Saturday, December 25, 2010

On the Feast of Stephen

Hebrews 2:10-18
Matthew 2:13-23
December 26, 2010
Christmas 1
William G. Carter

On the church’s calendar, December 26 is the Feast of Stephen. Stephen was one of the first deacons of the church. As you may remember from the book of Acts, he was one of the seven people appointed by the church to look in on the needs of the needy, particularly the widows and the poor. He was full of the Holy Spirit and very wise. And he quickly found himself defending the Good News of Christ from the very people who resisted the good news. Stephen became the first martyr of the church, and his Feast Day is a day to remember his faith, his good works, and the ultimate cost that he paid.

That may sound harsh, but we have already had demands placed put on us by the scripture texts. Matthew tells of what happened after the Wise Men departed the manger. King Herod tried to eliminate the newborn King, and Joseph had to take his young family to hide from their enemies. The letter to the Hebrews speaks of Jesus and his sufferings, but with the end that people will be redeemed. As the writer says, “Through death, he might destroy the one who has the power of death … and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death.”

Today is the Feast of Stephen, when we live Christmas forward and reflect on what the birth of Christ requires of us. There is a grand old Christmas carol that will guide our sermon time. It is rooted on the Feast of Stephen, and you will find it printed on the first page of the worship bulletin. Let’s join together and sing the first verse:

Good King Wenceslas looked out
On the feast of Stephen
When the snow lay round about
Deep and crisp and even
Brightly shone the moon that night
Though the frost was cruel
When a poor man came in sight
Gath'ring winter fuel

Wenceslas was born in 907 AD. He was the Duke of Bohemia, and not actually a King. There were nine or ten famous rulers named Wenceslas. Some of them were Slavic kings, but the Wenceslaus in our carol was the earliest of the bunch.

His father was a Christian, but his mother was opposed to Christianity. After Wenceslas’ father died when the boy was thirteen, he was taken by his grandmother and raised as a Christian. His mother was furious about the influence that the grandmother had on Wenceslas, so she arranged to have her murdered when Wenceslas was 14. This, of course, did not endear the boy to his mother, and he continued to pursue his studies of the Christian faith.

About four years later, Wenceslas assumed the throne. One of his first acts was to exile his mother and send her out of the country. He pursued his grandmother’s desire to spread the Gospel among the Slavic people. Today he is honored with a statue on the Charles Bridge in Prague. Wenceslas was a stern but fair ruler. He was widely known for his kindness to the poor, and that what we celebrate in the next three stanzas of the Christmas carol. It is a conversation between the good king and his page – and we will hear them now sing that conversation to one another.

"Hither, page, and stand by me / If thou know'st it, telling
Yonder peasant, who is he? / Where and what his dwelling?"
"Sire, he lives a good league hence / Underneath the mountain
Right against the forest fence / By Saint Agnes' fountain."

"Bring me flesh and bring me wine / Bring me pine logs hither
Thou and I will see him dine / When we bear him thither."
Page and monarch forth they went / Forth they went together
Through the rude wind's wild lament / And the bitter weather

"Sire, the night is darker now / And the wind blows stronger
Fails my heart, I know not how, / I can go no longer."
"Mark my footsteps, my good page / Tread thou in them boldly
Thou shalt find the winter's rage / Freeze thy blood less coldly."

The good saints like Wenceslaus and Stephen invite us to walk in their footsteps. That is why we remember them, mark their lives, and follow their example. The Christmas carol teaches us to care for those who are half-frozen and poor. This is what Wenceslas did. It is what we are called upon to do.

It isn’t easy. Duke Wenceslas discovered that his worst enemy was his own brother Boleslav. He took part in an assassination plot that was organized by rival politicians. In the year 935, Boleslav invited his brother to a religious festival, and then attacked him on the way to worship in the church. Wenceslas was killed when he was 28 years old. His brother soon regretted his own actions. Boleslav pledged to raise his son as a Christian and dedicate him to the priesthood.

Meanwhile, Wenceslas continued to influence the Christian people in Bohemia even after his death. Having died a martyr’s death, he was quickly named a saint of the church. There were numerous legends about good works that were done in his name. Today he is regarded as the patron saint of the Czech Republic. There’s a special legend that even the places where his foot touched down are marked by the warmth of his love. We will walk in his footsteps as we remember his concern for the poor and follow his generous example.

So let us join together in singing the final verse of the carol. Therein lies today’s lesson:

In his master's steps he trod / Where the snow lay dinted
Heat was in the very sod / Which the Saint had printed
Therefore, Christian men, be sure / Wealth or rank possessing
Ye who now will bless the poor / Shall yourselves find blessing.

Merry Christmas!

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Friday, December 24, 2010

It’s For Other People

Luke 2:8-20
Christmas Eve
December 24, 2010
William G. Carter

In that region there were shepherds living in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. Then an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for see — 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."

It was one of those holiday scenes that happen all the time, but is quickly missed. A family of four emerged from the shopping mall, their arms burdened with packages. They were tired but jubilant. Clearly they had everything they wanted. As they come out the door, they pass by a guy in a Santa hat, standing by a red kettle and chiming a bell.

The seven year old son stops in his tracks, turns and looks. His parents pause to retrieve him. The Santa with the bell asks, “Do you wish to help the poor?” The boy nods, but his father has other ideas. “Come on,” he says, “let’s go,” and tugs on the kid’s sleeve.

But suddenly, about ten steps away, the boy breaks free and returns. Fishing down deep in his pocket, he finds two coins and drops them in the kettle. Then he explains to his confused and impatient family, “Christmas is for other people, too.”

I suppose this is hard for us to see. We have been well-trained to believe Christmas is about us: that it is about our wish lists, our families, our decorations and customs. There are Currier and Ives pictures of the perfect Christmas engraved on our minds. We would like to have our loved ones around our tables eating our food and enjoying our generosity. It is hard to think about anybody else.

The other day, I hopped on the shoppers’ bus to Manhattan with one of my daughters. On Times Square, the red kettles were everywhere, attended by jolly elves who sang along with canned music. It some sight to see battery-powered karaoke machines with the imprint, “Property of the Salvation Army.” Most of the tourists passed them by, making their way to visit Macy’s or to catch a show. They were in the city to spend money, not share it. Each little flock trudged along in isolation and indifference.

It is hard to think that Christmas is for other people, too. We are told to indulge ourselves. In one high-end boutique on Fifth Avenue, I spied a nice blue dress shirt. The sign said, “40% off.” So I sneaked a peek at the tag – normal cost for one shirt is $295. Even with the holiday discount, I decided to pass; it was combed cotton, and I would probably shrink it the first time I washed it. As we stepped outside, just a few paces away a blind saxophonist blowing, “I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas.” Somehow I felt compelled to throw five bucks in his instrument case. After all, it is Christmas. Christmas is not for me alone – it’s for him, too.

It is hard to keep this clear, but this is the essence of the story. Jesus is born in a little town with a distant memory and a murky future. The Caesar of that time, Caesar Augustus, had sent armies to occupy the region. Then he decided to tax the occupants so there were funds to pay for his armies. The local authorities set up a system to register each family in their home town, and that’s how Joseph brought his pregnant Mary to Bethlehem. Her son is born in the shadows of a greedy empire.

The news of the birth is announced to shepherds who work the land. We don’t know their names. Apparently they weren’t significant enough to be included in the census. But angels sing the news to them – and nobody else. It is “good news of a great joy for all the people.” For all the people. This little baby is going to rescue people from their isolation. He is going to save them from their indifference. He will heal them from the ways that their own selfishness has broken them.

It is good news for a shepherd. In that time, the city folk considered the sheep-keepers as thieves. They let their flocks graze on lands that were not their own. Even the religious elite decreed that all shepherds were sinners, not permitted to enter the Jerusalem temple until they atoned for every blade of grass that their animals stole from their neighbors. This is, after all, what religious people when they have a lot of time on their hands: they cook up religious rules to separate themselves from the commoners with dirty fingernails.

But the angels sing to the shepherds: “Unto you is born a Savior.” Unto all of you. This is “good news of a great joy for all the people.”

You see, God is on a mission to save the world. That is what Christmas is about. That is why the angels are singing. It is not because the C.E.O. of H. J. Heinz just got an 8.6 million dollar bonus this year. No, it is because God believes that other people matter, too. That God makes each human being with inestimable value. There is peace on earth among those whom God loves – provided, of course, that they share the love. It is the sharing of love that makes it real.

This is what the child Jesus will grow up to teach and exemplify. He gives himself to the world – and commands us to give ourselves to our neighbors. Forgive one another. Share what you have. Feed the hungry. Take care of the weak. Heal what is broken. And never give in to fear.

The fact is there is a lot of fear out there. It can tempt us to hunker down and insulate ourselves. But the angels come and dismiss the gloom of night. Unto you – all of you! A great joy for all the people! For other people. If Christmas this year is sad and dark, it could be because it has become all about you, and not yet about other people. Joy comes by stepping out of ourselves – and giving ourselves to the needs of others.

