Preached December 28, 2014 by Dawn Duncan Harrell
Happy Holy Name!
The Feast of the Holy Name of Jesus is the day on the church calendar when we celebrate Jesus’ naming day. His christening, if you’ll pardon the pun. Luke 2:21 says, “It was time to circumcise the child; and he was called Jesus, the name given by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.” Between Christmas—when we celebrate his birth—and Epiphany—when we celebrate his gift to the wise men, the first Gentile believers—between those two events in the church calendar, we celebrate Jesus’ initiation.
Jesus’ parents joined him to the people of God by obeying the law of God and circumcising him. And they publically proclaimed the baby’s name: Jesus, which means “God saves.”
However, this isn’t only Jesus’ initiation day, it’s ours, too. The Galatians passage that Ted just read is the appointed Epistle reading for Holy Name. It speaks of baptism. If you listen to Daniel at a baptism, he always starts out by reminding us, “As circumcision did in the Old Covenant, baptism serves as the initiating rite of the New Covenant.”
Furthermore, today is not just the celebration of our initiation through baptism. According to Galatians, it’s the day of our investiture. Our graduation. It’s the day we don cap and gown and publically declare who we are. It’s the day we sign our names to our New Year’s resolutions. And that’s a whole other ball of wax.
So please pray with me: Abba. Father. You have carried us this far, to your appointed day, and for that we thank you. Once again, let your words do their work in our minds, our spirits, and our actions. We wish to live into your hopes for us. Amen.
I learned to play the hand bells in high school. Before I knew what was happening, Miss Davis slipped those little white gloves onto my hands and positioned me in the center of the table, next to middle C. You’d think sticking a novice in the middle of the melody would be counterintuitive since it saddled me with more playing time than, say, my friend Laura, the concert pianist, who rang the high notes. Instead, being in the center helped me hear the whole table, the whole sound, not just one end.
Miss Davis knew what she was doing. She chose arrangements that were challenging, but not too hard for the least musical of us (me). She focused on our technique, helping us reform the circle of our gestures to mellow and lengthen our bells’ reverberations. When we needed to learn on our own notes, she made us count, count, count out loud to keep each of us honest. She urged us to hum the melody even when our own notes were resting so we could hear the whole piece. She even conducted while simultaneously playing two bass bells—the heavy ones—herself. That first year, we memorized the “Carol of the Bells” and rang it antiphonally as we processed into chapel. We sounded good and I fell in love with the collaboration and solidarity of many of us creating one music together.
So, of course, when I got to college, I joined the college bell choir. That conductor made us stand in reverse with the high notes at the left end and the low notes at the right end because she couldn’t conduct without it looking like a piano from her side of the tables. It didn’t help that rehearsal was scheduled right after my anatomy lab. I’d leave my lab coat in the science building, but the clothes underneath still reeked of formaldehyde and decomposing dogfish-shark. My fellow ringers needed olfactory space, which interfered with our ability to close up the auditory space. The final straw was the pieces our conductor gave us to play. Her husband was “composer-in-residence” at the college and he seemed to be exploring a modern, scientific, cacophonous sound. In those pieces, the tune was often buried. Or hiding. Or missing. I couldn’t find it. And no matter how often she shouted, “Hear the music! You’ve got to hear the music!” I could not.
I retired the little white gloves. Herky-jerky clanking the clappers in a last-second attempt not to miss my notes was no substitute for the haunting, calling peal of “Carol of the Bells.” Maybe you feel called to buy lingerie or a Chevrolet—both of which have used “Carol of the Bells to advertise this season—when you hear that, but I felt called to something deeper, something substantial, something robust.
Ringing the bells in high-school ended up being the last time I was taken in by my participation in music-making. By college, I might have been obeying the score, but I couldn’t hear the music anymore.
Apparently, neither could the Christians in Galatia. Paul had led the Galatians to faith in Jesus, but now he’s hearing some disturbing news. Jewish believers are teaching Gentile converts to practice Judaism, to obey the Jewish law.
On the face of it, this makes sense. If you’re going to believe in the Jewish Messiah, how should you behave? How better than to practice the Jewish law that he himself was born into?
The problem is that practicing Jewish law, like practicing any other kind of law, mostly functions to point out what you should and should not do. Obeying the law doesn’t really call forth from you the person you should be. Through faith in Jesus, God had redeemed the Galatians to righteousness. This wasn’t the small matter of keeping God’s laws, impossible though that is. This was the vast matter of hearing the call of his heart.
Paul explains it this way. God wants his children to be like him and so to act like him. But as any parent—or former child—knows, children have to be taught to behave. So God hired a nanny for his people, a set of rules called the law. Nanny Law continually redirected his children from their bad behaviors back to Godly behaviors. She taught the children the rules for acting like their Father. And she kept them from running into traffic and other self-destructive behaviors until the day Dad decided they were of age to inherit the family business and the family fortune.
However, while Nanny Law could teach them right from wrong, she couldn’t generate God-like motivations because she couldn’t give them their Dad’s spirit. So Nanny Law’s job was to release the children into the Child, the Son of God, which made them inherit faith without making them pass the ABCs of Judaism.
Still, when Paul says, “If you’ve clothed yourselves with Christ, you are Abraham’s heirs”—that is, faith’s heirs—he is, nevertheless, alluding to two Hebrew traditions. The first one involves changing clothes to demonstrate a change of spirit. You probably remember the chorus from Isaiah 61:10, “He gave us, beauty for ashes; the oil of joy, for mourning; a garment of praise for a spirit of heaviness.”
