Hear the Sermon Preached
Advent Directions 3:
Come to Christmas
A Sermon for the First Congregational Church of Albany, NY
by Rev. James Eaton, Pastor
Third Sunday in Advent/A • December 11, 2016
The question is stark and pointed, coming from a friend and mentor in a dark prison cell: John sends to ask Jesus,
“Are you the one?”—the one who was to come, the one we’ve been waiting for, the one we’ve been hoping would appear and save us. It’s a very practical question to a man in a dungeon. Jesus replies in a way John must have understood; he refers to Isaiah, to a passage John would surely have known:
Go back and report to John what you hear and see: the blind receive sight, the lame walk, those who have leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the good news is preached to the poor.
Jesus tells John that a time of transformation has come. Jesus is making a difference.
Does Jesus Make a Difference?
Does Jesus make a difference in your life? Does God make a difference in your life? The central claim of our faith isn’t intangible, it is the practical historical claim that God makes a difference in the world. When Isaiah preached the word of God we heard this morning, he wasn’t taking off in rhetorical flights of abstract theology; he didn’t describe in dense philosophical language an other worldly reality. He talked about the things that were around, the stuff of every day, the places everyone knew. His audience was the exiles in Babylon. Defeated and depressed, they felt God had abandoned them. But Isaiah says in effect, look around: God is not absent, God is going to work in your future in a way that is going to transform everything you see. The desert that stands between you and home—it’s going to be a garden; it’s going to blossom. The lame—they’re going to dance. And there will be a way home, a way out of exile, a way out of defeat, a way out of depression, a way back to living with the experience of blessing.
Now his audience may have been Jewish exiles, but this is a message we should take to heart as well. “Strengthen the feeble hands, steady the knees that give way, say to those with fearful hearts, Be strong, do not fear: your God will come” Doesn’t that sound like us? I don’t know about you, but my knees get pretty shaky some days. And don’t we all have nights of fearful hearts? We fret, we worry, we grumble. We see the way things are and wonder: will it ever change? what could make it change? what would make a difference? And the grumbling and the fretting is like spiritual sandpaper: it wears us down, it wears us out. Even Christmas becomes a burden. I once heard a parody of the Twelve Days of Christmas with the refrain, “The first day of Christmas was such a pain to me.” Christmas is notorious as a time of crisis for those who are depressed, for the lonely, in other words for those Isaiah addresses: those with fearful hearts. If your heart is fearful, if you get shaky knees, this is God’s word: Be strong, be patient—I can make a difference—I will make a difference.
What Difference Is Jesus Making?
As we walk through the advent season, we ought to ask what difference Jesus is making here, among us, here, in our community. The scriptures tell us over and over again that God specializes in transformation. Isaiah offers God’s word that even nature is transformed by God: deserts become gardens. James calls on the grumpy members of his church to stop doing the natural business of grumbling about each other and learn to wait patiently—that may have taken more transformation than turning the desert green! Christmas is an emblem of transformation and within the Christmas story, the angels are the ones who announce the joy of that new creation. Of course, the Christmas angels are various. Matthew’s version of the story tells of an angel who comes to Joseph; Luke tells us about Mary’s angel. The word ‘angel’ means messenger—I once suggested to the UPS man he was an angel in this sense but he looked at me like I was crazy—and though painters focus on the details of their appearance, faith focuses on the effect of their work. Over and over again, the scriptures symbolize God’s active, transforming presence by speaking of the angel of the Lord.
The Christmas angel is pictured in many ways. Sometimes the nativity sets give us a chubby baby with a little hook to hang over the arch of the stable. Other angels stand on their own and have long robes. Some have wings, some trumpets. The shepherds are easy to picture, everyone has seen unruly boys. The angels are harder to imagine. But the angels of Christmas are the spirit of its joy, of its promise, of its presence in our lives as more than a day of parties and presents. The angels of Christmas transform the desert into a garden, the lost into the found, the hopeless into the expectant, the disconsolate into the comforted, the lame into dancers. Sometimes it only takes a moment, a quick word, an unexpected kindness, a hand helping the helpless.
Notice that the vision of joy is not just for you and I and others people. It imagines renewing all creation.
