Saturday, December 24, 2011

Awaiting the Blessed Hope

Titus 2:11-14

The other day I was asked why we’re reading from Titus 2 on Christmas Eve.   My conversation partner wanted to know what this passage has to do with Christmas.  I have to admit that on the surface it doesn’t seem to fit very well.  It doesn’t say anything about the birth of Jesus, and as far as I know it hasn’t inspired any Christmas carols, but sometimes what we see on the surface is deceiving.  When we look more closely at this passage,  we hear the announcement of “the glorious appearing of our great God and savior Jesus Christ.”   And as the letter writer declares, this is the blessed hope for which we have been waiting.  With Christ comes the grace of God that inspires and empowers us to live into the message of Christmas. 

I imagine that most of us have come here tonight expecting to be drawn into the presence of the God who Scripture says appeared to the world in the babe born in Bethlehem.  Most of us come with hearts full of joy, though some come with a mixture of emotions, hoping  to celebrate this blessed event that ushered into existence a new age of divine blessing.  It’s an expectation that inspires our singing of carols and that calls for us to faithfully observe the wonder of this child’s birth as we listen to the angels declare through song that one has come into our midst, who according to Titus 2, bringing “salvation to all people,” and educating  “us so that we live sensible, ethical, and godly lives” (Titus 2:12 CEB)  

When we read Titus 2 in light of the gospel stories of Jesus’ birth and the powerful words of Isaiah as he declares that a great light shines in the darkness of our world, bringing joy to the nation, perhaps we may understand how this event changes the way we look at life and live our lives in the presence of the God who brings to the world justice and peace and grace. 

As we consider the words of this letter, my thoughts turn to Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol.  While I enjoy Charlie Brown and the Grinch, this story that tells of the transformation of Ebenezer Scrooge remains my favorite extra-biblical Christmas story.  Nothing seems to catch the spirit of this season better than this tale set in 19th-century industrializing Britain, at a time when income inequality had reached epic heights.  Dickens used this story to open the eyes of a nation to  the plight of the poor,  the oppressed, and 
the marginalized, and invite them to respond in a way that truly reflected the Christmas story.         

If you’re like me and a fan of this story, you probably have a favorite version of the story.  Personally, I like most of them, from Mr. Magoo to Patrick Stewart, but my favorite portrayal of Ebenezer Scrooge remains Alister Sim.  This 1951 version of the story may be in black and white, and the effects may be a bit primitive, but Sim captures  the essence of a man who is cold toward humanity and who is  consumed by greed and self-centeredness.  He also captures the pure joy that comes from discovering that he has a second chance to make things right.  Through his facial expressions and the giddiness he displays as a laughs and dances and even by standing on his head in a chair, which scares the living daylights out of his housekeeper, he shows us how to respond to what I would consider to be divine grace.  But it’s not just fleeting joy, for Ebenezer Scrooge is a changed man. 

    Yes Ebenezer Scrooge goes from being a person for whom Christmas is nothing more than a “humbug,” to someone who seeks to embody the fulness of Christmas – not the Christmas of the mall, but the Christmas that is ultimately rooted in the blessed hope of God.  In the beginning, he can’t be bothered by Christmas, especially if he’s being asked to contribute to the welfare of the poor.  But, he’s also annoyed by the joy of his nephew who invites him to share in Christmas and by the desire of his lowly clerk, Bob Cratchitt, that he have Christmas Day off so he can celebrate with his family, a family that includes Tiny Tim, a boy whose joy and wisdom know no bounds, and yet whose future is dark.   

Grace appears to Scrooge in the form of a warning from the ghost of his long dead business partner, Jacob Marley, who like Scrooge, had hardened himself toward humanity, and who now bore the chains he forged in life.  Marley tells Scrooge that he’ll be visited by three Christmas ghosts, and warns him to pay attention to these revelations, so that his fate might be different.  The lessons are hard, because  Scrooge is forced to relive old and difficult memories, while coming face to face with both the joys and the difficulties of his neighbors in the present, before seeing the future consequences of his actions.  

