December 13, 2020
THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
“The God of Resurrection”
Before retirement, I served as a United Methodist pastor in an appointment system. That means a bishop, along with a cabinet of district superintendents, sent me to pastor churches that had little to say about my being there. The cynical sometimes refers to this as Methodist roulette. This process might rattle the values of the Presbyterian faithful, but there are strengths and weaknesses in both systems.
I learned quickly that the phone can ring, day or night, with the district superintendent’s caller I.D. on the screen. It’s a little like death. You never know for sure. When you leave a congregation it is understood that you separate yourself and refrain from contacting your former parishioners. In most, but not all cases, there is grief. To this day I miss being with the children who came up for children’s time. This time of year I remember the Christmas pageants and all the chaos surrounding our best efforts to instill the stories of Jesus’ birth into the awareness entrusted to our care.
Reality wins. One appointment ends. Another begins. New relationships. New stories.
Arriving at a new appointment, I noticed a shiny, black corvette parked at the home of one of my parishioners. There was a “FOR SALE” sign in the front window. Every now and then I would see it parked at the gas station by the interstate, or by the bank downtown. This went on for about three years, and then one day it disappeared. I mentioned it and there was a pause…and a sigh, “You know, pastor, when I bought that car it was one of the happiest days in my life and when I finally sold it, I was equally happy.”
That story eventually prompted a sermon with a theme that we don’t own stuff, stuff owns us. But it didn’t end there. The story pushed me deeper into a meditation that considered the contrast between happiness and joy.
Here’s what I learned. Happiness resides in the temple of accomplishment. Joy resides in the temple of covenant.
Happiness is oh so temporary. Joy is eternal.
Happiness too often comes at the expense of another. Joy is shared.
The Advent candle of Joy represents the bedrock of the covenant initiated by God and extended to all creation. I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I AM the God of Moses and Joshua. I AM the God of Jesse, David, and Solomon. I AM the God of Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. I AM the God of John the Baptist and I AM the God of Resurrection. I will be your God and you will be my people.
The joy of Advent comes from God’s faithfulness even as we flounder in the waters of baptism.
All four gospels present John the Baptist at the beginning of the story of Jesus. Matthew and Mark provide a classic image of a prophet right out of the wilderness. Luke goes so far as to suggest that John and Jesus are cousins.
Visualize, if you will, a figure eight set on its side like the symbol we use for infinity. Place the Hebrew Scriptures in one opening, and the Christian Scriptures in the other. John the Baptist is placed right there at the intersection. He is both the glue and the threshold of covenant joy that reveals historic faithfulness along with the affirmation of resurrection as a promise initiated by God.
When we baptize, we, again, affirm God’s covenant to live faithfully, providing an environment of steadfast support and witness, a covenant shared by God’s people.
I’m willing to guess that at some point, each one of us has felt the presence of this faithful God at precisely the right moment in our lives. The candle of joy reminds us to remain open to this possibility, especially in the midst of anxiety, grief and suffering.
Being open and responsive to God’s presence honors the covenant, bringing joy to both God and believer. When this happens corporately, like when a person is baptized, the joy expands exponentially.
When an infant is baptized in church, we all wait to see how the baby will respond to the water. That’s when all the cameras start clicking. By the way, it’s always a good idea to use warm water! But for me as an officiant, the most powerful, and joyful moment comes after the water. I hold the child or lay hands on those older placing my right hand where water has just been and say the following words: “The Holy Spirit work within you that being born of water and spirit, you may become a faithful follower of Jesus Christ.”
They look right at you. And for a moment, there’s a powerful connection that defies description. We baptized a two-year-old, appropriately named Maverick. We literally had to catch him to do it! But when it came time for that moment of blessing, he stopped in his tracks and looked me square in the eye and received the blessing. It was a spirit-filled moment that amazed his parents, this preacher, and the congregation. It was a moment of covenant joy! Such moments bring joy and confidence to the life of a congregation, setting aside, at least for a moment, the anxiety so many experience.
We are living in a time of great pressure created by our marketplaces. Each day we are exposed to thousands of solicitations coming from printed, audio, and video images.
We’re approaching the Christmas Season, so I’ll pick on the company that provided the image we accept as Santa Claus. Yes. Coca-Cola.
Through the power of advertising there are many who will pay $2 or more for something that costs less that 4 cents to produce. The highest cost of production is the packaging.
Have you noticed their advertising lately? It’s images of family gatherings around a dinner table, drinking Coca-Cola from retro bottles, suggesting that the product can capture and provide something that has been taken away by a pandemic.
Advertisers know how to get into our heads. They’re experts at creating needs that their product will fulfill. They are an accepted part of the fabric of our lives. But right about now I hear the voice of Jesus reminding his disciples to go out into the world innocent as doves, but wise as serpents.
What do you think the long-term affect might be regarding negative campaign adds on the spiritual health of our communities? Negative adds exist because they have proven to be affective. But that’s the short-term outcome. What’s the long-term consequence? We might be living in some of those consequences at this very moment.
Those who choose the personal choice of gathering in mass without masks have chosen a path that might add to their personal happiness but have done so at the expense of the covenant of community.
Those who show up at the doorstep of public places or the homes of those who work in the public sector with loaded weapons have chosen the personal power of intimidation at the expense of community covenant.
What happens when a corvette is purchased without the enthusiastic support of a spouse? What happens if it incurs indebtedness that is not mutually supported? That monthly payment carries the potential of divorce. Broken covenant. The deep hurt.
The candle of joy we light this day is a reminder of God’s covenant faithfulness. God’s purpose is expressed in the Year of Jubilee, the Year of the Lord’s Favor: good news is brought to the poor, liberty to the captive, the brokenhearted and sick are healed, grief and mourning receive the oil of gladness…righteousness and praise. The deep hurt loses its grip. Grace and forgiveness bring the prospect of restored covenant.
John the Baptist points us in the direction of Jesus Christ who baptizes with the Holy Spirit, the energy and counsel that will see us through this time of pandemic and political strife.
Our house is decorated to celebrate Christmas, just as it always is. However, this year, very few will see our efforts. But it has become part of who we are, and it directs the trajectory of our covenant relationship with each other and all those who have influenced and contributed to the newness of life that greets each day.
May the Joy of Christmas find you and bless you with a life that includes the embrace of resurrection through our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen.