Sermon January 3, 2010

When I sat down to begin work on today’s sermon, I thought that this was one time I did not have to search for something to talk about. In fact, you could say that I had almost too much to choose from. Today, in our church, is recognized as Epiphany Sunday, which is actually the Sunday before the feast of the Epiphany. The feast of the Epiphany is actually on January 6th, which, like Christmas, is not a movable feast. As you probably know, in Eastern Orthodox Churches, this is the day on which Jesus’ birth is observed, gifts are exchanged, and children are told that the Magi, rather than Santa Claus, are the ones who bring gifts magically in the night. But January 6th is recognized in other cultures as well as being a special day. In Spain, Cuba, and some Latin American countries, this it is known as King’s Day, and, as in the Eastern tradition, the Three Kings are the bearers of gifts. We all know the carol The Twelve Days of Christmas, and, traditionally, January 6th was the 12th day, coming 12 days after December 25th. Each of the twelve days was marked by some special festivity, religious in early days, but more secular later. Shakespeare’s play Twelfth Night takes place on the twelfth night of Christmas – January 6th. In my childhood, January 6th was known as Old Christmas Day, and it was considered bad luck to undecorate the house before that date. As if all this information were not enough to lead to a long sermon, today is also close enough to the start of the New Year that I could speak about resolutions made and broken, or I could use this as a time to look back on 2009 and ahead to the new year, and the new decade, and to speculate on what may happen in the future.
In the children’s story, I spoke about the gifts brought by the Wise Men to the child Jesus, and so I decided to focus on them, and on their journey to find the Messiah. I think that, for many of us, a favourite image of Christmas is of the Wise Men as they travel from the east, led by a star to Bethlehem. It appears on many cards, and they are an integral part of any nativity scene, even though they didn’t arrive until months or years after Jesus’ birth. For some reason, we have them linked with the actual day on which he was born, and no matter how often it is explained, we will still make that connection. We picture the Wise Men, finally arriving at their destination, finally finding the baby, and finally giving him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh, which foretold Jesus’ future.
But this is not the complete picture. The Wise Men, according to the little we know from Scripture, and what commentators have been able to figure out, were astrologers, and studied the stars. They would have recognized that this star which they followed was different from all other stars. And, while the star led them to Jesus, this was not the only guidepost, not the only source they consulted. They would have consulted ancient writings – probably the very book of Isaiah which we still use today. They went to Herod, seeking directions, and Herod consulted the chief priests and teachers of the law before telling the wise men that the town they sought was Bethlehem. They were not able to find the way by themselves, even though the star pointed out the general direction for them to take.
And, you know, this could be said about us, some 2000 years later. We know that we are journeying towards Christ, and we have a general idea about what we need to do to find the way. But, like the wise men, unless we consult scripture, or people who know scripture very well, we will not be able to find him. We will not even be able to worship him in the way that we should, in the way that we know we can.
The wise men had a star to set them on the right path, and we have the word of God. Every week, before Scripture is read in this church, I say a prayer for illumination, meaning enlightenment. The light of the star was a visible guidepost for the wise men, and the light of God’s word is a guidepost for us, his followers. But the light can also be found in others, and we need to be aware of that. The wise men asked Herod, who consulted the chief priests, and we can look for the light that shines through another person’s life.
Many of the hymns we sing during the Christmas season are concerned with stars, stars which give us light on dark nights, stars which have been used for navigational purposes for centuries, and which are still used today. In our reading from Isaiah, we heard, “Arise, shine, for your light has come.” In this case, it is not a literal light, but Jesus, the light of the world, who is foretold. As the light of the world, Jesus acts as a beacon to show us the way to salvation. But, just as the wise men needed help to interpret the meaning of the star, so do we need Scripture to guide us through our busy lives.
Because our lives are so busy, it is easy to miss the important things. It is easy to get so caught up in what we are doing that we miss what we should be doing. In concentrating on the things of this world, it is easy to forget the things of the next, it is easy to think that what really matters is what we are doing now.
