Sunday, December 30, 2007

All Creation's Praise

All Creation’s Praise
A Communion Meditation

copyright 2007 © Robert J. Elder
all rights reserved
Psalm 148
First Sunday of Christmas: December 30, 2007

Praise the LORD from the heavens...
Praise the LORD from the earth

Fifteen years ago I wrote an article in a magazine for preachers1 about the different voices of preaching. It had occurred to me that preachers can make use of a variety of voices in our preaching to bring the Word alive for those who are called to listen. Now, I don’t mean ventriloquist voices, but rather the voices of speech: declarative, interrogative, imperative, and so on. As I thought about it, I realized that most of the preaching we hear is made up of declarative sentences, like this one. Declarative sentences simply state things as if they were true, and it is up the the listener to decide if they are or not. But preaching made up entirely and invariably of declarative sentences tends to make listeners either rabid skeptics who begin to question everything, or like passive omlette pans who come to church empty, but are not to be filled too deeply nor left on the burner for too long.

Interrogative sentences in preaching come few and far between, don’t they? I wonder why that is, don’t you? Do you suppose it is because they wear on us rather fast? Don’t they begin to make everything the preacher says sound like an equivocation, a waffling? Wouldn’t you tire of twenty minutes of this? Aren’t you tired of it already?

One of the seldom-used voices of preaching in the rational and common sense based Scots/Presbyterian tradition is the imperative. If you’ve ever been in the military, you know the sort of voice this is: Listen to imperatives and learn. You are the church of Jesus Christ, so get off your duff and get on the ball for the kingdom! If your eye offends you, pluck it out! If this speaking voice offends you, imagine how it would feel after twenty minutes! The imperative voice is seldom used by preachers, and while I’m not entirely sure why that is, I suspect it is because most of us are reluctant to command listeners to do this or think that. We specialize in persuasion, not the rapping out of orders to be followed, demands for obedience.

There are other voices, but I am sure you get the picture. Some voices should be used mostly for emphasis, such as an exclamation: “Hallelujah!” Other voices, such as the declarative, are the stock and trade of preaching, and will always have the majority interest in almost any sermon.

Knowing all this, imagine what goes through a preacher’s mind upon encountering a sermon text like Psalm 148. A rough count of the sentences and phrases in the psalm tells me there are eight imperative sentences commanding praise for God, supported by three declarative sentences providing a tad of information to remind all who are commanded to praise why it is appropriate that they do so.

One really intriguing feature about Psalm 148 is that, with all these imperatives floating around, the psalm only gets around to commanding human beings to engage in praise in the 11th verse! Prior to that, everything else under the sun, and the moon as well, receives the joy-filled command to make praise.

It strikes me that almost anything that could be said about this psalm would come in a distant second in importance simply to obeying its command. There is a sense in which the creation of God is simply a given, and our call to praise flows as naturally from that as the thank-you note follows the wedding gift. Still, modern people could expand on the awareness of the psalm’s original writer because we know so much more about God’s creation than the ancients did. The psalmist commands praise from everyone from angels to caterpillars, from sea monsters to weather patterns, from mountains to macaws, from the inanimate as well as the animate world. No wonder Jesus thought the stones might shout as he made his way down the road to Jerusalem!

Imagine how many more would receive the psalmist’s command to praise if he had known about molecules, elephants, electricity, redwood trees, the solar system, quantum physics, or microorganisms! In modern times some have assumed that advances in science have resulted in a roughly equal reduction in the need for religious faith. This psalm reminds us how entirely wrong-headed this idea was and is.

Explaining how things work, or numbering how many things there are never comes close to answering the most basic religious question, which is, “Why are there those things in the first place?” The mechanics of things themselves almost never reveal intention. A man sitting in a shed with thousands of pounds of fertilizer may be a farmer preparing to feed his crop, or a crazed bomber preparing to level a city block. Someone exploring the intricacies of DNA may have in mind new healing possibilities or creating a master race.

As any attentive parent can tell us, a response to a child’s “why” question that addresses only “how” can always be followed with yet another “why” question:

“Mommy, why does it have to get dark every night?”
“Because the earth turns around once every 24 hours.”
“Because as it travels through space, there isn’t anything strong enough to make it stop spinning.”
“Because there is no friction to make it stop.”
“Ummmm. Time to go to sleep.”

