Saturday, December 31, 2016

Putting Herod on Notice

Matthew 2:13-23                                          
Christmas 1
January 1, 2017
William G. Carter

I’ve been slow in getting out some Christmas cards. But here is a brief note that I included in a card that will go out tomorrow morning.

Merry Christmas, King Herod!

I may be the first to ever send you such greetings, and I do so with the best of intentions. This is our festive holiday, a twelve-day season marked by bright lights, happy gatherings, and glad songs. The Christian church pulls out all the stops to celebrate the birth of our new king, Jesus. And we know that this is an event that confuses you.

It confuses a lot of people. We get that. Some folks decorate their homes with generous splashes of red and green, and they eat too much, and drink too much, and spend too much, and generally wear themselves out.  But among the Christians, there is a simplicity and joy to the merry-making. The Christians are generous in giving gifts to loved ones and friends. They make large donations to support their churches and the charities that extend the works of God. They make every effort to worship together and to tell people how much they are loved.

So in that spirit, I wish you a Merry Christmas.

No doubt you knew it was coming. The strange Persians who studied the stars found their way to the castle door. You welcomed them and inquired of their journey. You called in the Bible experts to ask where the Messiah would be born. Then you sent along the Persians to locate the child and notify you of his location.

But that’s where it all seemed to go badly. Although they did not know of your, shall we say, unfavorable reputation, for some reason they did not trust you. And then, as has happened so many times before, you fell off your throne in a jealous rage. You really didn’t need to send out your murderous soldiers, especially to the children of Bethlehem. Violence is always the strategy of a fallen empire. Prophets like Jeremiah have been telling us that for centuries.

Nevertheless, I wish you a Merry Christmas.

Clearly you do not comprehend this new king. He rules with his words, as you do. But he does so differently. You speak an order and expect it to happen immediately. He speaks the truth and waits on us to respond in obedience. You punish and destroy the person who disobeys you, but his fierceness is revealed in his grace.

You declare orders like, “Find that child and destroy the threat to my throne.” He says, “Blessed are the merciful for they shall receive mercy.” (Matthew 5:7)

You say, “Annex that region and add it to my dominion.” He says, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you.” (Matthew 5:42)

Everybody knows he is a different sort of king that you’ve ever known. He is the king that we have always wanted. So again I say, “Merry Christmas, King Herod.”

It is a Merry Christmas because the sovereignty of the new king Jesus is shown in his love. Love is the power at the heart of the universe, the glue that holds everything together. Love is the magnetism that binds people in relationships, and consoles them when relationships are torn apart. Love is the propulsion that sends us to serve those in need, and it comes from Jesus, the new king. He is the One who reveals that heaven loves earth.

King Herod, I’m sure that somewhere within your dark soul, that notion of love is as appealing to you as it is for every person. You’ve been looking for love in all the wrong places. You have been married ten times, and never happily. You’ve also pinched a few others on the side. Your marriage to Mariamne was a particularly bad idea, but it was an even worse idea to murder her and her son. No wonder her mother declared you were mentally unfit to serve as the king.

I have to believe, King Herod, that your family reunions were also terrible disasters. It wouldn’t have helped that you eliminated at least three of your sons whom you suspected of sedition. Even Caesar Augustus up in Rome made fun of you, stating, “It would be safer to be Herod’s pig than to be his own child.” So there’s no way that I’m going to tell my congregation to look up your household records in the historical archives. I tried to do that and got very confused.

So I have to wish you a Merry Christmas. It’s our prophetic word to you, offering an alternative to how life has gone for you. Your family life, like your political life, is a sad account of human wreckage. You represent every despicable despot who has slithered up from the dregs of human history. Thanks to you, we are not surprised whenever we see the depths of sin and the damage it can cause. And we are reminded of the kind of world where God has sent the Christ child.

Merry Christmas, King Herod. Your days are numbered. At this point in your life, you are a weathered old man, nearly seventy years old, but looking a whole lot worse. Your physical health has not been good. Psychologists in our own day have diagnosed you with mental health issues, including profound narcissism, paranoia, violent tendencies, and chronic depression.

Of course, you’ve told yourself how successful you are, that you are “the greatest builder in Israel’s history,” and there is some truth to that. A lot of the tourist sites in Israel are places that you built. You have built yourself a big tomb about three miles from Bethlehem. But you have some serious issues, sir. In your last will and testament, you command that important people be brought to your funeral and then slaughtered, so that there would be some authentic grieving at your passing. Fortunately your survivors will not honor those wishes.

