Sermons That Work

The Church Continues, Christmas 2 – 1999

January 03, 1999


Most of us are still recovering from the busy-ness of ending an old year on our civil calendars, and of launching a new one. The beginning of a New Year invariably calls for taking stock; for determining whether we are still afloat or not. We look back over “the changes and chances” of the past year and we offer thanks that we have been given a New Year in which to continue. If we think about it, we are likely to give thanks that the church continues as well.

The good news is that the church has continued, through changes of leadership and changes in circumstance. The church, the people of God, continues as the endless thread that binds history together. A part of the reason that we have continued is bound up, in a surprising way, in today’s Gospel reading.

The lessons we read today are often omitted at this time of year, because the Second Sunday after Christmas is frequently overtaken by the Feast of the Holy Name or the Feast of the Epiphany. Because we don’t routinely hear today’s Gospel, we know less about Jesus’ stepfather than we might like to know.

St. Joseph had a difficult calling. He was called to be the earthly father of Jesus, a task that required him to ignore rumors and endure popular opinion. More to the point, St. Joseph was called to follow the guidance of the Holy Spirit; and that guidance came to him in ways that strike us as very strange.

Joseph was called to work on the fringes of Jesus’ early life. He had the often-dangerous duty of protecting the child Jesus from harm. In addition, it fell to Joseph to tend to routine discipline and to teach his son a trade.

Perhaps the strangest part of Joseph’s career, to us, is that whenever a major shift in the action was called for, Joseph was given his instructions in a dream. Indeed, he was led by dreams in most, if not all, of the major decisions of his life.

It’s important for us to understand that Joseph found nothing abnormal about being instructed through his dreams. Because of who he was, and because of the culture in which he lived, Joseph thought in different terms than we do. Dreams were routinely accepted as messages from God.

Because of who we are and because of our culture, we place dreams in a different category of thought. We would very likely, without a second thought or a moment’s hesitation, reject the idea of receiving reliable guidance in our dreams.

After all, we live in a highly evolved society, in a world that is pretty thoroughly hedged-about with technological wonders. We depend, with complete confidence, on our technology to see us through any circumstance. The notion of walking into our workplace some bright morning, and announcing that we’ve reached a decision based on a dream we had last night, is pretty much foreign to us.

It makes no difference that we sometimes get wonderful ideas from our dreams. It makes no difference that major breakthroughs have grown out of ideas that started with a dream.

We’re not likely to admit to such a thing because, in such matters, we lack confidence. We lack the confidence to go beyond the sort of data that can be stored in computer files; the sort of data that can be recalled, and fully understood, whenever we need it.

This lack of confidence is most unfortunate. It’s unfortunate because we spend a great deal of time in activities that will not be reduced to mere equations. And we benefit immeasurably from those activities.

Without that part of ourselves that cannot help but dream, there would be no art, there would be no music; there would be no theater of any sort. Without dreams, music would be nothing more than an interesting series of formulas that were known to produce sound. It is our ability to dream that provides us with the facility for finding and creating beauty in music.

Without dreams, painting would easily be reduced to the chemical formulas needed to produce various colors. A whole museum of the world’s finest paintings, assuming anyone took the bother to paint them, could reside on a single computer disc.

Without that part of ourselves that cannot keep from dreaming, there would be no such thing as love. Faith would likely be something for which we didn’t even have a word; because, without dreams, we’d never recognize the imperfections that teach us our need for faith and love.

Who can explain the phenomenon of falling in love? No one of sound mind would dare try to explain why he or she fell in love with this person instead of that one. Without our willingness to dream, we would not even know about love and our lives would be immeasurably reduced.

In order for us to apprehend love, or beauty, or nearly any other good thing, we must be willing to accept this notion: that there is more to our lives than we can grasp with our vaunted intellect; that there is more in the universe than that which we can unravel to its last component thread by means of our reason.

If we were unwilling to admit to anything that lies beyond our intellectual capacity, it’s difficult to say what we would be doing at this moment. Faith, or the practice of it, would certainly seem to be out of the question.

The part of ourselves that dreams is what prepares us to receive revelation. It is what prepares us, it is what enables us, to listen for the self-revelation of God

If the people of God were unable, through unwillingness to dream, to hear God’s self-revelation, the Holy Spirit might strive in vain to get through to us. The knowledge and the love of God would pass without our recognizing them.

Under such circumstances, worship simply would not happen. There would be no singing, no flowers, and no candles. The concept of receiving the love of God in the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ–the Eucharist–would remain a mystery we had yet to meet.

In the end – we’d have to give up the whole idea of worship. That ‘s assuming we’d come up with the idea in the first place. It would be intellectually unacceptable to us to continue an activity for which we could find no clear-cut -detailed–justification.

But – thanks be to God, we don’t give up on worship. We don’t give up on it because like thousands of believers before us we follow a revelation. It has been revealed to us that while we live in a world with clearly defined limits we also live in a world that is beyond limits. We live in time and, at the same time, we live in eternity.

We are here, in this place, because it has been revealed to us that there is more to our lives than meets the eye. We are here because even while we live in time, we also live as loyal citizens of eternity.

We are invited to live as citizens of eternity by the event we are celebrating, Christmas. At Christmas we celebrate the coming of Jesus Christ, as the Savior who will fit us for eternity.

And it’s not for ourselves alone that we have received this revelation. God’s revealed Love and Providence is for all people–at all times–in all places. The church is here because we understand that fact. We are here because we know that we are called, not only to dream but also to work to bring the dream to reality.

We are here because we believe that a kingdom in which Peace and Justice prevail has come; and is coming. We have been granted the vision of that promise, and the dream of its fulfillment calls us forward.

We confess that we are here because we are called to hope and dream. We are here because we have seen a vision. And even if we only caught a glimpse of that vision, we know we are being changed by it. We know that our lives are changed, that our lives are being changed, by the truth and the power of that vision.

We are here because we know that as the vision is changing us, we who are being changed, we who are growing in God’s grace are, through God’s grace, changing the world.

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