Sunday, December 23, 2007

Sermon -- 23 December 2007

4th of Advent — 23 December 2007
Trinity, Iowa City — 8:45 am

A: Isaiah 7:10-16 Ps 80:1-7,16-18 [Romans 1:1-7] Matthew 1:18-25

Again the Lord spoke to Ahaz, saying, Ask a sign of the Lord your God. But Ahaz said, I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test. Then Isaiah said: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary mortals, that you weary my God also?”

At this time of year we hear a lot about the “Spirit of Christmas.” Peace on earth, good will to all. The brotherhood and sisterhood of humankind. All that sort of thing. Well, good! That’s fine. The world needs all the Spirit of Christmas we can get! But somehow, sometimes, this seems all kind of vague to me, very general. It’s not quite clear to me from all these TV shows and songs and holidays sentiments exactly what this “Spirit of Christmas” is, or where it comes from, or how we get it. But it’s a Good Thing, and somewhere behind the chestnuts roasting on an open fire and Santa Claus coming to town, there’s the old story of the Baby, and peace and good will is something we devoutly wish everyone else would get on with.

But God does not work in vague generalities and pious platitudes. God works with and through particular people in particular places at particular times. Particularly and supremely, God worked in one person, in one place, at one time. That person’s name was — and is — Jesus; he was born in Bethlehem of Judea, he grew up in Nazareth of Galilee, and he died on a cross outside Jerusalem. And the third day he was raised from death. All this was two thousand years ago. We are now getting ready to celebrate his birthday. And the only reason we can talk about the Spirit of Christmas, the only reason that peace on earth, good will to all, is more than wishful thinking is because of this particular person whose birth we celebrate this week. This is sometimes called “the scandal of particularity.” It offends us that God does not work in Great Philosophical Principles. But God does not work so. God did not write a dissertation on the Metaphysical Grounds of Human Possibility. God came among us in person, and was born in a barn.

Today’s Scripture readings have to do with this particular way God works. In the first reading we hear about King Ahaz of Judah, about 700 years before the birth of Jesus. Ahaz was not a very good king. He was not faithful to the Lord God, but worshipped the pagan Canaanite deities. Well, Ahaz King of Judah found himself at war with the King of Israel, and the King of Israel was making war in alliance with the King of Syria, from Damascus. Ahaz’s realm, and the throne of David, were in serious jeopardy. The Lord sent the prophet Isaiah to Ahaz to assure him that he would survive this crisis (although heaven knows he didn’t deserve to). And through Isaiah the Lord had told Ahaz, “Ask for a sign as proof that Isaiah is telling you the truth.” All of a sudden Ahaz got all religious, and said, “Oh, no, far be it from me that little old me should bother The Lord — I know the Lord is very busy — and besides, asking for a sign would be superstitious and tacky and Not High Minded.” To which the Lord replied through Isaiah, “Ahaz, you really are a royal pain. Are you trying to be more religious than God? Okay, whether you ask for it or not, here’s the sign: The young woman will have a son and will name him ‘God Is With Us’ [Immanu-El in Hebrew]. And before the boy is old enough to know right from wrong, your enemies Israel and Syria will be destroyed. The downside of that is that it will be the Assyrian Empire from Nineveh that will destroy them, and then they’ll charge you a pretty penny in tribute for the favor.”

It’s not completely clear exactly who the young woman in the prophecy originally was. Probably it was Ahaz’s young queen, in which case the son “God Is With Us” would have been Hezekiah, who succeeded his father on the throne of David in Jerusalem and turned out to be quite a good king, loyal to the Lord, successfully holding off the Assyrians from conquering Judah. But seven hundred years later, what Isaiah had said was remembered in connection with the birth of the Son who really was God Is With Us, Immanu-El, a descendent of Ahaz and Hezekiah, and of David before them.

