Sugar High

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Baptism of our Lord
January 12, 2020
Matthew 3:13-17

Jesus goes into the wilderness to see John the Baptist in order to be baptized by him in the River Jordan. This is the culmination of all we have been expecting through Advent and Christmas. In this moment, we recognize the fullness of Jesus as the Son of God. As the Christmas carol says, “the hopes and fears of all the years” are met together in this moment. The hope that God would one day deliver God’s people from sin and death into righteousness and life. The fears, the fear of death, is now put away. This man, God’s very own flesh, has come to dwell with us and to restore our human nature.

All righteousness is now being fulfilled. Going down into the water and coming back up again foreshadows Jesus dying and rising again for our sakes. Death has lost its sting. Resurrection is now guaranteed. Jesus has been baptized. A baptism. Break out the punch and cake and you may as well splurge on the buttercream frosting. 

And that voice calls out, “this is my Son, the Beloved, with whom I am well pleased.” With whom I am well pleased. Huh. God, could you show a bit more emotion here? I’m mean, we’re eating cake and punch. Maybe, “with whom I am ecstatic, overjoyed, over the moon for?” Just, well pleased? God is just happy, content, well pleased (for reference, see here). I mean, our souls have been promised to us, the baptism is an assurance of eternal life, and God is only content?

I think this is instructive for us in the Christian life. All too often we go searching for spiritual highs that give us a quick boost, so that we can ecstatic, overjoyed, stoked. I remember going to Happening, a youth renewal retreat, as a high schooler. I got home from the retreat on Sunday evening and I was on fire for Jesus. By Monday, the glow had worn off and by Tuesday everything had gone back to “normal.” I see this all the time in the church. We had a good retreat at Camp Allen once, we really felt close to Jesus there, and we keep trying to recapture the magic of that moment. And it always disappoints us because that moment cannot be recreated. We can feel the bishop’s hands on our heads when we’re confirmed on a Sunday morning, but the feeling evaporates by the time the first work email hits your inbox on Monday morning. We start at overjoyed and we don’t even stop at content or well pleased in our plummet downward. Oh no, we go straight down to disappointed. The sugar high becomes a sugar hangover. So we go searching for more cake and more punch, but only because we want to fill that gaping hole with frosting and butter, counting on the sugar high to keep us going. This is not a sustainable model for discipleship. You will get burned out and disillusioned if all you ever do is go chasing that magical moment, thinking that maybe if you do it just right, then you’ll hear God’s voice. We have to find a way to sustain ourselves for the long haul. In other words, we need to unlearn the quick fix, and we have to relearn how to follow. We need to find a way to be well pleased.

We didn’t hear it in today’s gospel lesson, but immediately after Jesus is baptized, the Spirit leads him into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. And you thought you’ve been on a spiritual rollercoaster. But where we might feel defeated because a spiritual low comes after a spiritual high, Jesus takes it all in stride. What we see in the experience of Jesus – from the high of his baptism to the low of his temptation – is the example of how to live for the long haul. How to be well pleased.

To live for the long haul with God, to be a disciple, we must pray. We don’t only pray when times are good or when times are bad. Don’t treat prayer to God as your lifeboat in despair. Don’t treat prayer to God as your cake and punch. I believe that the humdrum prayers on humdrum days are what actually sustain us for the long haul. We learn this from the life of Jesus. All throughout the gospels, Jesus is withdrawing to find a quiet place of prayer. For the Christian, prayer must be a daily practice. Carve out the time, day by day, to offer yourself in prayer.

And I won’t buy it that you’re too busy to pray. You’re too busy not to pray. I know that your lives can be so hectic, so frenetic, so crammed with work and kids and family and worry that you need, you need to pray. For the long haul, you need to open yourself to that voice that speaks to you everyday, “you are my beloved, and with you I am well pleased.”

