Sunday, December 12, 2004

The First Sermon

St. Paul’s Church in Bergen
December 12, 2004
Year A – Advent 3

Let the words of my mouth
and the meditation of our hearts
be always acceptable in your sight,
O Lord, our strength and redeemer. Amen.

All right, I admit it – this is pretty exciting! The third Sunday of Advent is finally here. Many thanks to Fr. Hamilton for giving me the privilege to preach today. Many thanks also to my family and friends – some of whom have heard me preach informally for years – for being here today. For us here at St. Paul’s this has been exciting Advent. Those of you who were here last week know we had a great day with Bishop Croneberger. His visit gave him a chance to see our beautiful, diverse and talented St. Paul’s family, and, you know, maybe more importantly, gave us a special chance to see ourselves. Pretty exciting stuff! Yesterday we had a very successful Christmas bazaar. Next week Lessons and Carols and the greening of the church.
The expectation and excitement of Christmas is building. Now, my parents and my sister are here today, so I have to admit that, as a kid, sometimes the excitement and expectation of the season got the best of me. I’m sure that many of you who didn’t know me back then will be surprised to learn that – when I was much younger – I could not resist snooping around the house for my Christmas gifts. It’s true – there I was poking around closets and peering under beds in search of what might later be waiting under the Christmas tree. If I could have figured out how to get to Santa’s workshop at the North Pole and be back home in time for dinner I would have done it.
And sometimes I actually found some of my gifts - and some that maybe weren’t mine. Now here is where I slipped up. The truth of the matter is I was outstanding at unpacking and unwrapping and, yes, even playing with gifts that hadn’t been given to me yet. But I wasn’t so good at getting those gifts rewrapped or back into boxes. No matter how hard I tried I just couldn’t cover my tracks. It didn’t take long for me to gain a reputation as a hopeless snoop who could not resist the expectation and excitement of Christmas. I was so focused on snooping around that I missed the whole point of Christmas. Having said that, I do want to go on record, though, that I’ve long since gotten over this problem. I have no idea where Sue hides my Christmas gifts.
But I have to admit even with my adult self-control this is a very exciting time. As you all know, I’m just completing my first semester at General Seminary. Some of my classmates are here today and I’m sure they’ll agree that there have been a few rough patches, but it’s truly been a life-changing, amazing experience. This season is a particularly special time for Sue and me since we arrived here at St. Paul’s on the second Sunday of Advent four years ago. Even the Prophet Isaiah adds to the excitement. Isaiah imagines a world when,
“Sorrow and sighing shall flee away.”
What an exciting vision Isaiah gives us of life in the Kingdom of God. We can almost taste that excitement and expectation in today’s Psalm – describing the God of Israel as one “who gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger.” Well, this is going to be just wonderful! I can’t take the expectation anymore – let’s get started!
But, wait; after all it is only the third Sunday of Advent. Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here. In the New Testament lesson, the author of the Epistle of James reminds us that we must be patient like a farmer waiting to harvest the crop. If the farmer goes to work too early it could be disastrous. So, OK, patience – we can wait a little while longer. It’s not Christmas yet – yes, there’s a whole lot of expectation but, no, I won’t open that package yet!
But we have to admit that today’s lessons do seem full of excitement and expectation – until we come to today’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew. What a powerful moment when an imprisoned John the Baptist sends his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” What!? John the Baptist is asking this question? John the Baptist who Luke tells us leapt in his mother’s womb when a pregnant Mary came to visit? John who recognized he was not worthy to baptize Jesus and had to be talked into it by the Lord? John who urged his followers to repent for the kingdom of heaven has come near? John “Prepare ye the way of the Lord”? Yes, that John. It seems that maybe this great prophet, the prophet of the Most High, was at least at this moment, unable or unwilling to recognize Jesus as the One. It seems like, despite everything that’s happened, he still doesn’t get it.
Whew. Well, you know I’m new at this and I’m not totally sure what to make of this situation. But, first, I think, let’s not be too hard on John. His imprisonment must have been difficult and of course we know the horrible death sentence that awaits him. But having said that, I do think there is an important Advent lesson here for us. John may have been tripped up – or if it’s not pushing it too much, imprisoned – by his own expectations.
As we have been reminded in the Gospel readings these past few Sundays, John preached about and expected a messiah who was to come with a winnowing fork – coming to separate the wheat from the chaff. John expected the messiah as a fearsome judge – judging humanity and burning the guilty in an unquenchable fire. He wasn’t alone of course, prophets long before John expected this kind of vengeful figure. But instead of a frightening judge or a warrior king like David, we have Jesus the meek and humble king. Now this was unexpected. Instead of a fighting messiah, Jesus is a messiah of healing and blessing. It’s not too hard to understand how, especially to a prophet suffering in prison, this might be a real disappointment.
If you’re looking for a warrior king go see the new movie Alexander. Alexander the Great was an interesting character to be sure, but (speaking as a former history teacher) just another in a long line of warriors whose empire lasted a few years and then vanished into dust. Yet, here we are still following Jesus the meek king – the messiah of healing and blessing, 2000 years later. And, I’m sure if our rector were up here right now he would remind us that many, many more people went to see The Passion of the Christ than have gone to see the new movie on Alexander. The messiah of healing and blessing continues his work even today. This is not what John the Baptist, you or I, or pretty much anyone else would have expected.
