Sunday, December 21, 2008

God's Gracious Choice

Sermon for St. Paul’s, December 21, 2008
2 Samuel 7:1-11 16, Luke 1:26-38

Last week in the sermon, we talked about being called to be the people of God. Isaiah 61, gave us a picture of what God’s people look like. They are a people in which there is no oppression, where the brokenhearted are bound up, where those falsely imprisoned are set free, where the mourning are comforted. They are a people who are blessed richly by God and are a blessing to those around them. They are a people of justice and generosity. And we heard that we are called to be such people. We are the people that God is forming into a community that reflects these values, that reflects God’s glory, that reflects the kingdom of God. God realizes that this will not be an easy task and so God sends one who will show us the way, a Messiah, God’s own Son, to model for us and teach us, to strengthen and encourage. God, through the work of Christ, through the power of the Holy Spirit, God will bind up the brokenhearted, set free the captives, and comfort the mourning. When we fail, God calls us to repentance. God forgives us and recreates us. God reforms us once again into God’s people.

But there is always a bit of doubt in our minds. Are we really the ones who are to be God’s people? Are we really the ones God has chosen? Why would God call us? Why would God choose you? Why would God choose this small little community to be God’s people? During my time here last week, several people mentioned the significant decline in this congregation over the last few years. In the building here, there are pictures of large youth groups. There are memories of two services. There are longings for a time when the sanctuary felt full to overflowing, when the congregation felt alive and vibrant. People seem to wonder, “Has God left us? Are we still God’s chosen people? Are we worthy of God’s presence? “

Who is it that God calls to be God’s people? What criteria does God use? And what does God desire from us?

If I was choosing a group of people to represent me, who would I choose? Who would you choose? At the moment, there are a number of television shows where famous people are choosing their successors, their prodigies, their best friends. Donald Trump is finding apprentices, Elle magazine its next junior editor, Heidi Klum the next great designer, Gordon Ramsey the next great chef. They look for the best and the brightest. Someone with talent, intelligence, creativity, and a great personality to match. They are not looking for someone who is simply great. They are looking for someone who is spectacular.

Our society seems to worship the spectacular… those who are big and bold and splashy. Those who are beautiful, rich, young, and healthy. And at times the church does not seem much different. Pastors often lament the fact that when they go to minister’s conferences, all anyone seems to talk about is size. How many people attend your church? How big is your sanctuary? Do you have the latest sound system? Are you reaching the “emergent” generation? Henri Nouwen, a priest whose ministry focuses on the handicapped, writes:

“When you look at today’s Church, it is easy to see the prevalence of individualism among ministers and priests. Not too many of us have a vast repertoire of skills to be proud of but most of us feel that, if we have anything at all to show, it is something we have to do solo. You could say that many of us feel like failed tightrope walkers who discovered that we did not have the power to draw thousands of people, that we could not make many conversions, that we did not have the talents to create beautiful liturgies, that we were not as popular with the youth, the young adults, or the elderly as we had hoped, and that we were not able to respond to the needs of our people as we had expected. But most of us still feel that, ideally, we should have been able to do it all and do it successfully.”

Nouwen calls this the temptation to be spectacular, the belief that in order to please God we must be a star, gifted in all things and successful in anything we put our mind to. And pastors are not the only ones who fall to such temptations. Churches, too, feel that they must have a vast repertoire of skills and to be good at all of them. They feel the need to be popular, to attract large numbers of people, and to be professional and polished in all that they do.

Spectacular is what the world is looking for. Spectacular is what we believe we should be. But is spectacular what God is looking for? Does God only choose the best and the brightest?