And here’s the truth: when you die, which you shall certainly do soon, you shall stand before the New King, the very One that you tried to eliminate. You will have to make an account of horrible, destructive things that you have done throughout your life: every person you have plundered, every life you destroyed, every act of greed and violence that you committed. Maybe for the first time you will discover that you could have lived a different way.

Merry Christmas, King Herod. The Christian church is delighted to announce to the world that the future does not belong to you. It does not belong to boorish, self-indulgent kings who would claw their way to the top. The future does not belong to obnoxious despots who take credit for everything and take responsibility for nothing.  

No, the future belongs to the new king Jesus. The world has always belonged to him, but it must wake up from its dark nightmare and affirm that we live by his truth and grace. Some of us have already stirred from our sleep. As the New Year begins, we will try to live by the dawn of a brand new day.

So Merry Christmas, King Herod. Your time is running out and you will be forgotten. Nobody needs your cruelty. Nobody enjoys your violent temper. Nobody wants a king who is in the game only for himself. We will take Jesus, thank you very much. We will love him with our minds, guard him in our hearts, and follow him in his steps, because there really is no other way to be completely alive.

Merry Christmas. 

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Sunday, December 25, 2016

Make It Real: A Christmas Day Meditation

John 1:1-14
December 25, 2016
William G. Carter

I had an idea. Nothing came of it.
Not the first or last time that has happened!

It was a recurring idea. It kept coming back
I gave it some thought, wondered what to do with it,
even wrote down a step-by-step “to do” list.
But the idea stalled, sputtered, and stopped.
As ideas go, it never grew legs.

God had an idea
In God’s good humor, the Lord said, “Let there be . . .”
And you can fill in the blank:
Let there be light, let there be sky, let there be water, let there be acorns, let there be the platypus,
so on and so forth.
But on the sixth day of creation, God said, “Let there be us…”
Not me, not you – us.
“Us” signifies a community, a multiplicity of folks.
And “us” signifies a relationship between heaven and earth.

It is a relationship that has been strained many, many times, mostly by earth.
But Christmas means that God will establish this relationship, once and for all.
That’s the Big Idea.
Call it “the organizing principle,” “the rational center,” “the emotional heart of the matter.”
Call it what you want.
John, the Gospel writer, calls it “Logos”
Logos signifies Word, but more than word.
It is Intellectual concept, but more than concept.
True north, but aimed in all directions.
So let’s call it “the Idea.”  The Big Idea.

Where do you get your ideas?
Some of them come in dreams, as problems to be solved.
A few weeks ago, I was out with some musical friends,
playing, “Chestnuts roasting on an open fire.”
It is a deceptively tricky tune,
Or at least that’s what I said when I goofed it up.
That night I went to sleep and dreamed all the correct chord changes.
Why, the very Idea –
It was there all along, waiting to be found.

Where do you get your ideas?
Sometimes they come as explosions of inspiration.
I can’t tell you how many sermons have come to me when I’m in the shower.
Put a squirt of shampoo on my hair and lather up,
And then – whew! – the whole thing emerges
from the hard work of reflection and study.
There I am, with nothing to write it down.

Where do you get your ideas?
Sometimes they come from the hot cauldron of emotion.
Some event causes us to simmer and then boil, and a new idea bubbles up.
It’s probably an idea that needs to be tested and certainly should cool off.
Did you know that after President Abraham Lincoln died,
they found a trunk full of his unsent angry letters?
Lincoln wrote them when he was hot, then decided otherwise.
Some ideas are not worth pursuing.

Where do you get your ideas?
Sometimes they come as you begin to develop skills,
And then you perceive possibilities.
So my wife was talking to a man who runs a woodshop.
She goes over on her lunch break and he shows her how to use some tools.
Whoosh, the Idea comes. In her case, it keeps coming.
So far she has made us a dining room table, a head board for the bed,
and a table behind the couch where she can stash balls of yarn.
She didn’t know she could do that, until she started.

Where does anybody get their ideas?
Where does God get the idea, the Big Idea,
the grand notion of heaven and earth being united?
The seeds of it were there from the beginning.
It became a problem to be solved.
The emotion that prompted it had to be reconciled with logic.

Most of all, the Notion has to become an Action.
For it’s no good for an Idea to remain a mere Idea.
It needs arms and legs and feet to move.
It needs a tongue to bless and correct and rejoice.
It needs a body to embrace.
And it needs to persist, so that even if the Idea is killed,
it will crawl up out of the grave and show you how alive it has always been.

