Sunday, December 23, 2012

Help Is on the Way -- An Advent Sermon

Micah 5:2-5a

It’s been a little more than a week since news broke that more than two dozen children and adults were gunned down at a Connecticut school.  Many of us stopped to pray and possibly weep at this shocking news. In the past week or so we’ve engaged in many serious conversations about why and how this happened. The conversations will continue, because the problem of violence in our society remains unresolved. Although this is supposed to be a season of great joy, sadness continues to hover over our nation.  With Christmas just two days away, many wonder – where is God?

As we ask these questions, the prophet Micah declares that help is on the way.  Rising from the little town of Bethlehem will be a ruler, whose “origin is from old, from ancient days.”

The words “help is on the way” can be comforting and empowering. In the old western movies I grew up on, it always seemed like the cavalry, often led by John Wayne, showed up just in time to save the day.  There are all kinds of stories about heroes who arrive at just the right moment, often risking their own lives, to rescue people in danger.  That’s why we are so grateful for the First Responders in our communities.  We take comfort knowing that “help is on the way.”  Indeed, these very words, spoken by teachers, gave comfort to children, as they hid from the gunman until the police arrived.  

Micah speaks of one who will “stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord.”  His greatness will be known throughout the world, even as he brings peace to all.  Micah ministered during the eighth century BC, back when Israel and Judah lived in the shadow of the Assyrian super-power.  It was very tempting to give up hope and faith in YHWH.  Maybe the gods of Assyria were stronger.  Maybe they should take up with them and abandon YHWH.  Micah responds, telling the people to stay strong in their faith, because help is on the way.    

Although Christians down through ages have followed Matthew and read Jesus’s birth into the promise of Micah 5, we need to stop long enough to remember that Micah was speaking to his own time, when the people he ministered to lived in fear.  Before we begin to read Micah’s words through the lens of the carol “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” perhaps we can let Micah’s words speak to our own time, even as they spoke to his.

There’s a spirit of fear that grips our land.  Instead of uniting us, it divides us.  People are afraid of violence and so they  arm themselves, install cameras and increase the locks on their doors.  Fearing economic collapse, people lash out at government, business, and the other – the immigrants and the strangers in our communities.  We pull inward and become cynical.

That’s the way of Assyria, but not the way of God, the one who in the words of the Psalmist is “our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear . . . “ (Psalm 46:1-2a).   The one who, according to Micah, is coming to our aid, will represent this God to us.

If we can let Micah’s words speak to his own time, so that they can speak to our time, then it is appropriate to follow Matthew and see the coming of Jesus into the world in the light of this passage.  In Matthew’s Gospel, when the magi come to Herod seeking directions to the birthplace of the king whose birth is foretold in the stars, Herod’s religious advisors point to Micah’s promise.  We’ll talk a bit more about this in a couple of weeks when we gather to celebrate Epiphany, but Matthew has given us permission to see Jesus as the one who will rule in Israel, who will stand and feed his flock in the strength of the Lord, and whose greatness will be known to the ends of the earth.  Yes, this one about whom Luke says the angels sing, will be the one of peace.

As we ponder the words of Micah, on this fourth Sunday of Advent, what do we hear?  What message calls out to us? Who is this one whose origin is from old?

The word that comes from Micah is a strong one.  He tells the people that God isn’t happy with them.  God’s not pleased with their worship or the way the treat one another.  He pronounces words of doom and denounces the evil deeds of the people of Israel and Judah, and yet, Micah can also offer a word of hope to the people – if they’re willing to walk in the ways of God and not the ways of the Assyrians.

Mary captures quite well Micah’s message in her song of praise to God  (Luke 1:46-55 NRSV).

“My soul magnifies the Lord,  
47     and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,  
48 for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
   Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;  
49 for the Mighty One has done great things for me,
   and holy is his name.
50 His mercy is for those who fear him
   from generation to generation.
51 He has shown strength with his arm;
   he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts.  
52 He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
   and lifted up the lowly;  
53 he has filled the hungry with good things,
   and sent the rich away empty.
54 He has helped his servant Israel,
   in remembrance of his mercy,
55 according to the promise he made to our ancestors,
   to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

Mary is grateful to God for using one like her, a young woman who is by the world’s standards poor and powerless, and yet she becomes the instrument of God’s work of salvation.  

Sometimes we think that you have to be big and powerful to make a difference – it doesn’t matter if you’re a church or a nation, the bigger the better. But, Micah knows better and so does Mary.   And we know better as well.

Consider the work of the Metro Coalition of Congregations.  This organization isn’t big or powerful, but neither is the typical congregation that participates in the MCC. Like us, most are small and some are even struggling to survive. There’s no reason why any person or group should pay attention to us, and yet we’ve accomplished some important things.  We helped push MSHDA to find new and creative ways of making available millions of dollars to people facing foreclosure.  We helped secure the passage of a bill to create a  Regional Transit Authority in Southeast Michigan.  And earlier this week the MCC joined other faith groups in Lansing, where we encouraged the governor to veto a bill that would have allowed people to carry concealed weapons into places like churches and schools.  Now the Governor may have vetoed that bill whether we were there or not, but those of us involved believe that the news we were coming to pray outside the Governor’s office helped convince him to issue the veto.

There is one coming who will reveal to us the mission and purpose of God, and the one born in the little town of Bethlehem echoes the message of Micah, that God is looking for people who will do what is good, and that is “to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” (Micah 6:8 CEB). 
It is our confession as Christians that the one who arises out of the little town of Bethlehem -- Christ the Lord – he is the embodiment of this promise.  Yes, we look for help to where  “once in royal David’s city stood a lowly cattle shed, where a mother laid her baby in a manger for his bed: Mary was that mother mild, Jesus Christ her little child.”   He is the one who will be our help in times of trouble.  In the spirit of that confession, let us walk humbly with our God, in love and in peace.

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
4th Sunday of Advent
December 23, 2012  

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Rejoice in the Lord, Always -- An Advent Sermon

Philippians 4:4-7

I was looking forward to preaching this sermon.  Not only has it been a couple of weeks since last I got the opportunity, but joy a great theme to preach on this close to Christmas.  The service itself is designed to highlight this theme.  We’ve already lit the candle of joy, and all our hymns speak of joy as well.   But, the joy of this Advent and Christmas season has been interrupted by the horrific tragedy that hit our nation on Friday.  I think that most of us are still reeling from the shock of learning that a young man entered an elementary school and killed twenty-six people, twenty of whom were small children, before turning his gun on himself.  We can’t hear a word from God this morning without acknowledging the grief and anger that wraps our nation.   

We began worship this morning listening to the voices of our children singing the Friendly Beast song.  They blessed us not only with their songs, but more importantly with their presence.  And yet, even as we celebrate their lives our hearts break for the families in Newtown, Connecticut who will spend the holidays grieving the loss of their children.   We grieve with them, as the President reminded us on Friday as he fought back tears, because  “these neighborhoods are our neighborhoods, and these children are our children.” 

    We come this day to worship with hearts broken and minds full of questions.  We want to know why this happened.  But we also want to know how we can prevent events like this from happening again.  Of course, acts of violence, with and without guns, occur every day, and too often the victims are children. 

The prevention question might be even more difficult to answer than the why question, because these kinds of questions often have political implications, making them more difficult to handle.  Debates are already starting about gun laws, mental health issues, and whether we have allowed a culture of violence to take root in our nation.  I think that all of these questions need to be addressed.  None of these conversations are going to be easy.  I know that we are not – as a congregation – of one mind on the issue of gun control.   Then there’s the mental health issue.  Because our society stigmatizes people with mental illness or mental health issues such as depression, many hide their illnesses or forgo treatment.  As for the culture of violence – why do we enjoy violent movies and video games?  Is it merely a release from feelings of aggression or does stir it up?  So, can we have calm and gentle conversations about issues that really matter to our society?    

The Metro Coalition of Congregations, in which we’re a participant, is taking up these kinds of issues.  For instance, the Health Care task force is looking at mental health issues, while the gun violence task force has been talking to people both inside and outside of law enforcement to get a handle on ways of addressing gun violence in our society, including raising questions about the recent gun legislation passed by the legislature and now on the governor’s desk.  

There’s another question on the hearts of many people and that is – where was God?  There are no easy answers to this question, but I do believe that God walks with those who grieve and will walk with us as we seek answers to these difficult questions as well as solutions to the problems that afflict our lives and the lives of those in our communities. 

So, with heaviness of heart pressing down on us this day, we hear Paul’s command:  “Rejoice in the Lord – Always!  Again, I say rejoice” This command may sound flippant and unrealistic at a moment like this, but if not now, when?   

Maybe the reason why we struggle with this command is that it sounds a lot Bobby McFerrin singing: “Don’t Worry, Be happy.”  That sounds too much like living with your head in the clouds and seems to ignore the enormity of the problems that  press in on us, whether it’s a fiscal cliff or struggles with illness, injury, or the loss of a job.  When we read a passage like this, we want to ask – How do you find joy in the midst of all of life’s concerns?  

Perhaps we can find the answer in the message of Advent. This message is one of anticipation and expectation.  Advent points us toward the coming reign of God. Although, it’s difficult to find joy when we get stuck living in the past or when present realities weigh us down, Advent challenges us to lift up our eyes and behold the work of God in our midst.  As our opening hymn declares:  

Christians all, your Lord is coming, drawing near in holy birth.  Ring the bells and sound the trumpets. Let your music fill the earth.
Rejoice because hope abounds, even in the midst of moments like this because we can live with God’s vision as our own guiding vision.   
But, according to Paul, not only should we rejoice in the Lord, but we’re supposed to let go of our worries and our anxiety.  Now, if you’re like me, anxiety is part of life.  We all worry about things – big and small.  When we live this way, however, it’s difficult to find joy in life.  But Paul offers us a way forward.  He says: instead of worrying pray.  Bring your requests to God with thanksgiving.  Yes, lay your burdens down before the Lord, and come find your rest in Jesus.  

St. Augustine put it well – “our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.”  Augustine, like Paul, knew that freedom from worry and anxiety requires us to lay down our heavy burdens and take on the yoke of Christ, which Jesus says is easy and light.  It’s this yoke that binds us together with God (Mt. 11:28-30), and as we’re yoked together in Christ, we discover the value of community.  Too often anxiety and fear take hold when we think we’re alone, but when we’re in community we find strength to move forward in life.

Paul’s words seem to echo those of the prophet Zephaniah.  This prophet, about whom we know little, speaks to people living in exile.  They’ve suffered greatly living in a foreign land, knowing that their Temple had been destroyed.  It seemed as if they’d lost everything. Hope had long since disappeared, and yet just when everything seemed hopeless, the prophet offers this word: 
“Rejoice, Daughter Zion!  Shout Israel!  Rejoice and exult with all your heart Daughter Zion.  The Lord has removed your judgment; he has turned away your enemy.  The Lord, the King of Israel, is in your midst; you will no longer fear evil” (Zephaniah 3:14-15).    
Advent calls out to us, inviting us to rejoice because Emmanuel is near at hand.  We have hope because God is in our midst. 

Paul’s words might seem naive, but he knew what it was like to suffer.  After all, he wrote these words from a jail cell, and he wrote to a community in conflict.  They were anxious about their own future, but Paul directs them to God, telling them that their hope lay in their relationship with God. 

If they could take hold of this joy that is found through prayer, then they could live together with gentleness.  Or as Martin Luther put it:  they should be “lenient” with each other.  When we live with fear and anxiety, we find it difficult to be gentle.  Anxiety and stress cause us to become cranky with each other and then we snap at each other.  That’s what was happening in Philippi, but Paul knew a better way, and he offers us that same better way.      

Pray, Paul says, and lay your burdens down before the Lord, so that  “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (NRSV)  This peace isn’t the kind of peace that the world gives us.  It’s not an absence of conflict or problems.  Karl Barth writes that “the peace of God is the order and security of the kingdom of Christ among those who are his.”    It’s a sense of calmness in the midst of the storm.

Yes, the future may be uncertain.  The conversations we need to have as a congregation, as a community, as a nation, and even as a world might be difficult.  Indeed, they may even seem frightening.  When we think of the events of this Friday, we may feel as if all is lost.  It’s understandable to feel this way, but it needn’t define the way we live our lives.  We can go forward into the future, by taking hold of this promise, that God will bring peace to our hearts and minds, and with this peace comes joy – always and forever.