Advent 2019 Resources
We have imported some Advent/Christmas resources from elsewhere on the Center for Excellence in Preaching (CEP) website, concentrating them here for your convenience.
The CEP This Week in Preaching page presents sermon starter ideas every week. Beginning in Advent 2019, the starters are on the Lectionary Year A texts.
Audio Sermons on Advent and Christmas
We also have Audio Sermons in our Archive that deal with Advent and Christmas themes. Check out especially these sermons on the CEP site:
“Year A Reflections: Introducing Advent”
Secular society knows a little something about Christmas but virtually nothing about Advent. The danger for the Church is to end up going in this same direction. In our rush to get to the manger, we are tempted to downplay—or completely ignore—the Advent themes that the Church has long believed are necessary so that we can come to the cradle of Christ in the right way.
What are some of these necessary forerunners to Christmas?
The Apocalypse: Traditionally the Church has begun the Advent Season with a look at one of Jesus’ apocalyptic sayings, which in the synoptic gospels of Matthew, Mark, and Luke come very near the end of his ministry and just prior to his arrest and crucifixion. Advent begins by looking to the end of all things as well as to the ongoing travails of history that ultimately bring us to the end.
Why? Because if Jesus is not coming again, then there is very little to celebrate in his having arrived here on earth in the first place. If a future judgment on sin is not possible, then the birth of Jesus is reduced to quaint sentimentality and is restricted to being an event long ago and far away. The first advent of the Christ is drained of meaning if the second advent is bracketed or denied.
John the Baptist: If you look at the average crèche or manger scene that people display, sometimes you find surprising figures there. The Wise Men or Magi are often included, even though it appears they visited Jesus well after his birth (and so did not rub shoulders with the shepherds). Here and there even a Santa Claus makes a manger-side appearance! But the one figure you never see in such displays—and the one figure who appears on no Christmas cards or ornaments or other decorations—is John the Baptist. Yet the Church has traditionally said that John the Baptist is the necessary Advent forerunner for Jesus.
Why? Because Jesus came to die for our sins. We need to acknowledge that we have sins in the first place to be ready gladly to welcome Jesus’ arrival. Think of it this way: if a plumber shows up at your door one day but you are unaware of any leaky pipes or other plumbing needs, you will be mystified by his presence and will likely tell him to go away. But if a plumber happens to come to your door at the very moment you just discovered a pipe had burst and was flooding your basement, you will grab him, haul him into the house, and beg for his help.
John gets us ready for Jesus by showing us our sins so that when Jesus arrives on the scene, we will seize on him as the only one who can help us. We cannot have Advent or a proper Christmas without John’s blazing message that calls us to repentance.
Giving Thanks for Matthew by Scott Hoezee
The Year A Lectionary, starting in this Advent Season, brings us to Matthew’s Gospel. First in the canonical order but probably not the first actually to be written, Matthew centers us on the amazing truth of “Immanuel,” the revelation of “God with Us.” It’s a theme that begins in the first chapter when Joseph is told that the child will be called “Immanuel” and it goes all the way through to the end of Matthew when before ascending to heaven Jesus assures his followers that forever and anon he will be “with them,” and now still also “with us.”
In between that bookending of “God with Us,” Matthew again and again seeks to startle his readers by helping them to see that although Jesus really is the fulfillment of all those Old Testament prophecies that Matthew is forever trotting out, even so the exact shape of this Messiah shakes us up, upends our expectations. Matthew begins this revelation of surprise with a family tree of Jesus that Matthew not only refuses to pretty up so as to sanitize it of any skeletons in the family closet, he even goes out of his way to highlight the skeletons: prostitutes, those who played the prostitute, foreign women, and even a man murdered to cover up a sorry little adulterous affair. Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Uriah (Bathsheba by implication) are all included as a way to say that these are both the people from whom Immanuel came and for whom he came, too.
And the hope of it all comes at the end of the family tree when we are told that a man named Joseph is not actually the begetter or father of Jesus but instead Joseph is listed only as “the husband of Mary.” This “holy irregularity” that breaks the long pattern of “the father of . . . the father of . . . the father of . . .” so typical of a genealogy tells us something else: Jesus has a real ancestry but he was finally more than his ancestors could produce.
Careful readers of Matthew will be shook up by some of that, but Matthew gives the reader no quarter to re-group. Instead he instantly brings Magi onto the scene—astrologers from Baghdad whose pseudo-science was so whacky as to be overtly condemned by both Scripture and the Jewish traditions active at the time of Jesus’ birth. Matthew is grinding an axe here: Immanuel means “God with Us” but just so you know right from the get-go: you do not get to define who the “us” is going to be! No religious tradition, no normal set of expectations by the pious of any age can trump God’s ability to determine who the “us” were who were going to be “with God” (and God with them).
When it comes to Advent, Matthew does not stack up the narratives and the songs the way Luke does nor does he compose the high-flying poetry John provides. He doesn’t skip the birth of Jesus completely the way Mark does, either, but what Matthew does give us is so bracingly fresh and surprising that those of us who preach from Matthew during Advent should most definitely not provide the congregation with the same-old/same-old of some routine, cozy celebration of Christmas. Matthew rolls up his narrative sleeves to give us a family tree studded with surprises, odd star-gazers whose religio-scientific quackery somehow led them to a correct conclusion about a new king on the earth, and then to top it off narrates a mini-holocaust carried out by the paranoid King Herod but set off by the birth of this one little child.
This is no Hallmark Christmas card. This is no tidy narrative told to children gathered in front of a sparkling Christmas tree. No, this is the story of what really happens when God comes to be with us, when Immanuel bursts onto the surface of Planet Earth.
Who in the world would ever dare predict what such an event would look like, how it would shake out, what effects it would create?
Matthew is telling us that in fact, no one could know what God’s being with us would mean.
So when we preach on it, let’s not even in retrospect act like it’s all cut and dried, neat and tidy. It wasn’t. It’s still not.
Thanks be to God for his never-ending mystery and glory!
First Sunday in Advent, December 1, 2019
Gospel Text: Matthew 24:36-44
Sermon by Leonard VanderZee: “Steady and Ready” from Isaiah 2 and Matthew 24
There are basically two kinds of shoppers. There are those who shop with the goal of a particular purchase in mind, and those for whom the shopping itself is the goal. For the first group shopping goes something like this: You notice that the elastic on your underpants is getting fairly loose, so you head over to J. C. Penney to get some new underwear. It’s like replacing worn-out equipment. You just go and do it in as little time and with as little fuss as possible. (Some would say this group is mostly men, but if you follow some men into Home Depot you’ll realize that’s too simplistic.)