And God’s Big Idea took flesh and lived among us. It must always take flesh.
As one poet says, “Clay is molded, stone is sculptured, words are written on a page, paint is splashed on a canvas, notes are penned on the music score.”
And to what end?
“Mozart’s music is performed and my spine tingles. I see the Mona Lisa and feel liberated. I read Les Miserables and Jean Valjean creates compassion in me. This is the Spirit – Jesus who lived becomes the living Christ.”[1]

So what’s the Big Idea?
That today, heaven and earth sing together, as it was intended from the beginning.
Christ is born, God is here.
Let the Word take flesh in us again!

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Kent Ira Groff, Active Spirituality (Alban Institute, 1994) 196.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

It's For You

Luke 2:8-20
Christmas Eve
December 24, 2016
William G. Carter

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. This will be a sign for you: you will find a child wrapped in bands of cloth and lying in a manger.”

Here is a slice of human experience that you may have seen. It’s the family gathering. Cookies and sweets are on the table. The fireplace is blazing. Three young children are on the floor, ripping open wrapping paper and squealing as they discover each new gift.

Standing off to the side, almost in the shadows, is Uncle John. He smiles broadly as he watches the kids. He takes another sip from his beverage and chats with his brother-in-law. As the party winds up, everybody begins to put on their coats and say goodbye. The children are tired. One of them is loaded down with gifts. Everybody has something from the gift exchange.

“Oh, John,” somebody says, “I just realized you didn’t receive any gifts. I’m so sorry. How could that happen?” John says, “Oh, it’s nothing.”

Another says, “What? John, you can’t leave empty-handed. Here, I got two scarves. Why don’t you take one?” John says, “No, that’s fine. I enjoyed watching everybody else, especially the kids. That’s all I needed tonight.”

“But John, you were so generous with everybody else. Can’t we send something home with you? Here’s some kielbasa and some unopened cheese.” “Thanks,” says John, “but Christmas is for all of you. That’s what gives me joy.”

At this, his niece grabs him by the waist and declares emphatically, “But Uncle John, Christmas is for you too.”

In spite of all our happy songs and good wishes, there are some people who may feel left out tonight. They watch with a distant smile, taking some small pleasure in the joy of others. But there’s something missing. Maybe they feel like they’ve been missed.

It happens more than the slim majority realizes. The far-off soldier hasn’t had any mail for a while. The woman who was hired as “seasonal help” is given her notice and not much else. The daughter who hasn’t spoken with her father for twenty years wonders if this is the year. The freshly-divorced man opens a small package from his young children. It’s a set of salt and pepper shakers from the Dollar Store, and the kid who always blurts things out says, “Mom thought you should get something.”

So my sermon tonight is not for the person who has everything, but for the one who finds something missing. Is there anything here tonight for them, too?

The question resonates with the stories from childhood, especially the stories of holiday cartoons and stop-action specials. Charlie Brown gets the wrong Christmas tree, and then fears a big red ornament has killed it. Or on The Island of Misfit Toys, Charlie-in-the-Box and the spotted elephant wonder if this is the year that Santa will come to retrieve them. The Grinch up on his icy mountain listens to the celebration in Whoville and feels left out. Is there anything on Christmas for them?

The story at the heart of it all is the story of the shepherds, from the Gospel of Luke. We glorify them in pageants and carols, but they were rascals and scallywags. As someone has said, “The shepherds in the first century were the cowboys in American fiction; they were the heroes of all the stories, but you wouldn’t want your daughter to marry one.”

Did you know the Jerusalem establishment banned the shepherds from the Jewish temple? They were considered thieves. They let their flocks graze on land that didn’t belong to them and refused to keep their sheep from eating impure food. The prevailing religious notion was, “There’s nothing here for the shepherds.”

But then Luke says Christmas comes. Specifically it goes to them. The angel says, “To you is born a Savior.” Christmas is for you, for all of you. That’s the announcement. That’s the news. And the shepherds have to get moving to see what this means.

It means, first of all, that they have been found, that they have been noticed, that Heaven sees them and comes close to them. It means they have not been cast off or forgotten as those who don’t count.  It means that there is a goodness and a power at work in the world that is a whole lot better than what they’ve seen recently. It means that the dreariness of their routines has been interrupted by a song. There’s something more, and it’s for them.

We hear these stories, and wonder if it could be true. Like a few days ago, in a restaurant in Phoenix, a waitress named Sarah was wiping tables. She’s nine months pregnant and had to work. A customer comes by to pick up a takeout order. Sarah rings her out, she leaves, and then Sarah realizes she was given a nine-hundred dollar tip. The customer wrote on the receipt, “This is God’s money — He gave it to us so we could give it to you. God bless.”[1] What if that is the actual truth? Not merely the money, but the goodness behind it?

