Sermon for Sunday January 6th

I’ve got a couple of questions this morning which will require a show of hands.  Is everybody ready? First question: how many of you put up some kind of Christmas decorations last month at your homes – however elaborate or simple those decorations might have been?  And second question: how many of you have not yet gotten every last one of those Christmas decorations put away, and so have at least a bit of the Christmas spirit still hanging around your house?

I can tell you that, if our decorations are any indication, at our house we are still deep into the Christmas spirit, even though the needles on the tree are getting pretty dry and brittle now, and candles on our Advent wreath have long-since seen better days, and the last remnants of goodies which appeared in our Christmas stockings are down to the crumbs and empty wrappers. There is such a sense of ambivalence which we, and perhaps many of you, experience  as Christmas draws to a close – an odd combination of wanting to continue celebrating the season; and at the same time a sense of wanting to clean up, move on, and get ready for whatever awaits us next.

That same sense of being caught between seasons seems to be just as real here at the church. While many of our Christmas decorations are still up, lots of them have already gone on to a better place, and some of the remaining decorations are beginning to look rather tired.

Well, if there is a sense of ambivalence about our Christmas decorations (whether in our church or in our homes), you may have noted that there is also a certain ambivalence in our worship this morning as well.  You all may have come to church this morning thinking Christmas was over (the 12 days of Christmas, after all, ended yesterday) … and yet our gospel lesson drops us right back into the Christmas season again with the story of the coming of the magi.

Even though – despite the well-loved Christmas carol – there was no indication that there were three of them, or that they were kings, or that they came from the Orient, the story of the coming of the magi is actually not one we hear read in church all that often.  Today, January 6, is the Feast Day of the Epiphany, and the gospel lesson traditionally associated with this day is the arrival of the wise men from the east.  Most years, January 6 doesn’t fall on a Sunday, and so it doesn’t receive the bright lights of center stage nearly as often as it might.  But in fact, in some parts of the Christian world, today is the day which rivals December 25th. .. for today is the day when Christ’s birth is celebrated in churches like the Armenian Apostolic Church just up the street on Sierra Madre Blvd.

If you feel a certain ambivalence in hearing more of the Christmas story this morning, rest assured that there is also a certain level of ambivalence within the story as well.  I don’t know if you paid close attention or not as we heard the gospel read a couple of minutes ago, but if you listened to Matthew’s version of that story carefully enough, you find that the Holy Family is no longer hanging out in the stable in Bethlehem when the magi arrive (despite all of the Christmas cards and nativity scenes which show them kneeling at the crèche).  Now, according to Matthew, Jesus and his family are living in a house.  And besides, if this star arose at Jesus’ birth which guided the magi toward him, chances are that if they came from any distance, it took quite a while for them to arrive.  In fact, if you were to read just the next four verses of Matthew’s text, you’d notice that, following the visit of the magi to King Herod, one of the most tragic stories in all of the scriptures takes place.  Matthew 2:16 reads like this:

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.

… indicating that upwards of two years had passed between Jesus’ birth and the time the magi finally showed up on the scene.

So, if you think you have a little trouble wrapping up the Christmas season at your house, take heart, for apparently the writers of the gospels had their own problem in bringing that particular story to a close in a timely fashion.

Even as we move from the season of Christmas into the season of Epiphany – with its story of the coming of the magi – we find ourselves once again focusing on the giving and the receiving of gifts.  And so, in that vein, I would like to offer you one last experience of ambivalence which this story brings to mind. 

You know, we so often read this story and are asked to put ourselves in the place of the magi, as we ponder Questions like: “What are the gifts which each of us have to bring – to Jesus, to the world, etc.?”  Now, there is nothing wrong with being generous, with living out of a sense of abundance, with sharing our blessings with those around us.

But today, I’d like you to put yourself not in the place of the magi, but rather in the place of Jesus – at which point the question is reversed.  Now, no longer is it about asking, “How good are we at giving to others?”, but rather it is about asking, “How good are we at receiving the hospitality that others might offer to us?”

Now I know that this may sound contrary to everything you’ve been taught, but if you look at the life of Jesus, his was a story not just of being a giver, but one of constantly being the recipient of the generosity of others.  Just look at a few of the highlights of his life:

As we heard on Christmas Eve, Jesus was born in a stable which had been lent to his parents by an innkeeper.

In today’s gospel, he unexpectedly –and apparently without warrant – was showered with precious gifts of gold and frankincense and myrrh from a bunch of strangers who showed up at his front door.

  • In his adult years of ministry, he spent his life wandering the Judean countryside as an itinerant preacher, drawing upon the kindness and generosity of others, inviting himself to dinner parties and scandalously accepting the gift of water from a Samaritan woman at the well.

  • At one point in his ministry, he borrowed five barley loaves and two fish from a young boy in order to feed 5000 people.

  • He sent his disciples out 2X2 with explicit instructions not to carry any money, but to go into a town and ask for a free place to eat and sleep.

  • Toward the end of his ministry, his disciples had to borrow a donkey for him to ride into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday.

  • On the night before he died, he shared his Last Supper with his disciples in a rented room.

  • After his crucifixion, he was even buried in a tomb which had been donated by Joseph of Arimathea.

In his life – and even in his death – Jesus’ ministry was marked not just by what he gave, but by what he received from those around him.  For all of this talk of having a heart for generous giving, I think what Jesus really had was a heart for generous receiving.

How good are we at receiving the hospitality of the culture around us?  Or is hospitality only a one-way street – where we are only at our best when we are the ones who are giving to others?  We, who have been blessed with so much – have we been blessed with a generous heart willing to receive the gifts that others might have to offer us?  I ask this, because I believe that this is an absolutely foundational question for what it means to be the Church in the 21st century.

You know, choosing to engage the world in a spirit of generous receiving is no small task.  It requires a certain set of characteristics not often found in many individuals… or in many churches for that matter.  As you hear this list of qualities, ask yourself how well they describe you, and how well they describe The Church of Our Saviour.

  • An intense curiosity about the hopes and dreams and needs of the world, about the neighborhood around COS and the people who live here.

  • A deep sense of humility, where we realize that we have as much to learn from our neighbors as they have to learn from us.

  • A sense that God resides primarily in the world, and not within the walls of the church.

  • A desire to partner with God in the work that God has already begun.

  • An understanding that our place, then, is in being a part of the world and not apart from the world.

  • A belief that God isn't finished with us yet, and that our best days lie in front of us.

  • And perhaps most importantly, the assurance that God is with us every step of the way.

Often it is said that the work of a Christian is to strive to be like Jesus.  Now I know that you’ve heard it said that it is more blessed to give than to receive.  I would argue that it is certainly at least as Christ-like to be able to receive as freely as it is to give… to receive graciously, and gratefully, and generously, and humbly, and vulnerably, and compassionately.

On this first day after the Christmas season for many of us – and on this Christmas morning for many other Christians – I hope that you receive some great gifts… from God, and from the world around us… both of which have so much to offer, if only we will open our hearts and welcome them in.  As Jesus teaches us, it is indeed as blessed to receive as it is to give.