Saturday, December 30, 2017

At the Right Time

Galatians 4:4-7
Christmas 1
December 31, 2017
William G. Carter

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, in order to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children. And because you are children, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” So you are no longer a slave but a child, and if a child then also an heir, through God.

This is the only time that the apostle Paul mentions Christmas. Even so it is a glancing reference, the briefest of allusions: “God sent his Son, born of a woman.” No mention of a manger, no angels, shepherds, or wise men. Paul does not discuss Bethlehem or Joseph. We learn about them from Luke and Matthew. Even thought Paul is the most prolific author of the New Testament, in all his writings Christmas scores half a line: “God sent his Son, born of a woman.”

Yet in no way does this downplay the purpose of Christmas. Paul summarizes the purpose of Christ’s coming this way: “God sent his Son to make us God’s children.” He is talking, of course, to people in modern-day Turkey. The people of Galatia were Gentiles, far beyond the promises of Israel. And the Son of God comes for them, to adopt them into the Holy Family of Israel.

We belong to God because Jesus has come into the world to claim us. His life, his death, his resurrection gather us in. Through our faith, we are welcomed by God. That’s what Christmas is all about.

I would stop there, were it not for a little phrase that Paul slips in. The first Christmas arrives, says Paul, “when the fullness of time had come.” He says it comes “in the fullness of time.” I don’t know what that means.

This is New Year’s Eve. At midnight another twelve month cycle begins. Centuries ago somebody decided there were twelve months in a year, that all the months had somewhere between 28 and 31 days, that the months circle around again and again like a cat chasing its tail. And Paul speaks of the “fullness of time.” What does he mean by that?

We can say that time rolls along. Tomorrow is the day when all the calendars are discounted. You can’t sell them for full price after the date changes. As an irrepressible bargain hunter, I have often wondered why somebody charges so much for them in the first place. Today a fifteen dollar calendar is suddenly available for $1.99.  Simply put, it loses value after a certain date. Maybe that’s why the Dollar Store still can’t move that stack of 2015 pocket calendars at the bottom of their bin. Nobody wants them, even if the store considers them valuable enough to keep on the shelves.

We can also say time runs out. Food has an expiration date. You wouldn’t know that by looking in my refrigerator, but the health department says it is true. Perhaps it is time to toss that airtight packet of Curry Chicken that I picked up at the grocery store back in September. It may still be good. I don’t want to find out. It is past its time.

Maybe that’s why Jesus instructed us to pray for our daily bread. By Friday it goes stale. So pray for your bread a day at a time.

Some are worried that the world has an expiration date: too many people, too few resources, too many erratic elements that could blow everything up. Many were worried when the Mayan calendar was due to conclude on December 21, 2012.  All of the Mayans out there were terrified until the date came and went.

Lives have expiration dates. Hate to bring that up, but it is true. We expire sometime after we turn stale. The ancient poet of the Psalms observed this without pinning it down to an actuarial table. “The days of our life are seventy years, or perhaps eighty, if we are strong; even then their span is only toil and trouble; they are soon gone, and we fly away.” (Psalm 90:10). Our days are numbered and somebody in heaven is counting them. Knowing this is the beginning of wisdom.

We resist the reality. The last time we sang the hymn, “Our God, Our Help in Ages Past,” we got to the line that says, “Time like an ever-rolling stream soon bears us all away.” A lady said to me at the door, “I don’t like that verse.” None of us do. It is a reminder that time runs out.

But Paul says, “When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman.” That little verse has sent all kinds of amateur historians to the books. They come back and tell us all the reasons why it was a perfect time for Jesus to be born. The first bump they encounter is that Jesus was not born in the Year Zero; he was born before the death of King Herod, and that occurred in 4 BC.

The second bump is that Jesus was not surrounded by careful historians when he was born; he was surrounded by sheep herders, none of whom saw any value in reading, writing, or remembering history. Third, he was not born at midnight between December 24 and December 25. Those sheep herders would have been in the fields in the springtime, not in the winter.

Listen, we don’t know the exact time and date when Jesus was born. That’s OK. All the amateur historians return scratching their heads, if only because ancient history is a little bit ambiguous. All we really do know is that sometime in the fourth century the Christians took over an annual pagan festival that was scheduled each December 25 in the Roman Empire. They called it Christ Mass. Ever since, no matter how hard the Christians tried, that annual festival has remained pretty pagan.

Yet “in the fullness of time,” Jesus arrived. In the fullness of time.

Malcom Gladwell says that some moments reach a “tipping point.” Big things happens when enough little things line up. Ideas converge. Opinions accumulate. A revolution begins when enough people think it is needed, when enough people are willing to risk their own necks to create a change. Some people look at the global circumstances surrounding Jesus’ birth, and declare God has reached a tipping point: the empire was heartless, people were cruel to one another, sinners were destroying their lives. So God stepped in and said, “It’s time to send Jesus.” True enough, Christ has come and begun to make a difference.

Yet last time anybody checked, the empires are still heartless, people are still cruel, and sinners are still making a mess of most things.

That leads me to say that the key is not the “when” but the “what.” For some divine reason of timing, Jesus came when he did. The Child of God came to make us children of God. It happened off anybody’s map, in a world that largely has stayed asleep. Whenever this mission of God has been discovered, it has always been resisted. All the tyrants out there still debate the claim that God has on anybody. Plus a surprisingly large number of selfish people would profess that they belong to themselves before they ever belong to God.

And yet Christ has come. So my New Year’s gift to you is a poem by Madeleine L’Engle called “First Coming.”

He did not wait till the world was ready,
till men and nations were at peace.
He came when the Heavens were unsteady,
and prisoners cried out for release.

He did not wait for the perfect time.
He came when the need was deep and great.
He dined with sinners in all their grime,
turned water into wine. He did not wait

till hearts were pure. In joy he came
to a tarnished world of sin and doubt.
To a world like ours, of anguished shame
he came, and his Light would not go out.

He came to a world which did not mesh,
to heal its tangles, shield its scorn.
In the mystery of the Word made Flesh
the Maker of the stars was born.

We cannot wait till the world is sane
to raise our songs with joyful voice,
for to share our grief, to touch our pain,
He came with Love: Rejoice! Rejoice![1]

God did not wait to send Jesus. God refuses to let people stay enslaved to one another, much less enslaved to their own desires. God comes to free people from the ways of destruction, and to claim them as his own. God doesn’t want any one of us to perish, so that’s why God sends Jesus. It happens “in the fullness of time.”

That Greek word for “fullness” is a wonderful word, a word that suggests abundance. Full as in “spilling over.” Here is the sense of it: when the time is filled up, when the moment is pregnant with possibilities, when something new is just waiting to burst forth, everything was ready for God to come.
From the outset, I hope it’s that kind of year for you. Not a year for you to be killing time, but an abundant  year when something new and holy can happen within you. I pray that with the time we have left, we fill it with the praises of God and blessings for our neighbors. And let this be a year full of mercy, that we leave behind in this tired old year all our lingering hurts and grudges, and embrace the healing that Christ has come to give.

And I pray that, among all our resolutions, we resolve to be the children of God. To be content as God’s children. To receive the blessings of God with a thankful heart, and to pass them along to others with generous hearts and hands.

Happy New Year. Happy Abundant New Year.

(c) William G. Carter
All rights reserved

[1] Madeleine L’Engle, The Ordering of Love (New York: Shaw Books, 2005) p. 242.

Sunday, December 24, 2017

Waking Up to Christmas

Luke 2:15-20
Christmas Eve
William G. Carter

When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let us go now to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the Lord has made known to us.” So they went with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the child lying in the manger. When they saw this, they made known what had been told them about this child; and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds told them. 
But Mary treasured all these words and pondered them in her heart. The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen, as it had been told them.

It was a beautiful Christmas Eve service, a lot like this. The white lights sparkled. The music warmed every heart. The Bible stories carried everybody to another time and place.

As it concluded with a musical flourish, everybody stood to depart and go home. Everybody, it seems, except for one woman who sat about halfway back on the aisle. The ushers waited patiently as she sat in silence. Finally, they looked at their watches. The evening chores were finished. It was time to lock up and go home.

So one of the ushers approached her, cleared his throat, and she looked up with a beatific smile. As if to explain herself, she said, “It all seems like a dream, and I don't want to wake up"

We know, don’t we, what she was speaking about? Christmas Eve was a moment of deep beauty. The music transported all present to another place. There was a thick presence of peace in a room accurately called a sanctuary. Nobody wanted it to end.

But may I go on record? When Christmas morning comes, I would like to wake up.

There is a popular distortion of that word “spirituality.” The distorted view is that we can be removed from the world. The intent is to get out of the mud where everybody else resides. The goal is to be lifted into heaven, and thus be fished out this mess. But that’s the dream – the false dream. Christmas calls us to wake up to reality.

This little baby whose birth we celebrate was raised by a carpenter. He had splinters in his hands. He probably hit his thumb with a hammer. So consider this: if God didn't like the physical world, he should not have created it. If God didn't love the world, God should not have come to it. If God didn't care for the poor and the needy, the baby Jesus should not have been found among us as a peasant infant, placed in a feeding trough, and raised by day laborers.

But it is precisely because God does love the world, the real world, the physical world, that Christmas happens. It was God’s way of saying, “Wake up. This life matters.”

