Amanda and I almost got a divorce. No, this isn’t a funny story where we pranked each other again and joked about splitting up. It’s the truth. A couple of years ago, we were prepared to move forward with plans to separate. We both realized that our marriage was not healthy and that we were crashing and burning and something had to change. Amanda and I had functioned in crisis mode for many years - parenthood, four years of doctoral work on top of a full-time ministry position, the loss of our baby in 2015, moving to Texas and beginning a new job - and once we were here and the dust settled, we realized that we no longer knew how to function well as a couple. Although we weren’t living a life full of crises, crisis mode had become our normal. Long-term crisis mode is not life-giving. It helped us survive, but didn’t help us to thrive. Something had to change. Our “normal” wasn’t cutting it anymore.
And so, we gathered our broken hearts and went to marriage counseling. Over and over again, week after week, we met with our therapist. We worked diligently on communication, and on understanding, and on opening up. We accepted and forgave the places of hurt and pain, learned how to grow and heal, and found ways to create the relationship we knew we always wanted. After many months of therapy, we finally came to a place where we could say, “this is the best and strongest our relationship has ever been.” Working through the struggles and the fears and the pain helped to push us into a loving, connected, and healed place. We found a space where new life could be nurtured and birthed. And when Ford was born, we were able to be with him in the NICU for the long haul and continue to keep our marriage strong and steady because we had done all of that brutally hard work. We pushed through our fears and in the midst of yet another crisis, we moved forward rather than back. We pulled each other closer rather than pushing each other away. We have a marriage that has powerfully changed and even though we’re in crisis mode once again, we don’t want to return to the way things used to be. We don’t want to ever go back to the way things were. We don’t want to get back to “normal.”
But, you know, that’s what we’ve been hearing a lot since the pandemic began. We’ve been saying that we want everything to go back to normal. We want things to return to the way they used to be when we didn’t have to order groceries for pick-up or delivery, wear masks to hide our smiles, refrain from gathering with family and friends, not attend church in person. “I can’t wait until we get back to normal,” is something I’ve heard all the time during this pandemic.
On the one hand, I see how the need for normalcy feels comforting and uneventful. But I, personally, have a fear of getting back to normal. I don’t want my marriage to be the way it was. Amanda and I are better and stronger now. I don’t want to be a younger version of myself. I like this older, wiser, and more patient self. I don’t want to be blind to prejudice and racism like I was. I’m more knowledgeable and resolved now. I don’t want put the genie back in the bottle about how hurt and divided and confused we are as a nation. I don’t want to get back to normal because who we are becoming and have already become in this last year has, indeed, made us stronger, more hopeful, and more prophetic. It is by being uncomfortable and challenged, it is by seeing the hopes and fears in the Christmas story and acknowledging how messy life is that we realize how truly life-changing it was for God to be born into this world, so that a little bit of heaven could change this place for the better.
And that’s what we are feeling this morning only days after Christmas. We don’t want the newness and joy of Christmas to be over. We want the hopes more than the fears right now and getting back to normal feels like taking a step back. You, too, have probably already noticed the let-down of post-Christmas life. Many of us woke up the day after Christmas and felt the same stinging sensation of grief, loneliness, and depression yet again. We woke up and the pain was still there. We woke up and the miracle hadn’t happened. We woke up and browsed the news, that day after Christmas, and the world was the same. Nothing’s really changed. We don’t need to get back to normal, because normal wasn’t all that great for us.
In our Bible story for today we heard about the dedication of Jesus at the temple after his birth. It was a very normal act for two Jewish parents, to take their child to worship for a baby dedication. But before that, the 8th day after a child was born was the day the child would be circumcised and named. It was the normal routine for a Jewish family with a baby boy – circumcision, naming, dedication. The joy and excitement of birth was beginning to dwindle and there was work to be done to follow the rites and rituals of Jewish law.
Yet, in this reading from the Gospel of Luke, we see that the life and love of Jesus just couldn’t be contained at his birth. No, the Word was made flesh and the hard work had just begun for the good news, the unbelievable, “not normal news,” to spread to the world. The normal things of Jesus, learning and growing, became extraordinary as heaven began to shine beyond the star and illuminate the whole world. The work and hope of God just wouldn’t be stuck at Christmas.
