Advent Surprise

(A Written Sermon, Luke 2.8-20)

One thing that stands out in this text is the element of surprise. The shepherds were in the fields shepherding. They were not waiting for angels to show. This is not like Linus’s pumpkin patch where he goes out on purpose to sit and wait for a visit from the Great Pumpkin. These shepherds were here to look after sheep. They were here working in fields they had worked before without supernatural visitors. They are expecting nothing different on this night. But then, surprise… a visitor from heaven. And then, astonishing news. And then a crowd of visitors from heaven. Yes, of the many things that are going on this night and in this text… surprise is certainly one of them.

And then (and we do not want to minimize this) they went looking for Jesus. They could have questioned whether they were getting enough rest. They could have questioned what was in that bottle they had been drinking. They could have questioned whether they should have eaten that second helping of whatever that was. But the shepherds went looking for a Saviour. They went looking for Christ the Lord. They went looking for Jesus.

The text is straightforward about this “when the angels had left them and had gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened.”

Luke does not record that anyone else went looking. In fact, the gospels seem to go out of their way to suggest that people were just not that interested. It is recorded that “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them.” But we do not know if any of them went to find out for themselves. Surely the star was seen by others, yet we are only told the magi followed it. The scholars in the king’s palace were able to tell exactly where to find the child king, yet do not make an effort to find him. But Luke wants us to know the shepherds went looking for Jesus.

The text says “they hurried off and found Mary, Joseph, and the baby.” The text presents the shepherds as eager explorers, seeking, working their way through fields and wilderness to make sense of what they have heard. They are intent about finding Jesus. The shepherds become ideal characters to talk about during Advent. We are all trying to make sense of this news, the news that Jesus is born to save the world. Advent calls for each of us to be seeking Jesus.

Yet it is so easy to become distracted during Advent. After all, there are only so many shopping days until Christmas. It becomes easier to look for a good deal, to look for free shipping, it becomes easier to look for what to serve or what to wear. The shepherds, these characters in the Advent of Jesus, remind us that what is important is to find Jesus. In fact they hurry, they have an urgency to find out if this news could be true.

The shepherds seem so noble, almost dignified. We have romanticized their part of the story. They are such an important part of the story that we forget, shepherds are people on the fringe. It is possible no one would have noticed if they went missing. Still these are the folks God chose to tell first about this good news.

My friend Layne has brought to my attention a connection with women we find later in the gospel. Women, like shepherds,would not have been first century decision makers, powerless in society. Yet women were the first people God chose to tell about resurrection. It is interesting how intentional God is about telling shepherds in the fields and women at the tomb, he sends angels to make sure that these particular people receive this particular message.

These people may not have had much power, much influence on the surface, certainly not in earthly kingdoms. But in God’s kingdom they receive special invitations. No one would have been bragging about the idea that God spoke to shepherds first about Christmas or to women first about Easter. Yet that is what we discover in the gospel about the way that God works.

We started by noting the element of surprise in the story. There is the surprise that a child was born in a stable and laid in a manger and will be the Savior of the world. And the surprise that this news was delivered to shepherds who were watching flocks in fields at night. And the surprise that comes with the implications this news has for us. Yes, this text reminds us Christmas is full of surprises – because God is full of surprises.

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That You May Believe

Next weekend I will be in conversation with preachers about preaching the Gospels. Here are some things that we may highlight from the Gospel of John.

The Gospel of John tells us there are so many stories about Jesus they cannot possibly fit in one book. In fact, John goes on to say the world could not possibly contain the books that would be written. Obviously, John wants us to know there is much that could be said about Jesus. He also wants us to know that the stories we find in this Gospel are written that we might believe.

This is emphasized from the very first chapter. There when Jesus meets Nathaniel, the episode ends with Jesus saying “You believe because I told you I saw you under the fig tree. You will see greater things than that.” Right away we hear the emphasis on belief and we get that John is not writing about Jesus’s skills of identifying who sits under what tree. As we near the end of the Gospel Jesus says to Thomas “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

In between these episodes, the chapters are full of sayings and signs and other stories that encourage us to believe. After all, John wants us to know that “These are written that you may believe… and that by believing you may have life in his name.”

Enough Gospel to Go Around

Later this month I will have the opportunity to be in conversation with preachers about preaching (and am looking forward to it). Our texts will be the four gospels. While Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell the same story, they are each interested in different aspects of discipleship. Here is an introduction to one emphasis of our conversation.

Luke’s Gospel wants us to be sure to know there is enough gospel to go around. There are no quotas or limits. We do not have to budget gospel or worry that it will run out. In the gospel, Jesus is throwing good news around as if there is an endless supply. One of the questions Luke seems to ask is “How are things different now that Jesus has arrived?” and Luke’s Gospel seems to answer that question with “Let me tell you…”

Early in the Gospel Jesus preaches a sermon. (It is not well received. Perhaps it is good for us to discover here that not all sermons are well received. Perhaps we should evaluate our definition of success). In this sermon Jesus tells us how things are now different. There will be good news and freedom and recovery of sight and favor. The recipients include the poor and prisoners and blind and oppressed. We are supposed to catch on to the notion that there is enough gospel to go around. And this is only the beginning. Luke will give us multiple pictures of what that looks like.