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the LORD, the majesty of our God. [Isaiah 35:1-2]
God’s joy is for all creation, it includes all creation. So often we have settled for a small joy. Coming to Christmas means lifting our eyes from what is immediately here to the whole of creation. Coming to Christmas means lifting our vision from what has been and what is to what can be, to a future in which God’s presence bursts out like trees budding in the spring. Coming to Christmas means embracing the transformation of creation and that transformation begins by believing in the possibility of our own transformation, embracing transformation is Christ.
Transformation at the Table of the Lord
Peter Storey is a former Bishop of the Methodist Church of South Africa, now retired. For forty years, he was part of sustained opposition to the apartheid government and its oppressive racist policies. He also served as chaplain to Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners on Robben Island. He is white. When a black clergyman named Ike was arrested by the secret police in a very racist town, Peter went to the prison and was taken to Ike’s cell by a white Afrikaner guard. Peter said to the guard, “We are going to have Communion,” and he took out his portable Communion elements and set them up.
When it was time to give the Invitation, he said to the guard, “This table is open to all, so if you would like to share with us, please feel free to do so.” Peter said, “This must have touched some place in his religious self, because he took the line of least resistance and nodded rather curtly. Story says,
I consecrated the bread and the wine and noticed that Ike was beginning to come to life a little. He could see what was happening here. Then I handed the bread and the cup to Ike, because we always give communion first to the ones that are hurting the most—and Ike ate and drank. Next must surely be the stranger in your midst, so I offered bread and the cup to the guard. You don’t need to know too much about South Africa to understand what white Afrikaner racists felt about letting their lips-touch a cup from which a black person had just drunk. The guard was in crisis: he would either have to overcome his prejudice or refuse the means of grace. After a long pause, he took the cup and sipped from it, and for the first time I saw a glimmer of a smile on Ike’s face. Then I took something of a liberty with the truth and said, “In the Methodist liturgy, we always hold hands when we say the grace,” and very stiffly, the ward reached out his hand and took Ike’s, and there we were in a little circle, holding hands, while I said the ancient words of benediction, “The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ, the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit, be with us all.”. . .
From that moment, the power equation between that guard and Ike was changed forever. God’s shalom had broken through at that makeshift Table.” [Peter Storey, “Table Manners for Peacebuilders,” Conflict and Communion, pp. 61–62.]
There are real Christmas angels. Some are sitting right here. They don’t have hooks in their back to be hung on the stable and they don’t carry trumpets or wear wings most of the time. They may not go in procession on Christmas morning but they are the storage house of wonder. Because of them, children at the homeless shelter will feel the joy of Christmas. Because of them, an older member will receive a special Christmas card. There is our whole work as a church in mission. There is the card sent from to a sick member. There is the homeless man who will be housed through our leadership. Isn’t this who we strive to be: messengers of God’s love. And when we are, when we are the best of ourselves, truly we are the Christmas angels.
Are you the one?
“Are you the one?”, John asks Jesus. And Jesus replies: see for yourself, see what happens when I’m around. People who can’t see the hurt around them get their eyes opened—the blind receive sight. People who can’t hear learn to listen. Good news is preached to the poor. Wherever Jesus comes, the angels of Christmas go, for the angels of Christmas are those who live in the light of the love of God. The angels of Christmas are not simply chubby babies over a rough stable: they are you and I and everyone else in whom Jesus dwells. This is what he said: love one another, love one another and you are mine. The scripture calls us the Body of Christ and so when we act in him, we are the messengers of God’s love. We are called to embody the evidence that God cares, that indeed there are angels watching over all. The old Jimmy Stewart movie, It’s a Wonderful Life, says that every time a Christmas bell rings, an angel gets their wings. It is more Biblical to say that every time we embody the Christmas angel, the bells of heaven ring in celebration. For God delights in our love, God celebrates our efforts, like a parent praising a child’s successes.
Come to Christmas
The season is full of questions: what to get someone, where to go Christmas Eve, should we mail them a card? But all of these are nothing compared to this: will you be an angel of Christmas? Will you be the sign that God’s love is present, will you be a message of Christ’s presence? Will you make that presence shine in the line at Wal-Mart, in the aisles of Toys R Us, in the halls of the mall? The season of Advent asks: will you come to Christmas? John asked Jesus, “Are you the one”—Jesus replied: Look at the difference my presence makes. Today the whole world watches and wonders: what difference does he make to you?