For the other kind of shopper, it’s a completely different sort of experience. She (I’ll go with the stereotype here since it’s what I know personally) announces to her husband that she needs a new pair of shoes, would you like to come along. Sure, he thinks, “How much time can it take to find a pair of shoes.” But they get to the mall and she heads toward Crate and Barrel. “But love, I don’t think that store has any shoes” “Oh, I know that, but I love that store, it has so many neat things.” So he dutifully and lovingly follows along. She is looking at coffee mugs. She loves the shapes and sizes. “Don’t you love this mug?” she asks. He says, “Yes, but I don’t think it’s very comfortable to walk in.” She doesn’t think this is very funny. From the mugs it’s on to the serving dishes, and water goblets. As this goes on she seems to be gaining energy, while he feels like he’s ready to become a puddle on the floor. Suddenly he realizes what this is all about. This is not about shoes. This is not a goal-oriented activity!
Without saying that one way of shopping is best, life sometimes seems like that the latter. There’s no real goal. It’s not headed anywhere in particular. One year rolls into the next. One Christmas blends into another. We pack up and move from one house to another, but then we may move again in a few years. We’re sort of aimlessly wandering through the mall of the cosmos.
Maybe that’s why the lectionary passages for the first Sunday of Advent shock us into realizing again that there’s a goal. The universe is not a shopping mall. God is steering history toward his purposes. The whole church declares it in the creed. “I believe that he will come again to judge the living and the dead.”.
The first Sunday of Advent always calls the church to take a long hard look at the end. This is somewhat annoying for those who merely think of Advent as a segue to Christmas. What does all this stuff about Jesus’ return and warnings about the last days have to do with Christmas? Let’s just sing some carols.
But Christ’s first and second comings belong precisely together. If you can believe what Augustine calls the “absurdity” of God coming to us as a baby in a stable, then it’s not much of a reach to anticipate his second coming. Christ’s coming in glory cannot be any harder to believe than his cutting himself down to human size and snuggling into Mary’s womb.
And one coming of God demands another. If Christmas is about God’s becoming a helpless child, and about the hopes and fears of all the years meeting in Bethlehem, then he has to come again. The promise of the first advent insists on a second. Clearly, God is not finished yet. The nations have not beat their swords into plowshares, their spears into pruning hooks. The candles of Christmas are blown out by the atrocities of Darfur and the violence of Iraq without the hope of that great shout of victory and reign of peace when Christ returns.
So, we light the Advent candles again with that strange longing for something we cannot see and barely imagine, for something we certainly cannot do for ourselves.
In these verses from Matthew 24 Jesus tells us how to live in the light of the end. It seems to me he emphasizes two attitudes we need today, to be steady, and to be ready.
First. Jesus calls us to be steady. There’s a built in tension in this chapter. On the one hand Jesus talks earlier in the chapter of the signs of the end, “nation will rise up against nation, you will hear of wars and rumors of wars, and there will be famines and earthquakes in various places…” These are often called the “signs of the times.” These “signs” get people looking up obscure passages in Ezekiel and Daniel and Revelation and hauling out their charts that purport to prove that Jesus will return soon. With the Middle East in turmoil, and Iraq in the balance, and “Christian” America astride the world, it’s a boom market for eschatological speculation. Phil Jenkins, co-author of the “Left Behind” books, was quoted recently claiming his certainty that the “rapture” will come in his lifetime. Four hundred years ago, with the Turks at the doors of Europe, Martin Luther said the same thing.
On the other hand, here and elsewhere Jesus explicitly says, “but that day or hour no one knows, not even the Son….” Which leaves us with only this: It could be today; it could be in another thousand years. Whatever happens in human history, one event remains, and this one is completely unpredictable, the coming of Jesus Christ in glory at the end of time.
This whole passage is predicated on surprise. In Noah’s day they went on with life. Eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage. Then boom, the thunder claps and the rain falls. And later, people are working in the field or at home. But suddenly, one is taken, and the other is left. (What with the best-selling “Left Behind” novels, I have to explain that Jesus is not talking here about the so called “pre-tribulation rapture,” which is the official interpretation of these books. They imagine a spectacle of cars hurtling down the highway without drivers and pilot-less planes falling from the skies. The saints are carried off to heaven while the rest of the people have to go through the terrible events of the end-time. There’s no evidence in scripture that God’s people will escape any of the world’s tribulation. The “rapture” Jesus is talking about is the first great public act of his return, when those who love him, living and dead, will, as Paul says, “meet him in the skies” to usher him back to earth in glory and triumph.)
The fact that we cannot know the day or the hour means that we do not live as speculators who guess about the future. It’s not that the Bible gives us some secret code we need to crack to discover when the end will be. What Christ gives us is a promise that he will return, and it’s this personal promise that orients our lives to the future.
The point is this, don’t get all carried away with trying to predict this event. It will come as a thief in the night, when you least expect it. You will be surprised, so draw the proper consequences from that fact. Jesus calls us to be steady as we wait for the fulfillment of his promise.
But Jesus also warns us to be ready.
Think again about Jesus’ example of the time of Noah. It’s interesting that Jesus emphasizes the normality of it all. Wining and dining, marrying and being given in marriage. It’s all so normal. There will be gourmet meals, parties, people falling in love and getting married and having children right up to the cataclysmic moment of Christ’s coming. And Jesus doesn’t even indict the people of Noah’s day for beings particularly evil. They aren’t doing any terrible things in this parable. It’s not their wedding parties that’s the problem, it’s their nonchalance about God’s impending judgment.
Jesus is calling his people to look beneath the facade of normalcy, to the deep realities of life in these last days. Just as Noah was building his Ark for the flood, so we should be building arks of faith and works of mercy in the light of Christ’s return. We can so immerse ourselves in the everyday that we don’t even think about the Last Day. We can so pursue the “good” life that we neglect eternal life.
Remember the song by Carly Simon that repeated the refrain, “I haven’t got time for the pain.” If all this life means is to cram all we can in between the two dates of our tombstone, then we don’t have time for the pain. We don’t have time for the handicapped, for the sick, the hungry. We don’t have time for that difficult marriage, the patient faithful works of mercy. We don’t have time for some far-off Kingdom somewhere; we’ve only got time for ourselves.
To be ready people means that we need to live our lives in the light of this great overwhelming expectation of Christ’s coming. The question isn’t just what we happen to be doing at the moment of Christ’s return. It’s what our lives are dedicated to.
It’s not easy. A bumper sticker reads. “Jesus is coming soon. Look busy!” Beverly Gaventa says that it’s one thing to be busy if the Lord is really coming tomorrow. But when tomorrow is just more of today, and all our labors of love seem poured into a bottomless pit of human suffering, indifference, and cynicism, then it’s hard to march out the front door every day to be Christ’s disciples. Yet, even now, as we journey along, we never know when we may encounter the living Christ waiting for us around the next bend, in the next person we meet. This is but an anticipation of the great climax of all human history and longing, when the world, seemingly spinning along in ceaseless tedium, will find itself confronted with the Lord of history.
Fredrick Dale Bruner points out that in Jesus’ example of the end, the “rapture” does not take special people in special places. In both verses, people are at their ordinary work in the fields and at the threshing floor. This fact honors our secular vocations and Christians being faithful in them. So, taking seriously the Lord’s coming does not mean taking this world or our work any less seriously.
