Sunday’s sermon: Now You See It, Now You Don’t

illusion 2

Texts used – 1 Samuel 3:1-10; John 1:43-51

  • One of the most enthralling, awe-inspiring forms of magic acts performed today is illusion. Headlining names like David Copperfield and Penn and Teller make their living on elaborately and convincingly tricking your eye – and, more importantly, your brain – into believing one thing is happening while there is something else happening entirely. This technique is called the “misdirect.” The magician gets your attention focused on one specific thing – an object, an action, a sequined and smiling assistant or a cute, fuzzy rabbit in a hat, perhaps – and while your attention is focused there, the magician performs a different quick and often simple action. Voila! Magic!
    • Often part of Penn and Teller’s schtick = actually explaining the simpler parts of the trick and misdirection itself as their misdirection à keep us focused on their explanation while they perform the trick
    • Works incredibly effectively – even when we know this is what’s happening! – because our eyes and minds are initially presented with one solution which we readily accept → that “false solution” distracts us from what is really going on
      • On psychology of magic: People look for confirmation that their own theory is correct. … The false solution is, therefore, used as a distraction from the real solution. Research in problem solving shows that once we have one solution in mind, it is very difficult to consider alternatives.[1]  → In a way, it’s all about assumptions and expectations. The magician plays on our assumptions that whatever is going on with the misdirect is more important than anything else that might be going on and on our expectation that something amazing will happen … as if by magic.
  • This week, we’re going to explore a little deeper into this idea of Jesus as a Man of Mystery – the ways in which, throughout his ministry, Jesus continues to reveal more and more about himself and his mission while at the same time insisting that his identity remain a secret.
    • Spent a lot of time last week talking about the gospel of Mk because this idea of Messianic secrecy is especially prevalent in Mk → And we will re-immerse ourselves in the Gospel of Mark next week … However, this week, we’re jumping to the gospel of John – to this interesting story about expectations and assumptions about who Jesus is and what he could possibly be doing.
  • Set-up for gospel passage
    • Today’s story follows 3 other short but important stories in Jn’s gospel
      • STORY 1: John’s testimony to the Jewish leaders[2]  → John the Baptist had been stirring up all sorts of crowds and disciples with his message of baptism and repentance and a coming Messiah, so much so that the Jewish leaders were starting to get a little worried. So they sent a few of their own to question John – basically a “who do you think you are?” mission.
        • John’s response = I am NOT … the Christ, Elijah, a prophet
        • Testifies to the coming of Christ: Those sent by the Pharisees asked, “Why do you baptize if you aren’t the Christ, nor Elijah, nor the prophet?” John answered, “I baptize with water. Someone greater stands among you, whom you don’t recognize. He comes after me, but I’m not worthy to untie his sandal straps.”[3]
        • Important story because John the Baptist is basically acting as Jesus’ misdirect at this point → John’s the one creating the spectacle and all the drama. John’s the one with the huge group of disciples. John’s the one publicly (and loudly!) speaking out about God and God’s Kingdom. John is the one garnering all the attention. John is the distraction. And while he’s doing that, Jesus slips onto the scene almost completely unnoticed.
      • STORY 2: baptism of Jesus[4] (talked about this last week) → important because in this encounter as recorded in Jn’s gospel, John the Baptist verbally witnesses to Jesus’ encounter with God: John testified, “I saw the Spirit coming down from heaven like a dove, and it rested on him. Even I didn’t recognize him, but the one who sent me to baptize with water said to me, ‘The one on whom you see the Spirit coming down and resting is the one who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.’ I have seen and testified that this one is God’s Son.”[5]
        • Important because of the expectations that this lays out for the people → The Messiah was supposed to be the one to come and free them from Roman oppression, not in any sort of quiet, spiritual, grace-filled way like God and Jesus had in mind but in a mighty, warrior, overthrow-the-oppressors sort of way. The people expected a gladiator on a white horse with a sword in one hand and a scepter in the other – someone to give the Romans what for and banish them from Israel’s holy home. Instead, what they eventually got was a rabbi on a donkey with bread in one hand, a cup in the other, and nail scars to boot – someone who gave death what for and banished the power of sin and death. Not what they expected.
      • STORY 3: calling the 1st disciples[6]  → John the Baptist is standing around with a couple of his disciples and points Jesus out to them (not super subtle about it either: “Look! The Lamb of God!”), and the disciples – Andrew and Simon – decide to follow Jesus
        • Encounter in which Jesus changes Simon’s name to Peter
        • Important because this is the encounter that gets the snowball rolling → First two join Jesus. Then, in today’s passage, two more. Then, later on, a few more. And a few more. And a few more. This is the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. In a way, already here in John 1, this is the beginning of the end for Jesus.
          • Again, upending people’s expectations and assumptions about who the Messiah would be – turning those expectations on their heads with a whole new message and whole new reality
  • Idea of blown-away expectations = part of our OT text this morning, too
    • Poor little Samuel asleep in the temple à Now, remember that Samuel is sleeping in the temple and living with the priests because his mother, Hannah, has given him to God’s work.[7]
      • Hannah prayed and prayed for a child → God finally gives her Samuel → to show gratitude to God, she gives Samuel to God’s service when he is only 3 yrs. old
    • So in the middle of the night, Samuel hears his name being called. And as per his expectations and assumptions – because who else would be calling him?? – Samuel runs to the bedside of Eli, the priest, and says, “I’m here! You called me?” Eli, patient but puzzled says, “No. I didn’t call. Go back to bed.”
      • Happens a 2nd time: Samuel hears God calling → thinks it’s Eli → runs to Eli’s side → Eli says, “Nope. Wasn’t me. Go back to bed.”
      • Happens a 3rd time → And this time, Eli tumbles to what is happening. He realizes that Samuel is hearing the voice of God calling him, so he instructs Samuel to once again go back and lie down and, when he hears the voice calling yet again, to say, “Speak, Lord. Your servant is listening.”[8]
    • This is such a clear story about expectations and about how God can and often does function completely outside of what we could even begin to expect or fathom. According to our text, Samuel “didn’t yet know the LORD, and the LORD’s word hadn’t yet been revealed to him,”[9] and yet, that lack of knowledge, that lack of understanding did not stop God from calling him – from calling this little boy who, though he lived in the temple and served the priests, didn’t even know God yet.
      • Often expect our OT prophets and servants to be giants among people – heavy hitters like Abraham and Jacob and Elijah → people who had strong relationships with God
      • And yet in this story, God also turns our own expectations and assumptions about those Old Testament roles on their heads and calls a child. → just another illustration that God can do whatever God wants to do, call whomever God wants to call, work through whatever crazy situation God wants to work through … no matter what we may think about it.
  • Brings us back around to today’s NT story from Jn
    • Day after Jesus calls Andrew and Simon Peter, he decides to go to Galilee → finds Philip along the way → Jesus: “Follow me!” … and Philip does! But before he joins the crowd, Philip runs to get Nathanael, excitedly proclaiming to him, “We have found the one Moses wrote about in the Law and the Prophets: Jesus, Joseph’s son, from Nazareth.”[10] You can almost feel Philip’s enthusiasm and passion jump off the page!
    • But let’s talk about Nathanael’s response for a minute. It’s less-than-excited to say the least. Skeptical … even rude and condescending. “Can anything from Nazareth be good?”[11]  → all kinds of layers of assumptions and expectations wrapped up in that statement
      • Assumption that Nazareth isn’t significant enough – isn’t a big enough player on the local stage
      • Assumption that Nazareth isn’t powerful enough
      • Assumption that Nazareth isn’t prestigious enough
      • Assumption that the little, paltry, inconsequential blip that is Nazareth simply isn’t good enough to produce something as worthy as the Messiah
        • Scholar: Nazareth was a village of 200-400 people. … The Hebrew Scriptures never mention Nazareth, much less associate it with messianic expectations. … In Nathanael’s view, Jesus could be nothing more than a simple new from an insignificant village in Galilee. The Messiah would certainly be of more prominent parentage and come from a more significant town.[12]
    • Friends, as someone who stands up here Sunday after Sunday preaching and praying about the love of God for all people and how grace is a gift given freely with no strings attached – including geographical strings, including racial ethnic strings – I cannot read this passage today and not address this week’s headlines. I cannot speak with you about God’s justice and mercy … I cannot claim a Savior born into the desolation and filth of a stable … I cannot honestly proclaim a Word and a table and a community for all and not denounce the words spoken and condoned by the people in power in this country this week calling Haiti and African nations a name that I won’t say in church.[13] Let’s just say “latrine countries.” First, we need to call out in no uncertain terms how truly racist and prejudiced those statements are. It is no coincidence that those “latrine countries” are all populated mostly by people with darker skin. And we need to name the assumptions being made about those countries and their contributions to the world: that they are not significant enough – not big enough players on the world stage, that they are not powerful enough, that they are not prestigious enough, that these nations and the people in them are paltry, inconsequential blips incapable of producing anything worthwhile. And in the face of those horribly unfair assumptions, we also need to recognize that everyone that Jesus chose to minister to – everyone that Jesus chose to go to in their time of need – found themselves in less-than-perfect circumstances … in “latrine” places in life: lepers cast out of their communities because of their disease, sinners shunned by their communities for their actions, women devalued by society for their gender, Gentiles reviled by Jesus’ own people for their “wrongness” – wrong thinking, wrong worship practices, wrong belief. All of these people were deemed worthless just like the people from these nations were deemed worthless by those in power this week. How often do we make assumptions walking down the street about the person who’s dressed differently than us – the man in the kaftan or the woman in the hijab? How often do we make assumptions when we hear another language being spoken in line at the grocery store or at Target? How often do we make split-second assumptions based on nothing more significant than skin color?
      • NT story today shows just how prevalent those assumptions can be when Nathanael turns them on none other than the Christ himself: “Can anything from Nazareth be good?”
      • Scholar: It seems natural that people were disillusioned with who Jesus is. Jesus was unlike anything they had encountered before. Yet, like any good illusionist, Jesus is not forthcoming with evidence or clues that give away all fo who he is. All he does is invite us to come and see. … I wonder if it is Jesus’ way of shaking us up so that we are open to the possibilities instead of distracted by our own conclusions and assumptions.[14]  → Y’all, we cannot deny that assumptions are part of our world, and that very often, just like the assumptions Nathanael made of Jesus, those assumptions are completely unfounded and wholly unfair. But Jesus came, not to reinforce those assumptions, but to obliterate them by revealing the truly grace-filled, all-encompassing nature of God’s love for all people, no matter where you’re from.
        • Find promise of hope and redemption even in the midst of our mistakes – Jesus to Nathanael: Jesus answered, “Do you believe because I told you that I saw you under the fig tree? You will see greater things than these!”[15]

