Wednesday, December 24, 2014

"GIFTED"

A Sermon Based Upon Isaiah 9: 2-7
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Advent B,  Wednesday, December  21, 2014

For a child has been born for us, a son given to us….” (Isa 9:6 NRS)


'Twas the night before Christmas....

Is this any way to begin a sermon?      In elementary school, just before Christmas break, we were taken to the auditorium to watch two movies back-to-back.   The first film was called The Spirit of Christmas, based on Lukes version of the birth of Christ.   The second was based on Clement Moores poem,  A Visit from Saint Nicolaus.  

Both versions of Christmas have a lot more in common than you think.    These movies were both acted out by Mabel des Beatons Marionettes.   Both stories are about astonishing visitors.  Both stories are about unexpected gifts.   Both stories included family and animals.   But most important of all, both stories take place in the dark.

I.
Christmas always begins in the dark.  Listen to how Isaiah's prophecy begins.   "The people walking in darkness have seen a great light.  Those who have lived in deep darkness---on them the light has shined."

The deep darkness Isaiah speaks of is not an ordinary darkness, but it is the dark shadow that comes upon a person threatened with death.  For Israel this deep darkness was the looming attack of the Assyrian army, who threatened Jerusalem.   It is this kind of looming, gloomy darkness that serves as the backdrop against the light that is promised.

The promise of light shining into darkness is unforgettable, because it speaks to our reality as well.   The vastness of the universe is made up mostly of darkness, not light.  If it were not for the light of our own sun, we would all be living in the dark.   Without light, darkness covers and dominates everything.   Without a promise of the power of continued light, our greatest hopes would be swallowed up by the a coming unending night.  Certainly, we've all starred into that big black hole we know as death.  With this promise of light---light at the end of our own tunnel of trouble, wed have nothing to see and nothing to say against this dark. 

I recall my mother talking about the day electricity came to their family farm.  It was such an unforgettable experience she never called it paying the electricity bill, but it was paying the light bill.  I too came to realize how precious is the promise of continuous power and light when an ice storm hit Greensboro in the winter of 1998.  We went 2 weeks without power or light.  All we had was one small fire place, where we huddled around the flickering light, night after night, in a constant life or death war, a war against the cold and the night.  

We are all at war against the cold and the dark.  The other day I heard about a young woman who was Breaking Up..  She claimed this was a love story, but this one was in reverse.  The young woman had grown up in church, desperately claimed to have wanted a relationship with God, but now she was breaking up, not with her husband, but with God---and she was breaking up for good, she said.   She decided to take a walk straight into the night.  Others called her brave and inspiring.  That is the darkness of our times--- Dont look back.  Dont look ahead.  Go bravely and courageously into that dark night and go alonego without God.  

II.
But the prophecy of Isaiah still speaks against the darkness.  Isaiah says you shouldnt keep walking in darkness because you now have a new baby on your hands.   Do you notice how he says it,  For to Us a Child is Born (vs. 6).   The Baby has been born, not just to us but For Us

What an incredible thing to say, Martin Luther once remarked way back in 1531.  Oh, a baby What is it?  And the answer comes,  Hes ours!.   How proud and honored we are that as His surrogate parents He now belongs to us.  But it is not even enough to say that he is born to us or for usbut the text also says, Luther reminds us, that He is given to us.   This baby is a pure gift, a present, for which there is nothing we can give in return---except that His life depends upon our life lived for him.

Could we walk away from new life, when we have held the baby in our arms?    Would you walk away from a baby?  What Im asking is: What can a baby do to help you and me get through the night that we face?  Does the fact that this child has been born for us and has been a given to us make any difference for how we view the world, how we live our lives, or look toward the future and our own war with the night?

Who in their right mind would simply walk away this baby or any baby, because we all know that when the baby comes everything changes, including us?   A baby changes everything.

Last year I attended a Christmas party and heard youth minister Andy Lambert, tell a story.  I emailed Andy and asked him about the story, which he said was based upon western writer Bret Hartes The Luck of Roaring Camp.   I did a little research and found a short version of that story as it has been told on the Radio Program, the voice of American, by Harry Monore. 

The story goes:  “Roaring Camp was the noisiest gold mining town in California.  More than one-hundred men from every part of the United States had come to that little camp – stopping there for a short time on their way to getting rich.   Many of these gold miners were criminals.  All of them were violent.  They filled the peaceful mountain air with shouting and gun shots.  The noise of their continual fighting finally gave the camp its strange name.
On a sunny morning in eighteen fifty, however, the men of Roaring Camp were quiet.  A crowd was gathered in front of a small wooden house by the river.  Inside that cabin was "Cherokee Sal," the only woman in camp.  She was all alone and in terrible pain.  Cherokee Sal was having a baby.   

Deaths were not unusual in Roaring Camp.  But a birth was big news. 
One of the men turned to another and ordered: "Go in there, Stumpy, and see what you can do."  Stumpy opened the cabin door, and disappeared inside.  The rest of the men built a campfire outside and gathered around it to wait.     Suddenly, a sharp cry broke the air…the cry of a new-born baby.  All the men jumped to their feet as Stumpy appeared at the cabin door.  Cherokee Sal was dead.  But her baby, a boy, was alive.

The men formed a long line.  One by one they entered the tiny cabin.  On the bed, under a blanket, they could see the body of the unlucky mother.  On a pine table, near that bed, was a small wooden box.  Inside lay Roaring Camp's newest citizen, wrapped in a piece of bright red cloth.
Someone had put a large hat near the baby's box.  And as the men slowly marched past, they dropped gifts into the hat.  A gold tobacco box.  A silver gun.  A diamond ring.  A lace handkerchief.  And about two hundred dollars in gold and silver. 

Only one incident broke the flow of the men through the cabin.  As a gambler named Kentucky leaned over the box, the baby reached up and held one of the man's fingers.  Kentucky looked embarrassed.   "That funny little fellow," he said, as he gently pulled his hand out of the box.  He held up his finger and stared at it.  "He grabbed my finger," he told the men.  "That funny little fellow."

The next morning, the men of Roaring Camp buried Cherokee Sal.  Afterwards, they held a formal meeting to discuss what to do with the baby.  Everyone in the camp voted to keep the child.  But nobody could agree on the best way to take care of it.  Tom Ryder suggested bringing a woman into the camp to care for the baby.  But the men believed no good woman would accept Roaring Camp as her home.  And they decided that they didn't want any more of the other kind.