There is a kind of world-hating sentiment that can come with all the end-time frenzy. Several years ago Jerry Falwell reflected this kind of end-times fatalism when a TV commentator asked him if he was concerned about the environment. He said, in effect, that he had no concern about the environment because Jesus is coming back, and therefore we had better use it before we lose it. There is something very strange about eagerly looking for God to destroy the creation because we’re going to heaven anyway. That cuts the heart out of Christ’s first coming. God sent his Son to this world because He loves the creation. The goal of Christ’s saving death and resurrection is not to destroy the creation but to renew it. Luther was once asked what he would like to be doing when the Lord returns. “Planting peach trees,” was his wonderful, and biblically correct response.
Being ready is not to be constantly scanning the sky, or jumping out of your skin with every loud noise, or trying to penetrate the mysteries of the book of Revelation. It’s living for the Lord in faithfulness and love every day. It’s nurturing ourselves and our children in faith. It’s loving and helping your neighbor in need. It’s sharing the gospel. It’s using your skills and talents not for yourself and your own enrichment, but for God and for his Kingdom.
Remember, what we do here and now is intensely important for eternity. In her novel Gilead, Marilynne Robinson writes, ”In eternity this world will be Troy, I believe, and all that has passed here will be the epic of the universe, the ballad they sing in the streets.” What a bracing thought! Our present struggle to follow Jesus, our courageous faith, our works and our witness in this age, become the celebrated lore of the age to come.
When I was 18 I had too much I wanted to experience in this world to get too excited about the Lord’s return. That’s perfectly natural. However, I find that the older I get, the more I anticipate Christ’s return. In this disordered world there’s only true hope, only one gift that inspires real anticipation. James Nestingen puts it this way, “Christ is coming, and when he gets here it is the graves that will suffer the deepest robbery, the law that will be deprived of its claims, and the evil one who will stand empty-handed.”
Life isn’t just wandering through the mall of history. There’s a goal to it all. Just like God drew a line through history in the birth, death and resurrection of his son, a line that marks the division we call B. C. and A. D., God will draw another line that will mark the end of this age and the advent of the age to come. The end is Christ coming in glory, the creation transfigured, and shalom restored. Isaiah sings of it in his yearning prophecy, “In the days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains…and the nations shall stream to it.” (Is. 2:2) Tears will be wiped away, and the joyful shout of a renewed creation will erupt to the glory of God. “Therefore you must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour” (Matt: 24:44) Maranatha: Come. Lord Jesus, come quickly.
Second Sunday in Advent, December 8, 2019
Gospel Text: Matthew 3:1-12
Sermon by Leonard VanderZee: “Shedding Your Skin” from Matthew 3
Every time Advent rolls around we discover again that we can’t get to the manger and the stable without going past John the Baptist. There he is, out there in the wilderness, with his ragged leather clothes, and locust wings stuck between his teeth. Barbara Brown Taylor says that John always seems to her like the Doberman Pinscher of the gospel. He’s there nipping at your heels, growling for repentance. “Before he’s through our heads are pounding with vipers, wrath, axes, and unquenchable fire, when all we wanted was a chance to sing “O Holy Night.”
John may be a stark figure, and his message is surely daunting, but it’s a message that’s a necessary part of our faith: “Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven is drawing near.” The trouble is that words like sin and repentance just don’t seem to resonate very well in our culture. They have the faint musty smell of outdated words like vouchsafe and behoove. Taylor says, “Once upon a time, the vocabulary of new life included such words as sin and salvation, penance and repentance, but these days we do not seem to be able to say them without stammering. We are more comfortable with words such as sickness and health, love and acceptance. These words place no blame, impute no fault, expect no change, except the change from feeling bad to feeling better, as we are forgiven for being exactly who we are.”
What is repentance? I would guess that if I were to ask most of you that question I’d get a wide variety of answers. But I would also guess that for most of you, it leaves a slightly bad taste. It’s about guilt and remorse; it’s dragging up all our sordid sins. It’s like facing an angry parent, or a disappointed professor. So we mostly avoid it, or maybe don’t really know how to go about it. Like a computer neophyte who doesn’t know RAM from ROM, we don’t know how repentance works or what it means.
But we can’t just ignore it. Theologian Paul Tillich said years ago, that the great words of the Christian tradition cannot be replaced. There are no adequate substitutes. Avoiding them, or abandoning them diminishes our faith into something barely recognizable. What we have to do instead is rediscover their meaning. And the way to do that, says Tillich, is “the same way that leads us down into the depths of our human existence. In that depth these words were conceived; and there they gained power for all ages; there they must be found again by each generation, and by each of us for himself.”
I want to do a little digging into the depths of our souls this morning, and try to find at least one way to reconnect with the idea of repentance. Here’s something I see in lots of people, and sometimes find in myself. We feel stuck. It may be a destructive pattern we have in relationships that always seems to make them go sour. It may be an inability to focus our energy and time on anything good. For some it’s hurts from the past that continue to cast a dark shadow over their lives, with its resulting depression and helplessness. For others it’s patterns of addiction or destructive behaviors that erupt again and again, and we can’t even conceive of living without them. People live every day with pressing anxiety, deep sadness, essential boredom, self-destructive behavior, and they can’t shake it. They’re stuck.
Well, my friends, that’s sin. Sin is all those patterns, behaviors, activities, and habits that have us trapped in their vise-like grip. Sin is much more than the actions of the moment. These are but symptoms of deep down patterns, well-worn pathways we can’t seem to break out of. Sin is a name for the experience of being cut off from God, who is the source of true life and joy, and it cuts a swath of sadness, hopelessness, and brokenness through our lives and our world.
Then what about repentance? The typical picture is the “I’ve been bad” scenario, in which, like a kid caught in the act, we admit how screwed up we really are. That’s part of it. But do you think that’s what attracted all those thousands of people to hike out to John the Baptist in the wilderness? It wasn’t just the chance to admit how bad they were, it was the hope of something better. That’s the heart of what repentance means.
The word in Greek is metanoia. Meta: transformation, nous: mind. It’s the second part that’s the key here. Mind did not mean just the brain. Frederica Matthewes-Green describes it as the innermost consciousness, a region that lies below both rational thought and emotion. Paul used it this way, “be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” (Rom. 12: 1) The classic second century Christian letter called “the Shepherd” says, “Repentance is great understanding.” Repentance is not blubbering and self-loathing, it’s insight!
Greene says, “The insight is about our true condition. We begin to see our fallen inclinations the way God does, and realize how deep-rooted is the rottenness in our hearts. This awareness grows slowly, over many years, because God mercifully shows us only a little at a time. But he sees it all. His is like the eye of a surgeon, which sees through to the sickness deep within. There is no other way for us to be healed. It’s when the surgeon says, ’All we can do is keep him comfortable,’ that you’re really in trouble.”
Seeing what we really are is a hopeful thing. It’s hopeful because we’re seeing ourselves through the eyes of a God who won’t leave us where we are, but wants to transform us into being fully human, fully alive.