If we cannot hear the angels, we can listen to Stephen Colbert. About a week ago, with deep irony, he took on the Grinch, Ebenezer Scrooge, and a few self-righteous Christians, and he said, “If this is going to be a Christian nation that doesn't help the poor, either we have to pretend that Jesus is just as selfish as we are or we've got to acknowledge that he commanded us to love the poor and serve the needy without condition ... and then admit that we just don't want to do it." (December 16, 2010)

At the heart of the Gospel is God’s generosity. In the birth of Jesus, God comes for everybody. Christmas is not a private possession of self-absorbed people. Christmas is not the hoarded gift of a frightened church. Christmas is God’s gift to the world, wrapped in swaddling clothes and embodied in Jesus. It is found among people who are learning to cherish one another … to the glory of God.

One of my teachers told me about a missionary to China. His name was Oswald Golter, and he served in China in the 1940’s. He was an agricultural missionary and taught people how to raise crops. When the Communists came, they forced him to leave. So his supporters in America wired him a ticket, and told him to make his way to India to catch a ship home. When he arrived in India, he discovered many Jews were there in dismal poverty. They landed in India because India was one of the few countries in the world that welcomed the Jews after Hitler expelled them from Europe.

Dr. Golter was glad to see them. It was Christmas time and he said, “Merry Christmas!" They said, “But we are Jews.”

“Oh, I know, but Merry Christmas anyway. What would you like for Christmas?” They said, “But we are Jews.”

He said, “Oh, I know. But is there anything you wish you could have for Christmas?” They thought about it and said, “We wish we could taste again some fine German pastries.”

Dr. Golter went all over that city in India and found a shop that sold fine German pastries. He cashed in his ticket home and bought boxes and boxes of pastries. Then he delivered them to the barns and the attics and the sheds where those Jewish people were living and said, “Merry Christmas!” Then he wrote home and said, “Send me another ticket.”

Years later, he told that story to a group of preachers. One of them stood up, his fists clenched, and said, “Why did you do that? Those people aren’t Christians. They don’t believe in Jesus Christ!" Dr. Golter said, "But I do!" (Thanks to Fred Craddock for the story.)

Christmas is for other people, too. Joy to the world … the whole world … your neighbor’s world.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Saturday, December 18, 2010

Three Reasons Why We Shouldn’t Listen to Angels

Matthew 1:18-25
Advent 4
December 19, 2010
William G. Carter

But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Christmas is just under a week away. The trees are decorated. The candles are lit. The carols ring out. And the angels have come. You can’t have Christmas without angels.

The angels are God’s announcers. They stand between us and the Holy of Holies, and they speak on behalf of God. Without the angels making their announcement, Christmas would be just another peasant birth. All anybody would know is that a mother gave birth to her first-born son. But then the angel speaks and we learn a good bit more about the baby.

Angels can look like us. Mark tells of an empty tomb and says, “There was young man.” He sat among the tombs and said “Why are you looking for the living around here?” Strange question from a young man. The book of Genesis says two angels went to visit a man named Lot. He received them as human visitors and gave them something to eat. In the New Testament letter to the Hebrews, the preacher says, “Some have entertained angels without knowing it.” We have every reason to think that some might be among us.

Yet the Bible is also clear: angels are not like us. Angels are not human. They belong to a different order of God’s creatures. They don’t seem bound to time and space like the rest of us. In Bible stories, they have the ability to appear and disappear. Today we learn that angels even can infiltrate our dreams. And they have the ability to terrify mere mortals. The most common response to an angel is fear, which is why most angels begin their speeches by saying, “Don’t be afraid.” And most of the time, it might not do any good. Fear does not evaporate by somebody saying, “Stop fearing.”

So today, I thought what I would do is mention three good reasons why it is risky to listen to angels. That’s what lies beneath of the Gospel lesson. Our text is Joseph’s version of the Christmas story. It is one of the few places where we actually hear something about the carpenter. It offers a three-fold warning why we have to be careful about listening to angels.

Here is the first reason: angels interrupt us. When an angel speaks, your life is going to be interrupted.

Consider Joseph. His life was going in a straight line. He had a calling as a carpenter. It was a highly regarded trade in every village. He was engaged to Mary, and probably had been engaged for a while. Quite possibly it was an arranged marriage, an agreement between two families that the local carpenter’s son would later marry a much younger daughter of the other family. If that doesn’t sound very romantic to you, there are imaginary novels you can read and movies you can watch. But the plain truth is that these were people who lived close to the soil, people whose customs were long-established, people who knew one another and lived quite close to one another. They were not strangers who met in a far-off college town. Their families were deeply invested in their mutual future within that marriage.

But then the news comes: Mary is pregnant. The child is not Joseph’s. Just when Joseph thought he knew what to do, the angel speaks in the middle of a dream. “She will bear a son,” said the angel, “and the child comes from the Holy Spirit.”

I’m sure the angel thought that was an impressive message, and to us, centuries later, it is significant in every way. But it is a disruptive announcement and hard to take at face value.