Christian faith is not primarily about the next life. It's about this life, the only life we have. When the New Testament speaks of “life of eternity,” it is pointing to a quality of existence that begins here and now. God has come among us in Jesus. As we trust this as truth, true life proceeds. When we wake up to this truth, we live as if life matters. Sometimes we have to make some changes to embrace it, especially to rid ourselves of the toxic dreams.

Like the Lake Wobegon story about the Lutheran minister who went Christmas shopping. He was tired and weary and worn-out, even before he drove thirty-five miles to the Mega-Mart. Then he had to fight for a parking space, was shoved around by the crowds, treated rudely by the stressed-out sales clerks, all beneath those strange lights designed to drive you slowly insane. And he said, “Why? Why am I doing this, all to buy a video game called ‘Annihilation’? Why? Who’s running Christmas?”

For him, it was a wake-up call, a moment to step out of the strong current of consumption, to look for an alternative to Annihilation. Yes, there is violence in the real world; even know King Herod is convening his soldiers to try and snuff out the Light of the world. Because of Jesus, we know Herod is stuck in his own bad dream. When we wake up to Christmas, we don’t have to live by the nightmares of consumption and violence. Simplicity and compassion are the holy gifts given to be shared.

At the heart of Christmas, we wake up from the false separation of flesh from spirit. When Jesus is born, body and soul are held together. When we recognize God in this little child, we are affirming God has a blood stream, calluses on the feet, and avoids eating bad fish. As certain as Jesus was transfigured into a pillar of fire, he came down to heal a child with epilepsy. The bright mountaintop and the dark valley are held together.

What we are singing tonight is that heaven and earth intersect. God and sinners are reconciled. Word takes flesh, so we shall not separate what God has joined together. We wake up to see the wonder of what it means to have the creator of heaven and earth living among us. It means every life has been dignified by the presence of God – your life matters, your neighbor’s life matters, the poor and the needy are God’s royalty.

So maybe we step out of time for a few minutes tonight. We light our candles and sing our carols. And we do this, not to escape the world, but that we might enter it more deeply. Not to run away from pain, but to welcome the healing that comes from the mercy and peace of God.

And that means tomorrow, when we walk up, we get about living as if God is truly with us. Thanks to the birth of Jesus, the Word can take flesh once again - in us.

There’s a poem from the Quaker mystic Howard Thurman called “The Work of Christmas.”(1) I can’t think of a better description of what it means to wake up to Christmas. So let me put it into the air and let it do its work:

When the song of the angels is stilled,
when the star in the sky is gone,
when the kings and princes are home,
when the shepherds are back with their flocks,
the work of Christmas begins:
to find the lost,
to heal the broken,
to feed the hungry,
to release the prisoner,
to rebuild the nations,
to bring peace among the people,
to make music in the heart.

Sleepers, awake. Christ is born, right here, in the real world.

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

(1)  "The Work of Christmas" in The Mood of Christmas & Other Celebrations (1985)

Saturday, December 23, 2017

A Revolutionary Christmas

Luke 1:46-55
Advent 4
December 24, 2017
William G. Carter

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
  for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
       Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
  for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name.
  His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation.
  He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.
  He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly;
  he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty.
  He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy,
  according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

It’s one of the most beautiful poems in all of scripture. The song of Mary is often called “the Magnificat,” the title taken from the Latin word for “magnify.” These lyrical words have been set to music by a list of composers a mile long, including Telemann, Bach, Mozart, Tchaikovsky, Vaughan Williams, Rachmaninoff, Arvo Part, and John Rutter.[1] You're certainly welcome to hum the words as I preach along.

But I'm sure you noticed, even in the setting of the text that came as our first hymn, that the text of the poem is explosive.

When Adolf Hitler was rising to power in 1933, Dietrich Bonhoeffer preached a sermon on the words. He said, "It is the most passionate, most vehement, one might almost say, most revolutionary Advent hymn ever sung. It is not the gentle, sweet, dreamy Mary that we so often see portrayed in pictures, but the passionate, powerful, proud, enthusiastic Mary, who speaks here. None of the sweet, sugary, or childish tones that we find so often in our Christmas hymns, but a hard, strong, uncompromising song of bringing down rulers from their thrones and humbling the lords of this world."[2]

If you desire a stress-free, merry little Christmas, this will not be the text for you. It's certainly not the kind of text we're going to encounter on the Hallmark channel, where the holiday movies are mostly about white people in expensive houses having travel difficulties and angst about their relationships. No, the Magnificat is about revolution.