So many of us just feel stuck where we are. We slouch through life with a kind of lingering despair. Knowing God forgives, we are somehow unable to grasp it for ourselves. Wanting to change, we feel powerless to do it.
This feeling of being stuck in our skin is the true enemy of repentance. Repentance is the joyous, hopeful awareness that God never gives up on us, and neither must we. No matter how many times it takes, we keep telling the truth about ourselves and turning around. Brown Taylor says, “We must never say never (I’ll never recover, I’ll never get it, “I’ll never learn). Why? Because we believe in God’s goodness more than we believe in our own badness.” True repentance isn’t about me and my limited powers and possibilities, it’s about God. “[Repentance] has more faith in God’s power to make us new than in our power to mess up.”
In The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, one of C. S. Lewis’s Narnia stories, Eustace commits an act of betrayal that makes him turn into a thick-skinned dragon. (Lewis has such wonderfully imaginative ways of picturing Christian ideas.) One day he is surprised to meet up with Aslan, the Lion, before whom he feels ashamed. Aslan leads Eustace over the mountains to a lovely valley with a bubbling spring-fed pond. Eustace wants to bathe, but before he can, Aslan tells him to undress, which sounded strange since he has no clothes, until he remembers that dragons, like snakes might shed their skins. So he scratches and scratches, and the skin comes off layer after layer. It lies there beside him, the ugly gnarly dragon skin. But after peeling off several layers of skin like a banana peel, he was still all scaly and ugly. Finally the Lion said, “You must let me undress you.” “I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you”, Eustace says, “but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back to let him do it.”
“The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I’ve ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off. You know- if you’ve ever picked the scab of a sore place. It hurts like [crazy] but it is such fun to see it coming away…. Well, he peeled the beastly stuff right off—just like I’d done it myself the other three times, only they hadn’t hurt-and there it was lying on the grass: only ever so much thicker, and darker, and knobbly-looking than the others had been…Then he caught hold of me…and threw me into the water. It smarted like anything, but only for a moment. After that it became perfectly delicious and as soon I started swimming and splashing I found that all the pain had gone…. And then I saw why. I’d turned into a boy again.”
God wants to turn us into real people, whole and good and joyful, with lives filled with meaning and purpose. Repentance is letting God’s Spirit peel away the gnarly skin of our sinfulness, layer after layer. And baptism is the bracing splash of new life, along with the power of the Holy Spirit to start afresh. John points to Jesus and says, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” He will make things happen.
Like Eustace, we’re afraid of looking squarely at our sins, the habits, the memories, the emotions that keep us stuck where we are. We feel we’ll be overwhelmed by them. But, says Matthewes-Green the reverse turns out to be true. The more we see the depth of our sin, the more we realize the height of God’s love. The constant companion of repentance is not sadness, but gratitude. Seeing ourselves as we are in the light of God’s grace becomes, to our surprise, an occasion for joy. We’re free. Free not to hide any more, not to conceal or impress or make excuses for ourselves. Free to love God with abandon, and to love others without bargaining and conditions. Most of all, we’re free to turn around, because this is not merely our work, which only brings despair, but the transforming power of the Holy Spirit in our hearts.
Repentance is knowing that God never gives up on us, and so we must never give up on ourselves. Repentance means turning from the despair that we’re stuck with our past with its habits and memories, to the hope of fresh new beginning every single day of our lives.
Sermon by John Timmer: “Rearranging Our Price Tags” from Matthew 3
Our eyes naturally focus on stars — baseball and football greats, movie actors, TV personalities, famous authors, rock stars and tennis players. These are the people who dazzle us and dominate our magazines and television screens. We pour over the details of their lives: the clothes they wear, the people they love, the way they comb their hair, the breakfast cereal they eat. But examine their lives more closely and you will find that these stars are among the most miserable people on earth. Most have troubled or broken marriages. Many are heavy drinkers. Many are on drugs. Nearly all are tormented by self-doubt and are pitifully dependent on psychotherapy.
The Bible tells us to focus our eyes, not on stars, but on servants — people whose left hand does not inform their right hand what it is doing, people who do nothing from selfishness or conceit but in humility count others better than themselves, people whose attitude to life is that of Christ Jesus himself.
The Bible tells us to train our spotlight on them. It tells us to focus our eyes on people who hunger and thirst after righteousness, on people who are merciful and peacemakers, on people who are poor with the poor, weak with the weak, and sad with the sad.
The Bible, in other words, tells us to reverse all of our values, to elevate, not the rich and the attractive and the famous; but the poor, the marginal, those who mourn. Instead of pursuing happiness, the Bible tells us to pursue service. Instead of extending vengeance, the Bible tells us to extend forgiveness. Instead of hoarding material things, the Bible tells us to lay up treasures in heaven.
Danish writer Kierkegaard tells a parable of a vandal who broke into a department store one night. But rather than steal things, he rearranged all the price tags. The next morning the sales people and customers came upon one surprise after another: diamond necklaces on sale for a dollar, and cheap costume-jewelry earrings costing thousands of dollars.
The gospel is like that vandal, Kierkegaard says. It rearranges all our price tags. It calls black white and white black. It says we must love our enemies and not hate them. It says we are not to resist one who is evil but to turn the right cheek to someone who has struck us on the left cheek. It says we must give generously to people in need, but without telling a single soul that we did. It says that, though we see weakness and wrong in others, we must refrain from judging them. It says we must pluck out our right eye rather than look at someone lustfully. It says we must forgive others their trespasses and not cultivate feelings of anger and hatred. It says we must live as free as a bird and not worry about the future.
The Gospel calls the poor rich and the rich poor. It says the first shall be last and the last first. The gospel rearranges all our price tags. And blessed are those who are not offended by this rearrangement.
This is what the cry of John the Baptist cry is all about. If you wish to receive Israel’s long-awaited Messiah, John cries, you must repent. That is, you must adopt a new set of values; you must focus your eyes, not on stars, but on servants. The reason many of us don’t see the kingdom of heaven is because our eyes are focused on stars, is because we live by their values.
Shusaku Endo is one of Japan’s foremost novelists. He is also a Christian. Endo believes that Christianity has failed to make much impact on Japan because the Japanese have heard only one side of the story, have heard only the star side of the story, the beauty and majesty side of the story.
Japanese tourists visit Europe’s cathedrals and museums and bring home pictures of that glory. Japanese people hear their choirs and orchestras perform Handel’s Messiah and Bach’s Mass in B Minor and enjoy listening to that glory. Yet somehow they miss the other side, the side of God making himself powerless, the side of Christ being crucified. As Endo points out, other religions offer a powerful, eternal Divine Being; only Christianity offers a God who took the form of a servant was born in human likeness, humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even death on a cross.
Before we can receive this servant God, we must repent. Before we can receive him we must shift our eyes from stars to servants, must rearrange all the price tags, and must turn our life around so that it faces the direction from which Christ is coming to us. For if we don’t, we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven. And if we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven, we are left out in the cold.
