A Christmas Sermon

“Prophets and Kings” (Matthew 2.1-12)

We sometimes talk about the first testament in the bible (we often call it the Old Testament) as if it is an assortment of stories. As a series of stories that fit loosely together. However, when we read more carefully we discover it is a single great story. It is a story that is pointing to something big. It is a story that lets us in on the fact that old Israel was playing a critical role in a great drama. But the drama did not end with the conclusion of the Old Testament.

Through much of that grand story there is a strong undercurrent, something simmering, a repeated theme. David, in spite of his flaws, was a good king. Every king since has been less than David. Ever since, Israel is always looking for the next king like David.

Ever since David was king, kings have been born in Jerusalem. Jerusalem is the place of the palace. That makes Matthew’s reference to an old prophecy somewhat a surprise. The old prophecy tells us that hope for the future is not in Jerusalem. It is time to go back to Bethlehem where David was born. The old prophecy is not only talking about a place but also a hope for a king like David.

The prophet is interested in a different kind of king because the kings of Jerusalem have become satisfied. The kings do not care for anyone other than themselves. The prophet says the solution is to return to humble beginnings. The prophet says it is time to go back to Bethlehem. The word used to describe Bethlehem literally means “insignificant” or “youngest.” Like Bethlehem, David was least significant in his family and the youngest of his brothers. The prophet reminds us that true kingship lies in the humble, insignificant roots of David and not the arrogant power hungry courts of the king.

Matthew inserts this prophecy into the story about a king who leaned toward the arrogant side. King Herod had already murdered two sons and his wife. He intended to keep his power, keep his throne safe and eliminate anyone who may have been a threat. And then the Magi show up. The Magi show up and ask “Where is He born King of the Jews?” The Magi show up and everyone gets nervous at the palace. Those same Magi who seem so trouble free in our nativity scenes show up and Matthew tells us that King Herod becomes “disturbed.”

The Magi may be surprise visitors who come from afar. The Magi have such good intentions; they show up bringing extravagant gifts. The Magi show up at the palace thinking this is the place one born King of the Jews may be found. The Magi show up and announce “We have come to worship Him.” King Herod hears this and becomes “disturbed.”

King Herod begins scheming already and asks where this one born King of the Jews may be found. He is told about the old document that contains the old prophecy that says the newborn King of the Jews will be born not in a palace but in Bethlehem. That same Bethlehem considered to be the least of places. That same Bethlehem where the great king David was born.

King Herod is scheming. That is what kings of earth do. They scheme, they plot, they make plans to keep their power. It is no surprise Herod is disturbed by the old prophecy. It is no surprise Herod is disturbed by the visit form the Magi. These things suggest he has been ruling all wrong. These things suggest he is not the rightful king. These things suggest that being king is something different than what he has been doing.

Just like the old prophecy said, just like King David, the newborn child King Jesus was born in the insignificant little town of Bethlehem. Like David, Jesus demonstrates that being king is found in humility.

The Gospel of Matthew is well aware of Bethlehem’s status. Matthew is also aware that Bethlehem is now the birthplace of two great kings. The old prophecy is not a romantic reminder to prompt us to begin a verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem.” The old prophecy is announcing that things are changing and that things have changed. This is the disturbing truth of God’s plan. Being king is not about wealth but justice. Living in this new kingdom is not about power but love.

This will not be popular with kings of the earth. This has never been popular with those who hold the power. But the old prophecy is part of a single great story that points us in a specific direction. This story does not point us to a little town that has become the birthplace of great kings. But to One who has been born the rightful King. One who does not rule like the earthly kings. One who rules in humility and love. One whose arrival we celebrate this day. And on account of that we can sing glory to God in the highest and glory to God on High Street.

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An Advent Sermon

“Into the Darkness” (Isaiah 9.1-7)

It is possible that when you hear Isaiah 9 read out loud you can hear the Hallelujah Chorus playing in your head. Some of you might be humming the tune right now. Before Handel wrote that song, Isaiah sang it. Isaiah’s song takes us to faraway places by the sea like Zebulun and Naphtali. Lands that have known gloom and anguish and contempt. Isaiah’s song is a trip into darkness.

Darkness is a metaphor we use often. We have a pretty good idea what it means. If someone tells us we live in darkness we have an idea what they are talking about. If told we are against the night, we know that is something more than protesting when the sun goes down.