In the book of 1 Samuel, we find Israel in need of a ruler. For several generations they had been led by Judges, men and women sent by God to provide wisdom and leadership for the people. Israel, though, was tired of judges. They wanted a real leader. They wanted a king like all of the other nations. And they wanted someone spectacular. So, they chose Saul. Saul was the son of a wealthy family and the most handsome man in all of Israel. He was big, tall, and strong and he looked like a king. Everyone believed that Saul would be a great king and, with the Lord’s help, in those first months he was. Saul won his first battle against the Ammonites. His second battle, however, did not go as well. The Israelites were in distress under the attacks of the Philistines. The people were hidden in caves and among the rocks and tombs. Saul was awaiting Samuel, the priest, who would bring an offering to the Lord on their behalf, but Samuel was taking too long. The people were leaving. Saul was losing his followers and losing the battle. So, Saul decided to present the offering himself… disobeying the Lord’s command. Saul lost patience and rather than waiting on the Lord and on Samuel, he attempted to do it all alone. Saul gave in to the temptation to be spectacular, believing that God would want him to win the battle at all costs, even disobedience to the Lord’s commands.

Saul would continue this pattern of relying on himself rather than relying on God… and so, God would eventually reject him as king. Instead. God would turn to another… a less spectacular choice for king, but one described as “a man after God’s own heart.” The prophet Samuel had been sent to choose a new king, this time from among the sons of Jesse. When he saw the oldest son he thought, “Surely the Lord’s anointed is now before us.” But the Lord replied, “Do not look on his appearance or on the height of his stature, because I have rejected him; for the Lord does not see as mortals see; they look on the outward appearance, but the Lord looks on the heart.” Samuel examined all of Jesse’s sons one by one starting with the eldest, but the Lord rejected them all. Finally, only the youngest remained. David was almost as handsome as Saul, but there was a great difference between the two men. Saul, when given the choice between being spectacular and obeying God, consistently chose to be spectacular. David, however, would consistently resist the temptation to be spectacular. David’s greatest desire was not popularity or success, but rather obedience. David’s greatest desire was to please God. And because of that, the Spirit of the Lord rested upon him. The Lord chose David as the new king over Israel, the least of his brothers would become the first among them. God’s choice was not the spectacular, but rather the one after God’s own heart.

In Luke, Chapter 1, we come upon a young girl in the town of Galilee. She was from a working class family and engaged to a local carpenter. She was a faithful Jewish woman, but there is nothing in the text to indicate that she was spectacular. Instead, many commentators believe she was rather ordinary. Faithful, but ordinary. A lot like you and me. Even less is said about her husband. He, too, can be described as faithful but ordinary. This time God was not choosing a king. God was choosing something much more important. God was searching for a woman to bear the Christ child. God was looking for a family to raise God’s son.

There is nothing in the text to indicate that God scoured the land for the most spectacular couple to raise this child. There was no competition to determine who would be the most worthy. There was no genetic testing to pick the woman who was the wisest or healthiest or most spiritual. There was no application process. No search criteria. In fact, the text tells us nothing about how God made the choice of Mary. Instead, we enter the story when the choice has already been made. Mary sits alone in small room and suddenly an angel of the Lord appears to her and says, “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you… Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And now, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you will name him Jesus. He will be great, and will be called the Son of the Most High.”

As the commentator, Robert Stein points out, the point of the text is not Mary’s worthiness. Instead, the focus of the text is on God’s gracious choice. God chooses a young girl, a young girl just like one of us, to be the mother of the Messiah, to bear the Christ child. Mary is not spectacular, but because of God’s gracious choice, she will take part in spectacular things.

A young shepherd boy, the least of his brothers… a young Jewish girl from a working class family not yet married… these are the types of people God chooses. God chooses people like you and me. God does not look for the spectacular. God does not look at outward appearances. Rather, God looks at the heart. These are the types of people God chooses. All that God asks is that our hearts are right with God.

Advent gives us a chance once again to get our hearts right with God. To prepare for the coming of the Lord. I don’t know what happened in this congregation over the last five years or so. I don’t know if it is something that you need to confess or something you need to offer forgiveness for. Perhaps you were simply victims of circumstances beyond your control. What I do know, is that God still chooses you.

