CHRISTMAS COMES ~ First Sunday of Advent
This year let the day arrive when Christmas comes for everyone alive.
“I’m Dreaming of a _________ Christmas” Click here for audio
Pastor Marty Raths
Isaiah 11:1-9, Luke 2:8-14
In the commercial season it began a week ago last Friday, with Black Friday. But in the church season it begins today, with the first Sunday in the Season of Advent. And there is some overlap to these two seasons, but mostly they run parallel to each other, and sometimes it feels like the commercial Christmas Season all but overwhelms the church one.
But I am no Scrooge, and this is not going to be another sermon against the commercialization of Christmas. It is what it is. Besides, it is up to us as people of faith to make sure that we prepare for the real coming of Christmas, for the coming of Christ into our lives and into our world. No one else should have to do that for us.
Our theme for Advent is Christmas Comes, and on one level that is a simple statement of fact. Christmas Day will come again this year. It always does. That is a given. But on another level, as a statement of faith, Christmas Comes means something else, and even though God has the lead role in this story, we all have important parts to play as well.
I came across a quote recently. The man was not talking about the Christmas Season, though he could have been. “We have far too many plans,” this man wrote, “and not enough hopes and dreams.” Now plans are good. We all need them. But we can have too many plans. If we are not careful, plans can fill our calendars and consume our days. Calendars are moral documents, revealing how we spend that most precious of commodities, our time.
And too many plans can overwhelm us and exhaust us. The Christmas Season can become our planned life on steroids, until it becomes, not something we experience, not something we encounter, in the sense of something that changes us for the better, but something we endure. We look to Christmas Day, not because we are living in the hopeful expectation of the coming of Christ, but because we are just wanting it to be over for another year.
The man went on to say, “The only way to wake up from our plans is to discover a hope or a dream.” And Advent is just that, a hope and a dream, God’s hope and dream. Advent inserts into all the commercial activities of this season the abiding hopes and dreams that God has for our world.
And for us as people of faith these come first and foremost from the words of the prophets, like Isaiah who sets beside our world God’s hopes and dreams for a very different world: one where the scales of prosperity are not tilted in favor of the rich and powerful and connected; where all are judged with equity; where the most vulnerable among us are made to feel secure, where, and this is a metaphor for the human community here, where even the lamb lives without fear beside the wolf; and where peace with justice and not peace through victory is the hoped for future of our world.
Now that is a very different world from ours, and it is meant to be. You see prophetic hope is an imaginative act, and it is meant to unsettle us from our complacency about the way things are in the world. Instead prophetic hope offers us a vision of the way things are meant to be, the way God wants the world to be.
And in unsettling us, prophetic hope opens up our world some, creating some more space for us to move. And God knows that we are in some constricted space right now in our collective life together. We have become so narrow in our perspectives, so rigid in our convictions, so distrusting of others who see things differently than we do, that we can hardly speak to one another about issues that matter to all of us. So we settle for our respective ideological corners, talking only with those who already think like us, accepting only the things that confirm what we already believe, doubting whether those on the other side have anything worthwhile to offer.
But prophetic hope says, “Do not settle for the way things are. It is at least possible for things to be otherwise, and more importantly, God wills them to be so.” Now I know that this is asking a lot of us in our present situation, but truth be told, God asks a lot of us sometimes. Just ask Isaiah, or any of the other prophets, or any of the first followers of Jesus./
And I want to suggest one way that we might act upon this prophetic hope that calls us not to just settle for things the way they are. It is captured in the biblical word “behold.” Now it is a rather strange sounding word to us. My guess is that very few of us ever use it in everyday conversation. And yet it is one of the most significant words in the scriptures. It is used hundreds of times, and it means “be sure to notice”. When the scriptures say behold, when the prophets bring a word from the Lord, when the angel visits the shepherds in the fields, when the women come to the empty tomb, behold means that we should stop whatever it is that we are doing. We should just stop and look and listen because God is doing something.
Behold is a call to attention. And then we have to allow our attention to be held without our having to impose, as we so often do, our stuff, our opinions and our judgments and our certainties on things. Beholding means that we do not force ourselves upon a situation because we know that there is more going on in any given situation than happens to be going on in us. There are always others to consider. And of course God. Beholding means our being present, attentive, and responsive. Now that can be hard for us, and really hard for some of us, if we are accustomed to speaking our mind and pushing our opinions and getting our way.
This takes a certain spaciousness of mind and heart. A nobleman was riding through a village once when he passed a potter at work. He stopped to admire the cups that the potter was making. They were delicate yet sturdy, and they were very pleasing to the eye. And after dismounting from his horse, the nobleman asked the potter. “How are you able to make such beautiful cups?”
“Oh,” the potter replied, “you are only seeing the outward shape. What I am really trying to make is the space within.”
