Monday, December 24, 2012

Jesus Is Worth the Wait

A sermon based upon Luke 2: 1-14
Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
For Christmas Eve, December 24, 2012

"Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace among those whom he favors!" 
(Luke 2:14 NRS)

There is an unforgettable story about Major Harold Kushner and a marine who was held by the Viet Cong for five and a half years.  Among the prisoners in Kushner’s POW camp was a tough young marine, 24 years old, who had already survived two years of prison-camp life in relatively good health. Part of the reason for this was that the camp commander had promised to release the man if he cooperated. Since this had been done before with others, the marine turned into a model POW and the leader of the camp’s thought-reform group.

As time passed he gradually realized that his captors lied to him. When the full realization of this took hold he became a zombie. He refused to do all work and rejected all offers of food and encouragement.  He only lay around on his cot sucking his thumb.  In a matter of weeks he was dead. Why?  Could it be that when this marine realized that his captors had lied to him, that he lost all hope? Hope is powerful. “Hope sees the invisible, feels the intangible, and achieves the impossible.”  I once heard that a dying person can live on one spoonful of water a day.  Even holding on to a little hope can keep us our spirits alive in much the same way.

The great prophet Isaiah gave a powerful presentation of hope, in Isaiah 9:6, naming the Messiah who was to come as the “Wonderful Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, and the Prince of Peace.”   But between Isaiah’s hope until the birth of Jesus was more than 700 years.  Even the Bible went silent for over 400 years of those years.   The voice of God went silent for a long, long time, but it wasn’t permanent.

By the time we get Luke’s account of Jesus’ birth, people were still wondering when the time would be fulfilled.   Right after the angel’s announcement of Jesus’ birth to the Shepherds keeping watch over their flock by night, we find an old man named Simon, still hoping to see the fulfillment of Israel’s long awaited hope before he dies.   Upon seeing Jesus and holding him in his arms, he rejoiced and praised God, saying these unforgettable words that even shocked Mary and Joseph:  "Master, now you are dismissing your servant in peace, according to your word;  for my eyes have seen your salvation,  which you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles and for glory to your people Israel." (Luk 2:29-32 NRS).   It was as if Simon was saying for all of us, Jesus is worth the wait! 

But we also know the difficulty most of us have with waiting, don’t we?    Christmas will be here tomorrow, but we still have one more night to wait.   Most children won’t be able to stand it much longer.  They have been waiting long enough.   Tomorrow is Christmas.  Many of them will get up before the break of dawn, without your permission or without your persuasion to see what there is to see.  The wait has been long, but tomorrow will prove that Christmas has been worth the wait.

But tonight we are still waiting.  And we are waiting not just for tomorrow, but for the truth of Christ’s rule of peace to become a reality all over the world.  We are still waiting tonight, and we will probably still be waiting tomorrow, but for now, we need to hear the joyful message of the angels who message of “good news and great joy” and their benediction of “glory to God in the highest, on peace” remind us again that Jesus is indeed the coming one who is worth the wait.   Can we still believe this heavenly pronouncement? Do we still hope for such peace to come to earth, into our lives and for our families?  Can we hope that this peace will even start with the nations and religions of the world?  Are we still willing to wait?

Last year in an interview the Dalai Lama was asked if he had hope for the future. He laughed and said, 'Of course I have hope. The future has not yet been decided.'   Do we believe this? Or do we live as if we believe there is no hope, as if the future has already been determined, as if the conflict of our lives and world are permanent.  Tonight and tomorrow, throughout the world, Christians will celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace. Even well beyond the Christian household, men and women with their families and children will mark this day with gift-giving and celebration.  People and cultures everywhere will hear again the song of hope and will look to the child and wait, singing “Glory to God in the highest and earth peace…

Shepherds were the first ones to learn that the hope had come, but that they still had to wait.  Unlettered, unwashed herders of livestock existing at the margins, far from the power-centers of respectability and prestige, they were the first to hear the angel’s chorus: "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace."  The shepherds believed what they heard.   The end of waiting did not come first to the power places and power holders of the world.  The message of hope emerged among the least significant, among shepherds, among those who could never have imagined.   They were the first to envision the end of all waiting---but they too still had to wait.  They had to wait on the child to grow, on the teacher to appear, on the cross to take his life, and upon the resurrection message to spread the word into the world.   They heard the angels, but they still had to wait.

Aren’t many of us are still waiting,  while we too “keep watch” in the 'fields' of our nations, in places very distant from all the noise of Washington, and the many other places of power and prestige?   How do we still think about the child, still contemplate the message, and wait on his rule of peace?   The song of angelic hope has long been sung, but it is still repeated every year at Christmas or felt every time a child is born.   We are still waiting on peace and on hope.   Can we still hope?  Do we still believe?  Is it still worth the wait?

In Matthew’s gospel, it is not the shepherds, but it is wise men who are wandering in the desert waiting to find the trail of a new star which has appeared.  These are not insiders, like Mary, Joseph, Simon or the Shepherds, but they are “outsiders”, travelers, migrants, or internationals, who have come from others cultures, other religions, and other places, looking and waiting for the same thing we all need---hope and peace.   Can you realize that tonight, we are not the only ones waiting, praying, hoping and believing?  Can we understand that we live in a world where people are more alike than different?  Can we understand that the core of what we are all waiting for is found in the truth---even the truth about Jesus Christ?  We don’t all have to be Christians to understand the truth that is in this child is the same truth we all need, want, and await.  We want God and we want peace.

In his book, “Why Jesus, Moses, Buddha and Mohammed crossed the Road”, Brian McLaren makes this point.  As a Christian writer, he was recently having a meeting with a bunch of Rabbi who were reading one of his books and asked him to speak.  Since his book was about the Christian Faith, he wanted to know what they thought about Jesus.  The answer the Rabbis gave was:  “Oh they know that Jesus was a faithful Jew, a true, but rejected prophet, the Son of God, and everything the New Testament said he was.”  “But,” they continued, “don’t expect us to jump up and down to become Christians and join your church.  Do you know how many thousands years Christians have bullied and persecuted us?   We can’t easily become one with you when we’ve been so mistreated like by some like you.  We just aren’t there, yet.   You’ll just have to wait!

So what do we do, while we are still waiting?  What are we to do when we are waiting to for others to understand Jesus and when others are waiting for us, the church, to understand Jesus?  If we are honest, we in the church don’t always get Jesus right either, do we?   Like Philip Gulley, a Quaker writer puts it on the title of one of recent books: “If the Church Where Christian” implying exactly why some people still have not become Christian, because so many us still are not.  It has nothing to do with Jesus, but it has everything to do with how unlike Jesus some of his followers still can be. If we are waiting on the world and the world is waiting on us, we could be in for a long, long wait!   Is Jesus really worth the wait?

So let’s get back to those Wise Men who came looking for Jesus.  Interestingly, the shepherds and wise men never appear again in Gospel accounts.  Maybe they never heard the rest of the story. Maybe they never became Christians. Becoming a Christian is not the only point of the Christmas story.  Surprisingly, everyone does not have to become a Christian for the peace of Christmas to come to the earth.   Even Jesus wasn’t a Christian, was he?  If you want to get technical about it, the followers of Jesus weren’t called “Christians” until Jesus’ followers moved out of Jerusalem and into Antioch.  The believing Thief on the Cross wasn’t a Christian either.  Everyone does not have to become ‘Christian’ or a ‘Church person’ to discover the hope of the earth, but everyone does have to come to love, follow and wait on the Christ.  If there will ever be peace on this earth, we all have to wait for Jesus.

Do you see what the wise men did while they were waiting in the in-between time between curiosity, adoration and saving faith?  They brought their best gifts.  That’s not a bad thing to do while you wait, is it?   Bring your best gifts to God and wait and see what God does next.  If people of the world learn this---just to bring their best gifts and wait on God, the peace would come sooner, than later, wouldn’t it?  But we don’t always give God our best.  Too often we become impatient and we give God our worst.  Who knows what they really knew of God, of Christ or whatever religion they had, but they did know how to give their best.
They gave to the child the greatest gifts: gifts of gold--- a costly gift of preciousness----a gift of frankincense---the blessed perfume of sacredness----and they also brought the healing ointment of myrrh---pointing to the healing and help we all need from God.  

