Biblical Text: Genesis 32:22-30
Full Draft of Sermon
This text is one of the strangest in the Bible, but I think it might be one of the most important for churches that baptize babies to understand.
The sermon is a character study on Jacob. You can read the entire story yourself starting in Genesis 25:19ff, but the core of my take away is that Jacob came into the world a child of promise and proceeds to attempt to earn it or escape from it. And he continues in conflict…until he can’t. Alone, in the night, scared he’s losing it all…Jacob prays. And then Jacob wrestles through the night..until he gets his blessing.
The blessing once taken from a blind Father by trickery is granted face to face. The blessing once traded for is accepted freely. The blessing that once came by grasping…is gained by letting go. And the name is changed. Not that those blessings were not true, they just were not claimed. They were not believed. But now, walking with a limp, no longer running. Israel no longer strives in conflict, but rests on the promise.
We baptized a child today. In baptism that child is made an heir of the promise – Just like Jacob. The promise is true. It doesn’t matter what we do because baptism doesn’t depend upon us. But why this text is important, is because we can turn our back on that gift. To learn the lesson of Jacob is wrestle with the promise. To hold onto God and not let go until we have made the grace and the hope ours. The christian life, lived with a Lutheran accent, is about those wrestling matches where we receive as ours what God has already given. Where we learn to live by grace in hope, instead of conflict.
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Text: John 1:1-14, Heb 1:1-5
Trouble in the World
The presents are all bought, if not all paid for by now. St. Nicholas is busy putting stuff under the trees. We are all at that point of the gifting season where it is what it is. Boyfriend and girlfriend will exchange and find out who likes who better. Husband and wife will find out if the spark is gone or still there. The kids will find out who mommy really likes better.
I suppose I’m only partially kidding. Because we know those thoughts come along with our gifts. Those thoughts are probably the real driver behind most Christmas angst. How will everything measure out? Can I make it through one more year without a major faux paus…or one more year of guarding my heart from breaking.
Jesus once told his disciples that you had to receive the kingdom like a child. Christmas is a great time to see some of what that means. The kids do most of the receiving. They are happy about it – unless it is socks. They are not immediately weighing how to repay the gift. They are not attempting to hide disappointment. They will shout for joy.
After a certain age and enough good training, all kids turn into adults. And as adults we are better givers than receivers. We have a phrase – ‘it is better to give than to receive.’ The naïve take is just that we should be generous. The deeper reading is that as long as you are giving, you are never in anyone’s debt.
Charles Dickens’ tale of Ebenezer Scrooge probably has influenced our ideas of Christmas more than the Biblical story. Scrooge learns “the real” meaning of Christmas. The real meaning to Ebenezer and his three ghosts is how to be a generous giver. Don’t be a Scrooge, that way you never rack up the eternal chains of debt that poor Marley carried around. A Dickens’ Christmas is about balancing the scales. About finding the power within us to make things right.
Gospel – Section 1
“He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. 12 Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God– (John 1:11 NIV)
The Gospel story is not about balancing the scales. And it is even less about guarding hearts or learning how to give. And it is not about the power within. The Gospel is about learning to receive.
The Father loved his Son, and the Father and the Son loved their creation. The creation that constantly broke their collective heart. “Long ago, at many times and in various ways, God spoke through the prophets.” And Israel would refuse to listen. They wanted a king like other nations. They wanted gods like other nations. They wanted to balance the scales. They wanted to be free and independent. They wanted their power. They wanted to be like God.
“but now, in these days, He has spoken to us by His Son…” For God so loved the world that he gave his only son. God sent the true light into the world knowing that the world would not get it. Knowing that even though everything had been made through this light, the world would not know him…that the world would not receive him. The cross was born for all mankind, knowing that some would not receive it. Didn’t matter…God would empty his heart. God would not guard his heart in his giving. He would open and reveal himself fully – in a child in a manger…in a peasant on a cross. One last gift given – no give backs…no possible way to payback.
Gospel – Section 2
The Gospel is about receiving. It is about understanding our own powerlessness.
The world looks at that baby and sees helplessness. The world looks at that cross and sees defeat. God looks at those and sees the son He loves. The son who willing put all the glory aside. Put aside the glory for a manger, for a cross, for us. And in the light of that gift, God sees us – he gives us the right to be his children.
But we have to receive it. We have to open our eyes. We have to understand that we are more helpless than that baby in the manger. We have to understand that there is nothing inside of us that can save us. We can’t bootstrap our way to heaven. We can never balance the scales. We have to receive it. We receive it like a little child. We receive Christ like the gift from the Father who loves us.
The gospel is about receiving. Receiving eyes to see our true state. Receiving the love of God for us. Receiving the adoption as sons and daughters. Receiving the light that the world can never understand. Receiving the baby in manger, as a mirror of our state before God, and yet so much more than what these eyes can see. Amen.
This sermon owes a debt of gratitude to William Willimon whose theme I stole and reworked in a way I could deliver it.