For the long haul of discipleship, you will also need community. Christian community. You will need each other. Notice, that Jesus does not baptize himself. John baptizes him. Even during his temptation in the wilderness, the angels wait on Jesus. And in just the next chapter, right at the beginning of his ministry, Jesus will call Peter, Andrew, James, and John to minister with him. Do not be so presumptuous as to think that you can be a disciple by yourself. You can’t. And it’s not just about you. Other people need you to help them in their discipleship. Think about that for a moment, other people in this church depend on you to know and to follow Jesus. That’s why being in church is so critical to our spiritual lives. It’s because we need each other to help us follow Jesus in the rollercoaster of life. We need each other for shoulders to cry on, for friends to rejoice with, and to have brothers and sisters to pray for us. By being in community with each other – studying the bible together, learning together, sharing our lives – we will hear that voice, “you are my beloved, with you I am well pleased.” For the long haul with Jesus, we need each other. We need each other to be well pleased, so that we don’t go bouncing around from spiritual high to spiritual low.

In just a few minutes, we are all going to reaffirm our own baptismal promises. And the first promise we make is to “follow in the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, in the breaking of bread, and in the prayers.” Consider my sermon a commentary on that promise. And if they ever let me revise the Prayer Book, that question will simply read, “will you go to church?” 

When Jesus is baptized in the River Jordan, it is the inauguration of his ministry. So too your baptism, the promises you made, were the beginning of your Christian life. It was then and there that you promised to pray, to be in church, and to share in this life of discipleship with your brothers and sisters in Jesus. When you choose to live that kind of life, you will be well pleased in your relationship with Jesus.

And now we are going to baptize Bowen and Sawyer. Through the ups and downs and the humdrum moments of their lives, they will need prayer, they will need you, and they will need each other, they will need the Church for the long haul. They will need to hear your voice tell them that God is well pleased with them. Yes, every baptism is a joy, every baptism is a blessing, and yes, we are going to break out the cake and the punch. But the water will dry off. The spiritual high won’t last for ever, it might not even last till the end of the day.

But your goal isn’t to live with Jesus until the end of the day. Your goal is to live with Jesus until the end of your life. 

The Other gods

The Rev. Jimmy Abbott
Second Sunday after Christmas
January 5, 2020
Matthew 2:13-15,19-23

He wore a long ponytail, ragged jeans and always, always a black pocket t-shirt.. He perched his reading glasses on the very end of his nose as he lectured to his in his rough northern English accent. We loved him, because he was the finest professor of Roman history at the University of Texas. We feared him, because he was the toughest grader in the entire history department. 

One day, something must have really gotten him worked up. In a lecture on the ancient Roman gods he stopped, and sneered at us, especially targeting anybody that looked like he belonged in a fraternity. “The gods,” he said “are like frat boys. They do whatever they want, and you can never make them happy.” My guess is some actual frat guy had parked in his driveway or something, and he was going to take it out on on during our next exam. I wanted to duck under my desk or crawl out the door. But I stayed, because what he said is true.

The gods of the ancient world, you remember them – Zeus, Apollos, Hera, Aphrodite, the whole lot of them – were fickle gods that you could never please. And even if you pleased one of them, you probably made another one angry in the process. Now, the Canaanites were people who lived in the area of Israel and Palestine in the ancient world. However, the Canaanites did not worship the God of Israel, they were not Jewish. They had their own pantheon of gods similar to the Greek and Roman gods. If you’ve read the Old Testament, you’ve come across some of their names – Asherah, Baal, and especially menacing, Moloch. 

According to the religion of the ancient Canaanites, the only way that one could appease Moloch, was by sacrificing your children to him. Throughout the Old Testament, the law and the prophets denounce this horrendous god and his reprehensible offerings. The Lord God Almighty can barely stand the ancient offerings of animals in the Jewish Temple. This, this offering that Moloch requires, an offering of children, is an abomination. The God of Israel, the God of the Church, has always been sticking up for those who cannot defend themselves especially children.

Today we read from the Gospel of Matthew a story about just that – God defending those who cannot defend themselves.