Interestingly, when we think about these gifts of preciousness, sacredness, healing, these are the same gifts the magi are looking and waiting for.  And what they were waiting for is also what they brought to the child.   In this way, I guess you could say that the Christmas miracle of giving is kind of like the miracle of the Loaves and Two Fishes.  You give God the best you’ve got, the best you understand, the best you have to give, and then you wait and see what God does next.   Maybe this is exactly why Christmas keeps coming back year after year, so that we can learn what it all means and what we truly have to give.   The wisest people know that God can’t give anything to us until we give our best to him.  The seeds of hope for peace in the world have already been put into our human hands.   When we put to practice of what it means to be faithful to God and to others, we will not have much, if any longer, to wait.  The greatest gifts are in our hands.

But tonight we still wait.  Tonight, we are asked to bring to the child our best gifts and we are to wait for others and with others until they do the same.  This great hope we wait for is not out there, but the great hope for peace in the world is already here, waiting for us to open our hands and to bow down.  He waiting on us to give the best that we can give.  Will we give the gifts of the preciousness of life, of sacredness of God, and the gifts of healing we all need?  The greatest hope of the world is still waiting on us, not just on Jesus, on God, or some other Wise Men, but for the Christmas peace to break loose in this world could be waiting on us.

Let me close with a story about a preacher’s father.  John Phillip Newell’s Father had a dream of peace in his heart that he was waiting to come into the world.   His father was born off the Shankhill Road in Belfast, Northern Ireland, the most militant of Protestant communities.  He was born in 1922, the same month as the Irish Civil War began.  He breathed in the infection of soul that tore apart the life of a whole nation. He knew within himself the hatred that divided North from South, Protestant from Catholic, Christian from Christian.

But in his mid-eighties, John Newell’s father wanted his son to take him to the south of Ireland. He had never been before as an adult.   The son arranged a family holiday in County Kerry and on the first Sunday John took him into Dingle Town, naively thinking there might be a variety of churches to choose from.  They could find only one, St Mary's.    It was Catholic, but they were Protestant.   So there they were standing outside a Roman Catholic church, and the son was feeling slightly sorry for his father. "You know, we don't have to go in there," the son said to the father.  To which the Father responded, "I want to go to church and I want to go in there." Yet still unsure, the son said, "And we don't have to stay for the whole service!" To which he replied, "I want to go to church and I want to stay for the whole service."

The priest on duty that day was a delightful Irish man, whose warm style was endearing. When it came to the intercessions, he said, "Now we pray for the weather, Lord. It's not been too bad but it could be much better. And we have people visiting from all over the world, Lord, and we'd like them to see our beautiful country, so we pray for the weather, Lord." And on and on he went.

When it came to the distribution of the mass, there was that Belfast-born Protestant father with tears streaming down his face going forward to receive the bread and the wine from a Roman Catholic priest from the south of Ireland.   When you give the best gift---even the gifts of tears for the peace of the world, there is always hope.   As long as we can feel for each other, and feel pain for the world, we know that it will all be worth the wait. (From John Philip Newell's sermon, “Look to the Child”, www.dayone.org).

What in this world could not be reconciled, if we would bring Christ our best gifts and learn to wait---to wait for God and to wait with each other?   As we wait we give to God and to each other those gifts we consider most precious, most sacred and most healing.   If we will give our best, God will do the rest.  The in these kinds of gifts is the power of love---and we all know, that true love knows how to wait.

Will we bring to Christ our greatest gifts, we carry within ourselves---the precious gift of life, the sacred gift of Holy God, and the healing salve of love?   If we will bring such gifts as these, I believe, I know, I guarantee, that we won’t have much longer to wait.   So for now, we rejoice in what we have to give to each other this night:  "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace!"  Amen.

Sunday, December 23, 2012

Song Slightly Out of Tune

A Sermon Based Upon Luke 1: 39-56
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 23, 2012

“And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord." (Luke 1:45 NRS).

Hope sings!   As poet Emily Dickerson once wrote: “Hope is the thing with feathers that perches in the soul and sings the tune without the words and never stops at all.”   The music of hope is central to all our lives.  The music of hope can lift us beyond what we know and give us the promise of something more.   Music is a  gift of song which can make us want to believe in what might, can or will be. 

When you become a Christian in the European Church, at your baptism you are not only presented a Bible but you are also presented a song book. Your first Christian class as a newly baptized believer is often music lessons.  Music and the Word go together like hand and glove to bring faith, hope and love into our lives.   You just can’t imagine a Christian who doesn’t at least try to sing and make a joyful noise.  

And what would our lives be without the sound of music?  What would our faith be without the music of the soul?  What would Christmas be without the singing of carols and the music of hope?  Even for fun we must sing our way through this time of year: Jingle Bells.  Jingle Bells.  Jingle all the way.  Oh what fun to laugh and SING sleighing song tonight!  Here in the south we seldom sled at Christmas, but we always sing.

But Christmas music is much more musical jingles.  Christmas music must be sung with depth and meaning for Christmas to truly seem like Christmas.   These kinds of Christmas songs don’t rise and fall on the charts, but they are a different kind of music; the kind we sing over and over each year.  It’s not music that fits the times, but its music that makes the times and brings us the faith, hope and love of the season. 

We all have our favorite songs at Christmas.  For instance, “O Come, O Come Emmanuel,” is not a much beloved Christmas carol, because it sounds are minor and solemn.  “Silent Night” is much loved, but even it can drag on slowly.  “Joy to the World” sounds exciting and joyful.   “Angels We Have Heard On High” is wonderfully joyous, but it can be quite challenging with its chorus: “Gloria in Excelsis Deo”.  All these great Christmas songs are solid and enduring, but it might surprise you that one of the greatest Christmas songs must be sung slightly out of tune.

None of us like to hear music “out of tune”.   We will accept discord and dissonance from in the innocent voices of our children, but how could we love a Christmas song that is always sung out of tune.  But in a figurative way, that is exactly what we find in Mary’s song, which is our text for today.   Some have put her song to music, but it hasn’t become very popular.  It is too classical, too religious, too boring, or too sophisticated for popular consumption.  But of course, that it’s not at all ‘consumable” may be good thing.   What’s isn’t “consumed” can last, right?    This may be why Mary’s song has to be sung “out of tune” for our time, as much as it was Mary first sung it.

This ‘slightly’ out-of-tune” song has been called Mary’s Magnificat---taken from the first word for “magnify” as it begins in the Latin text.  Mary’s song is not the only Christmas tune in the Bible.  Luke’s gospel includes three others: The Exultation by Elizabeth, The Benedictus of Zechariah, and of course, the angels’ “Glory to God in the Highest!”  But before we get to the “glory in the highest” we have to hear and learn to sing this music of a God who is out of tune and out of step with how things are in the world. 

LET YOUR SOUL MAGNIFY THE LORD
The very first note ‘out of tune’ with our world was Mary’s own faith.  In a world of faithlessness, agnosticism, self-centeredness and cynicism, Mary was courageously faithful.  Against all that was wrong in the world, Mary did something right.  Even in a world that played to an entirely different melody, Mary marched to the beat of a different drum.  She lived the courageous, honorable, and radical life of faith in Israel’s God.

We are told in Luke’s text that out of all the women in Israel who could have been chosen to bear the baby who would be the Messiah, Mary was chosen because she was ‘the favored one’.   This does not mean that Mary was better than anyone else, nor does it mean that Mary was more important, but what it does mean is that Mary lived her life in the most normal, honorable, decent way that allowed God to use her for this very special miracle of grace.   What was it that God found so “favorable” with Mary?   Was it her youth, her virginity, her faithfulness to Israel’s law?   Perhaps this was part of it.   But what is most clearly revealed is found in very first line of her song when she starts: “Let my soul magnify the Lord!”   By this Mary means, Let my life and my soul put the focus straight on what God wants—not just on what I want. 

This wish to exalt and magnify the LORD is a wish still much out of tune with the world.  It has always been that way.   Most people march to the beat of their own music.  Most people live to amplify their own feelings and their own ideas.   But Mary’s song is different.  Mary’s song is about how her life can amplify, magnify, intensify or augment the sentiments and wishes of God for this world.  That is certainly not what most music amps pick up today, is it?  Most live to make their own music or to mimic world’s music, don’t they?   A life lived for the will of God gets very little attention, or is to be despised or belittled.  But despite the fact that in so many ways Mary was unremarkable in her life, she was exceptional in her faith.  There was ‘something about Mary’ which still makes her a woman out of tune with this world.  Strangely enough, it was this very peculiar quality of personal faith that made possible the birth of the Messiah.  It can be assumed that without the capacity for the Christ to be born in her heart, Jesus would never have been conceived in Mary’s womb.

