January 1, 2017 sermon
Follow the Light
Today is one of those days where different calendars come together.
Today is New Year’s Day. Traditionally, this is a day to look back and to look forward. We reflect on the year just ended, and we look forward to the year just beginning.
Today is also called the Naming of Jesus. We focus on a single verse in the Bible, which comes right after the shepherds left the manger and began telling everyone who would listen about the birth of Jesus. It reads, “When the eighth day arrived, the day of circumcision, the child was named Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived.”
We don’t have naming ceremonies anymore. But here’s an interesting thing—part of our tradition as Anglicans was that people coming to be confirmed were required to learn their catechism. It was a way to teach people the basics of the faith.
In the 1928 Book of Common Prayer, the very first question in the catechism is, “What is your name?” Our name is important. Question 2 in the catechism is, “Who gave you this name?”
Today, we would answer, “My parents gave me this name.” But the catechism answers it this way: “My sponsors in baptism; wherein I was made a member of Christ, the child of God, and an inheritor of the kingdom of heaven.”
We are baptized in the name of God, and in baptism we receive our own name. This is our identity. We bear the name of God, and our own name is forever linked to the name of God. I am Yme, a child of God, marked in my baptism as Christ’s own forever.
This is who we are. Most fundamentally, most deeply, we are beloved children of God, members of Christ, and through him heirs of the life of grace and abundance. That’s our identity.
New Year’s Day. Naming of Jesus.
Today is also Epiphany Sunday. Epiphany is celebrated on January 6, and is the end of the season of Christmas. We can also celebrate Epiphany on the Sunday before January 6. On this day, we tell the story of the magi who come seeking the newborn king of the Jews. They’re astrologers. They’re foreigners. They follow a different religion.
And yet, here they are, right at the beginning of the story of our faith.
I could say all kinds of things about this story. It’s partly about how God includes everyone, no matter your race, no matter your gender, no matter your religion, no matter your sexual orientation, no matter your name. You are loved. You are welcomed. You are invited to come close.
This story is also partly about how this child is a threat to those who are in power. The magi visit Herod the king first. As a result of Herod’s paranoia, he ends up massacring all children under 2 years old in Bethlehem, just to make sure his throne remains secure. It sounds like a story ripped from today’s headlines … Aleppo; Boku Haran in Nigeria; child soldiers in the Congo; refugee children fleeing for their lives.
When confronted by the gospel, those who seek to hold on to power become afraid. Their brutality knows no bounds as they tighten their grip.
But I want to focus on the star in this story. The magi followed a star. It’s an image for the light. It’s about seeing something and having the courage to follow. The magi felt a stirring in their souls, and that stirring led them from their homes in the east to a small town in a tiny backwater country.
The American poet W.H. Auden wrote a long poem called For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio. The poem includes three modern wise men—a scientist, a historian, and a social scientist. They try to explain why they have followed the star, and they say in turn,
“… to discover how to be truthful now …”
“… to discover how to be living now …”
“… to discover how to be loving now …”
Then, all together, at the end, they exclaim, “… to discover how to be human now is the reason we follow this star.”
To discover how to be human. I think that comes wondrously close to what this story invites us to do.
God invites us to follow the light of God and discover how to be human, fully human, fully alive, basking in the glory of a God who loves us and all of creation with a deep and abiding love.
We see the light … and then we muster the courage to follow the light. We feel the stirring in our heart, in our soul, in our gut … and then we give our whole selves to this journey, this pilgrimage.
While I was preparing this sermon, I stumbled across a video with Eric Whitacre. He’s an American composer, and is well known particularly for his choral music. It’s his 47th birthday tomorrow. He originated what he calls the virtual choir. People send video clips of themselves singing one of his works, and he blends them together in an online choir.
He was talking to a group of people about his introduction to music. He had no childhood training in music. He couldn’t read music. But one day he heard a song on the radio, and he thought, “I want to do that.”
So he enrolled at a university, hoping to learn how to be a pop musician. A professor encouraged him to join the choir, so he thought he’d try it out. He says,
“At my first choir rehearsal in my life, I sat with the other basses. We started with warmups. Then the conductor said, ‘Let’s turn to the Kyrie.’ I didn’t know what a kyrie was … but I peeked over at my neighbour and I found the right page. We were singing the Requiem by Mozart. Thirty basses around me launched into the opening fugue … ‘Kyrie eleison’.
“At first, I started to tremble. And then I started tearing up, and I realized in that moment that I was hearing not music, but my name, my true name. Not Eric Whitacre, but this name inside my body somewhere … and I left that room the world’s biggest choir geek, totally transformed after 50 minutes.
“In retrospect … for the first time I felt a part of something larger than myself.”
This ties it all together for me.
How important it is to learn our name, our true name, our deepest and most important identity.
How important it is to listen to that stirring in our heart, in our soul, in our gut.
How important it is to follow that light.
And as we do so, “we discover how to be human.”
That’s the reason we follow this one we call “the Light of the World”. That’s the reason we commit ourselves to following Jesus day by day, hour by hour. That’s the reason we are here week by week, to be strengthened and encouraged in our following.
We follow the light of God, and we learn how to be human again.
Thanks be to God.
Matthew 2: 1–12
Isaiah 60: 1–6
Ephesians 3: 1–12