The child asks “why” yet the parent persistently answers “how.” I think that on a deep level the child wants to know something else we all want to know: Is there any reason for the spinning of the earth apart from a mechanical one? As darkness comes over us every night, is someone still committed to the light which will greet us tomorrow? Is that coming light on its way in any sense for our sakes, according to some purpose? Annie Dillard, in an award-winning book, once asked, “The question from agnosticism is Who turned on the lights? The question from faith is, Whatever for?”2

Once having made a turn in our thinking toward the goodness of a Creator, once having learned that the answer to the ultimate “why” question is “the love of the One who made you,” we can set aside our partial knowledge on some days and simply answer the command to praise. God’s loving kindness toward us has resulted in intricate details about us which even the smartest scientist will never know. I once learned there are 100 trillion cells in each human body, and each one caries all the genetically coded information necessary for the make-up of the entire body, as well as the special instructions for the proper functioning of every individual cell. It occurs to me that this would require some advance planning. Let’s see, if there are around 6 billion people on earth, each carrying their own 100 trillion cells, then that would mean... I’m not sure of the total, let alone what it would mean if we knew it!

Karl Barth, the great reformed theologian, once wrote about the music of Mozart: “Mozart’s music is not, in contrast to that of Bach, a message, and in contrast to that of Beethoven, a personal confession. He does not reveal in his music any doctrine and certainly not himself ... Mozart does not wish to say anything: he just sings and sounds.” Barth also wrote, “The miracle is not that there is a God. The miracle is that there is a world.”

The time comes, now and then, to set down our speculations and partial explanations and just give voice to our praise for the One whose care for us reaches into such intricate detail, doesn’t it? It is out of this praise that all our theology comes at its best.

So, dear friends, here is another set of imperatives straight out of scripture: Praise God, from whom all blessings flow! Praise him all creatures here below! Praise him above, you heavenly host!

1. “Stand and Deliver: Preaching in the Nineties,” by Rob Elder in Journal for Preachers, Advent, 1993, p. 39.
2. Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Annie Dillard, (New York: Harper and Row, 1974, Bantam Books, 1975), pp. 147-8.

Monday, December 24, 2007

Christmas Proclamation

Christmas Proclamation

© copyright 2007, Robert J. Elder, Interim Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
Christmas Eve: December 24, 2007

Comedian George Carlin said he once entered a bookstore and approached the clerk to ask where the self-help books were located. The clerk responded, “If we told you, it would defeat the purpose.”1 The implication being, of course, that in the end, the only one we can really count on to help us is ourselves, we are in this business of living alone.

After all is said and done, Christmas is a sort of divine declaration that self-help won’t/can’t do the whole job, will never get us where we need to be. There is no question that anyone can work on personal issues, personal improvement is always a worthy goal, but the gift of a Savior — which is what this night represents after all — is a powerful declaration about the very nature of God, that God recognizes our innate inability to rescue ourselves from everything that life has done to us, and that we have done to one another. We need help. We need a Savior.

One of the most ancient Advent carols, with words dating clear back to the 4th century, offers these words to people seeking the child who will be the salvation of us all. The first line of this song was sung by the choir from the rear of the church at my home church almost every Sunday of the year during my childhood and youth, as the choral call to worship. I can hear it today, reverberating through the gothic stone sanctuary:

Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
And with fear and trembling stand;

Ponder nothing earthly minded,
For with blessing in His hand,

Christ our God to earth descendeth,
Our full homage to demand.

King of kings, yet born of Mary,
As of old on earth He stood,

Lord of lords, in human vesture,
In the body and the blood;

He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

Rank on rank the host of heaven
Spreads its vanguard on the way,

As the Light of light descendeth
From the realms of endless day,

That the powers of hell may vanish
As the darkness clears away.

Let’s think for a moment about this ancient affirmation, how it describes what the Christ child comes to do for us, and the unique way in which he does it. The first stanza declares that Christ comes to us — the carol says he descends, as from the sky perhaps, but you are free to imagine him coming to you across a windswept meadow or from the other side of a crowded parking lot, the effect is the same. He fixes his gaze on us, and he comes to us. Without our having known it fully, we stood in need of a Savior, and one was provided, entirely apart from our ability or inclination to conjure one up. This is the caring love of God, expressed the same way one feeds their own children, without regard to questions of their deserving or not deserving food, we come to them and we feed them. It is the way we move to warn someone who is about to step off a curb into the path of an oncoming bus. They didn’t know they needed saving, but that made their plight no less desperate, and we come to them nonetheless.

Which brings to my mind the second stanza of the carol. “King of kings, yet born of Mary...” The sheer incongruity of the image of the highest king our minds can conceive, brought to birth by the merest peasant girl; this combined with “He will give to all the faithful his own self for heavenly food.” He comes in the most inconspicuous way, and in coming, delivers himself entirely into our deepest place of need, making available his very body, the very blood of his veins, everything he has and is. Every time we eat the bread and drink the cup at the Lord’s Supper we remember this one who comes to us, unbidden, rescuing us, devoting on our behalf the very essence of his life to our well-being. It’s an astounding thought if we stop to think about it.

