Sermon Series: Watching for the Light

October 10th, 2011

4 Week Series

Week 1: Seeing That Everyone Is Fed

Matthew 24:32-44

The Christian world has always been fascinated with the subject of the end times. When I was a young teen, my Sunday school teacher was absolutely taken with Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth, and even sent a copy home with each of us for further study. Infected by our teacher’s enthusiasm, my brothers and I pored over the little book’s pages as if it were the latest comic book sensation. Within those pages, we were taught to believe the meaning of the end times could be discerned.

The Hal Lindsey generation wasn’t the first to find the subject of Jesus’ return alluring. During the great plague of Europe in the middle of the fourteenth century, prophets predicted Christ’s appearance within ten years. Two centuries later, Luther predicted the final conflict would align the reigning pope with the Turks against the Reformation Church. John Knox predicted 1547 was the year for Christ’s return; for others, the year was 1830 and then 1847. A New England farmer’s eschatological prediction (either 1843 or 1844) went askew but gave birth, in the meantime, to an entire religious movement: the Adventist Church. The Watchtower movement held out for 1874, then 1914. Even John Wesley weighed in—his choice was 1836.

Speculation as to Jesus’ return has been an occupation—sometimes a preoccupation—of the church from its infancy. Matthew presents Jesus as both a cultivator of such expectation and a naysayer against it. On the one hand, “From the fig tree learn its lesson” (24:32). On the other, “About that day and hour no one knows” (v. 36). Jesus clearly encourages a certain forward-leaning disposition toward God’s coming reign; the future is to be seen as trustworthy, hopeful, and true to God’s promise of redemption. Even so, there is an equally clear admonition not to go off the deep end with speculations and predictions. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “Look toward the future, but stay in the present.”

How are we to balance the “then” and the “now,” the sense of leaning forward with the sense of being grounded in the present? Walden Pond gave Henry David Thoreau much to ponder, explore, and write about. In one journal entry he made this observation of that beautifully numinous body of water: “Walden is blue at one time and green at another, even from the same point of view. Lying between the earth and the heavens, it partakes of the color of both” (Henry David Thoreau, Walden [New York: Houghton Mifflin, 1995], 172). Blue and green, partaking of the heavens and of the earth—all in the same place; Thoreau has gifted us with a metaphor for a Christian community that lives both expectant and grounded, hopeful and helpful. We are blue and we are green, we partake of heaven and earth, Christ’s promise from the future and Christ’s mandate for the present.

It is perhaps clear enough what it means to “partake” of the future hope offered by the gospel. Gospel hymns, end-times literature, and apocalyptic texts all do their part to take us there. Our own souls’ longing for redemption, echoing creation’s own “groaning in travail” (Romans 8:22 RSV), resonates with these other sources of future-leaning blue.

What about the green dimension of life—the groundedness, the helpfulness, the here-and-now dimension? What about the sensible dismissal of predictions and prognostications, which Jesus prescribes; the turning of our energies to the work of our hands over and above the wishes of our hearts?

With characteristic lyricism, at once as obscure as night and as plain as day, Jesus presents us with a parable (vv. 45-51). In it, a slave is put in charge of the master’s household while the master is away. We feel a sense of expectancy, an assumption of eventual, if not immediate, return. The “blue” aspect of faithful living has found its way into the tale. But what of the time in between? As the slave waits for the master’s return, what is expected, we might say, of the expectant? The answer is, curiously, both strikingly obvious and remarkably hidden from view; the slave is responsible for the nourishment of the others in the household. It seems that partaking of the green of earth—the present, here-and-now reality—becomes a matter of seeing that all have “partaken,” that is, been fed. As has been the case from time immemorial, it turns out that the true moral measure in the economy of life is the kitchen!

As we know, kitchens come in all shapes and sizes. There are kitchens in cozy, safe, loving homes, filled with laughter and simmering dishes and aromas by day, as quiet as a cat by night. But there are also kitchens where soup is served up to the homeless, and all hope is held in a cup.

Jesus has a most rudimentary and unglamorous prescription for keeping ourselves prepared for the coming of Christ in glory and judgment: be certain everybody is fed.

It’s worth remembering at this point that “the other great commission” of Matthew’s Gospel is found just a chapter beyond these apocalyptic pages, in Matthew 25: “Lord, when did we see you hungry, and feed you?” (see v. 44). Seeing that the hungry are fed seems to be very much on Jesus’ mind, and he wishes it to be very much on ours as well, particularly when we think about the end times. Instead of partaking of the scintillating religious science of dates and predictions, Jesus would have us ask the homelier, but far more morally relevant question, “Is everyone being fed?” And Jesus would mean by that everyone—from the least to the greatest. Warmed with a blanket? Cheered with a visit? Remembered with a card? Clothed? Hugged? Delivered from danger? Loved?

For Matthew, the operative question is not “When is Jesus coming?” but “What shall we do in the meantime?” The answer? Not fascination with the future, but attention to the now. And we begin here, at the Lord’s Table, where all are welcome, and everyone is fed.

Week 2: Turning Around

Matthew 3:1-11

Harold Beck used to tell the story of the truck driver, tired from a long day’s driving, who pulled into a lonely truck stop and sidled up to the counter. In a minute or two a waitress came out from the kitchen and said, “What’ll it be?” The truck driver said, “All I want is a kind word and a piece of apple pie.” The waitress disappeared into the kitchen and returned with a slice of pie. She set the dish on the counter and started back into the kitchen. The truck driver said, “And the kind word?” The waitress turned around, leaned over the counter, and said, “If I were you, I wouldn’t eat the pie.”

This waitress might have been related to John the Baptist, who could have been the inspiration for that line in The Black Crows’ song: “Got a head full of sermons and a mouth full of spiders.” When John opens his mouth, you can almost see the spiders crawling out: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from God’s wrath? Bear fruit that befits repentance. Even now the axe is lying at the root of a tree that bears your name. Repent!” (see Matthew 3:7-10).

Wait a minute—this is supposed to be Christmas! In the middle of a season where we’re supposed to be celebrating life and love and peace on earth, how did we get John the Baptist? If you’ve been around the Bible very long, then you know how we got him, because you know that when it comes to matters of the Spirit, before good news is ever good news, it always feels like bad news first. John has a word to give us that looks like spiders crawling out of his mouth, but by the end of the day, we may find that what he’s really offering when he warns us against eating the pie is a sustenance far more nourishing than we ever could have imagined.

That word Repent! is a strong one, isn’t it? It’s a good, solid New Testament word, but it’s also a word that, if we have some bad history with it, may leave some of us edging toward the door.

Repent means, literally, “to turn around,” and John is calling for the people who have followed him out into the wilderness to do just that— to turn their lives around. But what does that mean?

The first thing I’d suggest it means is that we take a close look at where we are in life, deciding then if change is called for. After all, if we are watching for the light of Christmas, the first thing that light will likely reveal to us is the shadows it casts around and even within us.

Calling, by definition, always requires another’s voice, and the call to change is no different. It is not, therefore, our own self-examination that is likely to be the most successful inventory of our lives. The people who love us most have the power to confront us the most honestly. Husbands, wives, siblings, parents, children, close friends—these are the only ones who care more about our deep well-being than about pleasing us, and so they hold the unique capacity to present us with “turnaround” messages that may be off-putting, but also happen to be true.

Who loves you fiercely enough to be that honest with you? And what are you giving them in thanks? A stiff neck, or a listening ear? E. Stanley Jones saw the value of those who gave him “turnaround” messages of whatever sort. He used to speak of his critics as “the unpaid guardians of my soul.” Are there any unpaid soul guardians in your life right now? Do you value them as E. Stanley Jones did his?

Perhaps there is someone telling you, “I know you love shopping and giving, and Christmas is a wonderful time for that, but would you please remember that what those you love want most from you is not your stuff but yourself?”

Maybe you are the scrooge in the bunch, spending the whole month of December in a folded-arms posture uttering your favorite saying, “Humbug!” Maybe somebody’s “turnaround” word to you is to loosen up, lighten up, open up to the possibilities of the Spirit of God working in and through the season in a way that transcends or even transforms what you may consider merely a tawdry commercial spectacle.

Maybe our way of repenting is by “turning around” some of our purchasing power, and instead of buying gifts for the gifted, purchasing blankets for a homeless shelter or books for the women’s shelter. Maybe it’s making a special gift to a special nonprofit ministry or to the church, or to a family in need. Maybe it’s giving your afternoon to the nursing home instead of the mall, volunteering on an affordable housing committee or with a tutoring team.

What is the Spirit nudging you to do and be? And who is the Spirit’s spokesperson, that unpaid guardian of your soul, whose kind word may just begin in an altogether unendearing but lifesaving way, “If I were you . . .”

John the Baptist gets up in our faces year after year, and his message is always the same: those who would know Jesus Christ in a powerful, lifetransforming way must turn away from the stale pie the world offers, seductive as it is, and choose in its place the surpassing feast that’s really worth stopping the truck for and promises to nourish us to eternal life.

Christmas is for celebrating, not scowling. If there is joy around us, it bears repeating. Maybe you need eyes for seeing and a heart for understanding that behind our materialism is a yearning to find ways to express how much we love the people who are close to us and even, perhaps, the whole world of God’s domain.

No one is better able to hold that lantern up to our lives than somebody who loves us fiercely enough to get in our faces and say what John said to the people that day: “Look at your life! Wake up and turn around!”

He gets free guardianship of his soul from those people who stare him in the face and tell him what’s wrong with him, or what he’s not getting done, or where he’s missing the mark in his work. Anyone do that to you on a regular basis? I don’t mean the call of discipleship is to buy ourselves into a frenzy, waste our time and energy hurrying and scurrying here and there just for the sake of “getting into the spirit” of Christmas.

Your words, your presence, your embrace, maybe a handwritten letter, a phone call—is someone giving you that message right now?

Week 3: Hope Is Wearing a Rugby Shirt

Matthew 11:2-11

About twenty years ago there was a popular bumper sticker that read I FOUND IT. Remember that? I don’t know where it originated, or where it has gone, but I FOUND IT was on a lot of bumpers. It was a faith statement, a declaration of identity, a witness for the gospel offered to the unchurched tailgater.

I remember driving behind someone one day whose bumper displayed the I FOUND IT sticker on one side, and on the other side a different message: DON’T FOLLOW ME—I’M LOST, TOO.

Now I know who was driving that car—it was John the Baptist. Just a week ago, in our hearing, John was declaiming large truths with utter clarity and conviction: “The Messiah is coming. . . . The mountains will be leveled, . . . the valleys raised up, . . . the crooked places made straight, . . . the rough places plain. . . . Repent and believe.” But since that time John has landed in prison, and it’s a question mark rather than an exclamation point that ends his sentences these days: “Is this Messiah the same One that I heralded before in the wilderness? The One who will lower mountains and raise up valleys? Is this Messiah the One who is to come, or shall we wait for another?”

Suddenly the knight of faith is shown to have a crack in his armor. The driver who boldly sported the I FOUND IT sticker has added another to the opposite side: DON’T FOLLOW ME—I’M LOST, TOO. Are you the One?

Maybe John became jaded by the endless procession of so-called messiahs that had been paraded through Palestine over the years, over the centuries—people claiming this, promising that. Here was one more, and so far, things hadn’t changed much.

Perhaps John was discouraged in his faith. After all, remember where he is—in prison—and why he’s there—because he did the right thing: stood up to royalty, confronted Herod about marrying his brother’s wife.

Maybe John simply had different expectations for the Messiah, expectations Jesus didn’t meet in a specific way. John was hoping for real fireworks and folderol when the Messiah came—military might, apocalyptic signs, earthmoving changes.

From his prison cell, John sent his disciples to inquire of Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11:3). Jesus responded to John’s friends by saying, “Go and tell John what you’ve heard and seen: the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, and the poor have good news brought to them” (see vv. 4-5).

Did you notice that there’s nothing in that litany of which John is not aware? Everything Jesus tells him is already common knowledge, the sort of thing John would already know. It’s as if Jesus is saying, “What you see going on around you—simple things, familiar things, loving-God-and-neighbor things—these are the signs that the Messiah has come.” No razzmatazz, no rending of the veil, no prophet ecstasies, no beatific vision—just the ordinary, ongoing work of participating in the kingdom through words and deeds.

In 1995 Jean-Dominique Bauby was at the center of the fashion world. He was the editor and chief of Elle magazine in Paris, a bright star in the constellation of glitterati in Europe and across the world. In October of that year, he suffered a massive stroke that left him paralyzed, restricting his movement to the use of his left eye. He was admitted to a rehabilitation hospital along France’s northern coast, near Calais. Bauby was fed with a spoon like a baby, shaved and bathed, wheeled around in a wheelchair, lifted into bed each night and out of bed each morning.

After months of therapy, Bauby was still able to bat only one eye; that was all. Even so, with that one eye Bauby eventually relayed his experience, “dictating” an entire book by blinking one letter at a time to an assistant. In that book, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly, he recounts a day when his therapist was wheeling him to therapy and accidentally stepped off the elevator on the wrong floor. For no reason in particular, the therapist wheeled him over to an outdoor terrace to have a look around, Bauby’s first time out of doors since his injury. From that terrace, through his one good eye, he could vaguely make out something in the distance, far beyond the hospital grounds. It was a lighthouse, situated on the banks of the Calais coast, painted in the customary wide red and white horizontal stripes. He recounts that at first glance, the thought that entered his mind was “rugby shirt,” because of the striped pattern. Only after that initial mental impression did another follow—here is a lighthouse, a beacon, a symbol of hope (Jean-Dominique Bauby, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly [New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997]).

Rugby shirt. Lighthouse. Hope. In that order. That may well be the gospel order too. That’s certainly the way Jesus presented things to John, “Go and tell John that the routine work of obedience and compassion is going forward.” As plain as they are, mundane even, these are the sort of signs, it seems, that truly usher in the kingdom; these are the signs that the Messiah has come: love is being shared, the poor are being cared for, those who mourn are being comforted, the sick are healed. A note to a friend, a phone call to a neighbor, a visit to someone we suspect may be particularly lonely right about now; an extra financial gift at the end of the year for the work of the gospel in the church and in the world. Go and tell John that at the moment hope is not wearing royal vestments, or military brass, or Superman’s cape, or angel’s wings. At the moment, hope is wearing a rugby shirt.

Week 4: The Manger of the Heart

Matthew 1:18-25

Open your Bibles to Matthew chapter 1 in the King James Version, and behold the most organized presentation of “begats” you’ve ever laid eyes on. Abraham begat Isaac, Isaac begat Jacob, Jacob begat Judah. . . . Anyone who commits the very opening pages of their story to that kind of a list appreciates order. David begat Solomon, Solomon begat Rehoboam—direction. Jechoniah begat Salatheil, Salatheil begat Zerubbabel—symmetry.

One name after another—nearly fifty in all—strung like pearls on a necklace. At the very end of the necklace are the showcase pearls, to whom all this order and symmetry leads—Joseph and Mary betrothed. These two could have made the cover of Bride magazine. They have all the right pedigrees, all the right family backgrounds. With their addition to the strand, the pearl necklace is complete.

But then something happens that is not only unforeseen but unimaginably wild. A bird flies in through an open window, and looking for some filler for its nest, spots the necklace. The little wren nips a few times at the string holding that perfected pearl necklace together, and on the last nip breaks it apart, sending the pearls bouncing and rolling in every direction, all over the floor, beneath the furniture, through the floor grate, under the door.

In Matthew, that bird has a name: the Holy Spirit. In our prayers over the baptismal font, we say, “When nothing existed but chaos, you swept across the waters and brought forth order, brought forth life.” Over the opening pages of Matthew we could say the very opposite prayer, “When nothing existed but order, you flew in and scattered things from here to kingdom come.”

Mary has turned up pregnant, and for all Joseph knows, he’s been betrayed by his betrothed. If Mary and Joseph were cover material for Bride magazine before, now they’re more likely to appear in the Enquirer. Can’t you see it? Star couple in trouble—she turns up pregnant; he attempts damage control—wedding canceled.

We can only imagine what Joseph must be thinking: a few days ago we had our whole community behind us and our whole lives ahead of us. Now it’s all over. Our engagement is broken; our covenant is broken; our hearts are broken. It is only when Joseph follows the wisdom of the ages and sleeps on it that we arrive at the real story: it is the Holy Spirit who has nibbled away at that neat, orderly necklace of past and posterity until it broke, scattering all that hope and hard work across the floor. Mary’s womb holds a life that will be Jesus, Savior. When Joseph awakens from his dream, he has a new understanding that in the chaos stirred up by the Holy Spirit, all shall be well. Doesn’t that make a great story? If only it could be confined to the pages of a book, to a moment in time two thousand years ago. If only that wren of holy mischief had died out with Joseph and Mary, but we have it on good authority that the bird responsible for all that hullabaloo back in Joseph’s day is alive and well, and is in fact looking for material for her nest. In fact, it seems that, particularly at Christmas, the bird is still surprising people by what she yanks on and tugs at.

Did you know that wrens commonly return to the same nest they built the previous year? Yet rather than settling down and nesting in a perfectly good nest, they take it apart, piece by piece, and then build another nest in the very same location—often using the very same materials they’ve just discarded. What kind of efficiency is that?

It’s God’s kind. For as good as tradition is, tradition isn’t good enough in and of itself to accomplish God’s purposes. A long, beautifully arranged litany of “begat’s” is not what God is looking for. What God is looking for is life!

You may have had a special moment of spiritual awakening last year at Christmas, or in 1987 when you were just a bright-eyed child, or way back during the depression. You may have your spiritual milestones set one beside the other like pearls, carefully arranged, and put up for safekeeping.

Just as the wren salvages material from the old nest for putting into the new one, there are elements of that earlier faith experience that find their way into the new nest. Yet, as far as God is concerned, when it comes to holy encounter, yesterday is not recent enough. God calls us every morning, every Sunday, every Christmas to open our hearts again, turn our minds again, yield up our lives again to that life-giving relationship.

Christmas becomes a natural moment for the un-nesting/re-nesting work of God, perhaps because the image of a life being miraculously planted and nurtured in Mary’s womb allows us to imagine new life being planted and nurtured within us. The wren that was at work that first Christmas is still at work this Christmas, seeking to rebuild a nest right where the old one was, right there in your very heart, and in mine. A scrap of this, a scrap of that; a twig from the family tree; a flower petal from the garden of memory; some grass from the ragged meadow of a grief still tender. A time of closeness to God we can faintly remember, and wish to know again; the goodness and blessedness and beauty of our lives.

That wren is busy in your heart and mine, dismantling and reassembling, plucking up and planting, scattering shreds of the old nest and gathering those shreds together for the new one—right in the middle of our hearts. As it begins to take shape, we may begin to notice it looks less and less like a nest, and more and more like a manger.

Adapted from The Abingdon Preaching Annual © 2006 Abingdon Press

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