Christmas Eve 2013 Isaiah 9:2-7 “Who Is Born This Night?”

      I’m having “Charlie Brown kind of Christmas.”   I grew up watching the antics of the Peanuts Gang. I resonate with Charlie Brown’s lament made way back in 1965 when it first aired about the commercialization and secularization of Christmas.

      I recognize myself in these characters. I recognize in Charlie Brown my own endless sense of optimism which is too often tempered by dashed hopes. When he exclaims “Arrgh” or “Rats” I hear my own voice echoed when things don’t work out as I planned.  The cynic that resides in Lucy resides also in me.    I share the distraction of shiny objects with Snoopy.   In truth, I see bits and pieces of myself in all these characters.  A Charlie Brown Christmas lifts up the mirror to my own thoughts and feelings about this season, and about myself.

            But this year what is getting to me is the plague of “Christmas Specials” on television that “A Charlie Brown Christmas” seems to have sparked. Ever since if first aired it seems we’ve been plagued by a wave of Christmas Specials, many of which seem to be preoccupied with the theme of “saving Christmas.”   We are led to believe that for some reason Christmas is constantly in peril.

            But does Christmas really need saving?

            We are sometimes led to believe so.  Isn’t that a part of what all these stories around Christmas usually involve?  They are an attempt to introduce new and familiar characters to “learn” the true meaning of Christmas.   They are stories of discovery, and redemption, and appreciation of what one has.   All of them end up being attempts at “jazzing up” the story and so recapture its meaning.

            What I like about “A Charlie Brown Christmas” is the way in which all that seeking of novelty, the new and “jazzing things up” falls away when Linus begins to recite the Christmas story from Luke.

            Christmas does not really need saving.  It hasn’t for over 2000 years.  This story tells itself and stands on its own and really doesn’t need further treatment.

            And herein lies the peril of Christmas for the preacher.

            How do I tell the old story without getting in the way of it?

            In some respects every sermon preached on the narrative of Luke 2 is just a waste of words.  This is the story we long to hear this night, the one already read.  This is what grounds us and holds us to a certain hope, a certain community, a common faith that the God who so loves the world has done what was promised, that a child was born, a Son was given.

            Anything else added to the narrative of God coming in the babe born in a manger is nothing more than window dressing, and runs the peril of overshadowing the real story.

            So, I’m not going to be clever tonight.

            I’m not going to try to layer some new sentimental story over the top of the old one, or make commentary about who the characters involved were, or about the nature of shepherds, or the circumstances of inns and stables.

            No, like Linus I’m just going to let this story stand in its simplicity.

            Instead of preaching on Luke, I’m going to wander back a bit farther and look at Isaiah, and ask this question.

            “Who is born this night?”

            These other names that are given bear some consideration, for these names speak of hopes as well, and hopes within a context, and the context is this; it is a war weary world.

            That’s the situation in Isaiah’s time.   There has been 100 years of sustained warfare and incursion in the region by the Assyrian empire, which is now knocking at Judah’s door.  Ahaz the King is facing difficult decisions about what to do, how to preserve the nation, how to keep the promises given by God to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and David alive.  Into this war-weary world Isaiah delivers a prophecy that the King should ask for a sign, and when Ahaz refuses to test God, Isaiah gives the sign anyway.   The child is to be born, Emmanuel, who will save his people and these are the names you will know this child by, the names you can depend upon.

            “Wonderful Counselor”   

          How we long for that name in these days.   Too much of our world seems to be consumed by uncompromising divides.   Too much of it is polarized, right, left, liberal, conservative, this or that.  We seem to excel at devising ways to separate ourselves and to take a stand on this or that.   What would it be like to have a counselor who would listen, sort through, and speak wisely to the divides?

       Oh, and not just any counselor, but a wonderful counselor.  I’m not sure what Isaiah had in mind for that, maybe a king like Solomon again, who was wise and discerning; someone who could finally silence the scattered background noise of this world.  

       I know how we would make a determination about a counselor.   You only get to be “wonderful” if you’ve been able to help, to actually do something.  “Oh, he/she was wonderful!  That is a title that comes with familiarity and personal experience.

       So, as Isaiah promised that the shouting matches of his day would be silenced, if only we would engage with this promised one, so we hope for that as well.   Lord God, send us someone who can make sense of things, and can advise us, or better yet model for us a better way to live and a way to process the events around us.

        “Mighty God”  

         That’s a name that takes very little explaining, or maybe it does.  

         In a world where we have grown accustomed to being our own god, making our own decisions, deciding right and wrong on our own, maybe a “Mighty God” is hard for us to imagine.  In Isaiah’s day the crisis was wondering if God had forgotten them.   Maybe we wonder the same. 

        Or maybe we wonder if God is worth bothering about anymore.

In either case, the promise of a “Mighty God” is one that acts decisively and erases all doubts and questions. Is this what we look for in the manger?   A Mighty God?   If so, it certainly is a strange place to look for one.  

        But then, no stranger than it will be to look for a mighty God upon a Cross.