Technically speaking, every child comes from God. Each baby is a holy gift. What the angel is saying is that Joseph is unnecessary. For the child to be conceived, Joseph is not needed. On the one hand, that is an insult on his masculinity. On the other hand, God is insisting that this particular child must be born.

It is an awkward moment. If Joseph had dreamed of a perfect life, now people will perpetually whisper about him and his lady. If he had hoped for a spotless reputation, now everybody in the village will murmur that Mary and Joseph started the honeymoon a bit early. Life will be interrupted by a child. Even if the child is expected, planned, and wanted, it will be an interruption.

Just watch what happens when a young couple announces their first pregnancy. More experienced parents circle around in celebration. Congratulations float in the air. Then the old duffers turn away, wink at one another, and smile knowingly. It is a grand conspiracy of silence, and the old duffers are overheard to say, “Aren’t we glad to be through all of that?”

Two Clarks Summit professionals announced her first child was on the way. It happened exactly on their schedule. “Everything is going our way,” they exclaimed. There were lulled into thinking that the planets circled around them. And when the baby arrived, it was a new reality. That baby took a lot of work. Strange hours. Yucky-looking food. Disgusting diapers. Inconvenient illnesses. Extra expenses. Guilt that they weren’t present enough. And then the day after the mother went back to work, she was scheduled to make a presentation before the top management. She reached into the pocket of her blazer to pull out a baggie of mildewed Cheerios.

“Joseph,” said the angel, “Mary is pregnant. The Holy Spirit is giving her a baby.” The announcement came early. Joseph was not ready for it. God spoke through the angel and interrupted everything he wanted and expected. If you wish to live a perfect, calculated life, safe from every act of God, I would recommend that you pay no attention to angels.

That brings us to a second warning: be careful of listening to angels, because angels push us off the page.

The Bible offers a long record of how God gets involved in people’s lives. There are plenty of stories about unexpected pregnancies. In her old age, Sarah gives birth to Isaac. In her barrenness, Rachel is surprised with a son. In her disgrace, Hannah makes a deal to hand over to God her first-born son, if only God gives her that child. And ancient Elizabeth discovers her old husband Zechariah, a temple priest near the end of his career, finally has the ability to produce a child.

In this sense, Mary is in a venerable Biblical tradition of God’s surprising birth announcements. But she is also different – for she and Joseph are not yet married. The Bible had words about that situation, as well. What does the Bible say? It says Deuteronomy 22: “She is to be taken out and stoned to death in front of the people.” Any question? That is the rule, when a man discovers his fiancĂ©e is pregnant by somebody other than him.

For a lot of people, clear rules give great comfort. Everything is fixed and settled. Nothing is left for discussion or debate. Just open the book and follow the rules . . . except that we have a clue here that Joseph is struggling to merely follow the rules. Matthew tells us a few things about him. Joseph is a tzadik – a “righteous man.” That means he takes the scriptures seriously. But we are also told he is “unwilling to expose Mary to public disgrace” and “planned to dismiss her quietly.” That is, he is going to take a softer, more compassionate approach to the ancient rules of Deuteronomy.

But then the angel speaks and says, “Joseph, take Mary as your wife.” Even though the rule in the Bible said, “Get rid of her,” there is a higher authority than the rules. And that is the authority of the One who makes the rules.

Now, this is hard for a lot of people to understand. They read the Bible. They find direction and purpose for their lives. They trust that the world is ordered in the ways that the Bible describes. They love the commandments: “No idolatry,” “No murder,” “No coveting.” No – no – no. But then something happens, something indescribable, something spiritual – and it scares them because it’s not on the page.

It came up often in the ministry of Jesus. The Bible said, “Don’t touch a leper” – and Jesus touched a leper and healed him. The Bible said, “Don’t associate with sinners” – and Jesus invited himself to share meals with them. The Bible said, “Stop work on the Sabbath” – and Jesus labored tirelessly to preach, teach, and heal on the Sabbath. Maybe he picked up this attitude from Joseph and how Joseph treated his own mother.

As somebody notes,

“Joseph is a good man… He loves his Bible and he knows his Bible... But he reads his Bible through a certain kind of lens, the lens of the character and nature of a God who is loving and kind. Therefore he says, “I will not harm her, abuse her, expose her, shame her, ridicule her, or demean her value, her dignity, or her worth. I will protect her.” Where does it say that, Joseph? It says that in the very nature and character of God.”

He was leaning in this direction, because he was a good man. But the angel appeared in his dream and pushed his compassion even further. That is to say, if you prefer a flat obedience, a life of inflexible rules, be cautious of listening to an angel.

This brings us to the third warning: Be wary of listening to an angel, because angels call us to make commitments and keep them.