We see in Luke 2:21, right after the classic Christmas story, that “On the eighth day, when it was time to circumcise him, he was named Jesus, the name the angel had given him before he had been conceived.” Naming was important to the first century Jewish people and it is important to us today. That is one of the reasons I love baby dedications. At baby dedications I get to explain and explore the significance of a baby’s name - how they got their name and what their name means. We bring our newly born children into this place, with these people, to make a promise to them that we will dedicate our lives to guiding and growing them in the love of God and the leading of Christ. And we don’t get to do that right now during Covid. We are missing the extraordinary moments where we dedicate our little ones to God and get to name how they will be leaders in our world.
And so, in the absence of baby dedications, I want to remind us that we are all called out and named to be something more than we are. Naming ceremonies do just that. Naming reminds us that when we are born, we are no longer simply ideas, hopes, or dreams. We are created with a purpose. We are called to live beyond our births, into what God has promised for us. We don’t want to get back to normal, we want to stretch ourselves and be who God is creating us and growing us to be.
And it is important to realize that the Christmas story didn’t end with Jesus’s birth and the nativity. Nope, he was given a name. The Christ-child was given a name, Jesus, which means salvation. In order for Jesus to live into his name, a lot of work had to be done. There was a long, laboring road of love for Jesus to get to the cross. Jesus’s life had a lot of mundane moments and a lot of growing moments and a lot of fearful moments and a lot of hopeful moments to get him to that ultimate salvific event. Yet, Jesus’ work would be anything but normal. It would be something more as he pushed through every milestone and every challenge.
And then, forty days after his birth, Mary and Joseph brought their baby to the temple, according to Levitical law, so that he could be dedicated to God. At this time of dedication and consecration they encountered the priest, Simeon and the prophet, Anna. These two watchers had waited their whole lives for the coming of the Messiah. The scripture says that Anna stayed at the Temple and worshipped day and night and that Simeon was a righteous and devout man. We learn in our reading that the Lord had revealed to Simeon that he would not die before he saw the Messiah in the flesh.
When Mary and Joseph brought Jesus into the temple, Simeon was overwhelmed. He ran over and took the child up into his arms, looked toward the heavens and prayed, “Sovereign Lord, as you have promised, you may now dismiss your servant in peace. For my eyes have seen your salvation, your Jesus, which you have prepared in the sight of all nations: a light for revelation to the Gentiles, and the glory of your people Israel.” Nothing would be normal again!
And I’m sure a shudder went through Mary when Simeon spoke these words. What could Simeon mean with the phrase, “A sword will pierce through your own soul also?” Well, we know, don’t we? We know what Jesus’s name, “salvation,” meant for him. We know that Jesus’s life would not be easy and that the journey to the cross would be anything but normal. The way to the cross would take hard work and would pierce through our souls. It would be uncomfortable and painful. It would be lonely and depressing. But, after the pain and after the death, comes new life, comes hope beyond the fear, comes strength from the scars.
And that’s the hope of Christmas, that although life has been difficult and filled with moments of great fear, we are not a fearful people. Because of what God accomplished in wrapping God’s self in the trappings of humanity, we are a hopeful people, a people who have looked fear in the face and seen divine love. For me, the dedication of Jesus at the temple after his birth, revealed that there was indeed a change of plans. Instead of ushering in a new age or taking charge by force and violence, which is what almost everybody expected to happen when the Messiah came, God chose another way to change the world. God chose the way of great love. The way of slow, transformative, tedious, salvific love, a love that requires us to do our part to not go back to normal, to continue to rename ourselves, and to dedicate ourselves to this church, to God, and to the world.
I’m afraid of getting back to normal, church. Maybe you are, too. Maybe something new is happening in us and God has set in motion a life and ministry far beyond anything we could imagine. As we continue the Christmas season, I hope that we can be a people who create a new normal, a new world where our fears don’t determine our future, but our unique names do - the names we were given at the beginning of time, the name “beloved.” There’s nothing normal about that.