Let’s set the scene a bit more. King Herod calls himself, “King of the Jews.” But he has no true authority of his own. Rather, he is a puppet king for the Roman Empire, though he is a Jew. So, wise men from the east come to Herod saying that they have seen a star that signified to them that a child has been born as King of the Jews. “Well, hold on,” thought Herod, “I’m King of the Jews.” Herod asks the wise men to return to him and to tell him the location of this new king child under the pretense that Herod will also go and pay homage. In fact, Herod plans to kill the child, to kill Jesus, because Herod is afraid of losing his position as “King of the Jews.” Imagine that, a mighty king, propped up by the military might of the Roman Empire, is afraid of a child. 

Well, the wise men sense that something is rotten in the state of Denmark, so they skip town by another road. Joseph, as we read, has a dream in which he is instructed to flee to Egypt with Mary and Jesus to avoid the violence Herod is about to visit upon the children of Bethlehem. And that is precisely what happens.

Herod orders that all the boys in Bethlehem under the age of two are to be massacred. The Holy Family pack their things in the dead of the night, make their way across the desert, and flee to Egypt. This is a scene that is both chilling and all too familiar to our modern ears. This is a scene that has replayed itself on every continent in every century. That children would be sacrificed and displaced for the personal ambition of a petty tyrant.

Which brings us right back to that other god of old, Moloch. See, I think that part of what is going on here is that King Herod, though a Jew, is showing himself to be more of a follower of Moloch. Though Herod worships the God of Israel with his lips, by his actions Herod is proving that he is more than willing to sacrifice children. Because Herod, easily threatened by the true King of the Jews, is more than willing to eliminate whatever is in his path, even children, for his own dreams; for his own lust for power and desire to preserve it. Herod is no worshiper of the God of Israel, he is a follower of that despicable god Moloch. Think of it, these children in Bethlehem that Herod is so callously ready to eliminate are his own people. Sure, Joseph, Mary, and the baby Jesus escape. Praise God that not all children are subjected to such cruelty.

But more than anything, this passage is a warning. It is a warning to those in power – to be careful how you use your power. If you are willing to sacrifice anything – your morals, your religion, even your children – then what you want is not worth it. The ends do not justify those means. And I’m not just talking about political power; this could be anybody who is willing to trample down children for their own sakes; football coaches, teachers, and yes, even clergy. You will be found on the wrong side, possibly even fighting against the God of Israel, the protecter and defender of children. You will be found counted among the worshipers of those other gods and their gory demands.

This God, the God we worship, is not like those other gods. The God of Israel, the Lord God Almighty, King Jesus, does not use people to satisfy his own petty little desires. No, this God, the God we know and worship, the only true God, is the one who makes a sacrifice for us. This is a complete flipping of the script of the ancient world. We do not have to appease the gods, we do not have to worry about upsetting some other god by worshiping another one, we do not have to give our children away as offerings – no, God offers God’s self to us. Both by coming down to earth at Christmas and by his crucifixion on Good Friday. 

This, I sense, is what Herod and the petty tyrants of this world do not understand. That true power comes not from sacrificing somebody else for your ambitions, but by sacrificing yourself. It is very easy to rationalize why that other person doesn’t matter as much as you do. Why their lives are expendable and why your life is precious. And while that may look like power, it is just cruelty. We know from the gospel, from the life of Jesus Christ, that true power comes from offering ourselves, our souls and bodies. As Joseph does when he packs his family with haste and hurries off to Egypt at night. As Mary does by bearing this child. As Jesus does, by offering himself upon the cross. That is true power, and that is why two thousand years later we still talk about Mary and Joseph. It’s why we still worship Jesus. It’s why the church honors the innocent children of Bethlehem and scorns Herod.

So consider yourself, your own little dreams and desires. What will it cost to achieve them? Will your family and children be sacrificed to the tyranny of your work? Will their dreams and desires be sacrificed for your own greed? And consider other children, not just any children in your family. Consider those who, like Joseph, Mary, and Jesus, are fleeing from violence. What are you willing to sacrifice for them? At the end of the day, will you worship Moloch or the God of Israel? Will you be with the consumer of children or with their protector?

Finally, I want to say one thing and I want to say it clearly. It is often said that preachers ought to stick to religion in their sermons; that political debates ought not to make their way into the pulpit. It is often said that priests, like me, ought to talk more about the Bible. And so I have. The chilling story of King Herod and the children of Bethlehem, the harrowing escape of the Holy Family to Egypt are right there in the Gospel according Matthew. Just two chapters in.

And that’s what makes this so terribly inconvenient and uncomfortable. But it’s also what makes the Bible so alive and so true. That a story from two thousand years ago still has meaning for us today – even in a different time and a different place. Beyond that, I have no profound insight or words of wisdom other than what another professor always told us: “read it for yourselves.” Read the Bible. Everyday. Engage with it, struggle with it, enjoy it. The Bible will encourage you, comfort you, and challenge you. As it does for me, everyday. 

Through the Bible the Holy Spirit will challenge you and ask you all sorts of inconvenient and uncomfortable questions – about power, about desire, about yourselves, and about what you worship. As the story today asks uncomfortable questions about the gods we worship and the sacrifices they demand from us. Flee from those gods of this world who will take everything from you and leave you with nothing. Turn from those other gods who would demand even your own flesh and blood. Do not be like those petty tyrants, the Herods of the world, who use their measly power to inflict pain on others for their own gain. Turn back to the one, true God. Rejoice, give thanks, and praise that God requires no sacrifice from you. God gives you a free offering, in becoming like one of us in the manger of Bethlehem. Jesus offers his own blood as a sacrifice for us upon the cross. Through that sacrifice, God defends the defenseless, strengthens the weak, and loves the unlovable. Even you.

Back to Reality

First Sunday after Christmas Day
December 29, 2019
John 1:1-18

The carols have stopped playing. The neighbors have turned off their Christmas lights. The poinsettias are dead. It’s back to reality. This is the worst part of Christmas, isn’t it? You have to un-decorate the tree and write thank you notes for gifts that you may or may not have wanted. Back to the real world with its problems and its heartaches. For a few days we’ve put all that on pause and now we must face the “real world” again. 

The real world is in trouble, as it has always been. You do not need me to tell you that the next year, an election year, will be tumultuous. Add that to the list of woes – environmental degradation, violence at home, corruption abroad, deceit everywhere. In our own lives, it seems that no matter how much we have, how much we own, how much we save, it’s never enough for the “real world.” We must have eaten too much over the holidays, so we’re getting blasted with advertisements on gym memberships. Our vacations weren’t as glamorous as our Facebook friends’ were, so we’ve got to find something even bigger and better for next year. And the world tells us to simply add it on to the list of credit card bills. Back to the bleak “real world.” The joy of Christmas lasts but a few days.

Now, the powers and the principalities of this world would prefer us to be joyless because joy is free. The world tells us that we have to buy our way out of sorrow into happiness, out of fear into security. And once we buy into that fear, we are hooked, and we keep on buying. We have bought so much of the world’s manufactured fear and outrage and cheap distinctions that we have come to believe that is reality. We have been deceived into thinking the world with all its woes and debts and sorrow is the “real world.” The darkness is awfully compelling. 

As we stand here on our last time together for this decade, and as we reflect on this most recent chapter in the life of this parish, we will be tempted to think of all the darkness we have been through. In a sense, we will be tested to “go back to reality;” to think on all the broke things, the sad things, the hurts. People have left, people moved away. Our beloved brothers and sisters have died. For a while, it didn’t rain at all. Then it rained too much. Tax Day, Memorial Day, Harvey, Imelda. Many of our homes have been damaged by the flooding, including my own. The Palmer Drug Abuse Program, who had been partners on the Holy Comforter campus for decades, closed their facility. We hosted the Archway Academy for high schoolers struggling with substance abuse. In their time here, one of their students died by his own hand. And then their program closed. There were things the parish was doing that we stopped doing, too. The Parish Hall was shut down for a month because a pipe gave out and wrecked the restrooms. The septic lines leaked into the parking lot on one Palm Sunday, of course, the one Sunday we march around in the parking lot. I don’t even want to think about the number of air conditioning units we’ve had to replace. This is the narrative that the world would have us dwell on. The evil one would be more than happy for us to tell ourselves that this has all been joyless and dark.