What if God really does come? What if God has already slipped in beside us?

For that’s the most astonishing thing of all: that the Savior does not descend like a superhero, but that he is found as a peasant child, just like the rest of us. That he is wrapped in bands of cloth, the peasant’s way of protecting an infant’s body. That he lies in the straw of a feeding trough, not high and mighty above everybody else, but lowly and common among us.

That’s the miracle. The goodness of God finds us. It hides among us as a child, waiting to be found, until it can transform us.

Tomorrow will be another day. Mary will start nursing, and against his will Joseph will change diapers. The shepherds will be back watching their flocks. You and I will continue our holiday rounds, welcome family, or collapse in exhaustion. There will be meals to prepare, laundry to wash, and chores to do. In the middle of all our daily tasks, it’s easy to get caught up in what must be done. It’s easy to think this is all there is.

But tonight, for a moment, let the darkness be punctured by light. Let the residue of a good song stay with you. Let the ancient story prepare you for the possibility of seeing an angel’s wing flutter behind the cypress tree. Let the good news come that there is no place you can go that is beyond the embracing, forgiving, cleansing love of God.

This is my prayer for you – that the love, peace, and joy that everybody else is singing about will also be for you. Right in the middle of our messy, unfinished lives, God comes and God stays. Believe it, if you can.

Christmas is for you.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

The Promise of Presence

Matthew 1:18-25, Isaiah 7:14
Advent 4
December 18, 2016
William G. Carter

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 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.”

All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel,” which means, “God is with us.” When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus.

“Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Look, the young woman is with child
and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.” (Isaiah 7:14)

Our Bible study on the Gospel of Matthew was winding up. For many weeks and months, a group of retired men had slogged with me through the pages of the first gospel. It took a lot of time and some concentrated effort, but finally we got to the end of chapter 28. Jesus stands on the mountain, like a resurrected Moses, and sends his followers out into every corner of the earth to make more followers. Then he says, “Lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”

“Wait a second,” said one of the men, “I’m looking for something.” He’s flipping the pages furiously. He puts his finger down on chapter one. “I just realized this book ends the same way that I begins.” Everybody looked at him, and so he explained. “Jesus says ‘I am with you always’ at the end of the book. On the very first page, he is named Emmanuel, God with us.’”

It’s always good when the lights go on in a Bible study, and that was a particularly bright moment. Of all the promises of Advent, we have the promise of presence – God’s presence – with us always.

This is not the first time in the Bible that God makes the promise. Our father Isaac was traveling to a place called Beer-sheba, and that night the Lord appeared to him and said, "Don't be afraid: I am with you" (Gen. 26:24). Our father Jacob was on the lam, running away from his twin brother. And God came to him and said, "I am with you, and will keep you wherever you go" (Gen. 28:15).  Six times, God spoke to a prophet named Jeremiah and said, "Don't worry; I am with you."  Throughout the Jewish scriptures, this is one of the repeated sayings of God: I am with you.

Even the apostle Paul, father of the church, heard the voice. He went to Corinth to preach the Good News of God, and people started to give him a hard time about it. He grumbled right back at them. One night, the Lord spoke to Paul in a vision, and said, "Don't be afraid. Keep preaching; for I am with you." (Acts 18:1-11)

Most of the time when God speaks like this, the people of God are homeless, or are on the run, or scattered to the four winds. So God interrupts to declare, "Don't be afraid. I am with you." And this is the context for the dream which comes upon Joseph one night. "Don't be afraid to take Mary as your wife. Don't be afraid to receive the child Jesus as a gift. For in him like no other, as you touch his flesh and hear his voice, you will know God is with us."  And then Joseph, in one story after another, comes to know that God makes good on this promise.

What’s unusual about this particular story is that is given as a name, or at least as a nickname. “Emmanu” is the Hebrew prefix, and it means “with us.” The ancient name for God is “Elohim,” or “El” for short. Emmanuel names “the With-Us God.” Or as the writer of Matthew spells it out, “God is with us.”

This is the promise of God to God’s people: “I will be with you,” says the Lord God of Israel. If you want to understand the Bible, it’s one account after another of what this looks like. Sometimes God is a comforting presence, other times God is a disturbing presence. Sometimes God guides wandering people as a pillar of fire in a dark night. Other times God wrestles with a rascal like Jacob, throws his hip out of joint, and then blesses Jacob as he limps away.

Matthew speaks this word as a parenthetical remark. He interrupts his own story of Joseph and his dream to say this is the ancient promise, now completed. The old prophet Isaiah announced a child named Emmanuel. It took eight hundred years, but Matthew says, “Here he is.” And even though his name technically is not Emmanuel – it’s Yeshua, or Jesus, Matthew tells us what he himself has discovered: that when you meet this child, you will know who he is. He is “Emmanuel” - - “God with us.”