[1] Dr. Jeremy Dean. “Psychology of Magic: 3 Critical Techniques” on PsyBlog, http://www.spring.org.uk/2008/08/psychology-of-magic-3-critical.php. Published Aug. 28, 2008, accessed Jan. 14, 2018.

[2] Jn 1:19-28.

[3] Jn 1:24-27.

[4] Jn 1:29-34.

[5] Jn 1:32-34.

[6] Jn 1:35-42.

[7] 1 Sam 1.

[8] 1 Sam 1:9.

[9] 1 Sam 1:7.

[10] Jn 1:45.

[11] Jn 1:46a.

[12] Leslie J. Hoppe. “Second Sunday after the Epiphany: John 1:43-52 – Exegetical Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year B, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 261, 263.

[13] https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/11/us/politics/trump-shithole-countries.html.

[14] Theresa Cho. “Epiphany Series: Jesus, Man of Mystery – Second Sunday after Epiphany: Now You See It, Now You Don’t” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 95.

[15] Jn 1:50.

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Sunday’s sermon: The Reveal

baptism of Jesus Bonnell
The Baptism of the Christ by Daniel Bonnell (oil on canvas)

Texts used – Mark 1:4-11; Acts 19:1-7

  • It all started with a simple book in 1953 – a book that became so wildly popular that the release of another book following every year through 1966. The storyline was later taken up by three other authors who produced 27 more novels. The first movie debuted in 1962, and the franchise exploded, eventually producing 23 other movies, the most recent of which was released in 2015, making it one of the longest-running film series of all time. Something tells me Ian Fleming had no idea what he was starting when he first introduced the world to none other than 007: James Bond.
    • Bond = popular for a lot of reasons, but MYSTERY plays a huge part in the popularity
      • What’s he going to do?
      • Where’s he going to go?
      • Who’s he going to be with?
      • How’s he going to get out of this tight spot when it looks like death is the only option?
      • One of the most popular, longest-running, most well-recognized storylines in the whole world has been built on perpetuating these questions. Every plot line, every movie script, every element of who James Bond is is built on keeping the answers to these questions a mystery for as long as possible – to keep us turning page after page, to keep us on the edge of our seats, to keep us coming back for more … to keep us following.
  • And when you think about it that way, James Bond shares a little bit in common with Jesus. Bear with me here. Advent is over. Christmas is over. Lent is around the corner but still about 6 weeks away. And so we find ourselves in this in-between time in the church calendar. So as we wander through the gospel lessons – as we start out on our journey from the rough wood of the manger to the rough wood of the cross – we’re going to take a more in-depth look at this Jesus guy. → original Man of Mystery, especially since our lectionary readings come mostly from the gospel of Mark
    • In Mark, Jesus is mysterious.
      • Gospel of Mark = probably the oddest of the gospels
        • Shortest by far (Mt = 28, Lk = 24, Jn = 21, Mk = 16)
        • Also the earliest gospel – probably written around 70 C.E., less than 30 yrs. after the death of Christ → important because a lot of the theology that appears in the other gospels (especially Jn) hasn’t been developed yet, so Mark’s gospel is more of a moment-by-moment account without much of the theological explanation that came later as people began to process who Jesus really was.
          • Reads a less like a developed storyline and more like a news briefing
          • In fact, the authors of both Matthew and Luke probably used the gospel of Mark as a reference for their own writings.
        • Mk = gospel of immediacy
          • Written for Gentiles – likely heard about Jesus but may not have understood his significance
          • Probably written in Rome during a time of great persecution and upheaval for Christians under emperor Nero
          • Mark is always telling us things happen “immediately.”
            • Used 11 times in the 1st alone, 27 times throughout the whole gospel
            • And let me tell you, this is not one of those Greek words thick with all sorts of different meanings. “Immediately” means immediately. Period. Mark is not mincing words.
        • Mk = gospel of secrecy → Time and time again throughout Mark, Jesus insists that those who discover and declare him to be the Messiah must not tell anyone about what they’ve seen or heard.
          • E.g. from later in Mk: A man with a skin disease approached Jesus, fell to his knees, and begged, “If you want, you can make me clean.” Incensed, Jesus reached out his hand, touched him, and said, “I do want to. Be clean.” Instantly, the skin disease left him, and he was clean. Sternly, Jesus sent him away, saying, “Don’t say anything to anyone. Instead, go and show yourself to the priest and offer the sacrifice for your cleansing that Moses commanded. This will be a testimony to them.”[1]
      • So you see, throughout Mark, Jesus’ identity is built on similar questions to those we asked of James Bond:
        • What’s he going to do?
        • Where’s he going to go?
        • Who’s he going to be with?
        • How’s he going to get out of this tight spot when it looks like death is the only option?
        • And like Bond, these questions about Jesus keep us coming back for more. Jesus reveals just enough in Mark to keep people wondering, to keep us guessing, to keep us following.
  • Today’s gospel reading = perfect e.g.
    • The passage begins with a description of a crowd, but at this point, the crowd isn’t there for Jesus. Frankly, at least according to Mark, no one knows who Jesus is yet. Instead, the crowd has gathered for Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. – text: John the Baptist was in the wilderness calling for people to be baptized to show that they were changing their hearts and lives and wanted God to forgive their sins. Everyone in Judea and all the people of Jerusalem went out to the Jordan River and were being baptized by John as they confessed their sins.[2]
    • And in the midst of all this baptizing, John makes a powerful prediction: He announced, “One stronger than I am is coming after me. I’m not even worthy to bend over and loosen the strap of his sandals. I baptize you with water, but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.”[3]  → In the literary world, this would be called foreshadowing. John realizes that the people are devoted to him and his teachings – that they look to him as a spiritual leader. But he wants to be sure that they are prepared for something different, something new, something extraordinary.
      • Trying to get them to ask questions
      • Trying to keep them on the edge of their seats
      • Trying to point them in a wholly unexpected direction
    • And into that scene comes Jesus, followed closely by the unexplainable: About that time, Jesus came from Nazareth of Galilee, and John baptized him in the Jordan River. While he was coming up out of the water, Jesus saw heaven splitting open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him. And there was a voice from heaven: “You are my Son, whom I dearly love; in you I find happiness.”[4]  → This is Jesus’ very first appearance in Mark – no birth narrative here. In Mark’s storyline, this is his big reveal, and it does not disappoint.