When you think about it, Mary’s faith was counter-cultural, but it was not exceptional.  In fact, it is Mary’s very ordinary life and simple faith that allowed for God’s grace to intercept her world.  Jesus was born of Mary, because Christ was born in Mary.   As the Church has rightly said, Mary is right revered as the very first ‘disciple’ of Jesus.   We need more people with faith that is ‘out of tune’ and out of step with this world.   We need people who are exceptional, exactly because they are not the ‘new normal’ and not because they are the ‘old normal’ either, but we need people who will live out the ‘radical’ and ‘revolutionary’ life that is lived above and beyond the norms and noises of this world.  There is so much in this world that needs to be confronted, changed and challenged, but it won’t happen from the top-down, it must come from the bottom-up.   It must come from people like it did from that young 26 year-old girl who works at a Target store in Illinois, who wrote an email to petition and challenge the work practices of large retailers who want to work ordinary people on holidays for their own profits.  Now, that young girl named Jennifer Ann, has the potential to be a Mary.   By her sense of sense of rightness, justice and reason, she gave birth to the kind of business sense that needs to change in our greedy, selfish, ego-centric society.

Or also consider that young 15 year-old-Pakistani girl,  Malala Yousafzai, who was shot in the neck by the Taliban because she was speaking out and advocating the right of every young girl to have an education.  People around the world are praying for her recovery, crying out for justice against her shooters, and many are calling for her to be nominated for the Nobel Peace prize.   Why are they doing that, because this young girl was so exceptional?  No, they are doing this because this girl was so right, so true, so sincere, and so courageous.  Like Mary, she was a young, helpless girl, willing to sacrifice herself for the truth. (http://www.voanews.com/content/un-designates-malala-day-in-honor-of-pakistani-school-girl/1543221.html). We need more women, more young girls, and more people in general, who will sing this way.  We need people who will show and share their faith in the things that are true, just and right.    Mary sang this song that was ‘slightly out of tune’ and so must we.

LET THE BABY MOVE INSIDE OF YOU
Another ‘note’ about Mary’s song brings us to ask: Why is Mary singing this way?   What motivates her faith, besides this miraculous angel who brings her God’s message?   Well, of course, it must be the baby.  When a baby is coming, your life will focus on a lot of different things.  When people have children, they often settle down, become more serious, or they sing loud and clear, “God, help me!”  Mary ought to be singing this kind of song, because she is a young woman, having a child out of wedlock.  

Mary’s song may be all of this, but it is still more.  Mary is singing about God doing a miracle through her, but it’s not just a miracle for her, but it’s a miraculous work God will do for the world.  Like most mothers to be, she sees her child as unique and special, which makes her feel especially blessed.   What mother doesn’t feel this way?  What parent doesn’t see their child as some kind of “savior” from all that is meaningless and mad about the world?   Can’t a child promise to bring us all a different and better focus in life?   Mary is right about this, but again, we must realize that it’s not just her coming chance at motherhood that makes her feel this way.  When the baby jumps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb something even more special than the conception of two talented children is what is being announced.   These children are going to be born for a very special purpose---to bring hope of God’s mercy, grace, and salvation into the world. 

Can you still get excited about this?  Can you still feel the baby move inside of you?  I’m not talking about having a physical child, but now I’m talking about letting the truth of God move in us.  Is there still any life?  Is there anything left that makes you see the need for God’s truth, righteousness and justice in this world?    Let me explain more of what I’m implying.   In this child that was to be born, God is going to make music that no human voice can make alone.   In this baby, God is going to fulfill his promise, not simply a promise to bring a child to Mary, but to bring the sounds of hope to Mary’s world.    Mary is singing slightly out of tune when she sings of her hope through this child, God “has shown the strength of his arm; He has scattered the thoughts of the proud in their hearts”    This a very strange and “out of tune” way to save the world, isn’t it?   How does God show his “strength” by getting “scattering the thoughts of the proud” “bringing down thrones”,  by  “lifting up the lowly” and by ‘filling the hungry with good things, while the rich go away empty”?   Does this sound like Christmas?  What kind of Christmas spirit is this?  

All of us know and love the Victorian play “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, with its stingy and sour Ebenezer Scrooge, its ghostly and ghastly Jacob Marley and it’s underpaid and overworked Bob Crachit.  Maybe the “Grinch Who Stole Christmas” is more popular these days, but it is Charles Dickens’ story that rings much true with the world we know all too well.  What you may not know about is what inspired Dickens to write this story of hope for transformation and change.  Dickens himself grew up in some very humiliating conditions which are not directly described, but implied.   When Charles’ father was briefly imprisoned for improper business practices, this intellectually gifted young Charles Dickens had to leave school and go to work in the factory.  There he was became haunted for the rest of his life,  after witnessing firsthand the terrible working conditions of the most impoverished areas of London and saw the many social injustices the poor suffered at the expense of the wealthy and well-to-do.  Dickens was keenly touched by the lot of poor children in the middle 19th century England.    In May of 1843, he was about to publish a political pamphlet  entitled,  An Appeal to the People of England, on behalf of the Poor Man's Child" but instead, the pamphlet would become a narrative, with the title: A Christmas Carol, rather than a stuffy, polemical essay.  Dickens believed that this story of “good news” would be the best way to get his message across to the people who needed to have a Christmas conversion of their own to move away from their own greed and selfishness to become concerned, touched and burdened about the great social and spiritual need of his day.

What we can say about Dickens Carol, as well as, Mary’s song, is that they were both singing a song bigger than her own and very out of tune with how things were in the real world.   But is Mary’s song, really that much off based with how things are,  or should be today?   Mary sings that the changes that that need to happen, that should happen, or must happen, will only come when the “strong arm of the LORD scatters the proud in the thoughts of their hearts”.   Isn’t this still how the change must come?   The great needs for change, conversion and transformation, will never come fully and finally until people have a conversion of mind and heart.   Mary rightly sings that if change is going to come, God will have to bring it, and it must begin from within.  What Mary sings is out of tune with the Military options of our world.  Mary sings that the great change come not by the force of human powers, but by spiritual strength of the eternal and true God.   Peace does not come through our own human strength.  This is a message that is simply out of tune. Or is it?

LET GOD DO GREAT THINGS FOR YOU
The final thing that is much out of tune in Mary’s song is this hope that this baby, her baby will not only challenge the status quo of the world, but will also change that “same ole, same ole” world.  Mary sings that by sending this child, God will not only do “great things” for her (v. 49) but will offer “mercy for those who fear him from generation to generation” (v. 50) and God will “help his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy” (v.54).  She believes that it is the birth of this child, who will finally fulfill God’s long standing promise of saving Israel and bringing light, salvation, and hope to whole world.

To believe that such a promise has been, or is being fulfilled, still takes as much faith for us to sing and it did for Mary.   Our faith in Jesus is still a faith much out of tune with the ways of the world.  That has not changed.  I don’t believe it will ever change until God finally intervenes to put all the wrongs of this world to right.  We still wait on that change.  We still pray, “thy Kingdom come and thy will be done”.   Much like Mary, we still sing a song of hope that is slightly out of tune, don’t we?   Is there any used to sing it?  Is there is any reason to keep believing it?   

The great teacher of preachers, Fred Craddock tells about his most difficult “convert”.  He writes: “My mother took us to church and Sunday school; my father didn’t go. He complained about Sunday dinner being later when she came home. Sometimes the preacher would call, and my father would say, "I know what the church wants. Church doesn’t care about me.  Church wants another name, another pledge, another name, and another pledge.  Right? Isn’t that the name of the game?  Another name, another pledge." That’s what he always said.

Sometimes we’d have a revival.  The pastor would bring the evangelist and say to the evangelist, "There’s one now, sic him, get him, get him," and my father would say the same thing.  Every time, my mother in the kitchen, always nervous, in fear of flaring tempers, of somebody being hurt.  And always my father said, "The church doesn’t care about me. The church wants another name and another pledge." I guess I heard it a thousand times.