There is a little children’s book by John Trent entitled, “I’d Choose You.” The story is about little Norbert the Elephant who has had a particularly bad day. He was picked last for the team. Nobody wanted to sit next to him on the roller coaster. His friend, Heidi Hippo, embarrassed him in front of everybody. But when he arrives home, his mom opens her arms and says, “And if I could honor one child who has an exciting and wonderful future...and if I could teach him each day that he is God's special gift, especially on those days when he doesn't get picked...Guess which one I'd choose every time? I'd choose YOU!" Just as Norbert’s mom opened her arms to her son, so God’s arms are open to us. God chooses you.

All God desires is that our hearts are right with God. If you need forgiveness, confess your sins and they will be forgiven. If you need to forgive, lay your grievances before the Lord and ask for the strength needed. If you are in the midst of circumstances beyond your control, know that God is with you. God chooses you. God chooses the ordinary faithful to be a part of God’s spectacular work in the world.

God is with you right now. Dwelling in your midst. God does not care if you are great or small as a congregation. God does not care if you are rich or poor. God does not care if you have a magnificent sanctuary or a professional choir. God simply desire to dwell with God’s people.

In the text from 2 Samuel read this morning, we find David concerned about building a spectacular house for God. When God first came to dwell with the people of Israel, God’s presence was a great pillar of fire, a great cloud of smoke that traveled with them through the wilderness. Eventually, the people built a beautiful ark that they carried with them everywhere. The ark looked like a throne and when God spoke to the people of Israel, God would often settle in a cloud of glory on the ark. This ark came to symbolize God’s presence among the people. The ark was kept in the tabernacle, a great tent-like structure that could easily move with the people wherever they went. David, however, felt that the tabernacle was no longer appropriate as a house for God. Israel was in a time of peace and people were building permanent homes, no longer dwelling in portable tents. David himself had a beautiful house of cedar and felt that the Lord should have a beautiful house as well. David wanted to build God a great temple.

David shared his dream of building a great temple with Nathan the priest and Nathan, of course, approved. Obviously God needs a beautiful temple to live in. God is a spectacular being and God needs a spectacular building. But God had other ideas. God came to Nathan with a message for David saying, “I have not lived in a house since the day I brought up the people of Israel from Egypt to this day but I have been moving about in a tent and a tabernacle. Wherever I have moved about among all the people of Israel, did I ever speak a word with any of them… saying, ‘Why have you not built me a house of cedar?’”

God was not angry with David for his desire to build a great temple. God recognized that David’s desire came from his love for God. But God did not need a spectacular house to dwell in. God was not concerned about a spectacular building. God did not need David to build him such a dwelling place. God would do the building. God would make a spectacular temple to dwell in. However, this temple would not be made of cedar. It would not be made of brick or stone. God’s temple would be made of people. It would be made of God’s people. And God would make them spectacular.

God goes on to say in 2 Samuel, “… I have been with you wherever you went and have cut off all your enemies from before you; and I will make for you a great name, like the name of the great ones of the earth… Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me; your throne shall be established forever.” God did not need David to build a temple. Instead, God would do the building, forming Israel into the people of God, a beautiful temple that would serve as God’s dwelling place.

God chooses you to be God’s people. God calls you to prepare your hearts to receive Christ anew this Advent season. For God desires to dwell in you and among you. God desires to make you into people who reflect God’s glory, the kingdom of God. We now know that God’s kingdom will not look like anything we could have imaged, for it begins not in glory, but in a manger, with a young girl, chosen by God. It begins with God’s choice to dwell on this earth, in a humble human body. It continues with God’s choice to dwell in and among God’s humble people, God’s ordinary faithful people. For out of these humble beginnings, God will bring forth a great kingdom… God will build a beautiful temple, and God’s work will be spectacular.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Isaiah 61: Blessed to be A Blessing

Sermon for St. Paul’s United Church of Christ
Third Sunday in Advent, Dec. 14, 2008
Intro and thank you

The young man had not been at temple for several months. This was the temple he grew up in and attended faithfully ever since he was a small boy. But today he had returned… amidst rumors and gossip about what had taken place since we had last seen him. There were stories about his being baptized by his cousin John in the Jordan River. Something strange had happened that day… John had refused to baptize him at first, but when he eventually did so, some saw a bright light or a dove descending on him. Some wondered if this had anything to do with John’s prophecies about the coming Messiah, but they could not ask Jesus, for shortly after his baptism he disappeared into the wilderness. He was gone for over 40 days and no one is sure what happened to him, but when he came back he was changed. He had always attended synagogue, but now he was teaching regularly and everyone was praising him.

