Sermon preached January 3, 2016
Texts: Isaiah 60:1-6; Matthew 2:1-12
One of the fun parts of the holiday season is children’s programs, at church or at school. Now that our own children are grown, I do not see school holiday concerts as often as I once did. The range of comfort of the young performers at school programs is always fun to observe. There are the very timid children who seek always to hide behind other children. There are the children whose sole focus seems to be on their family members. They wave and smile at parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles. Then there are those children who really want to be heard. They sing with vigor and expression. I have in my mind a vivid memory of a young boy at a children’s holiday program, and I cannot remember the exact occasion of it, I think it was at Lake Superior Elementary when I went to listen to a boy I was mentoring, but there was a boy in a first grade class and the song was “Must Be Santa.” He sang with such vigor and expression that I retain the image to this day. He sang with his entire body.
I heard a story about another such program in which another little boy sang with his entire being, except he got the words just a little bit wrong. The song was the final song for his class – “We Wish You a Merry Christmas.” But instead of wishing people a “Happy New Year,” he sang out, “We wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New You!”
Happy New Year and Happy New You. In the church we are not quite done with the Christmas season even as we turn the calendar on another new year. Today we read Matthew’s Christmas story, though it is not really a birth story. That happens in 1:25, where we read that Joseph “had no marital relations with her [Mary] until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.” Then we continue with the story we read today, which takes place sometime “after Jesus was born.” From the context of the gospel (v. 16), it is up to two years since his birth. It took the wise men from the East some time to get to Bethlehem. That reminds me of one of my favorite comments on this story. What would happen if it had been three Wise Women instead of three Wise Men? They would have asked directions, arrived on time, helped deliver the baby, cleaned the stable, made a casserole, and brought practical gifts.
Of course, we cannot simply change the story like that. The story is about three wise men from the East. They took up to two years to arrive on the scene. They brought with them gold, frankincense and myrrh. They had stopped and asked questions on the way, but in doing so they tipped Herod off, and that led to some awful consequences, a story told later in Matthew that has come to be known as the slaughter of the innocents. We wish that could have been different. Detrimental and destructive use of power mars human history well beyond the story of Herod told in Matthew. When will we ever learn?
As we begin the new year it seems a good time to ask what can be different in our lives and in our world? What can we change? Are there possibilities for a new you? What possibilities are there for a newer world?
When I consider change I often think about what has come to be called “The Serenity Prayer.” We often see and hear it in this version (A. A.):
God grant me the serenity
to accept the things I cannot change;
courage to change the things I can;
and wisdom to know the difference.
The original version written by twentieth century theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, is a little different.
God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things that cannot be changed, courage to change what should be changed, and the wisdom to distinguish the on from the other. (Justice and Mercy)
I don’t mean to be picky, but I prefer Niebuhr’s original version. When you spend sixty pages to write about someone’s theology as part of your doctoral dissertation, as I did with Reinhold Niebuhr, it is o.k. to have a keen appreciation for his work.
This prayer tells us that not everything can be changed. God, give us grace to accept with serenity the things we cannot change. It is important to acknowledge this, that there are somethings that cannot be changed. We cannot change where and to whom and when we were born, nor our genetic makeup. Some things cannot be changed, and primary among them is the past, including this past year. For some of us, 2015 was a delightful year. For others of us, it may have been a difficult year. For our world, we experienced violence. Fears were heightened, anxieties increased. While we can learn from the past, and should continue to try to learn from the past, we cannot change it. We can change our understanding of the past, which is powerful, but we cannot change the past. We cannot go back to a time before Charlie Hebdo, Charleston, Paris, San Bernardino.
The prayer does not leave us only to consider what cannot be changed, but is also a prayer for the courage to change. Here I think Niebuhr’s original version is much to be preferred. The prayer asks for courage to change what should be changed, not simply what can be changed. Not everything can be changed. Of those things that can be changed, not all of them should be changed. Not all change is good, but some change is positive and some change is necessary if we are to follow Jesus faithfully, if we are to share in God’s creative and redemptive work in the world, if we are to embody the Spirit more fully in our own lives, if we are to be stars leading others to Jesus, if we are to change toward faith, hope, love – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.
The prayer inevitably leads toward praying for wisdom. We need wisdom to distinguish the things that might be changed from those that cannot be changed. We need wisdom to decide which of those things that can be changed should be changed.
God, give us the grace of wisdom. Let us be like those wise men who traveled from the East, who discerned that something was happening and decided to make changes in their lives to follow a light, follow a star.
The prayer for wisdom doubles back. When in grace we discover what should be changed, we need the grace of courage to act. Change can be difficult. Change can be a kind of dying.
I am reminded of T. S. Eliot’s poem reflecting upon the Matthew story “The Journey of the Magi.” The poem imagines the wise men, the magi, reflecting back on the journey to Bethlehem. “A cold coming we had of it,” “a hard time we had of it.” Then, more profoundly, there is a meditation on what happened to them. This Birth was/hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death./We returned to our places, these Kingdoms/But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,/with an alien people clutching their gods. The poem expresses powerfully the challenge of change, how change can feel like a kind of dying, even when it is needed change. We cannot be the church of the 1950s and 60s, even when we may remember that time fondly. The Minnesota poet Robert Bly, in one of his early poems penned these lines:
It is not our job to remain unbroken.
Our task it to lose our leaves
And be born again, as trees
Draw up from the great roots.
Great courage is required for change, but for us, courage is rooted in grace, in a grace that arrived in the world in a powerful way in the birth of a child in Bethlehem over 2,000 years ago. In Jesus as the Christ, we discover a God who continues to work in the world toward beauty, justice, reconciliation, peace and love. To use some rather sophisticated theological language, God is the “lure toward novelty” (Marjorie Suchocki, Theology and the University, 150). “God is the divine Eros urging the world to new heights of enjoyment…. It is God who, by confronting the world the world with unrealized opportunities, opens up a space for freedom and self-creativity.” (John Cobb and David Griffin, Process Theology, 26, 29) With God, newness is possible. With God, change is possible – a genuinely new year. In God’s grace there is wisdom, courage and serenity - possibilities for a new you.
And what is the end result of following this Jesus, of responding to this God of creativity and novelty? Arise, shine; for your light has come, and the glory of the Lord has risen upon you. Open to God’s Spirit, open to possibilities for a new you, we can shine with God’s grace and beauty and love, leading others to Jesus. May 2016 be a year in which, in our lives we shine more brightly. May 2016 be a year in which, together, we help our church shine more brightly with God’s love in Jesus. We may not know yet what that will all look like, but we can be on this journey of a new year and a new you together. Amen.