But we will not let that one win. Today I call us back to the real world, to God’s reality. The reality of God is that yes, there is darkness out there. But God’s reality is that the light shines in the darkness, and the darkness does not overcome it. God’s reality is grace when the world would charge us. God’s reality is truth when the world would deceive. God’s reality is a community that is free, called the church, where the world would make us pay for a membership fee. The real world, the world that God has created, is one of abundant joy, the joy of Christmas. Everything else is just something cheap the world is selling us. As John tells us, we have all received, grace upon grace. Grace, a free gift of love given to us by God. A gift that we didn’t earn and can’t buy. That is God’s reality. Grace upon grace. 

Indeed, that has been our reality at Holy Comforter over this last decade. We have received grace upon grace. And even when it seems we didn’t have enough – enough people, enough money, enough vision – God has provided us with more than we could ask or imagine.

In our life together we have celebrated more baptisms than funerals, that’s a good thing. There was a stretch a few years ago in which we were doing more quinceaneras than weddings. The number of pledges to the church have more than doubled. We have anywhere between 75 and 100 people worshiping in our assisted living communities every weekend. That is bigger than the average Episcopal church on a Sunday. Our choir has grown, our Vacation Bible School has hit its maximum enrollment. Our Drive-Thru Ashes has been so popular that we’ve become the stock footage for all the local news channels on Ash Wednesday. On Sundays, the Education Building is at capacity – with our parenting class and the whole slate of children and youth Christian formation. We helped train Rhonda Rogers as our seminarian. We’ve adopted a school. We had parties for ourselves, and we’ve fed the hungry.

And oh yeah, on top of all that, we built a church. We raised over $800,000 for this project and we received grace upon grace, $2.2 million from the Great Commission Foundation of the Diocese of Texas. And now our parking lot is full, again. 

I’m not trying to do a  self-congratulation tour or pat ourselves on the back. Not everything over this last decade has been great. But I believe that, when weighed in the balance, we have received grace upon grace. Don’t buy into the narratives out there about how the Episcopal Church is dying. That’s what the darkness would have you dwell on. The light and life of Jesus Christ has pierced the darkness. This is our reality.

I have heard it said that because I work in the church, I don’t know what the “real world” is like. Some have scoffed, because I don’t have any “real world experience.” But I say the church is more real than anything the world offers. For in our ministry together, I have been in the hospital when babies were born and I’ve knelt at the bedside of those who were dying. We’ve talked about all the real things of life – about cancer, about bankruptcy, about addiction, about divorces, about the hopes and fears for your children. If you ever want to experience the fullness of human life and emotion, commit yourself to the church and you will know the real world. This is perhaps the most radical thing the church can say, that this is reality. What we do here in church on Sundays is reality, everything else is not the real world. Because the grace, the mercy, the gifts from God that we receive in this place are the realest things you will ever know.

See, I think the world is actually jealous of us. The world is jealous of us because we know that we are loved beyond measure. The world is jealous of us because we know that we have been adopted as God’s daughters and sons. That’s why the world tries to drag us down. Bullies are bullies because they are insecure about their own lives. The evil one and the bullies of this world would have us believe that darkness is reality. When in fact, the true reality is the grace and the light and the love of Christmas. Christmas doesn’t last one day, or only twelve days, Christmas is real life.

So when you go back out there, into the world, you can go with confidence. Because you have seen, you have experienced real life in this place. You have received grace upon grace. And with boldness, take that grace out there, into the other world, so that they will look on you and see the light and love of Jesus Christ.

