Monday, December 2, 2013

Sermon - December 1, 2013: Should ‘a been Lookin’ for a Baby

Isaiah 2.1-5
Matthew 24.36-44

 [ILLUS: Pickles]
            In the Pickles comic strip on Nov 22, Earl is taking the living room apart. His wife, Opal, asks, "Are you looking for something, Earl?"
            "Yes, I am." he replies. Lifting the cushions on the chair, he is obviously hunting something.
            "What did you lose?" she asks.
            "Beats me," he says. "I lost something, but I don’t know what it is. But I'll know it when I see it."

            The next day, Earl is sitting, trying to figure it out.
His wife asks, "Did you find whatever it was you lost, Earl?"
            "Nope," he replies. "And it's kind of sad, you never really appreciate something until you lose it. And then it's too late."
            His wife is trying to figure this out." But you don't even remember what you lost."
            Earl is confident. "Yeah, but I’ll bet it was something pretty good" (3).

            Sometimes we LOOK FOR something we have lost, but, if after looking a long time without finding it, we lose interest. We might even forget what we are looking for. Sometimes we are EXPECTING something to come, but after watching a long time, if it never comes, we stop looking and lose interest in whatever we were expecting. Grumble about the commercialization of Christmas all you want. At least, the commercialized Christmas of presents and parties arrives as planned year after year; the mystical Christmas of ancient Bethlehem often seems no closer.
            We have been observing the Church’s season of Advent for so many years that many of us have forgotten what we are waiting for. The rest of us have given up the expectation that Christmas will hold anything really difference-making for us. But, we dutifully continue to look, taking the house apart, searching under the cushions in the chairs, for something about which we are no longer sure. The Bible seems mysteriously certain; but we are not even sure what is coming. What should we be looking for?
            In Matthew, Jesus has been speaking to his disciples about dark and fearful things:
+       About the destruction of the Temple;
+       About persecutions;
+       About something Jesus called, “the desolating sacrilege” standing in the Holy Place;
+       About a time when the sun will be darkened and the moon does not shine.
+       About this dark season being the time the Son of Man will appear.
Jesus concludes this worrisome list by calling for *watchfulness*. In a way, Jesus is specific; he names some events to watch for. But, in the way of oracles, Jesus is only suggestive. As the disciples hear him speaking, they have no way to know whether he is being literal or figurative, whether these events will happen immediately or only over time.
To use the language of Earl and Opal from the comic strip:
            "What exactly is going to happen?" she might ask.
            "Beats me," he says. "It’s going to happen, but I don’t know what it is. But I'll know it when I see it."

That sounds like the language of oracles to me. It is a call to be expectant, to search, to watch, but without a clear understanding of what we are expecting.

II.  I wonder what Mary and Joseph expected when the angel told them that Mary was with child by the Holy Spirit. The angel told them some high and lofty plans God had, but in the buzz of God’s request of them, I am sure it was hard to keep it straight.
            Then, what actually happened? The baby was born in a borrowed bed – a manger at that – in the dark and cold, hardly an auspicious setting, even if Mary and Joseph did stand protective watch. The angels announce the good news to the shepherds, but to this day, the shepherds are best depicted by the Charlie Brown Gang tumbling down the darkened streets of imaginary Bethlehem.
            In the “Magnificat,” Mary spoke of the people being “saved from their enemies and from the hand of all who hate us” (Luke 1.71). A lofty expectation. But far from being toppled from their thrones on the day of Jesus’ birth, the Herods and the despots continued to occupy the places of power and continued to threaten the helpless. Indeed, before long, the new family must flee for their lives because Herod is sending his soldiers to Bethlehem. Herod was one of very few who knew he should be looking for a baby.
            [B.] Mary and Joseph were not asked to prepare for the salvation of the world all by themselves, or to create the perfect environment for the Savior’s birth. It is God who has the plan, though it looks unpromising by our standards. Mary is asked only for her consent. Joseph’s role is limited to being troubled. So much for joyous Christmas expectation. The main request that God makes of them is that they place themselves in God’s hands and to give God room to work, making themselves available for all that God is doing. The result was something of a mess; their wedding was a rushed up affair without a proper reception. Caesar Augustus did not help with his ill-timed taxation. Still, Mary and Joseph approached the first Christmas on earth with a sense of expectation. What are we looking for?
            When all was ready, God came into the world as a baby – not a king at the peak of his power, not a Queen commanding her subjects, and certainly not a celebrity making fans swoon. God entered as a baby. God’s coming into our lives is like a baby’s coming; it is never exactly what we had expected. It is certain to involve complications and trouble and hard work – and maybe anguish and sleepless nights. We are not called to wrestle out of the chaos of our lives the perfect family Christmas, or the perfect spiritual moment, or even the perfection contemplative hour in which to welcome the Savior. Our expectation is more like Mary’s and Joseph’s: to wonder what we should be looking for, and then to say, “Yes,” and take what comes – confident that God is in it (2).