The second Hebrew tradition is similar, but less obvious. It involves the inheriting child, usually the first-born son, donning a garment that his father gives him as a sign that he is heir. You remember how irritated Joseph’s brothers were because of the “coat of many colors” that Jacob gave him? Joseph’s older brothers didn’t plot his murder and eventually sell him into Egyptian slavery because Dad gave Joseph stripes, and they only got polka-dots. No. They hated him because their father gave Joseph the family inheritance coat. It signaled that when Jacob died, Joseph would receive a double portion of Jacob’s wealth and Joseph would rule the family.
So when Paul suggests that the Galatian believers clothed themselves in Christ, put on Christ with their baptism, he’s claiming more than initiation. He’s claiming investiture, with all the honors, rights and privileges pertaining thereto. Putting on Christ is the outward sign that believers have inherited Christ’s character, his ability, his joy in doing the family business. Jesus, not only did the Father’s will by obeying Nanny Law’s rules, he lived his Father’s life as well. Because Jesus reached his majority and was released from the regency of the rules, we DO too, through faith in what he accomplished.
It doesn’t matter if we’re Jews or even Jew-ish by obeying the laws of Judaism. We might be Jews. We might be Gentiles. Those distinctions don’t disappear at baptism. It’s just that they don’t define whether or not we inherit Christ’s own character in the eyes of our Father or his family.
Think about it. When someone puts on a purple choir robe and climbs into the choir loft, we don’t care if you’re Swedish or Somali. We stop thinking about whether you’re a sewage-treatment specialist or a CEO. What we want to know is, “Can you sing the music?” We came to church to hear some “Herald Angels Sing.” Male and female doesn’t even matter. If Mark Stover need tenors to round out the sound, and you can sing tenor, then you sing tenor—whether you’re a man or woman.
You put on the purple robe, you get to sing the song.
Now by this point in my sermon, you may be thinking, “Girl, stick with the preaching dress”—that’s what Violet calls this black robe that her father wears every week. “‘Cause you can pile on all the purple you want; you’ll never have a singing voice.”
No more than a bath washes away your sin. Or donning the little white gloves helps you hear the music. Or wearing an Elsa costume insulates you from the dead cold of winter. Or, for that matter, dressing up like Dale Earnhardt fits you for speed.
You can dress up all you want; you ain’t drivin’ no Thunderbird unless Daddy give you the keys. And then you still have to obey the speed limit or else Nanny Law be hauling your backside back home.
Paul’s aware of this. Later in the book, he’ll point out, “You were called to freedom. Only don’t use your freedom as an opportunity for self-indulgence (5:13).
Too much freedom is hardly the problem here, though. In an effort to look the part, the Gentile Galatians have simply traded their pagan rules for Jewish rules. They started out religiously obeying the expectations of their society—keep their curbsides clean, drive cautiously, avoid confrontation—but now they’ve added the religious expectations—attend Wednesday night church, dress up as pilgrims for the Thanksgiving Day service, and push their kids through confirmation.
But as far as Paul’s concerned, it all amounts to the same thing. Their New Year’s resolutions read like a list of soulless rules they won’t keep: lose X pounds, stop looking at porn, stop swearing, stop smoking, only say nice things. Instead of living the deep, substantial, robust life of the Spirit, they’re ticking off boxes on a to-do list. He taught them to read Shakespeare and they’ve gone back to reciting their ABCs. When he left, they were ringing “Carol of the Bells,” but now they’ve bought a Chevy. He laments, “I’m afraid I labored over you in vain.”
Which begs the question, then, if we’re not going to judge our success by how well we keep the rules, how do we really know we’ve inherited Christ’s character and power and joy? I can choose to trust what Jesus says. I can act as though Paul is right and I have inherited with Christ. That’s faith. But how I do I know that I am daughter heir, that I’m actually hearing his tune in the midst of all this cacophony?
Paul says, “God has sent the spirit of his Son into our hearts crying out ‘Abba! Father!’” Abba is the familiar word that children in Jesus’ day used with their fathers at home. It’s not the “our Father” of synagogue prayers. It’s not even the more personal “my father” of direct address. “Abba” is the first sound that babies make to name their dads; it’s like our “Dada.” As far as scholars can tell, Jesus is the only one who ever used “Abba” to name God. We hear it in his prayer at the Garden of Gethsemane (Mark 14:36), “Abba, Father, for you all things are possible. Please. Remove this cup from me. Yet, not what I want, but what you want.”
Apparently it’s not that you succeed in your godly endeavors. It’s not that you succeed in choosing godly endeavors over self-indulgent ones. It’s not even that you see God’s answer when you ask him for help. Rather, you know that you’re hearing the music when you open your mouth and Jesus’ voice comes out, crying like he did in the Garden of Gethsemane, “Dad, please!”
And this is good news for those of us who are hiding under our purple robes. Mouthing the words, so no one hears us croaking. Desperately hoping no one will notice that underneath the robe, we stink. Dreading the day when they figure out that the solo we sang that one time was a fluke.
And this is also good news for those of us who volunteer for every solo. Who would rather sing our ABCs—at least Nanny applauds—than struggle to hear Dad’s voice. Or who’d rather test the limits of the law—what are fast cars for?—than wait for Dad’s appointed time. Who look good in purple and we know it.
In Christ, there is no race-, rank-, or gender-advantage (John R. W. Stott, One Way Only, 100). In Christ’s choir, we all sing in our crying voices. In Christ, it’s music—beautiful, haunting, calling music, summoning us to be the people we have grown up to be in the fullness of God’s time—it’s music because we sing with one voice. His voice. Publically declaring our inheritance and our intentions, not by announcing our names, but by crying God’s name: Abba.
Let’s start again now. Pray with me: Abba. Father. Please. You have carried us this far, and for that we thank you. Once again, let your music do its work in our minds, our spirits, and our actions. We wish to live into your freedom. Amen.