Did you know that when the British ruled India, this text was not allowed to be sung in the churches? Or that the government of Guatemala was brutally keeping an oppressive thumb on its people, the rulers reportedly banned people from even reading the text out loud? [3]

Writing from a privileged university position in Britain, C.S. Lewis said, "The Magnificat is terrifying," one of the Bible texts "which should make our blood run cold." He points out, "There are no cursings here, no hatred, no self-righteousness. Instead, there is mere statement. He has scattered the proud, cast down the mighty, sent the rich empty away...not (stated) with fierce exultation, yet -- who can mistake the tone? -- in a calm and terrible gladness."[4]

I wish I could soften the text for us somehow, perhaps make it as sweet as a snicker doodle, or lilt like a Bethlehem lullabye. But this is the Bible, the real Bible. And if we are courage enough and honest enough to hear what the Bible is saying, we will hear that there is a revolution brewing -- and it is God’s revolution. And the revolution is called “Christmas.”

This passage comes in the first chapter of the Gospel of Luke, a book that focuses entirely on Jesus. Mary’s song is an overture of the whole story, a plot summary of the Gospel of Luke.

Christmas, as you remember, begins with an inconvenient birth. Emperor Augustus sits on his throne in far-away Rome. He has to raise funding for the soldiers he has sent to occupy the troublesome hotspot of Palestine. So he decides to take a census and count all the people who live there, so he can put the tax burden on their shoulders. They will pay for the Roman soldiers who occupy their land.

Meanwhile, the Emperor of the Universe announces the Savior of the World will be born in a little town that hardly anybody remembers. Ancient king David was born there a thousand years before. Not only that, the angel messengers are not sent to announce the news in the palaces of the global powers, but to anonymous sheep herders in the hills – they are nobodies, who will probably not even show up on Caesar’s census.

Do you see the move? The powerful, like Caesar, are brought down from their thrones, and the lowly are lifted up. And this is God’s doing.

Throughout his ministry, Jesus will fill the hungry with good things. He will fill their hearts with the truth about God, he will fill their stomachs with fish and bread, and he will fill their broken bones and fractured spirits with the healing power of God. The needy and the poor will flock to Jesus like sheep who need a shepherd.

Meanwhile, his work will also capture the imagination of those who are well off, who also come with their own needs. Jesus will heal everybody without discriminating, never asking how much they can pay.

But if they want to use him for their own purposes, they will be disappointed. One rich man wanted to buy some eternal life; Jesus said, “OK, give everything away to the poor and follow me.” The rich man went away empty. It’s just like mother Mary said.

Or this: “He has shown strength with his arm.” Jesus will calm the raging storm, and cast out the craziness from a wild man. He will breathe resurrection life into children who died too soon, and empower the crippled to stand up straight with dignity.

But “he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts,” beginning with those who schemed to eliminate him. Over and over again, he slips away from their murderous intents, first in Nazareth (4:30), then at a dinner party with scribes and Pharisees (11:53), even on the road to the cross that he freely chooses (13:31). When his enemies finally do condemn him and put him on the cross, Jesus slips away on the third day. In the Gospel of Christ, it does not pay to be proud.

Mary sings all of this on the second page of Luke’s book, long before it happens. How did she know? Was she a prophet? Was the Spirit of God filling her with wisdom and insight? Yes, most certainly; God gives holy wisdom to women. That will be another theme in the Gospel of Luke. But there’s more to it than that.

Mary knows about the revolution of God because she knows her Bible. Even if she was illiterate, like most teenage young women of her time and place, she had heard the scriptures so frequently that she took them into her soul. That’s why the Song of Mary, this Magnificat, is full of treasured promises from the Hebrew Bible.

The primary source is the Song of Hannah (1 Samuel 2:1-10), another barren woman that God gifted with a child. Hannah’s song in the first book of Samuel begins with the words, “My soul magnifies the Lord,” and pretty much lays out the same script. But Mary’s song of praise also takes verses from the Psalms, the prophets, the book of Job, even the Wisdom of Sirach. She doesn’t need to sing something original because the promises are already there.

What Mary announces is that the revolution is going to happen in Jesus. God is going to start changing the world through the birth of Mary’s child. And the revolution is going to continue in those who trust her son and trust her words. God’s new creation is not for those who are proud and arrogant. It’s not for those who use their power to plunder and take advantage of others. The promises of God are for the hungry, not the satiated; for the lowly, not the lofty; for those who mourn, not those who demean others (6:20-26).

As Jesus will say after he grows up, “Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me.” (7:23)

To perceive Christmas as a revolution, and not merely as a holiday of over consumption, will involve taking stock of where we stand, the kind of thing that Jesus invites us to do repeatedly. For instance: “The first shall be last, and the last will be first.” Well, which ones are we?

If we scramble to the top of the heap, using every device and desire to claw our way ahead of everyone else, we will miss out on God, who is born to peasants and placed in a feeding trough. Those first in line may convince themselves that they have an advantage over others, but the truth is that they are missing out on the joy of actually being of service to those in need.

Or, again: “All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted.” (18:14). Which ones are we? Is life about inflating the resume, advancing the career, impressing the neighbors, standing on the tips of your toes? Or is it about standing with your feet flat on the floor, down to earth, accessible, available, and real.