If you are familiar with rock band Led Zeppelin, you may have heard the song “Battle for Evermore.” The song has lyrics like “The dark lord rides in force tonight” and “Side by side we wait the might of the darkest of them all” and “Well the night is long, the beads of time pass slow.” If you are like me, pictures come to mind when you hear lyrics like that. I am thinking that if Isaiah would have known of Led Zeppelin he may have played that on his I-pod. Before we go further it is probably safe to say we are the only church in town who have talked about both “The Hallelujah Chorus” and Led Zeppelin this morning.

Isaiah wants us to know we are waiting in darkness. He wants us to understand things are not ok the way they are. So Isaiah gives us darkness. But he also gives us light. Our text almost seems out of place. The prior chapter was a message of distress, gloom, despair and darkness. It was a warning that people will be overwhelmed by the enemy. Directly after our text we learn that disaster has already struck the neighbors. In between, our text tells us “People who walk in darkness will see a great light.” And then, “Those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them.”

Isaiah likes to mix things up like this. His recipes include disaster mixed with peace. Despair mixed with hope. Darkness mixed with light. We know that darkness and light go together because our lives tell us they do. This time of year half the day is darkness. Not one of us has experienced a lifetime of only joy. We know disaster and despair. We know what it is like to be waiting in the dark. Isaiah is talking to people who know darkness all too well. He speaks to people who wonder if there will ever be light. To people who wonder if the darkness will ever end. Surrounded by darkness, Isaiah offers “People who walk in darkness will see a great light.”

It is into this darkness Isaiah sings the words “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government…” Yes Isaiah is talking about politics again. He is talking about a king who will be the evidence that God reigns. This king has more the one admirable trait. This list goes on “Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace.”

At this time of year we would do ourselves a disservice if we did not find ourselves in the Gospel. It is of interest that Matthew 4 takes us back to the dark lands of Zebulun and Naphtali (sound familiar?). Matthew tells us we are going back there in order to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet. It is not surprising to find a gospel text about a certain son of a carpenter who starts to preach about a kingdom of heaven. When he came, he came to a world where we were waiting in the dark. Matthew doesn’t say the words out loud but we know where he is going with this. If you are like me you picture the first Christmas as a night scene. This text would have us know the light shining into the darkness of that scene is not a star, but a child. And we are reminded that we were already given the words “For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us; And the government will rest on His shoulders; And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of His government…”

An Advent Sermon

“An Unorthodox Christmas Announcement.” Mark 3.1-6.

Take a look at Christmas cards you have received. Christmas cards you have sent. Christmas cards still on the shelves at the store. You will find manger scenes and shepherd scenes. You will find wise men traveling from afar. You will find quaint scenes of evergreens in winter. You will find animals with snow in the background. You will find Santa. Guess who you will not find – John the Baptist.

Yet the birth of Jesus is significantly tangled up with the birth of John the Baptist. Just read the first chapter of Luke’s Gospel. What does John bring to this season we call Advent? What does he have to say to us at this time of year? John is a bit of an oddity. He has long hair and an untrimmed beard. He never cut his hair. Those guys at Duck Dynasty were not the first to sport that look. He had a strange diet. He did not receive many RSVPS’ for his holiday open house. Most of us prefer something other than locusts at our gatherings.

We cannot help but notice that Mark starts his Gospel by telling us this is about the good news of Jesus and then immediately begins talking about John the Baptist. John interrupts the Gospel. Just as he interrupts history. Just as he interrupts Advent and our holiday plans. John disrupts our lives to tell us that now is the time to prepare for the one coming.

John was a preacher. He preached that one was coming. Fred Craddock tells us he was no candle in the sanctuary, more like a bonfire in the wilderness. A stump would serve as his pulpit. The sun and moon served as his chandeliers. John was a wild man. Guys like this fascinate me. I have purchased books just because the word wild was in the title. I like to emphasize the wild in wilderness.

It is true, at Christmas we overlook John as we think of others. Mary and Joseph come to mind. Even King Herod seems more a part of the story than John. We are more likely to think of George Bailey, Clark Griswald or Scott Calvin than John as someone who belongs this time of year. No wonder he is often overlooked.

Yet there is something about John that seems to fit perfectly for Advent. Our text says that John came as a messenger to prepare the way for the one coming. John is always pointing toward the coming one. The gospel tells us that even while in the womb he leaped for joy when pregnant Mary walked into the room. This does not stop when he becomes an adult. He comes to “Prepare the way for the one coming.” He tells us “After me comes the one more powerful than I… I am not worthy to take off his sandals… I baptize with water – he will baptize with the Holy Spirit.”

