Long Awaited Gift
SLIDE 3: SOME THINGS I WILL NOT LIVE LONG ENOUGH TO SEE
There are some things I will not live long enough to see – the Cubs winning the World Series, Rush Limbaugh acknowledging the reality of climate change, World Peace. I have reconciled myself to the idea that some things just won’t happen before I die. Some long awaited gifts will just have to wait a little while longer.
SLIDE 4: HOW MANY CHRISTMASES?
I am entering a stage of life, when I wonder, how many more Christmases will I celebrate? Thirty years ago, that would have seemed a morbid thought, today it just seems realistic. Especially this year, since I cannot get on the ladder to bring down the Christmas Tree – never an easy task but impossible this year.
SLIDE 5: LUKE FROM NAZARETH TO BETHLEHEM
Our scripture this morning emphasizes the theme of long awaited gifts. According to Luke, Mary and Joseph lived in Nazareth. They made the journey to Bethlehem to satisfy a census, though this story was almost certainly a fiction to explain why Jesus of Nazareth was born in the City of David. According to Luke after the baby was born his parents stopped in Jerusalem to dedicate him in the Temple before returning to Nazareth. Luke emphasizes the poverty of Joseph and Mary by having them offer two turtle doves instead of a lamb as the offering of redemption on behalf of the child.
SLIDE 6: MATTHEW FLEE TO EGYPT
Matthew’s story makes different assumptions. Mary and Joseph were living in Bethlehem, they fled to Egypt because Herod the King wanted to destroy the child. Then when they returned to Israel they settled in Nazareth, because the unstable son of Herod, Archelaus, was ruling Judea. Both gospel writers provide fictions so the birth of Jesus corresponds with Old Testament prophecy.
SLIDE 7: PRESENTATION IN THE TEMPLE
Luke’s story successfully captured the long held First Century Jewish expectation of the coming of a Messiah. Upon entering the Temple the Holy family was greeted by two legendary figures Anna, the daughter of Phanuel, a widow who lived in the Temple. She slept under the shelter of Solomon’s Portico, and people brought her bread to eat and asked her to pray for them. She was widely believed to be a prophetess. The other character was Simeon, a man so old, that rumor had it he was not supposed to die until the Messiah appeared in Israel. According to Luke when Simeon beheld the Christ Child he was moved to say, “Lord, now let your servant depart in peace, according to your word; I have seen your salvation that you have prepared in the presence of all peoples, a light for revelation to the Gentiles, (an important theme in the Prophet Isaiah) and for glory to your people Israel.”
SLIDE 8: LIVE LONG ENOUGH FOR A SPECIAL EVENT
The truth of our scripture this morning is that people often want to live long enough to see something before they die, and sometimes people do hang on long enough for an event to occur before they finally offer up their lives. Maybe it is a birthday, an anniversary, a graduation, the birth of a grandchild or great-grandchild. Sometimes people wait for someone to come home in order to die. Sometimes people want to be alone and wait for everyone to go to dinner or some other errand before they die.
SLIDE 9: INCREDIBLE TECHNILOGICAL CHANGE
When I was pastoring in Monee, I buried a number of elderly people who had been born into a world without automobiles, airplanes, telephones, electric lights or indoor plumbing. Many of them lived to see all of those modern inventions as well as landing people on the moon. Since then personal computers have become common place. Our cell phones are more technologically sophisticated than the computers that guided the lunar landers to a soft landing on the moon.
So the question I ask myself this morning and invite you to consider is there something you would like to see before you die? Is there some event, or invention, or person so you could finally say, “ah now I can depart in peace?”
If you are waiting to be able to witness technological innovations, you might be interested in some of these newest inventions.
SLIDE 10: STROLLER SCOOTER
SLIDE 11: FULL BODY UMBRELLA
Or you probably didn’t know the full body umbrella has been introduced. No need to get wet, and if you can combine the full body umbrella with the stroller scooter you can remain dry will walking your child.
SLIDE 12: PIZZA SCISSORS
And this next one I’m sure you wish I had used in a sermon before Christmas, because surely you know someone who needs a pair of pizza scissors. Perfect slices of pizza for the person on your shopping list who has everything. Well, maybe next year.
SLIDE 13: DOG UMBRELLA
Or maybe you didn’t know about the dog umbrella. No need for our pampered pets to get wet, when we take them for a walk. Now if they can just combine this with the full body umbrella I can walk Banner and Scout in the rain without anyone getting wet.
SLIDE 14: NIGHT-LITE SLIPPERS
And finally, a special invention for those of us who have trouble finding our way in the dark, night-lite slippers. Ah now surely I can depart in peace. I would like to be around to witness further human exploration of the solar system. But I don’t think technology or inventions is what is keeping me here.
SLIDE 15: SOCIAL PROGRESS
Sometimes social progress seems agonizingly slow, but our world is very different than fifty years ago. If I can survive another twenty years, I suspect the world may change as much in the next twenty years as it did in the previous 50 years. Prejudices may linger for a time, but much of it may begin to melt away. Also, I imagine the church will be profoundly different in another twenty years, and some days I don’t have a clue what that will look like.
SLIDE 16: WONDER ABOUT MY CHILDREN
As I look forward, like many other parents, I also wonder what the future will hold for my children and grandchildren. I guess in a way these are selfish thoughts, but still natural. Realistically most of what will happen is absolutely out of my control, but still I wonder. Will their careers work out? Will they find suitable life partners? Will they have children? I remember one of my father’s regrets was that Elizabeth was too young to get to know him. He would have liked to have had more time to have some impact on her life. Since I do not want to outlive any of my children, grieving for parents and potentially a spouse for me is enough, at some point I will need to be able to say, O.K. they have made it this far, my family members will have to make it the rest of the way without me. Lord let thy servant depart in peace.
SLIDE 17: A LEGACY
Sometimes as I gaze into the future I wonder if anything I have done will have any lasting impact – a legacy. But legacies can usually only be seen in hindsight, and in all humility perhaps we should hope that whatever impact we have made doesn’t have our name written all over it. In the end it is the work that is important not us.
SLIDE 18: AURA OF GOODNESS
This fall as I was researching Great Uncle Julian G. Bruce I learned that he left behind an aura of goodness in the community he served for almost 50 years. Someday people may completely forget why that State Park is named the Dr. Julian G. Bruce State Park, but somehow I believe that aura of goodness will go on. Maybe that is the best any of us can hope for.
SLIDE 19: LIVE BY FAITH
No matter how long we live in the end we have to live by faith understanding that we are not in control, and the universe is in God’s hands. We have to trust that no matter what the future may bring God is still present in the creation. The Messiah has come and gone, and God still waits for us. God waits for us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirst, to set at liberty all those who are oppressed, to work toward preserving a livable environment for ourselves and our posterity. To work and pray for that day when Shalom the peace of God will reign in all our hearts.
I not only believe that God waits for us collectively, God waits for each one of us individually to do our best to bring forth the purpose within us. And when we lay this life down God waits for us to come home. So no matter when we die, we will be able to say with trust and faith, Lord let your servants depart in peace, for we have seen your salvation and it is good.
David the Homeless One
My father Judah was a poor shepherd the son of shepherds for untold generations. He had no land and was a keeper of sheep for others. My mother Sarah was a poor girl from a large family with no prospects. Their fathers were cousins, and since my mother’s father Nathaniel had too many daughters even a poor landless shepherd like my father Judah could afford the bride price.
I was born in the late spring of the year, when the grass in Bethlehem is still green, and the grain in the fields is just beginning to mature. Herod the King was building his fortress Herodium near our home. My father became a laborer on the great project to support his wife and baby. But civil war came to the Roman Empire, Octavian against his rival Marc Antony and the Queen of Egypt Cleopatra. When giants decide to fight, war also comes to poor nations like Israel and even to impoverished, out of the way villages like Bethlehem. Herod was loyal to his patron Antony, and Octavian’s allies attacked Herod. Desert raiders mounted on camels came in the middle of the night, and my mother fled in fright. As she picked me up to flee into the hills she dropped me and my left leg was broken. My leg never healed properly, and I have been lame ever since like Saul’s son Mephibosheth.
Three years later my father was killed when a cave-in occurred while he was working on the excavation of one of the cisterns of Herodium. My mother returned to her father’s house such as it was. We had barely enough to eat gleaning in the fields, and living off of the charity of others. When I was six my mother died of fever, and my grandparents did their best to care for me. But when I was eight my grandfather died, and I became little David the homeless one.
With no other way to eat I became one of the beggars at the village gate living from the alms provided by passersby. Sometimes people who were not in a hurry would hire me to perform an errand for them. As it is said, “Like vinegar on your tongue or smoke in your eyes, is the slow one you send on an errand.” With my crutch I can go here and there, but not nearly fast enough to chase sheep, or work in the fields. Benjamin the Inn Keeper gives me his stale bread from time to time. As it is said, “Generous hands are blessed hands because they give bread to the poor.” Benjamin even allows me to sleep in the cave he uses as a stable in cold or rainy weather.
Life is hard for homeless ones like me. But particularly hard is the scorn of the self-righteous who call me lazy and shiftless. Many in the village laugh at me and make fun of me. Some of the religious ones even make a point of preaching to others that my misfortune is the result of sin. They say, “Misfortune pursues the sinner, but prosperity is the reward of the righteous.” Surely my parents must have done something horrible for God to have cursed me with lameness. The almighty punishes sin, so I must be a terrible sinner. The scorn of the self-righteous is as hard to bear as the hunger and the cold.
I was in my twenty-fourth year, Herod was still the King and Augustus Caesar was Emperor in Rome. Poor Israel had been turned upside down with an insane special census to levy a head tax upon all residents of Herod’s Kingdom. Everyone was required to return to the village of their birth in order to pay the levy.
Bethlehem was busy. Many wealthy people had returned to the village to make their claim to ancestry from the great King David. Everywhere was crowded especially Benjamin’s Inn. Finding a place to sleep at night was difficult for anyone but especially a homeless one like me. People were using the doorways and small shelters I would sometimes frequent at night. Also with so many guests in the Inn, Benjamin had no stale bread left over. On the bright side begging was good. Many visitors coming and going meant more alms for beggars. “Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the LORD, and the Lord will repay him for his deeds.”
On the third day of the census, toward evening Hosea the righteous one passed by my place outside the village gate. Stopping to look at me begging, he spat at me and said, “You beggars give Bethlehem a bad name. This is the home of the royal house of David. You should go somewhere else and collect your alms. “Lazy hands make for poverty, but diligent hands bring wealth,” he finished.
“And may God cover the soles of your feet with boils,” I muttered under my breath. About that time a poor man with a woman riding a donkey came up the road, and asked me for directions to the Inn. I pointed down the hill a short ways and said, “The Caravanserai of Benjamin is just down the slope, but I doubt you will find any room there. All of Bethlehem is overcrowded.”
The man and the donkey shuffled off toward the Inn. Benjamin seemed hurried and exasperated as he tried to explain to the man there was no room. The woman cried out in pain, and even from a distance I could see she was sobbing. As Benjamin went back inside the Inn, I struggled up with my crutch. “Friend,” I called, “I do not have much to offer, but allow me to help you find some shelter.”
“Oh please,” responded the man, “my wife is with child and her time has come.”
I hobbled down the hill past the Inn. “I know a cave, come with me.” I led them to the cave used by Benjamin for extra animals. There was straw, and wood to burn to bring warmth and frighten away the wolves. “I am David the homeless one.”
“I am Joseph,” the man responded, “a carpenter from Nazareth.”
Joseph made a bed of straw for his wife, and began to make a fire. “I am not fast,” I offered, “but I can go to fetch the midwife.”
“God will smile on your mercy, homeless one.”
As fast as I could I made my way to the house of Rebecca the midwife.
“Rebecca, Rebecca, hurry you are needed,” I cried.
“Whoever, sent you must be desperate,” she replied.
“Please come, the woman is already well along in labor.”
“And I suppose, if they have sent you, they have no money?”
“I do not know,” I replied, “they seem poor enough. But as it is said, ‘Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing, but those who close their eyes to poverty will be cursed.'”
“Enough of your proverbs already,” she said, “show me the way.”
To her credit Rebecca was kind and encouraging. Within an hour the baby had come. Joseph had built a fire. The cave was warm the mother was nursing her child.
“God performs another miracle,” Rebecca said to me. “It is a boy. But the mother is weak, needs food to produce milk. You David, go find bread.”
“But where shall I find bread with no money?” I asked.
“You are good at begging, go beg bread for the baby.”
So I set off for the home of Yitzaak the Baker. When I arrived I could smell new loaves coming out of the oven. It was an aroma like heaven for a homeless one who eats mostly stale bread. “Yitzaak,” I cried, “I need bread.”
“And so does all the rest of Bethlehem,” he replied. “This is an extra batch of loaves,” he continued, “for people who can pay!”
“But Yitzaak,” I replied, “this is not for me. A poor mother has just given birth and needs bread to make milk for her baby.”
“So you say,” The Baker replied, “and I suppose they have no money also.”
“You are right about that,” I said, “they are poor and far from home. But please a little bread for the sake mercy.”
“If I give away all my bread, then I will become a beggar like you!”
“But, Yitzaak, as they say, ‘Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing, but those who close their eyes to poverty will be cursed.'”
“Enough of your proverbs,” he replied, “no money, no bread.”
Reluctantly, reaching into my robes I drew out two copper pennies. “This is all a poor beggar can offer,” I said, handing him my money.
Yitzaak paused for a long moment, and sighed, “I don’t know why but I believe you today. For two pennies I give you two loaves one for the new mother, one for you.”
“God will smile upon your generosity Yitzaak,” I proclaimed, and began to hobble back toward the Inn. I found Joseph giving water to his wife as I limped forward holding out a loaf of bread, exclaiming, “And it is fresh too!”
“May God be praised my homeless friend.”
“This is for her,” I continued, “and you and I can share this one,” I announced holding up the second loaf.
As Joseph and I sat at the mouth of cave about to share our loaf, Joseph muttered a prayer, “Blessed art thou O Lord of the Universe who brings forth bread from the earth.”
“Thank you,” Joseph I replied, “Bread tastes better when it is shared,” and I marveled at how good I felt for once being the generous one. Then as I looked up at the stars shining brightly overhead, I wondered, does the Lord of the Universe really care?
I went to sleep happy with my fill of bread. In the middle of the night I was awakened by voices. “Where is the child?” a local shepherd named Joel was asking me.
“What child?” I muttered groggy with sleep.
“Angels came and told us to look for a child born tonight in Bethlehem,” the shepherd beamed as three of his companions nodded their heads in astonishment together.
“I haven’t seen any angels,” I replied, “are you drunk?”
“No,” answered Nathaniel, another of the shepherds, “but it was amazing! A light appeared to us in the meadow. It had a beautiful voice. It sang to us, ‘the messiah is born in Bethlehem — go and see, go and see.’ And then the whole sky shown with light, and we heard a chorus of voices, ‘the messiah is born in Bethlehem — go and see, go and see.'” We were led here.
“A child was born here tonight,” I replied, “in this cave.”
The shepherds crowded further back into the cave. Joseph invited them to see the baby almost as if he had been expecting them. They told Joseph about seeing an angel, and he asked them what the angel had said. The baby’s mother told the shepherds an angel had appeared also to her. And then as quickly as they had come the shepherds left laughing and talking about the miracle they had witnessed.
“Joseph,” I asked, “do you believe the story about angels the shepherds told?”
“Many strange and wonderful events have surrounded the birth of this child,” he replied. “An angel appeared to me in a dream to tell me to name the boy, Jesus. God is mysterious and miraculous Homeless One. Why would God choose a poor family to give birth to the Messiah? We do not understand the ways of the Lord.”
Mysteries and miracles are all well and good, but having spent my pennies for bread the next morning I had to return to the village gate to beg for alms. Two days passed. Joseph had hired himself to Benjamin to make two additional tables for the Inn, so I did not need to continue feeding them from my meager begging. But on the third day strange visitors came to Bethlehem. They rode the finest camels, and they were accompanied by a half-dozen servants. Dressed in finery and bedecked with jewels they appeared like foreign princes — three of them.
They stopped at the Caravanserai and made inquiries for food and provisions for their camels and pack animals, while their servants set up fine tents. I watched and wondered what brought them to Bethlehem. One of their servants came to the gate announcing that his masters were seeking a special child. They had seen his star in the East and had followed it to Israel and now to Bethlehem.
I told the servant that I might know something, if he would take me to his master. I hobbled after the servant, who led me into a lavish tent, where the three great princes were eating. “Noble sirs,” I began, “I am but a humble beggar, but I might know where you can find the child you are seeking.”
“Speak,” one of the princes said, “if you can lead us to this child, we will reward you.”
“Noble sirs, three nights ago a child was born in a cave not far from here. His parents are poor and humble, but the night of his birth shepherds came saying angels had appeared to them announcing the birth of the child.”
The three princes conferred with one another in a language I could not understand. Finally, the one who spoke Aramaic said, “Lead us to the child.”
They rose and followed me down the hill to the cave. Joseph was in the mouth of the cave making a table. I said to the three princes, “Noble sirs, this is Joseph the Carpenter, father of the child.” Joseph looked at me with a question on his face. “Joseph my friend,” I began, “these Noblemen from the East saw a star in the skies announcing the birth of your baby. They have come in search of him.”
Joseph graciously invited the princes into the cave to see the baby. The one who spoke Aramaic asked Joseph and Mary questions about the angels and the shepherds. Then bowing low they admired the baby and sent one of their servants to bring gifts. Three servants returned bearing royal gifts costly, precious — gold, frankincense and myrrh. After they had presented their gifts they left the cave with a strange light in their eyes. I followed them out, and one of the servants turned and handed me three silver denarii. “My masters thank you for your assistance.” I had never held so much money. I could eat for several days, weeks even.
The next afternoon I was sitting at the Village Gate at my accustomed begging place, when one of the servants of the three princes came to me. “Homeless one, my Masters would like to pay you to perform an errand.”
“Certainly,” I replied. “What can I do for your exalted Masters.”
“Come with me, this must remain a secret.” I followed him into one of their tents, and he said to me, “On our way to Bethlehem, my Masters stopped in Jerusalem. They inquired at the court of Herod, where is the Jewish Messiah to be born. The High Priest citing one of your prophets said, ‘In Bethlehem of Judea!’ When Herod heard this he asked my Masters to go search for the child, and then bring word to him. Last night an angel appeared to one of my Masters in a dream telling him to return to our country by another way. Herod will search for the child to destroy him. We leave this very afternoon. You need to go warn the parents of the child to flee and keep this a secret.” With that he handed me two more silver denarii and bid me go to warn Mary and Joseph.
I hobbled to the cave to bring the news from the princes to Joseph and Mary. They were distressed. How could they leave quickly with no preparation for a journey? I volunteered to go buy bread for them, while they packed up their meager belongings. I went straight away to Ytzaak’s bakery and putting down one of the princes’ denarii I purchased five loaves of bread. When I passed out of the village gate I noticed a cloud of dust coming from the direction of Jerusalem. Hobbling as fast as I could I went directly to the Cave. “Joseph, I fear there are soldiers of the King coming this way.” I handed them the bread and told them they must go immediately.
A short time later I heard the sound of horses’ hooves at the Inn. Quietly Mary and Joseph and the baby snuck out of the cave and started south toward the road to Beersheva. Before they were out of sight, however, a soldier came down the slope to look in the cave. When he saw me, he asked, “What are you doing here?”
“I am a beggar, a homeless one,” I replied. “I sleep in this cave sometimes. Is there something I can do for your Worship?”
“Tell me, where did the peasants go who were staying in this cave?”
“I know no peasants. The last several nights I have not slept here.”
The soldier glared at me, and went to the mouth of the cave and began scanning the horizon. When he turned to the South, he stopped and muttered under his breath, and I knew what I must do. Perhaps because he did not consider a lame beggar to be a threat or a crutch to be weapon. He never saw it coming. I hit him in the head with my crutch — thwak. He went down with a thud. I hobbled out to the meadow and spent three nights with the shepherds. The soldiers left Bethlehem. Mary, Joseph and the baby got away.
You ask, “Does God care?”
“Yes, blessed art thou of Lord of the universe who brings forth bread from the earth. And remember my friends, God also needs good and kind people who care for others. For as it is said, ‘Whoever gives to the poor will lack nothing, whoever is kind to the needy honors God.’” You have heard this from David the homeless one.
Birthing a Promise
SLIDE 3: CRISIS OF CHILD BIRTH
Giving birth in the ancient world was the most important and dangerous crisis in the life of a woman. Complications from child birth were the number one cause of death for women two-thousand years ago. But giving birth and nurturing children was also the most important purpose of a woman’s life in the ancient world. Without giving birth to children the tribe died out. Whatever promise a particular community might hold for the benefit of humankind it would die, if children were not brought forth and nurtured. The future of a woman’s people depended upon her sacrifices in childbirth. Mary was going to give birth to the future. She was asked to take the risks of bringing a child into the world, and this child was supposed to be the Messiah, a double risk, for the powers that be would seek to snuff out the life of a divine child – a rival to the throne.
SLIDE 4: HOW SHALL THIS BE?
Also since Mary was still unmarried there was the third risk of being stoned as an adulteress. Would Joseph still marry her, if she became pregnant before they had relations? Who would believe her? Could she even believe it herself? An angel talking to her, a baby named Jesus? And good girl that Mary was — “How shall this be, since I have no husband?”
SLIDE 5: STANDETH GOD WITHIN THE SHADOW KEEPING WATCH ABOVE HIS OWN
And Mary was asked to believe the angel’s words: “For with God nothing will be impossible.” How many of us would be willing to believe a vision of angels? Or like Joseph who was visited by an angel in a dream to tell him to take Mary as his wife. How many of us are willing to believe in our dreams? God is never as plain as the nose on our face. The divine is always at least partially hidden. In the words of the old hymn, “Once to Every Man and Nation,” “standeth God within the shadow keeping watch above his own.”
SLIDE 6: SEEING GOD IN HINDSIGHT
So God can never be seen directly or face to face. Like Moses about the best we can hope for is to glimpse God’s backside. Or as Glenna Shepherd suggested when she was preaching from our neutral pulpit in October, by the way I can now announce that Glenna has been called to serve as the Pastor of our Pleasant Hill Community Church in Tennessee, anyway as Glenna interpreted the passage about the vision of God’s backside, perhaps we can only see God’s presence in our lives in hindsight. Once we get through some episode in our lives we look back and say to ourselves, “I wasn’t aware of it at the time, but God was there in the midst of that mess.”
SLIDE 7: THE WOODPECKER AND THE SQUIRREL
We are seldom able to appreciate God’s presence in our lives in the present moment. Or as Marian Lammers reminded me this past week about the importance of Roman Catholic educator Thomas Groom’s notion of meditating before going to sleep to appreciate the God moments that occurred during the day. As Marian said, once the day is over and she is about to drop off to sleep she can recognize the red headed wood pecker who stopped on her window sill to look at her, and the squirrel who came up on her porch to talk to her were God moments.
The recognition and appreciation of the God moments in our days is faith. Faith in a power and purpose in the Universe beyond ourselves. Faith that each one of us has a promise to bring forth in creation. I believe because my father was so severely wounded during World War II, he had a sense that if we are alive we have a purpose to serve in this life.
SLIDE 8: HANK TUTTLE
I remember Hank Tuttle sharing with me why he felt called to the ministry. Right after graduating from High School in 1944 Hank enlisted in the United States Navy to serve his country in World War II. His parents weren’t keen on it, but Hank was determined. He was trained to drive an LST landing craft for the invasion of Okinawa in April of 1945. Just days before Hank was supposed to ship out into the Pacific, he was pulled from the invasion of Okinawa and sent to Corpsmen’s School. Someone had figured out they had more than enough LST drivers, but they were going to need many more medics for the scheduled invasion of Japan. But before the invasion of Japan could take place the Japanese surrendered bringing to a close World War II. Hank then discovered that less than half of the LST drivers who had trained with him for the invasion of Okinawa ever came home alive. Hank realized he could just as well be dead, and that knowledge left him with a tremendous sense of responsibility to make his life count for something – a purpose larger than himself. Some months after that he woke up in the middle of the night from a troubled dream in a sweat and knew he was supposed to go to seminary to prepare for the ministry. He began the process of birthing a promise – a purpose larger than himself. He tried to live out that purpose, and United Church was fortunate he served here.
SLIDE 9: WORD BECOMING INCARNATE IN US
Each of us is called by life to something larger than ourselves. Like Mary we may have a vision of an angel or like Hank we may wake up in the middle of the night from troubled dreams and just know what we are supposed to do. Advent is not just about the coming of the Christ, Advent is about God’s word becoming incarnate in us as we seek to live out God’s purposes for our lives.
SLIDE 10: BAD THINGS HAPPEN TO GOOD PEOPLE
Of course, sometimes we can experience discouragement even down right despair as we attempt to find our way through the darkness – find God’s purpose in our lives, even in the midst of disaster. Bad things really can happen to good people. As I grew older I began to appreciate my father’s struggle with all of the setbacks in his life. Just as he was making plans to try to stay in the army at the end of World War II he was severely wounded. About three weeks after he was wounded he received his regular commission as a major which would have kept him from being rifted after the War was over.
SLIDE 11: MAKING A CAREER AS AN EDUCATOR
Then he tried to make a career as an educator. First he was a school principal at Papillion High School outside of Omaha, where he had to teach chemistry and shop, and coach the baseball team and direct the senior class play. He then went back to school to earn his doctorate and became a college professor at the University of Omaha. Then just as his career was beginning to take off in 1960, he was wounded in a hunting accident, thirty-two pellets in the face, blinded in one eye, and he was unable to keep up with his reading as an academic. After that disappointment he invested more time in his family, and in mentoring student athletes. He truly believed that athletics could be an important part of education. He also invested in his professional association becoming the Chairperson of the Division of School Psychology in the American Psychological Association.
SLIDE 12: HE HAD TO REINVENT HIMSELF
Whenever he suffered a setback he picked himself up, and sought a new way forward to serve. If you are alive, you have a purpose. He re-invented himself on several occasions, and I can only admire his faith.
SLIDE 13: EACH OF US IS A SACRED GIFT
Advent is about faith, hope and birthing a promise. Each one of us is a promise God has made to the world. Becoming and incarnating the promise within us is a sacred mission just as Jesus embrace his calling and the promise God was making to the world through him. Each one of us is a sacred gift from God. We each bear an awesome responsibility to bring our promise to fruition.
SLIDE 14: YES!
Sometimes we are tempted to believe we are unimportant of no account. Our contribution doesn’t matter. Mary could have thought that. Who was she, a poor peasant girl, of a conquered people, yet destined to change the world. Each of us has an important purpose, and we should never discount the part God has given us to play. Like Mary God waits for us, God waits for our “yes,” to the divine promise within us. “Behold we are the servants of the Lord, let it be to us as you O God have said.”
Messengers of Hope
SLIDE 3: HOPE IN THE DARKNESS
Last week in our scripture, Asaph asked the question, “Where are you God, when we need you?” He probably wrote his Psalm as the City of Jerusalem was surrounded by a foreign army. This week as we plunge further into Advent and the darkness of the coming Winter Solstice, Isaiah speaks to the children of Israel in exile in Babylon and offers hope.
SLIDE 4: HOPE IS A MYSTERY
Hope is a mystery. We cannot get our hands on it. As Paul says in his Letter to the Romans 8: 24For in hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what is seen? 25But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience. Advent is a time of waiting, waiting for hope. But how long can we wait before we give into despair? According to Proverbs: Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.
SLIDE 5: WAITING IN A CULTURE OF IMMEDIATE GRATIFICATION
Advent is a season of disciplined hope, learning to wait in the darkness for the time of fulfillment – hard but necessary – and especially hard in our culture of immediate gratification. Immediate gratification sets us up for long term despair. Sort of like Calvin in Calvin and Hobbs. Unless we learn to wait with hope our lives become one empty pleasure after another until we are overwhelmed by boredom. Boredom leads to the aimless pursuit of more pleasure until we suffer internal estrangement – alienation from ourselves as well as from God.
SLIDE 6: BOREDOM
In the Screwtape Letters, an imaginary correspondence between a senior devil, Screwtape, and a junior tempter, Wormwood, C.S. Lewis provides a masterful description of the inner estrangement caused by the relentless pursuit of the shallow pleasures of immediate gratification:
“As this condition of boredom becomes more fully established, you will be gradually freed from the tiresome business of providing Pleasures as temptations. As the uneasiness and his reluctance to face it cut him off more and more from all real happiness, and as habit renders the pleasures of vanity and excitement and flippancy at once less pleasant and harder to forgo (for that is what habit fortunately does to a pleasure) you will find that anything or nothing is sufficient to attract his wandering attention. You no longer need a good book, which he really likes, to keep him from his prayers or his work or his sleep; a column of advertisements in yesterday’s newspaper will do. You can make him waste his time not only in conversation he enjoys with people whom he likes, but in conversations with those he cares nothing about on subjects that bore him. You can make him do nothing at all for long periods. You can keep him up late at night, not roistering, but staring at a dead fire in a cold room. All the healthy and outgoing activities which we want him to avoid can be inhibited and nothing given in return, so that at last he may say, as one of my own patients said on his arrival down here, ‘I now see that I spent most of my life in doing neither what I ought nor what I liked.’
SLIDE 7: SAFEST ROAD TO HELL
You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the person from God. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the person away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than solitaire, if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.” I don’t think C.S. Lewis intended his metaphor to be taken literally. I believe all we need to know of Hell we experience in this life.
SLIDE 8: POWER FOREVER ON THE SIDE OF THOSE BRAVE ENOUGH TO TRUST IT
We need hope that connects us to something larger than ourselves and our own wants and needs. We need a faith in the love that lies at the heart of the universe – the power that is forever on the side of those brave enough to trust it.
SLIDE 9: HOPE IS FRAGILE BUT HARD TO KILL
In a strange paradox, however, hope is fragile, it sometimes seems to hang from a thread, but hope is also hard to kill. Sometimes in the face of a seemingly desperate and depressing situation, hope will suddenly rise up from the ashes of defeat. Or as Joseph Parker said on Facebook this week: “Hope is a seed that falls to the ground and dies, forgotten and cold until its appointed season. Hold on. Hope abounds.” Hope keeps us alive. People who have no hope turn to the wall and die – sometimes physically, but certainly spiritually. People without hope become spiritual zombies going through the motions of life without really living, as C.S. Lewis said, “staring at a dead fire in a cold room.”
SLIDE 10: GOSPEL STORY OF HOPE
We all need hope. The Gospel is the ultimate story of hope. A good person, reached out to others in love, healing the sick, feeding the poor, sharing the good news that we are all much beloved children of God. The people of power and influence who needed to feel better than others, who wanted to control everyone else for their own power and profit, took the good person, dragged him before a kangaroo court, beat him, flailed him within an inch of his life, stripped him naked and tortured him to death in full public view. When he had breathed his last, the sun went down, and the people of power and profit felt secure again. So they allowed his poor tortured body to be taken away and buried.
SLIDE 11: CHOSEN TO BE MESSENGERS OF HOPE
But that was not the end of the story, for the love of that good person did not die with his body, but lived on in the lives of those who had been touched by him and followed him. And a hope was born in the world that will not die. Those who choose to follow in the way of Jesus, who follow the way of love, have been chosen to be messengers of hope. Advent is not just a time of disciplined hopeful waiting, this is the season when we are all called to become messengers of hope.
SLIDE 12: LIGHT A CANDLE – SING “JOY TO THE WORLD”
So, how do we become messengers of hope especially if we are kind of shy or introverted and could not possibly imagine ourselves talking about our faith with a stranger or on a street corner? First, remember that Christmas is the one time of year, when unchurched people, even formerly churched people, are actually open to the possibility of attending church. Maybe it’s cultural. Maybe it’s seasonal. Maybe it’s the power of the story. We have entered into the darkest month of the year. Maybe people respond to the decorations, the lights, the candles. Lighting a candle and singing “Joy to the World,” can excite flickers of hope in the darkness. Whatever it is about Advent and Christmas people become more open to the claims of faith.
SLIDE 13: INVITE SOMEONE TO CHRISTMAS EVE
Second, our invitation to a Christmas Eve Service may be just the nudge someone needs to get out from in front of a television set showing re-runs of the “Grinch Stole Christmas,” and gather with other human beings to hear and participate in the Christmas Story. We don’t have to preach on a street corner, we don’t have to make someone sit down while we read the 1st Chapter of Matthew or the Second Chapter of Luke. We can just invite them to come with us and let the candles and the communion, the music and the story do the rest. St. Francis of Assisi created the first crèche as a way of sharing the Christmas Story with children and the illiterate poor.
SLIDE 14: SEND A CARD
Third, if inviting someone to come with us is just too much of a stretch, we can send a Christmas card – not some generic card with our names printed on them, but a real card with a message about hope, and a real honest to God note from us. If we are feeling particularly daring we might even mention we are including them in our prayers. We don’t have to send out dozens of cards one will do.
SLIDE 15: EXTRA SMILE AND A KINDNESS
Fourth, we can make an extra effort to smile and greet people during the season. This is a tough time of year for many store clerks and waiters and waitresses. Most low wage workers are overworked and underpaid. We can’t do a lot about their pay scales, but we can choose to be kind, considerate and caring. Smile and take a genuine interest in the salespeople and the wait staff we normally take for granted. Also remember when tipping is allowed, be generous as a way of offering hope and love. Fred Craddock a great professor of homiletics at Emory used to tell his students: “Preach Christ, use words if you have to.” May our actions and kindnesses speak for us this Season and make us messengers of hope.
SLIDE 16: CHARITY – A MESSAGE OF HOPE
Fifth, we can become messengers of hope in our charity. Every Christmas it is good to choose some special act of charity as our gift to the Christ Child. For too many of us Christmas becomes all about us – what we want, what we expect from others, and what we give to our families and our friends, who don’t really need anything. As we think about the gift of love in the incarnation of the Christ Child and the gifts of adoration brought by the Magi, we need to remember the words of the parable, even though you did it to one of the least of these, you have done it to me.
SLIDE 17: GENEROSITY – A MESSAGE OF HOPE
The Christ is still in the world with us in the distressing disguise of those who are in need. We can make a gift to the Christ Child by choosing someone outside of our normal circle of friends and relations, and offer a gift of love. Maybe warm clothes and blankets for the homeless, food for Foodline, or a special anonymous gift of money for a family we know who are struggling. Generosity is a message of hope for those who are in need. Preach Christ, use words if we have to.