Monday, December 14, 2015

Christmas Hopes - God's Topsy-Turvy Ways

Preached on the Second Sunday in Advent, December 13, 2015

Scripture readings: 1 Samuel 16:1-13; Luke 1:39-56

A Bit of Snow, Desert Aire/Mattawa, WA
November-December 2015
There was a boy playing baseball all by himself. He yelled, “I am the greatest batter in the world!” And he tossed his ball up in the air, and when it came down he swung at it, and he missed, and he yelled, “Strike One!” Then he yelled again, “I am the greatest batter in the world!” and he tossed his ball up in the air, and when it came down, he swung at it again, and he missed, and he yelled, “Strike two!” And he yelled, “I am the greatest batter in the world!” and he tossed that ball up in the air, and when it came down, he swung at it again, and he missed, and he yelled, “Strike three!
Wow! What a pitcher! I am the greatest pitcher in the world!”
Now that's not bad. There is one thing you can say about that boy. He was playing his game in the spirit of an undeserved happiness. I believe that this is what true humility is like: like living in the presence of an undeserved happiness. The boy shows us the picture of what true, childlike humility is.
We normally think of humility as painful and sad. But I believe that the pain and sadness only happen when we are learning humility against our wills. Elizabeth and Mary show us the picture of what humility is like when the lesson has been learned.
If we had been there, we might have noticed two things. We might have noticed that we were in the presence of holiness. (By holiness, I mean that we might have noticed that we were in the presence of something of the greatest importance and purpose.) We also would surely have smiled and laughed out loud at the sight of the weathered old pregnant woman and the young pregnant teenager singing to each other.
Some years ago, one of my churches put on a cantata for Holy Week. It was a long piece of classical music written by a French opera composer. (“The Seven Last Words of Christ” by Theodore Dubois) It was seriously artistic music. After the concert, someone from the audience came up to me and told me how much he had enjoyed it. He said, “You all sounded just like ordinary people singing opera.”
Think of the possibilities in that double edged compliment. In fact the director was going to record us so that we could each have a copy as a souvenir, but he decided not even to let us hear it: ordinary people singing opera. We understood without asking why. But we enjoyed doing what we did with an undeserved happiness.
Ancient Elizabeth was the mother of a prophet. Young Mary was the Mother of God (in a way; not in eternity, but in time). These things didn’t fit together very well. Who, in heaven’s name, could possibly be in charge of such a mixed up scheme. It was holy and hilarious.
David was the eighth son. Seven was the number of perfection. Eight was just redundant. The seven brothers were men and warriors who looked the part of kings. David was just a kid, and he acted like it too. David was the straggler. The brothers weren’t a litter, but David was the runt of them.
David, for all his faults and moral struggles, was the picture of what a king should be, and that was the picture that God followed when God became human. What a crazy, mixed up idea. David was the shepherd king, and Jesus’ first followers were the shepherds.
Mary and Elizabeth give us a picture of holiness, and singing, and laughter; and then there is danger too.
Both Elizabeth and Mary were women in danger: Elizabeth, bearing a child in her old age (that wasn’t safe); and Mary, secretly pregnant with a child who could get her into a lot of trouble, with Joseph, and with their two families, and with the whole village where they planned to live, and have a business, and raise their family. Both of their lives were at risk. And here they were singing!
These two women, or these two girls (for women are always girls, in heart, which is why they live longer than men), stood at the very center of what God was doing in the universe, yet no scholar or ruler in the world would have taken them seriously. They weren’t just singing. They were prophesying. They were prophets full of the Holy Spirit. Their songs were about the future, and the part they were playing in the kingdom of God.
If anyone with any real authority took them seriously, these two women would be in trouble again. They would have to be put in their place. And yet they were singing. For the moment, they were absolutely confident and happy.
They knew that their happiness was incomprehensible to others. They knew it would be a scandal to others. They knew that their happiness had nothing to do with who they were, or with what they had done; because they weren’t anyone in particular. In fact, they were second class human beings; because they were women living in their time and place.
They had not done anything at all to cause the reason for their happiness. Their happiness was gracious and undeserved. God had accepted them. God had given them a part to play that they could never be qualified for.
Their happiness wasn’t for show. No one of importance was paying attention. Their happiness wasn’t pretend. And it wasn’t crazy.
Along with Zechariah, these women were among the three people in the whole world who knew what was really going on in the world. They were the only ones in the world who were in touch with reality.
Many people in the world go around thinking they are happy when they don’t have the slightest notion of the things that really belong to happiness. But these women knew. Every one in the world would have thought these women were crazy: but, compared with them, it was everyone else who was crazy.
Here we see a picture of part of our Christmas hope. These women knew what God was really doing; and what truly mattered most to God. They knew what God intended to do through them. And they could take a good sober look at themselves, and sing and laugh about it all. It was well worth all the potential risks, and dangers, and the skepticism of others.
What this picture tells us is that God’s promise is that the world is crazy and we are not. Human power does not overrule God’s cause, God’s power, God’s kingdom.
For instance; the emperor Augustus, in Rome, was ordering a census of his empire. His royal decree forced Joseph and Mary to travel to Bethlehem. So, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, instead of in Nazareth. They traveled in obedience to the orders of the Roman emperor.
But the Old Testament prophet Micah had predicted the birth of the messiah in Bethlehem (Micah 5:2), seven hundred years before it happened. So who was on top of things? Who was making things happen?
The culture of the Roman Empire held that dignity and power were the ultimate values. The Kingdom of God held that humility and faithful love were the ultimate values.
Rome held the power, and maintained the roads. The Roman peace enabled the disciples of Jesus to travel and bring the good news to the known world, with a minimum of trouble. And so, who was really making things happen?
The Greeks and Romans, together, had built a civilization that had so many outposts, spread so far, that the disciples of Jesus, knowing a little Greek, could make themselves understood from Britain, to Ethiopia, to India. Because of the power of Greece and Rome, the disciples could spread the gospel and its values of humility and faithful love farther than the emperor could send his own soldiers.
What happened in Rome was of the greatest importance. And what Jesus would do, and what the disciples and the early Christians would do, would have a growing influence in the Roman capital. And what happened in Rome, in the long struggle between the Christians and the pagans, would serve the kingdom of Jesus.
There were times, for a couple of centuries in Rome, where portions of the church had to truly go underground, living in the caves and catacombs beneath the capital, in order to survive. But the Kingdom of Jesus survived the Kingdom of Rome.
So, who was really in charge?  In the very middle of history, God is in charge. At the very end of history, God will be in charge.
The Lord’s Supper is a table set in a topsy-turvy world. There are people and parts of society that look like they are on top, but they are not. They look like they are the future, but they are not.
The Lord’s Table is the table of a kingdom where it is the poor, the small, those held in contempt, who are fed. It teaches us to be very careful about the ones we think of as poor, and small, and contemptible. Those who think they are something, and those who think they are the future, are always sent away empty.

The kingdom is designed for those who can enjoy the presence of an undeserved happiness. King Jesus found his happiness in places where it seemed the most unlikely for someone who came down from heaven. The hands that move the world were the hands in a manger that wrapped tightly around the finger of Mary. The heart that rules the world was pierced, by a Roman spear on the cross. And here we come to be fed by this hand, and loved by this heart, and saved by the real King who rules here.

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