Sunday, December 21, 2008

Fourth Sunday of Advent, Year B, December 21 2008

Luke 1:26-38

In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin's name was Mary. And he came to her and said, "Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you." But she was much perplexed by his words and pondered what sort of greeting this might be. The angel said to her, "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, and the Lord God will give to him the throne of his ancestor David. He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end." Mary said to the angel, "How can this be, since I am a virgin?" The angel said to her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God. And now, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month for her who was said to be barren. For nothing will be impossible with God." Then Mary said, "Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word." Then the angel departed from her.


Sermon

There’s a popular Christmas song called “Mary Did You Know?” written by Mark Lowry. In the song, Mr. Lowry wonders if Mary knew, when Jesus was a baby, all the things that the child she was holding would do in his lifetime. Did she know that he would walk on water, heal the sick, raise the dead?

I don’t think she did. In today’s reading we hear the angel Gabriel telling Mary that the child she would soon bear would be “holy” and would be called Son of God. He would be given the throne of his ancestor David and reign forever. But there was definitely a lack of specific details, things that would have told Mary more about what was to come. Mary was given information on a “need to know” basis.

And this was definitely a gift. As much as we might like to know the future, if we did know it, we would not act in ways which would bring it about. We would do everything differently.

One of the saddest things I have ever heard was an older woman expressing regret for the path she had chosen in her life. “If I had it all to do over again,” she said, “I would not have gotten married nor had children. I would have pursued my career instead.” This, in spite of the fact that she had more than fifty years of marriage under her belt and had raised two successful children. Yet, apparently if she had known the amount of suffering and unhappiness in store for her within the life she had chosen, she would have chosen differently.

And the sad thing was that chances are that this woman would not have had less sorrow or suffering if she had chosen differently. “In this world you will have trouble.” Jesus said in John 13. We are all bound to have trouble and the woman I am talking about, if she had chosen a different path, would have just had different trouble than she ended up having. It is much like the fable where the people in a village are complaining about their problems and how they wish they didn’t have them. The magical visitor in the story tells the villagers to lay all their problems on the ground in front of them, then invites them to take someone else’s problems instead of their own. The villagers look around, then pick up their own problems again.

It would be nice to know, though, what is going to happen next, wouldn’t it? People today read their horoscopes and consult psychics, all with the hope that they will be able to figure out what is going to happen next. But God has expressly forbidden this, in the book of Deuteronomy, when he says, “You shall follow God with perfect faith [and not] hearken to astrologers and diviners.” (Deuteronomy 18:13-14)

God doesn’t want you peeking into the future for many good reasons. If we knew what the future was, we would act differently than we otherwise would have and we would definitely bolux everything up. This ignorance of the future is a gift to us, just, as I told you in my last sermon, that the ignorance of the day of Christ’s second coming is a gift. If we knew too much about what is to come, we would not act in ways that God wants us to act. We would procrastinate, act to change things to our own advantage and generally, stick a monkey wrench in the plans that God has for us. This is the power of the one of God’s other gifts: the gift of free will. We have the power to change things by the choices we make. It’s a dangerous gift and armed with the knowledge of what the choices we would make will do to the future, we would not have enough wisdom to choose as we should. Therefore, the gift of free will had to be accompanied by the gift of ignorance.

However, if we can’t know everything about what will happen to us, it still would be nice to know a little bit more about what is to come, wouldn’t it? God speaks to many people in biblical history, with angelic visitors as in Mary’s case, and through the prophets. Why doesn’t God do that for everyone?

If you think about all the people who received such announcements, for instance Zachariah in the verses before the ones in today’s reading, or Old Testament folks like Abraham and Sarah when they are told what is going to happen to them, you realize why God isn’t all that forthcoming with specifics. These folks simply did not believe God, did they? They got the word right from the source and they still did not believe. We don’t have the greatest track record for listening to God and believing what he tells us, even when those bringing the news have impeccable credentials. God, as he said in the book of Deuteronomy, is looking for perfect faith. And the Bible is a log book of people who do not have that faith, people who were given many hints, announcements and even explicit plans and directions and disregarded them. Very rarely does God find that perfect faith, people who acquiesce to God’s plans without a murmur or a “Why me?”