One time he didn’t say it. He was in the veteran’s hospital, and he was down to 73 pounds. They’d taken out his throat, and he said, "It’s too late."  They put in a metal tube, and X-rays burned him to pieces.  The son flew in to see him. He couldn’t speak, couldn’t eat.  Around the room were potted plants and cut flowers on all the windowsills, a stack of cards twenty inches deep beside his bed.  And even that tray where they put food, if you can eat it, on that was a flower.  And all the flowers beside the bed, every card, every blossom, were from persons or groups from the church.
The Father watched his son Fred read a card.  The Father could not speak, so he took a Kleenex box and wrote on the side of it a line from Shakespeare.  If he had not written this line, I would not tell you this story. He wrote: "In this harsh world, draw your breath in pain to tell my story."
I said, "What is your story, Daddy?"  And he wrote, "I was wrong." (Fred B. Craddock, Craddock Stories, Mike Graves and Richard F. Ward, eds., Chalice Press, 2001, p. 14.). 

Who will finally be proven wrong?  I guess for now, the truth remains to be seen—not only in the world, but in us.  Whether or not Jesus is real today depends on how we want to see things.  Do we look at the world only from our own limited perspective, or do we see it as God sees it?   It’s almost funny isn’t it, and also sad, that the closer we get to God the more Jesus makes sense.  Only as we “ponder it in our hearts” like Mary did can we find and know the truth. 

Whether Jesus’ birth makes a difference in the big, bad world “out there” Mary can’t yet know and neither can we.  But what Mary does know and can know, and what always makes Christmas real, is that Jesus is making a difference in her life.  This child is not just her child, but this is God’s child.  It starts with the same miracle every mother  knows, but it doesn't stop there.  This one poor baby, born of a peasant woman, born far away from the world’s powers, should never have been noticed at all.  His story ought not to have been told because nothing about him should have ever mattered.   It shouldn’t have mattered, unless, that is, the story is true. We are still telling Jesus’ story today because a helpless child came into this hopeless world and is still the only true hope of the earth.  This is a song of faith that remains very much out of tune with our world, but its strange sound is more hopeful than any other music I know.  Amen.         

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Christmas Fire


A Sermon Based Upon Luke 3: 7-20
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Third Sunday of Advent, December 16, 2012

“He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire (Luke 3:16 NRS)

John the Baptizer would not be a welcomed guest at most Christmas parties.  His message of repentance, judgment, change and baptism by water and fire, are just too much for our traditional, generic, polite family Christmas traditions.

Christmas is supposed to be fun.  It’s primarily a holiday, not a holy day.  We’ve changed the meaning and the message, softened it’s story that is much too stuffy for our wants.  What’s more, Christmas can’t be about change or repentance, because Christmas is about doing things just like we always done them, right?  It’s about putting up the tree and putting on the decorations.  It’s about children, family gatherings, food, festivities, music, warm services and celebration.   As the fatherly character Tevye sang over and over in the musical “Fiddler on the Roof”: It’s about “TRADITION!”  Christmas is supposed to be about keeping these wonderful cultural, family and religious traditions.  These ‘traditions’ are heart-warming and nostalgic, as they remind us of home, hearth, and happier days.  A Christmas most wished for is a Christmas that reminds us of what it used to be, and should be for our children, just as it was or should have been for us.   

There is a lot to love about Christmas and its traditions.  No one would want to take away from the beauty of the season---even its childlike focus and fun.   Christmas is about the birth of a child, but this child, we must also know, was born for more than fun, happy, or sentimental reasons.   So, to get the whole picture of Christmas, we also need to hear John’s side of the story and to contemplate his very important message.   If we don’t include John’s serious and solemn part of the story, all our celebrating becomes shallow, superficial and artificial.   

ANOTHER SIDE TO CHRISTMAS
Luke’s focus on John’s message centers around this very impressive question every preacher likes to hear after the sermon: “What then should we do?”  (Luke 3.10).  After John calls upon his listeners to “bear fruits worthy of repentance” (3.8), the people basically ask what does repentance look like.  John’s answer is not churchy at all, but it’s very practical.  In reply he said to them, "Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise."   Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, "Teacher, what should we do?"   He said to them, "Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you. "Soldiers also asked him, "And we, what should we do?" He said to them, "Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages."  (Luk 3:11-14 NRS).“

However you view Christmas, however you view religion and church, these are not our normal answers to “what should we do” are they?   What would it take to get us interested in this other side of Christmas? 
It would take a lot, wouldn’t it?  It might take a Hurricane blasting through your world!  It might take having your house set on fire and losing everything.  It might take losing your job or some other shocking event to shake you into considering this other side of Christmas.   You might have to be left out in the cold, without a coat, before you consider others who have none.  You might have to experience a Christmas with no food on your own table, before you think about sharing your table with someone.   You might have to be “soldier” experiencing the ravages of war before you understand just how hate, evil and injustice is out there.   It might take some realization of what happens when people get greedy, before we understand what we can lose. 
Can we see this ‘other’ side of Christmas from where we are standing? Is it not closer than ever before?
John sees the world differently than most of us have ever seen it.  This is also why John sees Christmas differently.   John sees Christmas from the point of view of the voiceless, the disadvantaged, the struggling, the poor and the suffering.   From this side of things, Christmas always looks different and it’s sometimes hard to look at, especially when all we want for Christmas is for fun.  Why spoil the fun, right? 

When Teresa and I were missionaries, for 5 of six years, we were away from home at Christmas.  We couldn’t go to the normal Christmas events---the family gatherings, the church services, the American traditions—No Rudolf, No Charlie Brown, No Miracle on 34th Street.    We had to learn to be, just us, alone at Christmas.

One year, our second year of living in the eastern part of Germany, Teresa had a great idea.  We lived in a town filled with political refugees from all over the world.  Sometimes they would show up at our church.  So, what did Teresa do, but she invited a couple of those refugees who were also alone, to share our table at Thanksgiving and at Christmas.   One of them was a Romanian and the other was African.  It was a moment sort of like answering John the Baptizer, “Whoever has food must share with anyone who has none”.

I remember specifically, how I said a prayer and we started eating our delicious meal that Teresa had prepared.   The young man from Africa, named John, just stared at his plate.   “Do you not like this kind of food”, we asked him.   “Of course, it’s fine!”  “Are you O.K.?”  We asked again.   “Yes,” John answered, “It’s just that I don’t know where my family is!   Here I am, with all this in front of me, and I don’t know whether my wife and children are even alive!”    I had to flee!   I had to run for my life!   It’s so hard to eat, when I don’t know.  I feel so guilty!”

What does John say to this?  What do you say when you share your food and they still can’t eat it?  I’ll tell you what John says.   John says, “I baptize you with water, but the one who comes after me will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”   Here we were, gathered around that table, and everything we thought about Christmas was on fire.   It was a baptism of fire—the fire of God’s Spirit.   We were all trying to eat, and God was baptizing us with the Holy Spirit.

A REAL SPIRIT  WITHIN
What kind of “baptism” is this?   A lot of people get confused about the ‘Baptism of the Holy Spirit”.   They think it some kind of unique religious experience that God only gives special people who are good enough, right enough, religious enough.   Others think it is some kind of “out-of-the-body” other worldly experience of God’s grace.  But what we discovered and what I think John was preaching, is that the baptism of the Holy Spirit is nothing more and nothing less than a baptism in to reality.  It is not to rise above how things are, but it is to dive into seeing life as it really is, and not just seeing it as we would like to see it.   It is that baptism of the water that becomes a baptism of fire when people realize who they are and how they are, and even how they aren’t, and then ask themselves, “What should we do?”  “How should we respond”, not just saying, “What’s in all this for me?   For you see, you don’t get to this “fire” of Christmas, without also looking straight into the pain, the suffering and the hurt others have, and that you can help answer.   This is the Baptism of Fire which can come as a time of questioning, testing and trial.   Christmas is warm, but that warmth can also burn.  Here I’m reminded of my daughter’s own words, some of her very first, when we adopted her in November.  She was only 16 months old.  She walked up a Christmas candle, stared straight into it, put her hand close and then she said,  “Ahnie, burn!  Meaning, that will burn!   “Yes, dear, Christmas is warm, but it can also burn.

In our text, John says to the people, “I can only baptize you with water….”   John really can’t make them understand the need to look into this fiery side of Christmas.   The burning of the fire can only come from THE ONE who is coming---THE ONE who is more powerful.   He’s the one who brings the fire.   John says, “I am not able to even untie his sandals as a slave would do.”   This baptism of fire, the real fire of life, can only come when you let HIM baptize and burn his truth into your heart.