In the September/October 1989 issue of The Door, Mike Yaconelli issues a cry similar to that of John the Baptist. The church must repent! Yaconelli announces. It must repent because thousands of people are being turned off to the Gospel, and that number gets larger every day.
What is the cause of this mass turn-off? Not Satan, not alcohol, not rock music, not drugs, not the New Age, not secular humanism. None of those things.
What turns thousands of people off to the Gospel is…Christians, specifically evangelical Christians, evangelical Christians whose eyes are focused on stars.
The greatest service we could do for God, Yaconelli says, the greatest impact we could make on evangelism in America, would be for all of us to shut up, would be for all of us to: quit talking, quit writing, quit making idiots of ourselves on television, quit building new churches, quit trying to convince the world that Christianity is true because Jesus makes us prettier, happier, thinner, wealthier, more successful, more popular, more influential, healthier, brighter and stronger.
Do we actually believe, Yaconelli asks, that the world is impressed with our fancy new churches, 12,000 in Sunday School, five services on Sunday morning, the millions who are watching on television, converted beauty queens and professional athletes, our book sales or our crusades? The world is not impressed. The world is laughing at us and the Jesus we supposedly are serving.
We are the ones who are impressed with ourselves. We are impressed with our political clout, our high profile, our visibility. Sadly, it’s all an illusion and a lie. For it is not our job at all to convince the world of how great and beautiful and successful and influential we are. Our job is simply to lift high the Christ who took the form of a servant, and humbled himself and became obedient unto death.
Repent! John the Baptist cries. Prepare yourself to receive the Christ! Prepare yourself by putting your life out of the star mode and into the servant mode! Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!
It’s significant that Jesus’ message is exactly the same as John’s. In Matthew 4:17 we read, “From that time Jesus began to preach, saying: ‘Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand.”‘ Jesus’ message is not one whit different from that of John the Baptist.
Turn your life around, Jesus announces, because here comes the kingdom of heaven! Turn your life around, for with my coming God’s rule is invading the world, with my coming God the king is returning to recapture the territory seized from him by the enemy.
This is what Jesus said 2000 years ago. This is what he is still saying today. And if you don’t hear Jesus saying that, this means that you have domesticated him, that you have pulled him down to your level.
What you must see again is that Jesus still is today what he used to be 2000 years ago: the architect of a new economy, -the originator of a new value system, the rearranger of all of our price tags.
What Jesus still is proclaiming today is: when you remain in the old economy, when you cling to the old value system, when you refuse to have your price tags rearranged, then you continue to be duped by the cheap slogans and propaganda of a world whose sole intent is to maintain its independence from God’s rule.
What Jesus still is proclaiming today is: Unless you repent, unless you turn your back on the old and follow him into the new, you have no future. Follow me! Jesus tells us. He could not have said it any simpler. These two words cut through a maze of theology. They are disrespectful of all denominational differences. They address everyone. The only way to answer Jesus’ call is with your feet.
You either get up and start following Jesus into the kingdom of God with its revolutionary value system or you don’t. You either follow Jesus into the future or you don’t have a future. Follow me! These two simple words, you might say, sum up the whole of Christianity. Christianity is not a way of talking; it’s a way of walking, of walking after Jesus into the realm where God’s values prevail.
There’s only one condition we must meet. We first must repent. We first must attune our values to Jesus’ values. For if we don’t, even though we follow Jesus, we will sooner or later become separated from him.
One of the most tragic passages in the New Testament is John 6:66, “After this, many of Jesus’ disciples drew back and no longer went about with him.” (RSV) Now all of these people, at one time or another, made a decision to follow Jesus, but to follow Jesus without first repenting. Then, when the chips were down, when it became apparent that Jesus’ values were diametrically opposed to theirs, many of the people drew back.
Therefore, repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!
Recommended Sermon on John the Baptist: “Have You Ever Heard John Preach?” By
Fred Craddock, in A Chorus of Witnesses, Long and Plantinga, eds.
Third Sunday in Advent, December 15, 2019
Gospel Text: Matthew 11:2-11
Fourth Sunday in Advent, December 22, 2019
Gospel Text: Matthew 1:18-25
Sermon by John Timmer: “God with Us” from Matthew 1
A number of years ago, somewhere in England, a schoolboy wrote these words in an essay:
Why are so many twins born into the world today? I believe it is because little children are afraid of entering the world alone.
That’s deep thinking for a schoolboy. This boy pointed his small finger at a big problem, at what some have called the chief problem of the twentieth century: loneliness. And rightly so. For even though loneliness has been a problem in all ages, it is particularly so in our age.
It is particularly our age that has tasted the bitterness of the psalmist’s words: “There is no one who takes notice of me; no refuge remains to me; no one cares for me.” (Psalm 146:4) And it is particularly during the Christmas holidays that loneliness becomes unbearable for many. Suicides go up during the Christmas holidays. So do homicides. So do family conflicts and heart attacks and natural deaths. The season of the year which is supposed to be joyous in fact lays bare the loneliness that is characteristic of so many lives.
Christmas, it seems, is a time when we want to be loved and when we need to be loved. But all too often it is a season, not of love but of loneliness, not of joy but of pain. People become sick and die or kill themselves at Christmastime because they are convinced that no one loves them, that no one cares.
This Christmas loneliness affects all of us to some extent. It’s as though we all feel that while it is a feast of intimate love, there is a possibility that we are going to be excluded from that love.
Our Scripture Lesson has something to say about this. Listen! “The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel–which means, God with us.” Immanuel! God with us!
Who picked that name? Mary and Joseph didn’t. They would never have dreamed of giving their child this name. Parents may pray that God will give them a healthy child. Parents may pray that God will bless their child. But which parents have the audacity of calling their child: “God with us”? That name clearly has to come from God himself. For it is a name in which God commits himself. It is a name in which God commits himself to be our twin…for ever; to be with us…always. Immanuel—that name sums up the heart of the gospel.
That name is Matthew’s first and last word about Jesus. Quite literally! For Matthew mentions it in the opening chapter of his Gospel, where he writes: “They will call him Immanuel–which means, God with us.” And Matthew mentions it in the closing chapter, where he quotes these words of Jesus: “I am with you always, to the end of the age.” All the rest of Matthew’s Gospel is written to fill out this opening and closing statement. All the rest of Matthew’s Gospel is written to spell out the implications of the name Immanuel. All the rest of Matthew’s Gospel is written to show what happens when God is with us.
Take Joseph, for example. This is how Matthew describes Joseph: “Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph … was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly.”
Then God speaks to Joseph in a dream. God says: “Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Joseph is not to walk out on Mary. Joseph’s behavior must not be motivated by self-respect, by concern for his own reputation. Rather, Joseph must sacrifice his reputation for the sake of Mary.
That’s the kind of thing that happens when you live within the radius of the Immanuel child. In Joseph’s case it meant that he accepted Mary with all the unpleasant social consequences that came with it. It meant that he could not doom Mary to a life of shame and loneliness.