III. This is where the prophecies of the O.T. help us. It was Isaiah who taught us that Israel had been looking for the coming of God from long before Christ’s birth. It was Isaiah who tried to teach Earls-like-us what we should be looking for. Read Isaiah 2 with me:
For out of Zion shall go forth instruction,
            and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
4 He shall judge between the nations,
            and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
            and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
            neither shall they learn war any more.

According to Isaiah, what we are looking for is SOMEONE – someone God-sent.
            A. You know the one who is coming is God-sent because we will meet this one on the Mountain of the Lord, in the house of God. Of course, no one shall speak there except the one whom God sends. On the Mountain of the Lord, in the house which God establishes, there you will find only the one whom God will send.
            B. Notice secondly, that God, speaking through Isaiah, has a high theology of humanity. Sometimes I despair of finding humanity’s better nature; I despair that society and people can never truly BE BETTER and DO BETTER than they were 100 or 1000 years ago. The fact that our toys and our tools are more sophisticated is not the promise of a rising moral fiber. But, Isaiah sees what we do not:
3 Many peoples shall come and say,
            "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
            to the house of the God of Jacob;
that he may teach us his ways
            and that we may walk in his paths."

Isaiah sees humanity hungry to learn of God. Isaiah sees humanity hungry for the teaching which God can do and suggests that humanity is willing to follow in the teachings of the Lord – if only they will gather to learn in the place where God dwells.
            C. Finally, Isaiah points to the teaching this sent voice of God will deliver.
4 He shall judge between the nations,
            and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
            and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
            neither shall they learn war any more.
You will know the one whom God sends because this shall be the message. This shall be the teaching. We look for Santa, elves, and Mrs. Claus who speak of toys and hurrying to make the Christmas Eve deadline. God speaks of justice between the nations and junkyard swords being beaten into plowshares. Isaiah does not worry about one night of gifting; instead, he speaks of God’s beginning of peace that will have no end.
            Maybe this is what we should be looking for at Christmas.

[CONCL: - Should ‘a been lookin’ for a Baby]

In the time when Jesus was born,
Herod the King commanded armies
            Of soldiers,
            Of builders,
            Of counselors,
All guarding his rule against any challenge.
All watching for any rebel on the horizon.
He should ‘a been lookin’ for a baby.

The religious establishment pored over its sacred scrolls,
Searching for any sign of God’s promised intervention
            Into the affairs of nations.
Insisting that the only thing worthy of their attentions
            Was the piles of scrolls stored in sacred vaults.
They should ‘a been lookin’ for a baby.

Now our powerful still watch for the challengers of this age:
            The terrorist, the next election, the other party,
            The economy out of control,
            The restless oppressed of every established rule.
All jockeying around to be the next influencer,
            The next grand innovator,
            The next… well, anything at all.
We too should be lookin’ for a baby (1).

Have we given up expecting God to come at Christmas? I hope not. The joy of this season is not limited to twinkling lights and pretty carols. God still does Christmas. The problem for us is that have been looking -- but not quite sure what we are looking for. We have been expecting wonderful events to unfold -- but not quite such what events they will be. Don’t give up your looking. Don’t give up your expecting. This is God who comes. As God came in the birth of Jesus, God will come again in the return of Jesus. Maybe the problem is that we are expecting the wrong thing. Maybe we too should be looking for a baby.
1. AF, “Should ‘a been lookin’ for a baby,” Christmas, 2013
2. Pritchard, Gretchen Wolff. “Expecting,” The Christian Century, Dec 8, 1993.
3. “Pickles” comic strip, drawn by Brian Crane. Nov. 22 and 23, 2013.

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