A Sermon for the New Year on the Feast of the Name of Jesus

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First Lutheran Church of Avoca
1 January 2017 + Name of Jesus
Luke 2.15-21



Well, it’s finally over. 2016. It’s been quite a year. An understatement if ever there was one. I’m sure I was not alone last night in watching the ball drop in Times Square as we said “good riddance!” to the past year, in eager anticipation of turning the page and looking ahead to the future.

New Year’s Eve has the tendency to make us reflect on the past year, which gives us pause—especially this year, it seems. Of course, there are the happy, joy-filled moments: engagements and marriages, new births and milestone birthdays, memorable vacations. But it can also be outright depressing, combing through headlines of tragedy after tragedy,  or even just calling to mind those somber moments closer to home: a broken relationship, the death of a loved one, an unsettling diagnosis, the loss of a job.

These things and more are the reason that many churches during the holiday season hold Blue Christmas services for those who experience some degree of “disconnect from the joy and cheer” of these weeks that seems to come so easily to others. So much so that it can even make us feel isolated. [1]

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Blue Christmas at Table Grace Café, December 20, 2016

At my internship congregation in Omaha, we hosted one such Blue Christmas service at a local nonprofit cafe, sensing the need for some kind of ritual space to name the complex emotions that come from difficult experiences. It was an opportunity to provide safe, sacred space for those who needed it, and in that space, as I heard in feedback after the service by so many, comes a reminder of our belovedness by God and our inherent sacred worth as individuals.

Like Blue Christmas, the turning of the year brings up a lot of feelings—some of anguish and despair and sadness that seem like they will never end over what and who we may have lost in the past twelve months, and some of an anxious and timid hope over what the future holds.

In this liminal space between endings and beginnings, our readings for this feast day of the Name of Jesus could not be more appropriate. They speak of blessing and being named and chosen as God’s own.

The account of Jesus’s circumcision in the gospel of Luke is only one verse long, but this ritual for observant Jews in the ancient world was one of tremendous importance that signified God’s everlasting covenant with God’s people. And yet the even greater emphasis in this very short account is on the naming of Jesus, hence the title assigned to this feast day — Name of Jesus. Jesus’s name, which means “God saves,” signified both an act of blessing and a bold declaration of who this child was.

This twin act of blessing and naming is not a foreign concept to us who are Christian, either. In baptism, we are named and claimed as God’s own beloved children, baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, sealed by that Spirit and marked with cross of Christ forever. Baptism gives us our identity as beloved children of God, and it also gives us a sense of holy purpose: being so named and claimed as God’s own, we are sent — or we might say blessed — to love and serve all people and proclaim God’s extravagant love for them and for all creation.

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The church indeed does a lot of blessing. In baptism, we bless water, and at the table, we bless bread and wine. At other times, we bless homes, and pets, and backpacks, and bicycles. We bless these things not necessarily to make them “holy” or to transform them into something else. But we bless these ordinary things to remind ourselves of the source of all that is — that source that is so very good at blessing ordinary things, as our offering prayer for Christmas reminds us, coming to us a baby in a manger, sleeping on straw, and being greeted by shepherds. The holy blessing the ordinary.

Blessing comes to us most often at significant passages of time, and it reminds of who we are and what we are called to do. The act of blessing and receiving blessing gives us an opportunity to pause, to be renewed, and to begin again.

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Sojourner Truth (born Isabella Baumfree, c. 1797), abolitionist and women’s rights advocate, died  November 26, 1883

 

Isabella Baumfree, who was born into slavery but later escaped, went on to become an outspoken abolitionist and one of the earliest proponents of women’s rights. Of course, you might know her better as Sojourner Truth, the name she gave herself when she converted to Methodism, telling her friends, “The Spirit calls me, and I must go.” Her name literally became the theme of her life’s work, a blessing as she traveled and preached justice and equality until the day she died.

As for looking back on a year that seems scarce in blessings, maybe it’s not all that bad. In the midst of a wave of tragedies and celebrity deaths, many have blamed the calendar year for these things. But a recent Washington Post article points out that it only seems like 2016 has been the “worst year ever.” This is because violence and natural disasters are sudden events that are reported instantaneously. But the more positive, albeit quieter, trends get lost in the cracks: improving global health, falling poverty, and environmental progress all take years, decades, even centuries to really notice. [2]

This is not meant to sugarcoat the terrible things that happen in our world on a seemingly daily basis, or to excuse our failure to do the work of justice where it is most needed. But it is meant to suggest that we take a broader view.

Poet John O’Donohue speaks of the ups and downs of the year is his blessing for the end of a year:

We bless this year for all we learned,
For all we loved and lost
And for the quiet way it brought us
Nearer to our invisible destination. [3]

Indeed, there are always going to be ups and downs, but a broader view takes seriously the acts of blessing and naming. Let this new year be for us a time of blessing, remembering the ultimate blessing of being named as God’s own dearly beloved people, an identity which no one can ever take away.


[1] https://www.elm.org/2016/12/22/blue-christmas/

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2016/12/29/stop-saying-that-2016-was-the-worst-year/?utm_term=.9873bfcad3d6

[3] John O’Donohue, To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blessings (New York: Doubleday, 2008), 160.