We talk a lot at Christmas about the difficulty that some of us have, getting into the Christmas spirit.   Sometimes we are like Ebenezer Scrooge.  Bah Humbug!  It will take a lot to move us, excite us, stir us.  We’ve seen too much and know too much to get excited about Christmas.  Some of us want Christmas to hurry up and get over with.   It isn’t yet here, but we are ready to move on.   It’s understandable.  Some of us are setting there with John at that table.  We have have too much reality to get into what people call the Christmas “spirit.”   It’s so artificial.  It’s so shallow.   We’ve seen too much.  We just can’t manufacture Christmas anymore.  The Christmas that was, just can’t “bless us” anymore.  Instead of warming us, the ways and season of Christmas can leave us feeling as if we have been left out in the cold.   The fire is gone.  Our wood is wet.  No matter what we turn on to spark the flame, it gets quickly extinguished.

Perhaps this is even more of a reason we need God’s fire this Christmas.   We need a fire that still burns when all other flames have burned out.  We need a spark that will ignite our frustrations into feelings that fill our empty spirits with new life.   Do we feel a need for God’s fire, at Christmas?

Herod didn’t.   You can read what he did when he heard about John’s preaching.   When John’s preaching got into Herod’s heart, he didn’t like it.  So, what did Herod the ruler do?   He shut John up by putting him away in prison (3.20).   Why did Herod do that?  Was it any different than what we too might do, when we like to be in charge of our own kingdom and our own life?   Herod was his own person.   Herod had his own way.  Herod wasn’t going to let God’s fire get into him.   He wasn’t going to let God get a word in edgewise.  Like many, too many this Christmas, Herod already had his plans, and he wasn’t going to let any fiery preacher or God of fire, upset his applecart.   He would live his life without anyone else’s recommendations.   While most of us would take Christmas to be “good news”, John took Christmas to mean something else.   He rightly understood that the this message of John laid the “axe at the root” of his own tree, but Herod was not going to let anyone pick up that axe; and he definitely wasn’t going to pick it up himself.

FANNING THE FLAME
We all know what Herod was not going to do.  He was not going let the fire burn in him.  He was not going to pick up the axe that was laid at his own tree.  He was going to shut up reality in a prison.  He was not going to face how things really were, nor was he going to do anything to let the fire get close to him.    But I hope you are not like Herod.  You don’t want to shut Christmas away.  You face a hard reality, but you still want to feel the warmth of the flame.  You want to see the fire, so you ask yourself, in spite of how things are, who I am, or what’s real, is there any way you can move toward or re-light the Christmas fire in your heart?  John, what then should we do?

When I was pastor in Shelby, back in the 80’s, I was part of the Kings Mountain Baptist Association.   Rev. Bob Davis had established a social ministry in that area; the first one in North Carolina, called a “Toy Store” ministry.   Annually we churches got involved by collecting toys for needy families so they could have some way to celebrate Christmas.   We wanted them to give some gifts, and we wanted to share our love.

It was a very successful event.  We collected much  more than toys and we interviewed families, shared our faith, counseled them, and it all made Christmas real for us, as much as it made it possible for them.
I encouraged my church to get involved.   We all had what we needed, and some people did not have that.  Some were enthused to work in the ministry.  Others felt it was a bother to their own family time and traditions.   But I’ll never forget how one Sunday School teacher and class responded.   They got involved with the toy store ministry, but they wanted to go deeper.   The decided, as a Sunday School class, to adopt their own needy family, not just for Christmas, but for the whole year.   They learned a lot of hard things about life, about poverty, and about caring that  year.  They learned a lot of things they did not know.  They also learned that a lot of things they had believed about people was wrong.   But what one lady named Lynn learned, was the most amazing witness of all.   It was a witness to the real fire of Christmas.   She told me, that never again could she or her class ever have a Christmas party again, without inviting, adopting or helping a family in need.  Christmas was not Christmas, unless they all jumped into the fire of people’s needs, hurts, pains and problems.  Without this Christmas was not warm enough.  Without doing something put them into reality, Christmas was just not Christmas.   I think that Sunday School class had a “baptism by fire”.  

Do you remember what the disciples came to Jesus and asked?  James and John came to Jesus and asked, “Teacher, we want you to do for us whatever we ask of you.”   That’s what a lot of people think Christmas is, or what Jesus is.   They think Jesus gives me “whatever” they ask.   So they ask Jesus, just like the Zebedee sons did: “Grant us, that we sit on your right and on your left in the kingdom?”  When they get what they want, they think the Kingdom has come.   But Jesus thinks otherwise.  Then, Jesus then turns to them, saying, “You don’t realize what you are saying?  Are you able to “drink the cup” and be baptized with the baptism I’m baptized with! 
We are able! They answered.  Sarcastically, or ironically Jesus answers:  “Oh Yes, you will be baptized with my baptism (Mar 10:39-40 NRS) but it’s not at all what you think. 
Whoever wants to be great, must be a servant…whoever wishes to the first, must be a slave.”   And whoever wants the true warmth of Christmas has to first be baptized with the fire---the very same fire that burns with the pain of this world is the very same fire than can make your Christmas real.  But if you want to get warm, the word says, you must move closer to the fire.

John’s final picture of this Christmas fire is unforgettable.  John says that only one who can baptize you and I with this fire has, “His winnowing fork is in his hand…”  (17).   In the ancient world, when they were threshing wheat, someone would build a fire, fan the flame, and then someone would use a pitchfork-like instrument, especially made for wheat---a winnowing fork, to toss the wheat into the air so the wheat would be thrown into the direction of the granary, but and the worthless chaff or husk would then be blown away straight toward the fire.   As one has rightly commented, we wrongly think of the devil as having the pitchfork of authority, when all power and authority really belongs to Jesus Christ.   (http://hyperactivetheology.blogspot.com, May 15, 2011).

What Christ allows to come through the fire, will not burn you, but it will burn in you.   It is a flame that will not just make you warm, but it will make you alive.  When you let God’s fire burn in you, this flame that burns for others, it will not just make your Christmas alive, it will make your family alive, and it will make you alive.   When Christmas is more than getting what you want, this is when, and only when, Christmas can give us all what we really need---a world set on fire, and baptized with a spirit of love, purpose, mission and hope.   The only kind of Christmas fire that lasts is the fire that will burn within our hearts, as our hearts burn with the loving Spirit of God.  This is only way to truly warm you heart, and set your faith on fire this Christmas. 

Anybody got a match?  Anybody care to fan the flame?  Anybody realize what you can do to feel the fire, Gods fire, this Christmas?  John knows.  You can know too.  Amen.  

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Gone Speechless


A Sermon Based Upon Luke 1: 5-20
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Second Sunday of Advent, December 9, 2012

“He kept making signs to them and remained speechless. (Luke 1:22 CSB)” 

Silence is as not as golden as it used to be.   Much of the activity of our world depends on making a lot of noise and a lot of talk.      

We seem to have a great need for noise, and more noise.   What do most of us do when we get up in the morning?  We want to hear.   We want to hear the morning news.  And the daily news we want to hear depends on somebody saying something.  The 24/7 cable news is a non-stop business of talking and noise-making.   Noise gets our attention.  It makes news, sells books, and makes an impact.  All this noise has created a need for even more noise.     

The Christmas season makes its own kind of noise.  What would Christmas be without the sounds of the season---the singing of carols, the warm greetings of good cheer, and of course, the message of “good news” which we believe will make us most happy?  Christmas is all about making THE most joyful noise, right?   Not so fast. 

GONE SPEECHLESS IN FAITH
According to Luke, the most important Christmas story-teller, the very first Christmas miracle does not make a sound.  It was kind of a very odd, silent, and even negative miracle--a kind of miracle in reverse.  The first miracle of Christmas was the very odd occurrence of a preacher who can’t talk.   Preachers don’t like this miracle.  But we should have known it was coming, because before there could be a “holy night”, there had to be a “silent night”.   Before we can get to the core of Christmas, we need to hear this silence.   “Jingle Bells” can’t be heard until the preaching stops.

Don’t you remember how true this was when you were a child?   When we would gather at Teresa’s grandmothers on Christmas Eve, before we opened the presents, we first had to get still and listen to Maw Maw Pauline read the Christmas story.  Children had to be taught to endure these moments of stillness at a very young age or else, they couldn’t stand it.   They fun can’t start, until the talking stops.