      • DRAMATIC MOMENT – sort of like that moment everyone waits for in James Bond … that first time that 007 introduces himself (say it with me): “Bond, James Bond.” → This is Jesus’ BIG REVEAL! Or is it?
      • Encounter of mystery → When we read the other gospel accounts of Jesus’ baptism, I think we often assume that the Spirit coming down like a dove and the voice from heaven were witnessed by all present – heard and seen by John, by the crowd, and, of course, by Jesus himself. In fact, John’s gospel explicitly says that at least John the Baptist witnessed these things. But Mark’s account is a little different.
        • Explicit = “Jesus saw heaven split open and the Spirit, like a dove, coming down on him.” → Jesus … not necessarily anyone else in the crowd.
        • Mystery = Who heard the pronouncement? → Are we supposed to infer that because only Jesus saw that Spirit that Jesus was also the only one to hear the voice from heaven? Or did others hear it, too?
          • Hard to glean any answers from the text – just following today’s reading: [Immediately] the Spirit forced Jesus out into the wilderness. He was in the wilderness for forty days, tempted by Satan. He was among the wild animals, and the angels took care of him.[5]
  • But it’s clear, both from our 2nd Scripture reading this morning and from the fact that we’re all sitting here 2000 years later, that there is something miraculous, something powerful, something active and compelling about baptism. Something happened that day that Jesus was baptized that has kept believers coming intrigued for centuries.
    • NT text: While Apollos was in Corinth, Paul took a route through the interior and came to Ephesus, where he found some disciples. He asked them, “Did you receive the Holy Spirit when you came to believe?” They replied, “We’ve not even heard that there is a Holy Spirit.” Then he said, “What baptism did you receive, then?” They answered, “John’s baptism.” Paul explained, “John baptized with a baptism by which people showed they were changing their hearts and lives. It was a baptism that told people about the one who was coming after him. This is the one in whom they were to believe. This one is Jesus.” After they listened to Paul, they were baptized in the name of the Lord Jesus. When Paul placed his hands on them, the Holy Spirit came on them, and they began speaking in other languages and prophesying. Altogether, there were about twelve people.[6]
    • Here’s the thing about baptism. It’s a mysterious event. It looks simple from the outside – just a little bit of water – but the act itself is shrouded in layers of meaning and questions. If it were truly as simple as it looks, it wouldn’t be one of the most prominent theological sticking points as far as differences between denominations and branches of Christianity are concerned, right? Infant or adult … baptize once or more than once … sprinkle, dip, or full-on immersion … in a public service of worship or in private … necessary for salvation or not … The debates have raged throughout the millennia, and they will continue to go on.
      • PC(USA): God’s faithfulness signified in Baptism is constant and sure, even when human faithfulness to God is not. Baptism is received only once. The efficacy of Baptism is not tied to the moment when it is administered, for Baptism signifies the beginning of life in Christ, not its completion. God’s grace works steadily, calling to repentance and newness of life. God’s faithfulness needs no renewal. Human faithfulness to God needs repeated renewal. Baptism calls for decision at every subsequent stage of life’s way, both for those whose Baptism attends their profession of faith and for those who are nurtured from childhood within the family of faith.[7]
  • Friends, our baptism – modeled after Christ’s own actions in the Jordan River 2000 years ago – continually draws us into the mystery of faith. It is the continuous claim that God lays on us. It is the continuous call that beckons us to walk with God. When we ourselves were baptized, and whenever we baptize someone in our midst – no matter the age – we know nothing about the life that lies before the one being baptized: the decisions he or she will make, the trials and tribulations or joys and celebrations that lay in his or her path. But instead of fearing that mysterious future, we welcome it in faith, knowing that whatever is to come, through the waters of baptism, God is there.
    • Scholar: Baptism is not the final reveal, but simply a stop on this human-transformation trail we are on. For Jesus, it was one significant moment that revealed just enough of his identity to compel others to start the journey to know him more. Baptism is a reminder that where we are going is more important than where we have been.[8]
    • The one being baptized is welcomed into a family of faith that will hold him up and shelter him, teach her and walk with her. So let us continue onward in this mystery together. Amen.

[1] Mk 1:40-44.

[2] Mk 1:4-5 (emphasis added).

[3] Mk 1:7-8.

[4] Mk 1:8-11.

[5] Mk 1:12-13.

[6] Acts 19:1-7.

[7] “Sign and Seal of God’s Faithfulness,” Book of Order 2015-2017: The Constitution to the Presbyterian Church (USA), Part II. (Louisville, KY: The Office of the General Assembly, 2015), W-2.3007.

[8] Theresa Cho. “Epiphany Series: Jesus, Man of Mystery – Baptism of the Lord: The Reveal” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 94.

Christmas Eve Message

Empty manger at night

Text used – Luke 2:1-20

  • It’s a busy time of year, isn’t it?
    • Shopping
    • Wrapping
    • Cooking
    • Baking
    • Decorating
    • Visiting
    • Cleaning
    • Mailing
      • Packages
      • Christmas cards
    • I know I can’t be the only one in this room this evening who feels like they’ve been running, flitting from one task to the next like a crazed hummingbird. This is a busy time of year, full of to-do lists and expectations.
      • Expectations we place upon ourselves → list of cookies that you “have” to make every year because “it’s tradition … it’s what we do at Christmas time”
      • Expectations placed on us by society → perfect-looking house inside and out – lights, garland, Christmas tree, decorations, etc.
      • Expectations placed on us by loved ones → one of my best friends from high school has 5 family Christmases to get to between her family and her spouse’s family!
    • It doesn’t mean we can’t enjoy these activities. Some of them are indeed traditions that we treasure – the things that “make the holiday” for us. For example, I love sending Christmas cards – designing the photo card, writing the yearly update letter, stuffing the envelopes, attaching the special Christmas seal, and even addressing them. It’s one of my favorite things to do during the holidays. But as those boxes of cards and sheets of stamps and seals and everything sit on my dining room table (or floor) day after day as I work my way through our list, even this beloved activity becomes another thing on the to-do list. Another expectation.
  • But when we stop to think about it, are these truly the things that “make the holiday”? What would we do if we couldn’t bake those 14 types of cookies? What if we couldn’t engage in the hunt for that “perfect” Christmas gift? What if we couldn’t decorate or wrap or even visit? Would it still be Christmas?
    • According to the sage and ever-entertaining Dr. Seuss, the answer is yes:

