Monthly Archives

December 2019

The Dark Side of Christmas

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“The Dark Side of Christmas”

Rev. Art Ritter

December 29, 2019

 

Matthew 2:13-23

Now after they had left, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and flee to Egypt, and remain there until I tell you; for Herod is about to search for the child, to destroy him.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother by night, and went to Egypt, and remained there until the death of Herod. This was to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet, “Out of Egypt I have called my son.”

When Herod saw that he had been tricked by the wise men, he was infuriated, and he sent and killed all the children in and around Bethlehem who were two years old or under, according to the time that he had learned from the wise men. Then was fulfilled what had been spoken through the prophet Jeremiah: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and loud lamentation, Rachel weeping for her children; she refused to be consoled, because they are no more.”

When Herod died, an angel of the Lord suddenly appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother, and go to the land of Israel, for those who were seeking the child’s life are dead.” Then Joseph got up, took the child and his mother, and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was ruling over Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. And after being warned in a dream, he went away to the district of Galilee. There he made his home in a town called Nazareth, so that what had been spoken through the prophets might be fulfilled, “He will be called a Nazorean.”

 

The news headlines appeared on my computer screen when I went online the day after Christmas.  If I was expecting the world to change after our observance of the birth of Jesus, I certainly was wrong!  There was the threat of North Korea’s “Christmas surprise.”  There was all of the talk about the impeachment trial and the posturing that surrounds it.  I read about protesters in Hong Kong amping up their plans for the New Year.  There was a shooting on the Lodge Freeway in Detroit.  A five year old autistic boy went missing near my hometown in Montcalm County, MI.  A typhoon killed at least 16 people in the Philippines.  A Christmas day fire displaced more than 200 people in Minneapolis.  Winter storms ravaged the West and the precipitation is heading this way.  And hazardous waste crews continued to clean up the “green ooze” that was flowing down an embankment onto I-696.

Every year at Christmas we focus our attention on good things.  That is why we tend to enjoy it so much.  We emphasize the colors, the beautiful music, the jolly Santas, the joyful carols, the happy hearts, and the neatly wrapped packages under the decorated trees.  All things seem possible as we hold the candles on Christmas Eve and get ready for bed with the latest report of the Santa tracker assuring us that all is well.

Yet sadly, at this time of year, things happen which remind us that Christmas is not really the escape that we wish from the reality of life.  December 26 brings one back to reality.  Even in the Christmas card greetings that Laura and I receive each year, some of the dark news of the world seeps through.  Along with the typical news of job promotions, exciting vacations, and grandchildren- our out- of -town friends have other news at Christmas.  We learn of friends with serious health concerns or tragic losses, of friends experiencing divorces or difficult work situations.  It isn’t all good news!

These things are like a shadow cast upon the brightness of the season.  While the light of God’s presence shines into the darkness, there is still a shade of gray vulnerability even in this season’s mystery and wonder.  I recall two significant December tragedies which shaded my Christmas celebrations.  In December of 2012, I remember the residents of Newtown, CT taking down their Christmas lights following the elementary school massacre there.  They were not in the mood to celebrate Christmas.  I also remember a famous picture from the 1988 bombing of Pam Am Flight 103 over Lockerbie, Scotland.  The photograph showed people sifting through the rubble of the crash.  And in the background of the photo was a man standing out on his balcony, taking down his Christmas lights before Christmas.  The darkness and death was too near and too overwhelming for his to celebrate the season.

How many of us realize that the Christmas story itself has a dark side?  The words of the gospel of Matthew read this morning tell us that an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream and warned him to take Mary and the infant Jesus away from Bethlehem and into Egypt.  King Herod, in a fit of jealous rage, was seething at the talk of some newborn king.  It threatened his power.  So he ordered his troops to search every household in Bethlehem and to kill every male infant.

Now this is a very brutal and bloody tale.  Some scholars believe that it is a fictional tale, underscoring the significance of Jesus’ story with Moses’ story and thus establishing his Messianic identity.  Others believe that it is historically accurate and points out the unsettled political and social environment of that time and place.  Either way, it is a difficult story to hear.  It certainly doesn’t illustrate anything that we want to talk about at Christmas.  It isn’t read from the pulpit on Christmas Eve.  It isn’t acted out in the children’s nativity scenes and pageants.  Yet here it is in Matthew’s gospel.  He writes about the birth of Jesus, the visit of the wise men, and then in the very next breath he paints the picture of bloodshed and death.  Why?  Why put this right after the Christmas story?  What does this have to do with Jesus’ birth?  Why would it be important enough to hear after such great and good news?  Why darkness and death so soon?

