Bishop Ordinary: Rt Rev Brian R Marsh

Sermon

The First Sunday after Christmas, 2013
Good Shepherd, Charlestown; Trinity Church, Lebanon

Let us Pray:
O God, who makest us glad with the yearly remembrance of the birth of thine only Son Jesus Christ; Grant that as we joyfully receive him for our redeemer, so we may with sure confidence behold him when he shall come to be our judge, who liveth and reigneth, one God, world without end.
Amen.

Did you figure it out? Figure what out? After all, what did he or she mean by that? And, are you sure that's what really happened? Oh, I could go on. The questions are always there. We ask them. We hear them asked. And through it all, we want to know the answers to the many questions we hear – and ask – every day. Most of us, when we are confronted with a mystery, want to figure it out, to make it less mysterious – to civilize the mysteries of our lives.

Maybe that's why we like mystery stories so much. They are a staple of entertainment, whether as books, movies or any other form of media. They offer us a thrill. Here's how it goes. We are presented with an event, usually a crime. We are introduced to a set of characters. We are given a story line. And we are asked to wonder, to figure out the riddles if we can, and have a grand old time doing so.

We can lose ourselves in a terrific yarn and feel that the time has been well spent. Because we know that at the end of the book, movie or whatever there will be an ending. And all will be sorted out; all neatly tied up and our desire to have the mysteries solved will be well rewarded. Good books and movies, those with successful plots, are very satisfying indeed. The ones that aren't very successful leave us feeling very unsatisfied, perhaps even angry.

Why, we may wonder, have we wasted our precious time on a story that simply doesn't seem to have been worth it. If we are charitable, we may say it was “interesting,” but we would be unlikely to recommend it to friends.

This brings me to Tom Clancy's new book. His latest and – alas – his last novel was given to me this Christmas. It was one of those dangerous gifts, because once you read the first page, you are lost to all else in the world. And when an irritated relative calls you back to reality, you realize you have turned over fifty pages in a fierce frenzy and have neglected more important responsibilities. Reluctantly, you put the book down and turn to the less mysterious aspects of the Christmas season. But you are comforted to know that the mystery will be there when you return. It is already solved. All you have to do is finish reading the book.

Tom Clancy's novels are a lot of fun. Maybe they are not technically mystery stories, but there is enough in them to wonder about. Will the bomb go off? Will the villain get his just desserts? And how will it happen? Great suspense. Great storytelling. I'll finish finish reading the book later tonight.

Once finished, we may marvel at the fact that the mystery was very simple. It is hard to oversimplify the works of the great mystery writers; the plot lines can be summarized in a few short sentences. The reward is all in the telling.

But the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise. Rather than offer a very simple story, the Incarnation of Our Lord seems to defy our understanding. We can tell it over and over again, but it always moves our hearts before we want to understand it with our minds. Perhaps that is the way it should be.

St. Matthew begin his gospel with a long narrative. It is hardly compelling. We hear the names of the generations that preceded the birth of Jesus. We get a long list of forbears, a real genealogical tour de force. But why? There is that question. For one thing, the list of ancestors establishes Jesus as a real person, a human child with a long and established human family. Just like all of us. Whether we know their names or not, there are thousands and thousands of people that came before us. Matthew tells their names. It is important. And it solves at least one mystery.

But then, he writes: “the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise.” And a whole series of mysteries are set in motion. A child of the Holy Ghost and a human mother? How can this be? Joseph has real concerns, but an angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream and calms his fears. A dream? God sends a messenger to Joseph in a dream? How can this be? And so, the mystery deepens.

But Joseph hears the word of God, does as he is bid and names the child “Jesus.” Some wonder why Jesus was not named Immanuel. After all, isn't that what the angel said? He shall be called Immanuel, God with us. But Immanuel identifies the event; it is left to Joseph, the human father, to pronounce the name. And he does so. Perhaps that is another mystery solved.

But there are so many others. So many questions. And they will all be asked. But this is a mystery story that is far from over. It is a story that has no neat conclusions. Yes, there are those who want to understand a little of this story so they can dismiss it. Some want to deny it because it is simply unbelievable. Some don't even give it any time at all. And many have never even heard of it.

This story will have an ending. Yes, we may think, it will happen on Calvary. But will it? Perhaps we believe it happens at Easter, when Jesus rises from the dead. But does the story really end there? Perhaps we think it will happen at the Ascension, when Jesus leaves the this earthly plane for the last time. But will it? Maybe we even think the story ends at Pentecost, when the Holy Spirit descends with tongues of fire. But does the story end on that day?

The story of the mystery of the Incarnation does not end until the God who has created us redeems the world through his sacrifice for his lost children. The mystery is that we can know this in the depths of our hearts, that we can know the truth of God's message to us even as we live the fellowship of that mystery – the mystery that transforms us through God's love. The mystery story ends with us as we meet God at a place called Bethlehem; where we know that the mystery is solved for all time. And yet we are left to wonder. And to ask the questions that will follow us all our lives. And among them is this: “why, God, have you done this for us?”

 

Let us pray:
Almighty God, who hast poured upon us the new light of thine incarnate Word; Grant that the same light enkindled in our hearts may shine forth in our lives; through Jesus Christ our Lord.
Amen.