The third stanza takes Christ back to heaven, but not without his having changed what happens on earth for all time. “Light of light,” he causes the brooding powers of all that is evil to recede in his light, and clears out the darkness the way a housekeeper removes the dusty bed sheets covering the beautiful furniture in a long-neglected home before it is restored to its old glory.

Why does the Christ child come to us? “That the powers of hell may vanish.” Anyone who lives in this world knows there is plenty more vanishing that needs to be done before that task of the Christ child is accomplished. Still, the Christmas celebration of his first arrival reminds us that the work of Christ is underway at this very moment in every nation on every continent. The King of glory comes to us this night. Let all mortal flesh — which is everyone here and anywhere the word is proclaimed — let us all offer our full homage to the King of kings.

1. Publishers Weekly, October 18, 2004.
2. From Liturgy of St. James, 4th century.

Copyright © 2007 Robert J. Elder, all rights reserved
Sermons are made available in print and on the web for readers only.
Any further publication or use of sermons must be with written permission of the author.

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Names Come First

Names Come First

This sermon is also available in audio at:

© copyright 2007 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
Matthew 1:18-25
Fourth Sunday of Advent: December 23, 2007

Something I notice about Matthew’s description of the arrangements surrounding the birth of Jesus is the way it differs from Luke’s. While Luke reported the visit of an angel to Mary, Matthew described Joseph’s angelic dream-visitor bearing God’s message to him. Then Luke reported Mary’s visit to her cousin Elizabeth, and her extended and exquisite song often called the Magnificat. By the time Luke got to the actual birth story, he provided little with which to make up a picture of Joseph, except perhaps that he went with Mary to Bethlehem, and was present for the open house with the shepherds. Luke presented that familiar roll call of important but now obscure first century figures and places which pass in review like a sort of parade of factoids: Caesar Augustus; Quirinius, governor of Syria; enrollment; Nazareth in Galilee; Judea; Bethlehem; the house and family of David... We wonder if it is possible to understand any of this apart from the assistance of a World Atlas and a copy of a “Who’s Who” of important first century people.

Matthew — as we heard in our reading — has none of that, or at least very little. It is as if the Holy Spirit chose two gospel writers to report the story of the birth, one observing from Mary’s point of view, the other taking Joseph’s. In Matthew, it is Joseph who appears to have the important deciding to do: should he remain true to his faith and set aside his engagement with an apparently unfaithful Mary, as gently as possible? It is to Joseph that the meaning of the name of the child is given: “you shall call him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” And, as Mary acquiesced to the angel’s request in Luke’s story of Jesus’ birth, so in Matthew did Joseph do as the angel commanded him, marrying as planned and when the baby was born, naming him Jesus.

Significantly, Jesus was a fairly common name then, as it remains today. It is the Greek/Latin form of the Hebrew name Joshua, and Joshua was one of those brave characters from scripture whose story inspired many people to name their sons after him, the way children today might be named after famous athletes. The full form of the name was Yehoshuah, and as with all biblical names, it has a meaning, which is, “The Lord will save.” That’s why, when Joseph was instructed to name him Jesus or Joshua, that particular name was chosen, because this child would be the means by which the Lord would save his people from their sins.

The naming is important. In some cultures, the choosing of a name might have been delayed until the child had grown enough to demonstrate some characteristic to which his name could point, like “Lefty” or “Shorty.” Isaac — whose name means “laughter,” was so named because his elderly mother laughed when she heard it suggested that she would give birth in her old age.1 Even later in life, significant life experience could call for a change in name, as when Abram became Abraham, and Saul the persecutor of the church became Paul the apostle to the Gentiles.2 In Joseph’s case, the choice of the name was absolutely perfect.

There are three significant aspects of this story which bring its power to life, all of which are derived from that name.3 The first is the conviction that God moves decisively toward people to save them. This is the uniform reality about God from one end of the scripture to the other. God moved toward enslaved Hebrews in Egypt to save them, moved toward exiled people in Babylon to save them, and here moves toward people estranged from their own faith and tradition to save them. Beyond that day, Jesus would be the means by which God would move toward all people the world over, even toward us. The arena of God’s salvation is with people, as much now as it was then.