I can’t be certain, but I have a theory about this that I would like for us to reflect upon this morning.  I like to think that the Christmas story, in all of its grand celebration, is really just a prelude for what comes later.  As much as we love Christmas, it is not supposed to be the focal event of the people of Christian faith.  Events later on in the life of Jesus provide us more of an identity.  But here, in the nativity story itself, we are given hints about the future of this newborn King, the Savior of the world.  We are shown what kind of king he will be.  In his infant narrative, God’s great gift to humankind is announced not only by heavenly choirs but by brutal soldiers.  Jesus, the one to bring life, first faces the reality of death.  The Christmas story is not complete without adoring wise men and a murderous king, without extravagant gifts and bloody swords, and without swaddling clothes and burial cloths.

I think that by presenting the images of life and death so close together, Matthew’s story informs us that Jesus was born not only to bring God to us, but to also remove our greatest source of hopelessness-death.  God’s own son could not avoid death, even in his birth.  It would be there at the beginning of his life and it would be there at the climatic hour of his life.  But through it all, God would also be there.  And God would act to remove the sting of death.  Death would not win out.  The fear and finality of it all, the thing that robs us from the joy of living-all of that would be removed by the actions of the little baby born in Bethlehem.

Perhaps no one represents the forces of our world any better than good old King Herod.  In everything that he did, and in all that he stood for, Herod represented the dark side of the humanity.  Herod was a fearful and ferocious king-fearful of losing her power and ferocious toward his enemies.  He made use of his weapons of war and empire.  He was a bully.  He was power and he was logic and he represented the expected order.  In his might, Herod stood for the kind of things we fear and respect.  In his vulnerability and weakness, Herod acted with our kind of angst.  When confronted by the promise of God, he took refuge in his own palace.  He was content to first rely upon his own power and authority.  He was resistant to any invitation to change.  He enslaved others to his will through threats, through ignorance, and through thoughtless action.  Instead of embracing a dream, Herod crushed dreams.

Herod represented death in many forms.  Death comes when dreams die.  Death comes when valued relationships die.  Death comes when fear keeps us from living as we should.  Death comes when we ignore our God-given potential.  In all these things, Herod was death.

Muriel Sparks’ novel Memento Mori, describes a group of friends, all over age sixty-five, who one-by-one receive anonymous phone calls offering them this eerie reminder, “Remember, you must die.”  The novel is partly serious, partly humorous, but it speaks of the reaction of these different friends as they come to terms with the reality of the phone message.  The first instinct is fear.  They are concerned someone is going to act to end their life.  Then the friends begin to reflect upon their lives and assess how they have lived.  They see the good and the bad and how they have touched others and have been changed.  The fearful message, instead of a threat, becomes a lens by which they come to terms with the meaning of their lives.  The threat of death has taught them the value of life.

In a way, that is Herod’s job in the Christmas story.  He forces us to move past our playful and innocent Christmas dreams to the real world in which Christmas must be lived.  Life and death are a part of Christmas, as they are a part of life.  We cannot push the darkness away as an unwanted possibility.  It will still be there for God’s light to shine bright.  It happened that way even at the first Christmas.

In his book Jacob the Baker, Noah ben Shea tells the story of a student who was with a teacher for many years.  When the teacher felt that his death would come soon, he wanted to make even his parting a lesson.  That night he took a torch, called his student, and set off with him through the forest.  When they reached the middle of the woods, the teacher extinguished the torch without explanation.  “What’s the matter?” asked the student.  “This torch has gone out,” the teacher answered and walked on.  “But,” the student shouted with fear, “will you leave me here in the dark?”  “No!  I will not leave you in the dark,” returned the teacher’s voice from the darkness.  “I will leave you searching for the light.”

Such is the story this first Sunday of Christmas.  The gift of Christmas may not remove all the darkness.  The birth of God’s son does not mean the end of death and fear and hatred.  From the beginning of Jesus’ life, just like us, he has to confront and struggle with the forces of darkness and death, all the way from the manger to the sacrifice of the cross.  But God’s coming in the Christ Child tells us that there is now more to our world that we can see.  Things have changed.  The darkness does not own us.  Death is not the end.  In the story of Herod, these things are restored to the hands of God.  We can hope and live in the hope that the birth of Jesus means the eventual death of the kind of power that too often rules our world.

 

Dilemma to Decision

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Dilemma to Decision”

Rev. Art Ritter

December 22, 2019

 

Matthew 1:18-25

Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah* took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ All this took place to fulfil what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’,which means, ‘God is with us.’ When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;* and he named him Jesus.