I have heard many people say that they have difficulty remembering things – like names, telephone numbers, things that have happened in the past. Arthur Conan Doyle’s famous character Sherlock Holmes, once commented that he could not remember a particular event because, he said, “My dear Watson, my brain can only contain so much information, and whenever I learn something new, something else must go.” At the beginning of this new year, I pray that you will be able to let go of whatever is preventing you from discovering God in your life. And I pray that you will replace this with an examination of the word of God, and a look at the stars in your own particular sky, so that you will be able to find Jesus in your midst. This is how the wise men found Jesus. They focused on the star; they consulted ancient writings; and they asked the people they knew to be knowledgeable. Even though one of the people they consulted turned out to be evil personified, they were still able to use him to discover where the baby was.
This reminds me of when I was younger, and my parents criticized my choice of music. In the same way, many parents criticize their children’s choice of music today. I am thinking in particular of rap, which, I have to confess, I don’t really consider music. I have read so many articles condemning rap singers and the people who listen to it, but I don’t think that a blanket condemnation works here, any more than it does anywhere else. Granted, much rap music is full of violence, and tends to focus on a drug sub-culture which exists, but artists like Queen Latifah helped to create an anti-violence movement, and have taken part in anti-drug campaigns. As well, she has been honoured for her concern about the environment. So, those people who feel that listening to the music of violent rap groups can lead to an increase in violence or drug use, then they should also acknowledge that listening to other rappers who project positive values will lead to a decrease in violence or drug use. In doing this, we are acknowledging that it is not the entire rap musical scene which is bad, but what people choose from that scene. And we can find good and bad in just about anything, from music to daily life.
Those people who say that life is depressing, that nothing good ever happens – these are the people who choose to focus on the negative, rather than the positive.
When I was working on my first degree, I did several psychology courses, and one of the things we studied was the idea of self-fulfilling prophecies. You know, the idea that what you expect to happen is usually what will happen. If I think that I will fall down when I go skiing, then I likely will fall down. This idea may be clearly seen in small children. If a child is constantly told that he is stupid, that he can’t do a particular thing, then he will come to believe it, and will stop trying. Likewise, if a child is constantly told that he is smart, and that he can learn something, then he will be better able to accomplish the task. In the same way, if we, as adults, constantly focus on what is negative about our lives, about what is wrong with our lives, then we will become negative. We will become like a swamp of negativity, sucking everything good out of life. Those who expect the economy to get worse will not invest in it, and the economy will get worse. Those who constantly criticize Canada, who tell others that it is only a matter of time before the whole thing falls apart, these people will not see any of the good things happening, or will choose to ignore them.
What you expect is likely what you will get. If you expect negative things to happen, then they will.
So it is up to you to make the changes. As we start this new year, only you can make the changes to make it a positive one. Now, I know that many people scoff at New Year’s resolutions, and often with good reason. But a new year represents a fresh start, a new beginning, another chance at getting things right. I compare January 1st to a new exercise book or a blank piece of paper – no mistakes have been made, and this is a chance to have a perfect book. But some people think that making resolutions sets them up for failure, mostly because the resolutions are too demanding. I like the idea of resolutions, if only because they make me focus on what I should be doing. I like the hope and optimism inherent in thinking that now I can turn over a new leaf. Now is the time I can eliminate a bad habit or institute a new one. I like having goals and trying to reach them.
But this year, I am going to do things a little differently. Instead of slamming the door on everything that happened in 2009 and focusing on what will be different about 2010, I am going to try to bring the two together, especially with the idea of tying Christmas to the new year. Interestingly, it is the secular world which makes this break. In the church year, the year starts with Advent, and blends into Christmas and the rest of the church seasons. And that is what I want to do this year. As far as the church is concerned, the experience of Christmas is meant to stay with us all year. And what we experience in Christmas is the joy of the gift given to us in the Christ-child. The wise men, we read, were “overjoyed” when they found the child. And they responded to this joy by giving gifts. In 2010, then, I will think, not so much about resolutions, but about gifts, about giving back to God. What can I give that I haven’t been willing to give before? How can I counteract the negativity which surrounds me? How can I focus on what is good and wonderful about this world? This, my friends, is how I can – how we can – recognize the gifts given us through the treasure of Christmas.
As we turn the page of 2009 and head into the still unmarred page of 2010, let us carry with us the joy of Christmas, let us keep the gift of God with us, long after the decorations are put away, long after the crèche is removed from the communion table. Because, you know, God is always with us. He will not be packed away. Let us thank God, and offer ourselves to him. Let us thank God and do with him what we cannot do alone. Let us thank God and offer our time, our talents, our treasures to him, and see what he can do with them and us. Thanks be to God.

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