This is an important word. It lies at the heart of everything that scripture promises. A lot of people are intimidated by the Bible. It’s big, it’s heavy, it’s old, the pages are dipped in gold – but here is the key that unlocks all the treasures in that Book: God is with us. Emmanuel.

You hear it in the Bible when people pray: “O Lord, where can I go from your spirit? Where can I flee from your presence?  If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in Sheol, you are there. If I take the wings of the morning and settle at the farthest limits of the sea, even then your hand shall hold me, and your right hand shall hold me fast?” (Psalm 139:7-11)  Emmanuel – God is with us.

Or you can hear it elsewhere in the Bible, when the prayer turns sour and God is held accountable: “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?” Now, that’s a great way to pray, because it expects God to make good on the promise so frequently voiced in scripture, “I will be with you always, to the close of the age.”

The problem, of course, comes when we stop saying the word “Emmanuel,” and we start filling our lives with our own pursuits. Sometime back, a Catholic priest named Henri Nouwen described how Christmas still looks to so many of us:

“In our secularized Western society Christmas offers a good occasion to experience [an] illusory happiness that offers a short break in our fear-filled lives. For many, Christmas is not longer the day to celebrate the mystery of the birth of God among us, the God hidden in the wounds of humanity. It is no longer the day of the child, awaited with prayer and repentance, contemplated with watchful attentiveness, and remembered in liturgical solemnity, joyful song, and peaceful family meals.

Instead, Christmas has become a time when companies send elaborate gifts to their clients to thank them for their business, when post offices work overtime to process an overload of cards, when immense amounts of money are spent on food and drink, and socializing becomes a full-time activity. There are trees, decorated streets, sweet tunes in the supermarkets, and children saying to their parents: I want this and I want that.’ The shallow happiness of busy people often fills the place meant to experience the deep, lasting joy of Emmanuel, God-with-us.”[1]

You’ve heard the Christmas messages of our consumer culture, just as I have: keep busy, move fast, consume more, over-function, turn up the volume, and when all else fails, feel guilty that you haven’t bought enough or done enough. The sadness is that none of this really has anything to do with God, much less welcoming God’s presence into the every-day. And I think that the reason why people go to church at this time of year, more than any other, is because they know in their bones that all that consumer stuff out there is not real. Contentment doesn’t come from high speed or ceaseless activity. Real Comfort does not pour out of a bottle of Southern Comfort. And joy – well, you have to slow down long enough for joy to find you.

God is with us. That is the Gospel’s announcement. It comes through an inconvenient birth in untidy circumstances. Joseph did not want it, any more than Mary ever expected it. But it was God, making his way into his own world. In the birth of Jesus, God would come to rescue and save, to share our sorrow and joy, to be completely with us, in the great hope that we would live with him. And it is the people who are most hungry from God’s presence who see this most clearly. In the midst of all their flaws, inconsistencies, and unfinished business, they welcome the “With-Us God.”

Some years ago, I heard the story of an Episcopalian priest named of George Everett Ross. He was a great preacher and a deeply flawed human being. He served as the rector of the church where Alcoholics Anonymous was founded, and he himself struggled with his own secret addictions. His life was a bundle of contradictions. But he kept preaching the gospel. The secret of good ministry, he once said, is found in having a clear view of Christmas. God comes to share our human life, so that our human lives might be transformed. Here's how George Everett Ross said it in one of his sermons:

We come, all of us, to Christ in our loneliness and need, and we find that He is lonely, too. We show him our scars; He shows us His. We show Him our crown of thorns; He tells us the story of His. We thirst and so does He. It is upon the basis of our common humanity that God comes to us. As we share our sorrows and pains with Jesus, He shares God's love and grace with us.[2]

The word for today is Emmanuel: God is with us. In every way, God is with us. Every day of the year, God is with us. In every dark night, in every dark place, God is with us. Even if you forget everything else, remember this: God is with us. Every day of every year, let the children’s Christmas carol be your prayer: 

     Be near me, Lord Jesus, I ask Thee to stay / close by me forever, and love me, I pray;
     Bless all the dear children in Thy tender care / and fit us for Heaven to live with Thee there.

