Wednesday, January 8, 2014

The Epiphany of Our Lord Jesus Christ, 5 January 2014, Year A

Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
Preached by Rev. Deacon John Warner 

Does the Magic Continue?

           May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be always acceptable in thy sight oh my Lord and my Redeemer. 
            As many of you know, I love to read. I read a little of everything.  In fact, if I find myself alone in a restaurant without a book, I’m likely to be seen reading the labels on condiments. Did you know that green Tabasco sauce contains distilled vinegar, jalapeño pepper, water, salt, cornstarch, xanthan gum and ascorbic acid “to preserve freshness?” 
            One of my favorite literary genres is “magical realism.” Magical realism is not fantasy; nor is it science fiction. It exists when the mundane is invaded by something fantastical, something difficult to believe. For example, in the Spanish writer Gabriel García Márquez’s novel,  One Hundred Years of Solitude , a trail of blood from one man, after leaving a house, turns right and left until it finally covers the town. Or, in Sarah Addison Allen’s The Girl Who Chased the Moon, there is a bedroom with wallpaper which changes patterns depending upon the emotions of its occupant. 

            When the mundane is invaded by something hard to believe. This definition certainly fits the magic of the Christmas story. Of course, I am not referring to the magic of how a jolly old elf, although lively and quick, along with twelve tiny reindeer can deliver all those presents to the children in the entire world during one night. What I’m talking about is the Incarnation --when God became flesh, to live like one of us, among us, by being conceived in the womb of a young humble peasant from Nazareth. 

            Now Christmas is gone. The trees have been thrown out, Christmas decorations taken down and stored again for next year, and Christmas presents received have been separated into three piles, to keep, give away or to regift next Christmas.  

            But, is Christmas gone? The Christmas 25th  holiday is gone, but we shouldn’t confuse the secular holiday with the Christmas within our Christian liturgical year.  As Father Jason said in last Sunday’s sermon, the twelve days of Christmas doesn’t end with Christmas. It begins on Christmas Eve and ends with the Feast of the Epiphany, which is tomorrow.  

            Does the magic of Christmas continue into Epiphany? Are there events that produce awe and wonderment? Are there episodes where the mundane is invaded by events difficult to believe? I believe the answer is yes based upon today’s reading from Matthew. The three wise men, the spiritual elite of the Gentile world, use the arcane knowledge of astrology to identify the birth of the king of the Jews. Appearing in King Herod’s court, the magi request his assistance in locating the baby so they can pay homage, but their inquiry only alarms Herod and the Jewish spiritual leaders. Herod dismisses the magi to find the baby but to return with the baby’s location so he can worship … the future king of the Jews! The star that announced the birth of Christ now moves ahead of the wise men until it stops over where the baby lies. The star’s movement is plausible within the ancient world’s model of the universe because stars were believed to be alive, especially, the Jews, who believed stars to be angels. They enter to worship the baby bringing gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Departing, they return to their own country by a different route, having been warned in a dream to avoid Herod. 

            Why these three gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh?  Although we don’t know why the wise men chose these three, tradition may yield some clues. Gold is probably the most obvious. Throughout the Bible, gold is symbolic for divinity; therefore, what better gift for Christ or God made flesh than gold.  Frankincense is essentially hardened tree sap, which when burned gives off a fragrant offering to God, representing holiness and righteousness.  Therefore, frankincense is symbolic for Jesus’ willingness to become a perfect sacrifice, a perfect offering for our sins.  Finally, myrrh, is a spice used for embalming.  Myrrh symbolized bitterness, suffering, and affliction; therefore this gift was a foreshadowing that the baby Jesus would grow to suffer greatly as a man giving his life on the cross for all who believed in him. 

            The wise men gave gifts worthy of a king; however, these gifts pale in comparison to the gift the Incarnation offers us. According to Isaiah in today’s reading, he brought light to illumine the darkness; he offers hope to those in despair and reconciliation, drawing the whole world to him.  

            Does the magic of Christmas and Epiphany continue? In 2002, I was ordained a deacon in the Diocese of Georgia. However, I had a diaconal ministry before that. It began with my baptism. Yours did, too. We all share a diaconal ministry, a ministry of service, which began when we were baptized, when we were grafted into the Christian family.  It does, if we live out our baptismal covenant and become instruments of Christian service in this world. It does when we give of our time and talent. It is when we are serving the needs of this world that the mundane, the ordinary, is invaded by the fantastical, something hard to believe – a world transformed by our Christian service.


