Sunday, December 29, 2013

"Getting Back to Normal”

A Sermon Based Upon Matthew 2: 13-23
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sunday after Christmas, December 29th, 2013

“Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, "Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him." (Mat 2:13 NRS)
Christmas is over, or is it?  It’s time to get life back to normal, or can we?

As a child, I begged for mom to hurry and put the decorations up, but I never liked to take them down.  But mom was always in a hurry to take them down.   She said she wanted to get life back to normal.   I protested.   Later I learned that there were 12, not just one wonderful days of Christmas.   I reminded her of the meaning behind that holiday song, “12 Day’s of Christmas, but no matter how many times I sang about  the drummers drumming and the ladies dancing and the swans a-swimming...all the way down to a partridge in a pear tree,  I couldn’t get her to leave things up for 12 whole days.    And when she took it down, it already felt like Christmas was over, much too soon.  

Maybe you’re already ready to move on too.    Maybe you don’t want to confess it, but you’re ready to get life back to ‘normal’ too.     It might have been that way for Mary and Joseph, as well.   Here was an awkward pregnancy along with a "pre-due date" relocation because of taxation.   Then add to  this the unexpected hosting of a big holiday party, including Luke's shepherds and Matthew's Wise Men.    Maybe the holy family had seen enough of Christmas as well.  They might have been ready for things to return to normal--whatever that is.  But, alas, they would never see normal again.  This baby had brought to them and to us “a new normal”.

WHAT IS NORMAL?
But what is normal after the baby comes?    When you have a baby what was once ‘normal’ for a married couple never returns.   And since this baby is “God” come into the world, could Mary and Joseph’s world ever be ‘normal’ again?   Could or should our own world ever get back to ‘normal’?  If God’s love has been revealed in Christ, and if the light has shown into our darkness, and if true righteousness has been revealed, our self-proclaimed righteousness can never be what it once was, but can only be, as Paul says, “as filthy rags”.   What is normal?  Isn’t this the beginning of a new kind of normal?

Some say that it was right after the Oklahoma City bombing that the phrase "new normal" first entered our conversation.   As in, "Now that this has happened, normal won't be normal anymore."  This phrase is often used these days to describe the anxiety that lingers around the economic recession's uncertainty with its residue of fear.   And this frightening ‘new normal’ can get so personal too.  Think about the neighbor who was going to retire, but can't.   What about the friend who was let go when the company downsized.  Church budgets shrunk and staff has been laid-off and some high-profile steeples are declaring bankruptcy.  The family down the street lost their house. Come to think of it, all "new normals" first feel like grief. 

Even the Christmas story is seasoned with a ‘new normal’ that tastes a lot like grief over what was and what no longer is the case.   Maybe it’s important for us to name this strangeness after Christmas right up up-front!   You know, every culture, every age, and every people have to deal with what is, what was and what isn’t normal.   What is ‘normal’ is always changing.   Think about how it was when the first car was invented, and the horse and carriages had to go?   Think about how it was when people got kitchen appliances?  We’ve always had to deal with ‘new normals’.  Some of them have been welcomed, but others have not.  Think about the new normal when guns and modern warfare was invented?   Think about the new normal now that we have computers and internet.  There is good, and there is bad when major shifts take place. 

In the Biblical story of Christmas,  when Jesus was born, the holy family nor biblical faith could ever get back to the normal that once was.  Right after the “Glory to God in the highest” we dive to one of the lowest points in all of the Bible, as even the Holy Family were not given the luxury of sleeping in heavenly peace for very long.  The flutter of angels' wings in Joseph's dreams warned of an evil tyrant, named Herod, who was on the loose going door-to-door looking for babies to kill.  So flee!   On the one hand, there's the little Lord Jesus no crying he makes...but on the other hand, there is Rachel, close by, weeping for her children.    If joy has felt illusive for you this holiday season, you are in good company with Mary and Joseph and Jesus...and God.

This tragic story  of how the Holy Family's had to flee to Egypt because Herod was killing babies  is burned in the church's memory as "The Slaughter of the Holy Innocents."  You can’t find this event in history books, but it sounds just like the Herod we do know from history.   Besides this, if you were Herod and you controlled all the information that was written down, would you allow such a story to make the history books?  History books are written the way people want them to be written, and seldom are written the way things really happened.   How many of you remember reading about why Columbus really discovered America?  

However, what happened way back then, doesn’t matter, as much as  what is happening now.   This story is not a history lesson, but it is a moral and religious truth about how ‘big’ a deal Jesus is and how the world, just like Herod, still wants nothing to do with God, with redemption, or with changing ourselves.   Matthew seems to go out of his way to highlight this.   He wants us to see how Jesus is just like Moses, who was almost killed by a malicious ruler.  Like Moses, for the holy family Egypt becomes a place of exile and safety.  Like Moses, the "delivered one" becomes the deliverer; and it all shows us how God's power to save is greater than evil's power to destroy.   The holy family then, just like any family who wants to be holy today, will find themselves having to deal with new normal that bring exile, give us uncertainty and bring us struggle, as we too live in world that tries to destroy our faith and hope, if it gets a chance.  But if God has anything to do with it, it will not get that chance.

GOD GOES WITH US “THROUGH” NOT AROUND
Evil and Destruction will not get the chance to destroy God’s family (then or now), because no matter how great evil is or becomes in this world, and no matter what strange ‘new normal’ we must face, even if we have to live in a new, different, distance place, …no matter where we have to go or what we have to go through, we are never off God’s map.   In other words, there is no place we can be or go in life that God hasn’t gone before.  Even in the land of the loss, even in far-away lands of exile, even in the "new normal" that is not the normal we want or need, this ‘new’ it is not new to God.  God has been there before and God is there before we ever get there.   

Fascinating, isn't it, that right off the bat, God's own Son becomes a transient, homeless, migrant, alien.  Within a few pages the baby will be all grown-up and we'll hear him say, "Foxes have holes, birds of the air have nests, but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head."   Once a refugee, still a refugee.  Jesus is God with us, but he never at ‘home’ with us.  Jesus came to take us home, to prepare a place for us, but he never came into this world to stay, nor does he want us to get too comfortable where we live.  Jesus came to be a pioneer and pilgrim to help us more toward our new home, toward a new normal, and a better kingdom than the kingdoms this world has to offer us.   Part of how Matthew shows us the big plans God has for us in in one of Matthew's favorite words: “fulfill”.   "And they remained in Egypt in order to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord, “Out of Egypt I have called my son (2.15)...."  "Then it was fulfilled what Jeremiah said...." (2.17)  "And they settled in Nazareth so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled” (2.23).  As Matthew tells Jesus' story, he sews it into God's Big Story--a story that has been a long time in the making and is taking us all toward a new ‘normal’ that God has planned for us all.

Maybe the people who first read Matthew’s words, found something comforting in this kind of preaching and talk, that says, wherever we go, whatever happens, we are never off God's map.  God is nearby to fill full our often empty lives and God is working his will in us, no matter where or what we have to go through.   But this does not always sound like “good news” does it?   Who wants to have to dwell in Egypt?   Who wants to live in a world that faces constant change and challenge?   Most often we are like the disciples; we want to sail with Jesus in ‘calm waters’, but we don’t want to have to deal with storms.   We love to read about Jesus feeding the 5,000, but we forget they were being fed as hungry people in a wilderness.   Who wants to fish all night without catching anything, having to wait on God to bring in the really big catch?    But this is often how it is, isn’t it?   God’s people are not led through easy waters, but troubled ones.  God’s people are not handed true faith without having to travel through a spiritual wilderness.  And we must know what is like to be empty before we can really appreciate what it means to be filled with good things.

It is not easy to deal with the ‘new normals’ of life, especially when it involves being somewhere we don’t want to be, but here is exactly where we must be; not because God is trying to hurt us, but because God wants to save us.    What Mary, Joseph, and even Jesus had to learn in life; is what we all must learn in life; not that life is easy, or life always takes us where we want to go, no, and a thousand times no.  Life is always on the move and we will always go through places we don’t want to be.   But what we learn in this places is exactly the truth that God’s people always know, and we too need to know; that wherever we go, whatever we go through, God is there and God is faithful and never leaves us without a ‘way of escape’, a path of resistance, or a power to walk through, even the darkest place or valley.