And today, he finally came home. Today, on the Sabbath, Jesus was here and we would all see for ourselves just what changes had taken place.

At that moment, he was handed a scroll to read. He stood, unrolled it, and seemed to search for a particular passage. What would this son of Joseph, this carpenter’s son, one of our own…. What would this young man read to us this day? Jesus stood and began to read:

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the Lord’s favor.”

From the book of Isaiah. Interesting. Wasn’t John the Baptist also quoting from Isaiah recently? Wasn’t that the book that was full of promises about the coming Messiah? It had been many generations since there had been a prophet in Israel. People had stopped waiting, stopped hoping for the coming Messiah. But John’s words had renewed the hope of some. John was coming to prepare the way for the Lord and now, now Jesus stands up and reads this passage. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me..” Could he be another prophet? Or was it possible? And then Jesus sat down and said, “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.”

What exactly did Jesus mean by that?
In order to understand what was really happening at this moment, we have to understand a bit more about what this passage in Isaiah meant to the Jewish people at the time.

The book of Isaiah begins with the Jewish kingdom of Judah in a time of great prosperity and wealth under King Hezekiah. Unfortunately, in the midst of their great wealth, their hearts had turned from the Lord. Though they continue to worship God in the temple, Isaiah 29 says that they “drew near to God with their mouths and honored God with their lips, but their hearts were far from God and their worship of God was a human commandment learned by rote.” They were condemned for their worship of idols (2.8), for their arrogance (2.12), for their greed (5.8) and for their injustice. They were judged for their inhumane treatment of the poor (3.14-15) and the working classes and for not attending to orphans and widows (1.17).

Isaiah’s spoke a word of warning to the people of Judah to repent and return to the Lord. Repentance meant a turning away from idols, humbling themselves before God and others, and bringing economic justice to their land. If they would not repent, if they would not humble themselves, they would be made humble, brought down by foreign armies, and led into captivity. This would be God’s judgment upon them. This would be God’s way of getting through to them, of reminding them who was in charge, of reminding them of God’s love.

It seems strange to understand the bringing about of such suffering as an act of love. And yet, when we read the words of Isaiah, we see that God does not desire to bring about such judgment. God desires repentance. God desired repentance, because God was trying to fashion a people… a people who would reflect the glory of God’s kingdom, a people who would be blessed, but also a people who would be a blessing to others … and God will do whatever it takes to make that happen… because of God’s love for us.

Throughout the book of Isaiah, we see the love of God in hints of child named Immanuel, a Wonderful Counselor, a Prince of Peace, a shoot that will come out from the branch of Jesse full of wisdom and understanding, a suffering servant, a light to the nations. God made a promise to the people of Judah, a Covenant with them and with all the Israelites that they would be the people of God, that they would be blessed and they would be a blessing. And God would fulfill that promise, both through the people of Israel and sometimes in spite of them. God would send someone, filled with the Spirit of the Lord, to come alongside the people and shape them into nation that reflected the glory of God.

In Isaiah 61, we have a picture of what God’s people look like. They are a people in which there is no oppression, where the brokenhearted are bound up, where those falsely imprisoned are set free, where the mourning are comforted. They are a people who are blessed richly by God and are a blessing to those around them.