Some of you have read Albert Camus’s novel The Plague. The scene is a city in North Africa where the plague has broken out. No one may enter the city or leave it for a long period of time. People are dying by the hundreds. Those who survive grow weary and sick at heart.
One of the novel’s characters is an old man. While looking into a shop window at Christmas, he thinks despairingly of his wife’s face. He has not seen her face for so long and probably will never see it again. The memory of her face brings tears to his eyes.
And then Camus writes these words: “Always there comes an hour when one is weary of one’s work and devotion to duty, and all one craves for is a loved face, the warmth and wonder of a loving heart.”
How true! How deeply true! All we really crave for is a loved face, the warmth and wonder of a loving heart. Loneliness is not seeing a loved face. Loneliness is not experiencing the warmth and wonder of a loving heart. What every person ultimately needs is a loved face; is the warmth and wonder of a loving heart.
And because God knows this better than anyone else, he sent his Son into our world to be that face, to be that heart. His name will be Immanuel, which means God’s loving face with us; God’s loving heart with us. From now on, in Jesus, God’s face is always there. From now on, in Jesus, the warmth of God’s loving heart is always there. Immanuel — God with us.
Last week I came across a medieval story, a story that is some 500 years old, a story especially meaningful for parents of prodigal children; for parents who wonder whether God is still with their children who have strayed from him. Once upon a time, so the story goes, once upon a time there was a girl whose name was Maria and who, for a period of seven years, lived with the devil. Maria was a very lonely girl. She felt that no one understood her, that no one loved her. She finally reached the point where she no longer cared who befriended her, just as long as somebody did. “Whether I am befriended by God or by the devil,” she said, “I really don’t care.”
Most often it was the devil who visited her. Under the guise of a handsome boy. “Allow me to comfort you,” the handsome boy said, “and I will give you money, jewels, and the most beautiful clothes.” “I’ve only one request,” the devil said. “I want you to give up your name. I can never love someone whose name is Maria.”
But Maria wouldn’t hear of it. “Give up my name? What name is more beautiful than the name Maria, the name of Jesus’ own mother?” she said.
But the devil was persistent. “Listen, my dear,” he said, “if we are to be friends, you must change your name.” “And one more thing,” the devil said. “One more thing! I don’t want you to make the sign of the cross anymore.”
“That’s no problem,” Maria said. “I promise you that I won’t make the sign of the cross anymore.” “But give up my name? Never! For the Maria after whom I am named, is a source of comfort.
Then the devil made a compromise proposal. He said: “I’ll let you keep the first letter of your name. I’ll let you keep the letter M. I’ll call you Emmeken (which in medieval Dutch is the diminutive form of M). I’ll call you Emmeken.” And so there was still one letter, one thread, which tied Emmeken to her past and to God. She held on to this one thread. Or rather, this one thread held on to her, for the strength of it was God’s, not hers. After having lived with the devil for seven years, Emmeken came to herself and said: I will get up and return to God. And she did. She got up, and returned to God.
There are so many Emmekens. In my family and in your family. Young and old Emmekens. They no longer make the sign of the cross. They no longer read the Bible or go to church. A very thin thread still binds them to God. But the strength of that thread, remember, is God’s. If it weren’t for God, that thread would break. Immanuel–God with us. God holding on to us. God not letting go of us.
PRAYER: Lord, we know the words of the Christmas story. Now teach us the wonder and mystery of it. Break through our familiarity with the story and make us stand amazed. For Jesus’ sake. Amen.
Christmas Day, December 25, 2019
Gospel Text: John 1:1-14 or Luke 2:1-14
Christmas Eve Meditation by Leonard VanderZee, “Christmas” from Luke 2:1-7
We can hear this story over and over again, and never really get tired of it. Our imagination takes over and we see the scene with our mind’s eye. Mary and Joseph, tired, exhausted after their long journey. We can smell the stable, that pungent mixture of dung and hay. We can hear the animals bleat and cackle and moo. We picture a woman in the sweet distress of childbirth, her heaving sighs, her groans of pain. We see the little baby. all red and wrinkled, olive skinned, thick dark curly hair, but a face that looks like Winston Churchill, as all babies do. We watch him at his mother’s breast, sucking hungrily on those first rich drops of colostrum. We see his eyelids flutter and close, as the breast slips away, and he sleeps. We see them lay him in a feeding trough, and clean up after the birth. We see the shepherds peeking in by the light of a fire, rough men, wrinkled by wind and sun, a little smelly, eyes filled with awe and wonder.
We’d love the story anyway, but we especially love it because it’s the story of God coming to earth in love. It’s the story of God taking up residence in a barn, and being cradled by human hands. It’s the story of infinite, powerful…vulnerable love.
C. S. Lewis said, “To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything; and your heart will certainly be wrung; and possibly be broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact, you must give your heart to no one. . . . It will not he broken; it will become unbreakable impenetrable, irredeemable….The only place outside Heaven where you can be perfectly safe from all the dangers and perturbations of love is Hell.”
One who loves must be willing to accept its vulnerability. We’ve all had these experiences. You confess to someone your faults, your sins. You were miserable, but at least your faults were known to you alone. Now someone else knows. It’s a great relief, but it makes you very vulnerable. You shed some tears that are furtively wiped away, just a few seconds too late, and another person sees, and knows the hurt. You have exposed your wounded heart. Or perhaps you remember the first time someone said, “I love you”, and at that moment your poise is shattered, your defenses are down, and you are utterly vulnerable.
Romantic love is dazzling in its wild desire and deep vulnerability. But parental love wins the prize– for vulnerability—and for sheer endurance. Mothers feel this especially. It begins in pregnancy as another person literally takes over your body, hording, demanding it its nutrients, making a home for himself where none existed. And then, the child signals it’s time to be born.
Suddenly there she is, this bloody, hunched, screaming, beautiful baby. You ache with a love you’ve never felt before. This child owns you; you don’t own him. Your lives are forever meshed, tied, locked together. As a young mother in the congregation told me recently, looking at her little baby, “I never knew I could love anyone so much.”
Yes, love makes us vulnerable. And the same is true for God. It’s especially this parental love that lets us see just a little bit into the heart of God. Like all love, even God’s love involves risk and makes him vulnerable in a peculiar way. God is the great, almighty, and holy God. God, in himself, is the one person in all the universe who is by nature utterly untouchable, utterly self-sufficient. He doesn’t need anything. He is insulated, invulnerable in heaven’s glory.
But God is love, and that means that even God’s love makes him vulnerable. We see it already on the pages of the Old Testament. God makes a covenant with his people. He ties himself with bonds of love to Israel. “I will be your God and you will be my people.” But time after time, they turn their backs. The prophets portray Israel as God’s child who turns away and treats Jahweh with contempt, following after other gods. The prophets do not hesitate to describe God having that peculiar mixture of hurt and anger that every anxious parent knows. Love made God vulnerable.