The story of Ebenezer Scrooge isn’t pure gospel, but can we not see in it a call to embrace the transformative nature of God’s grace that comes to us in story of the babe born in Bethlehem.  The question that is utmost in Scrooge’s mind, is whether these shadows of the future can be changed?   And the answer is, as Dickens tells it, yes, the future remains open. We can turn over a new leaf and live godly lives that express the grace and love of God to the world.  
As Dickens puts it  in the closing paragraph of the story:
And it was said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well, if any man alive possessed the knowledge.  May that be truly said of us, and all of us!  And so, as Tiny Tim observed, God bless Us, Every One!
Indeed, may God bless us, everyone, as we embrace the full message of Christmas, the message that in Christ, we experience the blessed hope of God’s healing presence in our world, and therefore we can live sensible, ethical, and godly lives that express God’s love to the world.  Merry Christmas!   

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
December 24, 2011
Christmas Eve

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Nothing is Impossible for God -- An Advent Sermon

Luke 1:26-38

Do you feel the tug of Christmas, both it’s sacred and it’s secular elements, pulling at you?  Do you feel like Advent has gone on long enough, and you’re ready to move on and celebrate Christmas?  After all, the presents have been purchased and wrapped.  The Christmas dinner menu is planned  – though I should remind you that we will be meeting for worship on Christmas morning at 11:00 A.M., so plan accordingly!  If you’re traveling, all the necessary arrangements have been made, except maybe filling up the gas tank one more time.   Perhaps you’re like that child who has been poking at the presents under the tree, maybe even picking them up, trying to figure out what’s inside.  There comes a point when you just want to pick it up and rip open the wrapping paper and see what’s inside.   Yes, the excitement of the season, which has been building for some time now, has a tendency to overwhelm all this Advent talk of preparation and waiting that we’ve been hearing these past four weeks.  Are you ready to get on with it?   Well, before you answer, could you hold that thought, because I have another question: Once those presents are opened and the dinner is over, do you feel like you need something more?   The tree is still there, but the presents are gone and the anticipation of Christmas dinner has given way to a week’s worth of leftovers.  So, what’s next?  College Bowl games?  The Super Bowl?   At least from personal experience, I have to wonder if our Christmas celebrations are a bit like a sugar high.  The crash comes quickly!

Of course, we’ve not yet arrived at Christmas Eve, so you can take this all with a grain of salt (or sugar).    In the mean time, maybe it’s worth contemplating the part of Christmas that lasts well beyond the opening of the presents and the eating of Christmas dinner.  

In our gospel reading Luke takes us back to the beginning of the Christmas story, to the moment at which the angel Gabriel visits a young girl named Miriam.  Miriam, which is the Hebrew name for the person we know as Mary, was probably  twelve or thirteen – about the age of a seventh grader – when this Angel  informs Mary that God had chosen to favor her with a special calling.  She will, the angel informs her, bear a child, who  will be called the “Son of the Most High,” and who will sit on David’s throne and rule over Jacob’s house forever.  In other words, she is going to bear the Messiah of God, the one who would deliver God’s people.  

If this were you, how would you respond to the angel’s announcement?  If you were a girl about thirteen, and an angel told you that God had chosen you to be the mother of the messiah?  Would you say – wow – what a great honor?  Or, would you say, thanks for the offer, but I think I’ll pass?  

This story reminds us that God acts in unexpected ways.  It’s not that God is capricious or undependable.  It’s just that God doesn’t operate according to conventional wisdom.  Does it make sense for God to choose a young peasant girl living in a  backwater village in Galilee to be the mother of God’s messiah, the one who will sit on David’s throne and rule over Israel forever?    Furthermore, what should we make of the circumstances surrounding this birth?   Now, Luke doesn’t say much about Joseph’s feelings or concerns about the birth, but it’s likely that Joseph was at least a decade older than Mary, and in making the marriage arrangements, it’s likely that Mary’s parents would have promised Joseph that his young bride was a virgin.   So, an unplanned pregnancy would not have been welcome news either to Joseph or to Mary.  So, it’s no wonder that she asks the Angel – how is this going to work?  

Gabriel’s answer doesn’t go into the details.  Scripture is rather shy about revealing such things, but Gabriel does tell her that the Holy Spirit will come over you, and the child you bear will be holy and he will be called “God’s son.”  Whatever else is said here – Jesus is declared to be holy.  No matter what they were saying in the parking lot when Mary or Jesus walks by – this child and his birth are holy.