Christmas Eve, December 24, 2013

Preached by Rev. Dr. Jason Haddox

 The great German/Latin Christmas carol In Dulci Jubilo (known in English translation as Good Christian Friends, rejoice) ends with a prayer:  “O that we were there!”
The desire expressed is that we, the worshippers, might have been present at the cradle, at the inn in Bethlehem, at Jesus’ birth. 

 What would we have seen?

 An overcrowded town, stretched to capacity and beyond with visitors from far and wide.  Some of them would have come in great style, with plenty of money to spend on the best accommodations, the choicest food and drink.  Many would be staying with relatives or friends, who were in turn obligated to show the best hospitality possible, even to their own detriment.  And then there were those who were there only by extraordinary stress and cost to themselves, but they had to be there nonetheless.  From far and near they came, and filled every available place and space that was to be had.

To me it sounds like Augusta, Georgia, during Masters’ Week. 
Overfilled, overwrought, stressed out, full up, no room for anything, or anyone, else.
Least of all for a young, poor, unmarried couple with a baby about to be born.
And yet someone—some innkeeper or stable hand, some homeowner who had a few critters under a shed in the back yard—saw more than “yet another stranger in trouble.” Someone looked a little bit closer, and saw something unusual, something just a little bit odd, and made room.  Found room, after all.   

And so the birth we remember tonight took place in a barn.  With barn critters in attendance, animals that moo-ed and baa-ed and snorted, that chewed their feed out of the feeding trough (which we call the manger) and stamped their hooves (or paws, or whatever) and made the barn smell—like a barn.  The smell that night was not that of pine boughs and incense, nor of cinnamon and peppermint and gingerbread.   

Those who saw and heard and smelled all that was there were not the well-to-do citizens or visitors to the town.  All of them were safely tucked away at the Bethlehem Hyatt.  Only those who passed by and perhaps heard the sound of a baby’s first shouts might have known that something was up.  It was, I suspect, anything but a “Silent Night.”   

The shepherds were not expecting an invitation into town that night.  They were hardly prepared for a social gathering.  They had been living outdoors, camping in the fields for weeks or months at a time.  They likely smelled very much like the sheep themselves.


No matter, said the angel, never mind about that.  This news of great joy, for all people, is shown to you first of all. 
Go, and see!

This child, whose life will turn the world upside down, has arrived in the world. 
Go, and see! 
You’ll recognize the family when you find a baby wrapped tightly, asleep (if Mary and Joseph are very lucky) laying in the animal’s feeding trough of the barn. 
Go, and see for yourselves!

 So they go, looking for something, someone—they hardly know what or why—and find him.  Find them, gathered there, exhausted from the journey and the birth process.  The barn wasn’t crowded enough already, we’ve got to bring in a flock of sheep besides?   Was there really room for them too?

 All during the season of Advent we’ve been thinking about “making room”.  In our lives—as busy and overscheduled and stressed as we may be; in our hearts—as distracted and pulled apart as they may be; in the midst of the overcrowded, untidy, malodorous barns of our daily lives.  And prepared or unprepared, ready or not, here we are.  And here he is.

 There were plenty of people in Bethlehem that night, who might have heard or seen something. 
Perhaps they were busy.  Distracted by other, more urgent, matters.
Only shepherds, half-awake in the night, were quiet enough for the angels to get their attention. 

If the story of Jesus’ birth means anything at all, thousands of years later and a world away, it is this:  God’s love comes into the midst of the mess.  Our mess.  All of it.  God’s love for the world reveals itself in the midst of the mess.  Our mess.  All of it.

In a completely inappropriate location,
accompanied by smells and sounds and sights that,
just perhaps,
we’d rather not smell or hear or see.

 As a tiny, helpless being, who is vulnerable and easily overlooked
Surrounded by people who are not themselves fully aware of what’s happening. 
Not right at the moment anyway.
And so, in this Christmas season, lest we miss the message ourselves:
with the innkeeper, the stable hand,
we look carefully at the ones right in front of us;
With Mary,
we hear and heed the angel’s message even where we are sure it can’t possibly be on the play list; with the shepherds, we come seeking the Christ, God’s beloved and chosen one,
in the face of every person we meet.
Because, in a way, as the carol prays, we are there.  Tonight and always.
And better still, He is here.  Emmanu-el.  God with us.  Tonight, and tomorrow, and always.