Sunday, December 16, 2012

Sermon for the Third Sunday in Advent (December 16, 2012)

Wordle: Untitled

Text: Luke 7:18-28

          In the children’s book “Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day” Alexander is very upset.  One thing after another goes wrong for him.  He went to sleep the night before with gum in his mouth and woke up with gum in his hair, got out of bed, tripped over his skateboard, and dropped his sweater in the sink while the water was running.  He could tell it was going to be a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.  Later, at school, his teacher Mrs. Dickens liked Paul’s picture of a sailboat better than Alexander’s picture of an invisible castle.  At singing time, she said he sang too loud.  At counting time, she said that he left out sixteen.  At lunchtime, he discovered his mother had forgotten to give him dessert, but his friends had a Hershey bar with almonds and a jelly roll with little coconut sprinkles.  It was just one thing after another, all day long.  It was a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad day.
          Oh, dear, sweet, little Alexander.  You have no idea.
          On this Third Sunday in Advent, the Scriptures call us to rejoice.  The call to rejoice is all over our service today.  But there is not much rejoicing in Newtown, Connecticut today.  There is not much rejoicing for all of us across the country who have been touched by Friday’s tragedy.  In many and various ways – to coin a phrase – many of you know how difficult it is to rejoice when your world comes crashing down around you.
          John the Baptist had little reason to rejoice.  He was in prison.  Soon to be executed.  With doubts about the identity of the very One for whom he was sent to prepare the way.
          John was the set-up man.  Jesus was the closer.  John was the opening act.  Jesus was the headliner.  “The Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29).  “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Luke 3:16).  “He must increase, but I must decrease,” John declared (John 3:30).
          But now, imprisoned, John’s world suddenly became much smaller.  John was not only imprisoned by the walls and bars enclosing him.  He was imprisoned by doubt.  It had become difficult for him to look beyond the walls and bars enclosing him and see the big picture, understand what God is up to, for John to understand his own part in the plan.
          Our world can seem very small when our doubt, our grief, our anxieties, our addictions, our problems press down upon us.  Our world becomes very small when our sins press down upon us.  When your day ends and you go to bed, with everyone else tucked in, you are left all alone with your thoughts.  What do you think about?  What’s the condition of your conscience?
          Do you have questions like John?  “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for another?”  John’s judgment preaching didn’t seem to correspond to what Jesus was going around doing according to reports.  What happened to the baptism with the Holy Spirit and fire that John said the Messiah would perform?  Jesus was preaching about liberty to the captives and for those who are oppressed.  Did John think to himself, “Well, here I am, cousin!  How about a little help?”
          Shall we look for another?  For anyone?  Is Jesus really going to return like he promised?  Is he the kind of God who allows the greatest “among those born of women” (Luke 7:28) to linger in prison?  To be beheaded?  Is he the kind of God who can't stop terrible tragedies from occurring?  Or is this just one gigantic, cruel hoax?
          Jesus said, “Blessed is the one who is not offended by me” (Luke 7:23).  But many are.  Many are offended, trapped, scandalized by the false expectations they have of the nature of the Messiah and his work.  Many stumble and fall away from faith when they see God acting in ways they don’t expect him to act … or failing to act in ways they DO expect.
          Jesus did great miracles in his earthly ministry, bringing wholeness and healing to his fallen creation.  “The blind receive their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them” (Luke 7:22).  This is what the prophets of old said the Messiah would do when he came on the scene.  When you saw this work being done, then you could know the identity of the Messiah.  But what about the humble appearance of this one?  God in the womb of a virgin?  God in a manger?  A crucified God?  This takes eyes of faith to see and recognize God in all of this.  These are eyes, this is faith, that only God gives through his Word and Spirit.  And the Word of God through the prophets foretold all this.  Isaiah said that “the virgin will conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).  God with us.  Micah said that he would be born in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2).  In Psalm 22, David foretold that his hands and feet would be pierced (Psalm 22:16), among other details of the crucifixion.  And Isaiah explained in advance the purpose of Messiah’s suffering: “Surely he has borne our griefs and carried all our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted.  But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed” (Isaiah 53:4).
          Jesus has borne your griefs.  He has carried all your sorrows.  Enduring the results of evil and sin in this world – and that includes the evil and the sin we ourselves have committed – Jesus was stricken, smitten, and afflicted.  Bursting forth from the grave on the Third Day, Jesus proved that he conquered sin, death, and hell for you.  He proved that his death was sufficient for the forgiveness of all your sins and to give you the promise of everlasting life and resurrection when he comes again at his Second Advent.
          Imprisoned by doubt, we are liberated by the joy of Christ’s presence now and the life he gives in this world of evil and death.  “Rejoice,” says Zephaniah, “The Lord your God is in your midst” (Zeph. 3:14, 17).  “Rejoice,” says St. Paul, “the Lord is at hand” (Phil. 4:5).
          He is the one who was to come … and DID come as Mary’s Son.
          He is the one who is to come again.  On the Last Day he will return as judge of the living and the dead.  That day will be a dreadful day for those who have been scandalized by Jesus, but a joyful day for those who cling to him in repentance and faith.  Blessed is the one who does not stumble over Jesus, but rather plummets headlong into his arms of mercy.
          He is the one who is in your midst today.  With joy we listen to his Word … words we heard earlier today: “The Lord lifts up those who are bowed down” (Ps. 146:8) … “The Lord, is in your midst; you shall never again fear evil” (Zeph. 3:15) … “he will quiet you by his love” (Zeph. 3:17) … “the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus” (Phil. 4:7).
          With joy we approach the altar to eat and drink Christ’s body and blood.  Here he gives us a foretaste of the wholeness and healing we will receive in resurrection.  Until that day, he gives eyes of faith to those who are spiritually blind.  He gives legs of faith so we can walk in his ways.  He cleanses hearts that are leprous with sin.  He opens ears to hear and believe the Good News.  He raises up from the waters of baptism people who were once dead but now are truly alive in him.
          Shall we look for another?  No.  Only Jesus can soothe your hurting soul.  Only Jesus can forgive your sin.  Liberated from our prison walls, sin and doubt no longer press in upon us.  God expands our horizon.  We can look beyond the evil that we see and trust that God is still with us and acts on our behalf even in the midst of sadness and suffering.  We can look out from within the darkness and see the light of Christ.
          Will the believing families in Newtown ever be able to look out from their darkness and see the light of Christ?  Will they ever have a joyful Christmas again?  Even for the baptized, it takes time for the clouds of grief to break and to see the light of Christ clearly through tears and sadness.
          For those whose Christmas may not be so merry this year … and perhaps this includes you … this is where the message of Advent is so helpful.  Advent is all about waiting.  Watching.  Anticipating with hope and expectation.  Looking forward to the return of Jesus when finally, there will be only JOY … and no more truly terrible, horrible, no good, very bad days.

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