 

Last Sunday we witnessed the timeless Christmas story told to us by the children of our Sunday School.  It is always a wonderful presentation, a beautiful picture of children of various ages, in costume, repeating the ancient words of the Christmas story and then standing around the manger.  It always turns out well.  But it is never as easy as it looks.  Things happen that you can’t control.  This year we had one of our angels who was ill and could not participate.  I recall one program, many years ago when we found out at the last moment that our Joseph was ill and would be unable to attend.  In a strategy that would have made Jim Harbaugh or Mark Dantonio proud, we simply eliminated Joseph’s lines with the innkeeper, gave the innkeeper kind of a monologue, moved one of our shepherds over to stand in Joseph’s place at the manger, and everything worked out just fine.

John Buchanan tells the story of a little girl who was drawing a picture of the Nativity scene.  It was designed to be a very busy project, to help keep her calm during her Christmas excitement, but the little girl took the project very seriously.  When she finished, she showed the picture to her mother.  The girl carefully explained each character and figure at the manger:  the shepherds and the sheep, the three wise men and their camels, the cows and even a cat and a dog.  And of course in the center of the picture, right beside the sleeping baby Jesus, was Mary.  It was a beautiful picture.  But her mother noticed that something was missing.  There was no Joseph.  “Where is Joseph?” the mother asked the little girl.  It seems he had been forgotten.  But instead of taking the picture and making the necessary correction, the girl gave a look of exasperation and defiantly said, “Who needs Joseph, anyway!”

Perhaps that little girl was on to something.  Of all of the characters in the entire story of Jesus’ birth, Joseph may be the one most overlooked.  He is mentioned only twice in the gospel of Luke, and in Matthew’s account of Jesus’ birth and the event preceding it, Joseph doesn’t get to say a single word.  The angels speak to him of God’s plan as it is to happen to his betrothed wife Mary and he accepts his part with a certain reticent silence.  In the next chapter Joseph’s dream is a rather important part of the Holy Family’s escape to Egypt, avoiding the death squads of Herod.  But after that, Joseph is mentioned by name only one more time later in Scripture, when Jesus is about twelve years old and wanders off to the temple on the family’s Passover trip to Jerusalem.  He was also later referred to when the people of Nazareth were questioning the authority of Jesus’ preaching.   Other than that, what we hear today is all we get of the man.

Last week at Mayflower Café we watched Adam Hamilton’s presentation of the Jesus through the eyes of Joseph.  Hamilton spoke of Joseph as a carpenter, not one who built houses but one who may have built farm implements- plows and yokes, bowls and spoons, cupboards, tables, and chairs.  He made a good living at his trade and he probably taught Jesus carpentry.  Although there isn’t much biblically on which to base the theory, Hamilton also believes Joseph taught Jesus much about life through his own example.  He taught him about the Torah and the important of religion.  He also taught him about family relationships and loyalty.

But perhaps the most important lesson that Joseph taught was one he teaches to each of us in this brief piece of Scripture we hear today.  This is the lesson about how to find the hand of God in our situations of life.  Joseph’s story was rather complicated.  His hometown was Bethlehem, a small town outside of Jerusalem but at some point his family moved ninety miles north to the town of Nazareth.  In Nazareth, his family and Mary’s family were probably acquainted.  Joseph may have done some work in Mary’s home.  He might have noticed her, been attracted to her, and asked her parents for her hand in marriage.  Most scholars believe that he was quite a bit older, in his mid-twenties while Mary was in her mid-teens.  But that was not unusual in those days.  Joseph brought a gift along with his marriage request.  Everyone went to see a rabbi and in the presence of witnesses a contract was signed.  Mary and Joseph were betrothed, engaged with more legal implications than it carries for us.  And then they began planning the future wedding- a week-long celebration that involved the entire community.

And then it happened.  Mary turned up pregnant.  Matthew doesn’t go into the details of the angel’s visit to Mary.  Remember, we are hearing the story here from Joseph’s side.  When Mary tried to explain it all to her future husband, it had to have been a most difficult conversation.  Joseph knew he wasn’t the father.  That Holy Spirit angle probably seemed like total nonsense.  Joseph had to have been completely embarrassed, humiliated, angry, and disappointed.  The facts were clear.  The engagement contract had been broken.  Matthew says that Joseph was a righteous man and that he made plans to end the engagement quietly.  He would let the world assume that he was the father of the child and assume part of Mary’s public shame.

And then the dream came.  Adam Hamilton mentioned that Mary’s angel came in the midst of the day but Joseph’s angel had to come in a dream at night.  Joseph’s life was so practical that he couldn’t see an angel while wide awake.  He couldn’t imagine a messenger of God standing beside him in the daylight.  It had to come at night.  Perhaps it was in the midst of a night of fitful sleep, wrestling with the circumstance in which he found himself.  William Willimon talks about the beauty and the significance of paintings and statues that portray the annunciation to Mary.  There isn’t anything like that about Joseph’s dream.  “Joseph bolting upright in bed, in a cold sweat after being told his fiancée is pregnant, and not by him, and he should marry her anyway.”  Hamilton goes on to say that perhaps in the days ahead Joseph might have wondered if his dream was actually real.  Was the angel the product of something he had had for dinner that night?  Was the outlandish information the angel presented something he could really trust?  Was there ever a day in which he didn’t doubt the validity of the dream and have to make the choice once again to stand by Mary and accept the consequences of their relationship? While the gospel of Luke describes Mary singing with joy at the news of the child she is carrying, the gospel of Matthew portrays Joseph as being too stunned to speak.  Quietly his life was disrupted.  Yet faithfully he carried on.

This is where we begin to understand that Joseph was really no minor player in the Christmas drama.  He could have gotten by with acting in accordance with the Law, and quietly ending the relationship.  But he was struck with an inner sense of compassion and mercy.  In the face of earthly expectations, he felt a calling by God to participate in a new thing.  While the daytime resolution to his dilemma was to quietly dismiss Mary, Joseph allowed himself to be open to a night of dreaming and wrestling and pondering his role in God’s plan.  He began to see his life through the eyes of God’s intention, rather than just the eyes of the practical world around him.

It strikes me that Joseph had to put aside a lot of the things to which we usually pay attention.  Pride.  Ego.  Status in the community.  A sense of what is right and what is wrong based on the written or unwritten rules of society.  The understanding of the conventional world.  He trusted the dream.  Certainly, he must have doubted as he made his way with his pregnant wife to Bethlehem.  He had to have had some questions as he watched her give birth in a dirty manger stall.  He probably wondered about why he and Mary and this holy child had to flee to Egypt so soon after the magi’s visit.  Yet he trusted that dream and in God’s intention.  He trusted it more than the reality around him.  He found that dream to be the place where God spoke the truth about him, a truth he perhaps couldn’t see in himself.  He experienced God with him, a holiness hidden in plain sight by the laws and scandals and questions and doubts and fears of humanity.

Do we need Joseph at the nativity scene for Christmas?  Was he really necessary?  Stanley Jenkins writes that one might go so far as to say that if Joseph is important, it is not so much because of what he accomplished himself- but because of what he allowed others to accomplish.  Yet that itself is an act of faith- setting aside our own agendas to allow something greater to happen.  Looking past the realities of the daytime to listen closely to the dreams of the night.  Being silent and practicing self-restraint to make room for God’s word to grow.

 

Are You The One?

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Are You The One?”

Rev. Art Ritter

December 15, 2019

 

Matthew 11:2-11

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.

 

David Leininger quotes a Reader’s Digest article from a few years ago.  A woman told about searching for the perfect birthday card for her husband.  She searched through many on the store racks until she ran across a rather promising one.  On the outside it read, “Sweetheart, you’re the answer to my prayers.”  Then she turned to the inside, which was inscribed like this, “You’re not exactly what I prayed for, but apparently you are the answer.”

Here in the Detroit area, we are suffering through what may be the worst display of professional sports performance in my entire lifetime.  The Tigers finished with the worst record in Major League Baseball last season.  That’s nothing new.  They tied for that achievement the previous year and they are odds-on favorite to do it again in 2020.  The Red Wings currently have the worst record in the National Hockey League, and as I put word to paper they were in the midst of an eleven game losing streak.  The Lions – oh, the Lions!  The Lions haven’t won a championship since 1957 and have won only one playoff game since that time, never appearing in a Super Bowl.  Our Lions once again rest comfortably in last place, currently on a six game losing streak.  Only the Pistons are not cellar dwellers, but they have a losing record.  Even if the Pistons do make the playoffs, they are certain to exit quietly in the first round.

I have to admit that I am most concerned about my Detroit Tigers.  At the recent winter meetings, the Tigers did the expected – nothing.  They have no one on their roster of real trade value.  We Tigers fan are told to be encouraged because we had the top choice once again we have the first choice in next summer’s Major League draft of young players.  Things might look good in five to seven years!  The real hope of Tigers’ fans are centered on a group of young pitchers who are at least a year or two or three away from entering the major leagues.  We are told to trust that these young arms and these high draft choices will someday provide us our salvation.  I wonder however if any of these much touted players will be the one who pitches us to a pennant.  As a realistic Tigers fan who remembers the promise and then disappointment of Chis Pittaro, Torey Lovello, Chris Shelton, Joel Zumaya, and Michael Fulmer – I am not going to hold my breath.

I don’t think that John the Baptist was a Detroit Tigers fan, but he might have known how we Tigers fan feel.  This morning’s Scripture lesson is kind of a strange one to hear on the third Sunday of Advent.  Last week we were once introduced to John, a rather cocky prophet who cried out in the wilderness, “Prepare the way of the Lord.  One is coming who will change the world and bring into place the Kingdom of God.  Repent and get ready!”  People were attracted to John and they lined up in masses to be baptized.  Certainly he had his critics, the Pharisees and the Sadducees.  But he was confident enough in his success to respond back to them strongly, “You brood of vipers!  Who told you that you could escape from the judgment of God’s Kingdom?”

This morning’s reading is also about John the Baptist but it is from a different time.  Whoever is responsible for selecting the lectionary assignments got the sense of timing all wrong and instead of talking about a baby born in Bethlehem, jumped ahead some ten chapters and thirty years into the middle of the gospel of Matthew’s account of Jesus’ ministry.  What an odd choice-an Advent reading that comes immediately after Jesus’ instructions to his followers about what they will encounter on the road to discipleship.

But perhaps it isn’t so strange.  According to Matthew’s account, John the Baptist, the extra confident fire and brimstone preacher of last week, is now in prison.  Months have passed since he baptized Jesus and proclaimed him as the Holy One of God.  As the time went by, things must have gotten harder for John.  Herod the Great had him locked up.  Jesus has begun his ministry and things hadn’t gone as well as perhaps John thought they should go.  Scott Hoezee of Calvin Seminary points out the wonderful description the author of Matthew uses in verse two, “When John heard in prison what Jesus was doing.”  Apparently, John was more than just a little disappointed in what he was hearing.  John talked of Jesus chopping down sinners like trees and throwing them into the fire.  John sought a Messiah who would arrive like a raging bull, making a clean sweep and a complete change in the world.  While John looked for and hope for a strong Messiah who would stand up for himself and make people feel proud and strong, instead he got Jesus- a Messiah preoccupied with the sick and the lame and the downtrodden, people who certainly weren’t the movers and shakers of the world.  How was any of that going to help people know right from wrong?  While he expected a tidal wave of God’s judgment, what he heard about in Jesus was merely a constant drip of God’s grace and mercy.  John wasn’t quite so certain that Jesus’ ministry was the culmination of his own ministry of baptism and a call to repentance.  And so John the Baptist sent his followers to Jesus, just to check things out.  He sent them with this question, “Are you the one who is to come, or shall we look for someone else?”  What a great question!  Are you the one we’ve been waiting for or is somebody better coming along?  Are you the one?  Sitting in a jail cell, John the Baptist had his doubts about Jesus the Christ.  If he wasn’t doubting, he certainly was having some strong second thoughts.  Perhaps we could go so far as to say he was disappointed.

Jesus’ response was also quite interesting.  He really didn’t answer John’s question.  Instead he told John’s followers to go back and report to John what they had seen and heard.  Go back and tell him about the blind receiving their sight, the lame walking, the lepers cleansed, the deaf hearing, the dead raised, and the poor receiving good news.  Jesus didn’t support his identity with proof of his own importance.  Instead he talked about something bigger than himself, the work of God that was happening among those and within those wherever he happened to be.  Things might not be happening in the glorious ways that John had wished, but things were happening at the deepest levels of all, in the personal and most important things of life.

Are you the one?  Maybe that is the question of Advent.  Each of us carries a host of expectations at Christmas.  Like John the Baptist we tend to set the bar pretty high.  We expect a lot of our Christmas hopes and dreams and we often expect the magic of this season to change the world, or at least our little corner of the world.  We might be pinning our hopes on some divine force to spread some pixie dust to magically fix things and make everything all right.  When very little happens in the way we wish, when discouragement and darkness are not banished, we might wonder about the authenticity of our faith or the faithfulness of our God.

What is it that we should look for at Christmas?  What is it that we should hope for in the gift of God?  Perhaps we can seek a world where the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor receive good news.  Perhaps we can lend a hand in making all of those things happen around us.  Instead of grand glorious world-altering celebration that we work so hard to create, we can simply become more aware of the presence of God around us.  We can understand that we are in this Kingdom of God business too.  We can realize that we have a part to play in making our hope real.