Just the other night, I stood with a young friend at a Christmas party, watching his two little kids twirl and spin to “Jingle Bell Rock.” He was telling me his hopes to enlarge his business and make a name for himself. I interrupted as kindly as I could, pointed to his kids, and said, “This has to come before everything else. You could blink and they’ll be grown up. Don’t miss out on your kids.” He looked a little stunned. Just then his wife came up, nodded at the little girl, and said, “Could you change a stinky diaper?” Ah, how the exalted have been humbled.

Mary sings of God’s revolution, a fundamental realignment to how God created the world in the beginning. This revolution will not carried out with the weapons and armaments to which our world has become addicted, but a revolution undertaken through kindness. It's every bit as subversive, maybe more so, because it means that, thanks to the birth of Jesus among us, this old, weary world "is about to turn."

The spiritual writer Kathleen Norris puts it this way:

The Magnificat reminds us that what we most value, all that gives us status - power, pride, strength and wealth - can be a barrier to receiving what God has in store for us. If we have it all, or think we can buy it all, there will be no Christmas for us. If we are full of ourselves, there will be no room for God to enter our hearts at Christmas. Mary's prayer of praise, like many of the psalms, calls us to consider our true condition: God is God, and we are the creatures God formed out of earth...

And if we hope to rise in God's new creation, where love and justice will reign triumphant, our responsibility, here and now, is to reject the temptation to employ power and force and oppression against those weaker than ourselves. We honor the Incarnation best by honoring God's image in all people, and seeking to make this world into a place of welcome for the Prince of Peace.[5]

I can't think of a better Christmas wish for any of us, than "to make this world into a place of welcome for the Prince of Peace." It matters how we lives, what we do with these lives, and how we prepare the Way for Christ to live among us. For he is coming in the fullness of his power, and he will make everything as God intends it to be.

So we can join our hearts with Mary, who says:

My heart shall sing of the day you bring. Let the fires of your justice burn,
Wipe away all tears, for the dawn draws near, and the world is about to turn.[6]

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

[1] See the partial list: 
[4] C. S. Lewis, "The Psalms" in Christian Reflections (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans, 1967) 120-121.
[5] Kathleen Norris, God With Us: Rediscovering the Meaning of Christmas (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2007) 113-114.
[6] Rory Cooney, "Canticle of the Turning," GIA Publications.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

The Laughter of the Redeemed

Psalm 126
Advent 3
December 17, 2017
William G. Carter

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion, we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with shouts of joy;
then it was said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’
The Lord has done great things for us, and we rejoiced. 

Restore our fortunes, O Lord, like the watercourses in the Negeb.
May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy.
Those who go out weeping, bearing the seed for sowing,
shall come home with shouts of joy, carrying their sheaves.

December is a time for Christians to sing about joy. “Joy to the World, the Lord is come.” “O tidings of comfort and joy.” “Joyful, all ye nations, rise; join the triumph of the skies.” “This child, now weak in infancy, our confidence and joy shall be.” “Good Christian friends, rejoice with heart and soul and voice.” “O come, all ye faithful, joyful and triumphant.”

Joy is one of the words of the season, and it’s certainly the word for today. But what do we know about joy?

A few years ago, there was a million-selling book called The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing. Marie Condo, a Japanese organizing consultant, set off a decluttering craze around the world. Her book lays down a single principle for tidying up your house. Here it is: put your hands on everything you own, ask yourself if it sparks joy, and if it doesn’t, thank it for its service and get rid of it.

I was thinking about that when I pulled out the box of broken Christmas tree ornaments. They don’t give me joy, so out they went. Or that plastic bin of outdoor lights where half the string of lights don’t work; I gave them away to Mount Trashmore.

It’s generally true that we fill our lives with a lot of stuff, and very little of it gives us joy. I asked my wife the other day what she thought of a t-shirt that I saw in an ad. Jamie has gotten into woodworking in a big way. The t-shirt read, “I turn wood into things. What’s your super power?”  She said, “How much is it?” I told her, and she said, “$24.99 plus shipping for a t-shirt? Are you crazy?” It didn’t give her much joy.

“Besides,” she said, “I wear all of your old t-shirts anyway.” It’s true. Just the other day, I saw her trotting around wearing the message, “So many books, so little time.”

What do we know about joy?

I think we know that joy is not the same thing as happiness. Nor is it the same as delight. All three – joy, happiness, and delight – all of them dwell in the realm of emotions. Happiness comes and goes; we can have joy even if we are not happy. And delight, or pleasure, is even more fickle; it lasts as long as a Carol Burnett rerun or a tasty meal.

