So for those who can't quite buy into the story of the virgin birth, but want to hold onto the story of the Son of God, I suggest that you pay attention to the story of the Holy Spirit. The truth in all of these stories is the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit's story begins with the very first verses of Genesis and continues on to the very last verses in Revelation. And we can't tell the story of Jesus without the story of the Spirit. So today, I'm going to ask the children to help me tell it.
Plan or no plan, from Joseph's perspective, the incarnation was one big life complication. God is telling Joseph to love, in spite of all the reasons not to love. God is telling Joseph to forgive Mary when he has every right to forget her. God is telling Joseph to welcome her child even though that child will complicate his life immensely. So, we know what God is telling Joseph, but are we ready for what Joseph is telling us?
All of us are embarking on a journey called 2019. The question is: are we going to be motivated by fear, by our worry about what might happen to us and to our family, friends, church, community, or country in this coming year? Or are we going to be driven by the desire to know what is possible for us, by the longing to experience the joy of meeting Jesus? Like me, you may have nearly flunked Christmas, but we can still ace the new year. The magi say, “Look up. Wise up. Rise up. Your light has come. Your star is waiting. Be on your way.”
The turning of the year gives us a great opportunity to go home by another road. Today, let's make a resolution not to take the road of fear, not to make decisions based on fear, but to be courageous and take the road of faith. Believe me, we will have many opportunities to put our resolve to the test in the next year.
As we are heading into a new year, let's not stay home. Let's be like the magi on a mission. Let's go and search diligently for the child until we find him. But let's not go alone. In too many aspects of our lives, we are expected to go-it-alone, figure it out by ourselves, muddle through it on our own. But the magi didn't travel solo, and I don't recommend that we do. If we're going to cross any deserts in the coming year, spiritual or otherwise, it's best to have some travelling companions. For one thing, we are much more likely to find Jesus that way. Jesus himself tells his disciples [in Matthew 18:20], "where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them." So, if we want to find Jesus, we'd better find some spiritual friends and pay them a visit.
Have you ever wanted to rewrite a Bible story? Some stories are harder to read than others. Take the one in Luke often referred to as "the slaughter of the innocents." This is the dark side of the Christmas story when Herod finds out that the magi are not going to reveal the new king's location. I've always wished this story had a different ending, so I've written one. In light of the recent school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, I was thinking that how we respond in love and faithfulness can write new and more grace-filled endings to the most horrific of tragedies. At the end of the service, we blessed 30 prayer shawls to go to the United Methodist Church in Newtown for distribution to first responders who are having difficulty dealing with the trauma.
Enter John the Baptist. He appears in the wilderness, in the Palestinian version of the Prairie of Prax, to preach to a bunch of North-going and South-going Zax. And all that he has to say to us can be summed up in one word: "Repent!" Literally, turn around! Change direction! You're going the wrong way. Listen to me. I'm here to prepare the way.
Baptism is the ritual by which we sign up for a journey that through suffering and death brings us more and more to life. I could never belong to a religion that promised that if you do certain things you can avoid suffering. I can't believe in a god who would use power to relieve some people's suffering and not others. But I can believe in a God who sees what is going on in the world and comes down into human life and participates in human suffering, even death, and is able to bring meaning and hope and new life out of it.
So you could say that we remember our baptism best not by repeating it, but by living it. Yesterday, I was at our Change the World Day over at Cambrian Park UMC. A few that I've baptized were there: Ellie, Drew, and Ollie. The two boys are too young to remember their baptisms, of course, but they were there with their families putting it into practice, running around, providing some entertainment while the rest of us were making sandwiches, baking cookies, sorting coats, and writing words of encouragement for some of our neighbors down at the shelter. Hardly past the changing diaper stage and already working to change the world!
This is the first in a series of sermons engaging with the work of James Fowler, a United Methodist pastor Professor of Theology and Human Development at Emory University. He also was the Director of the Center for Research on Faith and Moral Development and the Center for Ethics at Emory. In 1984, he wrote Stages of Faith: The Psychology of Human Development and the Quest for Meaning. In this first sermon, I am focusing on the first stage of faith that Fowler calls "Intuitive-Projective" Faith for children from 2 to 6 or 7 years old.