Needless to say, putting a “dumb”, speechless preacher ahead of the Christmas story proves that Luke wasn’t a preacher.  Tradition says he was a medical doctor.  No preacher or prophet would put such a story up front.   Mark skips Christmas altogether.  John doesn’t tell this story, he starts with the “Word”.   Even Matthew, who does talk Christmas, doesn’t dare tell this story.  He gets right talking about Jesus.   But Luke decides to start with a speechless preacher, just standing there, looking all kinds of silly.    

The scene is even funny.   Zachariah comes out the inner most sanctuary to make his normal speech and can’t speak.  He starts waving his arms.  He keeps on waving his arms.  People are wondering what is going on.  They know something is not right, but since Zachariah is a good priest and a good man, they give him the benefit of a doubt.  “He’s seen a vision”.  If they only knew that what had happened, but all good ole preacher Zach could do was wave his arms and look “dumb”.  No wonder they called his son a Baptist!

 This whole scene is filled with humor, but it’s not funny.  A year or so ago, a prominent Pastor in Greensboro announced to his congregation that he had to retire early to go on disability.   In the process of having surgery to repair a hernia, they removed his breathing tube and damaged his vocal cords.  Now, he could only speak about 5 or 10 minutes until his voice gave out.   You might wish too!   Shame on you!  Being a preacher, you need to talk a little longer, so he had to file for disability.   He must have had a good lawyer.  

If you are a preacher or a church goer, this story speechlessness has serious repercussions.   The silence of Zachariah can be deafening.   It can have more silence than we may want to hear.  

Zachariah’s story began with angel appearing.   Even for the Bible, and for a priest, having an angel appear is not normal.   “Fear overwhelmed him” (1.12).  While shaking in fear, Zachariah is told by this angel that his wife Elizabeth will bear (him) a son to be named John.  Birth stories have been told, but who would think it could happen to you.   The angel tells Zachariah:  “This child will be great in the sight of the LORD” (1.15). “He will turn many of the people of Israel to the LORD their God” (1.16) and “with the Spirit of Elijah” (the great prophet), he will “turn the hearts of parents to their children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the righteous, to make ready a people prepared for the LORD.” (1.17). 

Again, Zachariah is not “underwhelmed”, he is “overwhelmed” (1.12).  His negative response shows us a very human side this well-respected priest:  “How will I know this is so?  I am an old man, my wife is getting on in years” (1.18) While it would be nice to read the story from the outside, Luke takes us on the inside; inside the church, inside the parsonage and inside the heart.   But perhaps we can understand a little of Zechariah’s cynicism.   He’s an old man.   He’s been around the block a few times.  He’s an expert in all the things that pertain to God.   He knows too much to get caught up in all this revelatory excitement. 

If it sounds too good to be true, it normally is.  That is the norm, and of all people the priest knows it, even if he can’t talk about it.  People might fall for it, but not him.   He’s seen too much and gotten too smart.   We know too, that though millions buy lottery tickets, only one person wins.  You have a better chance to be struck by lightning.   Most people stay poor and even those who do win, can’t manage all that money.  Life is bent in a “same ole, same ole” direction and is mostly downhill.   As I heard someone say recently, “The golden years aren’t so golden!”  But don’t blame Zachariah or his age for his negativism.  As a priest, he has experience.  He’s seen the worst side of life.  He hears about all the sins.  He hears all the prayers and knows that most seem unanswered.  You can’t fool him and you probably can’t help him much either.  If Zachariah has a voice left, it’s negative. 
  
Several years ago, when living in Greensboro, we bought our first house.  I was forty-two and finally had a house to call my own and also, I was learning about all the responsibilities with homeownership.  One day I got a letter in the mail, telling me my homeowner’s insurance was about to be canceled.   I called my insurance agent.  He said it was because I had a large crack in my driveway where a root had pushed up the concrete and made it too hazardous.  I could not believe they would cancel my insurance over a root.  I protested to the agent and he understood.  He said all this was done by an inexperienced adjuster who drove buy, took a picture and filed a hasty report.   He’s probably trying to make a name for himself.   He cited the concern that someone would visit me, get out of their car, fall and sue.   I told the agent to tell the company not to worry.  “I’m a preacher,  nobody ever comes to see a preacher. ” 

GONE SPEECHLESS FOR FAITH
I should have kept my mouth shut.   When life turns negative, we often become negative too.   You can lose your voice for God and for good, even when you are still talking.   For a preacher, negativity is a special hazard, even though we are called to preach “good news”.   Bad news just works better.  Sin sells.   Gossip works better than gospel.   Any of us can get hooked into such negativity.  Christians can sound more negative than positive.  Have you ever been in a church where the tone of the preacher’s sermon and the Amens of the congregation make the bad news sound more exciting than the good?   If you are Baptist, you probably grew up in a Zachariah kind of church which spent much more energy talking about what was wrong with the world rather than talking about what is right about God.  Is there any wonder many people don’t want to talk to Christians, who are so much better at talking about what they are against, rather than what they are for?  Is there any wonder it has gotten harder to talk about our faith to the world?   Who wants to listen to our negativity with all else they hear?  Christians often seem just as negative, domineering, pushy, extremist, uncaring, unkind, or snobbish as anyone else, or worse.   We can make “mountains” of issues out of mole hills.  We can strain the gnats and swallow camels.   We can see the splinter in the eye of another, but miss the log in our own.  We can get so big about our own viewpoints we can no longer walk through the eyes of needles in our discussions about faith.  It’s our way or the highway and most people take the trip away from us.     

Sometimes the best word we can have is to stop talking, at least at first.  Speaking up isn’t always the best way to share our faith.  When we get stuck in the negative, judgmental ways of seeing things, people don’t want hear us just like the angel did not want to hear Zechariah.   Like him, before we can rightly share our faith, we may need to lose our voice.   We might then come to realize that we’ve already lost our voice, because we’ve already lost our faith.   More might be will be believed, understood or revealed, if we would just be quiet and listen.  James was in this same kind of Christmas spirit when he said, “Be slow to speak, and quick to listen.” 

Hearing and seeing Zechariah’s lack of faith, the angel identifies himself.  “I’m Gabriel.  I stand in the presence of God, and I have been sent to speak to you and to bring you this good news, BUT….”  It is this very “good news” which Zechariah has difficulty trusting and believing.   The very “presence of God” is speaking, but Zechariah can’t grasp it.  As a priestly voice for God, he must be held accountable.   “Because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time, you will become mute, unable to speak, until the day these things occur” (1.19-20).   The priest must now lose his voice so he can regain his faith.

What happens next is both comical and sad.  Zechariah comes out to stand before the people to give his normal message.  But he can’t speak.  The people are somewhat sympathetic, claiming he’s had some sort of vision.   Zechariah knows it’s much more than that, but he can’t speak.   He has all these things to say, but he can’t get it out.  He waves his arms.  He stands there. There’s all kinds of deafening silence.  Some people take a deep breath.  Others probably catch themselves chuckling.  Maybe some dare to laugh out loud.  With the time of worship gone, Zechariah just goes home, without saying a word.  Everyone goes home.  They all worshipped but none of the knew it.  They had a real sermon, but no one said or heard a word.  God was at work, but he was at work in all this silence.  By taking away the voice, God was at giving them a new faith.

HEARING GOD’S VOICE BEYOND OUR OWN
The good part of Zechariah’s speechlessness is what he didn’t say until God spoke.  We read that it was on the 8th day, when they “came to circumcise the child” (1.59), and they all were going to name him.  Zechariah still couldn’t speak.  The naming of the child was going to happen the same way, the way it was always done, after the old traditions.  If God was going to bless this child, everybody thought, this child had to have the family name.  He had to fit the mold.  He had to take name after his Father? Right?  Wrong.  It was Zechariah’s wife, Elizabeth, who needed to speak up, if God was going to speak.  Sometimes, and especially at Christmas, if God is going to get a word in edgewise, a woman needs to speak up.    

Zechariah’s household was a good house, but it had become a house filled with too much negativity.  So the very next word we hear in Zechariah’s house is not his own voice, but it’s the voice of his wife.  Elizabeth’s very next word breaks all the negativity and all unbelief at home, when she speaks up with the voice of God in her heart and answers, “No”!   He is to be called John.”   Of course, the people argue with her.  “None of your relatives have this name.”  She doesn’t give in.  She stands her ground.  So, in a man’s world, what do they do, but they go to Zechariah’s, who still can’t speak.  They’d rather hear the opinion of a dumb preacher than a woman who speaks her own mind, or especially God’s mind.   They motion for Zechariah, the dumb preacher to have the final say so in naming this child.  “What name do you want to give the child, Zechariah?” 