Stumpy didn't say a word during these long discussions.  But when the others finally asked his opinion, he admitted that he wanted to continue taking care of the baby himself.  He had been feeding it milk from a donkey, and he believed he could raise the baby just fine.  There was something original, independent, even heroic about Stumpy's plan that pleased the men of Roaring Camp.  Stumpy was hired. 

All the men gave him some gold to send for baby things from the city of Sacramento.  They wanted the best that money could buy.   By the time the baby was a month old, the men decided he needed a name.  All of them had noticed that since the baby's birth, they were finding more gold than ever before.  One day Oakhurst declared that the baby had brought "The Luck" to Roaring Camp. 

So "Luck" was the name they chose for him, adding before it, the first name "Tommy."    A name day was set for him.  The ceremony was held under the pine trees with Stumpy saying the simple works: "I proclaim you Thomas Luck, according to the laws of the United States and the state of California, so help me God."

Soon after the ceremony, Roaring Camp began to change.  The first improvements were made in the cabin of Tommy or "The Luck" as he was usually called.  The men painted it white, planted flowers around it and kept it clean.   Tuttle's store, where the men used to meet to talk and play cards, also changed.  The owner imported a carpet and some mirrors.  The men – seeing themselves in Tuttle's mirrors – began to take more care about their hair, beards and clothing.   Stumpy made a new law for the camp.  Anyone who wanted the honor of holding The Luck would have to wash daily.  Kentuck appeared at the cabin every afternoon in a clean shirt, his face still shining from the washing he'd given it.

The shouting and yelling that had given the camp its name also stopped.  Tommy needed his sleep, and the men walked around speaking in whispers.  Instead of angry shouts, the music of gentle songs filled the air.  Strange new feelings of peace and happiness came into the hearts of the miners of Roaring Camp.   During those long summer days, The Luck was carried up the mountain to the place where the men were digging for gold.  He would lie on a soft blanket decorated with wild flowers the men would bring.    Nature was his nurse and playmate.  Birds flew around his blanket.  And little animals would play nearby.  Golden sunshine and soft breezes would stroke him to sleep.

During that golden summer The Luck was with them, the men of Roaring Camp all became rich.  With the gold they found in the mountains came a desire for further improvement.  The men voted to build a hotel the following spring.  They hoped some good families with children would come to live in Roaring Camp.    But some of the men were against this plan.  They hoped something would happen to prevent it.  And something did.
The following winter, the winter of eighteen fifty-one, is still remembered for the heavy snows in the mountains.  When the snow melted that spring, every stream became an angry river that raced down the mountains tearing up trees and bringing destruction.   One of those terrible streams was the North Fork River.  Late one night, it leaped over its banks and raced into the valley of Roaring Camp.

The sleeping men had no chance to escape the rushing water, the crashing trees and the darkness.  When morning came, Stumpy's cabin near the river was gone.  Further down in the valley they found the body of its unlucky owner.   But the pride, the hope, the joy, The Luck of Roaring Camp had disappeared.  

Suddenly, a boat appeared from around a bend in the river.  The men in it said they had picked up a man and a baby.  Did anyone know them?  Did they belong here?  Lying on the bottom of the rescue boat was Kentuck.  He was seriously injured, but still holding The Luck of Roaring Camp in his arms.  As they bent over the two, the men saw the child was pale and cold.
"He's dead," said one of them.   Kentuck opened his eyes.  "Dead?" he whispered.  "Yes, Kentuck.  And you are dying, too."    Kentuck smiled.  "Dying!" he repeated.  "He is taking me with him.  Tell the boys I've got The Luck with me."
And the strong man, still holding the small child, drifted away on the shadowy river that flows forever to the unknown sea.”

III.
The Luck of Roaring Camp is not just another story----its a story that mimics THE STORY of child who has been born for us.   Our child was also born to strangers, and he died, but his life and his death can change everything. 

What does this baby change?  How is he our Light?    Yes, we still die.  Yes we still face floods of darkness, and yes, we still live in a dangerous, threatening world,  but as Kentuck said, Hes taking me with him.  Tell the boys Ive got THE LUCK with me.

But its not just LUCK is it?    Look how Isaiah ends this prophecy.   He says that this child born for us is not just any baby, but this child  is named Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. (Isa 9:6 NRS).   Is this any kind of name to give a baby?   It is, if you are going to put the weight of the world  on his shoulders.   

This baby is a royal baby, but he is not just any ruler or king, but again, as Martin Luther once said,   This baby is a genuine Lord.   The rule of this baby differs than the kingdoms of this world.   He does not wear his authority around his neck, and he does not force you under his feet, but he bears the burdens of the world to rest upon his own shoulders.   Can you envision a baby like that?   Can you imagine this baby changing and carrying your burdens in a way that he also carries YOU? 

As we think about such a baby,  I want us to think about  the parents of such a baby.  We dont have to imagine it, because it is also part of the story.  At the birth of that child, Jesus, God needed a mother and a father ?   That may be the most surprising part of the story of Christmas.   Its also the part that makes Christmas real.

We know how Joseph was engaged to Mary when she turned up pregnant.   Knowing that he was not the father, according to the Bible and the laws of the land, Joseph had some options.  He could follow the law and follow his Bible and he could have put Mary away privately.  Joseph is a good man, a righteous man, and such a scandal could have hurt his reputation. 

What do you do when something difficult, different and threatening comes close to you?  What do you do when you know something is really not right, and you need to try to save yourself?   Go to other people---go to the coffee shop, to the sewing circles, to the internet, or just google it and see what somebody else would do?   Or, Just do what the Bible says!   But what if its what is happening to you is not in the Bible and what if the Bible says you should get rid of that person, or and that you, being in the right, dont need to worry with such problems or such people?    What would we have done, if we were in Josephs shoes?

Amazingly, no miraculously, this man who could still control his own destiny and determine his own outcome---didnt.   Its was a mans world and he could have put her away privately, or he could have exposed her for what had happened, and he could have been done with it all.   But what does Joseph do?   Joseph is the first person in the New Testament who learned how to read the Bible (Fred Craddock).  Here, Joseph learned to read the Bible through the lenses of grace and the love of God.   For you see, the answer is not always in the Bible, but the answers in the Bible are always in the Baby.