The second significant aspect of this story is that while God moves decisively toward us, it is still up to us to respond to his initiative. Joseph could certainly have awakened from his dream, shaken out the cobwebs, figured the dream was just a result of indigestion, and proceeded with his plan to divorce Mary quietly. To take the path he took meant risk and the chance of ridicule. It was necessary that following God’s move toward Joseph here — and toward Mary in Luke’s account of the story — that each of those people make a choice to open themselves to God’s initiative. That Joseph proceeded with marriage plans and named the child as he was instructed meant that he responded to God affirmatively, trustingly.

The third significant aspect of the story is that it has application well beyond the confines of the story itself. We all may respond to God’s initiative through our own personal experience of that initiative. We just have to know it when we see it.

A pastor friend of mine recently reflected on the fact that even with the power of modern technology, there are moments when the Spirit has a difficult time getting through to us. Early on a Sunday morning, he was madly rushing about his church building preparing for worship, setting up for a class he was to teach, and so on. As he made a pass by the fax machine, it began to ring. If the machine at his church is anything like ours, the only thing that comes across it on a Sunday morning will be something like an automated fax ad from some company trying to sell vacation packages to the Bahamas — a particularly cruel sort of thing to fax into a minister’s office on a dark, wintry Sunday morning. Of course, it is often simply a wrong number.

Rather than let it ring, my friend picked up the receiver on the fax machine and said, “You’ve got a wrong number,” and hung up. As he went about his busy business, it rang again, and he didn’t have time to get to it. As he passed it by on his way to his class, he discovered that, in fact, there was a fax waiting there, and it was a message from a long-time friend in California asking him to pray for a mutual friend who had been stricken with a life-threatening illness. My friend stopped in his tracks as he realized how often his own busy-ness becomes an excuse for not paying attention, not looking for God’s movement toward us. There just could be times when a wrong number is really a right number, when what at first seemed like an interruption to our pre-arranged plans is really the work of the Spirit, moving toward us to save us.

Have you noticed that when a nativity scene is within easy reach, children seem to gravitate to it? They rearrange the figures, they seem to want to climb into the story, to put on a shepherd’s cloak or hold Joseph’s staff and become part of the story. And part of this childhood fascination with the nativity scene expresses itself in naming the characters. Ask any child of seven, they will know exactly which character is Mary, which is Joseph, which are the shepherds, and which is baby Jesus. They name them. It is a comfort to know that these people carry names, have a part to play as we do.

And, as with adults, so with children, they sometimes read a line from Luke’s story about this in a way that one of my graduate school speech professors cautioned us never to do. They read that the shepherds came to the barn and “found Mary and Joseph and the babe lying in the manger,” as if it were an extra large manger, built to accommodate two adults and one child.

So we were warned to be careful to include the punctuation in our reading, to place a comma after Mary and Joseph, and a pause before “and the babe lying in a manger...” so as not to communicate the impression that it was a manger for three. But in a way there is something strangely appropriate about placing the whole cast of characters in that manger. At the very least, they all belong around it. They are all held together by this bit of barn furnishing in this most familiar of stories, and each year we add our names to theirs as we sit or stand or kneel alongside the manger in our living rooms or on the front lawn, or in the department store. We are not just looking at a painting, we contemplate a human scene, we have arrived on the scene too, that we might add our own adoration to that which comes from those original characters. We complete the circle, and in the process we too are named among those for whom he was named: “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

Someone once asked Dale Carnegie how a person could best make it in the world, and his advice was “Remember the name of everybody you meet.” It is good advice, though far from an easy task. But for us there is one name in particular to remember, the name of the one whom Joseph determined to claim yet who ultimately claimed Joseph and all those others who once gathered around his manger and crib, as well as all people everywhere for all time. One name summed up both his life and his salvation-purchasing death. “You are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”

1. Genesis 18:9-15, 21:1-7.
2. Acts 13:1-3, 9
3. Thanks to Dr. George Chorba and his unpublished paper presented to the Homiletical Feast in January, 1998.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Making a Name

© copyright 2007 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Third Sunday of Advent: December 16, 2007
Matthew 11:2-11

Probably you will remember the old joke which asks, “What do Kermit the Frog, Winnie the Pooh, and John the Baptist have in common?”

Answer: They all have the same middle name.

Now, silly as this is, in a way it does touch on our gospel passage for today. Some folks become known to us on a first-name basis because we know of them with a connecting middle “the,” followed by a descriptive term or phrase: Alexander the Great, Atilla the Hun, Louis the XIV, Vlad the Impaler, John the Baptist...see what I mean? A friend of mine once said there was a woman in his church who swore people thought of her as “Catherine the casserole maker” because that was what she was always asked to bring to church suppers.