Sometimes it seems like there sure is an awful lot of history in the Bible! And there sure is! Maybe you’ve never cared much for history. Get over it! God loves history. God invented history. God uses history and works through history all the time. We are much given to Inspiration and Great Spiritual Comfort and being Religious and having High Principles, which is quite admirable and quite safe. God, on the other hand, messes around in history — particular people, particular places, particular times. And if we are scandalized by all that particularity, well, that’s our problem. Without the particulars, the generalities are empty.

So God does not send us a Sermon on the Spirit of Christmas. God comes in person, in particular historical person, in a particular historical place, at a particular historical time. Jesus, born to Mary of Nazareth and her husband Joseph, in Bethlehem, at the end of the reign of King Herod the Great of Judea, about the twentieth year of the Roman Emperor Caesar Augustus, approximately one thousand years after the accession of David son of Jesse to the throne of Judah.

That’s how God works. Particularly.

And that means that we can expect that God is still working particularly. Among us. You and me. Here. Now.

© 2007 William S J Moorhead

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Sermon -- 16 December 2007

3rd of Advent — 16 December 2007
St. Michael’s, Mount Pleasant — 9:00 am
A: Isa 35:1-10 Ps 146:4-9 James 5:7-10 Matt 11:2-11

“What did you go out into the wilderness to look at?”

What were you looking for? What do you want?

Jesus’ question to the people, asking them why they had gone out to hear John the Baptist, is a good question for us, too — especially now as we think about and in a special way prepare for the coming of the Lord, as we are doing in this Advent season. What are we looking for? What do we want?

Folks in Jesus’ time were a lot like folks today, and like folks today, they didn’t know what they wanted. And there wasn’t any pleasing them. The religious leaders — people like the Pharisees, respectable, righteous people — didn’t like John the Baptist, because he was weird and harsh, an ascetic who fasted and lived alone in the desert and called them “a brood of vipers” and told them that God didn’t give a hoot whether they were descendents of Abraham or not. On the other hand, they didn’t like Jesus of Nazareth either, because he didn’t fast or live in the desert, but went to dinner parties and befriended sinners. There’s just no pleasing some people. Jesus himself remarked, “We played music and you wouldn’t dance with us; we made lamentations and you wouldn’t mourn with us; John fasted, and said he was coocoo; I go to dinner, and you call me a glutton. Ah well.…

In his own way, John the Baptist had been popular for a while. Why? Because he told people what they wanted to hear? Certainly not! John the Baptist was no reed bending in the wind of popular opinion. Was he personally attractive, a trend-setter in his lifestyle? Not at all. He wasn’t part of the better levels of society — he had no money, no political office, no social status — and yet John had immense influence. The people flocked to him, because they perceived that he was, or at least might be, a prophet. He proclaimed God’s will for the people — God’s stern and righteous will. Okay then, if this man is a prophet of God, let’s do what he says: repent, prepare yourselves for the breaking in of God’s Kingdom into this world. Part of John’s message is that he is the forerunner for God’s Anointed One who is coming soon. So be prepared to hear and to follow this One when he comes.

But even John himself has his doubts — especially as he lay imprisoned in Herod Antipas’s dungeon, where his outspoken prophesying had finally landed him. Nothing much seemed to be happening that John could see — the Reign of God didn’t seem to be breaking in yet — at least it didn’t seem to be breaking in to John’s prison cell. And he began to wonder whether he had been right — was his cousin Jesus really after all the One who was to come after him, the Anointed One, the promised Messiah of God? So he sent word and asked. (A mark of his faith, even in the midst of his doubt: he didn’t just sit there wondering and whining, he asked.) And Jesus sent word back: “Take a look. What do you see? What are you looking for? What do you want? What the prophets said about the coming of the Messiah — it’s being fulfilled! All the things Isaiah talks about, for instance — the blind see again, the deaf hear again, the lame walk, the dead live — God’s Kingdom is breaking in, is it not? Tell John what is happening — and you are blessed if you don’t get all out of joint about me and what I’m doing.”