As Bishop Croneberger reminded us last week, Advent, of course, is a season of expectation. But expectation can be dangerous. Think about how often our expectations get us into trouble. How often do we limit or burden people with our expectations? In my years as a teacher, I’m sorry to say, I was guilty of it all too often. So many times we burden children with unfair expectations. How easy it was to size a kid up based on appearance or what I had heard – good and bad - in the faculty room. Our expectations – good and bad – can easily prevent us from seeing the real person in his or her complexity, richness, and beauty. Our expectations can reduce people to simply a job, or a level of education, or income.
Maybe even worse, we have created a seemingly endless number of labels in an effort to reduce people to our expectations – to put them in neat little boxes of our own creation. So often in our political life we throw around labels such as liberal and conservative. I don’t know about you, but at this point I don’t even know what these words mean. Sadly, we don’t realize that all our labels and expectations prevent us from seeing the truth.
Of course, we do the same thing all the time in the church – we throw around all sorts of labels - Orthodox, revisionist, High Church, Low Church, Catholic, Protestant, evangelical, and on and on. We use these expectations and labels to let ourselves off the hook; to spare us the hard work of really getting to know people (including maybe ourselves) in all our complex, messy reality. Worst of all, these narrow expectations prevent us from seeing God living in, through and around our brothers and sisters.
And, speaking of God, does anyone doubt that we try over and over again to put God in our own little boxes? We create an image of God that often conveniently resembles whoever is in charge, or maybe an image that resembles us. How often have we seen God depicted as an old man with a flowing white beard? Not very helpful - and surely a silly attempt to contain God.
All these expectations – all these attempts by creatures like us to put God who is – omnipotent, omniscient, pure freedom, creation, love and infinitely more – all these attempts by us to put God into some kind of box are doomed to fail. All of these expectations leave us in the same position as John – unable or unwilling to recognize the One that we encounter every moment of every day of our lives. Our expectations close us off to the living God right here in our midst. The 20th Century monk and writer Thomas Merton puts it this way:
“Life is simple. We are living in a world that is absolutely transparent, and God is shining through all the time.
And I would argue that often we don’t see God shining through because we are trapped by our own petty, biased and often wrong expectations of God.
Well, instead of expressing frustration like we probably would, Jesus responds to John’s disciples, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised and the poor have good news brought to them.” I don’t want to sound like we’re over at the seminary, but it’s worth reminding ourselves that today’s Gospel is found in Matthew Chapter 11. It’s important because previously in Chapter 10 the apostles had been sent out with authority to cast out unclean spirits and to cure every disease. So, it’s not just Jesus doing all this healing and blessing, but his apostles and disciples also. Through Jesus and in Jesus, God’s power has been revealed. And that power is available to the ordinary, extraordinary followers of Jesus. I guess this power is not really what John or you and I would have expected, but very real if we only set aside our own expectations and open our hearts to the power of God.
Well, John’s disciples have questioned Jesus and in return Jesus challenges them. He asks about their expectations of John. Had they followed him into the desert or down to the Jordan because he wore soft robes? No, of course not – they went to see a great prophet. All right – so it seems like they go that much right. But then Jesus must have startled them when he said, “Truly I tell you among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist.”
Hmm, it doesn’t get much better than that, does it? Jesus declares that John – John who leapt in his mother’s womb; John who somewhat reluctantly baptized Jesus; John who preached repentance; John who seems at the moment unable to recognize or understand Jesus. Jesus declares that there has never been a person greater than this John.
Well, where do we go from there? I guess the competition is over – John is number one. But then Jesus continues, “yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
So John’s the greatest ever, but the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he is.” Well, sure, yeah, I guess maybe angels would be greater than a mere mortal like John.
But, I don’t think that’s what Jesus means. The kingdom of heaven is not just someplace we go to when we die. The kingdom of heaven is the kingdom of God right here on earth. Today Jesus is telling us that the least in the kingdom of heaven could be you, could be me – right here, right now. As followers of Jesus, we could be greater than John the Baptist! It seems hard to believe; it’s not what we expected, but it’s the truth.
So, we have a job to do as followers of this meek and humble king – this Jesus, the unexpected messiah of healing and blessing. Our job is to set aside our expectations and open ourselves up to the presence of the living God. Our job is to embrace the unexpected truths that Jesus teaches us – blessed are the poor in spirit, those who mourn, the meek, those who hunger for righteousness. Blessed are the merciful, the pure in heart, the peacemakers. Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness sake. We are so familiar with these words we forget how unexpected they must have been, and if we listen, how unexpected they still are. But our job is to hold these unexpected truths in our hearts and to live out these unexpected truths in our lives.
When we focus on our expectations we miss the truth.
We here gathered this morning at St. Paul’s in Jersey City on the third Sunday of Advent 2004 can be greater even than the Prophet of the Most High – if only we set aside our expectations and open our hearts to the love and power of God that we know in Jesus Christ, the meek and humble king. We would not, could not, have expected it, but a new age has begun in Christ. Now, that’s something to be excited about!