I recall many years ago when Laura was pregnant with Amelia, we attended a night for expectant parents and siblings at Beaumont Hospital.  While Laura and I heard presentations about what to expect when we would arrive at the hospital on that future uncertain night, Maren went to a separate room to hear about what it would be like to be an older sister.  Later, the three of us reunited in front of the nursery windows, the place where all of the newborns were sleeping.  Laura and I were standing in front of one baby when Maren, full of excitement and confidence approached.  “Is that one my new sister?”  Laura and I wanted to laugh but we didn’t want to embarrass Maren.  It was so enlightening to hear such innocent and simple expectations.  Is that my new sister?  If only it could be that easy.

There is an old Hasidic story of a pious Jew who asked his Rabbi, “For forty years I have opened the door for Elijah every Seder night, waiting for him to come, but he never does.  What is the reason?”  The rabbi answered, “In your neighborhood there lives a very poor family with many children.  Call on the man and propose to him that you and your family celebrate the next Passover at his house, and for this purpose provide him and his whole family with everything necessary for the eight days of Passover.  On the Seder night, Elijah will certainly come.”  The man did as the rabbi told him, but after the Passover he came back and claimed that again he had waited in vain to see Elijah.  The rabbi answered, “I know very well that Elijah came on the Seder night to the house of your poor neighbor.  But of course you could not see him.”  But the rabbi held a mirror before the face of the man and said, “Look, this was Elijah’s face that night.”

Theologian N.T. Wright called this question the elephant in the room at Advent.  Is the one born in Bethlehem “the One?” Will the realities of our world once again turn the warm fuzzies of Christmas into an unfulfilled dream?  Or will what we celebrate at Christmas inspire us enough to engage in the mission of God, bringing the promise of God’s son into our lives and our world.  If we believe that Jesus is the One, the world may not change, but our part in the world needs to.

 

Introducing Jesus

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“Introducing Jesus”

Rev. Art Ritter

December 8, 2019

 

Matthew 3:1-12
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. “I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

 

My daughter Maren and her husband Max used to work with the youth at a church in New Albany, Indiana, right across the Ohio River from Louisville. Maren told me that in the worship service every single Sunday, right before the sermon, the liturgist would offer the Scripture lesson to the congregation. We do the same thing. There is nothing unusual about that. But following the reading, the liturgist would then move into a formal introduction. It went something like this, “And now for this morning’s sermon entitled, ‘Introducing Jesus,’ I would like to present the Rev. Arthur P. Ritter.” Maren wanted to know why we didn’t do something like that at Meadowbrook and I told her that I thought that it perhaps was a bit too formal and that I probably wasn’t worthy of such a formal introduction. After an introduction like that, all of you would not know whether to applaud or boo.

William Willimon tells a story about the late Tonight Show host Johnny Carson. If you are old enough to remember, you will recall that every night, the show opened the same way. There was an announcement, “It’s the Tonight Show starring Johnny Carson.” Then there was a listing of the show’s special guests and the mention of Doc Severinsen and the band. Finally there was the memorable trademark line, “Heeere’s Johnny!” All of this was done by Johnny’s faithful sidekick, Ed McMahon. Perhaps it was something that all of us who watched the show just simply took for granted. But years after his retirement from the show, Johnny was asked the secret to his success. He replied to the question quickly, saying, “I was lucky enough to be introduced every night by Ed McMahon.”

I was speaking to someone last week about Rabbi Harold Kushner’s book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People. I recall with great pride that sometime in the mid-90’s I was chair of the West Bloomfield Clergy Association. Part of that responsibility was that I got to introduce the main speaker at the Jewish Community Center’s annual book fair. I was fortunate enough to be the chair when Rabbi Kushner was asked to be the main speaker. Imagine me, getting the opportunity to meet and talk with and finally introduce such a wonderful man and influential author. I was nervous beyond belief. I don’t recall what I said that day but I do remember thinking that I just needed to offer a quick introduction and get off the stage as fast as I could! With the possible exception of Laura, there was no one there who was there to hear me!

There is a certain discipline and skill that applies to introductions. When you are introducing someone you must understand that the audience is there to listen to them and not you. You prepare with a few facts or items of information. You spend enough time making certain your facts are correct. You don’t talk long. William Willimon writes of a speaker, who after a terribly long introduction began his speech by saying, “Forgive me for interrupting your introduction of my speech with my speech.” You don’t make the introduction about yourself. You don’t try to impress the crowd with your own credentials or personal relationship with the speaker. Again, Willimon says that a bad introduction tells the audience what the introducer would have said if the program committee had been smart enough to have invited the introducer to be the main speaker. As a preacher and religious commentator, Willimon concludes his lesson on introductions by saying that the best one he ever received was, “And now I present to you the man who has ruined many of my Sunday lunches with what he said in his sermon.”

