Sermon Summary 11.27.22 Advent 1
The Magi are looking for a sign. Watching, waiting, preparing, praying.
They are patient. They are purposeful.
They are good mentors for us in this season of Advent.
I want to mention and admit that I have disrupted a tradition here at First. When I got here, literally, one of the first things I was told is there's a nativity set in your closet, don't touch it.
It goes in a certain spot. I’m not sure who donated it but there were traditions. It has a place. And I want to assure you that last week when we decorated, the people leading that did their job. They set this nativity up in its place.
Nativity sets or creches have been around since the 1200s. St. Francis of Assisi created the first one – finding a way to tell the stories of Jesus’ birth from Luke and Matthew to illiterate people – people who, even if they could read, didn’t have access to written Bibles. So St. Francis found a way to tell the stories. And the nativity story is true and powerful – and yet it is not the story Luke tells and it is not the story Matthew tells and sometimes it helps to really focus on those stories.
We normally focus on Luke’s account with just a smattering of Matthew.
As I was preparing and praying and planning for Advent, as I reviewed the materials for the “Reflecting the Sacred” series I’m drawing from – I kept coming back to Matthew and the Magi – and when I had the chance to get our signs with “the Gift of Hope has already arrived” I knew I wanted to let the Magi guide us in this season.
When we read Matthew we find that the Magi arrive at a house – not a stable – and based on Herod’s conversation with his advisors, it may be as much as two years after Christ’s birth.
The Magi after all came from distant lands.
If we turn to the Old Testament, we are reminded that Daniel was an advisor in Persia. Daniel who was faithful. Daniel who taught. Perhaps these Magi are from those same couts, descended from people Daniel influenced and taught. Perhaps they have been watching and waiting for this sign not just for decades, but for generations.
Patience, persistence, faithfulness. Waiting for the right time, then acting. Reorienting themselves and seeking Christ.
The texts Mille read for us are both about time. God’s time. And about being prepared. I have shared that I’m not personally sure there is a “last day” in God’s plan – and I base that not on any special insight I have but on the fruit that different theologies bear. I find those who focus on end times are usually pretty judgmental, pretty controlling, rather unChristlike.
And I may well be wrong. But I also find such focus doesn’t make much sense to me because regardless of what God’s plan for a final day might be I know, I know that I will die – that I will reach the end of this life. And I need to be prepared when I get the opportunity to meet my maker face to face.
And I need to wrestle with these texts that talk about end times. I don’t ignore them or set them aside. One thing I’m confident of – in all the talk about staying awake – is that they are not about refusing to rest. After all Sabbath is holy. After God calls all good things into being,
But there is a difference between resting and avoiding. We either center our work, our play and our rest on God, or we focus elsewhere – that’s what these texts are about. Advent is a reminder to always be ready. You don't know when the Son of man will come.
As we interpret these texts, I want to share another of the lectionary readings for this day.
In days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, ‘Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.’ For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into ploughshares, and their spears into pruning-hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk
in the light of the Lord!
Judgment does not have to be a threatening concept. Judgment can be about just resolutions and wholeness and healing. We have to read these texts together. Our reading from Matthew is surrounded by a number of other images and parables. Just before today’s text, Jesus talks of the sign of the fig tree – and how when we see buds, we know fruit is coming. We know the signs and the seasons of life.
Immediately after our reading, in Matthew 25, Jesus tells the parable of the ten virgins – bridesmaids preparing for a wedding. The groom is late. Some are prepared to handle that delay, some are not. I presided at a wedding once where most of the wedding party was off-kilter and, so, things were delayed. Fortunately, the organist was brilliant. She just filled in while we got reorganized. She was prepared.
These 10 virgins. Their task is to maintain the light for the procession. And five of them do their task well. They trim the wicks. They have extra oil. So, when the bridegroom is delayed, they are prepared. They can handle that emergency. But 5 are not prepared – they run out of oil.
When the bridegroom comes, they can’t help with the procession.
As you entered today, you have the opportunity to get a little vial of oil. It was blessed by Greek Orthodox priest at the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem. The traditional spot in Christendom of Jesus’ burial. Of the cross. It is now a place of joy and awe and wonder - because the tomb was empty. The manger was full. Advent is about seeing and reflecting the light of Christ. Celebrating that Christ desires to dwell with us. That Christ guides us. So, I encourage you to take a bit of that oil and there's an announcement in the bulletin. I want you to take that oil with you. To think about your journey, to think about your sacred places and memories. And I invite you during the ordinary days of Advent. To anoint yourself, perhaps your hand or your forehead. And to anoint some place, some object, some memory. Maybe it's a quarter of a photo or a beloved Christmas decoration. Something that reflects the sacred - to your experience to God's presence in all things.