So he paused. And the Grinch put his hand to his ear.
And he did hear a sound rising over the snow.
It started in low. Then it started to grow.
But the sound wasn’t sad! Why, this sound sounded merry!
It couldn’t be so! But it WAS merry! VERY!
He stared down at Whoville! The Grinch popped his eyes!
Then he shook! What he saw was a shocking surprise!
Every Who down in Whoville, the tall and the small,
Was singing! Without any presents at all!
He HADN’T stopped Christmas from coming! IT CAME!
Somehow or other, it came just the same!
And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: “How could it be so?”
“It came without ribbons! It came without tags!”
“It came without packages, boxes or bags!”
And he puzzled three hours, till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before!
“Maybe Christmas,” he thought, “doesn’t come from a store.”
“Maybe Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more!”[1]

Grinch

  • Friends, as much fun as all the trimmings and trappings of this holiday season can be, all of those things are not what bring us here to these pews tonight … to this sanctuary … to this sacred space and time. We do not gather to sing and pray and celebrate communion together because of the shopping sprees and the tinsel and the chaos of Christmas. We come for the manger. We come for the baby. We come for the miracle. We come for the holy moment. We come in search not of another thing to do but a place to pause. We come in search of our kneeling places.
    • Poem by Ann Weems: “In Search of Our Kneeling Places[2]
    • Yes, it’s true that even our Scripture reading this evening – even that familiar Christmas story that we know and love – is bustling with activity.
      • Mary and Joseph knocking on doors, searching and searching and searching for that place to rest their weary heads
      • The exertion and anxiousness and excitement of the birth
      • Angels appearing in the darkness of the hills and filling the sky with light and song
      • Shepherds hurrying to the manger-side
      • Mary and Joseph welcoming the shepherds into what was surely an awkward and personal and precious moment just after the birth of the Christ Child
      • The incredible, audacious nature of the shepherds’ report
      • But in the midst of all that holy hustle and bustle, there is Mary, quietly and steadfastly remaining in her kneeling place despite all that is going on around her and even inside her – text: But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart.[3]
        • Scholar: Finally, we have a blessing of peace. God sends us peace. God does not desire huge festivals, frantic preparations, or wish us boundless energy to do everything. Rather, God wishes us peace.[4]
  • On Sunday mornings in this congregation, we take a few moments of silence at the beginning of every service. It’s meant to be a time when we can refocus ourselves, when we can set aside all of those things that distract us – worries, to-do lists, and everything else. We set aside that special time so that we can prepare our hearts and our minds to intentionally encounter God in our worship. That time at the beginning of our service is our kneeling place. And tonight is no different. Yes, there are certainly still things to do – gifts to open, meals to prepare, Christmas songs to sing and stories to read, family Christmases to attend, and so on. But let this time … this night … this worship be your kneeling place – your time to pause, to reflect, to open your heart and your whole self to the worship of the miracle of the birth of Christ. Friends, let us go to Bethlehem and find our kneeling places so that we can wholly and committedly say, “Come, Lord Jesus. Come, Holy Child.” Amen.

[1] Dr. Seuss. How the Grinch Stole Christmas. (New York, NY: Random House, 1957), 42-48.

[2] Ann Weems. “In Search of Our Kneeling Places” in Kneeling in Bethlehem. (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster Press, 1987), 19.

[3] Lk 2:19 (NRSV).

[4] Aaron Klink. “Christmas Eve: Luke 2:1-14 (15-20) – Pastoral Perspective” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Year A, vol. 1. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2010), 120.

Sunday’s sermon: Giving and Receiving

giving and receiving

Texts used – Isaiah 9:2-7 and John 1:1-18

  • During the Christmas season, we spend a lot of time and energy on finding The Perfect Gift, don’t we? Trying to come up with what that “perfect” item might be … hunting down that “perfect” item, be it in a store or online … fretting about whether we’ve made the “perfect” decision or whether we should have come up with something else. For some, this hunt can become all-consuming.
    • Not necessarily a bad thing – most often comes from a place of love → We love our family and friends, and we want to find a gift that’s going to make them happy – something that will make their faces light up.
    • The problem = when we become so preoccupied with the gift itself that we forget why we’re giving it
      • Too wrapped up in the hunt itself
      • So fixated on the “perfect” part that we lose sight of the “gift” part
      • Giving in order to get the accolades for finding the “perfect” gift instead of giving for the sheer joy of giving
      • Giving should be an act of selflessness, an act of love, right?
  • I want to read you a story this morning. – [READ “THE GIFT OF THE MAGI”[1]]
    • Story of giving and receiving not from a place of lavishness or excess but a place of pure love, pure selflessness
    • Hmmm … I think I know another story about a precious gift given in pure, selfless love.
  • Friends, today we’re talking about giving and receiving – a concept that has become oh so commercialized during this Christmas season but which has a whole different meaning when it comes to the Christmas story we know and love as Christians. For it was at Christmas – that very first Christmas in Bethlehem of Judea, in an obscure and drafty stable, in a rough and dingy feeding trough filled with straw – that God sent humanity the greatest gift of all: Love Incarnate. Hope Incarnate. Grace Incarnate. God With Us in the humble, unassuming, vulnerable form of a baby.
  • Gift proclaimed in clear and powerful language in our OT passage this morning – text: The people walking in darkness have seen a great light. On those living in a pitch-dark land, light has dawned. You have made the nation great; you have increased its joy. … A child is born to us, a son is given to us, and authority will be on his shoulders. He will be named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.[2]
    • Echoes of this gift in our NT passage as well: Everything came into being through the Word, and without the Word nothing came into being. What came into being through the Word was life, and the life was the light for all people. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish the light.[3]
      • Gift of grace
      • Gift of peace
      • Gift of hope in dark places
      • Gift of inextinguishable Light → Notice that the verse says, “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness doesn’t extinguish it.” The rest of the passage is written in past tense, but that single verse is in the present active That’s a tense that is a little too nuanced for English, but in Greek, it’s exactly what it sounds like. It is present – it is existing, it is current, it is unceasing. And it is active – it is dynamic, it is involved, it is stirring. This Light is brighter than even the most persistent darkness, and it is this Light that surrounds us. It is this Light that holds us and keeps us. It is this Light that comes for us, born tonight in that humble manger and laid to sleep in that feeding trough. This Light – a light of hope and joy and forgiveness and reassurance – is the greatest gift ever given in the history of the world.
        • Given freely
        • Given from a place of pure love and selflessness
        • Given without strings attached
        • Given willingly by God
  • Now, I want you to notice something else this morning: In both our Old Testament and New Testament readings that there are no qualifications placed on that gift. Neither Scripture readings says anything about meeting a laundry list of requirements in order to be worthy of this gift. So why is it that so often, we feel like we have to earn it? We feel like we have to do something … say something … be something specific in order to receive this gift that God simply want to give to us … just because we are us?
    • Song that we’re going to listen to this morning speaks to that → [PLAY “Little Drummer Boy” sung by Pentatonix[4]
      • Song begins with those expectations placed not by God but by others, “Come, they told me … a newborn King to see … Our finest gifts we bring to lay before the King … so to honor him when we come.” → The implication is that only the finest gifts are appropriate and acceptable. And so often, we get that message from the world around us, especially this time of year.
        • Jewelry commercials
        • Electronics commercials
        • store commercials
        • Perfume/cologne commercials
        • Car commercials (I literally no nobody who has ever actually gotten a brand-spanking, shiny, new car for Christmas)
        • You name it, someone will be trying to convince you that your life will be better, brighter, fuller, whatever-er if you buy this gift. It will show your loved one just how much you truly care.
      • But then we come to the sticking point: Little baby, I am a poor boy, too … I have no gift to bring, to lay before the King à Pause there for one second. “I am a poor boy, TOO.”
        • Recognizes the humble estate into which Jesus – God Incarnate – was born → not a palace, not even a wealthy merchant’s home, not even the actual paid-for room of an inn!, but a stable
          • Probably not the pristine stable that artists like to depict either → Y’all either are farmers or you know farmers. Have you ever seen a consistently-used stable that was that clean? That tidy? Spoiler alert: It doesn’t exist. That stable was messy. That stable was dirty. That stable was stinky. But it was warm, and safe, and the perfect place for God to enter into not only the pristine moments of our lives but the truly mucky, messy ones as well.
            • Jn: The Word became flesh and made his home among us (messy and crazy and messed up, though we are). And we have seen his glory, glory like that of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.[5]
  • Friends, we know how the song ends: Shall I play for you? Mary nodded. The ox and lamb kept time. I played my drum for him. I played by best for him. Then he smiled at me, me and my drum. → It’s not about the shiniest gift. It’s not about the most elaborate gift or the most expensive gift. It’s about the genuineness and the love behind the gift. And it’s about the grace and gratitude with which the gift is received.
    • Jn: From his fullness we have all received grace upon grace; as the Law was given through Moses, so grace and truth came into being through Jesus Christ.[6] Alleluia! Amen.