This passage, however, is not written to a people in prosperity. Judah had already heard Isaiah’s words of warning and they did not listened. They had been taken over by foreign armies. They were sent into exile. Despite their hard-heartedness, God still called out to them. God still loved them. God still desired to fashion them into a nation that would bring glory to God, that would bless and be blessed. In the midst of their suffering, God offered a promise of restoration and renewal. God offered to recreate them into the nation that they were originally meant to be. In this new nation there would be no more oppression, no more broken hearts, no more prisoners, no more mourning. Those who have suffered in exile will be restored. They will be called “oaks of righteousness, the planting of the Lord to display his glory.” Isaiah writes, “Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed.”

Some have called the promises in this passage “the great reversal,” a complete reordering of society where the last shall be first and the first shall be last. While to some extent, this is true, I prefer to simply call this a picture of the kingdom of God. This is the people God has called Judah to be. This is the people God has called us to be. Just as Isaiah called to Judah so long ago, God is still calling to us today. God wants our hearts to be humble. God wants our worship to be more than a human commandment learned by rote, but rather a response to the rich blessings that God has bestowed upon us. God wants us to treat one another with justice, to care for the widows and orphans, to bind up the brokenhearted, and to comfort those who mourn. Central is the recognition that all we have is from God and that all that we have is to used as a blessing to those around us. The people of Judah forgot that the Lord had provided for them. They forgot to share that blessing with the world around them. Yet God continued to pursue them, continued to fashion them into a people that would reflect the kingdom of God.

These words from Isaiah were the words that Jesus spoke when he stood up in the temple hundreds of years later. Those who heard him were impressed. The text says that they were amazed. They were ready to welcome this young profit into their midst and perhaps to believe that he was the coming Messiah. They wanted to believe that Jesus would bring the kingdom of God to the Jewish people. Unfortunately, like Judah, many of them focused on the blessings God would bring them and not the call to be a blessing. They were hoping God would bring them prosperity and power. But Jesus continued his teaching… and his words made the crowd so angry that they attempted to throw him off a mountainside. What made them so angry?

It was not the words he read from Isaiah. Instead, it was his contention that the words were not meant for Israel alone. Jesus tells of the prophet Elijah going to feed the Gentile widow of Zarephath and of the prophet Elisha going to heal Naaman the Syrian illustrating how God had always reached out beyond the Jewish people. One of Judah’s greatest sins, the sin that Isaiah spoke out so strongly about, was the hoarding of God’s blessings. God had blessed Judah tremendously and they had forgotten… forgotten that what they had come from God and instead they turned to idols, forgotten that all their great blessing was a gift and instead they arrogantly claimed it as their own, forgotten that what they had been given was meant to be shared with others, a blessing to the nations. Instead, they mistreated those in need, the poor, the widows, the orphans. God came to create a just and generous nation, a nation that would bring that justice to those around them, and who through their generosity would shine a light to the world.

With the words of Isaiah, spoken by Jesus the Messiah, God was once again calling the people of Israel to repentance, calling them once again to live into the people God desired them to be. And this time, God was sending a great helper. God was sending a son into the world, God’s self, to walk among us, to eat and drink with us, to model for us and teach us what the people of God were to be. Jesus was coming to usher in the kingdom and to guarantee that the great work begun would be brought to completion.

Perhaps it seems as if we gotten a little ahead of ourselves in the Church year. We are in the midst of Advent, a time to focus on the coming of Jesus as a little baby in a manger in Bethlehem. It will be another 30 years before Jesus stands up in the synagogue and reads this passage from Isaiah. Another 30 years until he begins his ministry. And yet Mary knew even before Christ was born who this Messiah was that she would give birth to. While Mary is pregnant with Jesus, she goes to see her relative, Elizabeth. When she enters the room Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit and proclaims a blessing on Mary and the child. Mary responds with a song of praise to God, a God who “has brought down the powerful from their thrones and lifted up the lowly; who has filled the hungry with good things and sent the rich away empty.” The one who promises “his mercy from generation to generation.”

Mary knew that the little baby to come would bring both judgment and blessing, not just for our sakes, but for the entire world all to the glory of God.