Christmas Eve – 2019

 

Sorry for posting this well after Christmas Eve. But hey! I’m still within the twelve days!

Christmas Eve
December 24, 2019
John 1:1-14

On this holy night, I’m drawn back to all my childhood memories of Christmas. I remember going to church late on Christmas Eve. I remember the darkened church, the wooden pews. I remember tearing into my presents on Christmas morning. I remember the big family dinners on Christmas Day. I also remember how in early December my father would dutifully climb into the attic and pull down all the boxes with the Christmas lights. He struggled with the tangled cords. He tried to remember just how he hung them last year. Then he would gather them all up and climb our rickety wooden ladder onto the roof and set them out along the peaks of the roof.

But there was one year that stands out to me, I must have been six or seven. Because my dad let me go up there with him. I can hardly believe it, I climbed up that rickety ladder and hoisted myself onto the pitched roof the house. I sat right there on the shingles as my dad wrestled and fought and strung up the Christmas lights. Looking back on it, I don’t know what’s more surprising, that my dad let me up there or that my mom didn’t lose her mind.

But to my six or seven year old self, this was a transformative experience. Sitting up there on the roof with a fresh breeze on my face, I had a new vantage point. I can still see it now, how our little street fit into the neighborhood. Above the narrow confines of our little street, I had a new vantage point on both how small I was and how big the world is. I’m sure I could only see a block or two over, but to my mind the horizon seemed endless. I sat there amid those Christmas lights and I saw everything from a new vantage point.

Here, on this Christmas Eve, as we celebrate this new light from God we are given a new vantage point from which to survey the world. We climb out of the narrow confines of our daily routines to come here, and for a moment on this Christmas Eve we see things anew. We see a God who loves us more than we could ever know. We see a world that is desperate to know that love. A new vantage point.

John says that the light of this Christmas, the light of Jesus Christ, is life and gives light to all people. The light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. With that light burning in our hears, our eyes are opened to see the world as God sees it. And from this vantage point, on this holy night, we see the light and the dark for what they truly are.

From this new vantage point, we see the darkness all around. And we see that evil, the darkness, is well organized. The light pierces the darkness but does not dispel the darkness. That is because darkness and evil have a bureaucracy, an administrative quality to it. Think of it, King Herod hunts down the children of Bethlehem based on their age. Pharaoh organized the Hebrew slaves based on his blueprints for buildings. There were timetables for the trains running to the concentration camps. All too often evil masquerades as efficiency so as to veil its true intent, in the darkness. The evil of this world is run by spreadsheets and algorithms. From our vantage point on this holy night, we see that the darkness all around us.

And the light? Well, the light is a mess. The light of God is an unruly tangle of Christmas lights. The light is born this night as a little child, and you know that children are anything but organized. That child is laid to rest in the manger because the innkeeper ran out space, the height of hotel mismanagement. Magi from the east, following the light, come to bring gifts to Jesus but they’re not sure exactly where to go. As a man, Jesus wanders around from village to village, picking up a ragtag crew of tax collectors and fishermen. In a hectic, frazzled, confused scene up on a hilltop in Jerusalem, Jesus is crucified by a well organized company of Roman soldiers while his friends and companions run away. Compared to the darkness it’s up against, the light is a mess. 

Because love is a hot mess. You cannot put down on a spreadsheet why you love who you love. I cannot stand here tonight with a bullet point, quantitative list of all the ways that God loves you. That’s what the darkness does, darkness traffics in the brutality of data. But love, the love of God bursts our hearts wide open and we sing and we pray and we give gifts not counting the cost. Because the only way to stand out against the organized darkness of the world is to revel in a light that doesn’t quite add up. No, it doesn’t make any sense to drive to a darkened church in the middle of December. No, it doesn’t make any sense to sing some old songs people wrote hundreds of years ago. No, it doesn’t make any sense that the Lord God Almighty who created the heavens and the earth would come to us as a baby. It’s all so disorganized and unruly and beautiful. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it. 

