The readings on which this sermon is based can at:

s068g12  Naming of Jesus  1/1/2012

Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.  Luke 2.19

One of the things I am sometimes tempted to desire is for God to act unambiguously, like it seemed God acted unambiguously in times past.  But I wonder if I would really want it so.   Having God act unambiguously might be good for telling others what they should and should not do, what they should and should not be, and when and with whom they might be intimate.   But would we really appreciate others being able to tell us what we should and should not do, what we should and should not be, and when and with whom we might be intimate?   Jesus once said: ‘Do not judge, so that you may not be judged.   For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get’  (Matthew 7.1-2) and we can hardly circumvent this using the name of Jesus!

One of the valuable things of our heritage is that we are commanded to not make idols for ourselves, which has left us with a religion focused on words and the rational.   But the birth of a baby is surrounded by the relational and inexplicably emotional.   As Mary treasured and pondered the words of the shepherds, so we are invited to treasure and ponder on the tale we are told.

I have sometimes been described as a wordsmith though I am as likely to ever write poetry as levitate.   I do like words, I do enjoy crafting with them, and it is where I feel that I am led.   It is my only artistic streak.  So I suspect that we can make an idol out of words as easily as we can make one out of stone or wood.

In times past I have commented that some evangelicals who so loudly praise the Lord seem so opposed to the ordination of women or the understanding and acceptance of gay and lesbian persons.   More recently I have realised that another way of avoiding the reality around us is theological and philosophical speculation on the nature of God.   We can spend our life pondering the omnipotence, omniscience and omnipresence of God and hence the problem of evil in the world, as an escape from interacting with the people God puts around us.  Again, we make the deity the subject of an intellectual quest, when our text today is about relationship and emotion.

Many of Jesus’ parables might be prefaced by the words: ‘How would you feel if ..’ someone you cared about was ill ..; you were the poor man lying at the gate of the rich brothers ..; if you received the same wages at the end of the day as the person who worked only the one hour ..; if a forgiven colleague didn’t extend the same compassion towards others ..?

Jesus calls us into the present and into relationship; into an empathy which is both intellectual and emotional, into relationship with all others, because everyone who exists has as much a right to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ as we ourselves have.   There are no restrictions placed on the words: ‘the measure you give will be the measure you get’.

But what has all this to do with the feast of the naming of Jesus?   The name of Jesus means much more than celebrating the actual name people called Jesus; it signifies a way of life which we are called to follow.  As I said in my opening paragraph, we can hardly circumvent the consequences of disobeying the words of Jesus using the name of Jesus!

In the Old Testament the name of God was most often hidden I suspect because it was never the sole possession of one person or group that could own the deity exclusively and bestow blessing or curse on others at will.   If we invoke the name of Jesus then we invoke, not the one who blesses us rather than others, but the one who associated, not just with the devout and the orthodox, but with others, the poor, the ill, the social outcasts, those whose ‘stock in trade’ was money and sex.   ‘The measure you give will be the measure you get’!

And in doing so, Jesus asks us: ‘How do we feel .. that God associates and blesses people other than ourselves?’   Do we rejoice or do we demur?   Are we ready to welcome the real Jesus and all others or do we protest, criticise and try to put Jesus to the test?   For this was how Jesus lived his life and in doing so called others to choose.   If we read the same words and think that we are exempt from answering the same question by invoking the name of Jesus then the words are written down for no purpose, and we might as well be reading something entirely inconsequential.  I must admit, I am not sure I could name something entirely inconsequential, for there is little or nothing from which we cannot learn.

Mary treasured these words in her heart, because they were words of joy and encouragement through other people, people she had never met before, otherwise anonymous shepherds.   I take from this the message that it is all very well to hear the words of scripture and derive some joy and encouragement, perhaps in private devotion or corporate worship, but to have a real person who one doesn’t actually know and who will not benefit from their praise speak words of joy and encouragement to us personally - this is indeed something to treasure in our hearts.   God uses people to encourage us, and God would use us to be encouraging to others.   ‘The measure you give will be the measure you get’!

I remember saying to the students who came for confirmation classes (last century ) that there is no point asking God to help us rob a bank, and we probably don’t need God’s help to do nothing (though sometimes I reflect how difficult it is for me to stop and relax, perhaps I’m wrong here).   We really can only expect God’s help when we want to do something God wants.   Self improvement is something God wants, for us and for all.   We don’t necessarily have to be doing something for others.   We might need encouragement to go to Church, as I would need encouragement to go to the gym!   But we do need help to reach out with words of encouragement to others, people we don’t know, people outside our circle of family, friends and acquaintances, people from whom we expect no reciprocal benefit.   I have been in many parishes who describe themselves as friendly, yet it is a friendship towards those who perchance might darken their doorstep.   When are there attempts by the Church to say clearly and publicly that God loves people other than us?   Of course it is precisely this that motivates my sermons.   It is essentially immaterial whether people like me, the last thing I need is disciples!   What is material is whether others find the impetus and courage to love beyond the boundaries.

New Years Day is far more well known as a civic holiday rather than the feast of the occasion Jesus was named and circumcised, so it is appropriate to talk about matters civil.   Recently New Zealand had a general election, and the party which was successful in forming a government is now expected to work for the betterment of all New Zealanders, whether individuals voted for them or not.   This seems to me to be essentially more ‘christian’ than ordained church leaders who work for the building up of the organisation.   Others, traditionally, can go to hell!   And again I quote those words of Jesus: ‘The measure you give will be the measure you get’!   How can we circumvent these words in the name of Jesus?   If we are condemning others to hell, do we not condemn ourselves to precisely that fate?   Others, people who do not believe in God or heaven and hell, obviously can’t condemn others to a hell they don’t believe in, will by the logic of Jesus’ own words, escape the torments of such a place, if such a place actually exists.   Surely this tells us that we do far better to not believe in a hell and therefore to not condemn anyone else to it!   Thinking in this way, by believing in a hell, we condemn ourselves to a life of hell, fearing what might as easily be a figment of our own imagination – or the design of that which is opposed to God, if such a being exists.

God acts through us or not at all.   If we do not take the initiative and act to include rather than marginalise women, will we not be marginalised?   If we do not take the initiative and act to embrace rather than alienate gay and lesbian persons will we not be alienated?   Those words of Jesus come back to me: ‘I do not know you’ and ‘I never knew you’.  Matthew 25.12,7.23.

Today we celebrate Jesus, the one who calls us to take the initiative in his name, to speak words of encouragement to all, without hesitation, without discrimination and without expectation, and those anonymous shepherds did to Mary and Joseph so long ago.   And we are called to speak in his name, being a part of the community and contributing to the encouragement of others.  For in this way we act in his name, the precious name of Jesus.

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