qualities of its lead characters. Rather, God’s intention for humankind unfolded through the lives of ordinary men and women of faith, people much like you and like me, whose practices of faith endured when the hinge of history depended on them. Mary, Zechariah, Mary, Joseph, shepherds, wise men and angels of whom they were sore afraid. God used them all, simply because they were prepared to respond when needed for the glory of God.

Like any long distance runner, God prepares us every day for a purpose we cannot see and may never know. Listen in the watches of the night. What does God want you to do for heaven’s sake in this New Year?