Sunday, December 14, 2008

Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 61:1-4, 8-11
Psalm 126 or Luke 1:47-55
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.

Isn’t it silly how caught up we get in the Christmas present race? We buy too many gifts out of duty or because we are using it to get something for ourselves. We think we have to spend so much money and buy for everyone. We are so concerned with giving something, anything, that we don’t even both buying a present. We buy gift cards. And while we might be purposeful in choosing the store, what point is there in giving a gift card to someone who will probably just give us a gift card back. That’s not much different than just handing each other twenty-dollar bills.

We are right to consider how Christmas has become too commercial and the misplaced focus on the day. I’ve heard many people talk about how they are going to cut back this year so that they can center on the real reason for the season: Jesus. The newspapers, television news and other sources of media are filled with suggestions about how to make Christmas simpler and more affordable. I’m not even sure they write new articles. They make it sound as if this is the first time anyone has thought about doing less for Christmas.

But as we consider our Christmas celebrations this year, we are reminded that gift-giving is very much a part of Christmas. The first—and most important—gift is Jesus Christ, born for our sake and salvation. The nativity story has examples of gift giving. Gift-giving was a part of the ministry of Jesus and the early church. Consider the woman with the alabaster jar of perfume, Barnabas who gave the profit from the sale of property to the Apostles and Dorcus who gave handmade robes and clothes to the poor. Our problem is not gift-giving, but our motivation for such.

The gifts that God gave were not material. In the passage from Isaiah for this week, we see the miraculous things God has promised for His people. Jesus came to accomplish these things. Jesus came to preach good tidings to those humble enough to listen. The Gospel is the greatest gift because it is eternal life for those who believe. Jesus healed the sick, but dis-ease is more than just physical health. Jesus heals our bodies and our souls. Jesus freed those who were imprisoned, not just behind bars of iron but even more so those trapped by sin and death. Jesus brought grace. He comforted those who mourn. He gave sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf and strength to the lame.

We may not be able to give physical healing to the people suffering in this world, but we can share Jesus. And we can consider our gifts more carefully. Instead of trying to get a gift that will serve our purpose, whether it is duty or because we want something in exchange, let us look more closely at those to whom we wish to give ourselves, that we might touch their hearts honestly and deeply, so that they will truly be happy.

Isaiah says, “I will greatly rejoice in Jehovah, my soul shall be joyful in my God; for he hath clothed me with the garments of salvation, he hath covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decketh himself with a garland, and as a bride adorneth herself with her jewels.” These words are echoed by Mary who says, “My soul doth magnify the Lord, and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.” Both Isaiah and Mary talk of the good news to the oppressed: the brokenhearted will be made whole and the captives will be set free. They offer hope in the midst of loss and fear.

“The Godly Stranger” is a narration that tells the story of the Nativity from the perspective of Hannah, or Anne, the mother of Mary. Written and performed by Sam Carter Gilliam, it tells about a mother facing the challenges of having a daughter like Mary. She described Mary as only a mother could, with the voice of a mother who did not understand or identify with the heart and purpose of her child. She was shocked by Mary’s pregnancy; she willingly let her daughter leave because she did not want to deal with the embarrassment and fears of having a child capable of such sin. In the end she recognized the grace in the situation and saw her daughter as living the faith that puts God first.

Though the story is not based on the biblical record, it was a wonderful story with an interesting point of view. How might we face the possibility that our child has been called to do something that seems to go against our faith and values? Would we react like Hannah, willingly letting our child walk the hard path alone, or will we praise God in the midst of a most difficult situation? Would we receive this ‘gift’ with praise or with fear?

Mary received the news with joy. She accepted her purpose in life with thanksgiving and praise. Could we praise God if we found out that we have been chosen to do the impossible? She may not have completely understood the plan. She may not have realized that her son would be brutally murdered at the end of His life, but she gave herself over to the call of God without fear or doubt. She saw her purpose and willingly faced it.

At Christmas we are faced with the shocking image that God broke into the world: not as a white haired king to rule, but as an innocent and helpless child who lived and loved and learned about the world just like you and I. Yet that infant was different. He was not just another human born into a cruel and chaotic world. He was, and is, the Word in flesh. So, while we see the image of God in the manger at Christmas, and adore the image of the baby in His mother's arms, we are reminded that the baby also came for a purpose: to glorify God in the most shocking and horrifying manner. He lived and loved and served, but He came to die.

All of God's creation was given for a purpose and as we look at the world in which we live we can see God being glorified by everything that was made. Yet, through it all God chose to redeem the world by taking on the very shape of the creature that has done the most damage—the one who was created in His image but turned away—man. God came in flesh to save the world. God chose a young woman living in Nazareth to be the vessel of this great gift. Her purpose was to bear the Christ child.

All of God's creation was given for a purpose and we are part of that creation. We may not know right now exactly what God has in store for our lives. We may never really see the purpose to which we have been called, but we are gifted to glorify God through our life, love and service. As we listen to the beloved words of Mary as she willingly accepts her calling to bear the Son, we are reminded to face every day with praise and thanksgiving to God for all that He has done, is doing and will do.

When we read the words of Paul to the Thessalonians, it seems like an impossible expectation to which we’ve been called. Yet, we are reminded of John the Baptist who was given the most extraordinary task of paving the way for Christ the Lord. Were the people ready? Too many came looking for baptism without truly understanding what Jesus was coming to do. They were ready to lift up John to be something he wasn’t. When Jesus came, they did the same to Him, expecting an earthly king rather than an eternal Savior. We are like John, sent to share the light of Christ. We are reminded in this text that we are not the light. We are simply sent to bear witness to the light.

The people wanted to know John the Baptist. They wanted to know who he was and where he came from. They were so taken by his ministry that they even wondered if he was the one for whom they had been waiting. He quickly put that rumor to rest, saying that he was not the Christ. “Well,” the people asked, “if you aren’t the Messiah, are you Elijah? Elijah was expected to return to announce the coming of the Christ. As a matter of fact, the Jewish people are still looking for Elijah’s return. They set a place for him at their Seder tables and hope that he will come soon. It was natural for them to think that perhaps John the Baptist was Elijah. John said, “No.”

If John wasn’t the Christ and he wasn’t Elijah, then perhaps he was the Prophet. In this case they were referring to the prophet described in Deuteronomy 18:15, “Jehovah thy God will raise up unto thee a prophet from the midst of thee, of thy brethren, like unto me; unto him ye shall hearken.” John emphatically denied being this Prophet, too.

Jesus refers to John the Baptist as Elijah in the gospels. John also fulfilled the description of the Prophet in Deuteronomy. John wasn’t being unduly humble by denying that he is either Elijah or the Prophet. Instead, John denies identification with those promises because he knows that the work of God’s kingdom that he has been sent to do has nothing to do with him. If he accepted the role of Elijah, or the Prophet, the people would put too much authority and power into his hands, authority and power that was not his to have. He denied those roles because it was never about him. It was always about Jesus.

The priests and the Levites were concerned about John's baptism because it was a ritual of purification for which they were responsible. John was the son of a priest, the firstborn son and a miraculous one at that. The expectation would have been for John to be a priest, dedicated to the temple and given in service to God. At the temple John would have received offerings of penance according to the Law of Moses. He would have offered forgiveness to the pilgrims that came to confess their sins. However, John was called to a different life. Instead of being a finely clothed and well received member of the religious society, John lived in the wilderness wearing camel hair rags and eating locusts and honey. Instead of receiving sinners at the temple, John went to the Jordan River to hear their confession.

John was doing the work of a priest outside the temple, both physically and in terms of authority. He was drawing great crowds and usurping their authority and threatening their positions. Yet John was not concerned about titles, riches or power. He was simply the voice crying out in the wilderness, preparing the way for the Lord. Someone greater was coming and was among them—perhaps even standing in the crowd that day. John's actions would eventually lead to his arrest and beheading, which the crowd did not recognize as the sign they were waiting to see. John’s purpose was to point to the gift.

I've never thought of John the Baptist as a particularly joyful person. As a matter of fact, I would think that living in the desert wearing camel hair and eating locusts would make me a cantankerous person. Yet, there was something about John that drew the people to his presence. He had a gift, an anointing, that made them want to listen to him and follow him to the banks of the Jordan. He must have had joy: a joy like that of Mary. In the story of Hannah, Mary left and Hannah willingly let her go. Mary ended up at the house of her cousin Elizabeth, John’s mother.

When Mary greeted Elizabeth, the child in Elizabeth’s womb jumped for joy. That child was John and we see even from before his birth that John knows the presence of the Messiah. The same joyful hope is found in the psalm for today. The psalmist recognizes that the great works of God in and through His people reveal His presence in this world. When we praise God for His goodness, the nations see His mercy and His grace. “Then was our mouth filled with laughter, and our tongue with singing: then said they among the nations, Jehovah hath done great things for them.” In our joy we are witnesses to the Lord.

There are several places in the scriptures that suggest that in our sin we should not laugh, but rather mourn. In Ecclesiastes 7:3 we hear, “Sorrow is better than laughter, because a sad face is good for the heart. The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of pleasure.” Laughter is seen in a negative light, so many go about taking life too seriously. However, throughout the scriptures, we hear about the joy of God’s deliverance. When the Israelites made it across the Red Sea, Miriam danced. When the Ark of the Covenant arrived in Jerusalem, David danced. It is very difficult to dance in celebration and joy without laughing!