And if Mary needs any further proof, all she needs to do is look to her cousin Elizabeth, who had been unable to conceive a child, but is now six months’ pregnant.  Surely Elizabeth is proof that  “Nothing is impossible with God.”

As you can probably tell from the sermon title, I was attracted to this statement. Don’t you find it a rather bold statement?  Do you wonder – what does Luke want us to hear in this statement by the angel?

If you spent last Sunday afternoon attending the theology conversation with Ron Allen, which by the way, Ron really enjoyed, you would likely have wrestled with this question.  Before I had to leave, Ron pointed out that there are two poles of thought about the nature of God’s power.  On one hand there are those who believe that God is “omnipotent.”   That is, God can do whatever God wants to do.  Now this doctrine has a very long history and it’s very attractive, because it holds out the promise that if God so desires, God can do anything – from stopping a storm to healing a loved one.  It gives us confidence in our prayers.  The only problem is, God doesn’t always seem to come through.  Earthquakes and tornadoes hit, killing hundreds if not thousands.  No matter how hard you pray, our loved ones die.  And so people who believe that God is both loving and all powerful often experience a crisis of faith.  They may wonder about where God is in all of this.  And as I’ve witnessed on countless occasions, people praying for the healing of a loved, begin to wonder about their own faith.  They begin wonder – what’s wrong with my faith?

On the other hand there are those who say that God is loving and just, but God might not be all powerful.  There may be limits to what God can do.  That doesn’t mean that God doesn’t have power, it’s just that God’s power is different from what we have understood power to be.  According to Process theologians, for instance, instead of using the power of coercion, God uses the power of persuasion to draw us toward that which is good and loving.  As a result, we can be active participants in the work of God.

And so as I think about this word from Gabriel that nothing is impossible with God, these words of our friend Bruce Epperly come to mind.   He writes of Mary and Elizabeth that “ordinary people can do extraordinary things when they are open to God’s revealing in their lives, and then say ‘yes’ to God’s vision for their lives.”

“Ordinary people,” like Mary, “can do extraordinary things,” when they respond to God’s call, as Mary did when she answered God’s invitation to participate in the work of God in the world with the words: “I am the Lord’s Servant.  Let it be with me just as you have said.”   Mary answers God’s call in the same way that the prophets of old had responded.  In her receptiveness and in her faithfulness Mary becomes for us a model disciple of Jesus.

As we continue our Advent journey toward that moment when with the angels of God we can sing Gloria in Excelsis Deo, may we remember Mary’s example of faithfulness to the call of God, who often chooses what appear to be ordinary people to do extraordinary things.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan 
4th Sunday of Advent
December 18, 2011

Sunday, December 04, 2011

Making the Preparations -- An Advent Sermon

According to Proverbs you should keep an eye on nature, because you can learn important life lessons.  So if you can learn from the ants, what about the squirrels that are always running around my backyard?

Our family enjoys watching the ever-fatter squirrels scurrying across our deck and yard carrying nuts and seeds in their mouths.  While I’m not thrilled with their attempts to  plant trees in the lawn, I understand why they do this, and the show does keep us entertained.  As enjoyable as the show is, what lesson might we learn from their behavior? Is it the fact that they seem to know instinctively how to prepare for the winter long before the first snow begins to fall?  It’s just built into their systems.  They don’t seem to need any training to know that they need to fatten up in the good times and to store up supplies for the winter.   After all, they can’t drive to the grocery store if the fridge gets empty.

We humans are different.  We’re not nearly as instinctive as the squirrels, and so we need to be trained if we’re going to be prepared for life.  And the time of training seems to be getting longer over time!   One place we can probably learn how to prepare for life is through the various Scouting programs.  Now, I can’t say I was a very good Boy Scout – I was just a Second Class Scout after all – but I do remember the Boy Scout Motto:   "Be Prepared."   There are those in the room – the Eagle Scouts among us – who understand this principle much better than me, but as I remember it, a good Scout knows that you have to be prepared for whatever life throws at you.  So, armed with a Boy Scout knife, sufficient food and water, a first aid kit, and appropriate clothing, you should be okay!   And those who don’t learn the lesson – well things may not go well for them!