The Second Sunday of Advent always features the central character of Advent, John the Baptist. As Advent prepares us for the Christmas that is to come, John the Baptist prepares us by introducing the main speaker that is Jesus. We are here to get ready to celebrate Christmas and to honor Jesus’ birth. But we won’t get there until we hear the words of John the Baptist that point to the honored guest. While the birth narrative of Jesus was recorded in only two of the gospels, this introduction to Jesus by John the Baptist was important enough to be told by all four gospel writers.

Perhaps John didn’t get the opportunity to read the rules of introduction. He was at best, a little rough around the edges. He dressed in camel’s hair clothing. He had a diet of honey and locusts. He seemed to be willing to say whatever it took to get his point across. He held nothing back. He told them how it was. “You bunch of snakes. Who told you that you could escape the fires of hell? His ax is in his hand. He will cut you at your roots. He will separate the good stuff from the trash and throw you into the fire! I am not worthy to tie his shoelaces. But you better get cleaned up. Strip off those fine clothes and get into the muddy river and get baptized. You have been properly warned!” I always recall that Barbara Brown Taylor once wrote that John the Baptist was “the Doberman pinscher of the Gospel.” She said that because his words sink their teeth into us, shakes our souls around, and will not let us go. Another commentator says that it is interesting to note that John the Baptist is not part of our nativity scenes or seldom a part of our Sunday School Christmas programs. Scott Hoezee writes that nobody wants John the Baptist at their holiday party. He is one messy and rude guest. “You can’t even get through the first verse of ‘The Little Drummer Boy’ before he is telling you to confess your sins for the umpteenth time.” Hoezee adds that John would scare that poor little drummer kid silly, which may be just as well as that is surely one song that would make John gag!” Despite this belligerent attitude, all of the gospels introduce the story of Jesus with the story of John. He is the guide to what is to come. You can’t hear Jesus until John is first done talking.

John the Baptist spoke a hard truth. While we usually come to worship to get some peace in the midst of our lives and find out how important we are in God’s eyes, John had a different purpose. His point was that there is something not so right about each and every one of us. Our world is out of sync. Our priorities reflect our own interests rather that the good of our brothers and sisters. There are places where we separate ourselves from God’s intention. There are ways in which we set ourselves up as a little higher than God. We are often more content and self-satisfied that we should be.

Jesus is coming to point us to a new way. He is coming to offer the good news of God’s love. He is coming to preach a message of peace and forgiveness, mercy and grace. But John says we won’t be able to see Jesus or hear Jesus until we get ourselves washed and cleaned in the river. John introduces Jesus by saying, “Repent and change because something big is coming after my little talk and you are not going to understand it until you are truly ready to listen.”

Karl Barth, the famous 20th century theologian, said that John the Baptist is the model for all preaching. John points to Jesus saying, “Jesus become greater, as I become smaller.” Barth said that the most difficult task for preachers is to not get in the way of Jesus. Perhaps that is the Advent lesson of this introduction of Jesus. Figure out what things in your life are getting in the way of the presence of God that is to come. You can change. You can return from your place of exile from God. You can reconnect with the One who made you and loves us beyond understanding. The Kingdom of God is near.

We must hear and heed the words of John the Baptist before we can celebrate the birth of the Christ Child. We are the people who have become so cold in our faith that we don’t allow Christ to make a difference in our lives. We are the ones who pay so much attention to our decorating and our shopping and our baking that we neglect the true nurture of our spirits. We are folks who are so caught up in shiny idols and worldly tinsel that we have eclipsed the wonder of angels around us calling us to repentance. Or perhaps we are those who have been made so tired by the divisive issues of our time or left so frightened by prospects of our dark world that we can see no hope.

Yet our hope is that we still have room for John in our Advent preparation. His is a voice that calls out- a voice that we need to hear. We must listen to the proper introduction concerning the presence of God before we can understand the meaning of the baby born in the manger. We need to repent, to change, to live in a different direction before we can welcome and embrace the meaning of Christ’s coming into our world.

An Unexpected Hour

By | Sermons

Meadowbrook Congregational Church

“An Unexpected Hour”

Rev. Art Ritter

December 1, 2019

 

Matthew 24:36-44

“But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.