The practice of anointing is the practice of awareness. Of focus. Of celebration.
Advent is an opportunity to refill the oil. Advent, practiced well, supplies rest, renewal, focus
If we're distracted, if we're asleep, if we're not paying attention, if we run out of oil, we're not prepared.
Our theology should never be about fear. If people are afraid, they can be controlled – yet God does not seek control. God yields. God overcomes. The good news can be challenging and difficult, but it is not about fear and control. It is about awe and wonder.
Advent is a season of awe and wonder. It is a season designed to allow us to refill our lanterns to be light in darkness. to renew our spirit of joy and generosity to prepare ourselves our hearts, our minds to be the place where Christ is born in this time, in this place.
Our passage talks of workers in the field – one taken, one left. It is not about fear – it is about being alert and aware of God’s time. All of these texts flow together. We need to wrestle with and understand them together.
If we keep reading in Matthew 25, Jesus gives another parable of judgment. The Word of God sitting on the throne and he divides the people. Sheep and goats For I was thirsty, I was hungry, I was a stranger. – to the sheep he says, you gave me something to drink, you took me in.. To the goats, he said, you let me stay thirsty and turned me away
Yet the sheep say they're confused. They don't understand. They don't remember serving Jesus
Likewise, the goats are confused – protesting – when did we see you? Both are told “in the least of these.” Very often we make this passage, read by itself, about doing – we fall into the trap of thinking what we DO saves us – but it is Christ who offers salvation. The point of the sheep and goats – the goats think they’re doing all the right things – but only for those who they deem deserve it – they are so busy controlling they miss Christ.
No – the sheep do these things not to earn reward but because they already dwell in the light of Christ. We share grace because Christ fills us because the spirit guides us. We naturally do those things. We don't think about doing those things to earn anything. We do those things out of response, out of overflow
If we are calculating and weighing scales and trying to find an advantage, we’ve missed the point. We're not going to wind up doing the things Christ is calling us to do.
I was reading a commentary on this and the author brought up an earlier parable – from Matthew 13 – the same chapter we read about the mustard seed. What is the kingdom of God like?
Jesus says a man finds a treasure in a field. He goes and sells everything to buy that field, to possess that treasure. It is the most precious thing.
The commentator suggested the parable is about Jesus claiming us. The treasure is buried within us. In all of our brokenness and sinfulness and selfishness, Christ sees the treasure – the image of God we are created with. Christ offers everything that we might see and possess that treasure. Christ opens himself to ridicule or rejection – he seeks not control but connection – our participation in God’s ongoing act of incarnation and creation.
Christ shares another parable about a man who owns a vineyard and he hires people to come and work in the vineyard. Early in the morning, some of them go to work. The man keeps going back and he brings more workers and more workers until finally the end of the day, another group shows up even as the workday is ended. The landowner calls everyone he's hired to come and line up to be paid. It gives each of them a full day's wage… and the ones that showed up first feel it when I read that passage. It's not fair. They worked harder. They were there first.
And they’re right. It’s not fair. Not by our standards.
Yet the owner says – if I want to be generous with my treasure, with my wealth, what is it to you? You have gotten what you earned. These passages push against each other. They push against us. wrestle with what is fair, what is unfair, to wrestle with judgment and inclusion and grace. To wrestle with the lines that we want to draw, to realize that each of us is called in different ways. Our work looks different.
One taken, one left behind. It’s about the joy of responding and traveling with God. not fear, not control, not to earn something extra.
We have discovered something that we are called to share freely with others. Others who will necessarily have joined later – and yet will receive the same reward – just as we have followed and learned from those who came before us. Oh, house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord. Let us be salt and light. If we lose our salt, what good are we? We're thrown out with the garbage, we read that not vindictively but because there's nothing worthwhile left.
Let us be salt and light not for our own gain, but for the good of others. Let us be salt and light that the world might see the manger fall. That the world might encounter the fullness of our creator God in the infant, in the manger, the light in the midst of the darkness, and the humility of Christ, of Mary, of Joseph, of the familiar story. Let us be Christians so known because our lives reveal the God in whom we live and move and have our being. God beyond our understanding, God who calls us, equips us, sends us. God who anoints us and refills our lanterns. God who calls us to joy and gladness to awe, and wonder. Let us follow the path of the Magi. Let us reflect the sacred. That is our call this season - to bear gifts, to share the good news That's what I believe. Thanks be to God. Amen!