For Christians, the apostle of joy was the British writer C. S. Lewis, who lived in the middle of the last century. He said it was joy that converted him, that surprised him and helped him become a believer. The singular characteristic of joy, he said, it that “anyone who has experienced it will want it again” … and would never “exchange it for all the pleasures in the world.” That’s because “Joy is never in our power and Pleasure often it.”

He’s talking about Joy as a spiritual power. It’s something beyond ourselves that comes close and changes us. And when it does, we want more of that.

As he wrote to someone in a personal letter, “It jumps under one’s ribs and tickles down one’s back and makes one forget meals and keeps one (delightedly) sleepless o’ nights. It shocks one awake when the other puts one to sleep. My private table is one second of joy is worth twelve hours of Pleasure.”[1] 

To put it quite simply, Joy is what happens when God comes to you, when you have a momentary flash that Jesus has been born in you, when you have the clear and abiding sense that the Spirit of Christ is doing something extraordinary in you, among you, in the world.

That’s what unlocks the Psalm that we heard a few minutes ago. Psalm 126 is all about joy. “When the Lord restored our fortunes, we were like those who dream,” says the poet. “When we had the sense that God was doing great things for us, our hearts were full of laughter, our tongues shouted with joy.”

The poet is remembering the moment – or moments – when it suddenly became clear that God was acting on behalf of him and his people. God did not abandon any of them. Maybe there had been trouble on earth or silence from heaven – most of us have had our share of both – but somehow God broke through. Somehow God came to earth. Somehow God saw the “low estate” of his people and did something about it.

And this brought the gift of joy.

Today I’m thinking about my friend Betsy. We grew up in Sunday school together, and have known one another since we were five or six years old. I think that includes a Christmas pageant or two. Some months back, Betsy announced she was fighting breast cancer. She has been through surgery, chemo treatments, and lost her hair. Through the whole ordeal, she has held on with tenacious hope. Her courage has been an inspiration to me and all our old friends.

Just last week, it occurred to me that we hadn’t been in touch for a while. So I sent her a message: how's it going? And there was no answer. I waited a couple of days and there was only silence. That was pretty unsettling. I didn’t feel very good about that.

Suddenly on Tuesday, my phone made a noise, and there was a message from her. “”Sorry I never responded,” she wrote. “You sent your note on one of my pajama days when I never leave the house. But I have had my appointment in New York City, and the doctor said, ‘No evidence of the disease.’ He feels my ten year survival rate is 90%. After what I’ve been through, I’ll take it.”

Too many of us have known people we loved who didn’t get that good news, and when Betsy received it, she said, “I’ll take it.” She’s grateful to get her life back.

“When we got our lives back,” says the poet of Psalm 126, “we were like those who dreamed. Our mouth was filled with laughter, our tongues with shouts of joy.”

The Joy comes from the present memory that God has fixed something, that God restored our lives and made them fresh and new. That’s what the Psalmist is naming, a restoration of what he calls our “fortunes.” He’s not talking about a pile money, in that sense of a “fortune.” Rather it’s a “good fortune,” the feeling of well-being. It’s the restoration of relationships.

Maybe that’s why the moment in a holiday movie where I am most likely to tear up, get a little emotional, and feel grateful that the theater is dark so nobody can see my crying is when something gets patched up, when something is restored.

I always like the first “Home Alone” movie, for instance. It’s a fun film, based on an impossible premise, but I like to see Kevin McCallister outwit those goofy bandits. Always gets a laugh! But the touching moment is when his mom gets home. Something broken is restored. That's what prompts the tears of joy.

I don’t know what all of you need to have restored this Christmas. For all the bright lights, this can be a tough time. If there are fractures in any of our personal relationships, the pressures of the holidays make it worse. If we’ve experienced disappointment, loss, or emotional pain, the lack of daylight adds to the gloom. The TV, newspapers, magazines, and unwanted e-mails will push us to spend more money than we have. (Remember that $24.99 t-shirt for my wife? I ordered it for her yesterday.)

And there are some who feel deeply unsettled whenever they turn on the national news. Somebody stopped by for coffee the other day and unloaded for a while. She said, “It feels like everything that I could count on is now coming unglued.” The anxiety keeps her awake some nights.

That’s why we need Psalm 126, and that’s why it is such a good fit for the season of Advent. The psalm pushes us back to remember those astonishing moments when God did something to restore our lives – a broken relationship was mended, a national calamity was relieved, a Savior was born to redeem us from our worst human impulses. That’s the invitation to a faithful memory.

And such memory will invite us to hope. God helped us in the past, so we pray for God to help us again. It’s because God helped us that we continue to pray. Memory is the grounding for our hope. That is what makes hope more than mere wishing. We hope for God to act because we remember that God has acted before.