       “Everlasting Father?” 

        I’m not sure if I have this one right.   I can’t imagine what it meant for Isaiah’s people, but I am beginning to understand what it means for me.  It has been seven years now since my father died, and I miss him still, particularly at this time of year.  

        I miss his presence.  

        I miss his bad jokes and puns, and recognize them coming out of my own mouth now.

        But what I miss most is the ability to call him up and ask him something.   There was wisdom and understanding accumulated in his years, and while he did not fully understand all my circumstances, he would listen.

       Is that what Isaiah hints at? Is having an “Everlasting Father” having access to the ancestor that does not fade from memory and that is there to consult again.   To have an “everlasting father” would be a gift.  Is that what the one who bears this name will come to give as Jesus will invite us to pray, “our father?”  

         Is this the gift given when the disciples ask, “Show us the Father” and Jesus says, “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.”    In the promise “I will be with you always, to the close of the age” is there a glimpse of an “Everlasting Father?”  A relationship that does not pass away but that continues in forward available in prayer and conversation with the teachings of Jesus?

      “Prince of Peace” 

        That is also in this name, this promise.   That is the promise of a ruler who can forge peace from 100 years war.   I wonder if Isaiah’s people could even envision peace anymore, after so long a time of threat?

       I wonder if we can?

      The War on Terror is unending, with no winners, no losers, and no measure of when the war is won.   We hope for peace and are too often willing to abandon freedom in exchange for security.  It seems this world we live in simply bounces from conflict to conflict, war to war.  Peace is found for a time but it is too brief and fleeting, and those whom we once counted as allies end up becoming the new and dreaded foe. We grow weary of trying to figure it all out.

       As it turns out, that is probably the same temptation before Ahaz the King in Isaiah’s time.  Weary with war, he begins to think it would be better just for him to bend the knee to Assyria, or perhaps to sign an alliance with one of her enemies. Maybe then they will leave us alone.  

       Ahaz is tempted to seek peace found in resignation and accommodation to one’s fate.   Sure, we’ll have to send some wealth, pay some tribute, accept some new realities, but I guess that is the price you pay for peace.

        I think that is the same temptation ever before me and you. 

       We grow weary, do we not, of this world?    We are ready to resignation ourselves to the world just the way it is.  Someone else figure this out, I can’t make sense of it.   Someone else tell me what to do, who to follow, what alliance to make.  It’s all too complex for me.    

        This is my “Charlie Brown” kind of moment again.  Someone tell me what this is all about because I’ve lost sight of it.  Who is born this night?

        That’s why I come back here again tonight, to let the story take center stage.  

        This is what it is all about. 

         This event, where God stepped into this world with a promise, and we’ve been clinging to that promise and to those names that come with it ever since.  Christmas doesn’t need saving, we do.   Send to us, Lord God, what you have promise.  Send this Wonderful Counselor, this Mighty God, this Everlasting Father, this Prince of Peace that we might dwell in this story and let it transform us.  

         Who is born this night?   Christ Jesus our Lord. The one who was, and who is, and who is to come. The one who is born in a manger, who dies on a cross and who is raised again to live again within us and within this world. 

         This is who is born:  Jesus,

          Oh, and you are born again as well.   As the story once again lifts you out of your own resignation and gives you hope to join your voices with all those who have gone before us, and those who will come after us, and who will lift their voices in carol and song  in praise these names, we are reborn.   Hope is reborn.  Meaning is reborn.  We have a moment of clarity that says, “Yes, these are the names we hope for, and hope in, and this is what life is really all about. 

         I’m having a Charlie Brown Christmas, and that’s all right with me.

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Your Lord is Coming Matthew 24:36-44

