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Sermon for the 1st Sunday after Christmas 12/31/17

Sermon for the First Sunday after Christmas, Year B
December 31, 2017
The Rev. Evelyn Wheeler, Rector

Isaiah 61:10-62:3; Psalm 147; Galatians 3:23-4:4-7; John 1:1-18

Today’s psalm sounds a lot like the Song of Mary, doesn’t it?  Or rather, Mary’s Magnificat echoes the early verses of Psalm 147:

  • Healing the broken-hearted and binding up their wounds;
  • Lifting up the lowly and casting down the wicked;
  • Rebuilding the holy city and gathering the exiles;
  • Taking pleasure in those who fear the Lord and acknowledge their dependence on God’s favor and grace

This is a frequent set of ideas that crops up throughout the prophets, including Isaiah, who heralds the coming of righteousness.  The world we know – all too well – as a place of injustice and oppression and hostility – will be made whole and peaceful and filled with grace.

Ah, but when?

It’s been 2 thousand years, give or take a couple decades, since the Son of God came to show us God and promised a return that most people of that day expected any day – and certainly not 2 or more millennia later.

They studied, and talked, and shared the good news of God’s mercy, and their followers grew in numbers – and while the numbers reported in the Book of Act are likely exaggerated, the fact remains that they did increase, significantly, in a short space of time.

The Christian world of those days was filled with hope – and some conflict of course – but the followers of Jesus changed their lifestyles, sold their goods, shared their resources, fed the hungry, and strove to love one another as Jesus had loved the disciples.

And much of the world around them, including the governors and established schools of philosophy and even, eventually, the Roman emperors dismissed them, attacked them, and killed them – and they stood strong in spite of it all. 

This went on for 2 or 3 centuries or so until one day the emperor Constantine had a vision, or so he said, before a great battle against a rival claimant to the throne, in which a cross appeared in the sky and a voice said, by this sign you shall conquer, and when he won the battle, he adopted the new religion – or co-opted it – and its God in his war for control and his rule of the empire.

And the young, upstart, world-turning, equalizing, grace-filled church willingly became an instrument of the state, because its leaders saw this as a way to protect their followers, expand their authority, and even, on occasion, offer help to folks in need, now and again.

But the Empire, after being the only power on earth for 7 or 8 centuries, was now being assailed by vandals, sueves, goths and visigoths, barbarians all, illiterate, uneducated fierce warriors under tribal kings bent on acquiring the riches and treasures of the great Roman empire and taking over their lands and people.

And by the 5th century, just about the only place where Christianity was more than a few scattered clerics holed up in Rome and other fortresses or serving as chaplains and teachers to the Gaulic kings, was in a land Paul had never reached, a land where no Christian except captured British slaves had ever set foot in the 440 years since Christ’s birth … that is, Ireland.

While illiteracy and feudal and tribal wars and ignorance descended upon most of western Europe, only in far-removed Ireland did the light of learning and faith flicker and grow, brought by Patrick and nurtured by him in villages and towns across the land until practically the entire land became Christian, centered on small monastic settlements from one end of the island to the other, and even to the islands off the western coast and into Scotland, over several centuries, all as Christianity disappeared and all but died in Europe.

It would not be an exaggeration to say that Patrick single-handedly saved western Christianity.  If you want to know more, I recommend Thomas Cahill’s book, “How the Irish Saved Civilization.”  It wasn’t just the faith the Irish saved, they saved every book – theology, philosophy, natural science, such as it was, mathematics, and all – every book they could get their hands on, and copied them and eventually took them back to Europe and built schools and monasteries across what is now France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy and beyond. 

But for now, I just want to invite you to consider how just one man can change the world, or save it.  How slim the chances were in those days when the barbarians stormed the gates of the late, great Roman empire, that anything of civilization would survive at all.  It could have all been lost.  For ever.  But it wasn’t, because of one man’s passion for his people and his God and for learning and knowledge and peace, and his inability to ever stop living his life in accordance with those ideas.

Today, it seems sometimes, we may have a similar problem on our horizon.  Already we hear people who profess Christian faith say that the poor are to blame for their poverty, the sick for their illness, the uneducated for their ignorance.  And the rich are looked up to as clever and even as blessed by God.

While all the while, Isaiah’s voice, Mary’s song, and Jesus’ teachings … say the precise opposite.

Do not forget, my friends, that grace and truth come from God the Father and the Lord Jesus Christ, by means of the Holy Spirit.

Not from preachers, not from politicians, and not from the media or the government.

They come from GOD, and “it is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made this known.”

Jesus didn’t say, feed only the deserving poor, free only the innocent prisoners, heal only the righteous sick.

He simply fed, freed, and healed.  Anyone who asked it.

Did he change lives?  You bet he did.  You know he did.

He did, because people took to heart the word of life and light, the word that turned the world upside down, lifting up the lowly, and casting down the mighty.  They took this word to heart and they lived as if it were not just possibly true, but quite simply true. 

So did Patrick.  So may we all.

In the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Amen.