 

I recall my fourth grade teacher.  A least one time each day she would walk to the door and announce, “I am going down the hall for a few minutes.  When I get back, I want to see everyone at their desks doing their assignment.  Is that clear?”  I wasn’t ever certain where she went “down the hall” and at the time it really didn’t matter.  Perhaps she needed a rest room break or a cup of coffee or a cigarette.  But it probably wasn’t something that was supposed to happen and certainly would not be something a teacher would do today.  As soon as the door closed and she entered the hallway, the action began.  Everyone in my classroom started running around.  Student began throwing things at one another.  My friends and I engaged in a game of garbage can basketball.  We had a good time but we were usually quite smart about it.  We were careful not to disturb anything on our teacher’s desk and usually one of my classmates would stand near the door, peering out into the hallway to see if the teacher from across the hall could hear us and then report when our teacher was returning from down the hall.

There was one classmate who refused to participate in the hijinks.  Her name was Lora and she was a bit of the teacher’s pet.  When our teacher left the room, Lora never left her seat.  She never closed her books.  But worst of all, Lora would remind us that we were supposed to behave.  When we asked her to be the scout at the door, Lora refused.  She simply said, “We wouldn’t need to keep watch at the door if everyone stayed at their desk and did what we were supposed to be doing.  If we all were doing our assignments, nobody would be getting into trouble.”  That was so mature of Lora!

I think about those elementary school days when I hear the Scripture passage for the First Sunday of Advent.  The author of Matthew writes about being ready for the return of Jesus.  This readiness does not consist of doing spectacular and challenging things.  It is measured in simple faithfulness, it is in staying at our desks and finding the presence of Jesus in our daily routine, in the next moment.

The First Sunday of Advent always includes these difficult and almost frightening lessons.  “About that day and hour, no one knows.  Two people will be in the field and one will be taken and one will be left.  Like a thief in the night, the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.”  This stuff is about the second coming of Jesus.  It hints at something that is found in the “Left Behind” books and movie scripts that speak of the rapture and of the faithful disappearing and others on Earth abandoned.  It speaks to our anxiety about whether or not we’ve done enough or been good enough to earn our favor with God.  It has always seemed to me to be an odd way of preparing for Christmas.

Neil Plantinga of Calvin Theological Seminary writes that we live between the first coming of Jesus and his second coming and most of us feel a lot better about the first one.  That is because the first coming is about a baby and we know about babies and we have figured out how to manage Christmas so the little Lord Jesus is asleep on the hay.  But the second coming is different – full of urgency, of endings and beginnings, and everything changing.  It is something we don’t understand so we can’t manage it or domesticate it.  “We don’t know how many more shopping days are left until the Son of Man returns.”  And it is this second coming, this return to the classroom from down the hall that we fear.

But the author of Matthew was not concerned about reading signs and creating timetables for Jesus’ return.  Instead of worrying of being stuck in the past or worrying about the future, Matthew wrote about Jesus preparing his disciples for his absence in their present circumstance.  It is time to wake up, Jesus said.  No matter where I am, this is your best chance to discover what abundant life is all about.  This is your best opportunity to help others by living in my love.  This is the best time to live the kind of life I want you to live.  Do not wait until you are more comfortable or knowledgeable or self-satisfied.  You will stop looking for me then.  The time is now.  I am coming even today.  Be prepared to live with me and for me now.

Keith Herron writes that back in Kentucky, there is a legend of a cold day in February of 1809 when a rural mail carrier made his weekly trip through Hardin County.  A local man met him at a crossroad and inquired about the goings on in the outside world.  The mail carrier reported that there was talk about a National Bank being created in Washington and about how it looked as though there might be trouble brewing again between the new United States and their former mother country of England.  Then the mail carrier turned the conversation around.  He asked the local man, “Tell me, what is happening in these parts?”  The local man thought a moment and answered, “Nothing ever happens here.  There was a baby born last night to Nancy Hanks and Tom Lincoln, but shucks – nothing much ever happens around here.”

We are not left behind.  We are not left alone.  We are not to look for signs of the end of the world by the advent of God’s world in Jesus the Christ.  We live through Advent watching and waiting for the hand of God to be born and to live faithfully for God’s promises to be fulfilled.  Thomas Long writes, “We are to persevere in our struggles, because at any moment we might be surprised by the presence of God.  We may not know what to expect from God, but we always know what we can count on.” God’s day will arrive soon. In the meantime, we are to strive to live faithfully as we watch and wait and to seek places within our words and actions where Christ can come again.