That potter understood that a cup is defined as much by what is not there as by what is there, and that it is the open space within the cup that gives it its usefulness. Without that open space a cup could not hold anything. And our minds and hearts are a lot like that too.
Yet we can get to filling them with so much stuff, with worries and cares, with anger and guilt and shame, with bad habits and selfish desires and unrealistic expectations, with the need to be right and the need to control . . . We can get our minds and hearts so full of stuff that we are not really open to much more, leaving us all but incapable of beholding anything. We simply cannot see beyond ourselves, and all of our stuff, to the more that is in others and in God.
There was a white judge named Jan Christian Oliver, who served in South Africa during the time of apartheid, the legally sanctioned separation of that society into white and black. And Judge Oliver was invited once by a black pastor to attend his church on Maundy Thursday. Now given the system of apartheid, the judge knew that it would be risky for him to attend that worship service, but being a good man at heart, he went anyway. And upon arriving at the church he found out that it was going to be a service of foot washing, and as a leader in the community he was asked to take part in the service.
So at that point in the service he was invited to come forward to wash the feet of a black woman named Martha, who, as it turned out, had been a servant in the judge’s home for the past 30 years. The Spirit does move in mysterious ways sometimes. Though Martha had spent 30 years in his home, Judge Oliver hardly knew her, knew nothing of her family, her background, her circumstances. And when he knelt down to wash her feet, he noticed for the very first time how worn and weary they were, and it dawned on him that they had become worn and weary from all those years of serving his household. And when he began to wash her feet, he started to cry, and then Martha with him, and a silence fell upon all who were there. Something happened that night, in that little church, between Judge Oliver and Martha.
Now the newspapers got word of what had happened, and it all went public, and Judge Oliver lost his judgeship. But something more happened that night. Later, Judge Oliver reflected, “I lost my career when I washed Martha’s feet, but I found my soul.”
And I would say this as well. For the first time in 30 years Judge Oliver beheld Martha, seeing her apart from himself, and his stuff, seeing her with a spaciousness of mind and heart, not just as his servant, but as a real and unique person. And it changed the judge in the process. I found my soul, he said. Beholding will do that. It can save us from ourselves, which is another way of saying that it can save our souls.
Beholding means recognizing that there is always more to any person, any situation, any circumstance than meets our eye. So we have to be willing to pause long enough to have any hope of seeing the more in things, and especially the more in others and in God.
So in this holy season I encourage us to pause, to take the time to be present to others, to try to behold them for a time, whoever crosses our path in the course of our day. Respond to them apart from who they are to us, or what they can do for us, or what we may want from them. Respond to them apart from our caricature of them, or our prejudice towards them. Respond to them as the real and unique persons that they are, in and of themselves, apart from us. Among all the other gifts of this season, give this one./
And try as well to behold God, and what God was doing in the birth of Jesus, and what God is doing even now in us and in our world. That is why the gospel writers wrote their gospels. Listen again to what Luke tells us about the birth of Jesus. He recounts how the angel said to the shepherds, “Behold (Be sure to notice), I am bringing you good news of great joy: to you is born this day in the city of David a Savior who is Christ the Lord.” And now you behold him too, Luke is saying to us, come and see, really see, this thing that has taken place, and understand what it means for your own life and for the world.
You see in the Christmas Story it was those who failed to behold Jesus who saw only a child. But those who did behold him, Elizabeth, Mary and Joseph, the shepherds, the wise men, Simeon and Anna, they came face to face with the one who would be called Savior, Lord, and Emmanuel, God with us. And it is in that affirmation, that God is with us, that hope resides.
Someone once wrote, “We become what we behold.” I am not sure that I would go quite that far, but I do believe that we see, really see, what we behold. So as important as all the other doings of this holy season are, and they are important, most of them anyway, none is more important than for us to take the time to behold the coming of Christmas, and the child who is at the very heart of it, the one whom we profess to be the hope of the world.
In my sermon title I left a blank. It is there because it needs to be filled in by us, and there are a lot of different ways that we could do that. So what sort of Christmas are we dreaming of this Advent Season? One that is all about our plans, without any real hoping or dreaming on our part, where we just sort of let the season happen to us, or let it overwhelm and exhaust us by all of our plans? Or one that fails to see beyond us and all of our stuff? Or one that beholds, and in so doing seeks to align our lives with the hopes and dreams that God has for the world?
And to answer this faithfully we need to be sure to notice, to behold in the days to come the people that we meet, the circumstances that arise, and the challenges and the opportunities that we face. Remember that there is always more, much more, to the world than just our stuff. Behold the more in others, and behold the more that is the good news of this season, the good news of Jesus’ birth, and the good news that he is Emmanuel, God is with us, always. And if we do that, then Christmas will have really come for us. May it be so for us, and for everyone. Amen.