Now, I wish to sift out any casual notions that Joseph was merely being a nice guy. We have been trained to think of him as a benevolent character on the front of a Christmas card, standing silently. No, the call of God upon his life was greater than that. He was interrupted by the announcement of a baby that was not his. His view of scripture and the moral law was filtered by the love and compassion of God. Now the angel invites him to keep his engagement, to stand by his betrothed, to forgive the intrusion of God upon her womb, and to raise Mary’s child as if it is his own.

I cannot imagine anything more difficult. I have known plenty of people who prefer a lofty aesthetic, an ambiguous piety. They talk about faith in general. They discuss endlessly this idea and that. They love the decorations of Christmas, the poinsettias, the perfumed music, the high drama, the beautiful art. But ask them to pin it down and they disappear.

The angel says, “Take Mary as your wife. Take her child as your own.” Do you know what that means? It means to dig in where you are. Trust the love you have for others. Take care of the persons God has put in your life. Welcome them as holy gifts, in all their specificity – even if it means handling dirty diapers, consoling those who cry in the night, and committing all your resources for their food and safety.

There’s a woman I know. She gave birth to two boys of her own. When they were mostly raised, she agreed to take in a foster child, an infant. She fed the baby, held her close, asked her sons not feel jealous. She has since taken in a number of foster children, all of them infants, many with profound needs. Most of them, she handed back to their parents when the time was right. She has cared for those, and begun their lives by surrounding them with the care and attention they needed. “It’s what I had to do,” she said. “And with each one, my ability to love grows even greater.”

The angel said to Joseph, “Raise the child as your own.” Take care of him. Give him a home. Instruct him in the carpenter shop. Teach him how to love God. These were the specifics of his assignment.

Today I think of Joseph. He could have lived the insulated life, the inflexible obedience, the ambiguous piety. He might have coasted along for years, uninterrupted and unaffected. Instead he listened to an angel who spoke to him in a dream, and he took Mary for his wife. He made a home for an unexpected baby named Emmanuel, God-with-us. It turned his future upside-down. Ours too.

I’m OK with that. How about you?

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Looking in the Wrong Places

Matthew 11:2-11
Advent 3
December 12, 2010
William G. Carter

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

Years ago in a Christmas pageant, I discovered once again a little-known truth about God. The shepherds stood in their tinsel halos, surrounding the Holy Family. A couple of them were fidgeting. One waved to her grandmother, another elbowed his neighbor for a better view. Yet on cue, they sang the verses of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

Maybe it was the commotion of the pageant. Or perhaps the timeliness of the occasion. But I heard one of the truth about God in one of the verses of the carol: “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. And God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear can hear his coming . . .” That is the truth: God gives in silence and nobody can hear it.

It was an ironic moment, because that Christmas pageant was not silent at all. I have never heard of a Christmas pageant that was ever silent. For that matter, does Christmas ever come silently? There is so much hustle, bustle, and commotion. The economy is shaken awake by shoppers. The clatter is everywhere. As Frederick Buechner once complained, “The lovely old carols (are) played and replayed ‘til their effect is like dentist’s drill or a jack hammer.” In some places, even “Silent Night” is played very loudly.

Remember the Grinch, up on his mountain above Whoville? His greatest protest about Christmas is “the noise, noise, noise, noise.” Christmas can be very noisy, especially if you’re not in the mood for it this year.

By contrast, when God comes, “how silently, how silently . . . no ear can hear his coming.”

I wonder about the silence. Specifically I wonder why God is so quiet. To hear some people talk about faith, God is not quiet at all. God blows a trumpet, smashes the cymbals, and announces the good news with seventy-six trombones. In some kinds of Christian churches, if there is any common denominator, it is the chatter. People give their testimonies as if they saw Jesus at the car wash or the grocery store. They go on Christian TV stations in Tennessee and speak of how the Holy Spirit has been instructing them to talk to other people. For a brief time, I lived near a Christian book store. You couldn’t go in there without some Christian trying to convert from the kind of Christian you were to the kind of Christian they think you ought to be. Chatter, chatter, chatter.

If I scrape away all the promotional talk, my actual experience of God is more like the Christmas carol: “how silently, how silently . . . no ear can hear his coming.” And I need to tell you that I have great sympathy for John the Baptist. He sends a message to Jesus to ask, “Are you the One who is to come? Are you the One or should we look for another?” Apparently whatever Jesus was saying and doing was much too quiet to convince John that the Messiah had come.

Now we remember John the Baptist as a noisy preacher. He was noisy. He had a loud voice. He preached fierce sermons. He screamed at the pious people who came to hear him speak. Then if they came forward, he held them under the river for a good, long time. John knew the Messiah was coming, that the Messiah would burn away sins with unquenchable fire. He knew the Messiah would singe people with his Holy Presence and straighten out their lives.

