An audio recording of this sermon is available here.
It was one of those church meetings that began with a check-in exercise. Name one hope that you carry. Going around the circle the hopes of many were for their children, especially those who, at the end of the teenage years, did not seem to know what they wanted to do and so were drifting. Nothing seems to grab or motivate them.
The matter of who we shall be and how we shall use the life that has been given to us are powerful questions. And they are not answered only once. People retire and begin to ask “What can I be now that I’ve finished with so many of the obligations?” What will define us? To what shall we give ourselves because we all do invest our time and energy, our lives, in something.
When I met Gaye I remember wondering, “Now what? What am I to make of this person? How much will I let her in? How much will I risk of who I think I am because the construction I’ve tacked together up to now will not withstand her force. One kiss. I doubt that. Light a match in a room full of gasoline fumes. I’ll probably have to be a better Christian. I guess that’s alright.... as long as it’s not too inconvenient.
When you meet a person who seems to meet the yearnings of your soul what does that do to your self-understanding? What does it do to what you think life is about? What does it do to your sense about where real life is to be found?
The early Christians faced similar questions about Jesus. And echoes of their wondering drive the stories that have come down to us. Sometimes when we light the Christ candle our liturgy goes, “Once there was someone who said such amazing things and did such wonderful things that people began to follow him. But they didn't know who he was. So one day they simply had to ask him.“
Name five words you would use to describe Jesus.
At the time people said Wonderworker, Healer, Teacher/Rabbi, Heretic, Terrorist, depending who you talked with. Over time the earliest Christians scoured the Hebrew Scriptures for other descriptions, like the one today “Emmanuel – the one who will save the people from their sins.” And they found others - Son of Man, Son of God, Messiah, the One who is to come, Redeemer, Lord, and they said, “that fits, what do you think?”
Last week Gail moved our thinking about Advent and Christmas to a cosmic level and a great ongoing battle between good and evil. And the backdrop for Christmas and Advent changed. For when an angel and a “multitude of the heavenly host,” the great warriors of God show up in body armour and flaming swords an image of Christmas as only being about chubby cheeked babies and nativity scenes becomes hard to maintain. When the sky fills with a host of God’s elite troops announcing “I am bringing you good news of great joy: “to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is the Messiah, the Lord” it’s a clue that something more is going on than just a request that people be nice to one another and try and do the right thing. Things are at stake; something is shifting.
The word “gospel,” which we now translate as “good news” was actually a word taken from a world dominated by wars and battles. A “gospel” was the message of victory announcing that a new era was about to begin under the rule of the winning party.
The Catholic priest Richard Rohr notes, “we have made the bible into a bunch of ideas – about which we can judge right or wrong – rather than an invitation to a new set of eyes.” The angel that came to the shepherds, the angel that came to Mary, the angel that came to Joseph was not simply sent to impart information. The visitations of the angels were to help Mary and Joseph see differently.
For the reality is this: The challenge is not how we to make sense of Jesus but how Jesus makes sense of us. Again, the challenge is not how we make sense of Jesus but how the presence and coming of Jesus reshapes our understanding of who we are and what we are about.
The oldest and most common example in pop culture is probably Luke Skywalker. At the beginning of the first movie (Episode IV) Luke is hanging out, chafing against his existence on his uncle’s farm on Tatooine. And then, a new relationship comes into his life, Old Ben, Ben Kenobi and we are off on a journey that ends with Luke assuming a key role in the battle against the forces of darkness and discovering more about himself and what is possible than he ever thought possible.
Another example – two guys, fishing by a lake, a new person enters the scene, they talk, he says “follow me” and off they go, along the way seeing and hearing things that blew their minds – “Master how shall we feed these 5000 thousand,” “Master, you want me to walk where in this storm?” And they ended up skirting the Roman authorities and hearing the most unlikely of proclamations, at least for one, “upon you I will build my church.” Come on!
Another exercise from this church meeting drawn from the writing of CS Lewis. There are three doors, behind door #1 lies a tiger. How would you prepare? How would you feel about going in? Behind door #2 lies a ghost. How would you prepare? How would you feel about going in? And behind Door #3 is God. How would you prepare? How would you feel about going in? Being a trained church professional and alert that the language of the meeting up to then had been of a loving, gentle supportive God, I knew the right answer. But, between you and I, much of the time I think I might choose Door #1, the tiger. I might get roughed up and scratched, even worse; but when you’re in the same room as the one who created the angels, what long cherished or held images might suffer?
Transformation, learning to see with new eyes can be very disruptive!
Excuses honed through long use and practice can’t stand the heat and the light of the presence of God. At least with the tiger or the ghost I might still be able to ask the smaller questions “Will we get free Wi-Fi?” (for those of you who have read the front page article of the bulletin). Being in the presence of God, being enlisted by God to be part of the cosmic struggle, to have my innermost name changed to Beloved, to have my purpose in life defined not by what do I want to do with my life but by that for what has God gifted me and called me, that’s a different deal.
In some ways, during Christmas we blow right by the stories of Mary and Joseph and their encounters with the angels. But to think of it, there must have been some serious struggle going on for God to dispatch an angel to deal with it. If it took an angel to prompt Mary and Joseph to say, “OK, Let it be, let it be” it could not have been easy to see their situation from God’s perspective as opposed to that in which they had been raised, trained and in which they would live.
Some of us know this in our personal lives where we have made choices that took us down a risky, less travelled path. Even if those choices turned out well we know something of the uncertainty, the courage and the fear of those times.
For us, as a congregation, it is easy to rhyme off some statement that ‘Oh yes, God may be calling us to help birth the next chapter in the life of the church.” Really? Do we really have to? Couldn’t we just intend to do it if the chance should ever come up? Can’t we just remain preoccupied with the $20,000 or so our givings are short of budget and put the larger questions out of mind? Must we really engage a changing world, must we really understand those people and make an effort to connect, do we really have to slide over in our pew to make room for innovation? “Angel, are you sure you’ve got the right Joseph because I’m not really from here?”
An angel comes and invites us to see reality with new eyes.
Today, with Henri, we promised to raise him so he sees the world differently, so he sees himself differently, so that when he looks around at us he will see a different way to be in the world, to be a man, to live. Holy ... responsibility.
And Suzanne and David and Lotus and Pauline whom we welcome into this congregation – this is not an administrative item to acknowledge paperwork. It is a welcome to this company of those committed to living and seeing ourselves as Jesus sees us. And sometimes that will bring times of great joy and sometimes it will be a pain in the comfort zone.
Because just as there is no escape from the name God calls us – Beloved – there is no escape from how God sees us – as gifted, equipped people able to see and live differently in light of the new reality. And there is no end. If we are confined to a wheelchair, we may still offer prayer for those engaged in other ways – and that makes a difference, we may still, if only in our hearts, rail against the injustice rampant in the world or assail the gates of heaven with our lament over illness and death that come too early or pain that is too great. For some we may simply shed the tears of a hurting world and those who grieve.
The angel came to Joseph and said you’re in a different world now, the plot has changed and your role in the drama. So we gather, at this time, this 2nd Sunday of our new year, to be re-minded, to be re-formed, to have spirits an eyes re-focused so we may see the Gospel announced by the angels, hear our name and claim our call in this place, at this time in our life.
Such is the gift of the angels and this Advent time.
“Overexplanation separates us from astonishment.” Eugene Ionesco
Sermon December 3, 20110Page 1