On Earth as it is in Heaven

In July I will have opportunity to be in conversation with preachers about preaching. If this conversation goes as planned, we will be leaving with at least four sermons in some stage of development and ideas for a sermon series connected to each of those sermons.

Our texts will be the four gospels. While Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell the same story, they are each interested in different aspects of discipleship. Here is an introduction to one of the emphases we will talk about that day.

I am becoming convinced the Gospel wants us to be bi-lingual. Matthew, most of all, seems intent on teaching us a new language. Matthew speaks kingdom language. And his method is to saturate us in this language.

The Gospel does not want us to learn a new language just for the sake of learning. The Gospel wants us to be different. So Matthew gives us stories that are intended to change us. Not just stories for story sake, these are kingdom stories. Jesus tells these stories as if he is giving away the kingdom secrets.

The secrets of the kingdom of heaven are not to stay in heaven. Matthew preaches to us “on earth as it is in heaven.” One of these secrets is about forgiveness. It is not enough to forgive as everyone else forgives. So Jesus tells a story about forgiveness. This is not only a story but an invitation. Jesus invites us to participate in a ministry of forgiveness. Forgiveness is kingdom language.

When Gospel Enters Darkness

Next month, July 29, I will have opportunity to be in conversation with preachers about preaching. If this conversation goes as planned, we will be leaving with at least four sermons in some stage of development and ideas for a sermon series connected to each of those sermons.

Our texts will be the four gospels. While Matthew, Mark, Luke and John tell the same story, they are each interested in different aspects of discipleship. Here is an introduction to one of the emphases we will talk about that day.

The Gospel is not content with safe territory. In fact, Gospel seems to be drawn toward darkness. On account of that, we acknowledge risk when we carry the Gospel with us. To bring Gospel into darkness is to enter a battleground. While it might be paranoia to expect an evil spirit behind every tree, it is naïve to ignore the reality that there is more going on than the eye can see. The Gospel of Mark takes us into that territory. To be in the Gospel of Mark is to be saturated with powers and darkness and the question “who rules the realm?” The Gospel may be the story of the Son of God but humans and powers of darkness are woven into the story.

We might wish for something like “Ten Ways to Slay a Demon.” Instead, we find a story. And this story reminds us that every step of kingdom work is a step into heavily defended territory.

Preachers Should Expect Surprise

In The Intrusive Word: Preaching to the Unbaptized William Willimon talks about how God’s love should cause preachers to expect surprises. He says “We ought to preach as if we were opening a package that could be packed with dynamite.”

The people God chooses to love are certainly surprises. I like Willimon’s conversation held in an empty church building. “I’d sit down in my office, pour God a cup of coffee, and ask, ‘Now let’s go over this again. Why did you think it was a good idea to build a church here… Okay. But why these people?’” He goes on “And then God would reply, saying something to the effect that ‘these are my people… (this) is my idea of a good time.’”

While Willimon may not be preaching as he writes this, he is a preacher so it is no surprise he turns to a text. He claims no one preaches Genesis 38. In this text we meet Tamar who goes through husbands and funerals and is eventually sent away. Tamar the unmarried childless widow becomes the savvy deceptive harlot. Willimon describes her expected situation like this “End of story. Tragic. Dead End.” Instead “Because this is the Bible, where nearly anything can happen and often does… Tamar becomes the lead character.”

Just when we are wondering why Genesis gives an entire chapter to Tamar, we are surprised to find her again. Only this time we find her in the Gospel of Matthew. The childless widow harlot who seduced her father in law becomes the great great grandmother of Jesus. Have we mentioned that God’s love should cause preachers to expect surprises?

Our history is full of ancestors we do not often talk about. We belong to a peculiar family. And we will continually be surprised by a God who would write a person like Tamar into the gospel. For “If Tamar could slip into the beginning of the gospel, so might you.”

Are We Listening?

A quote to remind us the gospels were written with a purpose in mind;

“One can imagine a conversation between the four evangelists who wrote the gospels and a group of ‘evangelists’ in our modern sense who are used to preaching sermons week by week that explain exactly how the cross deals with problems of ‘sin’ and ‘hell.’ The four ancient writers are shaking their heads and trying to retell the story they all wrote: of how Jesus launched the kingdom of God on earth as in heaven and how his execution was actually the key, decisive moment in that accomplishment. The modern evangelists come right back with their theories, diagrams, and homely illustrations. The ancient writers eventually explode: ‘You’re just not listening!’ ‘Yes, we are,’ reply the modern preachers… ‘but you guys just aren’t saying the right stuff!’” (N. T. Wright, The Day the Revolution Began, p. 197)