It is said that laughter is the best medicine. I think that may be true, but even more so, joyful laughter shows the world the condition of your heart. Joy comes from God, and when we know He loves us, we feel the joy of His salvation. The people of God had been through tough times. They were returning to their home after exile, a home that needed to be rebuilt after tragic destruction. But they rejoiced because they remembered the saving grace of God rather than the heartache of the past. They looked to the future, to the chance to make a difference in their world. They remembered that they were God’s chosen people, and they laughed. When we know the joy of the Lord, it is impossible not to laugh. When we do, the world sees that God has done a great thing for us.

I can’t help but wonder what Paul was thinking when he wrote the guide of faithful and faith-filled living suggestions found in the epistle to the Thessalonians. “Rejoice always,” he writes. How is that possible? We have good times and we have bad times. Even Jesus wept when He was alive, it is foolish and unhealthy to ignore those feelings which are opposite of joy. Sorrow is a natural part of life and can offer healing and growth.

“Pray without ceasing.” Paul must not have had a day job. How can we spend every minute of every day in prayer? Most of us have trouble coming up with five minutes a day to set aside to talk with our Father in heaven. Oh, many of us will pray while we are doing other things: I like to pray while I’m driving and doing the dishes. But is it enough to chit chat with God while we are doing other things? Don’t we get distracted by the other drivers on the road or that stubborn grease on our pot?

“In everything give thanks.” Everything? Should I give thanks when the cats spit up a hairball on my newly cleaned carpet? How about when my checking account is near zero and I still have bills to pay? Should I be thankful when the storms flood my house or a drunk hits my car? How can I be thankful when I am afraid of what tomorrow holds?

“Quench not the Spirit,” Paul says. But do we really know when it is the Spirit talking? My church, along with many other churches, are dealing with the questions we face living in today’s world. Where do we go from here? Are those who want change speaking for the Spirit? Or is the Spirit speaking through those who believe that we should hold to traditional values? Is God speaking through that dirty, smelly stranger on the street corner preaching a message of repentance? Or is He speaking through the protesters who are marching on City Hall? Which message does He want us to hear? Should we allow those other voices continue to cause confusion in an already chaotic world?

“Despise not prophesyings.” I have to admit that I find this one especially difficult because I have experienced prophets who prophesy messages that fall far from God’s good and perfect word. They love this text. Anyone who questions the authority of their words is labeled as an unbeliever and destined for hell. Paul says to “prove all things” and yet this is often difficult. How do we prove faith? How do we prove the things of faith when there is so much in the world that seems to disprove everything we believe?

“Hold fast to that which is good.” This sounds easy, and yet how often have we lost touch with the things that are really good? Even now, as we wander through Advent, are we really paying attention? We are spending so much of our time busy with Christmas preparations—shopping, decorating, baking and wrapping—that we forget to spend time in prayer and thanksgiving. We are so worried about whether or not we have picked the perfect presents that we forget that God first gave us the perfect gift: Jesus.

“Abstain from every form of evil.” This makes sense, and we try. But how many of us can honestly say that we can abstain from every form of evil, even for a day? Remembering, as so eloquently worded in Luther’s Small catechism, that every commandment is not only a message of what not to do, but what we should do to keep our neighbor from suffering. In other words, it is not enough to obey the ‘shall nots.’ We are expected to also do the things that will make life better for our neighbor. We shall not murder or endanger or harm our neighbors, but instead help and support our neighbors in all life’s needs.

This is a great deal to ask of us. Yet, there is comfort in this passage, the greatest comfort we can be given. Paul writes, “Faithful is he that calleth you, who will also do it.” We can not uphold all these expectations. We can’t rejoice always. We can’t pray without ceasing. We can’t, or don’t, give thanks in all circumstances. It just is beyond the ability of our flesh. We will doubt what we hear, and we should question every word, until we are sure that it comes from God. Our grasp is tenuous, and no matter how hard we try will we let go of what is good and we will fall into that which is evil. But through it all, the God who calls us is faithful and He will be with us and will help us through. He will help us to rejoice, pray, give thanks, listen, accept, grasp and abstain. And He will forgive us when we fail and give us another chance to live faithfully according to His Word.

It isn’t about us. It is about God. We are going to fail. We are going to get too caught up in the commercial aspects of Christmas, buying gifts for all the wrong reasons. We’ll hang too many Christmas lights and bake too many cookies. We’ll forget to pray and we’ll get so wrapped up in ourselves that we will miss the opportunities to live, love and serve God’s creation in a way that will glorify Him. But God is faithful and He will use our gifts to His glory despite our failure to live up to the purpose for which we have been created and called.

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