Luke 1:26-38 Luke 1:46b-55
(Note to the reader: this sermon was preached after the dedication to Christ of Miles Menzie Curtis Clark, son of John and Sally (Penner) Clark.)
This is a great time for a baby dedication. This is the time of year when we think about baby Jesus, about parenthood, about gifts including the gift of new life that a baby represents.
I don’t know what it’s like to be a parent, and I especially don’t know what it’s like to give birth, and I extra-especially don’t know what it’s like to have an angel appear and tell you that the baby you are carrying is the Messiah, the savior of the world. I do know a couple of things, though. I know that a baby is an awful small beginning to saving the world. And I know that Mary had to stop and think all this stuff over in order to completely make sense of it.
Throughout Jesus’ life, as he grew from a baby to a boy to a man, people were surprised that he was the Messiah. A lot of people didn’t believe it. The Messiah was supposed to be a powerful king. The Messiah was supposed to be a mighty warrior. The Messiah was supposed to look extra special and extra handsome and extra impressive. The Messiah was supposed to be something like Superman and Albert Einstein and Tom Selleck and Chuck Norris all rolled into one. The Messiah was supposed to be special.
The Bible indicates that when Jesus grew up he was a pretty average looking guy, probably. There’s no evidence that he was particularly handsome or exceptionally strong. Certainly he wasn’t rich. He wasn’t a warrior or a king, at least not the kind of warrior or king that anyone was expecting. Jesus didn’t seem like the Messiah to a lot of people.
It was the same when he was a baby. A few people saw angels, a few folks saw the star, and Mary and Joseph each had a vision. That was it, pretty much. And when the baby Jesus was born he came into the world just like any other baby, crying, gulping for air, needing food and warmth, needing support and love. He probably had a soft spot in his head and he probably couldn’t hold his head up on his own when he was born, like most babies. Baby Jesus was just a plain old baby.
I don’t know what Mary was expecting. She knew she was giving birth to the Messiah. Maybe she expected that would make the birth process easier somehow. Maybe she thought that it would make the process harder – maybe she thought that giving birth to the Messiah meant giving birth to a full grown adult, ready to go. Maybe she expected trumpets and heralds and all sorts of things when her child was born.
We know from our scripture readings this morning that Mary had thought about it. She had thought about what her baby would do, what he would bring, what he would become. She had thought about how he would save Israel, how he would scatter the proud and the mighty. At the time of the birth, did she have doubts?
But then the shepherds came, and they told her their story, and Mary knew she wasn’t crazy. She didn’t imagine the whole thing. Not only that – the angels had told the shepherds exactly what the angel had told her, that her baby, her little Jesus, was the Messiah, the Savior of the world.
What’s Miles going to do? I mean no disrespect, but he’s not the Messiah. I know that Sally and John and I’m sure a lot of their friends and family have spent plenty of time thinking about who Miles can become, and how they can help him become whoever that is. I’m sure they’re filled with joy, but I’m also sure there are some worries, some doubts from time to time. Will I be a good enough parent, a good enough grandparent, uncle, aunt, friend? Do I have what it takes to raise a happy, healthy child?
Let me share a reading that I have used here before, but I think it fits the day. It’s by Robert Fulghum, and it’s from his collection It Was On Fire When I Lay Down On It.
“John Pierpoint died a failure. In 1866, at age eighty-one, he came to the end of his days as a government clerk in Washington, D.C. with a long series of personal defeats abrading his spirit.
“Things began well enough. He graduated from Yale, which his grandfather had helped found, and chose education as his profession with some enthusiasm.
“He was a failure at school teaching. He was too easy on his students. And so he turned to the legal world for training.
“He was a failure as a lawyer. He was too generous to his clients and too concerned about justice to take the cases that brought good fees. The next career he took up was that of a dry-goods merchant.
“He was a failure as a businessman. He could not charge enough for his goods to make a profit, and was too liberal with credit. In the meantime he had been writing poetry, and though it was published, he didn’t collect enough royalties to make a living.