The old prophet Isaiah sang of God’s faithfulness, when he sang: "It was no messenger or angel but his presence that saved them; in his love and in his pity he redeemed them; he lifted them up and carried them all the days of old."  (Isaiah 63:9)   Even the testy times of life can be handled faithfully because of Christ handled them, not just for himself, but as an example for us.  The writer of Hebrews says, "Because he [Jesus] himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested."  (Hebrews 20:18).  One of my favorite sayings outside of Scripture was a saying of Winston Churchill, which was spoken in a speech during the dark days of WWII.   I came across this saying in an art shop in a little artsy village just across the bay from San Francisco called Sausalito.  I couldn’t afford any of the artwork in the shop, but I wanted something to remember.  I saw this little refrigerator magnet that the artist had hand painted.  It had Churchill’s saying on it, which meant a lot to us because of what we were going through at that time.  It said, quoting Churchill: “When You’re going through Hell, keep going!”  We can “keep going” because Christ kept going.  We can “keep going” because God is with us.  We can “keep going” because we are going “through” and where we are going is better than where are anywhere along the way.   We can keep going, because although that family had to flee, they did not die, but “Herod died” and ‘those who were seeking the child are dead” (2.19-20).  Evil may make its attack in this world, but it cannot and will not finally win. 

GOD GIVES US PEACE IN AN “ABNORMAL” WORLD
A few weeks ago, as we were entering the holiday season,  my eyes caught an email from Crosswalk.com, a Baptist news service.   The title of the article was a question that someone had sent a pastor.   The question was quite shocking and sad:  “What Should I Do During the Holidays If I Hate My Family”.    The pastor who took the question was Roger Barrier, and here is how the letter read: 
Dear Pastor Roger,  Thanksgiving and Christmas are tough times for me. I really don’t want to spend any time with my family.  It’s like when we get together the pain and hurts all come back.  I can bury the pain and rejection for most of the year but family get-togethers brings it all back.  
I guess that the hardest part is that I get more hurt every time we get together.  Mom yells; dad says for the hundredth time how I’ll never amount to anything, and my brother and sister still gang up on me and criticize me and make fun of me.  My husband asked me when was the last time that I left my family and felt better than when I came. I can’t remember one time.  I always leave with more hurt than when I came.  
The truth is that I have “amounted” to something. I have a great job and a wonderful husband. I love his in-laws and they love and support me. When it is time to leave I always feel better than when I came.
I am looking for suggestions. I am tired of being “beat up” every time we get together with my family.
Sincerely, Pamela

Unfortunately, for many people, the images of having a ‘perfect family’ Christmas bring more harm than help.   Sometimes people get into ‘new normals’ that are very ‘abnormal’ or dysfunctional and they keep bringing pain, anxiety, and hurt, especially at Christmas.   It makes people want to skip Christmas altogether, or they want to hurry back home and get life back to some sense of ‘normal’.     In a situation like this, how do you think the pastor answered “Pamela”?   He said, the way I see you have three options: Dear Pamela,
First, think of some positive ways to make it better.  Second, don’t go; and third, “grin and bear it.”

Then he told Pamela this story from a counselor David Ferguson:  A pastor and his wife were having marriage difficulties. The church was fine, family OK, but their relationship was struggling.  The counselor had them fill out a questionnaire before the sessions began.  One of the questions was, “How did your father praise you?” The wife left it blank.   The counselor surmised:   “It looks like you may have missed praise and appreciation from dad. Is that right?”  She said, “Yeah, that’s right, and it hurts a lot-because he’s the most important man in my life.”   At that point, how do you think the husband was feeling? They’d been married 20 years!  There was a lot of hurt, pain, and rejection!   All kinds of dysfunctions were playing out at home---both homes.   No one would want to make their home in so much pain and hurt nor even want to visit. 

With Christmas time was near, as the pastor and his wife were about to make a trip from Texas to Michigan to be with her mom and dad for the holidays.  At the conclusion of the session Dave asked the husband to stay behind for a moment and after his wife left.   Dave gave that husband a homework assignment. 

They spent three or four days with her mother and father. Dad was no more affirming, affectionate, or approving than he ever had been. He was distant, withdrawn, critical and negative.   The pastor and his wife were about to get in the car and head home. They were standing in the kitchen, husband, wife, and her mother and father. It was time for this husband to do his homework. He looked at his mother and father-in-law and said, “I don’t know if I ever told you this or not, but you have a very special daughter. I am proud that she is my wife. She is great with the children, loves and prays for the church family, and supports me in everything that I do.”

As soon as they got in the car his wife scooted over next to him and burst into tears of joy. All of the affirmation, praise, and appreciation that she’d longed for decades for her dad to express were being ministered deeply to her by her husband.  A powerful healing took place. She left her family feeling better that day than when she first came.   What happened?  The husband gave her the gift of a new home; even in the midst of all the negativity, criticism, and pessimism.  The husband protected his wife and gave her a new place to live and a place to escape.  (http://www.crosswalk.com/church/pastors-or-leadership/ask-roger/what-should-i-do-during-the-holidays-if-i-hate-my-family.html).

We all know that this is a very bizarre Christmas story--with tyrants, heavy taxes, bloody swords and innocent children suffering and dying, and even with holy people who are homeless refugees.   It is a terrible story to tell this time of year, but there is a sense that sometimes it can be ‘normal’.  It can be the way things are; and it can be how bad things can get; but it will never be how things always have to be.   Humans can make terrible choices, and do stupid things, but this world is still God’s world.   That’s part of what Matthew wants his readers to know, and we are his readers too.

But now, you and I sit here, at the new beginning of a new year, which is just a few moments away.   The old year, with its bittersweet memories, are almost behind us; and in our heads and with our hearts, we still hold on to this Christmas story, with very mixed feelings about where the world has been and where this world may be going.   What will happen in 2014?   Who will survive?  Who will die?  What changes will take place?  What challenges will come?   How will we hear the voices of angels advising us to take flight, escape, find exile away from the frightful realities that will unfold?   You, nor I know exactly what will happen tomorrow, or what the future holds, but we know ‘who’ holds that future and we know the one who is the same today, tomorrow and forever. 

So, like Mary and Joseph, we keep holding on to God’s son, we listen to God’s messengers in the night, be they men or angels, and we keep trying to do the right thing, keep going the right way, and try to find a way to navigate the many changes and the constant ‘new normals’ that will come our way in the days ahead.   But what is most remarkable about living a life of faith is that through prayer and through our own faithful living in God’s words and toward God’s will,  like that first ‘holy family’ finally made it safely home,  we will too.    Somehow, these very odd images on the backside of Christmas, remind us that God will be there for us as he fulfills his promise of faith, hope and love.  It may not always be easy, and even when we walking with God, there will be more obstacles to face, but we will make it home, even though right now, home might feel like it is a million miles away.    

I love how this story ends.   After Herod dies, the angel returns to Joseph, commanding him to “get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.”  At first it looks like life is going to return to normal, but then just as Joseph arrives in Israel he learns that Herod’s son, Archelaus is ruling in his father’s place.   Their lives are still in danger.   They can’t go home again.  Now this ‘new normal’ will force them to live in Galilee, not Judea.   Like Moses they had were exiled in Egypt, but now like Abraham, and all people of faith, they have no “abiding city”, but must keep wandering, keep waiting and keep holding on to faith as they look for that ‘city whose builder and maker is God’  (Hebrews 11.   

Until that day comes, they must make their home in another place named Nazareth.   Surprisingly, even this little ‘out of the way’ nowhere place falls into God’s plans too, as the prophets said, “So it might be fulfilled, He will be called a Nazorean.” (2.23).   This reminds me of something Francis Schaefer, the great evangelical thinker said back in the 1970’s,  “In God’s hands, there are no little places and there are no little people.”  In other words, there is no place nor is there anyone who is out of God’s reach and care.  