Zechariah takes a writing tablet and wrote: “His name is John”.  When that man listened to his wife, he started listening and agreeing with God.  They were all amazed.  They were amazed that he agreed with his wife, against all the traditions, their customs, and against his own ego.  It was then, we read, that “immediately his mouth was opened, his tongue freed, and he began to speak, praising God. “  When Zechariah listened for the voice of God through his wife, he regained his voice for God.

This is not a women’s liberation sermon, it’s a human liberation sermon.  Sometimes we can’t hear God’s voice, until we lose our own.  Sometimes God speaks through a woman.  Sometimes God speaks through the man.   Sometimes God speaks through a no.  And sometimes God speaks the loudest through the silence.  But the truth of Zechariah’s story is clearly this:  We can’t hear what God has to say, until we lose our own voice.   Losing our voice is a first step to regain true faith.  If we will listen for God’s true voice first, then we find a new chance to speak “good news” for God. 

Do you hear what Zechariah went on to say and to sing, when he gets this second chance?   Now, he “blesses the LORD God of Israel….who has raised up a mighty savior….” (1.68)   It is not by big noisy ways, but by still, small ways, that God will “show mercy”, and “rescue” (1.72-73).   It is by “the forgiveness of sins” (1.77) and “by the tender mercies of our God, that the dawn will break upon us---to give light to us who sit in darkness, in the shadow of death” (1.78).   Only when Zechariah let’s God speak, can he come to know that when most talk war, that only God “will guide our feet into the way of peace”  God can and will give any of us a second chance, if we are willing to let God work in a new way.   Will you lose your voice, opinions, attitudes and beliefs to find the true voice of God still trying to speak?   It’s no small wonder what you can say, when you lose your voice and go speechless.  Amen.  

Sunday, December 2, 2012

SKYFALL

A Sermon Based Upon Luke 21: 25-36
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
First Sunday of Advent, December 2, 2012

Then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory”.  (v. 27)

Clouds aren’t what they used to be.   Today we don’t just talk about “clouds” in the sky but we also speak about ‘iclouds’.  These “iclouds” are those places in cyberspace where you can store personal information about yourself, your work, your music or your movies, all safely stored away somewhere out there in appledom (who invented the icloud), where it will be protected from any evil, earthly virus that makes your computer come crashing down.  It can also store all your stuff until you want to download it to a new computer, cell-phone, or laptop.  No matter where you are or when you need it you can access all your stuff.  One major concern about all the gathering information in cyberspace is that we will die, but all that “cyberstuff” will live on in an “cloud” until somebody finds it and pushes “delete”.   All your stuff survives, even when its owners don’t.       

Our text for this Advent also speaks of a “cloud”.   The picture Jesus gives us is not about a computer that comes crashing down, but of a world that comes crashing down.  The only thing that survives and brings any hope is that the “Son of Man” will survive and come “in a cloud with great power and glory”.   When the world crumbles so that “one stone is not left upon another; and all is thrown down” and when even the “heavens will be shaken” the only power and glory remaining comes from this “cloud” which holds all human hope for redemption.  Of course, all this “cloud” talk, is metaphoric “end of the world” talk.   It’s strange talk, but it’s true.  Like the advent of “iclouds” or “Son of Man clouds”, the truth can be stranger than fiction.  

THE END THAT ALREADY CAME
When Jesus speaks about the “Son of Man coming in a cloud” he is talking apocalyptic.  He is talking about an an “end” that has already came in “his world”.   The clues about this are all around in this mysterious text.   When Jesus says, “not one stone will be left upon another” he is speaking specifically about the destruction of the temple.  Jerusalem was destroyed by the Romans about 40 years after Jesus spoke these words.  Jesus saw the end coming sooner, rather than later and said: “This generation will not pass away, until this is fulfilled”.  That is exactly how it happened.  

Another clue of when this all happened comes  when Jesus says, “but before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you…”   By the time Luke’s gospel was written, all kinds of Christians had been arrested, persecuted and killed.  Stephen was stoned.  James was shot with an arrow.  Peter was hung upside down.  Paul was beheaded…and the list goes on.  The whole history of the early church is filled with the blood of the martyrs which, as we all know, became the seed of the church.   “You will be hated by all, but not a hair of your head will perish.  By your endurance you will gain your souls” (v. 18-19). 

Those who followed Jesus had hardships.  Many who were his disciples, died.  But the church didn’t die. Nor did the church lose its soul.  With the promised and predicted persecution, the church only got stronger and stronger, and grew more and more.  This is one of the true “wonders” of the ancient world; how the church was built around a crucified, defeated Jesus, who was worshipped by a people who were constantly hated, attacked, ridiculed and even killed for their faith.  It sounds impossible that the message or mission of the church could have survived, but it did. 

Yet another indication of 'when' this happened is understood from Jesus’ military warning: “when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then you’ll know…..” (vs. 20).  He’s speaking directly about the Roman invasion of Jerusalem in 70 AD which gave us Masada and the diaspora---the tragic death of the last Jewish hold-outs and the scattering of the Jewish people over the whole earth.   This is how the Jewish people became a people without a country for most of their history, at least until 1948.   The descriptions Jesus gave are utterly realistic about the terrors of war, invasion and the chaos that always follows: “Those in Judea must flee to the mountains, and those inside the city must leave it….for these are days of vengeance, as a fulfillment…. Woe to those who are pregnant….there will be great distress….they will fall by the edge of the sword…they will be taken away captive among all nations….(remember two will be a mill, and one will be taken, the other left).  Those who live and die will be random and  unpredictable.   It will all seem so meaningless, but this is what will happen when “Jerusalem will be trampled on by the Gentiles….until the time of the Gentiles will be fulfilled” (v. 24).

That is how the world will end, that is how the world will end, said the poet, T.S. Elliot, not with a bang, but with a whimper.”   Well, it all depends how who you are.  For some people, especially the rich, there is a very big bang when their world falls apart.  But for others, especially the poor, the end often comes like a fading recording, as life becomes fainter until the end whimpers----everything unwinds unnoticed, just as their lives always are, until everything is gone never to return.  Things will never be the same.   Even though some survive, everything is different.  And as Jesus described their feelings.  It wasn’t just that earth that was shaking, but it was also the “heavens” that shook (26).  When describing the end that came, Jesus hit the proverbial nail right on the head.

THE END THAT IS STILL COMING
I guess many might read this passage and say, who cares? That’s how it was, but that’s not how it is now, and has nothing to do with today or our future, right?  Oh, how we wish, the end would never come, right?   

We wish for all kinds of things in life.   Remember as a child how you were asked, if you found a Genie in a bottle what 3 things would you wish for?  If you were smart, your last wish was always for 3 more wishes.  We wish life itself did not have an ending---and could go on, and on, and on forever.  Eternity seems to be in our “hearts”.  We wish worlds, nations, and other human projects and dreams would not end.   But the Bible tells us the truth about life, not what we wish or deny to be true.  What happened then, can happen again today also, and will.  History has a funny way of repeating itself, doesn't it.   Dejavu happens.   Stuff happens.  Life happens.  Death happens.  Way too much in this passage is exactly how things always happen when “worlds” falls apart.   Wars.  Disasters.  Intolerance.  Persecution.  Marching Armies.  Trampled cities.  People fleeing as refugees.  People fainting for fear.  We haven’t known much of this here it here in America, at least not yet, but Europe has, Asia has, Africa has, South and Central America has, and still do.  We can also add that we haven't or hadn't known much poverty and hunger right in our own neighborhoods too, but  now we do.  Things do fall apart.  Who would have figured the Arab spring, or who would have thought about the Halloween Hurricane?  It’s not so hard to imagine “what” might happen, but it’s much harder to imagine “when” or “who” it will happen to next, but it will happen.  “You can bet your bottom dollar, it will,” my mother used to say.   How did she know?   The end comes, it will always come.

When people run websites and write books about the coming end, which sell like hot cakes, the fear is there---it’s always there.   Much of the predictions are ridiculous.  Much of the books, even the interpretations of the Bible are just plain ludicrous.  Imaginations and predictions can run wild, very wild.  What is even more frightening is to know that the end can even become a self-fulfilling prophecy for us.  If we think too much about it, we can even make it so.   This is why Jesus also warns us:  “Beware that you not be led astray…. the end will not come immediately…..Nation will rise up against nation…You will be hated because of my name….  the Son of Man will come….Heaven and earth will pass away….   Jesus speaks with caution, but he still speaks very plainly that end of life will happen to all of us, as he says: “For it will come upon all who live upon the face of the whole earth.”

