Sermon for Sunday, January 1, 2023 || Feast of the Holy Name || Philippians 2:5-11; Luke 2:15-21
This sermon is about emptying ourselves of all the junk inside us so there is more room for God to fill. And boy do I have a good example to start with. My family moved this week. We bought a house here in Mystic and moved out of the rectory. Our new house is quite a bit smaller than the rectory, so we needed to downsize in a hurry. Every Tuesday and Friday for the last few weeks, we have filled the garbage and recycling cans and watched the truck’s grabber arm scoop up all our accumulation. We’ve made several trips to Goodwill with books and toys and games and clothes. We’ve put pieces of furniture up on Facebook Marketplace. And still our new house is full.
How did we end up with so much stuff?! When I moved out of my dorm after grad school, I could fit everything I owned in my compact car. But I needed the 17-foot U-Haul for the move out of my townhouse in West Virginia, then the 20-foot U-Haul for the next move, then Leah and I needed the 26-foot U-Haul when we moved to Mystic. Then the kids were born, and our stuff, you know, **Explosion Noise**.
The accumulation of physical stuff in our lives parallels a spiritual accumulation in our hearts. Our hearts get cluttered by so many unhelpful things that end up crowding out the things that should be there. Our hearts are storage units for all of our misplaced priorities, desires for superiority, inflated egos, broken promises, habituated distrust, forgotten loyalty, and shackling fears. These things clutter our hearts and leave less room for the love of God and the good news of Jesus Christ to dwell. And so, as we look forward to a new year, we can engage in the spiritual equivalent of letting go of all that stuff that had accumulated in the rectory before we moved. We can practice the spiritual discipline of self-emptying.
This spiritual discipline comes from Jesus himself, as described by Paul in his letter to the Philippians: “Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness.” We can follow Jesus’ example of self-emptying in two ways. First, we can empty ourselves of the power and privilege that our society assigns to us based on facets of our identities. This passage from Philippians crops up often enough throughout our three-year cycle that I’m sure I’ll preach a sermon about this first type of self-emptying in the nearish future. But today, as we begin a new year, I’d like to focus on the second type of self-emptying, the prayerful cleaning out of our hearts of everything that is not life-giving.
The passage from Phillipians that I quoted a minute ago says that Jesus did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited. But a better translation is “something to be hoarded.” Jesus did not hoard his perfect relationship with God, but emptied himself in order to allow us to find a deeper level of our own relationships with God. And one way we find this deeper level is not to hoard stuff ourselves, either physical or spiritual. Because, when we clutter our hearts with that laundry list of debilitating things like misplaced priorities and shackling fears, there’s less room for God to fill.
Let’s take Mary as an example. We don’t know anything about Mary’s life before the angel came to her except that she was engaged to Joseph. I imagine she wasn’t much different than any other young woman in Nazareth. What made her different was her answer to the angel. Her “yes” enabled the Word of God to be born as a human being. Her “yes” enabled Jesus’ own self-emptying. Her empty womb filled with God’s Incarnate Word. For nine months, she carried the Word of God within, and on the night we celebrated last weekend, she delivered the Word made flesh. Her body was once again empty of the Word, but not for long. The shepherds arrive and proclaim what the angel told them. The angel had said, “I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord.” The angel brings the good news, the Gospel, to the shepherds, and they in turn deliver this news to Mary. And what does Mary do? “She treasures all these words and ponders them in her heart.” She fills herself with the shepherds’ good news. She treasures their words in her heart as she had so recently treasured the Word in her womb.
Mary’s heart fills with the Gospel, the good news of her son Jesus Christ. And so, as I ponder the coming year, I ask myself, and I invite you to ask yourselves, what fills your hearts? Is it those misplaced priorities and shackling fears and all the rest? Or is it the love of God and the good news of Jesus? More likely than not, it’s some of both. We all have a glut of accumulated spiritual malady cluttering our hearts just as most of us have an accumulation of stuff cluttering our houses. So the question is, how do we get rid of the accumulation?
There’s no one answer to this question; rather, this is one of those “takes a lifetime of spiritual discipline” type of things. But we can make a start today. We begin by resonating with Jesus’ own self-emptying and echoing Mary’s consent to be filled with God. The resulting emptiness is unlike any other instance of emptiness out there. This is not the emptiness of a bare pantry or a sock drawer on laundry day. This is purposeful emptiness, holy emptiness. This holy emptiness makes room for the grace of God to expand within us. Our internal storage units, once the depositories for those misplaced priorities and shackling fears, transform into the sanctuaries they were always meant to be. The emptier we become, the greater is our opportunity to discover true fullness.
I invite you to join me in a New Year’s resolution this week. When you go to bed each night, focus your mind and heart in prayer. Ask God to reveal to you something that is cluttering your heart. Identify something in your life that is taking up too much square footage within you. Give this something to God in prayer. Ask God to inhabit the space vacated by this offering. Do this every night. Each time give something else to God. Practicing this holy emptiness will allow more space for the good news of Jesus Christ to breathe and move and dance within us. Soon we will empty ourselves of enough clutter to notice that God has been at work in us from the beginning, and we will be able to dance along.