The only son of a priest would have had responsibilities and obligations to his family and to society. He was supposed to be a priest. He was supposed to marry and have children who would grow up to be priests. At some point John turned his back on this obligation. He turned his back on everything most important for one born into his position and headed for the wilderness. And there he announced that one was coming.

John is a reminder that our significance is not found in ourselves. Our significance is not because of our skills, our histories, our futures or our upside. Our significance, our very identity is found outside ourselves – in our relationship to Jesus. We cannot discover who we really are by taking a deeper look inside ourselves. The self-help section at Barnes and Noble cannot help us here. John the Baptist tells us, our identity is in Jesus. Identity and significance is found beyond mother and father and family. John reminds us we find who we really are in relationship to the one who is coming.

It is Advent. I am the un-Baptist. I may like to think I am drawn to the wilderness. Yet I live in modern convenience. John is eating locusts and wild honey. I am trying to include greens and whole grains into my diet. John is wearing camel’s hair clothes. I am looking for something more comfortable. But John reminds me of an important Advent truth. My identity comes from outside myself. I can only know who I really am in relationship to Jesus.

Do not expect a Christmas card with John the Baptist on the front. Do not expect Macy’s to include him in a display to help sell merchandise. It would be a surprise to find someone hanging an ornament to commemorate his role in the story. Yet he is not here by accident. As then, John points us toward the one who caused him to leap while still in his mother’s womb. As then, he points us toward Jesus.

A Homiletical Move at Christmas

It is obvious that Luke mentions the manger three times in chapter two. “Manger” seems to connect the story even as our attention is pulled along from a narrator to angels to shepherds.

It is also noteworthy to point out that for us; the word “manger” has taken on an unintended definition. Somehow a word intended to mean feeding trough has become a piece of religious furniture that seems more synonymous with a cradle than a feeding trough. Luke’s repeated reference to the place where Jesus was laid suggests that he does not want us to think like that. He may prefer that we see it as a reference to the humble beginnings of the one born in Bethlehem.

In an attempt to connect the repeated use of manger and to communicate these humble beginnings I attempt to echo the conversation with words that are not stated directly but seem to reinforce the tone of the speaker.

Therefore when the narrator first reported the child was laid in a manger, I can hear an echo (seriously, the child was laid in a feeding trough). When the angels announce the child can be found in a manger, I hear (seriously, you will find the child in a feeding trough). The third time the manger appears the shepherds have found the child exactly where they were told they would (seriously, they found him in a feeding trough).

Of course, it is always difficult to know how effective our homiletical moves are but I remain hopeful since on the way out several people while shaking my hand repeated “seriously, in a feeding trough.”

Preaching During Advent

Preaching during Advent may not require an earth shattering sermon. But it does require that we prepare listeners for earth shattering news. (No matter how else we describe it, God coming to earth to live with us is earth shattering news). Tradition becomes helpful for us as we are given four weeks of expectation before Christmas. Four supportive themes emerge during our preparation – hope, peace, joy and love.

David Case used to facilitate discussions leading up to Advent and encouraged us to see this liturgical season as a time for preparation. He handed us Advent writings that emphasized this. He demonstrated how certain texts may help us to prepare. Prior to influence from Case we, like children wanting to open gifts before Christmas, moved quickly into the Christmas narrative without preparation. Afterward, we realized that we are included in a story that insists on preparation prior to the celebration. So we spent time with the Torah, the Writings, and the Prophets before the Gospel. We discussed parts of the story that pointed toward God’s arrival. Thank you Dr. Case.

The preacher is not reconstructing a nativity scene. The preacher is calling out like the prophet Isaiah “Prepare for God’s arrival! Make the road straight and smooth, a highway fit for our God. Fill in the valleys, level off the hills, Smooth out the ruts, clear out the rocks.” It is no accident that John the Baptist preaches this same sermon when calling the crowds to prepare for the arrival of Jesus.

This is no time for sentimentality. This is preparing for a divine invasion. We are announcing the arrival of the Lord of the universe. The Creator is moving into our neighborhood. Eternity touches earth. We prepare for a touch of heaven. It is probably not an accident that heavenly beings show up at this time to announce what is taking place. It is Advent, time to preach expectation. We are practicing hope, peace, joy, and love. We are leveling mountains and filling in valleys. We are rolling out the royal carpet, preparing for earth shattering news.