And I heard him murmur…
“O no, o no, not again…”
< NOTE: Leftover thoughts of Sunday’s message as encouraged by New Lifers at the 8 am worship service on 12/16/2012>
God’s peace be with you!
There are times in a preacher’s life when it doesn’t matter anymore what you thought God wanted you to say to the people today. Sunday messages are to be a weaving of ancient trustworthy thought and yet always current and useful for daily life. It’s one of the ways I believe God comes to us. Hearing the WORD! Faith, too! Pastors wrestle with the Word of God all the time. We start early in the week to get ready for the next time, some even on Sunday night, and like a good bowl of chili on the stove that ‘word’ is stirred and tended to and then because one cannot tire God out in the wrestling, that WORD begins to stir inside the preacher. Then it’s Sunday and time to preach. But, as I just mentioned… there are times in a preacher’s life when it doesn’t matter anymore what you thought God wanted you to say to the people— and today is one of those days!
I was busy this past Friday, tending to some details for Friday and mapping out the rest of the weekend when I received a text from our youngest son, Nathan. It said, “terrible things happening. I am very sad.” That’s code from kids to their parents… “turn on the TV and check out the news…” but since I was at my desktop, I switched over to see the e-news and what had happened in Newtown, CT. And it didn’t take long to stir up a reaction or to begin asking all kinds of questions and feeling helpless all at the same time. This was more than someone stomping on your foot. This was a right cross to the jaw. And then a left. And our nation was staggering looking for the ropes to hold us up.
So, how you feeling today and welcome to Advent at New Life… a time when we as a church are trying to “turn Christmas UPSIDE down” (the Christmas tree in the sanctuary is currently upside down!) And there are some catch words to help move us through this time on the way to Christmas… words from the Advent Conspiracy (http://www.adventconspiracy.org/ w/ 1000’s of other congregations around the country!) like “Worship Fully,” and “Spend Less” and “Give More” and “Love All”… words that direct us and challenge us not to have our hearts and minds reduced to putty trying to outspend Congress on gifts for family and friends this Christmas… but in fact to hold back on a gift or two and use that money to help New Life fund the water well for the people of Iringa, Tanzania…strangers to us and yet part of God’s family with us… and changing their lives forever… and I suspect… ours, too… a conspiracy that is obviously contagious…
And then there are words that are connected to the lighting of the Advent wreath… the light of God in the world, right up front and close to us telling us to “watch,” and ‘repent’ and ‘magnify’ and ‘marvel’ and for those of you who already peaked at the bulletin…today’s word is ‘REJOICE!’ Uggghhh. Arrrrggghh. What? Rejoice? Tell that to the people in Newtown, CT. Tell that to the school board there entrusted with the oversight of Sandy Hook Elementary School. Rejoice? Pastor, that’s a hard word to ingest today. Agreed.
< NOTE2: And so, I need to insert portions of the 3 biblical texts appointed for Advent 3…so for those of you who were not at the 8 am worship service at New Life last Sunday… this will help you understand why I was encouraged to share this message…this way>
“You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O Lord, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me. 2Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the Lord God is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation. 3With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.
4And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the Lord, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted. 5Sing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. 6Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”
<“4Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. 5Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. 6Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. 7And the peace of God, surpassing all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”>
“John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” 10And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” 11In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” 12Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” 13He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” 14Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”
15As the people were filled with expectation— all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah…”
So, there’s the story… rejoicing and pointing fingers… and asking questions…
It’s important to ask, ‘how can we rejoice in a time like this?’ That’s fair. There is no disregard to the prophet or to St. Paul or John the Baptizer by asking that question. But, we might be slow to suggest they might be wrong. Isn’t the Bible clear about times to live and times to die and times to dance and times to sit still and times to rejoice in laughter and times to cry? Isn’t this the time to cry? Perhaps. Terrible things happen. Sadly. This is not the first time; nor will it be the last. The question, that needs to surface here… is how will we respond to this? It’s the question asked of John the Baptizer by those who came to the river to hear him preach. And how did that go?