[1] O. Henry. “The Gift of the Magi,” https://americanenglish.state.gov/files/ae/resource_files/1-the_gift_of_the_magi_0.pdf.

[2] Is 9:2-3, 6.

[3] Jn 1:3-5.

[4] “Little Drummer Boy” as performed by Pentatonix from the album “PTXmas: Deluxe Edition,” RCA Records, 2014.

[5] Jn 1:14 (with embellishment).

[6] Jn 1:16-17.

Sunday’s sermon: Mary, Did You Know?

annunciation

Texts used – Psalm 126; Luke 1:26-55

  • Reminder of our Advent sermon series this year (since we missed last week … thank you, laryngitis!)
    • In the midst of all the busyness and activity of the Christmas holiday season, Advent = special, sacred time of waiting à time to pause – to take a breath or two – and focus on our thoughts and words and actions in this in-between time
    • This year: considering familiar songs/hymns of the season and how they help us wait
  • Now, before we listen to our song for this week, I want to touch on where we are in the Advent cycle. During our Advent candle lighting this morning, you may have noticed something a little different. For the past few weeks, we’ve lit only purple candles, but today, we lit the pink one as well. That’s because today is a special Sunday in the Advent cycle. In many traditions, it’s called Gaudete Sunday.
    • Each Advent candle = dedicated to a theme → themes vary BUT most common: 1st) hope, 2nd) peace, 3rd) joy, 4th) love
    • Back in the early days of the church, Advent was treated more like Lent
      • Time of repentance and atonement
      • Time of intense self-reflection
      • Somber, earnest season → far cry from lightheartedness we often seek to experience in this season today
      • And in the face of all this serious reflection and repentance, this 3rd Sunday of Advent – Gaudete Sunday – became a bit of a break: a time to relish the joy and lightness of the coming of the Savior.
        • “Gaudete” = “break” in Latin
    • But we have to admit that sometimes, that’s easier said than done. Sometimes, that seriousness, that severity, that darkness – of the world around us, of the headlines that vie for our attention every morning, of the thoughts and worries that consume our day-to-day … sometimes we can become too overwhelmed by all of those fears and unanswered questions to be able to fully acknowledge and appreciate that joy.
      • Part of the reason = we are functioning with a confused definition of “joy” → If I were to ask you what “joy” means, I would guess that a lot of people would tell me something like, “Joy means happiness,” or “Joy means being happy.” But the late Henri Nouwen – priest, prolific author, and spiritual mentor – outlined the crucial difference between happiness and joy: Joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing — sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away. Joy is not the same as happiness. We can be unhappy about many things, but joy can still be there because it comes from the knowledge of God’s love for us.[1]
  • And especially in light of our New Testament reading this morning, that definition – “joy is the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing can take that love away” – brought Mary starkly to mind for me this week.
    • Mary, mother of Jesus = interesting figure in religious history
      • Mentioned only a handful of times throughout Scripture[2]
        • Vast majority of those times happen during the birth narratives in Mt and Lk
        • Two brief appearances early in Jesus’ ministry
        • Disappears until we see her again at the foot of the cross
      • And yet, despite this sparse Biblical presence, Mary has been a point of fascination and great theological development and debate for millennia.
        • Especially lifted up in Catholicism – veneration began as far back as the 4th CE and was declared doctrine at the Council of Ephesus in 431[3]
        • Quick and simple Amazon search for books on “virgin Mary” = 5333 hits
    • As Protestants, we probably think about Mary, the mother of Jesus more during this time of year than any other. But how often do we really think about the circumstances that Mary was facing?
      • Very young woman (marrying age at that time was early teens)
      • Engaged (probably an arranged marriage at the time)
      • Suddenly visited by an angel and told that she was going to bear the child of God → So Mary was going to be pregnant … and unmarried … at a time when any kind of pre-marital relations was a punishable offense – punishable almost exclusively on the part of women, might I add.
        • Text: The angel said, “Don’t be afraid, Mary. God is honoring you. Look! You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great and he will be called the Son of the Most High. The Lord God will give him the throne of David his father. He will rule of Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.” Then Mary said to the angel, “How will this happen since I haven’t had sexual relations with a man?” The angel replied, “The Holy Spirit will come over you and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. Therefore, the one who is born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son. …” Then Mary said, “I am the Lord’s servant. Let it be with me just as you have said.” Then the angel left her.[4]  → “Joy is not the same as happiness. We can be unhappy about many things, but joy can still be there because it comes from the knowledge of God’s love for us.” What was running through Mary’s head at that moment? What was she unhappy about? What fears and worries plagued her heart? What crucial questions sprang to her mind just after “the angel left her”? We cannot deny that even in all her grace-filled obedience, Mary is put in a truly difficult position here. She was already engaged to Joseph. She most certainly had a life that she had been envisioning – plans and dreams and expectations. And I think we can be sure that a pre-marital baby from God wasn’t a part of those dreams. That was a lot to come crashing down on Mary all in the span of a few seemingly-simple sentences: “You will conceive and give birth to a son, and you will name him Jesus. … The one who is to be born will be holy. He will be called God’s Son.” And yet, in the face of all of that, Mary expresses JOY.
          • Words to Elizabeth: With all my heart I glorify the Lord! In the depths of who I am I rejoice in God my savior. He has looked with favor on the low status of his servant. Look! From now on, everyone will consider me highly favored because the mighty one has done great things for me. Holy is his name. He shows mercy to everyone, from one generation to the next, who honors him as God.[5]
            • Echoes the words of our psalm → ancient words of Hebrew worship with which Mary would have been familiar: When the Lord changed Zion’s circumstances for the better, it was like we had been dreaming. Our mouths were suddenly filled with laughter; our tongues were filled with joyful shouts. It was even said, at that time, among the nations, “The Lord has done great things for them!” Yes, the Lord has done great things for us, and we are overjoyed.[6]
    • Not surprisingly, as I think about Mary and all that she may have been going through, the more recent Christmas song “Mary, Did You Know?” came to mind. [PLAY “Mary, Did You Know?” sung by Pentatonix[7]]  → The song itself is powerful in the way it’s written – the way the music progresses, the strength and haunting quality of the minor key in which it’s written. But while the musicality of the song draws us in, it is the words that catch us and hold us and tug at our hearts – the potent combination of joy and anxiousness that they convey, the questions that I wish I could ask Mary myself. Yes, Mary was told by Gabriel that her child would be called the Son of God. Yes, Mary was told by Gabriel that her son would be “great … He will rule over Jacob’s house forever, and there will be no end to his kingdom.” But did she know …
      • The miracles that Jesus would perform?
      • The healing that would come from his very fingertips?
      • That he would not only be called the Son of God but that he would indeed be God Incarnate?
      • Did she know about the fate that awaited her precious baby boy? The arrest, the mocking and torment, the horrors of the crucifixion, the unimaginable glory of the resurrection? Gabriel didn’t mention anything about the specifics of what Mary was in for raising this Son of the Most High. He simply told her that she would be blessed … and she trusted. She believed. She even rejoiced.
  • End today with a picture of Mary that I want to encourage you to ponder: part of poem “Annunciation” by Denise Leverov

She had been a child who played, ate, slept
like any other child – but unlike others,
wept only for pity, laughed
in joy not triumph.
Compassion and intelligence
fused in her, indivisible.
Called to a destiny more momentous
than any in all of Time,
she did not quail,
only asked
a simple, ‘How can this be?’
and gravely, courteously,
took to heart the angel’s reply,
the astounding ministry she was offered:

to bear in her womb
Infinite wisdom and lightness; to carry
in hidden, finite inwardness,
nine months of Eternity; to contain
in slender vase of being,
the sum of power –
in narrow flesh,
the sum of light.
Then bring to birth,
push out into air, a Man-child
needing, like any other,
milk and love –

but who was God.

This was the moment no one speaks of,
when she could still refuse.

A breath unbreathed,
Spirit,
suspended,
waiting.

 

She did not cry, ‘I cannot. I am not worthy.’
Nor, ‘I have not the strength.’
She did not submit with gritted teeth,
raging, coerced.
Bravest of all humans,
consent illumined her.
The room filled with its light,
the lily glowed in it,
and the iridescent wings.
Consent,
courage unparalleled,
opened her utterly.

Amen.

[1] http://www.spiritualityandpractice.com/books/reviews/excerpts/view/14116.

[2] http://home.earthlink.net/~mysticalrose/marian17.html.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Veneration_of_Mary_in_the_Catholic_Church.

[4] Lk 1:30-35, 38.

[5] Lk 1:46-50.

[6] Ps 126:1-3.

[7] “Mary, Did You Know?” as performed by Pentatonix from the album “That’s Christmas to Me,” RCA Records, 2014.

Sunday’s sermon: Waiting in the Mystery

This sermon is from Dec. 3, 2017. Due to illness (thank you, laryngitis), we had a hymnsing this past Sunday as opposed to a traditional service with a sermon. Hopefully, we’ll be back to our regularly scheduled programming next week! 

waiting mystery

Texts used – Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19; Mark 13:24-37

  • I want to ask you all a question this morning … and yes, you can actually answer it – like – out loud … with your voices. What are some of your favorite Christmas songs? [PAUSE] Okay … and why are they your favorite? [PAUSE] Music and songs evoke powerful memories and emotions in us, don’t they?
    • Music activates many different regions in the brain all at one time – the auditory region (processes sound), the motor region (processes rhythm), and the limbic region (processes emotional response)
      • Hymns/songs are very often used in nursing homes and memory care facilities for those suffering from Alzheimer’s or dementia as a way to reach people who often feel beyond reach → Even people who have lost the ability to convey coherent sentences will still be able to sing along or tap out the rhythm to old familiar songs.
        • Story of Margaret – nursing home resident who could no longer speak but would hum and tap out the rhythm to old, familiar hymns and songs and mouth the words to familiar prayers
    • Holidays and Christmas music are especially prone to this sort of lyrical nostalgia → For whatever reason, Christmas songs almost always bring us back to former times and places, making us smile, laugh, dance, sing, and maybe shed a tear or two.
  • So throughout Advent, we’ll be looking at and listening to some of these favorite Christmas songs, thinking about how they enhance and inform our faith as we wait for the coming of the Christ Child. – key word = “wait” → So many of our “typical” Christmastime activities include busy, hustle-bustle, glitz-and-glitter preparations – decorating houses, baking cooking, wrapping presents, and so on. And those are all wonderful, joyful, fun holiday activities. BUT those are also all activities focused on Christmas itself – on the day 23 days from now. In the cycles and seasons of the church, Advent is a special time – a different kind of time.
    • Time for preparation, yes, but a different kind of preparation → time for intentionally waiting
      • Time for self-examination
      • Time for prayer and reflection
      • Time to pause from all the busyness of the world around us and focus on our thoughts and words and actions in this in-between time
      • Similar to Lent in its attitude of preparation – often called “Little Lent” in Catholic and Eastern Orthodox traditions
      • So throughout Advent, we’re going to be approaching these favorite hymns and songs from the angle of how they help us wait, how they help us prepare not our houses and our trees but our hearts and our souls.
  • Today’s song = O Come, O Come Emmanuel
    • A bit of an odd song for Christmastime
      • Not upbeat, bells-a-jingling sort of Christmas son we’re used to
      • Slow tempo and minor key making it a haunting, pensive, pondering sort of song
      • Includes odd phrases like “ransom captive Israel that mourns in lonely exile here”
    • But in terms of celebrating Advent – this in-between time of waiting and pondering – the message of “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” is crucial because it reminds us what it is that we’re waiting for: the coming of the Christ Child.
  • [LISTEN TO THE SONG – “O COME, O COME EMMANUEL” sung by Penatonix[1]] → powerful song because it speaks to so many aspects of our waiting
    • Speaks to the waiting of the past – the history of faith (story of the Israelites)
    • Speaks to our current waiting – “Rejoice! Rejoice! Emannuel shall come to thee, O Israel”
      • Especially some of the other verses (#116 in black hymnal[2]):
        • 6: O come, O Dayspring, come and cheer our spirits by your Advent here; Love stir within the womb of night and death’s own shadows put to flight.
        • 7: O come, Desire of Nations, bind all people’s in one heart and mind; make envy, strife, and quarrels cease; fill the whole world with heaven’s peace.
    • Speaks to the spirit of our waiting
      • Waiting and pondering
      • Waiting and reflecting
      • Waiting in that haunting, powerful mystery of God coming down to earth not in the form of a mighty and magnificent conqueror but a helpless, vulnerable human child
  • Hear all of this echoed in our Scripture passages this morning, too
    • Ps 80 = call for God to come into our waiting
      • Text: Shepherd of Israel, listen! … Let your hand be with the one on your right side – with the one whom you secured as your own – then we will not turn away from you! Revive us so that we can call on your name.[3]
      • Text: Restore us, God! Make your face shine so that we can be saved![4] (repeated 3 times in just a few short verses)
      • In this passage, we hear the desperate plea of God’s people for God’s presence among them – a presence that saves and protects, that strengthens and lifts up. Even though they acknowledge that there have been hardships – “You’ve fed them bread made of tears; you’ve given them tears to drink three times over! You’ve put us at odds with our neighbors; our enemies make fun of us!”[5] – despite those hardships, they cry out for God’s presence among them. They cry out for Emmanuel, God With Us. “O come, o come, Emmanuel!”
  • Gospel passage = a tough one – not a passage we usually associate with the Christmas season → But again, this is when we have to remember that Advent is a season not just about Dec. 25. Advent is a season about preparing for the coming of Christ, both that first time in a manger … and when Christ comes again.
    • 2nd coming of Christ, final in-breaking of God’s Kingdom here on earth = not something we often talk about in mainline churches
    • Certainly not something we talk about often at Christmastime BECAUSE the whole idea of the 2nd coming has been co-opted by ideas of doom and gloom, of fire and brimstone, of the end of the world and rapture and things like that – not things we want to think about among the glitz and glitter of the holiday season → And when we read our passage from Mark this morning, we can see a glimpse of where that idea comes from – text: In those days, after the suffering of that time, the sun will become dark and the moon won’t give its light. The stars will fall from the sky, and the planets and other heavenly bodies will be shaken. Then they will see the Human One coming in the clouds with great power and splendor.[6]
      • Purpose of this language discussed in our Coffee and Conversation material last week: This language is designed not so much to foretell specific events as to emphasize with mighty language the universal and final import of the end of the present age and the inauguration of the age to come.[7]
        • More light-hearted comparison = the way the boys use “never” for everything → doesn’t actually mean they’ve never had ice cream, just means they haven’t had it for a while, but the language is much more dramatic and attention grabbing
    • So Jesus is trying to grab our attention with all of this apocalyptic imagery. But we have to remember that this imagery is not the end of the passage … it’s just a short beginning! – Jesus’ continued conversation with the disciples: Nobody knows when that day or hour will come, not the angels in heaven and not the Son. Only the Father knows. Watch out! Stay alert! You don’t know when the time is coming. … What I say to you, I say to all: Stay alert![8]
      • Not about what is ending (as is so often emphasized in contemporary end-of-the-world, apocalyptic thinking) but about what is beginning: the kingdom of God on earth – peace, justice, mercy, hope → We believe that Jesus came that first time to teach us about these things – about God’s love for us, about the beauty and everlasting peace of God’s kingdom, about hope and salvation, and to extend God’s immeasurable grace to us. So why, in the face of all that goodness and blessing, would we believe that when he comes again, Christ will bring horror and pain and destruction?
        • Again, Coffee and Conversation material: The emphasis of [this passage] is on being ready to participate in the fulfillment of history; the fullness of what the gospels call the kingdom of God. The message is clear: the priorities of our lives must center around the will of God – justice, love, mercy, forgiveness, life, wholeness, reconciliation, joy. … Until we are consciously aiming our lives toward the promises of God we are not ready to celebrate Christmas.[9]  → That is what Advent is all about. That is what we are preparing ourselves for throughout this season in the life of the church as well as throughout the span of our lives: the fulfillment of the promises of God: justice, love, mercy, forgiveness, life, wholeness, reconciliation, joy. We’re not supposed to know when Christ is coming back. Not even Christ himself knew that! During Advent, we talk a lot about being “people of the promise. And we are. People of the promise of a Savior – a promise of hope and grace and everlasting peace. People of the promise of a Savior who has come, yes, but also of a Savior who will come again to reveal God’s glorious kingdom in ways that we cannot even begin to imagine. We are to wait in the mystery. But beyond that, we are to wait embracing the mystery because each new day gives us the chance to embody God’s love and hope and mercy in this world. Each new day gives us the chance to bring about a new sliver of God’s Kingdom. And so in all our watchful and expectant and mystery-soaked waiting, our spirits sing, “O come, o come, Emmaneul!” Amen.

 

CHARGE: Last nugget from last week’s Coffee and Conversation: The season of Advent which prepares us for Christmas focuses our minds, wills, and hearts not on the “end of the world” but on the beginning of life as God would have it lived – the kingdom in all its fullness, “abundant life.”[10] Friends, as you go from this place, go both looking for that kingdom and looking to be that kingdom.

BENEDICTION:
May starlight guide your steps towards this place of wonder,
May angels sing their news as you travel to the manger,
May promise fill these days as we watch at the edge of birth,
And may faith tell you, Emmanuel will be with us soon, in human skin. Amen.

 

[1] “O Come, O Come Emmanuel” as performed by Pentatonix from the album “PTXMas: Deluxe Edition,” RCA Records, 2014.

[2] “O Come, O Come Emmanuel.” New Century Hymnal. (Cleveland, OH: Pilgrim Press, 1995), hymn #116.

[3] Ps 80:1a, 17-18.

[4] Ps 80:3, 7, 19.

[5] Ps 80:5-6.

[6] Mk 13:24-26.

[7] Carol J. Miller. “Watchful Expectancy” in The Light Will Shine: A Study for Advent – Leader’s Guide. (Pittsburgh, PA: The Kerygma Program, 1999), 6.

[8] Mk 13:32-33, 37.

[9] Carol J. Miller. “Watchful Expectancy” in The Light Will Shine: A Study for Advent – Resource Book. (Pittsburgh, PA: The Kerygma Program, 1999), 5.

[10] Miller, Resource Book, 6.