During this Advent season, God is once again calling us to be fashioned into God’s people. To be a community that lives kingdom values. God calls us to recognize that all we have is from God. It has been given to us as a blessing… and so that we may be a blessing to the world around us. In this particular holiday season, it may be difficult at times to recognize the blessings we have been given in this world. Many are struggling financially, worried about putting food on the table, paying their mortgages, the cost of health care, whether or not they will be able to retire. When it seems most difficult to see that God has blessed us, when it seems most difficult to offer that blessing to those around us, that is when the message of this Christmas season is the most important. God did not leave us to accomplish this task along. God sent Christ into the world, the one upon whom the Spirit of the Lord rests. Christ himself will bind up the brokenhearted, feed the hungry, and set the captives free… through the work of his people. When we fail, God will call us once again to repentance. God will recreate us. God will love us and pursue us. As Advent reminds us, each year Christ comes again into our midst to fashion us into kingdom.

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Mind the Gap

Traveling in England there are signs all over calling you to "Mind the Gap", to make sure that you don't step into the space between the train and platform. On my trip back East, my mom and I decided to mind another gap, the Delaware Gap. We made our way down a winding road on the Pennsylvania border.

Along the way we stopped at Dingman Falls... we made our way through the laurel bushes, along a creek, down the path, past a smaller water fall.

We climbed up a short way to Dingman Falls... and then climbed to the top for a better view.

From there we continued south until we came to the Delaware Gap, a deep gorge in the mountains. The mountainsides were covered with their autumn glory. My mom and I laughed... we stopped at every overlook, but they all seemed specifically designed to block the magnificent view of the mountains!

The drive was a beautiful detour on our way to Reading, Pennsylvania to see my mom's parents. It has been about six years since I saw my grandparents, and the last visit to their home did not end well. So, we were a little anxious as we made their way to our house.
The visit, though, went very well. My grandfather is not very encouraged by the current state of the world... I suppose that is the best way to put it, but the last time I was with him I began asking him questions about his childhood and young adult years. I have never seen him happier. On this visit he talked a bit about his time in business school, working in the steel mill, and then in the mail room. He was thrilled with his new XM satellite radio which had a station dedicated to his favorite music from the 1920's. He drove us by the house my mom grew up in and took us to one of his favorite places, the Daniel Boone Homestead. Both he and my grandmother love the horses. They bring carrots with them every week or so to feed them.

Apparently my grandfather was quite into horses and rode a lot when he was younger. As my mom pointed out, when he is more gentle and peaceful than ever when he is with the horses. My grandparents did not have the happiest of marriages when they were younger, but they have been together for over 60 years and they have come to a place of companionship with one another, a true partnership.

I don't know when I'll see them again. I hope I'll see them again. The following day my mom, grandmother, and I made our way to the Barnes Museum. It is fantastic, by the way! The museum was built as an art school. Mr. Barnes wanted to teach art to the masses. The walls of the museum are packed with paintings. Most are from the Impressionist period with an overwhelming number of Renoirs. Barnes, however, wanted to teach about themes and method and so each wall shows art from a variety of time periods and at times from a variety of cultures all illustrating different aspects of color, perspective, and light. Amazing. My grandmother and I share several passions... world travel, broadway musicals, and art museums. I hope that we will have a few more years to share out passions with one another.

As we were returning from the museum, we drove past the house of one of my mom's cousins. While my grandparents are quite conservative, some of the rest of the relatives are quite radical! We found Barack Obama waving from the front yard of her cousin's house and she just had to stop and take a picture. It's nice to know that my own political leanings are not entirely outside the realm of my family context! I have to admit that finding connections with my relatives is important and meaningful to me. It gives me a sense of rootedness. It helps me to know that my identity is not all a matter of my own choosing. To have no roots for who I am leaves me with an overwhelming number of choices. Honestly, I prefer to live within some limits. I think perhaps there is something biblical in that... living as a created being rather than trying to be the creator.