Well, let me try to sum up here… “the people”… all kinds of people came to see him. Ordinary folks. Religious leaders. Tax collectors. Soldiers. All kinds of people. It seems some already had stones in their hands ready to shut John up forever and that’s when he offered up the hospitable words… “you brood of vipers”… which translates out to “sons of bastards” in our American context. Not warm and fuzzy words. But, he got their attention! <NOTE3: A seminary friend once opened a sermon with the words, “Grace and peace to you father-haters and mother-haters out there” …reflecting the day’s text…and whether they were or not…Steve had their undivided attention!> And so, with all eyes fixed on John those gathered there listened intently and said with no hesitancy… ‘things are going to change… and it will have to start with you…” O happy day. More change. Most folks don’t rejoice when change is required. But, sometimes it is… changing and rejoicing.
Take the prophet for instance… Isaiah telling God’s people to… ‘shout aloud’ and ‘sing for joy!’ Will it help you to know that the prophet says this in a time when Israel is in exile? Away from their own land; away from their own homes—hauled off to a foreign country and made slaves of a foreign king? Rejoicing in a life circumstance when rejoicing is hard and at the same time a necessary thing!
Or what about St. Paul…? “Rejoice! Again, I say rejoice!” He’s the guy who tossed out the phrase, “in all things, give thanks!” Sure, dude… even when some crazed young man senselessly ends the lives of innocent children? Perhaps. Will it help you to know that St. Paul writes these words from prison? With the risk that his own life would soon end? And you know prison in the first century has no comparison to jail time now and yet Paul writes to his friends in Philippi… to let their gentleness be known and trust that God’s power and presence are certain.
And how does this all make sense? Difficult times are not new. Terrible things happen. What did I do yesterday? What did New Life Church do yesterday? The men of our church held their Bible study. So did the women. Our children and SS teachers came here to have one last rehearsal before today’s Christmas program. The men served hot dogs to all… as they have done for years. Are you going to crawl into a cave today and not watch the Texans win over the Colts? Life went on for the people of Newtown, CT when we were all scrambling after Hurricane Ike in 2008… and life will go on for us… and so we must be the ones now to rejoice as it is our role to rejoice for others when they cannot.
When the people who came to hear John the Baptizer were confronted with ‘terrible things’… they asked, “what should we do?” And how did John reply…? True repentance leads to doing good things and as the Bible says… ‘bearing fruit that lasts…”
- If you have food; share it
- If you have 2 coats; offer one to someone who needs one;
- If you collect taxes; be fair
- If you are in authority; don’t take advantage of the power granted you.
All of these actions are healthy and for the sake of others in a time when all was not so well…
So, what shall WE do? Joy comes in all kinds of packages. We have food to share and we will. We are sharing gifts with families to help them with their Christmas. We are gathering 100 Bibles and 100 blankets to give to the homeless during the 12 days of Christmas! We extend a ‘fairness,’ at the close of 2012, to all with a common response being faithful with our own ongoing personal gifts and offerings to this ministry. We will use our blessings to bless others as we share in a Christmas gift to honor the Christ child and help fund the digging of a water well in Iringa, Tanzania. We are turning Christmas upside down to honor the God who has turned sin and death on its head…and we will rejoice…because the world needs people like us in times like this to rejoice when others can’t. Terrible things happen. They will again. To us? Perhaps. But, not today. Today we will rejoice because we can and we will trust in the power of God for others to rejoice when it’s our turn and we cannot. So, people of God… “what should we do?” REJOICE!
P.S. If you have not already begun receiving e-messages or fb posts with people asking and writing letters to God, “where was God in all this?” and with God writing back… “well, what do you expect? How could I respond when I have been systematically over the years removed from school... stuff like that… you surely will… and it is this mentality that suggests God is the great puppeteer and we are all part of a big cosmic plan…with some of us the good guys and some of us not… with no free will and no freedom of choice… So, let me just say…I’m not one of the good guys. I choose to stay close to God and this church because I know what I am capable of… But, yes I am… one of the good guys! And you are both as well! That is why our own self-definition is so critical here… don’t engage in the battle with folks who point fingers…instead pray for them. Extend gentleness to them and as you go about the rest of your life include in your living forward a moment to light a candle and pray for all the children…in Newtown, your town and your own home! bg