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       This is the little device that orders my life. In it I do my planning, track my schedule, set up things months in advance so that I know what to expect and when things will happen. It is supposed to be a way of reducing stress and bringing an unwieldy over-scheduled life under control. Research shows, after all, that having an organized plan to our lives, particularly around the holiday season, is one of the best ways to reduce the undue stress we experience.
     I am however, not convinced that this little device does anything for me in the way of stress reduction.
     I only have to misplace it for a little while to have my anxiety level go way up, and the reason is this: I no longer know what to expect or when things are happening. What if I miss an appointment! Forget to do something! Oh, how I need to know what to expect!
     Advent is a time when we focus on the return of Jesus. Most of this time of year seems to get spent in filling this little device up. Our schedules begin to fill as we add different ways to celebrate Jesus’ first coming among us in the events of Bethlehem on that quiet night.
     But Advent in the church year is really meant to encourage us to remember the promise that Jesus will come again, bringing with him the fullness of his kingly reign. The Gospel lesson for the first Sunday in Advent seems to have been left out of the loop on all the research about stress reduction. Jesus does not seem to recognize our need for organization and advanced scheduling “About that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
     What will the coming of Jesus be like? It’s not a comforting thought for those who keep our schedules on electronic devices that track our location down to a few hundred feet.  It will be like in the days of the flood, people were eating and drinking…right up to the day Noah entered the ark… and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away.”
      Jesus wants us to know and to remember two things about his return.
     The first is that it will be unexpected.
     The picture painted is like something out of an old “Twilight Zone” script. Two men are working out in the field, one will be taken, the other one left. Two Women will be grinding meal together, one will be taken and one will be left.
That is meant to drive home just one point. It tells us that when Jesus returns, we are all going to be doing whatever it is he finds us doing at the time!
      There will be no heralding fanfares, no lights in the heavens, no signs in the stars, no warning, no chance to mark down on the calendar, “get my stuff together before next Tuesday!”  No, Jesus comes when you are going about your daily chores, no matter how mundane, and whatever it is that you happen to be doing, that’s what he will find you doing!
       So then, if Jesus will be coming at a time when you least expect it, it would be good to order your life in such a way that whatever he finds you doing is an honorable thing, and that gets us to an interesting observation about us and our scheduled lives.
       About this time of year I start to receive more and more solicitations from this charity or that, this cause or that. I do not begrudge any of them. The reason I get them now is that this has become the season when people are most in the mood to give, most receptive to doing a good deed. We seem to save up and reserve our willingness to share and to give until we think about Jesus coming, consciously or subconsciously, and then as Christmas approaches and we think of Jesus as coming near we start to give.
       But Matthew’s Gospel throws a monkey wrench into the works to that kind of thinking. An advent understanding that Jesus may return at any moment and when we least expect it, prompt us to rethink this whole arrangement.  Surely the needs of people exist at other times of the year, throughout the year, and so should not my compassion be ready and equal at any time?
       We also look at Christmas as a time to reconcile, to drop old grudges, make amends for old wounds and hurts. After all, peace and good will, those marks of the Kingdom, are the things that the Angels on Christmas eve come proclaiming, for the child is born, the Christ has come. And so it is that around Christmas time we start to think about making apologies, sending greetings to those long neglected, and otherwise begin to work on renewing and repairing relationships.
        But an advent understanding of Jesus coming at any time, and when we least expect it, causes a new sense of urgency about doing that work of reconciliation in our lives. We don’t dare wait for Christmas or for any other holiday for that matter before we go about the important work of mending fences and repairing broken relationships. If it is true that Jesus will come when we are going about our daily work, I have to consider what he might find me saying and doing in that work. It would be good for him to find me speaking words of encouragement and care to my co-worker, instead of spitting criticism.
        It would be good if Jesus found me taking care of those relationships we quite often start to take for granted, but I know that such is not always the case in my life!
       Oh, how my phone and organizing software lulls me into a false sense of security. It makes me believe that there is always another day! There will always be another time available to take care of the important things in life. I need only check my long range planner to see when I can fit it in my compassion, my giving, and my reconciling with my estranged family member or coworker. I have plenty of time, it says, when you know how to manage it!
        Not so, says Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel.
       “Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.”
        That could be the cause of an increase in your stress level. It’s bad enough having to worry about Jesus coming, and with all the stress of living in these weeks before Christmas, let alone now discover that I need to stretch advent out to every day, to 52 weeks of the year instead of just the four weeks before Christmas. It would be too much, if not for the second thing that Jesus wants to make sure we know.
       Jesus has a word of Gospel for us in this story, to quiet all our fears about the unexpected nature of Christ’s coming. It is such a small word, but an important one; a word often overlooked in the reading of the Gospel.
“Keep awake, therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming.” Did you catch it? “on what day your Lord is coming.”
       That is a reminder to all of us who find ourselves fearful and stressed out about that particular day. Hey, remember that the one who is returning in Jesus, the shepherd, to call his flock to himself!. Remember that the one who is coming is the prince of peace, who comes to stop all war and pestilence, who comes to fulfill Isaiah’s prophecy, that the nations shall be judged, and swords beaten into plowshares, and the instruments of war refashioned into articles useful to growth and care for the earth.
       “Your Lord is coming” is a reminder, that the one who comes is the one described in Isaiah, as the suffering servant who will not crush a bruised reed, will not extinguish even a dimly burning wick, but will uphold and support the fearful and the meek.   There is promise in this little word “Your.”   It reminds you whose you are already.  It reminds of the urgency of doing the work of the Kingdom is not a matter of fear, but a matter of hope! We do these things because of the one to whom we already belong! We belong to God, who has promised to come!
      We do not know the hour, and so must order our lives around this assurance. We belong to God.
      There is nothing wrong with scheduling your life, just remember that you never really control it.
       Tomorrow is not promised, but today, this moment is, and it supercedes your long terms plans when it comes to how we are to live and how we are to treat our neighbor.  

       God will, and does break in upon people’s lives when they least expect it. That is the promise found in that little word “Your” for it reminds us that God has a claim on us already.

        While the hour of Christ’s coming may be a surprise, what to expect is not.  We can expect Jesus, and the fullness of his Kingdom, and while I would love to plug in an exact date for that into my busy, schedule, it seems that what God desires me to plug in is “every day”, and then live as if this one were the one. Not a bad way to live!