So finally, what do we say about the ‘new normal’ we might have to face?  It is quite simple, almost embarrassing for me to make my final point so simple, but here it is:  By putting our grief, our fears and worries into God’s great hands, we can trust that no matter what we will face in the year ahead, God will ‘never leave or forsake us’ and his presence with us can make our greatest disappointments appointments to draw closer to him who alone can bring us safely home.    Thus, whatever next year's "new normal" will turn out to be--the good news is it is there is nothing new to God.  The God who ‘makes all things new’ gives us a gift at Christmas that is not only a ‘keeper’ but it keeps us.  It keeps us believing, hoping, caring, and loving until we all are finally get home.   Amen.


And now let us pray together.  All-loving God, for your grace that hath brought us safe thus far, and for your grace that will lead us on, we say, "Thank You."  In Christ's Name, Amen.  

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

“Living Christmas”

A Sermon Based Upon Hebrews 1: 1-14
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Christmas Eve, December 24th, 2013

“But in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, through whom he also created the worlds. (Heb 1:2 NRS)"

Pastor Len Sweet rightly says, “Christmas is no time for a sermon”.    A more poetic line suggests:  “I’d rather see a sermon, than hear one any day.”   Christmas is the time to ‘see’ not to “hear” a sermon.    If any text in the Bible can help us ‘see’ this sermon is the book of the Bible which is a sermon itself, the book of Hebrews. 

The whole book of Hebrews is a sermon which begins with a brilliant picture of Christmas:  “Long ago God spoke to our ancestors in many and various ways by the prophets,  but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son, (Heb 1:1-2).

There is no greater visual than this: At Christmas, “God has spoken to us by a Son”.

Thinking about this on an everyday level is also a picture.  Didn’t God speak to you in a unique way when you first became a parent?  What better way for God to get his message of love and life across to us that giving us the gift of life.  It has been that way ever since Adam and Eve, when God said to the first prospective parents, “Be fruitful and multiply…” (Gen.  1.28).   If you look this up in Genesis you’ll find that God not only gave the gift of life to the first humans, but he also gave the gift of life to nature itself (Gen. 1.22).  God created a world that teems with life and it should keep on giving life to us unless we insist on messing it up.  Life is an incredible gift from God and it has almost infinite possibilities.

I say “almost infinite possibilities” for a reason.   On the same level of the miracle gift of life, is the more incredible gift of eternal life, which God has given us through Jesus Christ.   Life in this world cannot give us such an incredible gift.  But this is what Hebrews is talking about.   The idea that “In these last days, he has spoken to us by a Son”, means even more than God giving a Son to be born into the world, but it also means that God gave his Son to be born in the world so we could be born into God’s eternal world.   This is why the writer of Hebrews writes that Jesus is ‘heir of all things, through whom he also created the world(s).’  Did you catch that the word ‘worlds‘ is not singular, but plural?  Christmas is not just about gaining a new perspective on life in the world.  It certainly should do that.  But Christmas is also about the wonder of the world that is still to come.  God has spoken in Christ to point us to another world.

Whatever we can say about Christmas, it must be said that Christmas points us toward this ‘other’ world.  Christmas is a time like no other time of the year.  Even the secular songs admit this.  Can’t you hear that tune by Andy Williams still in your head: “It’s the most wonderful time of the year!   Christmas is wonderful time of the year because it points us beyond this normal time, beyond the world’s present time, and transports us into God’s ‘not yet’ eternal time, which has been started in Jesus Christ.  What kind of time is this?  It’s the kind of time we can see in Christmas.

Think of some of those things you see at Christmas that you seldom see at other times.   We are people in such a hurry, but we still try to stop for Christmas, at least most of us still do.  Unfortunately some are trying to steal this time away by forcing people to work on Christmas, like they have stolen Sunday’s, but I want to remind you that you can’t really steal time away from God.   Time ultimately belongs to God and this is something we still can see at Christmas.

Also, we can see at Christmas that home can only be found in God.  We all long for home at Christmastime.  Soldiers long to be back home with family.   Family member long to come back home and be with family at Christmas.   Even people without a family, go looking for one at Christmastime.  There is something about the soul that knows at Christmas we need to find a home, have a home, and that Christmas is about God making a home with us, as well as, about us making our home with God.

Finally, Christmas is not only about taking time, finding home, but it is finally and most fully about finding out what life means and what life is about.  When we look at the sermon, which is Christmas, we should hear the angels once again, who say,  “For I have good news, which shall be great joy for all people….A savior is born….”

We all know that the heart of the message and meaning of Christmas is to realize that it is not just any savior that was born at Christmas, but it is ‘our savior’ who is born.   How can we still say to ourselves and to our world that the savior is born into our world at Christmas?  How can such an ancient story meant for Jewish people who were struggling for their lives so many years ago, have meaning for us, especially when it didn’t have much meaning for most of them either.  At least, as we know, when Jesus came to be their ‘savior’ they did not receive him, but they rejected him.   How can such a nice story that ends in such tragedy, give us hope for our world and for the future world that God has created in Jesus Christ?   This is still the ultimate ‘test’ of Christmas, isn’t it?   What can it mean for us, for you and for me, and for our world where we live right now?   How can we say still say in faith that in this moment, 2000 years ago plus a few, that God “spoke”, “appointed” and “created” new worlds, worlds of eternal life and worlds of eternal hope?   How can we still say that this is the true meaning of Christmas and that it is not only what Christmas means, it is still true? 

My answer is that we can only ‘say it’ when we can still ‘see it’ and because we still see it, we can feel it and we can know it and we can have it change how we see things and live life now.    As I was writing this sermon back in middle October, a Sheriff from Florida Dade County was hopping mad.   They showed on T.V.   He was mad because a young 12 year old girl had jumped off a grain bin and committed suicide.  She was only 12.  She committed suicide because another girl about her age, had bullied and belittled her.  She told this girl ‘she was no good’.  She told her ‘she was trash’.   She told her that she ought to kill herself.  So she did.  But what disturbed the Sheriff most was not simply that the girl gave up her life, but that after the fact, the bully, still a child herself had no remorse.  As soon as this girl was dead, she got online and said, “I’m glad she’s gone.”   Her parents didn’t see it as a crime, nor did they have any shame either.  The Sheriff decided that he was going to charge and put this young teenager behind bars.  And he was going to try to find a way to put her parents in jail too.   Do you know why?  He was going to put them all in jail because they could not see, understand or value the meaning of life.   For them, life had lost it’s value.

Christmas is the only way back---to learn to value of life and of living once again.  The evil in this world has always been bent on death, dying, killing and destroying.  All the way back to Adam and Eve in the Garden, the devil has been trying to take away God’s eternal time, to destroy the family and home of God’s people, and he has been trying to damn us all to a life that already is hell on earth that lasts for eternity.   You certainly don’t have to go to hell to be in hell.  The devil is trying to make sure of that.   No, the only way I know out and away from a life that ends up like that is to return to the one who created life the first time and who give us life a second time, once and for good.   This is the promise of Christmas.  This is the promise of “a savior is born.”   We may have forgotten who the Savior is how and what the Savior can do, but the devil hasn’t…evil hasn’t, and Satan hasn’t.   The ‘demons always believe and tremble’ because they know whose time it is, and how little time they have left.   Anytime we return to the savior, we return to our home, we gain time, we start time anew and we point toward what is still to come, not what can be taken away from us.   We still need a savior like that, that’s for certain, but is he real?


This is the question Christmas asks, and it is the question no preacher can answer for you, but only you and I can answer for ourselves, as we come together in faith.   And you can’t answer an important question like this is a sermon, but you have to answer it after the sermon, in the faith you have, the love you share, the world where you live out the truth of the savior who is God’s last an only word of truth.    When I think again this Christmas about Jesus as being God’s final word of hope to us, I can’t help but reflect upon something the great theologian Karl Barth once said.   He’s the one theologian Billy Graham looked up too and asked, “What is the greatest truth in the Bible” and Barth answered, “Jesus loved me, this I know….”     When Barth was once asked whether or not a person can really know God in this life, Barth responded that this is not the right question.   The right question is not can we know God, but do we know that God know us?   Our answer: “You bet, God knows us” for this is why he sent us a savior.  You can be sure about that, especially at Christmas.  This is what God’s final, most important sermon is about.  Can you see it?   If you can, if you will see how well and good God sees and know us, then it can be Christmas all over again.  For when you see it, you will live it, and this is what Christmas means, so go out and celebrate God’s new, eternal world that begins when you believe God knows us, and sent his son to save us to join him in his world.   Amen. 