John the Baptist was a noisy preacher. It was his loud voice that got him thrown into prison. He mouthed off to King Herod, and publicly called him an adulterer. Everybody knew the king was immoral, but John the Baptist actually said it. Back then, politicians paid attention to the preachers. Herod threw him into a dungeon. According to one account, he still liked to hear John preach - as long as he was chained up and out of sight. John was known by his loud voice.

But for some reason, John grew disappointed with Jesus. Jesus isn’t busy enough, or Jesus isn’t obvious enough, or – most probably – Jesus isn’t loud enough. So he mouths off from the dungeon: “Are you the One? Are you really the Messiah? Are you the One that I’ve been telling everybody about? Or should we start looking for somebody else?”

I can understand this. My greatest difficulty with God is his hiddenness. I experience a God who is not obvious and does not make a lot of noise. A friend loses a job and I pray, “God, give him a job!” And there is no job; just a lot of silence. People that I love bury a child and I pray, “God, this isn’t right, make it better.” And we wait, and we wait, and it still hurts. A good man gets a bad diagnosis; he has lived an exemplary life and now he’s sick. I pray, “Lord, you are the Good Physician. Lord, in your goodness, make him well!” And there is silence and the cold wind begins to howl.

I wish it didn’t have to be that way. I wish God would do whatever I wanted God to do. I wish God would speak up on demand. I wish God took orders from me. And then I noticed – whenever I tell God what to do, it gets really, really quiet.

Just imagine John the Baptist, the greatest preacher of his day. John spoke up about the king, called him out as a two-timer. John was correct about that, and his good deed did not go unpunished. The first couple of weeks in prison, he probably felt pretty smug. He said to himself, “Self, I did the right thing. I spoke up for righteousness in an unrighteous world.” And if you know you did the right thing, you can (at least) take some comfort in your right-ness, especially as you wait for the Messiah to finally come and make everything right, especially when you know that the Messiah has already sneaked into town.

But as time passes, doubt creeps in. Is he really here? Is Jesus the Messiah? Is he really the Messiah? That’s what John wants to know. And I cannot fault him for that.

We would love for God to be more obvious. We want God to give us the old razzle-dazzle, to impress us with feats that are scientifically impossible. Wouldn’t it be great if God could cure the cancer, reverse the aging process, and compel our kids to call us every day? Wouldn’t it be beautiful for God to autograph every sunset, to feed every starving child, to bring balance to every chaotic mind? Can you imagine if God could wave the divine arms and suddenly every gun would stop firing, every greedy person would share, every lion would sing Christmas carols with every lamb? Wouldn’t it be great if the Messiah would come?

As somebody has said about our passage, “There is always enough misery in the world to believe the Messiah will come. There is always enough misery in the world to believe that the Messiah has not yet come.” (Fred Craddock) The point is this: if I believe he is still coming, I can imagine the Messiah to be whatever I want. What I might miss is what he actually is, and where he actually is working.

Maybe you saw the last issue of National Geographic. It featured a big story about King David. David was the greatest of Israel’s kings. He consolidated the monarchy, he built up Jerusalem, and he raised the nation of Israel to great wealth and prominence. Well, maybe. Now the archeologists aren’t so sure. According to the excavations, Israel was not so big, and David was not so tall. Some are wondering: was King David really so great, or was the truth more likely that the people wanted King David to be great? It’s hard to tell.

There is a gap between what we expect and what we receive. Expect the big Christmas gift; and when it comes, it’s not so big. Expect the Messiah to come and make everything right; and then Jesus appears, a peasant with a smudge on his cheek and splinters in his hands. Is this what we wanted? Is this what God sent us?

And he’s so quiet. Not that he has nothing to say; no, he has plenty to say. But it takes some work to understand him. Jesus speaks in parables and the points are not obvious. He sticks to the small towns when he could go to the city and make a bigger impact. He doesn’t spend a lot of time with the movers and the shakers, with the people of great influence. No, he wanders out into the fields and considers the lilies. And he never seems to be in much of a hurry. Ever notice that?

Do you suppose one of the reasons why we make so much noise at Christmas is because we don’t know what to do with the peaceful, slow silence of God? So we fill it with a lot of words. We make a lot of assurances. We sing a lot of songs. We spend a lot of money. We make ourselves busier than every other time of the year. Somehow we think we can outrun the silence, rather than allow to catch up to us and fill us.

After all, we remember what the rest of the Christmas carol says: “How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given. So God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven. No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where meek souls will receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”

The Messiah comes, but not with a lot of noise. He speaks but you have to lean forward to hear what he is saying. Recently I found myself in a bumpy time. My prayers were full of babbling, and I mustered up the courage to pray, “Lord, where are you? What are you doing? Why aren’t you here?”

I thought I heard something, so I leaned forward and asked again. “Where are you? What are you doing? Why aren’t you here?” I heard something that sounded like a whisper. The Voice was very soft.

I said, “Lord, I really expect you to do something. Why aren’t you doing something?” And a Voice whispered, “Because it’s not your turn. I will get to you, but I work with one at a time.”

It rings true to the scriptures. There are lots of stories about Jesus, how he heals, how he cures. But he never stands in front of a crowd, waves his hands, and instantly cures everybody. No, he blesses one, and blesses another, then blesses a third. And he doesn’t start with the famous people, so that love trickles down from more important places. He doesn’t go to the obvious places to do the obvious things. No, he takes whoever he meets, one at a time. That’s why he says to John’s disciples, “Tell your preacher what you see . . .”

“The blind receive their sight…” One day as Jesus traveled, two blind people followed him, stumbling over stones, crying out for mercy. They caught up with him at a house and he said, “Do you think I can do this?” They said, “Yes, Lord.” With that, instantly they could see and he said, “Don’t tell anybody.” And they wrote it down in the Bible (9:27-31).

“The lame walk…” A Roman centurion said to Jesus, “I have a servant who is lying down paralyzed. Say the word and he will walk. And Jesus said the word, the man got up to walk (8:5-13).

“The lepers are cleansed…” Jesus came down from teaching on the mountain, and a leper came near and fell to his knees. “If you choose,” said the leper, “you can cleanse me.” Jesus stretched his hand, touched him, and said, “I choose; be clean,” and the man was clean. Jesus said, “Keep this quiet,” and Matthew wrote it down (8:1-4).

“The deaf hear…” Something had gotten into a man who could not speak. His world was silenced. His tongue was stuck, his ears were clogged, until Jesus opened him up (9:32-33).

“The dead are raised...” A synagogue ruler found Jesus to say, “My little girl has died; would you place your blessing upon her?” Jesus followed him home, chased away the mourners, and lifted her alive. (9:18-26)

“The poor have good news brought to them…” Biblically speaking, if you don’t have the means to make yourself well, you are poor. If you cannot save yourself, that is your poverty. Yet Jesus makes his way to you. He announces that you are precious, you are not lost, your cause is not forgotten. He will get to you.

Don’t look for the Messiah among the high and mighty. Don’t look for him among the satisfied and the self-sufficient. His mission field has always been the same: the blind, the lame, the leper, the deaf, the dead, and the poor. For the Messiah, they are all in a day’s work. According to Matthew and his stories, they may be wealthy or impoverished. Some are well-connected, others are disconnected. Not one of them needs to be named, yet he knows each and every one. And he stays with them quietly until they are healed.

Tell this to John the Baptist. The Messiah is among us and he stays busy. His work will not be flashy. He will not draw a lot of attention to himself, except as people see him where he really is. Without any fanfare, regardless of whether anybody actually notices, the Messiah comes to one person at a time, restoring and curing them out of the grace of God.

“How silently, how silently, the wondrous gift is given . . .” This is the promise of Advent and Christmas. The Messiah comes, but faith pushes us to lean forward, to listen carefully, to watch and wait for him to come where he is needed most. Because the Christmas carol is true: “No ear can hear his coming, but in this world of sin, where dear souls receive him still, the dear Christ enters in.”

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

Sunday, December 5, 2010

Missing the Kingdom of Heaven

Matthew 3:1-12
Advent 2
December 5, 2010
William G. Carter

“I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

John the Baptist is an awkward character for Advent. He usually shows up at this time of year to splash some cold water on our Christmas preparations.

While the shopping mall cranks up the carols before the Halloween candy goes stale, John stands up on a desert rock to shout “Repent!” At a time when people survey the catalogs and pick out nice clothes for loved ones and themselves, John simply wears the same garb – the skin of a camel, fleas and all. He will not RSVP for holiday parties. He probably won’t send a thank-you note if you send him a gift. He will sing carols at your front door.

If you want to see him, you have to travel to where he is, out in the austere desert somewhere southwest of Jericho. People speculate about him and wonder where he comes from. That’s easy: his father was an old man, a priest in Jerusalem. John takes his religion outdoors. He preaches to the snakes, both reptile and human. He has one sermon. It is very brief: “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And all kinds of people go to hear him.

They take a bus of tourists out to see him. The road is dusty and the air conditioning doesn’t work. The fat people get off the bus, cameras around their necks. The host minister leads them in a brief prayer, and then explains that John is something of a throw-back. “He’s the last prophet of the Old Testament,” explains the minister. “Dresses like Elijah, eats like Elisha. Takes no prisoners whenever he preaches.”