On this most holy night, we glory in the mystery that God loves us beyond all calculation. That love and grace of Jesus Christ is for each of you, no matter who you are or what you’ve done or left undone. The love of Jesus Christ brings together all types and kinds of varieties of people into one disorganized mess called the Church. Compared to the formulaic evil of the darkness, we are a hot mess. But most importantly, we burn bright with the love and mercy and grace of God. On this night we see it all spread before for us – we see the immeasurable, incalculable grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. This is the vantage point of Christmas.

Now, all those years ago I climbed down that rickety ladder after my dad was done with the Christmas lights, much to my mom’s great relief. And I went back to seeing the world from my old vantage point. Back to the narrow confines of our little street. That will be the temptation for you, too. The carols will stop playing, the family will go home, you’ll return that awful sweater that you got. The lights will go back in the attic and you might just forget this vantage point. You might forget you ever climbed that ladder in your souls to see the light of Jesus on Christmas. In those moments, when you are frustrated by the darkness, when the world is doing its best to bring you down, come back in your heart and mind to this place. A place of light and warmth and the love of God. Remember that you have seen the whole world stretched out before you from this new vantage point, remember that you have seen the unruly, unbounded, overflowing abundant love of God in Jesus Christ. A love, a light, that pierces the darkness. For Jesus Christ shines in the darkness, and the darkness cannot overcome you.

Miracle

Fourth Sunday of Advent
December 22, 2019
Matthew 1:18-25

Like many American boys, I was raised by my father on stories of sports heroes. He told me where he was when Kurt Gibson hit that home run in the 1988 World Series. He showed me a golf tee that Arnold Palmer had used. And with awe, and wonder, he told me about that famous hockey game between the United States and the Soviet Union at the 1980 Olympics. Disney made a movie about it, so you can probably sense where this is going. A bunch of American college kids against the mighty Soviets. And in the days of the Cold War, the game was much more than about hockey. Anyway, it was a Friday February 22. Before he left for work that day, my dad carefully set the VCR to record the game so he could watch it after work. If you’re not sure what a VCR is, that’s okay – just know it’s how dinosaurs watched movies.

That day he went into media blackout. No radio. No conversations with co-workers. Complete and total ignorance so that he could go home and watch the game without being spoiled. Carefully, he rewound the VHS tape and watched that preposterous, unbelievable, unimaginable game that somehow, some way the Americans won. As the game was ending, Al Michaels made the famous call, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” It still sends chills down my spine.

A miracle – something that happens in this physical world that can only be explained by the supernatural. Something so extraordinary, so utterly fantastic – like some college kids taking down the Soviet Union – that it can only be attributed to another realm. 

And so we come to Joseph, who is engaged to a woman named Mary. They have not lived together but they are pledged to each other. All seems to be going along as normal until she is found to be with child. Joseph, do you believe in miracles? Well, maybe. That is, until an angel of the Lord comes to Joseph in a dream by night and all is revealed. Joseph is to take Mary as his wife and to raise this child, for the child is a gift from the Holy Spirit. A miracle.

This miracle of the virgin birth is a crucial element in Christian tradition. We have even attached an honorific to Mary, the Virgin, to celebrate this preposterous, unimaginable, unbelievable gift from God. Over the years, over the centuries, this doctrine of the virgin birth has been kicked around as theological football. It’s been used as a litmus test to sniff out heretics, doubters, and skeptics. If you think that I’m about to drop a bombshell on you, I’m not. Every day I affirm the belief of the church and I affirm my own belief in the creed – “He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.” This is the mystery of the incarnation, that Jesus was begotten, not made, and is one being with the Father. A miracle.