Sunday, December 22, 2013

“Dreams of Christmas”

A Sermon Based Upon Matthew 1: 18-25
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Advent 4A, December 22ndth, 2013

  ""Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us. (Mat 1:23 NRS) …

It was a few days before Christmas.   A woman woke up one morning and told her husband, "I just dreamed that you gave me a pearl necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?" "Oh," her husband replied, "you'll know the day after tomorrow."
The next morning, she turned to her husband again and said the same thing, "I just dreamed again that you gave me a pearl necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?" And her husband said, "You'll know tomorrow."
On the third morning, the woman woke up and smiled at her husband, "I just dreamed once more that you gave me a pearl necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?" And he smiled back, "You'll know tonight."
That evening, the man came home with a small package and presented it to his wife. She was delighted. She opened it gently. And when she did, she found-a book! And the book's title was "The Meaning of Dreams."
It’s almost Christmas.  What have you been dreaming about?  (This story and the core of this sermon comes from Samuel Chandler, in Atlanta, GA, at www.day1.org).

WHAT ARE YOU DREAMING?
Some of us are dreaming about wonderful possibilities.  Maybe we’re dreaming of pearl necklaces and new bicycles.   You remember that great line from Clement Moore:  “The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads.”   Or what about that classic Christmas song by Iriving Berlin, made famous by Bing Crosby: “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas”.  Or maybe it’s simply the dream of family coming home.  Whatever your dreams are this Christmas, I hope all those dreams come true!

But before those dreams become a reality, I want you to consider another kind of dream.  Most of our dreams are of two types.  Some of them are dreadful, like nightmares.  We dream of problems we can’t shake, monsters after us, falling or more specific for me; standing up and forgetting what I’m to say.  Some nights my wife wakes me as I wrestle like Jacob by the Jabbok, struggling with a bear, an angel, or maybe even with God.    At other times, dreams can be as refreshing and reviving.  We might dream of something delightful, like a dream of enemies becoming friends.   Some of us dream of flying through the air.  We might dream of being in heaven with family and friends. Maybe you dream of having all your bills paid.  I’m still dreaming of selling my house in Lenoir.  On long nights in winter we might find ourselves dreaming more, perhaps even dreaming like this great patriarch Joseph.

Back in December 2004, Time magazine published an intriguing cover article.  It’s wasn’t an article about the birth of Jesus. You normally expect articles like that this time of year.   But this magazine cover was not about that, but it was about sleep.  For all that we know about the world these days; all we know about the human body these days, and all we are learning about the brain, scientists still do not know the exact reason that we need sleep.  We know why we need food, shelter, and clothing; but we do not know why we need sleep.   When we sleep we often dream, then we wake suddenly, and reality itself seems like a different world.  Why do we need sleep?   We may need sleep because we need to dream.

The Scripture from the gospel today is about a dream.  The dream of Joseph. It’s not Mary's dream, but it’s Joseph's dream.  In fact, the story of the angel Gabriel appearing to the Virgin Mary appears in only one gospel, the gospel of Luke.   In two other gospels, Mark and John, there is no account whatsoever of the physical birth of Jesus.  We have four gospels, and they differ dramatically in how they tell the story of the birth of Jesus. In Matthew's gospel, the angel appears not to Mary at all, but to Joseph.  I guess you could call Matthew, the story from Joseph’s perspective, and in Luke the story is from Mary’s.

WHAT JOSEPH DREAMED
It is Matthew's gospel that we read this year (Matthew 1:18-25).  It is Joseph we hear of today. Consider his point of view.

Joseph dreamed something wonderful. It was astounding.  Joseph dreamed that God was about to enter the world in a visible and detectable way.  God would be born in the world as a child to his wife.   It sounded crazy, and it was just as crazy to understand.  In order to understand, Joseph had some serious trusting in God to do!  But Joseph had to trust someone else, too. Joseph had to trust Mary.

I know Mary was his wife, and surely Joseph must have loved Mary.  But, still, this took a lot of trust!  As our text says, at least at first, Joseph “planned to dismiss her privately” (1:19), but he didn’t.   How Joseph learned to trust God is why his dream is so important.   Joseph learned through his dream to trust God as he learned what it meant to dream of the salvation of the world.   And for Joseph, the way of salvation began with trusting someone else besides himself.  True salvation could only come through someone else.

That is a valuable lesson for us, too.  Like Joseph, sometimes, the best we can do is to trust God and then get out of the way.  Trust is the belief that God is working in our world.   Trust can be that God is working through our wife, or our husband, or our children, and then, our task is to get out of the way.   This is what believing the dream is about.  It is mostly trusting and then getting ourselves out of the way.

A recurring question about God often comes to surface this time of year: Why doesn't God speak to us directly?   Wouldn't it be great if an angel appeared again?   Like the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary?  That’s a good question to put to faith isn’t it?   Just imagine young Mary, minding her own business, suddenly being overcome with news of a great conception, overwhelmed with the presence of God. It's really something to have an angel speak to you.  Even folks who are not religious might turn their heads.  Recently, I saw an image of a rescue helicopter flying someone to safety and the caption underneath read: “Angel’s Among Us!”  That’s one way of seeing and believing in angels today.   The word angel means ‘messenger’.   Certainly, if you were the one being rescued that helicopter would be like a messenger from God.   But wouldn't it be great to know that such a revelation of God’s angel might happen again?  The reply to that kind of question is: Well, you know what? It did happen again.  The angel did appear to someone besides Mary.  The story is recorded right in the Bible. The angel appeared not just to Mary, but the angel appeared to Joseph.  It wasn’t just a woman who got the first news about Christmas, but it was also a man.  Now, there’s a miracle in this somewhere.

Too often we forget about poor Joseph. Every year, we tend to focus on the story of Mary. But this year, it's Joseph’s turn.  This is the year to visualize, to understand and to believe in Christmas in a whole new way.

CAN YOU BELIEVE THE DREAM OF GOD WITH US?
What are we supposed to believe about Christmas this year?   We are to believe that if the angel can appear to Mary, the angel could also appear to Joseph.  In the Bible, the annunciation (the announcement of Jesus’ birth even has its own vocabulary) does not occur only once, but twice.   It does not only occur just to a woman, but also to a man.   But the most wonderful part of this story is that it is not just a story for them, but it’s also a story meant for us.   In the Bible, the most implicit message is that “God is with us” not just once, but that he is with us still.    God is not just part of our history, but God is present.  Christmas is the message that God has appeared over and over again to various sorts of folks; and that God is still with us, too.  Matthew and Luke both have it right, but they are different stories.  God continues to come into the world, but we too have different stories.  In order to know that God is with us today, we have to learn to trust other stories.  We have to learn to listen to and trust stories besides our own. 

Back in October, I spent some vacation time in Charleston, South Carolina.  Teresa and I have always loved that town.  We spent our Honeymoon there.  There is so much history there.   It is a romantic town mostly because it’s also a town that remembers and doesn’t easily forget.   Walk the streets of Charleston and you’ll remember part of the story of our own world that hasn’t fully left us---the story of the old and antebellum South.   I am only able to go and stay in the heart of Charleston these days, because I have a friend who lives there.   She owns one of those unbelievable historic mansions right on the south battery.  It was a house build in 1782 by Colonel John Ashe, a man who ran the shipping industry in that day.   

I came to know the current owners of that home, when Debbie’s Father was dying.  He was Garson Rice, the founder of Rice Toyota in Greensboro.  Garson was attending the First Presbyterian Church in Greensboro, but in his heart, he was still a Baptist.   At the request of the family, I visited Garson, became friends with the family, and ended up conducting the funeral for both of Debbie’s parents.  I remain friends with the family still today. 