A few years ago, most of us could who are over 50 would never have imagined that the end was right under our noses when we were children, and we didn't even realize it.   It wasn't long after the great victory of World War II, and then came all these close calls such as the Vietnam War or the Cuban Missile crisis.  I was alive then, but too young to realize just how near the end we all were.   On a recent News Documentary about the Cuban Missile Crisis, they told how Bobby Kennedy knew how close we were to the end and he asked his children if they wanted to leave Washington and go to California, but they all refused.  We were just that close to oblivion   Right after that, who could have imagined a President murdered in cold blood.   Just like none of us could have imagined 911 on such a crystal clear September morning.  Neither could we have imagined the crash on Wall Street—a second time, or maybe still, a third.  Most are deep into denial, and most have trouble imagining that the end might come, not just to the world, but also to us.  I could have never imagined being seriously injured in a car wreck at 17 and having to suffer the results all my life.  Who can imagine that an end will come to us?  But it can---no, it will.  And this is this is exactly where Jesus is going with all this.  “For it will come upon all who live….”  

Are you alive?  Does your life have a beginning?  It will also have an end.  You, as a physical, breathing, living human being will have an end, no matter how hard this is to face or imagine.  Now I know, that I sound a lot like “chicken little” running around calling out that the sky is falling, the sky is falling, when it’s not hitting us on the head, at least not yet.  But it could.  The sky may not fall anytime soon, but it can and some day it will.   We live is a physical, energy expending, endlessly expanding, and constantly changing universe that does not remain the same, though it may appear differently.  The only only true constant we never want to admit is change; changes are happening all the time.  We all have beginnings which will have endings.   

ALWAYS HAVING THE END IN VIEW
Facing reality is difficult for busy or very “distracted” people to get our heads or our hearts around, but we  must.  Jesus does not tell his disciples all this simply to make them afraid, but he is helping them face reality---their reality---the world’s reality---life’s reality.  Jesus tells them this to get them ready, mentally, physically and spiritually.   He does not want to scare them.  Fear is already present.  But Jesus wants to warn them, and to prepare them so they can save both their lives and their souls.  

Listen, to what Jesus prepares them, when he says, “When you see Jerusalem surrounded….you must flee to the mountains….leave the city.”  Can you hear what Jesus is saying?   He is saying: Don’t fight against it.   When the end comes, this is not a time to fight, to hold on, or to defend, but this is a time to “give up” and to go and “run for your life”.  We don’t like to hear that kind of talk.  Jews didn’t like to hear it either.  Many of them held out on Masada and died.   To mimic Kenny Rogers Gambler song: "They knew when to hold them, but not when to fold them, when to walk away or when to run."  They could have run and lived.   Sometimes things in the world fall apart.  And you have to learn to let go.   You have to stop fighting against everything.  Sometimes you have to find somewhere to go and to give up.   In a ending situation, this will be the best resort and not the worst thing that will happen.  When the end comes, you have to “let go” and 'let God'!

Most of us have been there when someone is terminally ill and is near death.  We’ve been there when some have held on and even other family members have begged their loved one, selfishly, “Don’t leave, Don’t leave me!  We understand such feelings, but it’s often not in the dying person’s best interest.  Sometimes we have to tell our loved ones it’s O.K. to let go---that we are going to be O.K., and that they are O.K., and that everything is in God’s hands.  We give them permission and they give us permission to “let go and let God”.  That can be a blessing.  What is a curse, is to hold on, and on, unless there is a specific purpose.  I remember how a lady had a heart attack and was lying in the cardiac unit in Charlotte.  They called me.  I got there first.  She was still holding on.   Then, not long after me, her daughter got there.  We went in to say goodbye to her mother together.  Right as we were exiting the door, I heard the flat-line alarm go off.  I had worked in a hospital, and had been around it often.  The daughter had not.  We set down in the waiting room, and it wasn’t but just a couple of minutes they came and told us she was gone.  She was holding on, and there was a purpose.  When she knew her daughter had come, she let go.  

One day we will have to let go too.   They say that 90 percent of health care costs, come in the last year of life.  Do you know why?  We want to finance immortality.  But this can't be done.  Sometime or other, we all have to let go and let God.  And isn't this what Jesus is getting at?  Whether it be letting go of loved ones, letting go of dreams, letting go of worlds or ideas---they will have their rise and their growth, but they will also have their decline and their fall.  This is not at all 'fun' or 'pleasant' to think about, but the surprise of our text is that right here when “things” are falling apart, end, and come crumbling down something good, great, powerful and even more glorious is taking place.  This “ending” is not a time to bow or bury your head and die, but Jesus says, that with God, even endings can be times of new beginnings:  “Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not.”   “For the powers of the heavens, will be shaken.. But “then they will see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory”.   “Now when these begin to take place, raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near.”

Who would have thought, that when things fall apart, new things can come together—be renewed, reborn, or made new?  Who would have thought it, but this is exactly the new world the Bible invites us to enter and to prepare ourselves for.  The Bible calls us to trust in a God that allows worlds to come and go, but he is also the same God who builds new ones and shows us how to save ourselves for them.  But these new worlds that God can bring to us are not automatic.  They don’t come on their own.   They only come when we prepare for them and ready ourselves for them.   If we hold on, or if we don’t anticipate this new world, we can be find ourselves “trapped” in the old one, when the new one has arrived.

One of the terms we hear a lot these days, is the title of a T.V. show, called “The New Normal”.  Now, there’s a lot of me that would protest to the this idea of “The New Normal.”  I’m sure I’m showing my age and my own personal prejudices when I share with you how much I despise that idea.   The whole concept frightens me.  But these new “normals” do come, don’t they?  When we lose a loved one, or spouse, there is a “new normal”.   When we recover from surgery, things are not the same, but there is a “new normal”.   When elections are lost or won, there is a “new normal”.   But even this “new normal” might not last that long until it also quickly becomes an “old normal”.   The “new normal” of our time, can last about as long as a new cell phone or computer.   It is quickly outdated.  

What Jesus wants his disciples to understand is that when things fall apart, there is not simply a “new normal” but there is a new chance to get “near” and close to God’s Kingdom, which is still always coming, but not yet here.  God’s kingdom is not a new normal, but the absolutely new “abnormal”.   It is the very ‘odd’, surprising, coming completely new world, we can 'only imagine', but we do have glimpes of when it ‘peaks” through the endings we face in our own lives or worlds.     

Lately, there have been several new claims, even by medical doctors about the afterlife.  Several doctors have claimed to have died and visited a “world” beyond this world.  There messages are reassuring to many, but they are not new.  Such visions are as old as the Bible and even before.  Humans have always been able to get glimpses of new beginnings, new worlds, and new normals or abnormals, if you want to call them that.  When we allow God to give us those visions, or when we stay alert,  we humans have a way of finding hope, seeing, lifting up our heads, and finding redemption, even in the midst of crumbling, falling, and dying worlds. 

But Jesus reminds his listeners, that this redemption is not ever automatic.   We must prepare ourselves for what might come.  We have to learn to read the signs.   We have to be “on guard” with our hearts.   We can’t let the worries of this life, “weigh us down” and make us hold on to the very things that are falling apart.   To hold on, we can get trapped, and end up waiting to what is going down, to snag us and take us down with it.  No, you need learn to “let go”, “flee”, to “stay alert”, keep praying, and “to find the strength to escape all these things”.  

Amazingly, but not accidentally, yet intentionally and deliberately, we can “escape” these things that are ending, dying, or falling apart, by getting ourselves ready to “stand before the Son of Man”.   We must prepare hearts to be with Jesus, the eternal one, when any of the temporary worlds of our life, even the world of our own life, comes to end.   Nothing in this world is forever, and neither are we.  Nothing is forever, except the eternal “words” of God and the “world” of the kingdom that comes near in Jesus. 

When we stay close to Jesus, we keep this end in view and we keep seeing the coming new world, which can’t help but break through when our worlds end, and the kingdoms of this world become the kingdoms of Our LORD, and of his Christ.   This kingdom is always just around the corner, for both me and for you.  “Be on guard”.  “Stay alert.”  “The Son of Man is coming in a cloud with power and with great glory.”  “Raise up your heads, redemption is near.”  Amen.