We all have our ideas, our preconceptions, about what God is like and about what God should be doing in the world. We all have expectations for God to meet. And when God doesn’t meet our expectations, we can get very upset about it! We have carefully constructed our own neat little system of reality, and demand that God fit into it. We have written a script for our lives, and we expect God to pick up the cues and read the lines assigned.
And of course, God doesn’t. God doesn’t. God is not a tame household deity. And so Jesus says, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” — who doesn’t stumble over me — who is not all hung up by the fact that I don’t fit into your neat little religious system.

This was the problem that folks had in Jesus’ time. Jesus didn’t fit their preconceptions. Jesus wasn’t the kind of Messiah they expected. He wasn’t the kind of Messiah they wanted. He didn’t follow the script they had written for God. He wasn’t the Divine Super-King who drove out the Roman occupation army and made Israel the Top Nation in the world. He wasn’t the great Super-Priest who uttered the sacred words to make everyone immediately good and holy and obedient to the Law of Moses, Pharisaic Edition. Jesus really just wasn’t what they were looking for at all. He was not what they wanted. And so in the end they turned against him and had him killed.

We really shouldn’t be too surprised. God made it pretty clear, through the prophets, just what it was God was up to. (That’s what a prophet is, by the way — not someone who foretells the future, primarily, but someone who proclaims to the world just what it is God is up to.) This morning we heard from the prophet Isaiah some of what God’s Kingdom is all about: sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to the mute — and not, I think, just the healing of our physical handicaps, but the healing of the spiritual handicaps that we all have, that all our world has. Strength to the weak, firmness to the feeble, water in the desert — life to the dead. That all sounds nifty enough — but the breaking-in of the Reign of God is not a spectator sport where we can sit in the stands and eat hot dogs. We must let our eyes be opened, let our ears be unstopped, let our tongues be loosed to sing God’s praises — let our dried-up hearts become wellsprings of God’s love — let our dead souls be really enlivened! God comes to save us, but God comes with vengeance and recompense, says Isaiah. God is no marshmallow. The Reign of God is upon us, but in order to enter God’s Kingdom we have to turn away from the petty little kingdoms we have built for ourselves. We must repent: we must change our lives; we must turn around.

What place do we make for God in our lives? Yes, and that’s just it! We do “make a place” for God in our lives — but God cannot be fitted into a place in our lives! It is God who is the source and creator of our lives and our world and all that is and has been and ever will be. God has no “place in” our lives, it is we who must allow ourselves to be given a place in God’s life, to be fitted into God’s system, to follow the script that God is writing.

Jesus is coming. Are we ready for him? Are we ready for the real Jesus as he really is, and not just the Jesus we would like him to be? Is Jesus the one we are really looking for? Is Jesus the one we really want?

© 2007 William S J Moorhead

Monday, December 3, 2007

Evensong Sermon -- 2 December 2007

1st of Advent — 2 December 2007
Trinity, Iowa City — Evensong 5:00 pm
Pss 12, 13, 14 Amos 1:1-5, 13-2:8 1 Thess 5:1-11

For you yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.

Well, we begin Advent this Sunday. We generally consider Advent to be a season of preparation for Christmas. Well, that’s right, generally, more or less. But it does leave a couple of unanswered questions: exactly what do we mean by “Christmas”? And how do we prepare for it?

Well, “Christmas,” most specifically speaking, is the celebration of the birth of Jesus, in Israel near the end of the reign of King Herod of Judea, traditionally in Bethlehem. (Some purveyors of the Assured Results of Modern New Testament Scholarship are arguing that Jesus wasn’t actually born in Bethlehem, but probably in Nazareth. I’m not convinced. I’m working on a paper about this. Watch my blog.) The date was assigned more or less arbitrarily by the Church in the fourth century or so as December 25. Sure. Why not.