“He was a failure as a poet. And so he decided to become a minister, went off to Harvard Divinity School, was ordained as minister of the Hollis Street Church in Boston. But his position for Prohibition and against slavery got him crosswise with the influential members of his congregation and he was forced to resign.
“He was a failure as a minister. Politics seemed a place where he could make some difference, and he was nominated as the Abolition party candidate for governor of Massachusetts. He lost. Undaunted, he ran for Congress under the banner of the Free Soil party. He lost.
“He was a failure as a politician. The Civil War came along, and he volunteered as a chaplain of the 22nd Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteers. Two weeks later he quit, having found the task too much of a strain on his health. He was seventy-six years old. He couldn’t even make it as a chaplain.
“Someone found him an obscure job in the back offices of the Treasury Department in Washington, and he finished out the last five years of his life as a menial file clerk. He wasn’t very good at that, either. His heart was not in it.
“John Pierpoint died a failure. He had accomplished nothing he set out to do or be. There is a small memorial stone marking his grave in Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The words in the granite read: POET, PREACHER, PHILOSOPHER, PHILANTHROPIST.
“From this distance in time, one might insist that he was not, in fact, a failure. His commitments to social justice, his desire to be a loving human being, his active engagement in the great issues of his times, and his faith in the power of the human mind – these are not failures. And much of what he thought of as defeat became success. Education was reformed, legal processes were improved, credit laws were changed, and, above all, slavery was abolished once and for all.
“Why am I telling you this? It’s not an uncommon story. Many nineteenth-century reformers had similar lives – similar failures and successes. In one very important sense, John Pierpoint was not a failure. Every year, come December, we celebrate his success. We carry in our hearts and minds a lifelong memorial to him.
“It’s a song.
“Not about Jesus or angels or even Santa Claus. It’s a terribly simple song about the simple joy of whizzing through the cold white dark of winters gloom in a sleigh pulled by one horse. And with the company of friends, laughing and singing all the way. No more. No less. Jingle Bells. John Pierpoint wrote Jingle Bells.”
I’ve told that story several times over the years since I first read it. The other night I decided to look up John Pierpoint, and you know what? John Pierpoint did not write Jingle Bells. His son James did.
In some ways that makes it an even better story for today, and an even better story for the season. Despite all of the difficulties, despite all of the struggles, despite all of the failures, John Pierpoint found reason to rejoice in his life at the birth of his son James. Despite all that Mary went through as someone who the community might have viewed as a single pregnant woman, despite the doubts and worries that she felt, she found reason to rejoice at the birth of her son Jesus. I know that there have been questions and doubts and worries along the way, but now there is great rejoicing at the birth of Miles.
John Pierpoint’s son wrote a song over a hundred years ago that almost everyone who speaks English can sing today. That’s worth rejoicing over. Mary’s son Jesus died on a cross and rose again to bring in God’s kingdom of justice and peace. That’s worth rejoicing over. I don’t know what Miles will do in his life, but I know that he will certainly do something worth rejoicing over.
That’s true not just for Miles but for each of us this morning. When we know that the Holy Spirit is within us, when we know that we have the gift of Jesus living in our hearts, we can look outside of ourselves and see the ways in which God has worked through us over the years to make a difference in people. We can see the ways in which God will work through us in the days to come to make a difference for others and for ourselves.
Maybe not some earth shattering difference, maybe nothing that will make the history books. Maybe just enough of a difference to bring a smile to someone’s face, or a smile to someone’s heart. That’s enough. That’s a gift from God, and each of us need to find more of those kinds of gifts.
We have all pledged, all of us in one way or another, to rejoice in Miles’ life and do what we can to encourage him to be the best person he can be. We can also rejoice in the gift of the baby in the manger, the gift of Jesus Christ, who allows us to do more than we could ever hope or dream. Just as John and Sally do today, just as Mary did two thousand years ago, we can rejoice. Rejoice, and magnify the Lord. Amen.