December 18, 2022

  “This Year!”

(Romans 1:1-7; Matthew 1:18-25)

Romans 1:1-7
Paul, a servant of Jesus Christ, called to be an apostle, set apart for the gospel of God, which he promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures, the gospel concerning his Son, who was descended from David according to the flesh and was declared to be Son of God with power according to the spirit of holiness by resurrection from the dead, Jesus Christ our Lord, through whom we have received grace and apostleship to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles for the sake of his name, including yourselves who are called to belong to Jesus Christ,
To all God’s beloved in Rome, who are called to be saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Matthew 1:18-25
Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly.  But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.”  When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

     On Wednesday morning, I was about half way completed with my message for today.  I had the title, “Fools for Christ”, that you see in this morning’s bulletin all settled.  I had selected a great opening story, and I had researched complimentary scriptures to share that reinforced the content of my message.  Putting everything together in the form of the final written document was all that remained to be completed.  Then, as I perused our two Hymnals for meaningful songs to accompany this theme, I came upon the Hymn I chose as our Hymn of Preparation-“Star Child.”  Suddenly, everything changed, and my previous work had missed the mark in its message.  The Spirit showed me that “This year, this year,” a different message was more appropriate, both for us and for the times in which we are living. I put my former work back in my folder for later use, as I am sure it will find an appropriate future time and place.  I will share instead today the message the Spirit gave me for you—a message for this year.

     I suspect that the closest connection this new message has to our scripture lessons for today is its faithfulness to the will and word of God.  Paul, from our reading in Romans this morning, understood that his ministry and mission were blessed by God’s anointing upon them. Joseph, in our lesson today from St. Matthew, followed the direction the angel of God gave him regarding taking his betrothed, Mary, to be his wife although she was already expecting a baby that was not his child.  Things are not always as they may appear, and the angel announced to Joseph that Mary’s child was a holy child, conceived within her through the Holy Spirit.  For with God all things are possible!

     So Church, by the same Spirit that has worked in and through people of faith through the ages, I share God’s word with you today. It began as I read the verses of the Hymn “Star Child” this week, contrasting the “what is” in the world today with the “what could be;” and guiding us to what should be our course of action-this year.  I recalled a Christmas season nearly thirty years ago, when I was leading a youth group with my best friend Debbie, the same Debbie for whom we have recently been praying.  As a youth project, our group collected paper, cans and plastic bottles to turn into a local recycler for cash.  Cans and bottles are worth 5¢ each in New York, and paper is paid by the pound.  The money that our youth collected was used to purchase Christmas gifts and food baskets for a couple of needy families in our local community.  As we were wrapping gifts, our pastor stopped by. He saw the food in the boxes we had prepared, and then the children proudly showed him the gifts they had purchased with the money they earned.  I’ll never forget our pastor’s response.  “These gifts are great for celebrating Christmas day, he said to the youth, “but these families have a much greater need that lasts all year long.”  Then, off to the side our pastor shared an eye-opening word with Debbie and me.  He shared that charity giving of this kind helps make a merrier Christmas day for those in need, and it makes the givers feel good, as it sure did our youth.  But, what we should focus on is teaching our youth to have this same concern and care for the needs of others all year long.  That’s seeing the bigger picture, and it would really help to change the world!  This year, this year…    

      The book of James, attributed to Jesus’ brother James who became a leader of the Jerusalem Church, is controversial within the realm of biblical scholarship.  Although its message contains references to Jewish faith and traditions, it contains a critical flaw that has caused some scholars to question the validity of  including it in the cannon of the Holy Scriptures.  In Chapter 2, James asks, “What good is it, my brothers and sisters, if you say you have faith but do not have works? Can faith save you?  If a brother or sister is naked and lacks daily food, and one of you says to them, ‘Go in peace; keep warm and eat your fill,’ and yet do not supply their bodily needs, what is the good of that? So faith by itself, if it has no works is dead.”  I hope we can all see that offending verse here is “Can faith save you?”  Of course we know that it is our faith, and faith alone in our Lord Jesus and his atoning work on the cross, that saves us.  But James’ larger point here should not be lost on us because he phrases it in poor doctrinal language.  Faith, true saving faith that overcomes our sin, brings the power of the Holy Spirit to us.  The Spirit works in and through us, changing us from the inside out.  Good works for the kingdom become our joyful and joy-filled response to the wonderful gift of God’s grace we have been given in our salvation unto eternal life.  If we say Jesus is truly born in our hearts, then Jesus lives in us, and he is a part of all we do.  Our lives and actions should reflect the way of living Jesus taught us by his own compassionate and healing words and actions.  In fact, Jesus once asked his Disciples and followers “Why do you call me ‘Lord, Lord’ and do not do what I say?”  Jesus expects those who truly love and follow him to live according to the example he set for us; that we might love one another as he so loves us—this year.

     The belief that faith and good works go hand in hand is also a tenet of our Methodist heritage, and of its forefather, John Wesley.  Wesley both believed and taught that good works are the outward and visible evidence of the perfecting work the Holy Spirit is accomplishing in the lives of believers.  Church, we all know the difficult and chaotic times in which we are now living.  Every form of media screams out about the ethnic, gender, religious, racial, political, and economic injustices of our time.  The ways of the world are at our fingertips; but, as believers, the love of Jesus is in our heart.  We should be shining the light of Jesus’ love, not only in good will acts of charity and compassion at Christmas time, but in loving care and concern for our brothers and sisters suffering hurt, pain, need and injustice all year long.  So, let us commit to making Jesus’ love and care for others a reality in our world—this year!  A blessed Merry Christmas to all. Amen.