SERMON ~ 12/18/2022 ~ “Called to Be Saints”

12/18/2022 ~ Fourth Sunday of Advent ~ The Sunday on Which We Commemorate Joy ~ Which Isaiah 7:10-16; Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25 ~ https://vimeo.com/showcase/7960701/video/782600090

Called to Be Saints

“To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God and Jesus, the Christ.” — Romans 1:7

I need to start my comments today with two caveats. First, at Bible study on Mondays we usually examine the passage on which I will preach the following Sunday. But since Music Sunday should have been today and the choir would preach, instead we looked at the complete Nativity stories in Matthew and Luke.

Rumor to the contrary, the Nativity stories in those Gospels are each two chapters long. Since we looked at those passages before I return to the Romans reading I’m going to do some compare and contrast work about the Nativity stories.

So, do me a favor— no, do yourself a favor— sometime in the next week sit down and read the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke. I assume you have read them but rereading them, especially at this time of year, may be helpful in understanding the Nativity.

My second caveat: if the themes you hear me address today sound similar to what I said last week— guilty as charged. To a certain extent that’s because of the Bible study session but that’s also where the lectionary leads us, or at least where it leads me, in Advent and Christmas. (Slight pause.)

Today’s reading from Matthew had but a small portion of the Nativity story in that Gospel. It’s likely you noticed how drastically different it is from what I loosely refer to as the Charlie Brown version, the one we find in Luke.

In Matthew there is no census, no trip to Bethlehem, no shepherds. In Luke an angel speaks first to Mary, then to shepherds. In Matthew only Joseph gets angelic visits.

Clearly the infant the reading mentions has two different names— ‘Emmanuel’ and ‘Jesus.’ These names are not a naming of the child but illustrate deeper meanings. The name Emmanuel is explained in the text— “God is with us.”

The name ‘Jesus’ is the Greek version of the name Yeshuah. Yeshuah means God with us or God saves or God offers healing or deliverer.

Hence, these meanings— God with us, God saves, God offers healing, deliverer— tells us the story is not simply about the birth of a child. This is about the birth of the Christ, the one Whom God has entrusted with the office of Messiah.

To be clear, the story from Luke, though very different, when given an equally careful reading, would offer similar insights. My point is there are many meanings here not readily evident to us perhaps because our cultural views about these stories tend to obscure them. Therefore, we often ignore some vital details, details actually told in a very straightforward way.

Now, had we read a few verses further on in Matthew, we would have encountered the Magi or as our society calls them, the three kings. It’s evident they are nobility or well educated members of a ruling class who look for this one who will be the ruler of Israel.

As we know, in the story of the Magi a star or some sign in the sky plays a central role. But in our cultural iconography the star is placed with the angels and shepherds. Another fact we tend to confuse in our culture is it’s likely by the time the Magi arrive Jesus is at least a toddler, not a baby.

But in our culture year after year churches have pageants which imply the Magi come and offer gifts to an infant. However, Matthew 2:16 says (quote): “Herod was infuriated when tricked by the Magi and gave orders to kill all children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or younger.”

If Herod kills the children two or under because the child might be a pretender to the throne, it is unlikely Jesus is still an infant. Again, these facts are plainly set out. But the account does not fit into our culturally accepted version of the story, so we just ignore it even though it’s right there in front of us.

It is unquestionably evident the writer is using this story to ask questions about the relationship of God with humanity. Given these facts and analysis, are we in any way prodded to ask these questions?

‘Why are we so subsumed by the cultural reading which is common today but might be more than a little off center, since the accurate information presented is so evident? Another obvious question is: ‘On what should we be concentrating?’ (Pause.)

Well, takes me back to the Romans reading. And these words are in Romans: “To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God and Jesus, the Christ.” (Pause.)

I really have nothing against how Christmas is celebrated. I am not a Grinch. I am happy to have sheep and angels and shepherds and Magi cavort in church pageants and be present in symbolic representations such as a crèche. These are all enjoyable.

But what I am trying to help us focus just a little— trying to help us focus just a little on the meanings present in these stories, rather than on our cultural trappings. Further, these significant, even emotionally serious meanings, are not particularly hidden. They are simply meanings our cultural iconography too readily overwhelms, misses and/or dismisses.

The same is true of the words I’ve just mentioned from the Letter to the Church in Rome. Our culture overwhelms, misses or dismisses what these words mean.

The letter is addressed to those who are (quote): “called to be saints.” Who are these saints? Are saints, as our culture suggests, only very holy people? (Slight pause.)

‘Saint’ is a term commonly used by Paul. The Apostle to the gentiles often indicates the people of the church are called to be saints. So, here’s the Christian definition: a saint is someone set apart, called to do the work of God. (Slight pause.)

I would suggest even a cursory reading of Scripture tells us we are all called, set apart, to do the work of God. All this is to say much of what we commonly do in our cultural context is not bad or wrong. It simply says as Christians we constantly need to look beyond and go beyond what our culture says.

As Christians we need to be aware of the true and serious meanings in Scripture and the how that applies to what we say and what we do. We need to be careful to not simply accept the meanings imposed or approved by our culture. And so from a Christian perspective, we do need to understand we are all set apart to do the work of God.

Indeed, one of the messages offered by the stories of the incarnation is we are called by this in-breaking of God into our lives to be participants in the work of the Dominion of God. We are called to feed those who have no food, called to clothe those who have only tatters to wear, called to shelter those who are without sanctuary, called to visit the imprisoned, called to visit and to see to the needs of those who are sick or are infirm, called to stand in solidarity with the marginalized and the outcast.

In short, let us see beyond practices which we might enjoy and are very enjoyable but are merely cultural trappings. Let us be saints by participating in the work set aside by God for us. And let us understand when we participate in that work, God’s work, we are not just called to be saints. And we are saints when we are doing God’s work. The work of the saints— that is the real work of Christmas. Amen.

Elijah Kellogg Church, Harpswell, Maine
12/18/2022

ENDPIECE: It is the practice of the Pastor to speak after the Closing Hymn, but before the Benediction. This, then, is an précis of what the pastor said before the blessing: “Coming back to cultural practices, December the 23rd would have been the last day of feast known as Saturnalia, were we living in ancient Rome. The Romans marked this solstice celebration of the god Saturn who the Romans thought was destined to establish a time of perfect peace and harmony by decorating their homes with holly, ropes of garland, wreaths of evergreen and exchanged presents. So, what is it we really need to both celebrate and recognize despite our strikingly similar rituals? We need to celebrate and recognize the work of the Dominion of God, the work of the saints— saints— that would be us.”

BENEDICTION: Go in joy. Be led forth in the peace which surpasses understanding. Embrace the love God offers. The covenant promises offered by the God of hope shall endure, for God is eternal, steadfast, faithful and loving. Amen.

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