Fredrica Mathewes-Green once told the painful story about a friend of hers struggling with her rebellious teenage child, and then she relates it to God’s parental love. “God longs over us as over a lost and contemptuous child, a child at the edge of gaping danger, ignorant, sulky, rude. We spurn, laugh, ignore him, pinch each other, boast “I don’t know him,” slam the door. He waits. We ridicule him, trivialize his gifts, preen and bicker. And he waits.”
That helps us to understand what happened at Bethlehem. God, our divine parent, with daring and dangerous abandon, bared his heart at Bethlehem. He does not wish to be God without us, so he becomes God with us. He comes down from the far reaches of eternity to become an infant. In that infant, born of poor people in a stable, God comes to earth and says, “I love you. Can’t you see, I love you.” Look upon the baby Jesus,” Luther once wrote. “Divinity may terrify us. Inexpressible majesty will crush is. That is why Christ took on our humanity…that he should not terrify us but rather that with love and favor he should console and confirm.”
And once it’s done, it’s done. God cannot, will not, go back to heaven at the end of a days work. He has chosen in love to share the hurt of fallen humanity. God joins the human race.
We seldom feel more vulnerable than when we are naked. Remember that story at the dawn of time when Adam and Eve hid from God? Adam says, “I heard the sound of you in the garden, and I was afraid because I was naked, and I hid myself.” (Gen. 3: 10) Mary Ellen Ashcroft points out that the renaissance artists often portrayed the babe at Bethlehem not wrapped in “swaddling clothes,” but naked on his mother’s lap. To get ready for Christmas, she says, God undressed. God stripped off his divine finery and appeared—how embarrassing–naked on the day he was born. “God rips off medals of rank, puts aside titles, honors, and talents, and appears in his birthday suit.” As Charles Wesley has us sing each Christmas, “Veiled in flesh the Godhead see, hail th’incarnate deity.” And the flesh of the baby is also the flesh of the man. The naked baby must be flesh so that God can be stripped again, and hung for all the world to see, on a cross.
How utterly appropriate that we celebrate communion on Christmas Eve, for where is this vulnerable love made more real, where does it touch our hearts more than at the communion table? The baby laid in the manger was also nailed to a cross. The God who laid himself in Mary’s lap, placed himself in the hands of Pontius Pilate. The God who humbled himself to become an infant was also, as Luci Shaw puts it, “nailed to my poor planet.
God laid bare his heart at Bethlehem. Here I am. I love you; I place myself in your hands. There is no other God than this naked baby, expelled into the night. There is nothing hidden in God’s heart but what we see in the baby’s face.
He comes to us tonight in the bread and the cup. He invites us all to eat and drink that vulnerable love, receiving his loving self-sacrifice into our hearts.
You’ve heard the story countless times before. Do you believe it tonight? Do you sense how close God has come to you, how he longs to be with you? When you hear this story and believe it, like the shepherds did, you will never be the same again. No matter what happens for the rest of your life you know that God is with you. God loves you. God has joined our human family. And everything will be all right.
Sermon by John Timmer: “Flutter of Angels” from Luke 1 and 2
The Advent world is a world of angels. It’s a world alive with the flutter of angels. Our world, in contrast, is inhospitable to angels. It seems totally void of angels. This discrepancy between the Advent world and our world is the thought behind H. G. Well’s story, “The Wonderful Visit.”
One day, so this story goes, the Rev. K. Hillyer is out on a moor with his gun. Suddenly a great light flashes across the sky. It’s a bird of enormous proportions. The Rev. Hillyer takes aim, fires and shoots down this bird. But then, as he walks up to the wounded animal, he discovers that what he has shot down is no ordinary bird. In fact, it is no bird at all, but an angel. Deeply disturbed by this discovery, he binds up the angel’s wound as best as he can, and then takes the heavenly visitor home, there to decide what to do about a situation absolutely unique in his ministerial experience.
One of the first things he does is summon a medical doctor: Dr. Crump. As Dr. Crump examines the creature, he is amazed at its anatomical structure. But he is too educated to consider the creature to be an angel. No sir! There is no fooling him. When the Rev. Hillyer tries to persuade him that the wounded creature IS an angel by asking, “But what about the wings, doctor? How do you explain the wings?”, then Dr. Crump replies: “Oh, quite natural, if a little abnormal.” “Are you sure they are natural?” the Rev. Hillyer asks. “My dear fellow,” Dr. Crump says, “everything that is, is natural. There is nothing unnatural in the world.” “And yet,” the Rev. Hillyer says, “I can almost swear it’s an angel, a messenger from the realm of glory.” “Think it over,” Dr. Crump replies, “it was a hot afternoon! And the brilliant sunshine was boiling down on your head.” No angel invades Dr. Crump’s world. It’s hermetically closed to angels.
And so, in many respects, is our world. It has no room for angels, not really. Modern theology doesn’t either. Which is something you find out when you prepare to preach a sermon on angels. With an occasional exception, modern theologians preserve absolute silence on the subject. They have a lot to say about demons. But not about angels. In sharp contrast to the Bible. Here you break your neck over angels. They’re all over the place.
But who of US has ever seen or met an angel? And if, perchance, we did meet one, chances are we explained it away. Like Ebenezer Scrooge did the ghost of Marley. He explained it away. Ebenezer Scrooge was very distrustful of his eyesight, very distrustful of the supernatural. He simply refused to believe in the ghost of Marley, even though it appeared before his very eyes. Marley’s ghost asked why Scrooge doubted his senses. “Because,” Scrooge answered, “because even a little thing affects my senses. A slight disorder of the stomach turns my eyes into cheats. You, ghost, may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato.”
The problem with angels is the discrepancy between what we see and what we believe. What we see does not confirm what we believe. We allow angels to function in one area of our life but not in another. We allow angels to function in the area of worship, and we sing of angels from the realms of glory as though they were our next-door neighbors. But these same angels do not function in the area of every day living. For if someone were to press us, “Really now, do you honestly believe that angels exist out there?” We would probably shrug our shoulders and say, “It would be nice if they did, but I’m not sure they do.”
When it comes to angels, many of us resemble the New Testament Sadducees. These Sadducees didn’t believe in angels either. In Acts 23 we read that they denied the resurrection and the existence of angels and spirits. Were they living today we would call them secularists. They believed that this life is all there is and there ain’t no more.
There’s much of the Sadducee in us. We may sing of angels from the real of glory on Sunday, but who of us thinks about angels on weekdays? The Sadducees did not believe in angels because they always sided with whoever was in power. When Greece was the world power, the Sadducees sided with the Greeks. When Rome was the world power, the Sadducees sided with the Romans. Always they made political compromises. Always they traded with people who were in power. “Beware,” Jesus warned, “of the leaven of the Sadducees.” Watch out for these people, for they are power hungry.