“Restore our fortunes, O Lord,” prays the Psalmist. “May those who sow in tears reap with shouts of joy” . . . because this is the promise of the Gospel. And it’s for us – and for all – even if we can’t immediately recall a prior memory of when God drew near and became real. We have this faith community to remind us.

During the Second World War, an 18-year-old German boy named Jürgen was drafted to serve in Hitler’s army. He was assigned to an anti-aircraft battery in his hometown of Hamburg. The city was bombed by the British, and Jurgen saw his fellow soldiers being incinerated in fire bombings. He and others surrendered to the British and he was taken to a prisoner camps in Belgium and Scotland.

Jurgen had not grown up as a Christian, but an American chaplain gave him an Army-issue New Testament and book of Psalms. He read the Psalms and found something he desperately needed: hope. He became convinced that God was present with him, “even behind the barbed wire.” And then Jurgen was transferred to a camp run by the YMCA. They taught him basic Christian beliefs, and more than that, he experienced acceptance and love unlike anything he had known before. As he later told a journalist, “They treated me better than the German army.”

You see, Jurgen was Jürgen Moltmann, who would later become one of the leading Christian theologians in the world. His insistent message was that God is present with us in our suffering, and God is leading us to a better future. We remember because we hope; we hope because we remember. It was Moltmann who loved the phrase “the laughter of the redeemed.” That, he says, is God’s protest against the ways of death. ” God is not satisfied with the way the world is today, and he intends to make all things new.

That’s the promise of the Gospel: a whole new life, a whole new world. And so, as we get ready for Christmas one more time, let’s make this a time of prayer – an earnest desire for God to come again, as God has come so many times before.

This year, as we remember the birth of Jesus, as we recall the coming of God into our world, we pray and hope for God to be revealed again. For there can be no greater joy, no greater memory, no greater hope, no greater song.

Even so, come quickly, Lord!

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

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Checkpoint in the Desert

Mark 1:1-8
Advent 2
December 10, 2017
William G. Carter

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

 As it is written in the prophet Isaiah, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way; the voice of one crying out in the wilderness: “Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.”’

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, ‘The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.

If we want to have a spiritual Christmas, we will inevitably run into John the Baptist. This strange prophet makes his annual December appearance. He never gets his picture on a Christmas card, and if he did, the message would be, “For our house to yours: you brood of vipers, repent from the wrath to come.” John is direct. He is rude, even to the point of being offensive. Word is that his father had been a Jerusalem priest, but John is standing outside the bounds of the Jerusalem temple. And he is speaking up.

He seems an odd caricature, a prophet right out of the pages of the Old Testament. There hadn’t been any Jewish prophets for five hundred years. The landscape had been quiet. If God had been speaking, it wasn’t in a Voice loud enough for anybody to hear. Suddenly, there is the voice of thunder: let there be John! He appears. The inference is that he comes directly from God, if not biologically, certainly spiritually.

To reinforce the shock of his arrival, the Bible describes his appearance. John dresses like a wild man and smells like a camel. He’s covered in animal skins and he eats bugs.

Yet don’t ever be distracted by his appearance. John is a messenger. The purpose of his life is to point down the road, to alert us to Someone who is coming, Someone who makes him look small and insignificant. He’s talking about Jesus, of course. John asks, “Are you ready for him to come? Are you really ready for him to come?”

That’s the Advent question. We can answer quickly and say, “Yes, of course we want him to come.” We’re tired of a godless December. There is the constant bombardment of noise, with favorite carols played so frequently that they sound like jackhammers. The mailbox is full of catalogs we’ve never heard of, hawking products that we didn’t know we wanted. The appeals for donations are overwhelming, souring us on some of the very causes that we normally cherish. Yes, we’re ready for Him to come.

And John stands up on a rock, “You think you’re ready? You really think you’re ready?” With that, he hollers at the top of his lungs, “I splash you with water, but the One who is coming will set you on fire.”

Well now, wait a second, nobody said anything about fire. Fire is pure energy. It’s dangerous. Fire consumes. It burns down houses. Fire purifies. Everything burned away. Fire is such a powerful symbol. Do we really want God to come like fire?

It’s a good question. A lot of people want something much tamer in their religion. It’s OK to have an experience of God’s all-consuming glory, but if we could, let’s keep it to an hour and sing only happy songs that we already know. And it’s OK to have our conscience tweaked and our hearts appealed, but please don’t make any real demands on us.

The poet Annie Dillard was raised a Presbyterian in Pittsburgh (in America, that’s like Presbyterian Central), but when she was a teenager, she made an appointment with the pastor at Shadyside Church to say she was dropping out. The whole thing seemed to focus on conformity: fit in with the crowd, be respectable, couch your truthful speech in innocuous inanities, and above all, don’t ever go overboard with your religion. Annie had enough of what she perceived as a culturally sanctioned substitute for religion.