But the birth of Jesus, his coming historically, is only one of the Advents of Jesus that we attend to in the season of Advent. We also consider all the ways Jesus has come into the world, and is coming into the world, and has come and is coming into our lives now. And further, we consider the coming of Jesus, his Advent, at the consummation of the age. So Christmas, strictly speaking, is only a part of what Advent is about. In fact, in Advent we don’t get around to talking about the birth of Jesus for another three weeks. The focus today is the consummation of the age, and then we spend a couple of weeks on weird ol’ John the Baptist, before we actually get around to Christmas itself.

Meanwhile the rest of the world has been Christmasing for quite a while already, since sometime before Hallowe’en. Whatever. We clergy and other Especially Pious Folk used to get our socks in a knot about this. I’ve given up on it. At some point it struck me that all this stuff that the world has been doing for the last month or more under the name of “Christmas” isn’t about Christmas at all.

The other night there was a new Holiday cartoon show on television, called “Shrek the Halls.” It was cute, though it fell a little short of being the instant holiday classic it was touted as. But at one point in the story, Shrek (who is a green ogre, in case you aren’t up on the higher realms of American culture. Mind you, I like Shrek!) — Shrek reads the Christmas Story to the assembled family and friends in his house. And what does he read? “T’was the night before Christmas, and all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse!” No! That’s not the Christmas Story! (At least in the Charlie Brown Christmas, when Linus reads the Christmas story he reads, “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.”)

There is “Christmas,” and there is Christmas. If the world wants to have a winter holiday and call it “Christmas,” sure, why not. And if some evangelicals want to get their socks in a knot because people are wishing them “Happy Holidays!” instead of “Merry Christmas,” I guess that’s their problem. (Evangelicals are better off when they pay greater attention to actually reading the Gospels. Oh well.)

In the New Testament reading tonight, from the First Letter to the Christian community at Thessalonica, Paul has been writing to them about the coming of the Lord, and he goes on to say, “You don’t need me to tell you about the times and seasons” — well, actually, some of them were probably hoping Paul would do just that. Already in this early generation of Christians, folks were already fretting about figuring out when Jesus was going to return. Never mind that not only Paul but even Jesus himself had made a specific and clear point that nobody would know when that day was coming. Jesus said that even he himself didn’t know. It was the Father’s little secret. Maybe even the Father hadn’t made up his mind about this yet! Paul goes on to say, “You yourselves know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.” “What is it you don’t understand about ‘A thief in the night’?” Jesus himself had said, “If you knew when the thief was coming, you wouldn’t have let him break into your house! Duh!” (Well, Jesus probably didn’t say “Duh!”) This is not rocket science, folks. “Don’t know when” means “Don’t know when”!

But, St. Paul goes on, there are some clues to be alert to. One of them was when they say “There is peace and security.” Who was saying “There is peace and security”? The Roman Empire was saying, “There is peace and security.” And Paul is suggesting here that it just ain’t so. A more inclusive way of saying this might be the core of the Gospel Paul was preaching, namely, “Jesus is Lord; and that means that Caesar isn’t.” (But that’s a path to follow further at another time!) So just when everyone thinks that everything is just fine, well, watch out!

So although none of us know just when the Lord is coming, it won’t surprise us (like a thief would), not because we know the time but because we know we must be ready at any time, at all times. For we know who holds the future. And it isn’t Caesar. (Who at this time was probably Claudius; this is a relatively early letter.)

You know, when we talk about “the coming of the Lord” we generally associate this with the notion of “the end of the world.” But it’s not at all clear that this is what Jesus means, or what Paul means, when they talk about the “day of the Lord.” The day of the Lord is not the end of this world, but its fulfillment, its completion, its judgment and the vindication of the faithful, the full establishment of God’s reign of justice, love, and true peace. In expectation of this Kingdom, and in the beginning of its implementation, we are called to keep awake and be sober.

Advent calls us not just to prepare for the Christmas celebration for another year, but to prepare our lives for the proclamation and service and fulfillment of the Kingdom of God.

© 2007 William S J Moorhead