Preaching Notes for the First Sunday after Christmas Day
During Christmastide, the lectionary readings invite us to focus on the Spirit of Christ in the world. In Trinitarian language, that means we focus on the work of the Holy Spirit. But how do we explain the Holy Spirit? How do we explain this mystery to those outside the church, or even those within the church who cannot quite grasp what the Spirit is about? In John’s gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that after he has left this earth the Father will send them someone to comfort them; namely, the Spirit of Truth, whom the world cannot see because it does not know him, but they, the disciples, will know him because he dwells in them. Paul speaks off and on of the Holy Spirit of Jesus Christ. And there is the well-known commission at the end of Matthew where Jesus, as he is leaving his disciples to ascend into heaven, tells them, “Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 29:19 NRSV).
In essence, we have a number of references in the Scriptures to the name, “Holy Spirit,” but very little explanation. We may have knowledge of how the early church resolved who the Holy Spirit is through Trinitarian and creedal language. But the Scriptures are fairly vague.
Once in a while, however, we come across a passage of Scripture that seems to illuminate us to the work of the Holy Spirit, even if it doesn’t specifically give name to it. These passages are rather like the true saints among us, those folks who, by their simple but extraordinary acts of care and compassion, quietly, and even anonymously, assist our ability to see Jesus Christ in our world. These folks are all around us, doing their work quietly every day, often so much in the background that at times we might not even know whom to thank for showing us the love of Christ.
This passage of Scripture from the sixty-first chapter of Isaiah is like one of those quiet saints among us. That is, even though it was written at least five hundred years before Jesus was born, I think it illuminates and makes real the Spirit of Christ in a startling, indirect, and unexpected way.
According to the fourth chapter of Luke, when Jesus was ready to begin his public ministry, he returned to the synagogue in his hometown of Nazareth. It was in that familiar place, among friends and family, that he was handed the scroll from the prophet Isaiah. Jesus opened the scroll to the sixty-first chapter and read the first two verses:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the broken-hearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn” (Isaiah 61:1-2, NRSV).
Now when the prophet Isaiah wrote these words that Jesus read at the inauguration of his own ministry, Isaiah was talking about himself, and the poor and afflicted he was referring to was the nation of Israel, which, at the time, had been carried off into captivity in Babylon. But we as Christians have to ask for whom those words were really written: the prophet Isaiah, or Jesus Christ, the Son of God?
And you know what I would say? I would say that I believe that they were written for both.
In my mind, it was the Holy Spirit who inspired the writer of Isaiah to write these beautiful words, and that very same Spirit led Jesus to proclaim them at the start of his ministry. Of course, I can’t prove that the Holy Spirit was guiding the author who wrote the words. All I can do is suggest that the words Isaiah spoke seem so right for Jesus that I have a hard time believing they weren’t originally intended for him as well.
And in fact, that is precisely why I believe it to be the work of the Holy Spirit: because when the Spirit is involved, it always seems so strangely right.
But of course the verses from Isaiah that we read in today’s lection are not the same ones that I quoted above that come from the beginning of the chapter. Today’s lection is from the very end of that chapter, where Isaiah says, “I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels" (Isaiah 61:10 NRSV).
What are the garments of salvation? What is the robe of righteousness about which he speaks? Clearly, whatever they are, they are things that are not of this earth. They are the garments of God, and they are holy, invisible garments. When we have them on, we don’t even know we are wearing them.
What does a person clothed in the garments of salvation and the robe of righteousness look like? I think Paul gives a pretty good description in his letter to the Philippians:
If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, make my joy complete:
be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind.
Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father (Philippians 2:1-11 NRSV).
Humility is a gift from God. It is a garment bestowed upon us, not something we can choose for ourselves and put on to wear. Just like salvation and righteousness, a moment of humility is a pure blessing bestowed upon us by God through the Holy Spirit.
Humility, salvation, and righteousness are garments that are not of this world. If a person is clothed in any one of them, it is an unexpected and wholly unearned state; and it is a garment that never belongs to the wearer. Humility, salvation, and righteousness are not ever ours to claim. These garments always come from God and belong to God, and they are only loaned to us temporarily, if we are very fortunate, as gifts of the Holy Spirit.
In his letter to the Ephesians, Paul tells us to put on the whole armor of God so that we may be able to stand against the wiles of the devil. But Paul does not tell us how to put this armor on. How do we arm ourselves with truth and peace and faith and righteousness? The answer, once again, is that we cannot do this for ourselves. God must do it for us. All we can do is pray that God clothes us from on high with these garments. If we are ever to wear them, God will have to bestow them upon us.
God clothes us with these garments through the Holy Spirit. And that is what we must pray for in this season of Christ’s coming among us. We must pray that the Holy Spirit will clothe each one of us with the garments of God and help us all to be wearing the righteousness, salvation, and humility of Christ upon us, that others may be able to see that very same Spirit incarnate in us.
Paul’s words confirm what I have been trying to say in my notes on the readings from Isaiah and Luke and further point us during this holy season of Christmastide to know in our own hearts, in our own lives, and through our own personal experiences the very real presence of Christ’s Spirit incarnate in his body, the church. Because of Jesus, we are children of God. Christ’s very Spirit has been sent into our hearts so that we, with Jesus, may call God our Parent. And because of Jesus, we have been made heirs of God’s kingdom. This is amazing good news!
Sadly, by the first Sunday after Christmas, most people are tired of it all and grateful to see the holidays come to an end. They don’t want to hear any more Christmas music. They don’t want to talk about the birth of Jesus anymore. They are done with all of it, exhausted from it, and ready to move on to something else. Perhaps it is just human nature to pour ourselves into planning for holidays, celebrations, festivals, and trips-of-a-lifetime, only to be ready for these events to be over almost as soon as they finally arrive.
But in sharp contrast to the world, the church is just getting started talking about the hope that has been born into the world in Jesus Christ. It is not the end of the story for us. It is just the beginning!
I’m almost embarrassed to admit this, but recently I have been watching a really silly television show called “Say Yes to the Dress.” I don’t know why I have become so fascinated with it. But alas, I have; and I must say, not only has it provided a great deal of mindless entertainment for me, but it has also provided food for thought.
The show is about a bridal salon in New York City. Engaged woman come in, usually accompanied by an entourage of advisors, to find their perfect wedding gown. As a part of the lead-in, the consultants always ask the brides-to-be to tell them about their fiancé, their wedding plans, and the theme of their wedding. Almost without fail, each bride will proclaim excitedly, “John is the perfect man for me. I can’t wait to spend the rest of my life with him!”
Every time I hear that line and contemplate the whole phenomenon of American weddings, I can’t help but wonder whether the wedding day is the end of something or the beginning. I guess it is both. It is the end of the planning and the anticipation, and for some the culmination of a lifelong dream. But it really does mark the beginning of spending “the rest of my life” with a partner.
We do the same thing when we give birth to a baby. We spend nine months or more planning and dreaming of the big moment: the end of the pregnancy and the long awaited and much anticipated birth. But that ending is not the end. Rather, it is the start of a whole new chapter in life, one that includes first an infant, and then a toddler, and a first grader. If we are lucky, it continues on through the years of adolescence, college and career training, young adulthood, and maybe someday even becoming grandparents.
If we are not careful, Christmas can become for the people of our congregations nothing but another ending. It is our job during Christmastide to make sure that doesn’t happen.
Let us not let the joy of Christmas be over just because we’ve opened the presents, taken down the tree, and put away the Christmas music. Let us not be about the business of the next thing coming down the pipe. Let us instead try to hang on to the moment for a little while. Let us hold on to the Spirit of Christ in our midst. Let us extend the joy through these twelve days of Christmastide as we contemplate the transformation that the birth of Christ in the world has begun for each one of us.
One of the only stories in the Bible that reveals anything about Jesus as a child is this lesson from the Gospel of Luke. Luke tells the story of Simeon and Anna, these two very unusual characters who were somehow able to recognize that an ordinary-looking baby, who had been brought to the temple one day by his rather ordinary-looking parents, as part of an ordinary religious ritual, was not ordinary at all, but was in fact quite extraordinary. When I read this account, I feel awestruck by Simeon’s unswerving belief that this child was the promised Messiah, and his boldness in declaring to the child's parents what they had seen. It begs a hard question for me: How in the world did Simeon and Anna know that the baby Jesus was the Messiah?
Lo and behold, the answer to my question can be found right there in the Scriptures. Luke tells us straight out that it was “by the Holy Spirit” that the child’s identity was revealed to each of these people. But I have to admit that I don't quite know what to make of those words either.
- What does it mean that the Holy Spirit rested upon Simeon and revealed to him that before he died he would see the Lord's Messiah?
- How did the Holy Spirit reveal this to him?
- Did the Holy Spirit speak to him in a voice he could hear?
- Did the Holy Spirit come to him in a dream?
- What exactly happened that enabled Simeon to see the promised Messiah in the face of this ordinary baby one ordinary day at the temple in Jerusalem?
Maybe taking a closer look at one of these characters can help us discover some answers. This time around I’m going to focus my thoughts on Simeon, although I promise that the next time around if I’m still here I will concentrate on Anna.
Simeon is a common Hebrew name that means "to hear." So maybe there is a hint in the name "Simeon" that he was given some kind of special ability to hear what God was revealing to him through the Holy Spirit. Luke tells us that Simeon was a righteous and devout older Jewish man who lived in Jerusalem during the time of Herod's reign. Simeon had devoted his life to looking for the Messiah, the one who was to fulfill the hopes of Israel. Luke says that the Holy Spirit promised Simeon that he would see the Messiah before he died.