Of course we could all tell  “preparation” stories.  For example, if you want to do well on an exam, you might want to study for it.  Don’t do as I did on the eve of the SAT’s and stay out late having a good time with friends.  You might not get the desired scores you want.  And if you’re going to throw a party at your house, you might want to make sure that everything is planned and ready well in advance.  Oh, and if you’re going to have an event at the church that requires the involvement of the Fellowship Department, don’t wait till the last minute to inform them!  That doesn’t make for happy campers!

This idea of being prepared is a major part of the Advent season.  In our text this morning we hear a word about preparing to welcome the one who brings to the world the baptism of the Holy Spirit, through which God brings to an end this broken age and establishes God’s realm, where justice and mercy and divine love are the defining principles of life.  Of course, none of this comes naturally.  It takes the Spirit, but according to Mark God has sent a messenger into the world to help us prepare for the coming of this new realm of God, which is initiated by Jesus and continued after his death and resurrection through the presence and power of the Holy Spirit.    

Unlike Matthew and Luke, Mark doesn’t begin his story with Jesus’ birth.  Instead, he starts with John the Baptist calling on the people of Judea and Jerusalem to change their hearts and lives, so that God might forgive them.  This act of repentance is symbolized in the act of baptism, which is understood to wash away the sins of the people. But even as he preaches this message and baptizes all who come to him seeking God’s forgiveness, he also tells the people that there is one who is to come, whose sandals he’s unworthy of tying, who will baptize them not with water, but with the Holy Spirit.

John may be a crazy looking prophet, who looks a lot like one of those street preachers who stand on the corner and yells at us as we walk by, telling us we need to repent or we’ll go to hell, and who eats food that only Andrew Zimmern would enjoy, but his is the voice that calls us to prepare ourselves for the coming of God’s reign on earth.

In telling the story of John’s ministry, Mark reaches back to the words of a prophet who lived and preached to a people living in exile.  This prophet, whose words come to us through the book of Isaiah, sought to prepare a people who seem to have lost hope that they’d ever return home, that the day of their salvation was close at hand.  This prophet came to them as a voice crying in the wilderness, proclaiming:   "Prepare the Way of the Lord."   If you read Isaiah 40 you hear the prophet offer words of comfort and forgiveness, even as he calls for repentance.  The prophet also speaks of God’s faithfulness.  He says:
“The grass dries up;  the flower withers, but our God’s word will exist forever” (vs. 8 CEB).
The prophet says that even if our friends and family, our nation and community, fail us, even as the grass dries up and the flowers wither when the hot dry winds blow, God will not fail us.  When God speaks we can take comfort and confidence that God will be true to God’s promises.  These words of forgiveness and comfort would have been welcome news to this people living in exile.  The word they heard was simple – begin to prepare yourselves to go home.  Get packing, because the day of your restoration is at hand!  

Now John is a man of the desert, a person from the margins.  He’s not the sort of person we would expect to be a successful preacher, but God chooses to speak to us through him.  And according to Mark, everyone in Judea and Jerusalem went to the Jordan to be baptized.  This was a revival like no other.  But it wasn’t the final word, because John’s ministry is one of preparation.  In time he gives way to another – Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, who baptizes with the Holy Spirit.  But, interestingly enough, before Jesus takes up this ministry, he submits himself to John to be baptized.  And as he does this, Jesus receives confirmation of his calling to bring into existence the new realm of God.     As you hear this story of John’s ministry, what do you hear it saying to you?  In what ways will you prepare yourself for the transforming nature of God’s realm?  And if you’re going to put Christ into Christmas, what will be required of you?

As Fred Craddock puts it:  
Advent Pilgrims on the way to the Manger must pass through the desert where John is preaching. [Preaching Through the Christian Year, B p. 13]
In the biblical story the desert is often a place of transformation.  It was true for John, for Moses, for Israel, for Elijah, for Jesus, and even for Paul.  What is the desert for you?  And as you enter this desert what message do you hear God speaking to you through John?  What is it that needs to be laid aside so that God might be encountered in the journey we’re taking toward Christmas?

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall
Pastor, Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, MI
December 4, 2011
2nd Sunday of Advent