How did the baby give Joseph the answer?    The baby was not yet born.  Mary is not yet in labor, and she was not even showing.  and this baby is already having an impact. Through an dream, an angel instructs Joseph  I want you to marry her.I want you to marry Mary.   I want you to take her in, take care of her and to raise her boy.   I want you to feed that baby, learn to care for and learn to love that baby, and I want you to let the baby love you.  For unto you...  this baby is born, Joseph.   Its not just Marys baby, this baby will also be YOURS.  To Joseph a Son is born.and a Son is given.   If you will care for this baby, this baby will do more than return the favor, this baby will become the light of your world.   But you must receive Him Joseph.  You must take this baby home with you and you must make this baby your own.  Will you do it Joseph? 

On this night, once again, we are all Joseph.   This is how we know Christmas has come, when we take the baby home and make Him our baby.  Even before Christmas comes, Joseph decided to parent this child,  he takes Jesus home, he cares for him, he raises him, he teaches him, and he shows him how to be a good man.  Joseph does what is right---because he listens, not just to a law----or what has read about in his Bible, but because he is listening and following the voice of a living God who comes to him.   Christmas always comes, when there is one person, or one people who will listen to God, do what is right, and take the baby home with them.

IF you will take THIS BABY home with you, I promised,  HE will change everything.   Babies always change things.   Babies always shine.  But with this baby, there is no darkness that can ever overcome his LIGHT.   For, you will not just carry this baby, but this baby will carry you.   There is no other gift ever given to us like Him.   As the angel informed Joseph: "The child conceived in her is from the Holy SpiritShe will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.  (Matt. 1.20-21).      

Tonight we are all Joseph.  We are instructed to take this baby home and it will be a night like no other.   
Merry Christmas!  

Sunday, December 21, 2014

“PROMISED”

A Sermon Based Upon Isaiah 11: 1-10
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Sunday,   Advent B, December  21, 2014

On that day the root of Jesse shall stand as a signal to the peoples; the nations shall inquire of him, and his dwelling shall be glorious. (Isa 11:10 NRS)

You’d better check your list twice, there’s only a couple more days of shopping left until Christmas.  Aren’t you glad?    
A few days before Christmas two men in Florida decided to go sailing while their wives went Christmas shopping.    While they were out sailing a terrible storm arose.  It was all they could do to keep their boat under control.  As they maneuvered their way back to land, their boat became grounded on a sandbar. They had to jump overboard and push with all their might trying to get the boat into deeper water. 
While they were doing this, the wind was blowing, the waves were rushing upon them and they were soaking wet, knee deep in mud. One of the guys looked at his buddy and said, “You know, it sure beats shopping!”
We all have visions of what Christmas should look like.   Think for a moment, about some of the most popular ones.   “I’m dreaming of a White Christmas.”   What about that tear jerker; “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”   Then there’s the romantic one of “Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire”.  Everybody has their own personal vision of what Christmas should be.  Few children today have ‘visions of sugar plums dancing in their head’, but I’m sure something is dancing up there, especially this week.  It’s almost Christmas!
What is your vision of the perfect Christmas?  The older we are, the simpler the vision gets, but sometimes, the harder the orders are to fill.   “I just want all the family to come home”,  but now, they have their own lives.”   Another says,    “I would like to have good health,” but that too could contradict this moment.   Dreams of peace and hope can get even more complicated.   Maybe there’s been a situation at work, a separation in your relationships, or maybe life hasn’t worked out as you’d hoped.  We all have our wants, our wishes, our dreams, our hopes and our prayers for Christmas.   Music, poetry and art, represent some of our dreams.  Who hasn’t received a beautiful ‘vision’ of Christmas, only to sigh and wish it could be so.  Even the greeting “Merry Christmas” is a vision and a hope of what Christmas could be, but unfortunately, at least for some, it isn’t so “Merry!”  It’s just wishful thinking.
Today, I’m not taking anything for granted.  We are getting very close to Christmas, so I want to talk about the big vision---the very big vision of what could be, and should be, but still isn’t.  It includes, but goes back even further than the greeting the angels announced on that first Christmas: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace…” (Lk. 2.14).  Long before there was Christmas, some 700 years before Jesus, there was this vision of Isaiah—a glorious dream that was, and still is the greatest dream of what the world could be, but still isn’t. 