Which is the main reason they didn’t believe in angels. For angels are creatures of behind-the scene power. Angels maintain the balance of power. When armed soldiers came to arrest Jesus, when Judas kissed Jesus and said, “Hail, Master!”, when Peter drew his sword and cut off Malchus’ ear, Jesus said: “Put your sword back into its place; for all who take the sword will perish by the sword. Do you think that I cannot appeal to my Father, and he will at once send me more than twelve legions of angels?” When Jesus spoke about twelve legions of angels, Peter knew exactly what he meant, for Peter, like all Jewish people, knew the story of Elisha–the story to which Jesus was alluding.
Elisha, too, had been looked for once by armed soldiers, the way Jesus was in the Garden of Gethsemane. And Elisha’s disciple too had been very upset, the way Jesus’ disciples were in Gethsemane. “Oh, my lord! What shall we do?” Elisha’ disciple had asked. And Elisha had answered: “Fear not, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.” And then Elisha had prayed, “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.”
For to those who, like Ebenezer Scrooge, make their eyes the ultimate criterion whereby to judge whether something is true or not, angels do not exist. To them, what you don’t see doesn’t exist. “O Lord, please open his eyes that he may see.” And the Lord HAD opened his eyes so that he saw that the hills round about the city were alive with the flutter of angels.
We’ve all watched movies of people exploring underground caves and tunnels by the light of their torches. The walls are dripping with moisture. An occasional bat flutters overhead. Then, as they turn the next bend of the tunnel they are following, they see a faint light. They move on, and suddenly the ceiling goes up and up, and in the top there is a crack. Through it, a long thin ray of light falls and dimly lights up the dripping walls. Up at the top there are even a few ferns growing. Daylight! The explorers are suddenly reminded of the open-air world above. They think: If a mere trickle of sunlight can make the underground cave visible, what must be the power of the sun up there where it has free scope and nothing stands in its way? That, you might say, is a parable. The cave is our world–the world of darkness. We are the explorers, trying to find our way through this life by the light of our own torches. But then, every once in a while, we come upon a thin ray of light that is clearly from above, from the world above our cave world. The world we live in is a strange mixture of mostly darkness and a little bit of light, of darkness that does not tolerate the light, and of light that seeks to drive out the darkness.
As the evangelist John writes in the opening chapter of his gospel: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it,” but WOULD have overcome it if it had had its way. Here, in our world, the light shines dimly into the darkness. But above our cave, all is light. Above our cave, the brightness of God overflows like water from a fountain, and meets no resistance anywhere. Above our cave God’s light fills creatures in whom is no darkness at all-creatures whom the Bible calls angels.
As New Testament Christians, we believe that the rays of light shining into our cave world come from a world where all is light. We only see what’s in the cave: drippings walls and bats. We don’t see the world of light above the cave. We don’t see the angels-creatures that already now are fully illumined by God’s light. But we believe they exist.
We believe that there are whole legions of them. Elisha’s disciple saw the legions of angels, standing by to rescue his master. And they did rescue him. Jesus’ disciples did not see the legions of angels, for their master refused to summon them. Jesus chose not be rescued by angels. He chose to go to his death.
Yet by that very death Jesus opened the eyes of his disciples to see the angels for whom, in his greatest need, he had refused to pray. On Easter morning the women went to the tomb and there saw the angels, one at the head and one at the feet of the place where Jesus had lain. It was by dying that Jesus brought heaven down to earth. His tomb on Easter morning was a piece of heaven, a place of angels. Where Jesus lay dead for us, and where he rose for us, heaven was opened, a broad shaft of light shone into the darkness of our cave, and the angels of God were just as real as were the stone and the grave clothes. The act of love which made Jesus die for us brought down the angels, brought down these pure spirits of light who have been serving God ever since they were created.
The Bible shows no interest in angels as such. It offers no description of what angels look like. All it tells us is what angels do. Angels are like my words. The words I am now speaking are my messengers. They do not exist as such. They exist only in so far as they carry my thoughts to you. They are my messengers and exist only as such. I cannot grab my words out of the air and examine them under a microscope. Words are like messengers. They cannot be turned into microscope cultures. Angels are like words. Because they are, the Bible shows no interest in the anatomy of angels. It shows interest only in the messages angels carry, messages like: “Greetings, Mary, the Lord is with you. You will be with child and give birth to a son!” Messages like: “I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. Today a savior has been born to you!” The presence of angels tells us that God has a message for us. And whenever we gather to listen to that message, we can be sure that it is accompanied by the flutter of angels.
Here is a Worship Resources link from our Ministry Partner at the Calvin Institute for Christian Worship. At the CICW website you will find a wealth of service planning ideas as well as further ideas for Advent sermon series, Advent music and much more.
Scriptures and Statements of Faith Applying to the Theme of Christmas
The following texts are particularly appropriate for sermons or for supplemental liturgical use:
Psalm 97, Psalm 98, Psalm 147, Psalm 148,
Isaiah 52:7-10, Isaiah 61:10-62:12, Isaiah 63:7-9, Jeremiah 31:7-14
Matthew 1:18-2:23, Luke 2, John 1:1-18,
Galatians 4:4-7, Ephesians 1:3-14, Ephesians 2:13-18
Titus 2:11-14, Titus 3:4-7, Hebrews 1:1-12, Hebrews 2:10-18, 1 John 4:13-16
Belgic Confession, Art. 18-19
Heidelberg Catechism, Q&A 35-36
Westminster Confession, Chap. VIII, Sec. 2-3
Our World Belongs to God, st. 24
The Songs of Advent: A series which looks at the poetic words uttered around the birth of the Messiah. The texts of the songs are below, more verses can be added to flesh out the stories.
- Mary’s song – Luke 1:46-55
- Zechariah’s – Luke 1:67-79
- John the Baptist’s – Luke 3:1-18
- Angels’ – Luke 2:14
- Simeon’s – Luke 2:28-32
Hidden Characters of Advent: A series which looks at the characters in the Advent story not usually highlighted.
- Elizabeth – Luke 1:23-25; 39-45; 57-66
- Joseph – Matthew 1:18-25
- Herod – Matthew 2:1-18
- Jesus – John 1:1-18 [The perspective here is that we can forget that Jesus existed before all time, and that creation was made through him, and will be remade through him as well.]
Advent 2019 – Year A: The Year A Common Lectionary for Advent focuses on Matthew’s Gospel. In this connection, we highly recommend the two-volume commentary on Matthew by Frederick Dale Bruner (available through Eerdmans Publishing Company). Bruner’s deep insights into the text are invaluable and translate seamlessly into sermons as well. https://cep.calvinseminary.edu/resources/books/nt-recommended-commentaries-matthew/
Advent & Christmas from past issues of Reformed Worship magazine: On the Reformed Worship website, go to this page to select from a wide range of past articles, sermon ideas, worship service plans, and more. http://www.reformedworship.org/issues
Remember that because we are in the year A cycle of the Revised Common Lectionary, Reformed Worship articles that will correspond with year A lections will be in the years 2016, 2013, 2010, 2007, 2004, 2001, 1998, 1995, 1992. Current articles are only available to subscribers.