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Sunday, December 25, 2016

“Where is the Child?”

A Sermon Based Upon Matthew 2: 1-12
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Christmas Day,  YEAR A,  December 25th, 2016 

Did you come here today looking for the child? 

In the Christmas story we have today from Matthew’s gospel,   Mary and Joseph have been in Bethlehem for quite some time.  The baby is now almost two years old.  The angels are long gone.    This text normally comes later, but we reading it today, on this Sunday Christmas morning.    We are reading and preaching from this text because it tells us about Christmas presents.  It tells us about the very first gifts given at Christmas, and it tells us about the greatest gift; the child.   You can’t fully celebrate Christmas without presents, can you?

Let me begin by asking you: Is your present still under the tree?  And you do know what’s on top of the tree: a star?   It is under the star, and this is exactly were the wise men found ‘the child’; under the star.  Matthew tells us that these wise men, or ‘magi’, meaning astrologers or star gazers, came from the East and were searching for ‘the child,’ because they had seen ‘his star rising’ in the East. 

Think about it.  This is kind of strange, isn’t it?  These wise men are coming from the east, traveling west, yet they have seen his star rising from ‘the east (KJV).’   You don’t have to be an astronomer to understand there is something out of sync with this picture.  Rising stars are not seen in the west; the direction they were traveling.  Most stars, with exception of those in the northern sky, rise in the East and set in the West, similar to the Sun and Moon.   So what kind of ‘rising star’ is this?

Throughout history, scholars have attempted to solve this mystery.  Was it a Comet?  Was a supernova?  Was it a meteorite?  What exactly could it have been?  All these attempts have been interesting, but problem with all the attempts to solve this mystery is that Matthew’s star was never intended to be just another star.  Matthew plainly tells us that this is “his star” (NRSV, 2:1) in the sky, not merely one like the others.  What Matthew is trying to tell us here, not about this strange ‘star’, but about to whom this star is pointing.  This should become clear when ‘the star stopped over the place where the child was’ (2:9).  This star that guided them in the east and from the east---‘westward leading and still proceeding’, as the song says---has now and ‘stopped’ precisely over the place where the child was.  

What we should see immediately is that this is neither astronomy nor astrology, but it’s theology.  This is no ordinary star because this is no ordinary child.   His star does not rise up like other stars.  His star does not set like other stars.  His star does not travel in the sky in the same path of others stars.  His star is not just another event in history, nor can be reduced to a decoration on the Christmas tree, which you will eventually put away after the celebration is over.   This star is only mentionable because it causes us to stop right where the child is.   His star, this Christmas star, brings us to God’s greatest gift, being announced as the child ‘born King of the Jews’ (v.2).

Though there are many wonderful, traditional decorations that help us see that ‘his star’ is still shinning, but is these ‘wise men’ who continue to directly point us to the most important ‘gift’—the child.   But you know how it is in many homes at Christmas.  The children are all excited.  They are ready to open the presents.  But then mom, or Dad, or Grandma says,  “No! first we’ve got to read the Christmas storyChildren, we must think about the true meaning of Christmas before we celebrate with giftsJesus is the reason for the season and we give gifts because the wise men brought their gifts to the child.”  Then the children say,  “Can’t we open presents first?    Oh, we know, we know, but we can’t wait.”  And when Christmas falls on Sunday, it’s even worst.  “Do we have to go to church, today?”  “Yes, we have to goBefore you get to have all your fun, you have to go to church.

Having Christmas on Sunday sure sets us preachers up for failure!  How can this gift, which is the greatest of all gifts, really compete with all those other presents under the tree?   Perhaps we need these ‘wise men’ more now than ever.   We need them because they sought him, just like wise people still need to seek him.  These wise men still point in the most important direction.   They take us straight to Bethlehem again, and again, until we also ‘stop’ where the child is.  

But do you realize who these ‘wise men’ were?  They were “gentile sinners,” foreigners, astrologers, pagan priests, even ‘magicians’ of their day.  They should have had no stake in this claim, no dog in this fight, and no real ‘right’ to tell any Jew, or any of us, where, what, or who this child is supposed to be.   They'll are not even supposed to be ‘seeking’ this child.  This child is to ‘born King of the Jews’, not King of the East, nor the West, let alone King of the world.   What kind of ‘wisdom’ takes us from seeking a child to be born as King of a Jewish nation to being born to be King for the whole world?   This is where Matthew says ‘his star’ ultimately leads us, but how, why, and should we still make this jump?

It’s certainly not an easy one to make.  Who can forget that puzzling moment in the gospel of Mark, when Jesus was first approached by a Gentile woman, of Syrophoenician origin  (Mark 7: 26)?  She came begging Jesus to cast the demon out of her daughter.  Jesus responded, “Let the children be fed first, for it not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to dogs.”  This text sounds so derogatory that no scholar disputes it came directly from Jesus.  Who would want to include such harsh words like this?  It’s almost like your child coming to the Christmas party, but there is no present under the tree with their name on it.  All the names have been read aloud, and you see that ‘sad’ expression on your child’s face.  Your blood starts to boil.  You feel for your child. As the last name is called out, you try to explain:  “Honey, Mommy and Daddy, have a big present for you when we get home.   But before you get up to walk out the door in disgust, you hear the next announcement:  “Now, if your child did not have a present with their name on it, consider them our most special guests.  We  have a very special gift just for them, and also one for you!”  

When those Wise Men following that star; they were Gentiles, outside of the blessing, not having the Scriptures nor the law or the prophets, but they what they were given was ‘his star’.  Because they were willing to follow ‘the light’ they had been given (Rom. 2:15-16), the star took them right to where the ‘child was’.  The wise men should be considered similar to the Syrophoenician as she rebutted Jesus’ denial to her request:   “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”   Jesus then sent her on her way saying, “you may go—the demon has left your daughter.”  The woman went home and  ‘found the child’ , that is, her own child, ’lying on the bed’  and the ‘demon gone’ (Mark 7:26-30).   This woman, like the wise men, through finding ‘the child’ discovered God also intends his special gift to be for them.   This is how the good news of the gospel unfolds: 
·         He came unto his own and his own received him not, but as many as received him, to them he gave the power….  (Jn. 1:12).  
·         The gospel is the power of God for salvation to everyone who has faith, to the Jew first, and also to the Greek’ (Rom. 1:16).
·         “There is no longer Jew or Greek, slave or free, male or female; for all of you are one in Christ Jesus” (Gal. 3:28).  
·         In Christ… “there is neither Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond or free: but Christ is all, and in all” (Col. 3:11).
·         “God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him….He is Lord of all.” (Acts 10: 34-35).  

The apostle Paul, who became the apostle to the Gentiles  (Rom 11:13), once attempted to explain how this Jewish Jesus became  Savior for the world.   Interestingly, when he wrote, the ‘shoe was already ‘on the other foot’, because the Gentile world was hearing and accepting the gospel, whereas, the Jewish world had ‘hardened its heart’.   Paul writes to the Romans: …. I want you to understand this mystery: a hardening has come upon part of Israel, until the full number of the Gentiles has come in (11:25) all Israel will be saved (11:26); For there is no distinction between Jew and Greek; the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him (10:12), “Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord shall be saved (10:13)”…God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all…(10:32)” 

Paul’s view is also the gospel view, of how Christmas came to us, as a special gift for us, even from the back side of nowhere.   This ‘child’ has come to be the Christmas gift for all the world.

Can you imagine anyone who would not want this present?  Who refuses the gift who is this child?  Who would not want come and worship this child above all other gifts, all other traditions, and all other treasures?  It might be hard to imagine, but you don’t have to, because right from the start, Matthew wants us to see that it happens. There are always those who do not want the greatest gift. 

And why would anyone not want the gift of a ‘the child’?   Matthew answers that when “King Herod heard this, he was frightened, and all Jerusalem with him…”(2:3).   Why would anyone be “frightened” at the birth of a child?   Well, any child can, and should change your life, shouldn’t they?  Children can determine what you have, what you don’t have, how you live, and how you should live.  “The baby changes everything.”   But in this story, as in real life, Matthew wants us that people were frightened, and are still frightened, because when ‘this child’ is ‘born king of the Jews’, they already have a ‘king’.   People who are in power, who have power, or who want everything to stay the exactly way it is, will not want this present.  They will fear it.  They will not only reject it, but some will also try to ‘destroy’ it (2:13), because they want to ‘rule’ themselves.

So, on this wonderful Christmas morning, as we celebrate those all those who ‘follow the star’ and come to ‘worship’ this child, above all others,  are also reminded that we still live in a world where the truth of this child is still refused, still repudiated, and still rejected.   Some still ‘fear’ the child, and many others do not ‘understand’ the child,  while others like Herod, will ‘pretend’ they want to ‘worship’, but their worship is just a ‘front’.  Their heart is not in it.   Unfortunately, this is how it has always been, and always will be.  But as Scripture says, ‘but as many as receive him, to them he gives the power to become sons and daughters of God’ (John 1:12).

What is most ‘threatening’ about ‘this child’ is not just ‘who he is’’,  but it’s also about ‘who we are’, and ‘who we should and can become’.  This is exactly what this story of the wise men, the star, and this ‘birth of the child’ always means:  that this child who was ‘born’ to be King of the Jews, will include us into his kingdom.   This King Jesus has come, not to exclude, to destroy, nor to condemn, but he has come to save, ‘all’ and ‘anyone’ who will believe in him.   This ‘king’ has brought God’s kingdom near, and can set that kingdom now, right in our hearts, and even in our world that still rejects him.  He is the king, who as Matthew says, ‘shall come to shepherd my people Israel’ (Matt. 2.6).   And who is Israel?   The Scripture says: “For not all Israelites belong to Israel, and not all Abraham’s children are his true descendants…it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, BUT THE CHILDREN OF PROMISE…(Rom. 9:6b-8)..including us… from the Gentiles.. (9:24)…For there is no distinction…the same Lord is Lord of all and is generous to all who call on him, for “Everyone who calls on the name of the LORD shall be saved… (Rom. 12-13).  Again, who is Israel?   Israel will be those follow the star, and are not afraid to worship him.

But feelings of joy and worship are not enough.   At the conclusion of the story of the wise men, we read that upon ‘entering the house’, at the very sight of this ‘child’, they were ‘overwhelmed with joy’ and ‘knelt down’ and worshipped him, as they opened ‘their treasure chests, they offered him, frankincense, and myrrh’.  (10-11).

Who this child is, and how child will be king is fully unwrapped for the all the world to see, as these ‘gifts’ are given by the ‘wise men’.    They have not brought him the ‘least’ of their treasures, but they have brought him their best.  These ‘wise men’ bring him ‘gifts’ which were expensive, valuable, and precious, but it is the most unusual one which reveals just how ‘different’ this King is.   While ‘gold’ and ‘frankincense’ are gifts appropriate for royalty and worship, ‘myrrh’ was an expensive aromatic ‘medicine’ offered to Jesus on the cross (Mark 15:23) and used when they wrapped his body for burial (John 19:39).   This ‘child’ is not just a King who rules, but he is a King who rules through his life, his death, and his sacrifice to save ‘his people from their sins.’  

But Matthew really wants us to see, at least for now, today, on this Christmas morning,  is that what made these ‘wise men’ wise and what can make us wise as well, is that the greatest ‘gift’ is not what they offered, but ‘how’ they offered them, when they ‘knelt down’ to acknowledge the child, and to ‘bow before this child’ as the one who was born to be their ‘king’ too.

No one knows exactly where Jesus’ birth took place, but today, in Bethlehem, if you visit the ‘supposed’ birthplace of Jesus, you’ll find the Church of Nativity.  It is a church build by Emperor Constantine in the 4th century,  placed directly over the ‘cave’ where Jesus was said to be born.   Here, is where it was first suggested by a Christian named Origen in 150 AD, that where Jesus was born  (Wm Barclay, Daily Study Bible, Matthew, p. 25). 

But what makes this ‘church’ so interesting, is not whether it was or wasn’t the actual place, but it is how you enter it.     When you approach the place,  you find that the frame of the door is built very low.   It is built so low, that even today, if you go to the place where Jesus is said to have been born, you still must bend down and practically get down on your knees, to go through the doorway where Jesus was born. 

Isn’t that still what worship means?  Those wise men knew it.  The church has known it.  We still need to know it.  Today, on this Christmas day, we come again to acknowledge this ‘child’ as the greatest gift.   The star still stops over him.  Wise men still seek him.   

Because we need him most of all, we do not worship our treasures, but we worship him.   We worship him because only this child is can save ‘his people from their sins.’  We worship him because want to be his people, and because he is unlike any other king.  He is the King who can rule our world, because he is the only king who rules in our hearts.   He is the child, who was born, to bring God’s love, faith and hope, into to our world.    His star is still rising, as long as there are people who are wise enough, to seek him.    Amen.

Saturday, December 24, 2016

“Good News of Great Joy!”

A Sermon Based Upon Luke 2: 1-20
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock Baptist Church
Christmas Eve, December 24th, 2016 

We all need ‘good news’.   But when you turn on the TV at night, or you read the newspapers, or you watch your notifications on your cell phone, most of seem to be more interested in ‘bad news.’

Back in the summer our director of missions told of a large group of reporters who came to cover a protest in front of the Presbyterian church.  At the same time a tractor trailer pulled into our association to collect items for the Baptist Childrens Home.   “The truck always comes to Yadkin Association first, because Baptist here are so supportive.   No reporter cover the good news of helping the children.  It's the bad news that was getting all the attention.

It’s the bad news that sells newspapers, fuels the curiosity, or turns the head and hearts of most people.   Only recently, did evening News reports on most networks concluded with a ‘good news story’.  They have done that perhaps, because our world is filled with so much ‘bad’ news.   Of course, we need good news, but how much do we really want it?

When the gospel of Luke describes the birth of Jesus, the angels announced that they had “Good news of great joy ….for all the people!”  The announcement of Jesus’ birth was being announced very much like the ‘birth announcements’ of kings and royalty in the ancient world.   Luke’s angels came directly to those “Shepherds…. watching over their flock” announcing this good news (v. 8).  But who were they?  I know they must have meant something to somebody, but who are they to receive this message?  Why did world come to know such ‘good news’ through these earthly “nobodies”, out in god knows where, tending sheep, “watching over the flocks at night?”  Why did the angels pick them?  Better yet, why didn’t they go straight to Herod’s palace or to the roman coliseum, or even straight to the Roman Emperor himself?  

And the same question might come to us, as well?  How can the birth of this baby, on the back side of nowhere, really come to be the answer, the hope, and the ‘joyful’ good news for all people in the whole world today?   Can we still hear this message in the same way it was once announced to those Shepherds?  Can we still hear the message that was intended for ‘all people’ everywhere?     

I believe one reason we must still hear the message of the birth of this child as good news for all people, is because we all still need good news.

This gospel is not in any way a fairy tale, because at its core it is a realistic, undeniable historical witness to how the world really is.   We still live in a ‘bad news’ world.   Even when we do find good news for ourselves or for others, it is still constantly threat, as much now, as then.  

As we all know, when Jesus was the child born to be ‘good news’ for his people, there was ‘no room’ for him in the inn and he was ‘lying in a manger’wrapped in bands of clothes’ like any other poor child.   It may sound a lot less romantic, but it is much more realistic than the King James ‘swaddling clothes’.  We need to understand that this Jesus is a poor baby who was born and wrapped in rags.   His birth is no fairy tale, no opulent dream, but is the story ‘announcing’ the good news about a baby who was born right in the middle of a big mess.   He was born, as John later writes, ‘to become flesh live among us’ as a human, poor, vulnerable child, just like any and all of us.     

And just as there was no real place for him then, there is still no real place for him now.  This was not a child who would grow up to be a mythical hero going from rags to riches either, but this is the child, who changed the whole idea of what riches should mean.  This child was born to be a man who would not take from this world, but he came, as Scripture says, to give his own life as a ransom so people can get free from the  sin that destroys their potential for life.  By submitting to the cross, Jesus redefined what kind of life is worth living for, even as he died the worst kind of death.  And though this child was rejected and despised, and murdered, even by his own, he never stopped showing us how to love and how to live at our very best.

So let me ask you who come to worship this child again tonight;  will you let his message of what is good and what brings real  “joy” in living, have its rightful place in your Christmas celebration?   Even in this bad news world, the good news is that God’s love and truth is still available to us.   Even in this world that has no room for God, God still has room for us.    The horrors, evils, sins and destructive powers of hate have rejected God’s love, but they have not extinguished God’s love nor have they stopped God’s grace.    Though this child who came as our Savior does not yet rule the world, he can and must rule in our hearts.   For there is no idea, no religion, no spirituality, and no moral ethic that has ever, or will ever, surpass the wonderful compassion and loving example Jesus lived and revealed.   Humanity may still reject him, in spite of the truth that he was and still is, but no one will or can ever out love Him.   Jesus’ life, compassion, and most of all, his death for sinners, cannot be surpassed.  Rejoice!   His love, which still reveals God’s love for us all, is still good news! 

And what is so joyful about having child born as a King, whose example of love and truth was fully rejected?    The angels announce that this child was born ‘to be a Savior, who is the Messiah, the Lord’.   But the sign of his Messiahship is not how ‘high and mighty’ he is, but it is how ‘low and humble’ he has become.   The sign of his Messiahship is not that he has all the power, answers all the questions, or gives us everything we want, when we want it, but the sign of his messiahship will be in the truth of who he is, the power he refuses, the questions he asks, and how we should give ourselves to him and his truth. 

The child who brings God’s glory to us, reveals God’s glory ‘of the highest heaven’ in the lowest, in the least, and in the last places on earth.   This ‘savior’ will not look like other ‘saviors’, other ‘kings’ or other ways of envisioning “God” at work in our world.   This child will bring ‘good news for all people’ because he can; he will be from among you, one like you, and this is how God will be ‘in him’  and bring ‘good news’ through him, in this most unusual, unexpected, but also most normal and accessible way.

The unique ‘sign’ that the angels give the Shepherds that this child is the Savior, is that they will find him ‘wrapped bands of cloth and lying in a manger.’   Do you know why the ‘manger’ is so important to the truth of Christmas?  It is not just that this was an animal feeding trough, which it was.   But even more than this, this is a ‘place’ or a ‘location’ that all these Shepherds already knew.  This was most likely their own ‘manger’ or their own ‘feeding station’ for their animals when they came to town.  The angels did not have to give the street address, or describe the place of the child’s birth with any more detail because this was all the detail they needed.  The child was born, not just anywhere, or just anywhere, but the child was ‘lying in a manger’ they all already knew.  This child was born in a place that known and recognizable as just for them.

How we too come to ‘recognize’ Jesus as the Savior will never be because Jesus came to be the Savior of the world.   I know that millions, if not over a Billion people in this world will celebrate Christmas tonight in many places; in many languages, in many cultures, with many different kinds of feasts, activities, and functions.  Some people will gather with family.  Others will be in churches.  Still others will go to parties and barely mention Christ, if at all. 

But what matters most is not that Christ is acknowledged for his greatness, his accomplishments, or for his benefit for all humanity.  What matters most is that you find this Jesus in the most recognizable place---in your heart, in your living-- in who you are and in how you live.   For you see, Jesus did not come into this world to get to be put on a Christmas ornament, nor to be remembered for his greatness, nor even to be worshipped because of who he was.   No, this child is the child who was born in the simple, most recognizable place---accessible to any and all of us, who will make him the LORD, the Savior, and the King.  This is the King, the Savior, and the child, who was born for each of us---made accessible in that one place that is still available to us all---our hearts.   Jesus is born to be the true King of our heart. 

In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Nelson Mandela told about the impact a baby had on his life.  Mandela had been a political prisoner for fourteen years doing hard labor in a rock quarry on infamous Robben Island, South Africa.   However, in 1978, Zeni, his second-youngest daughter married a prince, the son of the king of Swaziland.  There was a tremendous advantage in Zeni’s becoming a member of the Swazi royal family.  Now she was immediately granted diplomatic privileges and could visit Mandela virtually at will. This was amazingly good news for Mandela. For just about his entire imprisonment he had been cut off almost entirely from his children.

That winter, after they were married, the young couple came to see Mandela, along with their newborn baby daughter. Because of his son-in-law’s status as a prince, Mandela and his family were allowed to meet in the consulting room, not the normal visiting area where one is separated from one’s family by thick walls and glass.   Mandela reports that he waited for his daughter and her family with some nervousness. It was a truly a wondrous moment when they came into the room. He stood up, and when Zeni saw him, she practically tossed her tiny daughter to her husband and ran across the room to embrace him. He had not held his now-grown daughter since she was a baby. It was a dizzying experience, says Mandela, as though time had sped forward in a science fiction novel, to suddenly hug one’s fully grown child. He then embraced his new son, Zeni’s husband, the prince.

Finally, his son-in-law handed Mandela his tiny granddaughter. Mandela says he did not let go of this precious child for the rest of the visit. To hold a newborn baby, so vulnerable and soft in his rough hands, hands that for too long had held only picks and shovels, was a profound joy. He says that in his mind, no man was ever happier to hold a baby than he was that day.

The visit, however, had a more official purpose and that was for Mandela to choose a name for the child. It is a custom in their culture for the grandfather to select the new child’s name, and the one he chose was Zaziwe which means “Hope.”   The name had special meaning for Nelson Mandela, for during all his years in prison, he says, hope never left him and now it never would. He was convinced that this child would be a part of a new generation of South Africans for whom apartheid would be a distant memory that was his dream  ( Nelson Mandela. Long Walk to Freedom: The Autobiography of Nelson Mandela (Kindle edition) .

The way we still get the message of ‘hope’ and good news from this ‘manger’ into our own ‘hearts’ is the same way those Shepherds did.   We are told that when the angels left, their response was,  “Let us go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has taken place, which the  Lord has made known to us”  (v. 15).  Hear again, just how ‘personal’ the good news of that first Christmas was, and still is.  It is a message that ‘the glory of God in the highest’ has come to some of the lowest, the least, and the last people on earth.    This is exactly the salvation that Jesus promises, when he said, that in God’s kingdom, the ‘first will be last, and the last will be first’.   This message of good news has come, of course, to everyone, but the message of joy and good news  always comes first of all, through needs of the poorest, the least, and the most forgotten.

The point the ‘manger’ still makes is that there is no way to market this child.   There is no way to manufacture him either.  There is no way to make people want come to worship him either, unless they are willing to ‘hear the angels’ and ‘see’ what has ‘taken place’ for themselves.   And the only way you can join in the message, the joy and the good news of this Christmas, is to ‘go’ to the humble place where the Christ abides.   

To find this ‘babe’, to find the true Christmas, you will still have go, not to the safe place, or just the family place, and not only the sacred place, but you must also go to that lowest place, where the least, the lowest, and last are waiting on good news FROM THE very CHRIST WHO should be alive IN YOU.   Don’t miss what I’m saying.  You will never get to the GREATEST, DEEPEST, WIDEST, JOY of Christmas, without going to those low and last places where the humble and hurting reside.   “The poor you will always have with you”, Jesus said.   “You will find me, Jesus said also, among the least of these,”  There is where you can always find Christ, where you can always find ‘good news of great joy,  there, among the least, the last and the lost.

But will you see him?   A popular play and movie this time of year, is A Christmas Carol.  There is one scene that always fascinates.  The Ghost of Christmas Past has just paid a very discomforting visit to Ebenezer Scrooge.  Clearly the old miser is shaken by the entire ordeal.  But when he awakens from his sleep does he take the message to heart.  No, he simply dismisses it by saying: Bah, humbug, it wasn't real. "Just a bit of last nights undigested beef”.  Scrooge concludes: This was not a vision to be taken to heart, but simple indigestion.

Oh, you might say, had I been there at Bethlehem that night I would have seen the child. I would have understood. I would have known it was him in, lying in that manger.  Would you?  The real test is not would you have seen him then, but do you see him now, among those same humble people Ebenezer Scrooge also did not want to acknowledge?

But if you will go there, to acknowledge and be Christ with and for them,  where THEY ARE (whoever they are---the lost---the broken, the child, the elderly, the homeless, or the sick), then we also find that this  ‘good news of great joy’ will return to us, again and again.   For wherever they are, in those stinking, ‘manger’ places of this world, is where the joy of Christ and Christmas, can always be found.   Amen.

Sunday, December 18, 2016

“Angel…in a Dream”

A Sermon Based Upon Matthew 1: 18-25
By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Advent A-4,  December 18th, 2016 

Today we finally come to Bethlehem to the excitement of that very first Christmas.   The good news of gospel really begins: “Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place this way…”

Can you think of a better beginning than to anticipate the birth of a baby?  Christmas memories take me back to moment we adopted our daughter.  We had been on waiting list for several years.   Then, the day after hurricane Hugo came through, a social worker knocked on our door offering us a precious fifteen month old girl.   I cried when they took her back after a weekend ‘trial’ run. 

It was wintertime.   We gave her a swimming pool and sliding board for Christmas, then filled in up in the kitchen and watched her slide and splash all over the place.   We couldn’t wait.  We couldn’t wait to take her to visit family.  We couldn’t wait to go camping together.  We couldn’t wait to drive to Disney World.   It was a wonderful, magical, delightful time.  And it’s almost as if children come with Christmas ‘built’ right in.  They bring us the gift of the unexpected, the unanticipated and the unpredictable.  Isn’t that what we all love about children, but too much unpredictability can also scare us half to death!

What was so unpredictable and scary about the ‘birth’ of Jesus was not the delivery, but the conception.   Matthew tells us that when Mary was ‘engaged’ to Joseph, ‘before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.’ (v.18).   

I know we want to get to the delivery room, but we need to linger a bit with this very problematic ‘conception’.   What happened to Joseph just didn’t look good.   Why did the Holy Spirit not come to both of them?  Why was Joseph not informed?  Why so much drama?  Could this miraculous conception have not have happened a less threatening way?  Of course, Matthew wants us to know there had been ‘NO marital relations’ (v.25).  “Joseph did not have relations with that woman.   Sound familiar?   

But there is no ‘cover up’ going on here.   Matthew wants us to know that a prophet predicted this: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son…’ (v. 23, Isaiah 7:14).  These are the final conclusions of the gospel ‘court’, but before this Joseph made a very different conclusion of his own.    As her betrothed ‘husband’ and a ‘righteous man,’ Joseph could have had Mary stoned for this, as the law allowed (Lev. 20:10), but being ‘unwilling to expose her’ he ‘planned to dismiss her quietly’ and privately.   To preserve all question of his rightness, he’ll them woman and her baby, die a slow, shameful death.

Can’t you see how this conception put Joseph and his reputation into a tight and embarrassing spot?   This is what Matthew wants us to see because his story comes exclusively from Joseph’s perspective.  Matthew takes the ‘family tree,’ or ‘the pedigree’ of Jesus right through Joseph (1.16), linking them both with the royal line of David (1.20).  At that time, the Herod family was running Jerusalem.  They were illegitimate rulers, put in place as ‘puppets’ by Roman authority.  Joseph’s family should be running things, but they have no power, no wealth, and no influence.  Joseph only had his good name.  Was God taking this away from him too? 

What is even greater than the ‘strangeness’ of believing in in the virgin birth,  is ‘how’ God choose to come into the world, through an engaged, unmarried couple.  The timing is problematic.  Things are complicated.   Whatever label you want to put on it, it was an unexpected, unplanned, and unwanted pregnancy.   Mary and Joseph, as Matthew shows us, were put under a lot of stress.

But when I read Christmas from Joseph’s perspective, I can only imagine that there are many unexpected, unplanned and unwanted ‘pregnancies’ which cause similar anxieties and problems.   There are still pregnancies and ‘births’ that get in the way, threaten our schedules, testing our beliefs about what is right or best.   Any pregnancy can bring difficulty, but when you are not married, this stuff brings even more shame.  The family will not be pleased.  People will talk.  Should we abort?  Should we shun?  Help!

Good religion and personal righteousness is supposed to prevent such ‘disgraceful’ things from happening.  Couldn’t this Immaculate Conception have avoided all this misperception?  Why would God go against ‘True Love Waits’!  Had only God informed Joseph first?   It does make Joseph look a lot like his ancestor Abraham, having to dismiss Hagar out into the wilderness to keep the promise pure (Gen. 21).  But it could get ugly.  The righteous are not supposed to have children like this.   Is it any wonder Matthew, in contrast to Luke, gave us the genealogy at the first.   He’s not merely giving us history or prophecy, but isn’t it legitimacy that he’s after.  Everybody’s talking.  Is Joseph really the father?  Now, Joseph knows he not the Father?  To him this baby is illegitimate.  He’s wondering awfully close to what people are still wondering about the baby too: Can this Christmas ‘baby’ be legitimate?  Is such a misconception any way to begin a marriage, start a life, or find the gospel?   Why does this ‘birth’ begin ‘this way’ (1.18).

But strangely enough (and this story is much like life, very strange), sometimes God does not go with the program, or the plan—even interrupting some of the best of human plans.  Remember what the poet, Robert Burns, wrote, when after ploughing in a field, he had upturned a little mouse’s nest.  He then wrote an apology to the mouse, saying “Little mouse, you aren’t alone… the best laid schemes of mice and men often go wrong, leaving us with nothing but grief and pain, instead of the promised joy….” (  

According to Matthew, before Joseph could get excited about this baby, he had to carry some pain and grief all by himself.   His ‘questioning’ and ‘fear’ hardly takes up a single verse in the text, but the moment must have seemed long and life-wrecking to him.   And when you think about it, just like Easter, Christmas began in a difficult and dark moment of worrying and wondering about what to do next.   Why God works this way, through a crucifixion, a puzzling paternity, or with all other kinds of difficult events, uncomfortable realities, or unanswerable questions, is still a ‘deal breaker’ for some.    If God is God, why can’t he tidy things up, at least a bit?   If God is God, why can’t he make life easier, better, and less complicated?    We’ve all asked ourselves such questions.  We’ve all been in such moments, even worse, when nothing in our lives seems legitimate.  Maybe this is why so many people leave this original story out of their own Christmas.   We start our own ‘nice’ family traditions and crowd this story out.  You can certainly clean up a ‘secular’ Christmas with all kinds of fairy tales, but the sacred story remains stubbornly messy, just like life.  It gets close, far ‘under our skin’, and we’d prefer to move beyond it.  And what does it really solve?   A Christmas that serves our needs, represses our fears,  substitutes for what’s going on around us,  full of ‘dreams’ of ‘sugar plum fairies’ and a whole lot of other ‘magical’ stuff, can be better, right?  

I understand perfectly how Joseph might have never accepted this very different ‘conception’ of Christmas, had not an ‘angel’ come to console:  “Don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife…”   Don’t be a afraid of this unwanted pregnancy.  Don’t be afraid of things not turning out as you planned.   Don’t be afraid of Mary’s baby, Joseph.   Yes, it looks bad.  Yes, people will talk.  Yes, your family won’t like it.  No, this is not going to be easy, but, the angel in a dream says, that this ‘strange’, difficult, crazy mess you about to wade through is from God: ‘the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit….’ (1:20).  “She will bear a son…you are to name him Jesus,  for he will save his people from their sins” (1:21).    While I don’t know exactly how Joseph dreamed of this ‘angel’, I surely don’t think Joseph would have ever dreamed all this up.   Everything the angel told him went against what he’d been taught was righteous and proper.  Joseph was the kind of man who would not have allowed this ‘mess’ to continue without being convinced of something even more unusual abd amazing: that this strange, shameful, even scandalous scenario, could also be God’s own saving work.   

It is this very strange saving, forgiving, and redeeming work of God, that always remains beyond all ‘human control’ that still takes some getting used to.  In the middle of this very ‘unpredictable’ moment, neither Joseph nor Mary are in control, but the Holy Spirit is calling the shots, conceiving God’s purpose, and calling his chosen ones to respond to these events in a very different way.   For we read that ‘just when (Joseph) had resolved to do this’—dismissing Mary, dismissing Jesus, which would dismiss everything God was up to,  that ‘an angel of the Lord appeared…’  instructing Joseph to decide differently.   And this angel is telling Joseph not to fear, even when everything appears to go against all the social, ethical, and religious norms of his day: “The child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit’.   Don’t you find it at least a little bit ironic, that this child who looks to have been ‘conceived’ in sin, at least to Joseph, is now being announced as the very one ‘who will save his people from their sins?’   Who, would ever have conceived of a conception just like this?  

Finally, this ‘angel in a dream’ should remind us of another ‘miraculous conception’ as it happened before.   That ‘birth announcement’ was also given by angels—that is, heavenly messengers, who were simply described as ‘three men’ (Gen. 18:2) who one day just showed up at Abraham’s tent.  These ‘angels’ were strangers, visitors, looking like just about anybody, except that they were travelers on the road of life, hoping to receive a small token of helpful hospitality.  The story in Genesis makes you wonder: Will Abraham invite them in? 

These kinds of unexpected visitors are still considered, at least in the sacred story of Scripture, a kind of spiritual test---that is, a ‘test’ of entertaining ‘angels unaware.’  (Heb. 13.2).   These ‘angels’ are strangers or visitors sent to us from God to keep us following Jesus by faith, help us overcome our fears,  and give us hope, no matter how bad everything around us looks.   When these uninvited ‘visitors’ come, they can help us conceive how the saving work of God can still be found in the most unusual, unexpected, and maybe even unwanted people and places.   And only when we follow God through these strange, unwanted moments, and entertain such ‘unexpected’ visitors, will we also, like Abraham, and like Joseph, open ourselves to knowing that “God is with us” (v.23).

When the youth our church in Greensboro, decided to help at the Soup Kitchen located downtown,  I wanted to go with them on their first assignment.   The intercity-mission was located in an old abandoned school, and they also had started a church there, where lots of doctors, lawyers and other prominent folks participated in the ministry, and worshiped alongside of these folks who were down and out. 

When we arrived that evening, the youth took their positions serving the food, and was invited to take a tray and set down and eat with some of Greensboro’s homeless who came to get a warm meal that evening.   When found a place to sit, at first I felt a bit uncomfortable, but it wasn’t along until the folks at the table, started a delightful conversation with me.   I just couldn’t believe how hungry, not physically, but spiritually hungry and interesting they were.  I moved from table to table all evening.  After the serving was over, I went up to the mission’s director to tell him, that even as a missionary and pastor, how surprised I was that level of ‘spiritual’ conversation I had that evening.  “Yes, pastor,” he answerd.  “You’ll find that most of these people who come here are often more spiritually aware and attuned, and understand what really matters and what doesn’t in life, than most of church folk and most of you preachers and your sermons too, for that matter.  You come to ‘feed them’ and it’s not long until you realize that they are feeding you.  You come in to share with them about God, and you discover God is already here, way ahead, waiting just for for you.  And you realize, also, why so many lawyers, doctors, bankers and other professionals, like come here and participate in this ministry.   Here, they know that they are ‘entertaining angels unaware.’

Isn’t there something about Christmas that doesn’t happen, can’t happen, won’t happen, without us allowing ‘visitors’ and strangers into our very comfortable lives.  Such visitors often remain ‘invisible’ to us until we are willing to awaken to how God is still sending them as uninvited guests among the least, the last, and the lost around us (see Matthew 24: 31-46).   Could God be conceived, not in heaven, but here among us, calling  us  beyond our own self-centeredness, our smallness, and our selfishness and also inviting us to respond to some visitor, or stranger with real grace, actual kindness, and understanding love.   Some ‘angelic’ visitor just might interrupt your own plan for Christmas too, but if you will dare to stop and ‘entertain’ them, even for a brief moment, you too may come to sense the nearness and presence of God.   But this only happened to Joseph when he swallowed his own pre-conceived notions of what was holy and right, allowing the Spirit, who alone is Holy, to enable him to conceive of God’s work in him, in a new, surprising, and unforeseen way. 

So, let me ask, what are you ‘dreaming’ about this Christmas?   Does it preclude, or include an angelic visit from God.  I’m not referring to angels with big fluffy, feather ‘wings’ or halos, which we see delightfully floating around mangers this time of year, but I’m talking about ‘angels’ that could look like hungry, hurting people, waiting for ‘whoever’ will dare to stop, invite them in, give them the gift, offer them a place at the table, make them a plate to share, or just offer them your time and your bodily presence.   This angel looks a lot less like Gabriel, than like a lonely man in a nursing home.  She looks like a mother who just lost her child, her husband, or her last dear friend.   This angel might look like a child, who doesn’t have a chance on their own.   None of them, even Mary and this baby named Jesus, would have had a chance, unless someone, like Joseph, would give them a place in his heart.  

This Christmas, I invite you to hear again how this angel told Joseph not to ‘dismiss’ this God, who come to meet him, in some very real, very needy, and very helpless, human flesh and blood.   If you allow an angel to tell you too, what that angel told Joseph in a dream,  you will find this Christmas, and anytime you ‘entertain’ such angels, that God is closer to us, right now, that we could ever dream.   Amen.

Sunday, December 11, 2016

“Are You the One?”

A Sermon Based Upon Matthew 11: 2-11
Preach By Rev. Dr. Charles J. Tomlin, DMin
Flat Rock-Zion Baptist Partnership
Advent A-3, December  11th, 2016

(*This Sermon adlibs on an original sermon preached by the late, great preaching master, Fred Craddock.  I reproduce this for no profit with no apologies because it’s truth begs to be told again and again.  The original sermon, “No Wind, No Fire, and God” can be listened to at or as a Podcast on itunes.)

 Are children still getting excited about Christmas? 

We live in a time when we all have so much already.  I remember hardly being able to wait for the Sears and Roebuck Christmas Catalog which arrived in the Fall.   Or, at least at our house it was also the J.C. Penny’s Christmas Catalog which came, because my Father worked at the regional J.C. Penny Distribution Center located in our town.  I couldn’t wait to open those pages and to begin to dream about what I might be able to ‘wish’ for Christmas.

Today, kids, even young ones, can simply get on their Tablet, or Cell phone and everything they want is just a ‘click’ away.   They may not realize it now, but having ‘’everything” at your fingertips really can take a lot of the ‘excitement’ out of Christmas.   I guess our parents may have had some of the same feelings about us getting the ‘toy’ we wanted, rather than only getting a box of ‘oranges’.   Sometimes, when my mother watched me open a ‘toy’, she’d say:  “Now, when we were children in the depression, we were glad just to get an orange….”   She wasn’t trying to spoil my joy, but she was trying to teach me something she learned the hard way.  It was something she realized I would never learn, when I got what wanted.

John the Baptist certainly didn’t get everything he wanted.    As our Advent reading today opens, we are still in on our way to Bethlehem, where we find John the Baptist thrown ‘in prison’, having to hear about good things the Messiah is doing for others, but isn’t getting even one single ‘miracle’ for himself.

This is certainly a long journey from where we were in early in this gospel story.   The first time we encountered John, he was a strong, striking man--a ‘preaching machine’ telling the people to ‘repent’ (Matt. 3:2), get their act together, and prepare for this ‘one who is coming’  (Matt. 3:11).    The rule of God is at the door, John says.  God is about to send his Messiah—the Christ.  The fate of everyone rests on him.  What everyone needs to do is have their sins washed away in baptism and get ready to face the coming fire.

That was John powerful preaching then, but now, a few years later, John’s in prison.   One day, while John was conducting the service, the police show up, and without reading him his rights, bound him up, and took John off to prison for his fiery preaching.   Now, that voice, which all the people went to hear in the desert has gone silent. 

My preaching hero, the late Professor Fred Craddock*, whose voice makes up most of this sermon, once said that some preachers probably ought to be arrested for their sermons, but not John.  His preaching stirred and inspired people.   It was about fire, wind, water and God coming--- powerful!   But it wasn’t John’s preaching about the Messiah that got John into such deep trouble; it was his meddlesome, personal preaching about the specific sins of the ruler, Herod Antipas.   

Evidently, what happened to John was so frightening, so well repressed into the church’s memory, that Matthew didn’t even dare repeat what Mark’s gospel had already told.   And Mark only whispers this story as an afterthought.   Maybe most wanted to forget it.   You know how it used to be.  Something bad would happen in the community, in the family, or in the church, and it was ‘hush-hush’.  I recall asking my grandmother about a family secret.  She didn’t remember.  When as a child, I would speak out the obvious, no one else dared to say, my mother would step on my toe.   I would I asked my Dad about what happened when he was in the German war; he couldn’t recall.  Once, we were walking together near Bastogne; “Dad, do you recognize any of these places?  Do you remember being here?  He answered:  “None of it looked like this, when I was here?  I don’t remember.”  I couldn’t believe he couldn’t recall.   “You can’t remember anything!”  “I don’t remember.” Once I found an old ‘army’ photograph of a pretty woman with big red lips.  “Who’s that Dad?”  He wouldn’t remember her either.  So, being a smart aleck kid, I named her ‘hot lips’ after the MASH TV character.  Dad never said a word.

Of course there still things we don’t want to remember or talk about, but in this day of Internet, Instagram, and Instant Messaging people say, tell, and photograph things they wished they could also forget and ‘sweep under the’ proverbial ‘rug’.   But today you can’t hide.   When you ‘post’ something, almost immediately, the world might take notice.  And after it’s out there, it can’t be taken back.   Perhaps it’s always been this way, but now the truth comes out in High Definition!

It was exactly this way for John, after he mentioned Herod in a sermon.  Didn’t John realize that a preacher shouldn’t call out anybody’s specific sin in a sermon?   We all know what happens to Whistleblowers?  Even when they are right, people end up not liking them.   They are just too “right.”   John was a Whistleblower, in a day when rulers had total power.   Why did John take such a risk?  

From the story in Mark’s gospel, we read that Herod had married Herodias, who was Herod’s brother Philip’s wife (Mark 6:17).   That’s bad enough, but it gets worse.  Herod Antipas was one of the sons of Herod the Great, who had ruled over all of Judea.  After Herod the Great died, his kingdom was split up into quarters, with Herod Antipas getting Galilee, and his brother Philip getting what we today we call the Golan Heights, part of southern Syria.    Now, Philip was married to their niece Herodias.  Listen closely: The niece Philip married was the daughter of another brother of theirs, Aristobulus, who ruled Judea.   One day, when Philip’s back was turned, Herod Antipas, ruler of Galilee stole Herodias, their niece, to be his wife.  This means that two brothers both married their niece.  It was adultery, incest, indecency, uncivil, and for crying out loud, just plain wrong!  John did cry out.  He was a sort of old-fashioned preacher, so he ‘hurled this sin straight into the teeth of the ruler’ (Craddock).  Now, a ruler can’t have some backwoods preacher speaking out against the royal palace.  While history is filled with royal families being notorious for getting what they want, this outrageously went against the very social order even they needed to uphold.  So, being a fearless preacher, John named it for what it was: Herod, It’s not lawful for you to have your brother’s wife” (Mark 6:18.   

You can only imagine how belittled this even made a Herod feel.  Herod wanted John’s preaching stopped. But Since John was so popular with the people---a kind of a righteous, outspoken, “Bernie Sander’s” of his day, Herod couldn’t do much.  He wouldn’t dare.   So, he did the only thing he could do, without setting off a riot.  Herod silenced John by having him arrested and put in prison.   John’s powerful voice went silent.  The crowds put their heads down.  They were all wondering what was going to happen next: Is it all over?  Was our ‘hope’ just a dream?  Is the hope for a Messiah true?  Is there any stock to be put it that at all?   Craddock said, ‘the desert wind erased the footprints of all who were there to hear JohnPeople were leaving, still wet from their baptism.   Within an hour, you’d don’t even notice that a crowd had been there.’  You can’t even recall what was said.   The service is over.  It’s quiet, too quiet.  The voice is gone.

But the worst part of all this, is not that John is in prison, but it’s what comes next.  It’s what John said after he was in prison.  This is what’s most difficult to swallow.  We read that when John heard from his prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by others to ask Jesus about a question that has been haunting him.  I want you to wait for an answer.  Don’t leave until you get one.  His question was:  “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”  Are you the one we have been looking for and waiting on?  Are you the Christ—the long awaited Messiah?   We all understood it should be different when the Messiah comes.  It doesn’t look different.  In fact, it’s gotten worst.  Are you really the one, or should we wait for someone else?

Can you hear the pain and agony in John’s voice?   It’s not the kind of voice we want to hear, especially at Christmas.  But it’s the very realistic kind of ‘pain’ that comes from someone who’s been greatly disappointed.  Think about all those sermons John preached about ‘getting ready’.  “Someone greater than me is coming, repent, get ready!  And think about the Baptism of Jesus, when Jesus came to John requesting baptism, and John said to Jesus,  “Oh, no, no, no, you should be baptizing me!”  I shouldn’t be baptizing you.  No!   Has John forgotten about that?  And what about the voice that came from Heaven, saying “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased!”  Has John already forgotten that voice?  What is going on?  You talk about falling into doubt, a letdown, and confusion.  What John is saying is almost unbelievable?  Has he lost his mind?

Now, you ordinarily expect some sort of letdown, between a high moment and what follows.    There’s a world of difference between preaching that Jesus, the Messiah is coming, and preaching that Jesus has already come  (Craddock).   You can get a lot more people excited with a sermon about the Second Coming, the over the first one.   You can make a message on the Second Coming in most any form you want.   You can work people up with all kinds of expectations, like those Left Behind Books do.   What about the Mark of the Beast?  What about number of the Beast, 666?   What about the Antichrist?  Is he living already?   When will the end come?  What will it be like?  Most everybody would like to know that, and if you talk about what Jesus will do when he comes, since it hasn’t happened yet you can make the future just how you want it to turn out.   But when you talk about the Jesus who has come, or who has already come, well, you are stuck with what you got.  And what you’ve got, is basically ‘an assignment for how we are to live’ our lives, not an exact prediction of what Jesus will fix when he comes back. 

However, as we all know, between the expectation and the reality, there falls a ‘shadow’  (Craddock), even a kind of ‘sadness’.  It’s true for everybody, even for children.   A child sees a puppy on TV.  “Can I have a puppy, like that?   I want a puppy.  Everybody else has a puppy?  “Well, I don’t know,” the parent answers, “Oh, I’ll take care of it, I’ll feed it, and I’ll look after it!”    So they go and get the puppy, and a week goes by and mother asks, “Have you feed the puppy?  Have you given the puppy a bath?  Have you played with the puppy?”   The child answers: “I’m not the only one in this family!  Everybody else ought to help too!”  “But you said you wanted that puppy and you’d take care of it,” the mother says.  Between wanting a puppy and having a puppy, falls a shadow.

It’s true of so many things, just like in a wedding.  It’s beautiful.  Flowers.  The Bridesmaids dresses.  The wonderful flowing white dress.  The Candles burning.  Everybody’s happy.  There’s cake-- lost of cake.  Beautiful service.   It’s a wonderful, beautiful occasion.  But then just a couple of week later, the couple gets back from their honeymoon, and they have to settle into daily routines, a little small place to live, and they start making a go at sharing everything together.  Being married is surely not the same as getting married.  Of course, it’s not the same and there can be some shadows, you didn’t see until after the wedding.

Or what about getting the job you’ve always wanted.  You worked hard to get it.  You got a promotion.  Or maybe you went off to college.  You made the grade, you graduated.  Maybe you wanted to be a teacher.   You see the face of children.  You see them, at least in your mind, eager to learn.   There is so much they will want and need to know.  Then, The day finally comes and you are in the classroom.  You are now, officially, a teacher, but what do you spend most of your time doing?  Breaking up fights?  Doing paperwork?  Listening to the complaints of parents?  One irate parent comes in:  “What did you do to my child?” “I’ll call my lawyer!”  Is this what you had in mind when you wanted to be a teacher?

This kind of thing happens even in the ministry.   I remember imagining myself standing in the pulpit, sharing the good news of God’s grace, and people saying “Amen”, loving the gospel and the life it calls us to live.  And I thought it would get easier and easier to preach, to pastor, and to be a minister.   But it never occurred to me that there would be church fights, disgruntled members, late night meetings, long business meetings, or that I would have to listen to an argument about where to put the water cooler or the color of the carpet, or whether or not to pad the pews.   And I never dreamed that people would attack, argue, or accuse each other of things, or attack me, in ways that hurt, and cause more people to leave the church than would ever come back into the church.   I never imagined how the best and worst things happen at church.

The difference in what you expect, and how it turns out, can be so different.  How would I ever have guessed that almost everything I learned in Seminary, would not work anymore?  How could I have seen that coming, that I and the churches where I served would end up unprepared, and even disappointed at how things have turned out?   What about all those sermons about winning the world for Christ?  What about all those plans to grow a bigger, and bigger church?  What about all those hopes of transforming a nation, from saying we are a “people under God” to actually being “a people under God”?  There can be a lot of difference and disappointment between the expectation and the reality.

But perhaps there is something more going on here, than mere disappointment.  John was God’s servant.  He told the truth.  He was faithful.  He stood up for what was right.  He spoke the truth.   And what does he get?  He’s been arrested.  Now, he’s in prison.  Is this how God reward’s His servants?  If this is what God does for his friends, I’d hate to be his enemy!  Is this really all there is?   Could it be that the darkness and the dampness of the dungeon getting to him like the difficulties of life can get to us?  

Or maybe it’s just the whole prospect of death.   John knows that he’s not going to ever be released.  There will be no lawyer, no fair trial, no chance for appeal or legal recourse.   John is there for good, and he is in some way, or somehow, going to die for this.  It’s just a matter of ‘what day will it be’.   Perhaps he even mulls over in his mind, will I be strong and clear eyed when the executioner comes, or will I choke up and cry when the moment comes and I have to face the axe?

Maybe it’s the confinement itself.  It’s hard to be cooped up like that, no exercise, no sunlight, no good food, no clear water.  It’s one of the worst things in the world, if you’ve never experienced it, to always be in bed, living with four walls closing in on you, no one to see, to talk, or who understands.  When we had that Football player, who broke his neck, with that contraption on his head,  it brought back all those terrible feelings I had when they operated on my foot, and I had to have screws holding a fixator on my leg and foot, keeping me from putting my leg down for 6 months.  That kind of thing can get to your head.  It took me back to being in the hospital, as a seventeen year old, when they put me into traction and made me lie on my back for two months.  They would come to my bed at night and pull up the bars, even though I couldn’t fall out of bed even if I wanted too.   And I recall all the fears I had of what would happen, if the hospital caught on fire and I couldn’t get up and couldn’t get out.  I wanted to get out of that situation, but I couldn’t.  I even got my guitar and started singing and people came into my room, thinking I might be Elvis Presley.  He just happened to be in that same hospital where I was.  It was the only thing I could do to have a relief.  If you’ve ever been confined like that, it can get into your head.  When they pull up those bars at night, it’s like a cell, a prison.  I know they are trying to help you, but it still hurts.  All you want to do, it get out, get away, and go home—and get free.

It’s hard to be in that kind of ‘prison’---a prison called ‘disappointment’?   But the reality is, that some people, still today, even in our own community, have to experience this Christmas from a kind of prison.  Some are imprisoned by a disease or illness.   Others are shut away because of disagreements or conflict.  Some are simply depressed because they are alone---all alone.   Without the children, without the family, and without the old friends, Christmas is just not what it used to be.   Is the message real?  Is the joy, good news, of Christmas what it’s cracked up to be?   Was he the one?  Is Jesus the only way?  Has his coming really made any difference?

For whatever reason, John had been forced into confusion and he was beginning to have doubts.  He felt he needed, for himself and his followers, some kind of answer that might bring comfort and promise to his imprisoned soul.  So, John sent his disciples to ask Jesus: “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?

There are many things that could have plunged John into doubt, or might also plunge us into doubt and disappointment, even depression this Christmas.  The lights are coming on, but it’s still dark to some people around us.

But what really made it hard for John was not the darkness nor the dungeon that was getting next to him, but it was the kind of ‘light’ Jesus was shining.   Jesus was just not being the kind of Messiah John had expected.   Jesus did not do all the things the people had been anticipating.  Jesus did not fulfill the Scripture the way it had been hoped by the prophets or interpreted by the experts.    For you see, here was a man who had imagined Jesus coming with all kind of “wind” and “fire”,  a ‘strong man’, full of God’s wisdom, who would accomplished God’s will in this world.   But now, here comes Jesus and there’s no strong wind.  There’s also no big, blazing, burning fire.   This Jesus fullfilled a Scripture no one was reading, like that was quoted by Matthew from Isaiah, where he writes: “Here is my servant, whom I have chosen… I have put my Spirit upon him… He will not wrangle or cry aloud, nor will anyone hear his voice in the streets.  He will not break a bruised reed or quench a smoldering wick…  In his name (not the Jews, but) the Gentiles will hope (Matthew 12: 18-21).   Jesus did not come as some hot and angry wind or fire, but he is humble, meek, mild, and lowly.  Where is the wind?  Where is the fire?  Jesus is not who John, or anyone was expecting.

But what did he expect, and WHAT DO WE WANT JESUS TO SAY OR DO?   When the disciples, including John found a community who did not believe in Jesus, and ask Jesus to call down ‘fire’ from heaven on them and burn them up, what do think Jesus should have said?   Burn them up?  No, but he said, let’s wipe the dust off our feet and go on to another town and leave them alone.   “When somebody hits you on one cheek,” what did you expect Jesus to answer,  Hit ‘em back, and harder?   When somebody calls you a bad name, or does something bad against you, what did you expect Jesus to say?  Retaliate?  Eye for Eye, Tooth for Tooth?  
But this is NOT what Jesus says, but he says,  “Be good to those who hate you?  Speak good, even of those who mistreat you.  And when you are at the altar and you remember that somebody has something against you, what do you expect Jesus to say?  Well, that’s their problem, if they don’t like me.  But no, Jesus said, oh, yes, it’s your problem too.  You go and make it right with them.  That’s what he said, but what do you expect Jesus to say: Now, one day you are going to pay for what you’ve doneYou’ll get what’s coming to you.  Full sentence, full payment, full judgment.  No, but Jesus said: “Neither do I condemn you, go and sin no more.”  Does that disappoint you?  When lepers called out, and Jesus touched them, Does that disappoint you?  When Jesus was finally put on the cross to die, what did you expect him to say:  “You’re gonna burn for this”.  What goes around, comes around!  But no, he said,  “Father forgive them, for they don’t know what they are doing!”  Is that disappointing to you?  Would you like to have seen or heard Jesus doing something different?

Here, we need to realize what is still true:  Jesus is a disappointment to some people.   As I once read a book about Jesus in German:  “Jesus failed”.  He was not a success.  He came to his own people and they rejected him, didn’t they?  That’s how it really was, wasn’t it?  He came to earth, and he had his chance, with all the power and glory of heaven, to teach everyone a lesson, and to put us all in our place, and what did Jesus do, or better yet, what didn’t Jesus do?  He didn’t settle once and for all, what was right and what is wrong, and punish the wicked.   What he did do, is send this message back to John:  Go tell John what you see and hear:  the blind are seeing, the cripples are walking, the lepers are made clean, the deaf are hearing, the dead are being raised,  and the poor have good news spoken to them…. (v. 4-5).  Tell that to John.

Is such an answer disappointing to you?   As a preacher, a pastor, and a minister of the good news, I never want the church or the message of Jesus to disappoint anybody, but I know it will disappoint some.  It disappointed Jews, then, and now.  It still disappoints people from other religious traditions, too.  Our message disappoints many secular people, who’d prefer to go it alone, without such having to deal with a Jesus, who might still be a disappointment.   Some of these people will come in a church and visit one time, but then they go home and never return.  Some of them were looking for the church to preach fire, wind, judgment and put people in their place.  Of course there are churches that will do that, and they have filled up at times.   But even after all that heat, there’s not much light, and people often go back home, and never go into a church again.  Somehow, someway, the church and the message of Jesus, as it was preached, disappoints.  We all know that’s true.  How do we deal with that?

Years ago, Sundays used to be very slow and different.   After Church on Sunday afternoons, people used to go out into the fields, along the roads, and into the woods, walking, picking up interesting rocks, finding four leaf clovers, and picking interesting wild flowers; just spending slow time together.   They would look for small, but ‘marvelous’ things.  They even called the practice ‘marveling’.  They would all get together and just go ‘marveling’ together.  Then, they would go back to the house, with the rest of the family or neighbors, and show off these ‘marvelous’ things they had found.

Maybe the answers to some of the hardest questions we meet in this life, are not found in books, theories, or even just in our Bibles alone.  If you were to try to go ‘marveling’ early or late one Sunday, you might find yourself walking or driving along the road, maybe even coming upon a place where a group of people are gathered, singing, praying, reading and teaching Scripture, and sharing together their love for each other, caring for each other, upholding each other, and sharing their hope for the hurting world.   If you would listen closely, you might hear them praying and promising to each other, and to God:  “God help us, to reproduce the life of Jesus, in our own lives, from our Bible.”  Wouldn’t that be marvelous?  Wouldn’t that be something you couldn’t find happening anywhere else?   Wouldn’t that be a kind of hopeful, healing, encouraging ‘miracle’ that you would and could ‘see and hear’ in this place, among these people, right now!  And it wouldn’t that be a ‘light’ that could shine into your own dungeon of disappointment to be the answer you’d could live and die with?  Wouldn’t that be, as a jewish comedian once said, “marvelous?”  Let it be so.  Amen.