A sermon preached by Pastor Robert Schaefer
First & Spring Creek Lutheran Churches
The Name of Jesus – January 1, 2006
Text: Luke 2:18
Friends in Christ, grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
As I read the gospel text for this Sunday, about the visit of the shepherds and the naming of the baby Jesus, there was one word that stood out for me, as much as if someone had taken my Bible from me when I wasn’t looking and put a neon yellow marker to it. It was a word I’d never paid much attention to before in this reading, although now it’s clear that the word is a theme running through all of Luke’s Christmas story. The word is different depending on your translation, but it’s always the one used to describe the response the shepherds’ story gets: The shepherds “went with haste,” my Bible says, “and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them.” Amazed. Surprised. Wondered. Marveled. Astonished. Whichever word your Bible uses, the reaction of everyone who hears of the angels singing glory over the flocks is one of deep awe at the strangeness and power of this heavenly sign.
The amazement of everyone in that stable stood out for me, I suppose, in large part because it names an experience I myself don’t often feel when the candles are lit and we hear again the story of Jesus’ birth. That sense of astonishment is a bit foreign to me. I suspect I’m not alone, either. The Christmas celebration is a time bursting with big emotions – joy, hope, excitement, comfort, and the like on the one hand; and also loneliness, grief, emptiness, and other similar feelings for many other people. Powerful sentiments from deep down at the center of our souls. But for all of the strong emotions this season stirs up within us, I doubt that many people experience anything like wonder or astonishment at Christmas, or really any kind of marvel at all. Perhaps you know what I’m talking about.
See, the Christmas story is so very familiar to us. And although that is a very good thing – we would hardly be Christian if we thought nothing of the Incarnation of Jesus as God-made-flesh! – it’s also true that our familiarity with the stories of Mary’s pregnancy and Jesus’ birth make it hard for us to feel the very feelings those stories tell us everyone involved in them actually had. You and I read about the amazement of Joseph and Mary, and everyone who caught a whiff of what was happening, but we don’t actually feel the same amazement as they did…it no longer catches us by surprise, taking our breath away as it did theirs. The words on the page tell us what it was like that first Christmas, but we are Christians two thousand Christmasses later, and we have grown comfortable with the deep stories of our faith. Their words and scenes are more like old friends to us than dazzling wonders, because we have heard them so many times before today.
This seemed horrible to me when I first put my finger on it. It’s awful, isn’t it, that Christmas has become so… ordinary to us, who are so familiar with it, who know the story backward and forwards?
Well, maybe yes… and maybe no. It’s true that sometimes we need to hear with new ears how God began his saving work by the bloody, sweaty miracle of being born a human infant. When we’re told the old, old story with new words, or with a beautiful voice, or through song or art, we sometimes catch a glimmer of wonder, feel a shiver of awe like the very first time we heard it, when Christmas was still strange and unfamiliar. When this happens, it is a gift; any taste of marvel is a rare and exquisite treat, and how good it is to quaff eagerly of it when the precious cup of wonder is handed to us!
But more and more I think that it’s not so awful to be intimately familiar with our Christmas story of Jesus. It is often said that familiarity breeds contempt…but that’s only partly right. Familiarity also has the power to breed a kind of love that goes far deeper than that first thrill of surprise and amazement. Familiarity, too, is a gift.
We should have suspected it all along. Right at the heart of the word is the key to its meaning: Familiar. Family. To become familiar with something means to know it the way a family knows each other. There’s nothing new about a husband or wife, a son or daughter, a mother or father – there’s nothing very exciting about them. Most of the time it feels to us like our family has always been there, and will always remain. When families are at their best, they’re places where we can be ourselves, simply because there’s no point in putting on a show – they know us far too well to be deceived. Families aren’t the best for excitement and novelty, but there’s no better place to grow into the people God made us to be than within the familiar folds of our families.
This is what God always intended for us: Awe and wonder sometimes, but the nurture of familiarity most of the time.
As a pastor, I’m blessed to visit with all different kinds of people. One of the most satisfying experiences for me is sitting down with an old married couple, the sort who have weathered forty, fifty years or more together. They know each other inside and out – the husband knows his wife in ways that she probably doesn’t even know herself, and the wife knows all the good and bad of her husband, all his talents and all his shortcomings.
Couples like this don’t worry about their familiarity. They don’t spend their time trying to recapture the feelings of amazement and awe that they first felt in each other – although they surely delight in the little flashes of wonder and emotion that still flare up within their marriage. When I visit with old husbands and wives, I can see that it’s not a coincidence that the Bible uses the same word – yada – both for the physical intimacy that is God’s gift to wife and husband, but also for knowing someone. God’s special gift in marriage is that spouses will know each other in every possible way – that they will become familiar, and that their family will be a place of safety and growth.
Deep, intimate knowledge… knowing your family like the back of your hand… these are the things that feed our souls in the long gaps between wonderment.
That first Christmas, all who heard the things God had done were amazed. Astonished. They marveled and wondered. They felt surprised and overjoyed. And in the newness of God’s great plan now set in motion, nothing could be more natural.
But you and I ought not to feel ashamed that our reaction to the Christmas story is so different most of the time. Like Mary and Joseph and their new boy Jesus, each year that passes is another year that we grow in familiarity with the miracle. Even as the wonder becomes more of a treasured memory, our deepening knowledge of Jesus and everything he means to us more than makes up. In the Christmas story, God provides for us a safe place to know him and to be known to him, a circle of familiarity that will bless us and keep us as we grow. We need not spend our time chasing awe – like an old married couple, it’s the depth of knowledge between us and our Lord that will sustain us…and when thrills come, they will be rooted in that deep soil.
Whether your heart races this Christmas season, or whether, like me, you find yourself in the warm arms of familiarity with it, know that this story is God’s blessing for you. In Jesus, God is with us, now and forever. Amen.