But here in our reading we do find that perfect faith: Mary says, “Let it be with me according to your word.” Her only question is not WHY this is happening but HOW it’s going to happen. Mary is one of the very few people God entrusts with such knowledge who simply says, “Yes, I will.” And that makes it clear why she was chosen for such a wonderful gift, yet such a heavy burden. God gave her just enough information to be going on with, without burdening her with the whole knowledge of what was to be. Because if Mary would have known all the wonders that Jesus would perform in his life, she also would have to had known the ignominious death filled with hideous suffering that was also in his future and the anguish she would suffer herself watching him die. It was God’s gift to her, the ignorance of all that was to come.

While we have only gotten the bare bones of the story in Luke’s gospel and we may never know all that Mary knew ahead of time, we can all strive to duplicate that perfect faith that she had. “In this world you will have trouble,” Jesus said in John 13, but went on to say, “But take heart, for I have overcome the world!” Take heart. Have faith. Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Second Sunday of Advent Year B December 7 2008

Mark 1:1-8

The beginning of the good news of Jesus Christ, the Son of God.

As it is written in the prophet Isaiah,

"See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you,

who will prepare your way;

the voice of one crying out in the wilderness:

`Prepare the way of the Lord,

make his paths straight,'"

John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And people from the whole Judean countryside and all the people of Jerusalem were going out to him, and were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins. Now John was clothed with camel's hair, with a leather belt around his waist, and he ate locusts and wild honey. He proclaimed, "The one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to stoop down and untie the thong of his sandals. I have baptized you with water; but he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit."


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Talk about job security. Enter John the Baptist, preaching. Obviously, here is a man who knows who he is and what he is supposed to be doing. John is one of the few people connected with Jesus who has this firm sense of identity, a supreme sense of focus on the job at hand. He not only knew who he was, he also knew just who he was NOT. I feel a bit of kinship with John, simply because my name, Janine, is the French female equivalent of John.

But that’s as far as my kinship seems to go. I go through life, trying to figure out just who I am and what I’m supposed to be doing. By contrast, John had probably been told since he was a small child that God had a job for him to do…one of these days. Did John fall right into line with the plan, right from the start? Or did he spend some time during adolescence rolling his eyes at Elizabeth every time she said, “God has a special purpose for you! Remember what I told you about when I met your Aunt Mary and felt you leap in my womb?” Did he rebel against this foreknowledge of his destiny? I’d like to think so…I don’t know many people who haven’t been dragged kicking and screaming into the purpose for which God has destined them. I know I have.

My first jolt of reality came soon after I was married. Maybe it’s not as mind-bending for men, but I think women experience a jolt when their maiden name gets changed to their married name. I can remember having a melt-down one day and tearfully telling my husband, “I don’t know who I am anymore!” Suddenly, my identity depended so much on how another person defined it. I was done making it all up myself as I went along. I probably should have gotten used to it, because discovering that I’m not who I thought I was has happened regularly ever since.

Most of us have this happen. We go through life as our parent’s child, our mate’s spouse, our children’s parent, our company’s employee. In my life I’ve been Tom & Betty’s Janine, Dan’s Janine, Laurel, Emily and William’s Mom, and at the different places I’ve worked, I’ve been their Janine or Ms. Tinklenberg, depending on how formal they liked to be.

But all of these people did not and do not define who I really am. Who I really am is something entirely more. Who we are is more than the sum of our parts.

In the novel “The Stand” by Stephen King, a story very loosely based on biblical prophecies of the Apocalypse, there is a character called Tom Cullen, who is known for spelling everything, “M-O-O-N”. In our politically correct world, these days, we would call Tom “mentally challenged”, but as some mentally challenged people do, Tom had a wisdom that occasionally came out at the most unexpected times. Towards the end of the novel, Tom is being prepared to go as a spy into the area controlled by the Antichrist by the people who oppose him. They decide that it would be best to hypnotize Tom, to better implant the directions that he would need to follow and to prevent Tom from inadvertently letting something slip that would give him away. Tom is amazingly perceptive about the reasons for this once he is under hypnosis, which startles the group. One of them asks him, “Are you the same Tom that Nick met in Oklahoma?”