NO ORDINARY PEACE
You may recognize this vision.  Perhaps you’ve even received a Christmas card of Isaiah’s “Peaceable Kingdom” as painted by early American artist, Edward Hicks.  
Hicks’ memorable painting was as idealistic, as it was hopeful and personal.  In a day long before printers, it is estimated that Hicks’ painted over a hundred different paintings with 61 different versions of this “Peaceable Kingdom”.   Edward Hicks was a Pennsylvania Quaker with a simple faith, but also with a not-so-simple hope.  His painting is not a vision of how things are, but of how things should be, could be, or as Hick’s hoped, might have been coming into reality in early America.  It was his hope, but it still wasn’t the way things were.
If you look closely at the painting, you will see all kinds of animals in the foreground.  Wild animals are standing peaceably with domesticated ones.  A child or children are dispersed among the animals without fear or threat.  In the background, William Penn, the Quaker who founded Pennsylvania, is signing a peace treaty with local Indians.  This was an expression of Hicks’ faith in both the dream of America and in his faith of a God who could lead everyone to make peace and invite God’s new kingdom to come.   It was this grand vision from Isaiah that he making him hopeful of how things might be.   Over the years, Hicks’ paintings have become priceless and timeless.  Of course, the names have changed, but both the animals and the humans haven’t.  This is why it remains a dream, a hope, a prayer, and has little to do with most of the realities we know, this Christmas or any Christmas.
It may have been much the same for Isaiah.   Certainly things were not very “peaceable” when Isaiah first painted his original vision.   The Assyrian army was on the warpath.  Perhaps they had already devastated the northern tribes, but their mighty chariots and deadly arrows were still threatening the peace of his world.   The truth of the situation was even worse than that.  As Isaiah expressed in Isaiah 10:5, God had allowed Assyria to march against Israel (his own people) as the ‘rod of his anger… against a godless nation (10.5).  Judgment is the kind of ‘truth’ no one wants to believe then, or now.  Most of the words and dreams spoken by prophets were unheard, until it was too late.
When we begin to look closely at this very radical vision of peace, we can quickly see that this is no ordinary peace.  This is not merely a peace that ends war or conflict.  This is not merely a peace that hopes for a better life or a better world.  This was Isaiah’s hope for the transformation of everything---a reverse of the curse.  You just don’t have wolves living with lambs, leopard’s lying with goats, or children playing with poisonous snakes, unless everything has been completely altered—that is radically transformed.  
When I too consider this vision, I can’t help but think how ridiculous all this sounds; either when compared with real life or even compared to the cartoons I used to watch as a child.  Remember how the Coyote was always after the Road Runner, or how Sylvester constantly tried to catch and eat Tweetie Bird, or how Elmer Fudd desperately wanted to shoot that “darn Rabbit”.  Even as unrealistic as some of those cartoons were they at least represented the world we all know all too well—a world of “nature, red-toothed and claw” and a world where children can mostly easily suffer and die.   Isaiah’s vision is not the world we know.  How crazy is it to suggest, that a child will one day “play over” a hole or den of snakes?  In a world like ours, we might imagine another approach: Why not kill all the snakes? 
But even though this is nothing like the world we know, it is a dream we would like to know.  We can connect to it.  How are you dreaming of something more, deeper, even more precious and peaceful than a just a ‘White Christmas?”   There is something captivating and alluring in this picture that captured the imagination the prophet and might even captivate us.  
Most of us may remember how heartwarming it was, when several years ago, a video came out in the news about the two Australian fellows, John Rendall and Ace Bourke, who  were reunited with the Lion they had bought at a store, raised from a cub in London, and had finally released back into the wild.   When they returned into the wild, a year or so later, to see how their Lion was doing, they approached carefully, not knowing for sure whether the Lion would remember them, or worse--eat them.   As you watched the Lion charge toward them everything was uncertain.  Could those humans “lie down” with that Lion? 
But the real question in the back of their mind and ours: Can love tame the wild of nature?  As the Lion leaped toward them we all were a gasp.   But beyond their ‘wildest’ dreams, and tamed ones too, that lion sprang on them with apparent hugs of affection.  We were not only relieved, but also amazed.  Could this dream come true?  Oh, by the way, they had given that Lion a name: Christian.

NO ORDINARY HOPE
Even though any truly tamed Lion is still the exception, not the rule.  It would be very dangerous for us to try such a thing, just as it would be to believe that such a radical, outrageous, transformative peace, like Isaiah’s vision, might become a reality in this world the way things are right now.  We all want to hope that the “wild” of nature or the wild of human nature, can and will, one day be transformed by God’s transforming love.  We all want both “heaven and nature” to sing  of God’s peace.   We even want to give ‘peace a chance’, but can peace have a chance in a world like ours?
I’m purposely ‘pessimistically optimistic’ because happened to Siegfried and Roy, or what happen to the face of the woman attacked by her friend’s pet Monkey, or why most Wildlife officials will deter you from owning a Lion, Tiger or Bear.  We want to believe that life can be transformed.  We want to believe that we are headed in a positive direction.  We want to believe that what comes ‘natural’ to us can be altered, converted or transformed?   What sane person wouldn’t want to believe this?  But also, what sane person would actually believe it?  Why would two crazy guys buy a Lion at a department store, make that Lion their pet, release it into the wild, and then go back into that wild hoping that their Lion might have the memory of an elephant or the reaction of a dog?   Don’t they know this is a cat?   Do they seem like people who grew up in a world of skepticism and science?    If you think Isaiah the prophet was crazy for seeing something like this, consider the foolishness of those two fellows?  We all know that people, like children, can get a little crazy at Christmas, but this kind of crazy is crazy; but it’s also a good kind of crazy.  It’s the kind of crazy that gets people killed.  
As crazy this sounds (it’s almost Christmas, so I hope you’ll understand you might believe most anything this close to Christmas), I believe that prophets, people and lion tamers, whether it be for religious purposes, experimental purposes, or even for entertainment purposes, are right at the heart of the greatest dream of Christmas---the dream of peace on earth and good will to all.   I believe that Isaiah’s vision is more than a nice, pleasant picture to put on a Christmas card as mere sentimentally.   I believe that this hope for a world transformed from the one we now know, experience and fear, is a dream that can be realized—not just tomorrow, but it can even be known today.   But how can I believe such a crazy notion?   
Back in October, Teresa and I visited a new dermatologist in Winston-Salem.   You wouldn’t normally think of having a religious experience in a dermatologist’s office, but that is what happened.   I was standing there listening to instructions from the receptionists (or not listening, as my wife says), and then my eyes moved from seeing the personal family photos to  scripts of paper tacked up on the board on the wall at her back.   Right beside some pictures of children (visiting Disneyland, I think) was a written copy of a familiar Christian hymn; all three verses.  Right beside that hymn was a hand-written quote attributed to South African civil rights leader Nelson Mandela.  The quote went: “No one is born hating another person because of the color of his skin, or his background, or his religion.  People must learn to hate, and if they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart...”  (From A Long Walk to Freedom).
It helps me to understand that this peace Isaiah envisions--this belief in the coming transformation of all things, fits right into the grand vision of hope for peace found throughout the Bible as a whole.   Isaiah’s vision is an appropriate picture of how things ‘shall be’ because of how things once were—before temptation ruled, before sin destroyed, before the loss of innocence, before the knowledge of good and evil came into this world.   In short, what Isaiah envisions here, preserves a human memory of what has been lost, or what comes ‘more naturally’ as Mandela put it.   Isaiah’s hope for a world of peace may seem strange and crazy to us, but it is not strange at all to the God who created this world and us.  It’s helps me to realize, whether reading the Bible or the newspapers, to know that God had an entirely different vision of how things should be, and he also had a very different vision for who we could be.  Knowing that the world is a paradise lost, as John Milton once described it,  helps me to believe it can also be a paradise regained —a reverse the curse.  
Jesus too, in his own vision of coming of God’s kingdom, not only spoke about how things should be, but he also spoke of how things really are, and how things have sometimes gone wrong.   Recall in Matthew when Jesus spoke about the growing lackadaisical attitudes toward marriage of his day.  Some religious leaders came to him asking about whether a man should be able to freely divorce his wife for cause?   As Jesus answered, he also remembered: “From the Beginning, it was not so….”  (Matt. 19.8).   Jesus asked: “Have you not read that He who made them AT THE BEGINNING made them male and female?” (Matt. 19:5).    “It was because you were so hard-hearted,”  Jesus continues, “that Moses allowed you to divorce….  but AT THE BEGINNING it was not so.”   Once upon a time,  the ways things were was lost.
 “In the beginning” is also how Genesis opens, and that’s no accident.  In this “beginning” we also we see some idealized, Christmas card-like images of original people—the way we were, as the song says.  These original people are rather normally carrying on conversations with a serpent.   This Adam and Eve could casually talk to God on an evening stroll.   My goodness, the Genesis story even suggests that in the beginning, a man and woman could actually talk and understand each other!   Is that normal?  Cain had not yet killed Abel.  The world had not known a flood.  There were no giants in the land.   With all these kinds of strange, other-worldly images, and more, Genesis provides the ground for Isaiah’s hope.   As Genesis and Jesus both say, and as Isaiah here imagines: In the beginning, it was not so, and in the future it won’t be either.  Just as “in the beginning” when “God saw everything that he had made, and indeed it was very good” (1:31), Isaiah believed it would be that way again The strangeness of the vision captured this prophets eye, because his heart was captured by the creator God.
Will this vision capture and captivate us, this Christmas?  Can we gather around the tree and imagine that kind of peace in the world could be what God has already started among us?   It’s not an easy sell, is it?   The eternally depressed comedian, Woody Allen, once sarcastically gave his answer, "The calf might lie down with the Lion, but I bet the calf don't sleep at night."   To have a real hope for peaceful, 'predator-free' world---a world without threat, without evil, and without danger and without disappointment, is very much like a Christmas card, isn’t it?   It's beautiful to think look at, but it’s not the dog-eat-dog reality we know all too well.  
How do we get the hope, this vision and this dream of peace off the Christmas card and into our own lives?   Are you sometimes as ‘stumped’ by the way the world is, the way the world goes, the way everything remains the same, or gets worse?  Are you disappointed by the way both nature and human nature can be?   Will you get to sleep this night before Christmas? Or will creatures still be stirring in your house and the house of your dreams?  Will your Christmas be more like a ‘Night at the Museum’ than the “Night Before Christmas”?  

NO ORDINARY KING
Ironically, I think Isaiah wants us to be ‘stumped’ by this vision.  I think Isaiah wants us to be “stumped” so we realize just how far we are from God’s dream of what this world should be.   That’s exactly where this vision begins, with a stump---doesn’t it.    It begins with stump and “a branch” growing out of that stump.  It begins this way because, as Isaiah also preached (10:33), until the tall, opposing, self-sufficient, and egotistical trees are cut down, there can’t be any real hope for God’s peace to come---either in this world or in our hearts.  There is only one way this radical, transformative ‘heavenly’ and earthly peace can come to us.   And it’s not  just that ‘the tallest trees’ have to be ‘cut down’ or the ‘lofty’ must be ‘brought low’ but it is also, first and foremost, a radical, hopeful vision that somebody different—somebody very different, must rule and be king in our lives.

This somebody is who must rule, is the King only God can enthrone.   This king is one who can do what only God can do and bring a peace that only God can bring.    And this will be no ordinary peace because this it is no ordinary king.   According to Isaiah’s vision, only the king who has the “the Spirit of the Lord” and is ‘anointed’ by God himself, can bring this kind of other-worldly or ‘heavenly’ peace into the world.  Until God’s king rules; until God’s king rules both our lives, our politics and our world, we will not fully know this kind of peace.
So, before we close, let’s return to our Christmas Card, Edward Hick’s painting of the Peaceable Kingdom.  Once more let’s ask how we make this peace, Isaiah’s peace, down to earth for our lives and our world.  When Hick’s painted all those many versions of the Peaceable Kingdom, it was noticed that as he painted them,  all a hundred or so of them, that both the animals in the foreground and the people in the background grew larger, darker, more ominous, and stranger to the hope he too envisioned.  You could say that even all the way back then, the American dream has a very tragic way of becoming the American nightmare. 
This is they kind of human experience we all know, which only God can reverse.  God has come to bear the curse and to reverse the curse through Jesus, his chosen King, but how and when will this happen.   Will this world finally and fully let God’s king rule, “as far as the curse is found” or have we gotten so used to the curse that we’ve lost interest.  Have we lost interest not only for God’s dream for the world, but have also lost interest in God’s dream for ourselves.  It’s funny, maybe even sick, how people can go around celebrating Christmas and not even give one single thought or prayer to the God’s dream.  Can we, in a world like ours, do anything to make God’s dream come true in us?
Several years ago, PBS ran a special on how the first wild wolves were finally domesticated to become loving, faithful dogs---our best friends.  How did such a thing happen, when humans have taken wild animals out of the wild for years and attempted over and over to train and domestic them, but with no real success.  How did this change happen?  This is what the Scientists could not figure out.
Finally, one Scientist came up with a theory.  It’s just a theory now, but it makes all kinds of sense—both scientific and spiritual.   The theory is that no humans have ever domesticated wolves into dogs, no matter how much they tried, because the wolves domesticated themselves.  As  humans moved into settlements, the wolves gathered around realizing that the humans had something they didn’t:  food—free food.  The only way these wolves could get to the food, without risking their lives, was to come closer and closer and then get close enough to allow themselves to be domesticated by human love.  And this is exactly what the Scientist say happened.  No one domesticated the first wolves into dogs until the wolves were hungry enough to allow this to happen.  Wolves had to first want the transformation to happen.  They had hurt enough, be hungry enough and even be “dog” enough, to allow love to change their whole nature (http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/episodes/dogs-that-changed-the-world/what-caused-the-domestication-of-wolves/1276/). 
I don’t think it’s any different for us.   My theory is that what keeps a Christmas world from getting off the Christmas card and into our lives has a lot less to do with God than it has to do with us.  We are the missing link.   Only God can change us; that’s true.  Only God can change the world, that’s true too.  But we have to be hungry enough, and we must come close enough, and allow God to change us first.  God doesn’t throw the bread to the wolves or the dogs, until they are hungry enough to come close enough to his transforming love.   Jesus himself proved this in his conversation with the syrophoencian woman (Mark 7l 26ff).  C
Could it still be that what keeps Isaiah’s vision of transforming peace from getting off a Christmas card is not a lack of God’s power, but our lack of desire?  Did you know that the most dangerous and disappointing animal in Hick’s painting is not the lions, tigers and bears, but it is the children themselves?  Those children who someday lose their innocence have the greatest potential to hinder God’s rule of peace in the world .  Again, it is no accident that at Christmas, when we talk of peace, real peace, God’s peace, we also think of a child, the child who grew to become God’s King, the King God chose to rule our hearts for the sake of peace.
But we must let him rule—in our world and in our hearts.  Are we still the stubborn trees that need cutting before God’s love and peace can blossom?   Are we the stubborn growth that has grown wild, living whatever way we wish, without giving thought to the one who created and called us to a much higher and holier level of life?   If you are ready for peace, God’s peace, John the Baptist says the ‘ax is lying at the root of the trees (Mt. 3.10).
What is God waiting on to make this vision of world peace a reality?   God could be waiting on us.   His peace may be waiting on us to get close enough for love to change our own hearts.  If that happens, you never know what might happen next.  The wolf might not only live with the lamb, but the wolf could become a lamb.  Can you see how far this could go?  Far as the curse is found, far as the curse is found.  Far as, Far as, the curse is found.”   Amen. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

“FULFILLED”

A Sermon Based Upon Isaiah 61: 1-11
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
First Sunday of Advent (B),   December 14th, 2014

For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord GOD will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations. (Isa 61:11 NRS)

According to Luke’s gospel (Luke 4), today’s text from Isaiah was the Scripture Jesus used to announce his ministry.   When he finished reading this text, he declared in no uncertain terms that: “The Spirit of Lord was upon (him)” to fulfill this prophecy in his own life in that very moment.   Right after that, it was the first time, but not the last, they all wanted him dead.

Once I was preaching in a church in Cleveland County.  I encountered a nice young married fellow who was faithful each evening for the revival services. 
“How long have you been a member of this congregation?”  I asked.
“Oh, I’m not a member.”
“Well then, do you want to be?  You’ve been here every night.
“No, I can’t become a member.”
            “What makes you think that?  I’ve seen all kinds of people become a member of a Baptist church.  Of course you can.”
            “No I can’t”,  he answered firmly.  “I’m a Jew.   I’m a Jew who happened to marry a Baptist girl.   I come to church with her.
            “Wow, really?   You’ve been here every night.  You didn’t miss a single one.”
“Yea,” he added.  “I come so faithfully, they’ve tried to elect me a deacon a couple of times, but I keep reminding them I’m Jewish”. 
With great curiosity, I finally asked.  “Why don’t you become a Christian, since you’re y coming to church so faithfully.   Don’t you like Jesus?”
 “I can’t become a Christian because of Jesus.”
“What do you mean?”
He concluded:  “I can’t become a Christian because of the kind of Jew Jesus was.”

Do you realize that the Jesus we are about to celebrate at Christmas, the life of our party, really isn’t?   When you get to know him, really get to know him, he wasn’t and he still isn’t a very popular guy.  Try mentioning his name at a Community Meeting.   Try mentioning his name at the PTA, or at a Football game.   Even remind a “Church” person what following Jesus should mean beyond coming to church.  It could make people mad.  That’s why Jesus is still a lot more popular dead, than alive.   He was then, and he still is now. 
I wished I’d realized that when I decided to become a preacher.  My mother surely must have realized it.  She didn’t go beyond the 10th grade in formal education, but she was smart.    She tried to talk me out of becoming a preacher.   She told me that I shouldn’t answer any call to to preach.   It wasn’t that she hated preachers.  She was trying to protect me, her only child.  She was trying to warn me what I was getting into.   I was too naive to listen.  She was right.  Since then, not a few people have hated me, when I have tried to bring the truth of Jesus to life.  

You see, to most people, Jesus is still a lot better, if he just stays dead!  Jesus is much better remembered, celebrated, discussed, or maybe someone to sing about, than he is to follow.   You can have “Jesus” if that’s your personal religion, but leave it at church.  Don’t get too serious.  Keep it personal, quiet and private.   It’s OK if we want to put up a cross on our church steeple or maybe even have an outdoor nativity scene on our property, but if you put it out there in a public space, someone will want you to take it down.  

We’re talking about Christmas.  Christmas is nice if it stays on a Card.   Christmas is nice if it’s about the food, the gifts, and the decorations.  Christmas might even be fine as a few nostalgic moments around ‘an open fire’.   It is good to have as a holiday, but what would happen if we really made it ‘holy’ day?   Who would come!   Would you interrupt your Christmas  for Christ?   If  we weren’t just praying to a ‘baby Jesus’ like “Ricky Bobby” in Talladega Nights, but coming to worship, serve, and to follow an all grown-up, commanding, LORD Jesus who could spell trouble.   It certainly would mean trouble, if even ‘some’ of us became serious about fulfilling today’s Scripture in our politics, in our churches, or in our personal lives.  

Let’s look for a few moments at what’s so troubling about this text. 

LET YOURSELF BE “ANOINTED”
This first word, “The Spirit of the LORD is upon me” is already asking for it.   

A Lutheran Church even fired their pastor for simply using the word “Holy Spirit” in his sermon. 
If you or I suggested that the “Spirit” is ‘upon us’, we could be asking for it too.  

Spiritual stuff is dangerous stuff.  You can say, do, believe, and profess, almost anything and call it ‘religion’.  Religion changes minds.  It chains minds too.   It divides families.  It gets into politics.  It gets dirty and messy.   Instead of being part of a church, most people choose to stay home.  

Spiritual religious stuff is dangerous because you just can’t control it.   When we watched the twin towers in New York falling on 9/11, we had a frightening example etched in our minds of just how ‘bad’ and “dangerous’ religion can become.   Since 9/11 a whole new crop of atheists have popped up trying to tell us that all religion is bad for and we’d better stop.   I heard that Mitt Romney might run for president again, and we all know he’s also a Mormon.   Religion complicates things really fast.

Why don’t we just band religion?   What don’t we just stop believing all together?   But what are we going say, when we also realize that spiritual matters are also real matters that do matter and must matter, if anything matters at all?  

Of course, religion, like people, can be trouble, so most people keep their distance from taking it too serious.   But when we read at text like this, where it speaks about bringing good news to the poor, to the oppressed, and to the prisoner, and we realize that God might want to ‘anoint’ us to join helping in this task, it might mean doing something risky for someone.  But what if you’re the one who’s up against it financially?  What if you’re the one who’s bearing too heavy of a load?  What if you’re the one who’s been wrongly accused?   What if you’re a person who never had a chance?  This difficult, but this “spiritual stuff” might be the only hope you have?

Our church in Lenoir had a prison ministry, and the Baptist Men’s group held a cookout and worship service twice a year.  Our praise team would go.  Our Baptist men cook.  A couple of deacons would lead the service and share their witness.   I would preach.  It was one of spiritual highlights of the year; for them and for us.  It’s one thing to preach to people who could be somewhere else, but it’s quite another to preach to a ‘captive’ audience.   The good news we shared was the only hope of good news they had in that moment.   It was also the hope of a better life than they had before.   We saw it as our duty, our calling, our work, and our witness as God’s anointed, to take that ‘good news’ to them, and not expect them to come to us.   That’s the way people who are ‘anointed’ with God’s spirit think.   

What if we got that spiritually ‘anointed’ around here?   What if we couldn’t have Christmas until we shared our own faith with someone who was poor, who was oppressed, or who was in prison?    When George Clooney got married recently, a few things about his upbringing was shared in the news.  Raised as a strict Catholic, Clooney said that on Christmas morning, before they could open presents, his Father would lead the family to a stranger’s house, where they would take presents and would help them clean up the house and put up a tree.  His father believed before you could celebrate what you had, you had a responsibility to help someone else.”  http://www.brainyquote.com/quotes/authors/g/george_clooney.html).

I realize some of us aren’t too fond of this word “anointed” and it can be for good reasons.  People who claim to have an ‘anointing’ from God can sometimes seem ‘strange’ and ‘frightening’.   When I was living in Winston-Salem, the house where we were staying needed a plumber.  The house belonged to the church, and they called him for us.  When he came to the house, we started talking.  I found out he was a member of a church of another denomination and they had a lady interim pastor there. 

I knew exactly who she was, but I didn’t tell him, at first.   I had gone to school with her and she was the first student mentor I had.  She had also been a chaplain at Baptist hospital.  Without telling him that I knew her and respected her highly, I thought I’d play a game with him.  At that time, some churches, especially Baptist ones, were still skeptical about having a woman as their pastor.   I started to play around with him, saying, “I don’t know about a woman preacher, stuff.  What do you really think about that? “
With that he stopped his work, shook his tool in my face and said,
“Don’t you talk negative about the Lord’s anointed.”  
            “I’m just playing with you.  I’m just playing,”   I’m glad I WAS just playing.

We all would like to say who can be ‘anointed’ and who can’t.  We’d like to make certain people ‘anointable’ and others not so much.  But what if anyone and everyone could be anointed?  Or what if anyone and everyone should have some anointing?     Did you know that last year, every denomination in the United States posted losses?   All of them are losing members.  The “Nones” are the fastest growing religious group in the US.  The only religious group that ‘posted’ gains last year, in 2013, was the Assemblies of God.   They are one of those denominations who believes everybody should have an “anointing’ from God?  Harvard Professor, Harvey Cox, takes it one step further.  He says that the only churches who have any kind of future in the US and in the world, are “spiritual churches who believe and are alive in the Spirit.”  That’s kind of strange coming from “Harvard” don’t you think?  But it’s true.

More frightening than the word “spiritual” or the word “anointed” is what it really means:  It means that faith IN Jesus has to be real FOR Jesus before you can say it is really FROM Jesus.    How does faith become ‘real’ in you?   If this is from not from God, Gamaliel said, it will wash out.  But if this stuff is really from God, you’d better watch out (Acts 5.34-39).  It could mean trouble.  If you don’t want to become who God wants you to be, your “fighting against God!” (Acts 5.39).   Will you not at least consider what it might mean for you to be anointed?

TAKE GOOD NEWS TO “THEM”
But you must let ‘anointed’ mean what Isaiah meant by it and what Jesus meant with it.   God’s good news isn’t really good until it also becomes ‘good news’ you take to ‘them’.  

I don’t care how hard you try, you can’t privatize the Christian faith.   The Christian faith, which is the Christmas faith, is either a faith for everybody or it can’t be faith for anybody.  It’s not even rightly a faith for you, unless you are willing to also to take it to them.  This does not mean you have something you must force on someone, but it’s something you must find a way to offer to them.  From the very first time, people started to encounter who really Jesus was, they had to tell somebody.   “Come see a man who told me everything I ever done” (Jn. 4.29).  “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?  Come and See”, Philip told Nathaniel (Jn 1.46).  After the man at the pool was healed, “he went and told the Jews it was Jesus who made him well “ (Jn. 5.15).  When a large crowd followed Jesus everywhere he went, the disciples wanted to send the away, but Jesus said,  “You give them something to eat?”  Do you see the pattern, here?    The gospel is something you share. It’s something you show.  It’s something you can’t keep for yourself, until you give it someone else. 

Several years ago, a ‘national’ or ‘native’ missionary came to the church where I was pastor and told us about a church he was building in Africa.   He told us how hungry people were for the gospel.  He told how hungry people are hungry for anything.   He also told us how serious his church was about sharing the gospel.  He told us how they had finally gotten enough supplies to build a permanent building, and had recently had their first worship services.  There was not enough room to hold all the people.  People were waiting in line.  People were breaking in line.  Someone people were staying for a second service, when other people had not yet come in for the first time.  They had to turn their ushers into policemen.  Before the church service began, they would go up and down the aisle to check and even catch people trying to stay for the next service.   If they found someone, they would face them head on, and scold them, saying  “How dare you try to hear the gospel twice, when there are those still waiting to hear the gospel for very first time!”

How can we hear the gospel over and over, when the church is not just to be about us, but it’s also about ‘them’?   The question of a living, breathing, caring, sacrificing, thriving church is not a question of how can we have ‘church’ for us, but how can we build a church for ‘them’?

Would it get me, and others, in a lot of trouble if we pressed this issue?  What if we built our ministry based on what they need, not based on what we want?   What if we build our worship around what they need to hear, not what we want to hear?   What if the calling of our teachers, our leaders, our deacons, and our pastors, was not about doing things for us, but it was about doing what THEY need?   Could we build a church like that?  Could we celebrate Christmas like that?

I had just turned 16, and needed a job.   The first job was in the Textile mill.   It, or I lasted two weeks.  Then I went to work for a paving company.  It was an outside job  I liked that job better.  I worked the rest of the summer for that company, but then I had to go back to school.   I needed a job that I could also work part-time and during the next summer, and perhaps beyond.  I landed a job working in a hospital, as an orderly and a nursing assistant.  In those days, you didn’t have to have credentials.  They taught you on the job. 

I loved that job.  I even thought about going into some area of the medical field.   What inspired me most, as a youth, was that this job was not about ‘me’, but it was about ‘them.’   It was might first chance to really practice ministering to other people.  The moment that moved me in this direction was Christmas morning.   I was an only child.  I loved my parents, but I was getting bored at staying home at Christmas.   When the head nurse came around planning the Christmas holiday work schedule, to be she sounded like some Isaiah figure, shouting out, “O.K.  Who is going to work on Christmas day?  Who will go for us?  Who will I send?  And I said,  “Here am I, send me?”  I wanted to be somewhere.  I wanted to be someone.  I wanted to know something new about Christmas.

Then came Christmas morning.   I had gotten up early as a child, but during my teenage years, we often slept late on Christmas.  The excitement had gone.  But in my work in the hospital, on this particular Christmas I had to get up.  I had to be there shortly after 6.   I’ll never forget the feelings I had driving through the streets early on Christmas morning, seeing the light of the decorations, observing the few lights on in the homes.   It was quiet.  It was different.  It was serene.    You would think I would be missing Christmas, but I wasn’t.  This was one of the most wonderful Christmas mornings I’d ever experienced.  I was working, but it wasn’t just for myself.   The great present that year was not the present I was receiving, but it was in the person I was becoming.   This Christmas was not about me, but it was about ‘them’.   That who experienced changed me.   I think it is the greatest Christmas I had ever had, up to that moment.   What made it so special?   I think it was something Isaiah had said; “The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners;   2 to proclaim the year of the LORD's favor….. to comfort all who mourn;   (Isa 61:1-2 NRS)

Christmas came that year, and I didn’t need a single present under the tree.  I didn’t need anything, because I realized that Christmas, was not just about me, but it was about them.

SALVATION IN THS WORLD
There’s a lot more that could be said from this text about good news being ‘fulfilled’ in our time and in our lives.   I’ve already said enough to get myself, and us, into trouble.   But then again, this kind of ‘trouble’ is the kind that could ‘save’ your soul’.   If we would be very ‘anointed-like’ to bring someone who feels like a ‘nobody’ something from a ‘somebody’ like you.   But the great surprise, is not just what it would do for them in their situation, but what it might do for you in yours---it might just save you from yourself.   Living lives of ‘fulfillment’ could save us all from the emptiness of a selfish, self-centered, and self-seeking generation that has lost it bearings.  When someone cares, when someone loves, and when someone stands ready to help, something’s gotta give, and someone’s going to live.

What we are talking about here---what Isaiah was talking about, and what got Jesus into so much trouble----, is not only a Christmas message of Jesus coming down to earth so that we could all go to heaven, but it it’s about Jesus coming down so that heaven would come down and get into us, right now, while we are here on earth.  “You must be born again”, Nicodemus said.   “You must take up your cross, and follow me”, now, Jesus said.   That’s what Isaiah was saying.  That’s why Jesus still spells trouble, but it can be some very good trouble.

Fred Craddock told about a woman, who attended a service where he was a guest preacher, who informed him, that if she anticipated that a message might lay a claim on her life, she brought her three children with her for a distraction.  The distraction, usually worked.  Even the angry stares she got from other people who wanted to hear what the preacher said, was a small price to pay for going home scot-free, she said.
“Have you never been in a church before?”  the preacher asked a young person in their 20’s.
“I’m sure this is my very first time.”
“Well, how was it?”
“A bit scary.”
“Scary?”
“Yes, I found it a big frightening.”
“How so?”
“Everything seemed so important.  I try to avoid events that are important; they get inside your head and stay with you and won’t go away.  I don’t like that.  To be honest, I prefer parties.”
“Then will you come back?”
After a long pause, the answer was, “Yes.”

I hope we are all somewhat disturbed by the truth of Christ, and what should be true about Christmas.  Shouldn’t we feel a need for some kind of ‘anointing’ to take the gospel to them, and not just keep us ‘for us?’    Should we be disturbed to celebrate Christmas just to pleasure ourselves, when 10,000 children are killed or injured by guns every year?  Shouldn’t we be disturbed when 16 million children live in food-starved households so they go to be hungry each night?  Shouldn’t we be disturbed when there are children, and families, right around us who don’t know where to turn, or who to turn to, who feel oppressed by the system,  brokenhearted by their situation, or imprisoned in their own lives. 

Who wants our ‘nice’ Christmas disturbed by a bad ole prophet?   So, if you have two coats, keep the both.  If you need to go the second mile, just stop at one.   If you find love in your family, why should you love a stranger, or maybe even an enemy?  I was hungry, and you didn’t feed me.  I was a stranger, you didn’t visit.  I was in prison, but you didn’t come.  I was naked, and I still am.  You’ve got all your stuff, so it doesn’t really matter about them.  Or does it?  Fool, what will you do with all that stuff?    

When I decided to work in the hospital on Christmas day in December of 1974,  I didn’t have to work.  I was new.  I was young. 
You need to be home with your family,” the head nurse told me. 
Then I said, “Ma’am, I can’t stay home.” 
It’s not Christmas, unless I’m here, helping someone else.”  

It was then that I knew that  ‘the Spirit of the LORD was upon me….”  It was then, that day, ‘the Scripture was fulfilled’ in me.   What about you, this year would you let Christmas happen, not just for you, but in you?   It could get you in trouble, but then again, it could save your soul.    Merry Christmas!      Amen.