Upon our last visit, Debbie reminds me of the final moments with her mother.  I was came in the home moments after her Father died, but I was there, at the hospital moments before her mother died.  When I came into the room, Debbie’s mother was looking up toward me, but beyond me, and saying, “Oh what a beautiful face she has!”  Teresa had not yet entered the room.   “Who do you see mother?”  Who did she see in the last moments?  Debbie insists that it was God in that room.  I’m inclined to believe her.  Since Christmas, we can know that God is never far away.   God is always with us.

When my neighbor Hazel died, my Father had only recently died too.  Hazel had cancer long before my Father.  Daddy had visited Hazel many times.  He had prayed for her.  He had prayed with her.  He suddenly got cancer and left us before Hazel did.   But when Hazel was dying, she too saw something.  It was someone.  She says she saw my Father welcoming her.  She raised up her arms.  She was being carried into heaven.  It was my Father who was carrying her.   God was with her and he was with her through my Father. 

I don’t know who you are trusting, what you believe in or what you are dreaming of this Christmas.  I certainly hope that you aren’t thinking too much about death, dying, or being received by angels.  In the Tomlin family, we’ve often had to think about death around Christmas.  My Grandmother, several uncles and my Father all died in early December, just before Christmas.  As a Tomlin, I can’t get through Christmas without having to think about this.   But it’s not all bad.  I’ve learned that when I think about death I also get to think about life.  Because you see, for me Christmas is the time I realize once again that, no matter what happens, what I’m going through, or what we are going through, God is still with us.   This is the best Christmas ‘present’ I dream of or always give myself this time of year.   I give myself the gift of God’s presence. 

So, I don’t want to ask you, “What are you getting this year”, but what are you giving?  What are you giving yourself for Christmas this year?  We all want something wonderful, I am sure. But what are you giving to yourself for Christmas that no one else can give you?  What are you giving yourself that really, you can’t give yourself, except that you have to give it to yourself as a gift of faith?

CAN YOU BELIEVE IN THE DREAM OF LOVE?
The greatest gift you can give is to believe.   I’m not talking about believing in your own dreams, but I’m speaking of giving the gift of believing in someone else’s dream.   That might be as close as some of you will ever be to the real Christmas.   When you believe in the dream of someone else, you get really close to Christmas.   When you believe in the dream of someone else, you are right up next to believing and trusting God with everything.   This is what Joseph did.  We know little about him, but the great gift that Joseph gives us is the gift of belief.   Joseph gave himself to believe in someone else’s dreams.

Most of us, as parents, will recall our best Christmas, not only when we received gifts as children, but when stayed up late to prepare and give gifts to our children.   We believed in someone else’s dreams.  As lovers, we will remember most, not the Christmas we spent alone, but the first Christmas we spent together, with the one we loved, learning to believe in someone’s else’s dreams.  Those of us who are Christians, not just playing Christian, but really, sharing and giving Christians, will also remember some of our best Christmases, not when we focused on what we were getting, but what we were giving to some family, some person, or some stranger in need.   We learned that Christmas comes again and again, as we learn to believe in someone else’s dream. 

The greatest gift is the gift of faith, and the greatest gift of faith not to believe in your own dreams, but to believe in the dreams of someone else.   And the greatest faith we can ever have is to believe in God’s dream.   This is what gave faith to Joseph and to Mary.   They both surrendered themselves to the believing in the dream of God, and this is when Christmas came.  

What will you find yourself believing this Christmas?   The greatest gift you can have is the gift you can give and it is the gift of having faith, not just in yourself, but in someone else.   Believe not just in your dream, but learn to believe in their dreams.   Learn to believe in the dreams of the persons you love.  Learn to believe in dream of your husband. Believe in the dream of your wife. Believe in the dreams of your children.  But also learn to believe in the dream of the strangers too.  Learn to believe in the dream of your hero, your leader, your friends—both new and old. Believe in their dreams!   And when you do this, just maybe, you will get a glimpse of the dream of God for them, as it is also a dream for you!

God works through relationships. God worked through both Mary and Joseph.   We need both Luke's story of the annunciation and Matthew's story of Joseph's dream. They are miracle stories.   They are stories about the miracle of the dream, the dream that came true.  God worked through a young and wonderful woman, and God worked through the husband that believed in her.  That kind of miracle could and should occur again and again.   Believe in the dreams of the person you love. Believe in dreams of love this Christmas, and if you will believe, not you and Jesus will be born again.  Believe in dreams this Christmas, and God will appear.

One more thing:  Sleep comfortably this season, as we get near Christmas.  I know some folks do not sleep too well this time of year.   Children are excited---too excited.   Parents have too much worry.  Most of us have too much food and drink.   So, remember how the writer Rabelais joked, saying, "I never sleep comfortably except when I am at a sermon."  I hope you get or got some sleep.  But the reason we sleep is to dream. The reason we dream is to learn to believe.  The reason come together is so we will believe in our dreams; so that we will learn to believe in the greatest dream of all, which began and ends with God.  Amen.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

“Disappointed at Christmas”

A Sermon Based Upon Matthew 11: 2-11
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Advent 3A, December 15th, 2013

  "Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?" (Mat 11:3 NRS) …

These 4 Sundays before Christmas are called the 4 Sundays of Advent.  Advent is about waiting.  But as someone has suggested, they are really about impatiently waiting.  It’s hard to wait on Christmas; especially when you are a child, when you are waiting for your children to return home; when you are in a hurry just to have a day off.  Waiting can be hard.

Waiting is especially hard when you are in prison, like John is in our text.   I’ve never been in prison except to visit, but you can bet it’s the hardest thing to do to try to fit your whole world shrunk to the size of a prison cell.  It can be a dark, lonely place.  This is where John is.  He’s in prison.  Can you try to imagine it?

APPOINTMENT WITH DISAPPOINTMENT
I don’t have to imagine too hard.  Several years ago I was caged in something called an “artificial fixator”; an apparatus screwed into my left leg and foot.  For six months I couldn’t walk, couldn’t stand, couldn’t ride my bike.  I was in a sort of prison.  The doctor had told me it would just be a couple of months, and it ended up half of a year.   I had an infection.  I had to have 5 surgeries, not one or two.  It was disappointing time.  Sometimes I’m still disappointed because I can’t tell that the surgeries and pain where worth what I went through.  I still have pain, swelling, and it’s worse than it was before.  Yes, I’m stuck with the situation as it is.  I’m disappointed. I’m thankful to be alive and to be able to function, but it’s not what I hoped it would be.

We’ve all been through some kind of disappointment.   Disappointment can happen when you are old and on your way out, or it can happen even when you are young and on your way toward the rest of your life.  You start being disappointed as an infant, when your mother lets you cry just a little longer.  You are disappointed as a child when you can’t have an ice cream cone before dinner.  You are disappointed when your true love dumps you.  You can be disappointed when things don’t turn out as you’d hoped or expected.   It may sound strange to some of you, but very familiar to others; someday, somewhere on the way in your life, whether you are ready for it or not, you will be disappointed with God.  You may not end up in a prison like John, but you will know the darkness, the hurt and the sadness of that moment.   You have nowhere else to go and no one else to believe in, but you are still very disappointed.  The way God works, or doesn’t work, is not what you expected or hoped.

In some ways, the way we celebrate Christmas is a set up for great disappointment.  We have so many high expectations for this time of year.   We expect and hope that everything will be prefect.   We’ve made the plans, finished the many preparations, put up the decorations, cooked the meals, gone to the parties, and we do everything we can, but somehow we get to the end of it all with a feeling of letdown, sadness, and of course, a kind of disappointment.   Maybe you won’t get what you wanted for Christmas.  Maybe someone you love did not show up.  Maybe there is some kind of unexpected difficulty or disappointment that overshadowed everything. 

 John was disappointed too. “Are you the one, or should we look for another?”   It’s a feeling and a place none of wish on our worse enemy.  But here is Jesus’ own cousin, “the most blessed born from a woman” and look at where he is.  Look at where he faith and work for God seemed to get him.  What’s the use?  Is this all there is?  Is this what I get for faith in God?   It was in Jesus that John not only met his hope, but also met his disappointment.   He was the preacher who introduced Jesus and expected him to usher in a whole new world and brand new way of life; but nothing has changed.   Now he’s worse off, not better off.  He’s paying for his disappointment with the currency of his own pain, hurt and imprisonment.  If Jesus lets his friends and family go through this; what more should we hope?   “Should we look for another?”