Her pastor said, “Oh, you’ll be back someday.” Annie wasn’t so sure.

Years later, after she won a Pulitzer Prize in literature, Annie reflected on what it would be like to truly encounter God. It seemed such a contrast to the over-domesticated approach to religion that usually masquerades as faith. So here’s what she says in one of her books:  

The higher Christian churches -- where, if anywhere, I belong -- come at God with an unwarranted air of professionalism, with authority and pomp, as though they knew what they were doing, as though people in themselves were an appropriate set of creatures to have dealings with God. I often think of the set pieces of liturgy as certain words which people have successfully addressed to God without their getting killed. In the high churches they saunter through the liturgy like Mohawks along a strand of scaffolding who have long since forgotten their danger. If God were to blast such a service to bits, the congregation would be, I believe, genuinely shocked. But in the low churches you expect in any minute. This is the beginning of wisdom.[1]

“I baptize you with water,” says John the Baptist, “but he – the One who is coming – will baptize you with the fire of God’s Spirit.” The true God comes to repair and redeem the world, which is a way of saying the world can’t stay the way it is. We can’t remain the way we are. There will be a disruption of the status quo and a restoration of what God has intended all along.

Are we really ready for that? And if we are, how will anybody know? As John will say in another text, we have bear fruits worthy of repentance. That is, it’s not enough to simply say that a difference is necessary. We have to act like we are changed. We must produce the kind of behavior that shows our renewed allegiance to God.

Every day, it seems the morning news brings another sordid account of how all kinds of people have gone off the rails. I don’t need to tell you what you already know. People do unspeakable things to one another. There are lawsuits filed every day, some of them justified, some of them not. There are crooks getting away with their crimes, and some of them even get their pensions restored.

We don’t like to deal with uncomfortable truth, especially about ourselves, especially about the things that have been done to others, and the things that have been done to us.

Perhaps the most unsettling news is the continuing revelation of public figures who cannot keep their hands to themselves. Many of them are men with a whole lot of power and money, and these are merely the ones who make the news. It is as if John the Baptist is calling us to a time of reckoning, and it’s far from over. For far too long, some people in our society have plundered others, assuming they had the right to do whatever that wanted. Now the awkward truth is begun to be revealed and named. This year, Time magazine’s Person of the Year is the whistle blower.

As a woman in my own family said recently, “It happened to me. I never said anything because I just thought that’s the way men are, and I didn’t think it would do any good to speak up.” I assured her it’s always the right time to speak up, even when it’s difficult, even when it’s controversial, even when it’s going to stir up controversy. For it’s not only wrong to hurt another person; it’s equally wrong to believe you are not worthy of speaking up about the hurt that has been done to you.

Listen, this is uncomfortable. I know. And as a pastor, I want to push the conversation to a higher level. Here is what matters most: Who has the maturity to tell the truth?  Who has the moral courage to do something constructive about it? And who is able to ask honestly for forgiveness -- and who is Christ-like enough to grant it?

I’m not pointing the finger at anybody, because there is no superiority in my soul. And neither do I think we should callously point the finger at some outsider, particularly a public figure we don’t like. It’s a lot more constructive to take a good long look in the mirror, acknowledge what we have done, ask God for mercy, and then go about rebuilding whatever relationships we can.

Today John the Baptist holds up the mirror. He invites us all to take a long look. He doesn’t do it because he’s mean. He holds up the mirror because he has been sent by God to prepare us for the Christ who is coming. And he asks us if we are ready for him – if we are really ready.

And he does it, because all of us are the beloved daughters and sons of God, all of us, without exclusion. There is a dignity to be claimed which will not allow us to be perpetrators or victims. God is come to set us free – and the way that God does this is by giving us the courage to tell the truth, the truth about ourselves – and the truth about God. It is indeed the truth that will set us free.

In one of his poignant reflections about human life, the great mystic Thomas Merton has this to say:

All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality of life to which everything else in the universe is ordered. Thus I use my life in desires for pleasures and thirsts for experiences, for power, honor, knowledge and love, to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and clothe myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and the world, as if I were an invisible body that could only become visible when something visible covered its surface.

In other words, a lot of the time we are faking it. We pretend we are something we are not. And life goes askew when we only for ourselves, either to maintain our false sense of power or to give in to the wounds of our victimhood. But here is the truth, said Father Merton: “The secret of my identity is hidden in the love and mercy of God.”[2]

This is the same God who says, “I love you. And I love your neighbor as much as I love you. And I want all of you to live in the justice of my peace, and to prepare your souls for the day when I am completely among you.”

The day is at hand, my friends, to come home to God. The day is near. Live as those who belong to the day.

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

[1] Annie Dillard, Holy the Firm (Harper & Row, 1977)
[2] Thomas Merton, Essential Writings (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Press, 2015) pp. 56-57