Both in the life to come, but especially right in the middle of this life, God is with us. Jesus Christ is here, waiting to be born in you. Let every heart prepare him room.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Henri Nouwen, Lifesigns (1986), p. 98.
[2] Leonard I. Sweet, Strong in the Broken Places: A Theological Reverie on the Ministry of George Everett Ross (Akron, OH: University of Akron Press, 1995) 17.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

The Promise of Joy

Isaiah 35:1-10
Advent 3
December 11, 2016
William G. Carter

The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”

Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 

A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

It was Charlie Brown that said, “I think there must be something wrong with me, Linus. Christmas is coming, but I’m not happy. I don’t feel the way I’m supposed to feel . . . I like getting presents and sending Christmas cards and decorating trees and all that, but I’m still not happy. I always end up feeling depressed.”

You may think those are unusual words for the holidays, much less for the beginning of a sermon, but today I want to take them seriously. Ever since cartoonist Charles Schulz put them on the lips of a young boy, they have resonated with a lot of people. For all the beauty and sparkle of the season, this is a hard time for a lot of people. They may dress up, come to church, and put on the happy face, but underneath, there’s an emotional struggle.

When I was a little kid, I thought Christmas sadness came when you didn’t get all the gifts you wanted. The fact is, there is a lot about this season that tests our spirits. The brutal weather is hard on our bones. The dark sky plays on our emotions. Few of our families resemble the actors in those stories on the Hallmark channel. And as one of my ninety-year-old friends says it, “The older you get, the more you have to reduce your expectations.”

To all this, the prophet Isaiah says we will “rejoice with joy.” It’s a bracing word, Charlie Brown.

If there’s any sadness in your life today, I want to take it seriously. We can’t simply take any negative feelings and shove them in the closet until February. If we do, they will still be waiting for us. Any unresolved grief lingers in the shadows. Any unmanaged frustration will be dished out to others. We have heard about the stewardship of our money; we also have to be good stewards of our emotions.

I was reflecting on this yesterday when I was stuck in a traffic jam in the middle of town. The car in front of me was going in slow motion, so I wanted to lay on the horn. When I made my way to a shopping mall, there were no parking spaces. When one opened up, it was too narrow. When I got to the store, they didn’t have the item that they promised to save for me. You know how this is, and you know how tempting it is to let anger direct your reactions and for dismay to entice you to give up.

And that’s just in the arenas of travel and shopping. If you’re working, the job is always more stressful in December. There are sales quotas to meet, reports to fill out, anxious people to please. And then there are the complications of our families, and all the surrounding drama.

And the prophet Isaiah declares, “Everlasting joy shall be upon their heads, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”

How can he talk this way? I don’t know; he just does it. Five times in this brief poem, he speaks of joy. The desert shall rejoice, the barren places shall break into blossom, and speechless people who have no song will sing. Like a lot of the prophets of Israel, he speaks in promissory language. He points to a future that is some distance ahead and declares that it’s practically here and now.

Please notice this is very different from the advice that crabby people give one another in December. They will say, “Ignore the sadness.” Put up another string of lights. Eat another cookie, drink some eggnog. Get in the holiday spirit. Keep busy. Have yourself a merry little Christmas. To hear some folks, all we have to do is talk ourselves into a good mood. If only it were that easy!

It’s clear that Isaiah knows how life can be. He speaks of weak hands and feeble knees. He knows there are people who have a fearful heart. He knows there are some who cannot see, some who cannot hear, and some who cannot move. Sorrow and sighing are real.

But so is the possibility of God’s action. It’s real too. This undated poem points to a moment when God will give a home to those who have no other home. God will restore their lives. God will re-establish their physical well being and affect the environment around them. “They shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” That is good news. God promises joy.

Someone describes joy this way:  “Such a gift, far from being a positive attitude or constantly upbeat mood, is best described as a deep confidence, even a kind of astonished laughter because of the discovery that there is One at work in our world more central to our stories than we are to ourselves.” (Tom Currie, The Joy of Ministry, p. 4)

I like that description. Joy is more than a transitory emotion, as with all the other emotions that come and go. Joy is a “deep confidence” or an “astonished laughter.” It is rooted in the kind of God that we have. God’s work in the world is with those who have weak hands, feeble knees, and fearful hearts. It’s where confidence replaces the fear, where laughter interrupts the sorrow. Joy is the deep and abiding knowledge that, no matter what happens to us, God is with us, and God is working out the restoration of the world.

And this is something that we can keep reminding one another. Isaiah’s poem is not a carrot on a stick, some vain hope that entices us to keep going. No, it’s this confidence that there is a greater love at the heart of the universe than what we see day to day, that there is a greater goodness than the recurring human nastiness, that there is a deeper wisdom than all short-sighted stupidity, that there is truly a salvage operation that heaven is undertaking on earth.