AT THE CENTER OF HUMAN PAIN
At the center of John’s pain is the intersection of how we hope things will be and how things are.  This is a road none of us like to travel.  Many people will do everything they can to travel through life another way.  They will even pretend to see things they can’t, try to fix things that can’t be fixed, and they will deny the reality of what is going on all around them, sometimes until the very last day when they die.   Even people of faith will do this.   We too can get stopped at the intersection of how we pray and what isn’t answered.

Sigmund Freud said religion is nothing more than an illusion; or worse, a disillusion.  He said that faith in God is nothing more than a wish for a better Father than we had or it is nothing much more than a wish to avoid facing difficulty and death.   Certainly there is some truth that people can use religion as a crutch, for an excuse, or a way to avoid facing the hard, difficult, disappointing realities of life.  But what John is dealing with here is no illusion.  John was not asking for the easy way when he put on his coat of Camel’s hair, went into the wilderness and started eating grashoppers.   No, John was not wishing for an easier way.  He has put his hope in Jesus, made all kinds of sacrifice, but things still have not turned out as he hoped.  He has risked it all and this is where it gets him.  He’s in prison.  He’s in a holding place and a bad place.  It was not his wish to be here.  It was not his wish to have a Jesus come and free him from prison.   He never wishes for a better life.  He is wondering about the life he has; the Lord he’s followed; and the God in whom he trusts.

Although there are still people who, like Sigmund Freud, will say that faith in God is for weak people to come to grips with the hard realities of life; there is also the reality that many, if not most people don’t come to faith because it’s a way out, a wish fulfillment, or out of some deep psychological angst.   Most people don’t come to faith to escape their pain, avoid reality, or deny the truth; but people are invited to come to faith to bear a cross, to face the reality of how things are, and to seek truth and meaning in the pain they already have in life.   We don’t come to God to escape the difficult, the hard or even to avoid the disappointments of life, but we come to Christ to ‘take up our cross’, follow him, so that as we lose, we gain, as we die, we live, and as we walk straight into the hurts and pains of others, we find the peace that surpasses all understanding.   We do not expect our faith to be a walk in the park, but it is a walk that takes us through the dark, toward the light of hope we have in our heart.

Listen again to what John says.  He does not say,  “I’m disappointed in you Jesus”.  He didn’t say, “I don’t like rotting away in this prison.”   He does not decide to lose his faith in what God will eventually do, but what John does is try to come to grips with in the middle of all his disappointment is to question which way he is supposed to go next.  He sends his disciples to ask Jesus a question of disappointment; but it is still open to finding new hope: “Are you the one,”  he asks, “or should we look for another?”  John is saying something we all need to say in our pain of disappointment.   He is making a choice we all have to make when pain and disappointment come.  We have to decide, if we are going to keep faith, that no matter what comes; we will not stop looking, waiting, wondering, praying and finding a way to have hope.  We may not like where we are; we may not like how things have turned out, but we will keep on looking, keep on hoping, keep on praying, and keep on trying to discern discerning what God is doing and where God is leading us, even though we may not like what or where.

SEEING OUR WAY THROUGH
We don’t really know how John responded to Jesus’ answer, sent through messengers.  What we do know is what Jesus said and we can only guess what it might have meant for John to hear this answer.   The answer came that John should not focus on what is happening with him, but John should stop and consider what is happening outside his prison cell.    If you want to have hope in your disappointment, don’t focus on yourself, but look beyond yourself.   Look beyond toward the good news of what God is doing in the lives of others, and you can deal with the pain and hurt of what God is not doing for you right now.

Of course, this is not easy to do, is it?  How do you get your head out of your own situation and see what God is doing in the world around you?  How can you gain your perspective; when you are still living in a dark, dismal, damp prison of where you are in this moment?  How can Jesus give John an answer that doesn’t look like an answer, at least not for him, and expect him to find joy in the moment, answers in the unanswered, and release, even when he is still being held captive.   It’s kind of like it was when, after my Father died on December 8ths, and I was trying to get my mother to celebrate Christmas with us.   “Come on Mom, if there is any reason to celebrate Christmas, it is now.  Jesus is the only light we have.  He is our hope.  I’m not trying to belittle your loss nor mine, but we’ve got to keep looking straight into the only hope any of us will ever have in life or in death.”   It’s not easy, but what else do we have to hope for?

This is sort of what Jesus was telling John, wasn’t it?   The answer was not, “O.K. John, I’m coming to get you out of prison….”   No, John, “I’m come to die too”.   I am coming to you, but right now, there is more hope for you than for me.  You will get there John, before I do.  No, John.  I can’t set you free from all your disappointment but I can promise you this:  “Go tell John what you hear and see; the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news preached to them.  And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me!”

That last line stands out to me.  It wasn’t just that Jesus was telling John to see what was happening and find joy in that; but Jesus was also telling John not to be ‘offended’ for suffering because of the truth.   The pain we feel when loss comes, when heartaches comes, when injustice comes, and when disappointment comes, is not the sign of what is bad about the world, but it’s the sign of what is ‘good’ in each of us.  It’s like the person who feels the pain of loss when their spouse or child dies and learns to say, even through much difficulty and tears, “It is better to have loved and to have lost; than never to have loved at all.”  That’s not an easy truth to accept, but the pain we feel, the disappointments we experience, are all signs of the sense of love, faith and hope that is present in our hearts.   This faith that is in us; that appears to us in our pain of disappoints is the very faith and hope that Jesus reminds us will get us through.   Don’t be offended!   Realize how blessed you are, even when you hurt.  Realize that the very pain you have and the disappointment you meet in life, will one day be answered by the one who says, “Blessed is the one who takes no offense at me!”   

Do you know how Jesus viewed John?  Jesus is much more than a prophet?  He is “my messenger”.  Jesus says, “among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptizer.”  Jesus will have the last work about John’s disappointment.  He is the reason to keep going through it all, and not just for John.  Do you hear what he says,  “yet the least in the kingdom is greater than he.”   John is remembered because he endured his disappointment; and hope answered.   There will be an even greater answer to our pain, hurt, and disappointment.  Like John, we may not yet see it from our point view, but Jesus already sees it.  We will see it too.  We will see all our disappointment dissolve into the appointment we all one day will have in the purpose and plan of God redemption for us all.  

Finally, there is a wonderful parable that tells us what the fulfillment of God's plan might look like in our lives. There was once a woman who was disappointed, who was disillusioned, who was depressed. She wanted a good world, a peaceful world, and she wanted to be a good person. But the newspaper and television showed her how far we were from such a reality. So she decided to go shopping. She went to the mall and wandered into a new store - where the person behind the counter looked strangely like Jesus. Gathering up her courage she went up to the counter and asked, "Are you Jesus?" "Well, yes, I am," the man answered. "Do you work here?" "Actually," Jesus responded, "I own the store. You are free to wander up and down the aisles, see what it is I sell, and then make a list of what you want. When you are finished, come back here, and we'll see what we can do for you."

So, the woman did just that. And what she saw thrilled her. There was peace on earth, no more war, no hunger or poverty, peace in families, no more drugs, harmony, clean air. She wrote furiously and finally approached the counter, handing a long list to Jesus. He skimmed the paper, and then smiling at her said, "No problem." Reaching under the counter, he grabbed some packets and laid them out on the counter. Confused, she asked, "What are these?" Jesus replied: "These are seed packets. You see, this is a catalog store." Surprised the woman blurted out, "You mean I don't get the finished product?" "No," Jesus gently responded. "This is a place of dreams. You come and see what it looks like, and I give you the seeds. Then you plant the seeds. You go home and nurture them and help them to grow and someone else reaps the benefits." "Oh," she said, deeply disappointed in Jesus. Then she turned around and left the store without buying anything  (Source of this story unknown).  

Friends, I believe that our passage for today speaks to us about our calling as Christians in a world of disappointments.   We are called to face our disappointments and to keep planting seeds.  We are called always to energize with hopeful visions of the world to come, and not to become disillusioned by the world that will never be complete.   This is why we learn to to pray, "Thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven"  This is why we keep planting seeds of hope.   This is why we face the worst that can happen to us, with faith.   Jesus told John to look beyond the prison he was in at that moment, and to see what Jesus is doing in the lives of those who believe.   We are told keep believing and to trust for what he will do with our own disappointments.   We can only believe when we continue to trust, hope and keep planting the seeds of faith.   Amen.  

