SJF • 1 Epiphany 2009 • Tobias Haller BSG
See, the former things have come to pass, and new things I now declare; before they spring forth, I tell you of them.+
It’s now two weeks since Christmas. Epiphany is over: the wise men have come and gone, the Holy Family has bundled the gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh into the saddlebag, and have wended their way to Egypt, to await the news of when it will be safe to return to Galilee. By now we too have no doubt had a chance to sort through our Christmas gifts. There may well have been fewer of them this year, and some of them may not have been exactly what we had in mind, were they? The economic situation has led to some rather more practical items under the tree than the kind of more frivolous gifts we might have wanted. I even wonder, given the cost of heating oil and natural gas, if some people might not have wished for the item reserved for naughty children: a sock full of coal! And I’ll tell you quite honestly, that this icy morning I would have been happy for an extra bag of salt!
Of course, whenever we receive a gift that isn’t something we wanted, we put a good face on it. We are, after all, Anglicans, and have been brought up with that British heritage of politeness that would never insult the giver of an unwanted gift. Rather, the less desirable gifts have been discreetly returned to the department store, or consigned to the attic, or that shelf at the top of the closet, or some similar resting-place for other people’s good intentions.
Sometimes as we stow away some unwanted present we come upon a previous year’s gift, and realize with a start and surprise that we need it after all — the curtains that seemed so dark last year are now just right to go with the new armchair. That paperweight I had no room for will now be just right on my new desk. New times can make the old seem new again.
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On the other hand, sometimes we receive gifts we know at once to be “just what we wanted.” They are so personal, they so reveal another’s love for us and knowledge of us, that we keep them to ourselves as special, private gifts.
They may be very simple and unassuming: a single flower, a made-in-China ceramic frog, or a pink, plastic flamingo— the language of love has a strange but eloquent vocabulary. We don’t talk about these gifts to those outside our circle of intimacy — how could we explain? I know a woman who does actually collect anything that looks like a frog — ceramic, metal, wood — her house is full of them — but I doubt she could explain why they’re there.
Still other presents are such that the joy in receiving them grows by spreading them around and sharing them with others. The first impulse on receiving the DVD of our favorite film is to find someone to watch it with. And it’s as much fun to watch the movie with another fan as with someone who’s never seen it before.
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What do these presents have to do with us here and now, gathered in church on an icy January morning? The world has received the most wonderful gift in Christ Jesus. That’s why we give gifts at Christmas, after all: to remind ourselves of the greatest gift. This morning we are reminded of this Christmas present in a special way, for all of us together will remember and renew our baptismal covenant, by which we first received the gift of Christ into our lives.
We receive this great gift, this greatest gift, much as we do other gifts. Most of us can’t accept, at least at first, all that Jesus asks of us when first he comes into our lives. We may nod politely and say, “How nice,” but we’re already thinking about how to fit this ungainly package into our spiritual attic.
Then one day we come upon the Presence we’ve tried to forget — that’s presence with a “C” — and realize that what is asked of us is what we want to do after all, and what we’ve been given the skills to do, to do all that Jesus asks. The stone that the builders rejected is later found to fit exactly in the most crucial spot, and becomes the cornerstone of the building.
At other times Jesus comes to us in that more intimate and personal way so that we may feel shy about sharing that relationship with others. But that is simply how Jesus is: don’t be shy — that is how he is — although he comes for all of humanity, still he calls us each by name, treats us each as if we were the sole object of his love. And he does this because that is how his heavenly father treated him. At his own baptism, as we heard in our gospel today, the heavens were torn apart, and God’s Holy Spirit descended upon Jesus like a dove, and a voice spoke to him, a voice from heaven declaring, “You are my Son, the beloved; with you I am well pleased.” God speaks the same to all of us and each of us, his children by adoption.
In baptism, God’s Spirit descends upon us and makes us heirs through faith — our own faith if we are old enough to possess it, and the faith of our parents and godparents if we are not yet old enough to possess a faith of our own. This wonderful gift is always new in each person, but it is also always a hand-me-down, it is a gift that is given through others, though it comes from God, given and received. Much as a new tree can only grow from a seed from an old tree, the new life in Christ through baptism always comes through those who are already baptized — the members of the church, which is the body of Christ at work in the world. This new life is a gift that is always given through those who have received it before.
And it becomes ours — a part of ourselves, a part of who we are as children of God who have a personal relationship with God, whom we can now call “our Father in heaven.” The love of God for each and all of us begins and grows in that special and holy relationship.
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We can relish and enjoy that relationship, but we can also share it with others, indeed we are called and commanded to share it with others, in the knowledge that Jesus shares himself with others too. As we share that gift, that present, conscious of how precious is the gift of salvation, we might at first be tempted to remain within the circle of those who already know Jesus: the church. We relish our common joy, talking to each other about our favorite parts of the story, like a family that every year gathers around the TV to watch the Wizard of Oz or Dickens’ Christmas Carol.
As wonderful as that kind of sharing is — and it is wonderful to gather week by week in the church, as the church, to celebrate and review and share the story of salvation — but the gift of God is too great to keep just among ourselves.
As the Apostle Peter said, the saving message spread throughout Judea, beginning in Galilee, but spreading far beyond it. And as we know, that same gospel has spread to the far corners of the world. The saving grace of God has been poured out for all to receive.
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Right here in this church, every time we perform a baptism — and I’ve officiated at 159 baptisms since I first came to be Vicar here — every time we perform a baptism that gift is given and received, most often by a child brought here by loving parents and godparents. They are sharing a gift that they received when they were young themselves. Someday before too long, the child is old enough to understand the gift that has been given, realizes that the present is a Presence, the presence of God within his or her heart, and then that child joins in telling the timeless story to those who have never heard it, bringing the gift of grace to those who don’t yet know Jesus.
The Scripture that is fulfilled in our hearing, the Good News we hear today, is for each of us and all of us, for “all people that on earth do dwell,” and we are the ministers of this message of salvation — young and old. We have a wonderful gift to share. Spreading this good news, this good news that we are loved and redeemed by God, is the heart of evangelism, sharing the gift of salvation to the ends of the earth.
Ultimately, evangelism is the good stewardship of the Gospel: sharing that greatest gift, that wonderful presence. It is a gift we would never think of returning to the store, or stowing in the attic. It is a gift so wonderful, so perfect for each of us, the only gift of which it can truly be said, “one size fits all,” the gift that is older than time itself and yet is always new. It is the gift of salvation. God be praised, that we have, each and every one of us, such a wonderful gift to share, through Jesus Christ our Lord.+