And Tom answers: Yes. No. I'm God's Tom.

God’s Tom. When it comes right down to it, that IS who we are. I am God’s Janine, just as Karyn is God’s Karyn, and Pete is God’s Pete. As much as other people might lay claim to us, we are ultimately responsible most for being and becoming the person that God wants us to be.

And the truth is that we can’t be truly happy until we find out just what that is. When we bought our house, my husband and I had been married for 7 years. We had always said that we would not have children until we bought a house. All of a sudden, with the purchase of the house, the question of having children was now right in front of us. I also began to feel that, at the place where I worked, I was not valued or important. I realized that if I left, that I would be talked about for a little while, replaced quickly, and then forgotten. Was the company's Janine really who I was? I felt that my life was empty and purposeless. I spent two years struggling with depression, because I didn’t like the identity I had, but was frightened to become anything else. Finally, I decided not to decide. I would let nature decide if we would have children and I would no longer prevent it from happening. Having a child, I felt, would provide me with the purpose that was missing in my life. Once we had that child, we decided that I would leave work to become a full-time stay-at-home mom.

But by trading my employee badge in for my Mom badge, I avoided the whole question of who I really was. I traded one identity, one depression for another identity and another depression, effectively sidestepping the issue. Because once I had children, I suddenly discovered, again, that I was not who I thought I was. Motherhood was not enough for me and I was left groping for an identity that seemed ever more elusive.

When we consider the stereotypical middle aged man having an identity crisis, older couples suffering from “empty nest syndrome” or someone who has just retired from his job trying to find ways to redefine himself from “a company man” to something new and different, we see that it is very common for all of us, at different stages of our lives, to have to search for who we really are. Lily Tomlin said, “I’ve always wanted to be somebody, but I see now I should have been more specific.” If we really want to be specific, we should want to be God’s creation. Because we won’t be truly happy until we start moving towards that end. While having children brought joy to my life, it did not fill the void in my life that I desperately needed to fill, the knowledge of who I really was.

It wasn’t until I turned my life over to Christ in 1997 that I began to discover just who I was and I’m still in the process of discovering it. Unlike John the Baptist, I am not entirely sure what I’m supposed to be doing, but I know that I must be moving in the right direction. I find that the closer I get, the more the activities and things I used to find essential to my happiness become less essential. I find the grip that these things have on me grows weaker as the grip that God has on me grows stronger.

I am, like we all are, a work in process. Paul wrote, in his second letter to the Corinthians, “Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!” But the new doesn’t always come as fast as we might like, does it? Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus sounds much easier, sometimes, that our struggle to make sense of what God means for us to become. John had such certainty in his mission; why can’t we have that too?

However, unlike Paul and John, God usually chooses to do his work on us gradually, conquering the strongholds that sin has established in our lives, easing us out of the lives that sin has scarred and pushing us, sometimes gently, but sometimes roughly, towards the realization of the destiny that he holds in trust for us. Paul, observing this process in the churches that looked to him for guidance, wrote in his letter to the Philippians "For I am confident in this, that He who began a good work in you will complete it until the day of Christ Jesus"

By opening ourselves up to the working of the Holy Spirit, we will find ourselves changing to become God’s people first and foremost. Our certainty and confidence in who we really are will grow. The prophet Jeremiah wrote, “For I know the plans I have for you," declares the LORD, "plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” By following the Lord’s plans for us, we will discover our true identity, our hope and our future. We will still be our parents’ children, our children’s parents, our mate’s spouses, and, until we retire, our companies’ employees. But when we put God’s purpose first, we’ll find that these other roles become much more fulfilling than they ever were before because they will work through his purpose rather than against it. By becoming God’s people, we truly prepare the way for the coming of the Lord, for his Advent into our world. May we all make his paths straight.