Sunday, December 8, 2013

“Heeeree’s Johnny!”

A Sermon Based Upon Matthew 3: 1-12
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Advent 2A, December 8th, 2013

  ""I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me (Matt. 3:11a  NRS)

Some of you will remember the title of today’s sermon from Ed McMahon’s familiar opening introduction to Johnny Carson on the tonight show:  Heeeres Johnny!   Others of you will recognize it from Jack Nicholson’s frightening role in the movie “The Shinning”.  The Shinning is based on Stephen King’s novel about a hotel haunted by a murder about to be repeated.   In one of the last scenes, Jack Nicholson, playing a deranged writer named Jack has chopped up the shower curtain with a knife and now leers through with maddening insanity and then shouts out, “Heeeere’s Johnny!”   

Some of us might see John the Baptizer message as a ‘maddening’ beginning to the good news of the gospel.   In today’s text, John the Baptizer stands between us and the warm fuzziness of Christmas with a message of sin, confession and repentance, saying, “Repent, You bunch of snakes!”  Is this any way to start Christmas?

Most of us want to get to Christmas another way, wouldn’t we?  And that’s what we often do.  We try shopping, buying, giving and receiving gifts, going to parties, eating fattening foods, singing carols, and going to grandma’s house.  Nothing wrong with these festive, wonderful things this time of year, except that we can use them as a way to avoid John and miss Christmas’ true meaning.   But the truth of Scripture and the Word of God will have it no other way.  To find the true spirit of Christmas, we have to go through John.  

ANNOUCING JUDGMENT IS EASY
What does it mean to hear John’s message at Christmas?  John begins his message in the wilderness shouting out moral correctives for people who have been caught in moral flaw, human failure or a sinful fiasco.   We could think, “Repent, you bunch of snakes” was meant for people just like them----that ugly King Herod who killed babies, the sleazy Tax Collectors who were stealing people’s hard earned money, the strange Gentile pagans who don’t know the God of Abraham, the loud mouthed Canaanite Woman who couldn’t keep her mouth shut, or even those two, very guilty criminals on the cross with Jesus.   The list could go on.  We could think that the message of John is only meant for people who are ‘sinners’ like them, like someone else, and of course, not meant for respectable people like us. 

But look again closely at where John starts his preaching.  He doesn’t start with the sins of the world, the crimes of the lowest of the low, or the ignorance of the outsiders, but John starts with the sins and failures of the insiders; even the so called righteous and respectful. When John says, “Repent, you bunch of snakes” he is talking to religious people who look a lot like us.  According to our text it all started when John “saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism….”   Interestingly, we are not told how these religious leaders responded to being called ‘snakes’.  That will come later.

But I know how I would respond.   Who likes a “Johnny” who carries an axe in his hand, chopping a hole in our own baptismal shower curtain saying “the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire”.   This is just not nice.  Certainly this does not make us feel all Christmassy.  It does not make us want to hang around this preacher very long, especially so close to Christmas.   Most of us don’t like talk like this, unless, of course, we are the one doing the talking.
For example, listen to what one pastor said.   Lutheran Pastor Brad Schmeling said he’d give up his pastoral robe to be able to put on a coat of camel’s hair, eat a honey dipped grasshopper and be able to talk to his congregation like this, saying: “You brood of vipers, who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”   He said he could do this quite naturally because he’s the oldest child in his family.  It became natural for him to be the moral force for his siblings, who hated him for it.   That pastor told how once, as the eldest child, he tried to get his younger brother to share his pizza, but he wouldn’t.  So, standing firm in the face of evil, the older fought the younger over it.  Being the strongest, he won of course. It made him feel even more superior as he looked at his defeated and whooped younger brother and said, “I don’t want your pizza anyhow; you can have the whole thing”!   How satisfying it can be to be the ‘chosen one’ who gets to call a sinner to repent (From Brad Schmeling’s sermon; “Let Us Have It” at www.dayone.org). Being the one who makes others squirm can be more fun than actually watching repentance take place.   

Today those of us in the church can easily take on the role of John the Baptizer without much effort.  We can be good at becoming ‘elder brothers’ toward our ‘prodigal world’.   It can be very easy to proclaim what’s wrong with the world and start announcing judgments.  Most of us can think of many reasons we believe the world today looks like it’s going to ‘hell in a hangbasket’, as my mother used to say.   We can see all kinds of reasons people need to repent.   What would you put on your list of sins that sending our world to its destruction?   Would it be dirty Politics?  Would it be Gay Marriage?  Would it be the News Media?  Would it be Cell Phones and the Technology Revolution?   Would it be how most family Christmas celebrations never get to the ‘reason for the season’? 

Maybe, even at Christmastime, we need a little shake up with fire and brimstone.  The closer we get to Christmas, the crazier it can get.  We shop until we drop; we want the presents under the tree to prove our love.  We might be stingy all year, but by golly, it’s Christmas.  “Tis the season to be jolly,” especially if you run a credit business. The crazier it gets, the more we need someone like John to shake up back into reality before the bills come.  

SAVING THE WORLD IS THE HARD PART
Certainly, we in the church can be too good at taking on the role of judge, preacher, or critic, can’t we?  But we need to remember it’s a lot easier to dish it out than to take it?  This is where John comes in.  He’s not preaching repentance to the world, to the Gentiles, or to the pagan culture, but he’s preaching to the choir, to the home people; to his people, to the religious and to those who suppose their own righteousness.  Again, the people he calls “snakes” is people who look a lot like us.  He’s not pointing a finger at them, but toward us. 

There is another reason we need to take John’s call for repentance seriously.  If you go out and ask most non church going people, the 60 to 80% majority these days, and if you ask what do they think of “church”, many of them will answer that we the people who are against things.  To them we are ‘snakes in the grass’ which you don’t see much until they bite you.  This is what “church people” like to do; bite.   They bite each other and they bite people they don’t even know.  Do you remember the “Church Lady” on Saturday Night Live?   Many people see the church just like that; an old, outdated, nagging woman who stands ready to beat you over the head with her pocketbook if you don’t straighten up according to her own definition of what ‘straight’ and “narrow” means.   Pastor Adam Hamilton, a Methodist minister in Kansas City, tells how once, after he preached a funeral, a Christian came up to him and complained about his funeral message, asking him, “Why didn’t you tell them their son is in hell today”?  Evidently, some church people are just like that ‘church lady’.  They really do think they are as smart and good as God.

Hopefully, few Christians are really like the “Church Lady” or like that presumptuous Christian at the funeral, but whether there are many like this or not, such impressions of the church, whether wrong or right, are real, and this is why, says Dan Kimbell, “People still love Jesus, but they don’t love the church.”  This is why, says Robin Meyers, we need to ‘Save Jesus from the church’.  This is why, says Tony Campolo, we need to learn how to ‘Follow Jesus without Embarrassing God’  All these titles from most recent books point to the  “sins of the righteous’ John was also pointing to.   Our sins point to the great need for the church to be the first to repent. 

I know this sounds hard, but there can be something good about a church that does not forget how to repent and confess of its own sins.  Most of the world of our time, whether right or wrong, true or misguided, has turned against the negative, condemning, blazing fire and brimstone preaching of the Church.  Perhaps some people need to hear the truth of how they are, but most will not even begin to listen to any hard truth about themselves until they feel love and are at first convinced that we have something that grabs their attention. 
The world wants and waits to hear and see something different from us, something constructive first of all.  They want to meet someone who understands and cares.   They wonder if there are people who are working to make a ‘real’ difference in this world, not just talking about how bad it is. 