We have the privilege of proclaiming this message, and passing it along as we hear it. Maybe that’s the true purpose of the Christmas carols that we sing, or the cards and messages that we might still send out. It is more than holiday hype, but the promise of God’s saving work that can always trusted. With Israel, we can remember how God brought them home, then we can affirm that it is God who desires that all of us, in a much deeper sense, find our way home.

In the darkest month of the year, the light can shine in surprising ways. Someone told me how they were feeling blue, as if all the oxygen had been drained from their atmosphere. Suddenly they heard the Ray Conniff Singers chirping out, “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen, let nothing you dismay,” at precisely the moment when they were feeling a lot of dismay. It was just enough to nudge them out of their funk.

Or one of you was telling about a congested store, a place with a frustrating floor plan, blinding lights, and way too many pushy people. In the middle of the store, a young boy with curls was playing catch with his grandmother, breaking into contagious laughter. “It lifted me out of a long slump,” he said, “and I want to be around happiness like that.”

“The great thing about Christmas,” says writer Frederick Buechner, “is that we've never been able to kill it.” There is something irrepressible about the event, something about the light of God that cannot be extinguished. Jesus Christ has come into the world. It is he who gives sight to those who were unable to see, he who opens the ears of those who stopped listening.

And it is he who offers a home to those who have no home.

So there I was yesterday, on call for a little church that has no pastor. One of the elders called and said, “We’ve had a request for a baptism. What are we going to do?” I didn’t know. There was a time frame; the grandmother is terminally ill and they wanted her to be around to see it. We explored a few possible plans. Then she said, “Could you do it on a Saturday?”

Well, it’s a Saturday in December. I ought to be putting lights on my Christmas tree, but sure, I’ll go up for a baptism. Put on my tie and jacket, got my little baptism book, and drove up there. When I arrived, there were four little kids, not one. They all had the same last name, but I couldn’t tell who was who. It seemed to me that the family situation was a bit complicated (whose isn’t?) and that doesn’t matter to me.

I thought we should make it special, so we gathered in the sanctuary. There were about thirty of us, families and church folk. There was no organist, so I sat down to play “Away in a Manger” for us to sing. I hadn’t planned on a sermon, but I found a quick one on my feet. Then I took the four kids by the hand, along with anybody who wanted to stand with them, and I gave them all a Trinitarian splash.

Then I walked them into the center of the room and said what I often say. I said, “Kids, your family just got a lot bigger. Their name is church. These are the people who are going to remind you of what I’ve just told you, that you belong to God. They’re going to teach you the love of Jesus, and teach you how to show it others.”

The littlest one, Lily, was looking at me with big eyes. I crouched down to look her in the eye and said, “Lily, don’t pay attention to whatever else the world tells you. Jesus loves you, and you belong to him now.” She looks at me, wraps her hand around one of my fingers. Her mother is crying big wet tears, whispering, “Thank you, thank you.” Ah, who am I kidding: I was crying too.

Then I said, “Kids, your big new family wants to teach you a song. It’s number 40 in the blue hymnal.” And we sang, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.”

To think, I could have been home. It was a Saturday. I could have been decorating my tree. Instead I was telling four little kids that they were loved with an infinite love and that they belonged to God. They were only words . . . and they were the truth.

Joy to the world, I tell you. Joy to the world.

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

Sunday, December 4, 2016

The Promise of Fairness

Isaiah 11:1-10
Advent 2
December 4, 2016
William G. Carter

A shoot shall come out from the stump of Jesse, and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
    the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might,
    the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord.
He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.
Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.

Recently I was in a room of thirty adults, playing a get-to-know you game: raise your hand if you have red hair, raise your hand if you enjoy the Pittsburgh Steelers. Then this question came: Raise your hand if you’re left handed. I put my hand in the air. I was the only one. They all looked at me. Some old feelings returned.

I suddenly recalled Mrs. Carr’s kindergarten class. She was teaching us to write, and she told me I had my pencil in the wrong hand. So I tried to write with the other hand and it was terrible. She stood over my shoulder, scowled, and shook her head. So I switched back. This wasn’t fair.

Then she handed out scissors. I put them in my left hand, tried to cut with them, and they didn’t work. “No, those are normal scissors,” she said. “Use your right hand.” I couldn’t do it. So she rummaged around until she found a pair of ugly green handled scissors and said, “I suppose you will have to use these.” I tried them with my right hand. “No, no,” she said. “They are left handed scissors.” So I switched hands, and they didn’t work with my left hand either. By now the whole class was looking at me. The girls were smirking. It wasn’t fair.

Life isn’t fair. We are born with grievous inequities. Some are left-handed, some are left brained. Some are tall, some are short. Some of us lose weight quickly, others can’t keep their hands off the Christmas cookies. More to the point, some are wealthy, some are not. Some discover within themselves great abilities and advantages, some struggle to simply be average. Some are born to Presbyterian parents, others born to Muslims. Sometimes the differences separate us, and it isn’t fair.

It’s like the Baptist preacher said in 1963: “I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”[1] It’s the dream of fairness. It is a worthy dream and it is still dangling out there ahead of us.

So we hear Isaiah declare that the Promised One “shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear.” It is an interesting addition to what we have already have heard. The Messiah will be full of the Spirit of God. This Spirit will fill him with wisdom and understanding, counsel and might. He will be full of knowledge, with deep reverence for God. And he will also be fair.

That’s where the prophet is pointing. He will not be swayed by visual deception. He will not believe the hype or nonsense of what others say. He will see things for what they are. And this quality of clarity will determine how he judges.

Now, that word “judge” is a venerable word. For the Jews, it hearkens back to a time when the land was governed by people called judges. They were local authorities. You took your case to them, and they decided. If there was something wrong, they had the ability to fix it. If a grievance needed to be addressed, they had the power to do so.

Their fairness depended on the quality of their character. If they were good people, they would make good decisions. If they were sleazy, if their opinions could be purchased, then the victims might be in further trouble. All the more reason why justice had to be independent from what the judge saw or what people were saying.

Maybe you remember the statue of Lady Justice, which hearkens back to the empires of Egpyt, Greece, and Rome. She stands with the scales to measure out right from wrong, and she is blindfolded. That’s the ancient way of declaring that true justice is fair.

Justice means that everybody has the same opportunity, that no one can buy their own way, that truth is not determined by hiring an army of high-priced attorneys. Justice means that even the scam artists have to live with themselves late at night. By day, they can surround themselves with the best friends money can buy. But there comes a time of reckoning when all shall be revealed, and all shall be judged fairly.

This what Isaiah hopes for all of us. The Holy One who is coming, the One who is so full of God’s Spirit, shall preside over the poor with righteousness – with clear character. He will decide with fairness for the meek of the earth. From where I stand, the world still needs this. We need that kind of Messiah.

Maybe it would help us to listen to one another. God knows we need that, too. Last year, there was great controversy on the Princeton University campus. Princeton has the Wilson School of International Relations. It’s named after Woodrow Wilson, who was the university president before he was elected president of the nation. He was instrumental in creating the League of Nations, precursor of the United Nations. He was also a notorious racist, who fired African Americans from government posts when he went to Washington.

Students at the university learned this. They invaded the university president’s office and protested with a sit-in. The conversation continued. What do you do? Do you change the name of the Wilson School, or name it after Flip Wilson? Do you recognize the great achievements of an outstanding president who had moral flaws? What would be the fair thing to do?

The controversy is still simmering. Last we heard, the school decided to keep its name and put up a plaque that said something like, “President Wilson was a good guy who had some issues.”[2] Can you understand that people who have had to deal with discrimination all their lives don’t believe that Princeton is really addressing the deep hurt that lingers?

Whether you are left-handed or dark-skinned or whatever else, you hunger and thirst for fairness. Sometimes we begin to learn the lesson at our family tables.

The father puts a fresh apple pie on the dinner table. Three kids lean forward and lick their lips. Mmm, apple pie!  Dad says, “Wait a minute. It needs to be cut.” He hands a knife to the oldest child and says, “You cut the slices, and the other two get to choose their pieces before you.”  She leans over that pie and, with surgical skill, slices the pie. All the pieces are absolutely identical. You can’t have the little brother complain, “Her piece is bigger than mine.”

Now, that’s a smart parent. It’s a replay of the golden rule: “do unto others as you would have them do to you.”

So we watch and hope for fairness, for the One who is not bribed nor swayed by public opinion, but regards each person as a child of God, worthy of love, worthy of justice. And while we watch and hope for that One to come, we can pledge ourselves to live as if he is already among us.

The best wisdom from a young girl named Scout, and her father Atticus. Remember them from the novel, To Kill a Mockingbird? Scout says, “I thinks there’s just one kind of folks. Folks.” Atticus adds, “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it."[3] Good advice, especially when it comes to living out fairness for you and I and all our neighbors.

Do you know what would really make things fair? If only the Messiah could climb inside our skin and walk around in it!

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Martin Luther King Jr., “I Have a Dream,” August 28, 1963
[3] Harper Lee, To Kill A Mockingbird (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1988), page 39