Sunday’s sermon: Fifth Enemy of Gratitude: Disappointment

disappointment

Texts used – Deuteronomy 34:1-12; 2 Corinthians 4:7-18

  • When I was in 2nd grade, the Disney movie “The Little Mermaid” was all the rage.
    • Watched that movie over and over and over again as a kid
    • Could do the whole movie – dialogue and songs – from start to finish by memory (frankly … I’m fairly certain I still can!)
    • I had lots of Little Mermaid stuff
      • Handheld video game
      • Pajamas
      • Books
      • Coloring books
      • Cheapo little kid jewelry
    • Daycare friends (almost same age) → birthdays that year
      • Jessie’s birthday in October → got a Little Mermaid Barbie
      • Kami and I – birthdays only 4 days apart → celebrated at the same time before Christmas break
        • Kami opened her present first → Little Mermaid Barbie
        • And I was SO EXCITED!!! Jessie got a Barbie. Kami got a Barbie. My daycare lady knew how much we all loved the Little Mermaid, so of course, she’d gotten a Little Mermaid Barbie for me, too! And then I opened my gift. And it wasn’t a Little Mermaid Barbie. It was a Little Mermaid … suitcase. → was about to leave on a road trip with my family to go spend Christmas/my birthday with my grandparents in New York – she thought I could use the suitcase
      • But I was SO DISAPPOINTED. I don’t remember crying then and there. My mom had taught me to be appreciative even when I didn’t like my gift, so I’m sure I smiled and said “thank you” just like I was supposed to. But to this day, I deeply remember how I felt inside: I was just crushed. I didn’t want a suitcase. I wanted a Little Mermaid Barbie, just like my friends.
        • Did I use that Little Mermaid suitcase for a LONG time afterward – long after I’d given up my Barbies? Sure.
        • BUT … did it still bother me every time Kami and Jessie brought their Little Mermaid Barbies to daycare? You bet.
  • Disappointment … our last enemy/obstacle of gratitude.
    • Sermon series so far → been through nostalgia and worry, entitlement and greed
      • Talked about how they get in the way of us experiencing gratitude
      • Talked about how they get in the way of us expressing gratitude
    • And along those lines, disappointment is no different.
      • Disappointment = stifling, smothering sort of emotion → lays on you like a wet, heavy blanket
        • Smothers any excitement
        • Smothers any enthusiasm
        • Smothers any passion
        • Smothers any joy
        • All of those things we need to experience gratitude – all of those pleasant emotions that inspire gratefulness in us – are smothered by disappointment. And when you’re feeling disappointed, even if you know you’re supposed to be grateful … even if there might actually be gratitude buried deep down … it’s very hard to genuinely, convincingly express any gratitude.
  • Israelites in our OT passage for today know all about disappointment = story of the Israelites finally reaching the Promised Land after wandering around in the desert wilderness for 40 years → Now, that sounds like something to celebrate, doesn’t it? Finally reaching the Promised Land sounds like something for which they would be exceedingly grateful! But just getting there isn’t the whole story.
    • Pause for a minute to do a quick refresher of first 5 books of the OT
      • Lev = book of the Law → rules and regulations for the people of Israel – those 613 laws we’ve talked about
      • Gen, Ex, Num, Deut = history
        • Gen = beginning of the story (creation, Abraham, Isaac, etc.)
        • Ex, Num, Deut = accounts of the Israelites in Egypt, the escape from Egypt, and the wandering in the wilderness
          • Not necessarily the same story → These 3 books are sort of like the gospels in that some of the stories line up, but they all flesh out different aspects of the Israelites’ wilderness journey, too.
      • Today’s part of the story comes from Deut BUT necessary background comes from Num
    • Lead up to today’s passage – the Israelites have been complaining to God for the umpteenth time: “If only we had died in the land of Egypt or if only we had died in the desert! … Let’s pick a leader and let’s go back to Egypt.”[1]  → comes after the Israelites actually reach the Promised Land – the land of Canaan – and realize that it’s already occupied and they’re going to have to battle to inhabit the land … And they’re disappointed. More than that, they’re afraid. So the back down before even trying. Instead of saying, “God, thank you for bringing us out of the horrible oppression of Egypt. Thank you for bringing us across the Red Sea on dry land. Thank you for providing for us while we traveled through the desert. Thank you for protecting us,” … instead of saying that, they say, “Nope. Forget this. We’re going back to what’s familiar, no matter how horrible it was.”
    • God’s frustration come out in God’s response – text: None of you who were enlisted and were registered from 20 years old and above, who complained against me, will enter the land in which I promised to settle you … Your bodies will fall in this desert, and your children will be shepherds in the desert for forty years. … This is how you will understand my frustration.”[2]  → So basically all of the Israelites who left Egypt – anyone age 20 or older – will not be allowed to enter the Promised Land because of their constant complaining and unwillingness to trust in God.
      • Gave into their disappointment → allowed it to smother their faith to the point of choosing slavery over trusting God
        • How often do we choose slavery – unhealthy subjegation to things that are detrimental to us (bad habits, poor financial decisions, vices, negative self-talk, complaining, judging, etc.) over trusting God’s goodness/God’s call in our lives?
      • God’s ban on entering the Promised Land even extends to Moses himself (from 1st of Deut, Moses speaking to people after they turned away from the Promised Land): The Lord was even angry with me because of what you did. “You won’t enter the land either,” God said.[3]
    • And so we come to today’s part of the story = the end of that portion of Israel’s history, the death of Moses 40 yrs. later on the very doorstep of the Promised Land – text: Then the Lord said to Moses: “This is the land that I swore to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob when I promised: ‘I will give it to your descendants.’ I have shown it to you with your own eyes; however, you will not cross over into it.” Then Moses, the Lord’s servant, died – right there in the land of Moab, according to the Lord’s command.[4]  → I think we could qualify this as one of the ultimate disappointments in the Bible. This is Moses we’re talking about. This is the man who …
      • Survived infant basket ride down the Nile River to end up at the Pharaoh’s palace
      • Was called by the voice of God in a burning bush
      • Confronted Pharaoh – the most powerful man in the world, at that point – over and over again
      • Called down plagues on the people of Egypt
      • Led the people across the Red Sea on dry ground
      • Received the 10 commandments from God’s own hand
      • This is Moses, one of the bedrocks of the faith. When the people doubted, Moses encouraged their belief. When God was angry with the people, Moses argued for mercy on their behalf. When the people complained, Moses acted as the mediator between them and God, securing quail and manna and water from the rock. And yet, despite all those trials, Moses gets to see the Promised Land … but not go in.
        • Disappointment in the extreme
        • Certainly the kind of disappointment that could dampen faith … or even snuff it out entirely → But here’s the thing: Moses knew this was going to happen long before this moment – 40 years before this! It was no secret that this would be his fate. That pronouncement from God that he would not enter the Promised Land came before they even started wandering for those 40 years in the desert. Moses could have given up. He could have washed his hands of the whole situation – the complaining, the threats, the backpedaling, all of it – and said, “Nope. There’s no reward in this for me. I’m out!” But he didn’t. He stuck with the people of Israel even as they wandered … because he chose to stick with God and God’s call in his life. Moses chose to trust even in the midst of his disappointment – to be grateful for God’s presence among his people and to be grateful for their freedom, difficult and challenging though it may have been.
          • Important lesson: disappointment and gratitude are not mutually exclusive → You can still feel the slight sting of disappointment and be grateful at the same time. The problem comes when we let our disappointment become the only thing that we feel and express.
  • And as we all know, disappointment is a part of life. I don’t know anyone in this entire world who hasn’t been disappointed at one time or another … who hasn’t struggled at one time or another … who hasn’t been challenged at one time or another.
    • Promise we read in Paul’s 2nd letter to the Christians in Corinth: We are experiencing all kinds of trouble, but we aren’t crushed. We are confused, but we aren’t depressed. We are harassed, but we aren’t abandoned. We are knocked down, but we aren’t knocked out.[5]  → And y’all, if this alone was the end of the story, it would be pretty easy to find ourselves awash in disappointment. Trouble … confusion … harassment … knocked down … none of these are things that we want to be or experience. Thankfully, Paul doesn’t stop there.
      • (Paul Harvey) The rest of the story: We always carry Jesus’ death around in our bodies so that Jesus’ life can also be seen in our bodies. … I had faith, and so I spoke. We also have faith, and so we also speak. We do this because we know that the one who raised the Lord Jesus will also raise us with Jesus, and he will bring us into his presence along with you. … Our temporary minor problems are producing an eternal stockpile of glory for us that is beyond all comparison. We don’t focus on the things that can be seen but on the things that can’t be seen. The things that can be seen don’t last, but the things that can’t be seen are eternal.[6]  → Friends, I think this is one of the most powerful passages in the New Testament because it reminds us that we belong to a God of unending grace and mercy – a God whose power is greater than life, greater than death, greater than all the obstacles we can try to put up between us. All of those things that we think disqualify us from the love and consideration of God mean nothing to the One who has called each and every one of us by name.
        • Scholar: What we can do is look for the faith of Moses, perhaps best displayed not in front of the Pharaoh but sitting alone with his God watching the horizon of his life’s work, feeling not resentment but gratitude. What we all need is … to cling to the central claim of our faith: that a grander story is being told. We can rejoice and give thanks for our place in that story, in spite of disappointments we’ve faced along the way.[7]
  • Even in the face of all of those obstacles that we face – nostalgia, worry, entitlement, greed, disappointment, and everything else – we can always be grateful that we do not face those obstacles alone. God journeys with us – encouraging us, guiding us, strengthening us, teaching us.
    • Pitfalls along the way? Sure.
    • Times when we feel totally lost in the moment and can only see God in the looking-back? Absolutely.
    • Moments when we become overwhelmed by our obstacles? Yes.
    • But God is still there. Even when the road is rough, God is still there. Even when the answer to our most desperate plea is “no,” God is still there. God is still there. Reassured in that knowledge, how can we release our disappointment and express our gratitude for what we are doing here and now? Amen.

[1] Num 14:2, 4.

[2] Num 14:29b-30, 32a, 34b.

[3] Deut 1:37.

[4] Deut 34:4-5.

[5] 2 Cor 4:8-9.

[6] 2 Cor 4:10, 13b-14, 17-18.

[7] Brian Erickson. “Fall Series 2: The Enemies of Gratitude – Proper 21: Nostalgia” in A Preacher’s Guide to Lectionary Sermon Series: Thematic Plans for Years A, B, and C. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2016), 73.