A Blue Christmas Sermon for the Third Sunday of Advent

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Lutheran Campus Ministry / Creighton University
11 December 2016 + Third Sunday of Advent
Matthew 11.2-11; Isaiah 35.1-10



He had been so sure, so confident, so certain.

He proclaimed a bold message of repentance and the dawning of the messianic age: Repent! For the reign of heaven has come near! One who is more powerful than is coming! Here is the Lamb of God!

He baptized the crowds in droves. He was sought out by all and attracted an impressive following.

He was prophetic, firmly rooted in the social justice tradition of Israel’s prophets before him. He took risks and called out the hypocrisy of the religious elite.

And what did it get him? Prison. Next stop: execution. Desperate for some vindication that he hadn’t gotten it all wrong, he sends his disciples to Jesus: Are you… the one… who is to come? Or… are we to… wait… for another? You can hear the undertones of regret, the disappointment, the dashed hope, the confusion.

A Blue Christmas, indeed.

On a day when many churches will light a pink candle, representing joy, on the Advent wreath, and when outside our churches we’ve been inundated for weeks with nonstop reminders of a joyous Noël, such a scene from Matthew’s gospel seems out of step.

Maybe, though, it’s the Christmas season that’s out of step. After all, it’s still Advent, a season marked by waiting, by yearning, by hopeful expectation, by a promise yet to be fulfilled.

I suspect that many of us might identify more with the dismayed and disenchanted John the Baptist in a prison cell than the manufactured cheerfulness of a Hallmark holiday movie.

This time of year on a college campus, the anxiety and stress of final exams and papers is palpable — only matched in intensity for some with the thought of going home for the holidays, when “family” conjures up images of discord, conflict, and estrangement. Or if you’re anything like I was: a freshman at the end of your first semester wondering if your degree program is right for you, or a senior at the opposite end of the spectrum wondering what life will bring after a suddenly much-less-distant graduation.

Still for others, it’s the death or illness of a loved one, or strained or broken relationships, that color the holiday blue.

In a way, John the Baptist—revered as a saint on our liturgical calendar—gives us permission to observe a Blue Christmas. His despair and his questioning remind us that doubt is not the opposite of faith but is itself a very real part of the life of faith. John offers us an example of faith that makes room for doubt, for grief, for questioning, for not having it all together—and says that’s okay!

Christian Wiman, a poet and author who grew up in the Christianity of West Texas, was diagnosed with a rare, incurable form of blood cancer in his late 30s. In the wake of his diagnosis, he wrote candidly about his struggle with faith: “Faith is not some hard, unchanging thing you cling to through the vicissitudes of life. Those who try to make into this are destined to become brittle, shatterable creatures.” [1]

In other words: There’s no point in pretending. There’s no point in pretending everything is okay when it’s not. And there’s certainly no point in questioning one’s own faith, or self-worth, because of it.

Blue Christmas, dear people, is oftentimes more faithful to the season than the opposite.

It’s no accident the color of Advent is blue, the color of the night sky just before dawn. As Diana Butler Bass writes, “Blue holds the promise that the sun will rise, and that even after the bleakest, coldest, longest night, the light will break forth, as the new day arrives. Blue may be the color of sadness, but blue is also the color of hope.” [2]

That’s not meant to be some grand answer for we who find ourselves “blue,” but it is meant to be hope — and hope is much better than a definitive answer. Hope is the product of memory and imagination.

Hope is the central message of Isaiah’s vision. With imagery of wilderness and desert, journey and liberation, this is meant to be deliberately evocative of the exodus,  the way out of slavery in Egypt and into freedom, pointing an exiled people to their collective memory of God’s past faithfulness to give hope for the future.

That hope is rooted in memory, but it also begs to be recast, reimagined, for a new reality. Even as Israel was once delivered from slavery, here they imagine a new future free from exile. And even as Jesus has already come in history, we still sing for Emmanuel to “come, o come” because we still live with real pain and real problems.

Jesus’s answer to John’s pleading questions is intentionally open-ended: What do you hear? What do you see? The blind see, the lame walk, the deaf hear. Images evocative of Isaiah, of God’s action in the past, of a yearning for God’s continued action. Hope, rooted in memory, fueled by imagination.

Still, in the mire and in the muck, it’s easy to imagine one type of Messiah, as John might have, a victorious conquerer who would make everything right again. But what we get is something much more profound, as Christian Wiman again reminds us:

If Christianity is going to mean anything at all for us now, then the humanity of God cannot be a half measure. He can’t float over the chaos of pain and particles in which we’re mired, and we can’t think of him gliding among our ancestors like some shiny, sinless superhero…

No, God is given over to matter, the ultimate Uncertainty Principle… what a relief to befriend contingency, to meet God right here in the havoc of chance, to feel enduring love like a stroke of pure luck. [3]

The Messiah for whom we wait, the promised one for whom we yearn, the long-expected one for whom we hope, is Emmanuel, God-with-us, indeed one of us, struggles and all, who holds us and reminds us that through it all, we are not alone.


[1] Christian Wiman, My Bright Abyss: Meditation of a Modern Believer (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013), 17.

[2] https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/11/25/forget-red-and-green-make-it-a-blue-holiday-instead/?utm_term=.ca7ed04709a2

[3] Wiman, 17.