We know that Simeon happened to be at the temple when Jesus' parents came to present their son. And we know that Simeon recognized the baby as the one whom God had promised from the moment he saw him. This is about all we know from the Scriptures. But what else can we know?
Well, from this direct information about Simeon we can infer some other things about this man. For example, we can imagine that Simeon must have been an unusually religious person from the fact that the most important thing in his life, the thing he needed and wanted most before he could die in peace, was to see the Messiah. Another thing that is obvious about Simeon is that he was open-minded and willing to take risks. We know he was open-minded because he was able to discern the Messiah in the unlikeliest of persons: this humble, ordinary baby who had been brought to the temple by his parents for presentation. It takes a certain amount of open-mindedness to even consider that this normal child born in a stable to an humble family might be the promised Messiah.
If you were looking for the Messiah all of your life and had been promised by God that you would see the consolation of Israel before you died, what kind of person would you be looking for? What kind of person would you expect the Messiah to be? Wouldn't you expect that person to be somebody important, born into a recognized and respected family? Wouldn't you be looking for certain signs and symbols of obvious Lordship to clue you in to the fact that this was the one you had been waiting for? If you were looking for the Messiah today, wouldn't you expect that person to be influential and well-known, maybe even famous? Someone who had proven himself or herself to be a leader?
Or could you, like Simeon, be open-minded enough to look for the face of the Messiah in an unexpected place? Could your mind be open to seeing the Messiah in the face of a baby or a child, or a homeless person on the street, or a woman, or a person of color, or a homosexual person, or a person with a crippling disease or disability? Or would you automatically rule out those who are marginalized in our culture and limit your search only to the faces of those in power? Would you have been able to recognize the Messiah in the face of the baby Jesus?
I would also suggest that Simeon was willing to take a risk because when he saw this baby, he asked the baby's mother if he could hold her child. When she said he could, he took the baby and held him in his arms and he offered a blessing:
Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;
f or my eyes have seen your salvation, which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples,
a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel (Luke 2:29-32 NRSV).
Can you imagine what Mary must have thought? "Why, this man is insane! How could I have let him hold my newborn baby?" I imagine this declaration must have come as quite a shock to Mary and Joseph, as I'm sure the other extraordinary events of their son's birth had brought about for them. But Simeon wasn't worried about shocking or surprising or offending the child's parents. He was so focused on the baby and the fulfillment of God's promise to him that he could do nothing but thank and praise God for the blessing he had been given.
Simeon was able to see Christ in this ordinary, plain, common baby because he was inspired by the Holy Spirit of God. It was the same Spirit that had, earlier in his life, enabled him to believe and trust that God would fulfill God's promise to him. It was that same Spirit that helped him to focus all of his energies on looking for his Messiah. The Spirit gave him the strength and the fortitude to keep looking, day and night, high and low, anywhere and everywhere that he went, so that his whole life was focused on his search for the promise that had been revealed to him. The Holy Spirit of God transformed his life. It changed him so much that he no longer viewed the world the same.
The same thing happens to every person whom the Holy Spirit of God falls upon. It transforms them. It enables them to see things in a new and different way.
Seeing the face of Christ in ordinary places and things brings hope to the despair of this world. All we have to do is open our minds and look! It is like a light shining in our darkness, guiding us and giving us new direction. We begin to see the world differently. Our eyes become focused on recognizing the face of Christ all around us, in everyday things and people, and we began to live our lives in gratitude for all of God's creation. We begin to look at each tiny living thing as sacred and worthwhile, simply because God created it. We begin to see each person, no matter how simple or complicated, no matter how charming or spiteful, as a person of sacred worth and a loving creation of God.
If we consider the examples Jesus used to teach and preach to his followers— the flowers in the fields, the sheep and the shepherds in the hills around his home, the workers in the fields and vineyards, the women and the children and other persons whom society had devalued—these are all ordinary, everyday, run-of-the-mill things. There is really nothing extraordinary or inherently unusual about the majority of things that Jesus talked about.
What is extraordinary is the way he talked about them, the way he looked at people, the way he viewed all of life as a creation of a loving God. His way, his words, his path are a light in the midst of the darkness and hopeless and despair of our everyday life. Looking at the world through the eyes of Christ changes the way we see things. The ordinary becomes extraordinary. Light and hope and peace and joy are born into our world. We look at life in a new way.
Likewise, the Holy Spirit reveals to us the wonders of God all the time and inspires us to be able to see the face of Christ and the love of the Lord everywhere. It is the Holy Spirit that transforms us and makes us able to see what we couldn't see without the grace of God revealing the promised One to us. The wonder of the Christ child is all around us, every day, in simple and ordinary people and places. We have only to, by the grace of God, be able to recognize them.
Where have you seen the Holy Spirit revealed through the people around you? How have these acts of love and kindness brought the Holy Spirit to rest upon you, revealing God's love and bringing light to your darkness? How has their love transformed you and enabled you to see ordinary things in an extraordinary way?