People want to see something from us that looks very much like what a young New Jersey woman named Hilary Sandlon recently did.  She made a list of 22 acts of random kindness she would do on her 22nd birthday.  She spent ten hours, on her birthday not doing things to please herself, but she did things to help others.  On her birthday she embarked on a 5-city, random acts of kindness tour, along with her boyfriend and best friend.   She did things like things like paying the toll for 4 drivers, she left a gift for her mailman, she donated blood, she put shopping carts up at Walmart,  she donated clothes, baked brownies for her neighbors, took Doughnuts to the local police station and they weeded her grandmother’s yard.   Afterward, she stated, “I wanted to do something big to and show others that helping others has a contagious feeling that comes with it.”  On T.V. she said, “This really made my birthday “happy!”  It wasn’t when the focus was on her, but when her focus was on others. (http://abcnews.go.com/blogs/headlines/2013/09/hillary-sadlons-22-random-acts-of-kindness-for-her-22nd-birthday/). 

Could we envision a church like that?  Can we envision and become a church that takes a serious look at itself for the sake of being a saving and redeeming influence in the world?  Can we really care about serving others more than we care about serving ourselves?   Can we see that the true “reality” many experience this Christmas is that in spite of all the spending, all the partying, and all the extravagant decorating, many of our lives can be pretty dark, our days can feel very lonely, and our pain can be all too excruciating.  All the Norman Rockwell images of the perfect family gathering together, though meant to inspire, are often very far away from the failed relationships that come back to haunt many this time of year.   People don’t need a Church that sounds like John telling how bad things are.  Most know that already.  People don’t need more fire and brimstone, but what many need most in this hurting world is a church that listens, cares, understands and promotes healing, togetherness, and what we all need most, love.  In spite of what we all are or aren’t, we need a message that tells us that life is still worth living.    

Would the world take notice of a church that could present a message and be a message like that?  Would the world notice a church that before it tells the world’s sins, is a church that can take an honest look at itself and do the good it can do?  In a world filled with so much pain, violence, confusion and hurt, people do not want to be in a place or have a religious point of view that adds to the pain that is already there.   People don’t want a church, a preacher, a sermon, or a message that condemns and tears down, or dares to tell them what they must do; when the church it appears that the church is not doing so well itself.   What people do seem to still want is a hear and see a message that cares, that tries to understand, to have someone who listens, and will make a point to give hope.  In others words, the word on the street is this:  “Don’t give me a sermon, but show me one.”  Show me how you, who call yourself a church, the body of Christ, live like Jesus and show me how you, and the world are better for you being here.  This is the kind of ‘church’ people still want to see.   It’s the kind of church that rather than placing blame and doing nothing, does something and shares responsibility for how bad things have become.

JESUS SAVES BECAUSE HE IS GREATER
For sure, announcing judgment is easy, often too easy; but taking judgment upon ourselves for the sake of saving people in the world, is much harder.   As First Peter, says, “Judgment begins at God’s own household” (1 Peter 4:17)).   That’s really hard to do; to take a serious look at where we are and to look at who we aren’t before we would even dare look at someone else?  

But hardest of all, even harder than taking ‘judgment’ and ‘criticism’ upon ourselves, is hearing and understanding the full impact what John says next.  John takes leave of any lofty, inflated view of himself or any elevating of his message of fire, brimstone and judgment, and begins to humbly belittle himself saying;   “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful is coming after me.  I’m not even worthy to carry his sandals.  He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire!”   The person and message John wants us to see is not John.   The “fire” John wants really feel is not the ‘fire’ of judgment that burns up the ones not bearing good fruit.  But John wants us to finally feel and experience is the saving and redeeming ‘fire’ only Jesus can bring.  It’s a different kind of ‘burn’ altogether.  John’s fiery words are not the main course, but they are only meant to prepare us for what God is really after; God’s ultimate, eternal, saving and redeeming purpose. 

Most of us have heard about the new Pope, Pope Francis and how radical and non-traditional he is.  He is doing some amazing things like calling and praying with people personally and refusing to ride in the ‘popemobile’, as well as caring for the poor and working people.  He is also saying some things that we’ve never heard from a Pope; like saying that just because atheist don’t believe in God does not mean they won’t go to heaven.  In another controversial comment, the Pope scolded the church for being obsessed with hot button issues about gays, abortion, or birth control.    When asked what he thinks about ‘homosexuality’ and ‘gay marriage’, the Pope said that he envisions an “inclusive church that makes a home for all” and that if gays  are respectful and humble; ‘who am I to judge’.  He continued, “When God looks at a person, does he condemn and see the person as someone he loves?”  Finally, he said, “I see the church as a hospital on a battlefield.  When a person comes to us weak and injured by life or the world, it’s not our first task to ask them about their cholesterol level or blood sugar, but it is our job to help heal their wounds.  Then we can talk about everything else.  (http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/20/world/europe/pope-bluntly-faults-churchs-focus-on-gays-and-abortion.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0). 

I know that the “Pope” does not speak for us Baptists, but often Billy Graham does, and when asked what he thought about gays and gay marriage, Billy Graham answered in like manner; “It’s the Holy Spirit’s job to convict, God’s job to judge, and it is my job to love.” (As quoted from the book, “Love Is An Orientation” by Andrew Marin, p. 108).   

Can you see that love, not hate is where John the Baptiser was going with his fiery words?  Can you see that this is where we should be going too?   John wants to keep us from getting “stuck” on a message of judgment and repentance alone.   There is a place for loving, constructive self-introspection and evaluation, but this kind of judgment is only the beginning, never the purpose of God’s message.    John does not want us to put our main focus on what’s wrong with the world, nor get fixated on what’s wrong with us either.   The truth is, John does not want us to get stuck on the way things are now, because John wants us to get excited about what’s coming next, what’s coming after him, and what is always on God’s mind and timetable, which should fill us all with some hope. 

We don’t have to guess what this ‘hope’ is because Scripture tells us that Jesus is ‘one who is more powerful’ who comes after John.   Jesus is ‘more powerful’ and more hopeful than John, because Jesus did not come to condemn the world; but Scripture says Jesus came so that the world can be saved (John 3.17).   The truth is that John’s message, no matter how much fun it is to tell people how bad they are, can’t save anybody.

Let me close with something else from Pastor Adam Hamilton’s book “When Christians Get It Wrong”.  In the book he speaks about how it is wrong for us to get stuck on arguments, hate, judging and assuming we know exactly what God is up too.  Then, at the close of the book, he has a most wonderful chapter about “When Christians get it Right”.  He gives an illustration from his own congregation, one, if not the largest United Methodist congregation in the world.   Pastor Hamilton tells about Vincent, who began attending his church.  “He’s a gifted vocalist in his thirties who sang heavy metal and classic rock for years.  Vincent is also afflicted with Tourette’s syndrome.  His form of Tourette’s is known as coprolalia, and includes the spontaneous utterance of words most people suppress—swear words.  Vincent was diagnosed when he was an adolescent.  From that time on he had felt unwelcome at church.  We have a large sanctuary, but it was easy to tell when Vincent was present, starting with his first visit.  As I was preaching he would blurt out swear words.  It was a little unnerving at first.  Some with children who did not understand what was happening moved to another part of the sanctuary.  But almost instantly some people realized that Vincent had Tourette’s.  When Vincent showed up for worship, a group of people sat near him and reassured him it was okay.  Vincent thouth that perhaps it would help people knew his story, so one weekend we told his story and then invited him to sing.  When he finished singing, the congregation rose to give him a standing ovation.  What they were saying to Vincent was “We love you.  We want you here.  No matter what, you are a gift from God!”   As the church stood applauding, says the pastor, “I saw the church as it was meant to be, welcoming others without judgment, but with genuine love.  The church got it right”  (From “When Christians Get It Wrong, by Adam Hamilton, p. 112-113).

Do you know why the church got it right?  Announcing judgment is the easy part; but saving the world, or finding God’s wonderful gift of salvation and sharing it with love is the hard part.  It is hard for us to get to, it is hard for us receive it right, and it hard for us to join with Jesus in his saving work in this world.  It is hard, yes, love is hard work, but it is the real, “greater” work; and if we don’t get to it, the Pope is right, we may soon cease to feel the warmth of God’s Spirit fire in our own hearts, in our world, and in our churches.  So, let’s get to it.  Let’s let John invite us again to “one who more powerful"  and the 'fire' of love that burns brighter and hotter than any other flame.   Amen.