But I ask us to peel back a few layers. So, we’re saying that God can conceive a child through the power of the Holy Spirit. Great. I mean, didn’t we already know that? If God is who we say God is, and if God created the entire cosmos, then begetting one little baby seems almost routine for God. Don’t get me wrong, the virgin birth of Jesus is miraculous. Mary’s faithfulness, her willingness to carry this child and to raise this child for God is a miracle beyond measure. Joseph’s courage to care for mother and child, to flee to Egypt with Mary and Jesus, to raise Jesus as his own flesh and blood is a sign of miraculous faith. But we can’t stop there. Mary and Joseph ought to point us to another miracle.

Notice, that the angel insists that Joseph name this child, “Jesus.” There’s nothing out of the ordinary about that. That’s the name “Joshua” just translated differently from Hebrew. It was a common name then as it is now. That name, Jesus or Joshua, simply means, “he saves.” He saves. And notice that the prophet Isaiah calls this child, “Emmanuel.” That means, “God with us.” Now we’re getting somewhere.

The miracle is that God does not abandon us. The miracle is that Jesus saves. The miracle is that God is with us. It ought to send chills down our spines that God Almighty – the creator of all that is, seen and unseen – would dare to love us, to care for us, to be with us, to live and die with us. It ought to knock our socks off that God Almighty has chosen to be with us. That is the miracle. Every day in our prayers, every Sunday at church, when we consider this incredible grace from God we ought to be at least as floored as my father was when he watched the “Miracle on Ice” on that ancient VCR. 

Think of this miracle – that in order to see God we do not have to look up to the heavens. We do not have to appease some distant deity who looks disdainfully down on us measly humans. No, God comes down to our level, God stoops to our place so that we can look at the man Jesus and see the fullness of the Almighty. Just revel in this for a moment – God does not despise our crude flesh. No, God loves our flesh because God created us and God came to us in the same. We so often tell ourselves that once we die we’ll be free from our bodies so that we can live with God. But in reality, the story of the incarnation, the story of Christmas, is the complete opposite. God takes on a body so that we can fully live with God here and now. God chooses to save us, to be with us, even in our flesh, even in this world, not just the world to come. The preposterous, the unimaginable, the miraculous is true – that we live with God not only in spirit but also in body. For God is with us.

We who have been raised in the Church can so easily forget this grace. We’ve become so accustomed to the creeds, the ceremonies, the rituals, that we lose sight of the miracle. God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten not made. We open up the holy scriptures and read the same stuff every Christmas, and all the thrill has gone out of it. As if my father had gone home that day thirty-nine years ago only to have watched the Soviet Union win that hockey game. Because that would have been the expected thing. 

As you make your final preparations for Christmas – the last trip to the mall, another run to the grocery store for that one thing you forgot – I hope you get your socks knocked off. Go home today and read this story again from Matthew and yell at least as loud as Al Michaels did that you do believe in miracles. 

And not just that you believe in them, but that this gift, this grace, this miracle from God does something to you. See, my dad watched that game all those years ago and while it gave him great memories, I don’t think it changed his life. I’ve watched plenty of sports in my day, countless games, matches, rounds, and I can say, some of them have been thrilling. Some of them have been agonizing. Some of them have been downright boring. But not one of them has changed my life. 

But this, this little child, conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary has. And that is a miracle. When I met Jesus, when I felt the Holy Spirit in my own heart, my life was changed forever. It knocked my socks off. And it didn’t happen at some altar call, no one witnessed to me, I didn’t get slain in the Spirit. No, I met Jesus, the Holy Spirit came into my heart, during the humdrum rituals, ceremonies, hymns, and creeds of the Episcopal Church. This thing that we do on Sundays, sometimes with great enthusiasm, sometimes out of rote memory, blew my heart wide open. And it still does today. To me, the words we say, the hymns we sing, the things we do together are just as mind-boggling and grace-filled as they were in the beginning, are now, and will be forever. 

There’s a miracle in this – that God is revealed in the ordinary things of life – a song, a piece of bread, a cup of wine, an old story, and even a little child named Jesus, our Emmanuel. And there is the greatest miracle of all – that God is with us.

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