The little band of tourists traipses around a large rock, looks for a place to sit, and there is no place to sit. It’s just as well. John sees them, screams at them, and condemns them for wasting money on a bus when they can walk. One of them says, “I’m glad we don’t have a preacher like him.” Pretty soon, their hair is blown backwards. So they leave to find a nice store with olive wood souvenirs.

As they leave, they pass some religious leaders on a retreat. These guys are easy to spot in their formal gowns. They have taken off time for the weekend, and gone reluctantly to hear this preacher. A few of the more-than-usually-stuffy ones are concerned about John’s rhetoric. He is preaching without a license, teaching without certification. That concerns them.

The rest of them wonder why so many people are slipping out of town to go hear John preach. They are curious. What is the attraction? What does he say? Why are so many people going to hear him? Well, they never find out. When John sees them, he picks up a rock and hurls it at them. Then he screams, “Go back to the fires of hell where you came from!” With that, he spins around and walks away.

What is the attraction of this man? Why do the Gospel writers want us to see him?

It’s not so simple to claim that John is preaching against the establishment. There is no evidence that he is taking on organized religion. He speaks of the same God. He speaks of the same Kingdom. Everybody agrees that John is grounded in the same scriptures as everybody else in Israel. “This is the one,” says Matthew, “who embodies the very promise of Isaiah – he is a ‘voice hollering in the wilderness.’ This is the one who prepares us for the way of the Lord.”

John makes that hope concrete. “There is somebody coming who is greater than me. I splash you with water, but he shall burn you with Holy Spirit. He will take a big hooked fork and separate the grains of wheat from the lifeless stalks. Then he will burn that chaff with unquenchable fire.”

You know, given the choice, I think I’d prefer John the Baptist to the One he’s talking about. With John, you get your hair blown back by a sermon and then you get wet. But to hear him speak of Jesus – John makes it sound like Jesus is going to change us.

For what does John say? “Even now the axe is swinging at the root of the tree, and the fruitless tree will be thrown into the fire.” John doesn’t have an axe – all he has is a sermon. And he points toward Jesus as the one who separates the fruitful from the dead.

Then John says, “You can’t say ‘leave me alone, I come from a good family.’” The Kingdom of God is not a status system where some people are better than others, where some people are better connected than others, where some people act more pious than everybody else. People enter only one at a time. Either they come to God, having turned away from everything else. Or they will be exposed as selfish and manipulative, trying to scam God and prove they are better than they really are.

John’s point is well taken. We cannot come to God, flash our passing report cards, and assume that we are good enough on our own to enter a kingdom that does not begin or end with us. Something else is needed. Something like faith, hope, and love.

God plants faith as a small seed in our hearts and then waits to see if it grows. Will the seed of faith grow to take over the work we do? Will it determine the ways we spend our time and our resources?

God announces hope; it’s not a hope in our own striving, not a hope in our own achievements – but rather, a hope that history is moving somewhere, a hope that God will finish everything once began, that God will transform all things with grace.

And then God surrounds us with love: there was love before we were born, there is love all around us. Every day, God comes to us as love. Then God watches to see if that love is actually shared. Are neighbors enriched by our love? Are the little ones protected? Are the hungry fed? In the ways we live and give, is there any evidence that we have been loved?

I used to think that John the Baptist was the harsh one, the demanding one. This time through the text, I realize he is pointing to Jesus. What does he say about the One who comes? Jesus will swing the axe, carry the winnowing fork, clear the threshing floor, and throw the chaff into the fire . . . Jesus is the One who will change us. Either he will make us more loving (and therefore more holy), or he will have little use for us (which would make us expendable).

The text for today is more about Jesus than it is about John. John takes his bony finger and points to a Savior who really can save us. He can save us from superficial religion that aims to merely make us feel good. He can save us from the presumption that sitting in church is all it takes to be a Christian. He can save us from ourselves and all the stupid things we do; if we hand ourselves over to him, he will not only rinse us clean, but burn away all our destructive urges.

Jesus can change us, save us, but he will not do it cheaply. Just as it once cost him his life, it’s going to cost us everything. He will do surgery on our souls, and it will take away our reputations. It will reduce us to becoming dependent, humble, and completely available. All our arrogance will need to be amputated. The path of healing will take a while, especially if it’s going to last. Yet this is the only way to keep us from missing the kingdom of heaven.

We have a God who not only wishes to untangle our crooked paths but expects us to be honest about them. This is the kind of Advent God who comes to us in Jesus. It’s the kind of God that John knows – a God with the power to raise us up from dead and lifeless stones, a God who makes us a tribe of children who hunger and thirst for the world to be healed.

Such healing will not come cheaply. We remember that, as we come to this Table and taste broken bread and the poured-out cup. And we hear the promise once again: healing can come; it can come for those who want it more than anything else.

Is this what you want?

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved