First Presbyterian Church - Lafayette, LouisianaIsaiah 35:1-10
December 11, 2011 - Advent (3B)
December 11, 2011 - Advent (3B)
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
Expectations for events related to Christmas have reached a fever pitch in our country. Of course it was hard to get any worse than the day after Thanksgiving - a day when someone somewhere is usually trampled for the love of a TV or toaster or toy. This year a woman pepper sprayed a group of people in order to protect her children while trying to buy an Xbox.
Between the madness of our culture and the busy pace of family and friends, it all becomes somewhat of a caricature. Sometimes I’m not sure if I feel like Bugs Bunny trying to ask fleeing creatures for direction while the Tasmanian Devil approaches or Charlie Brown asking Linus if anyone knows the true meaning of Christmas.
Tonight we will celebrate a Christmas dinner as a congregation, and one thing we will do is answer Charlie Brown’s question. In the Friendship Pads you will notice some cards. Please take one and pass it down so that everyone will have one. At some point during the service, I would like you to answer the question on the card with one word or phrase. What is the true meaning of Christmas?
Is it peace? Is it love? Is it something you can hardly describe even though you know it in your bones? Although I expect several of you will write the same word or phrase as someone else, I also expect there to be some differences. All of us have different expectations for what happens at Christmas. Some of our expectations are simply unrealistic and will never get met. I think that is part of the reason so many people are sad at Christmas time.
Have you ever heard the phrase, “We are what we say we are”? It’s the idea that language begets reality. Not that I could conjure up a pony if I wanted to - more that I am more likely to get what I expect to get. Again, that doesn’t mean that I simply have to expect a plasma screen TV. It means that I can expect to be content or to feel at a loss, and most likely the one I expect is the one I will get.
Paul tells us to rejoice always. This is not a command to deny feelings of sadness and loss. This is a command to be mindful that God is active, God is present, and God is with you no matter what - working to make order out of chaos. If that is what we expect, that is what we will get! Rejoice - don’t just be joyful but express the joy of knowing that God is faithful. Do not quench the Holy Spirit! Did you know that you could do that?
You can stand like a rock in the middle of a stream and be unmoved. The river will still flow around you. God is still going to do what God is going to do, but you do not have to get involved. That is what amazes me about God. God is the very ground of all being, the original cause of all things seen and unseen, the raw substance binding the universe and giving it purpose and meaning, the source of every blessing, and the sustaining presence in every trial - and God chooses to experience reality, to express love and kindness, and to be in relationships through you and through me.
That is the core of the story of the Angel Gabriel and his visit with Mary. This story as we have experienced it today has created controversy since its inception. In the time it was written - around 70 CE - the claim of a virgin birth was a fairly common mark of distinction for Emperors and other great leaders. A leader who was the essence of truth and social order was simply conceived by truth and order. In some ways, it would have seemed odd for the Messiah to be born any other way.
That’s why it mattered to them, but it makes me wonder. Why does it matter to us? As the church developed over time, claims by others of their virgin birth became culturally irrelevant - and Mary became venerated as having been perfect and without sin even from her own conception. The Protestant tradition, however, took a different approach. As Protestants, we have always affirmed that God chose Mary precisely because she was not perfect. God chose Mary because it is God’s character to break into the ordinary, the normal, and the mundane and demonstrate the holiness that is already here.
Whether you believe in the virgin birth or affirm it because others you love believe it, I don’t think it matters to God. What matters is that we are open to becoming God bearers just as Mary was. What matters is that each of us hears this story of the Holy Spirit overshadowing Mary and say, “Here am I, the servant of the Lord. Let it be with me according to your will.”
What matters to God is that we become expectant of God’s will working in our lives. What matters to God is that our lives be recognized as pregnant with opportunities for grace and mercy to come forth!
Pregnancy is no small thing. I once proclaimed to my sister that Treva and I were pregnant. She, in her wisdom of having recently given birth, informed me in no uncertain terms that I would not be the one making space within my abdomen - amongst a list of other things - in order to make space for another living creature.
So it is no small thing to suggest that we become pregnant with the possibility of bearing God’s presence into the world. It means that we may have to rearrange things that are vital to our survival. It means that we must let go of expectations about presents we give and receive and instead be consumed by the presence of God. It means that we become expectant that God is doing something that requires our participation and is yet beyond our ability to control or manipulate.
We cannot do anything about what God has done or will do. We can only receive God’s presence, respond to God’s presence, and expect to share the very presence of God - Emanuel, God with us - with others. Sometimes we do not see what God is doing until we are in the midst of it.
Just the other day I was talking to Leigh about her need to clone herself to be in three places on Saturday, and I told her I could help. The task she assigned was to pick up a box of food and take it to a family out in Crowley. When I got to the Church Without Walls I was not surprised to see Robert Nash already there. We loaded food into 150 boxes and worked hand in hand with Christians of every stripe. I finally got my box, but I realized that I had gotten a little more.
That morning I had gotten the chance to stand before the Angel Gabriel and hear him speak of miracles beyond my comprehension. It sounded like children tearing apart a roll of bags to make room for fresh produce. It sounded like a man and a woman I met who used to be clients and now rejoice to serve God through C.U.P.S. It sounded like a woman named Casey who spoke to those needing patience while we “wasted our morning” waiting on the food truck. She said, “I don’t pray for patience anymore because I know what that gets me. Now I just pray for God’s will to be done in my life.”
You don’t have to be loading food in a truck to have the same experience that I did. In fact the most abundant opportunity is with the people you are closest to. Every one of us already has a host of opportunities to experience God in our neighbors, our friends, and our families.
Lest we forget, Isaiah tells us that when we become open to God’s presence:
A highway shall be there,
and it shall be called the Holy Way;
the unclean shall not travel on it,
but it shall be for God’s people;
no traveller, not even fools, shall go astray.
The Holy Way can be found here at the table and font. I have seen members walk this way by sharing in the abundance of our basket ministry. I have seen members walk the Holy Way by picking up trash and caring for God’s property. More importantly, I know that many of you are walking this Holy Way in ways that I will never see.
It does matter what we do as a community of faith. It does matter that our actions match our words. It does matter that we have a corporate witness that shines an even brighter light into the darkness. But without individual lives that receive, respond to, and express the love of God we cannot expect our corporate witness to do the same.
This Advent, may we become more expectant of the presence of God than anything else. If we can do that - I bet we’ll get it!
May it be so with me. May it be so with you. And to God be the glory both now and always. Amen.