For us, John the Baptist had a connecting middle name and he found himself in prison at the whim of the tyrannical King Herod (This was Herod Antipas, not to be confused with his daddy, who had that famous middle name, Herod the Great, because Antipas really wasn’t ever all that great). John wanted to know if his cousin Jesus was going to turn out to be another person with a connecting middle name as he had supposed. That is, would he continue to be “Jesus of Nazareth,” or were people going to begin thinking of him as “Jesus the Messiah?” For John, it was like waiting on the curb at the airport in a strange city for a friend who promised to pick you up. One car after another goes by. Did he say he would be driving a blue Subaru or a teal Oldsmobile? These new cars are so hard to tell apart, especially in the dark. You peer into the windows as each goes by. You wonder, “Are you the one, or must I wait for another?”

When John had baptized Jesus, he had been more sure: “I need to be baptized by you,”1 he had declared. But now he found himself in prison, alone with his thoughts, some of which were becoming those uncomfortable second thoughts. His mind, once so crystal clear about the person of Jesus, began to lose its focus. “Is he the one?” he began to wonder. It reminds me of the two pastors visiting with each other, when one says “I was going to preach on commitment, but now I’m not sure...”

William Muehl once told a story of a visit he made to an old, old home in Connecticut, a colonial-era house, which dripped with history. The home was owned and occupied by the last living descendent of the original owner, an ancient woman. Dr. Muehl noticed an old rifle hanging over the fireplace in the main room and, admiring its craftsmanship, reached up to fetch it down for a better look. “Please don’t touch it!” the woman exclaimed, “it might go off!” Sensing his curiosity, she told Dr. Muehl that her great-great-great grandfather had loaded the gun and placed it above the mantle for the day when he might strike a blow for freedom. But it had never been fired, so Dr. Muehl wondered, “Did he die before the revolution?” “No,” the old woman responded, “he lived to a ripe old age and died in 1817 — but he just never seemed able to generate much enthusiasm for General Washington’s rebellion.”2

Grandpa may have received a connecting middle name along with a surname, something like “Grandpa the Indecisive — or not.” John the Baptist knew how he felt. Surely Jesus was the one, destined to be Jesus the Messiah. He just knew it. But then, but then...

Apparently Jesus did not meet all the pre-formed ideas of what a Messiah should be. Think of it from John’s perspective. He came from a fierce and zealous tradition of desert asceticism. He and his followers eschewed the civilized life in favor of a life lived close to the wilderness, on the edge, away from civilization, a life pretty much devoid of comforts, dedicated to purity and separation from anything or anyone impure. They remained in the desert. Meantime, Jesus and his followers were constantly to be found with the common people, even the unclean people like Samaritans and lepers. Rather than seek separation, they seemed to glory in being close, and especially did Jesus seem to seek out the sinners, the unclean, the sick and the troubled. They went from town to town where the people were, not to the desert where they could avoid having contaminating contact with other people. It was even rumored following the wedding celebration at Cana that Jesus and his crowd were wine-bibbers who didn’t mind a bit going into even a tax-collector’s house and eating with him. This did not meet many of the contemporary definitions of the way a Messiah was supposed to be, especially not the standards of a desert hermit like John. No wonder John sent his disciples to ask if perhaps they had been wrong in taking Jesus to be God’s chosen one, someone with a connecting middle “the” in his name, Jesus the Messiah.

We can be just like this, can’t we? Sadly it is truthfully said that through history, when the church couldn’t have the Jesus it wanted, it has often recreated him in a more acceptable form, often in its own image. 19th century social gospel theologians went looking for the Jesus of history, and, lo and behold, discovered an “historical” Jesus who looked for all the world like a 19th century social gospel theologian. In our own time, the “Jesus Seminar,” has for many years now taken ballots on whether certain sayings attributed in the Bible to Jesus were really uttered by Jesus. In the process there has begun to emerge — surprise! — a Jesus who could pretty comfortably be a member of the Jesus Seminar!

If the Jesus we meet in scripture or in the life of his body in the church doesn’t meet our previous expectations of him, we are so tempted to look into the window of the gospel seeking a mirror reflection of ourselves. We claim God’s purpose in our lives in ways that we believe should be suitable for God when really they are ways that we find to be suitable for ourselves. The psalmist said, “Turn my eyes from looking at vanities; give me life in your ways.”3 And it turns out to be an earnest prayer, needed by every believing person, including John the Baptist, and including us. When God fails to meet our expectations, perhaps it is our expectations that must need change, not God. Much as we wish it were otherwise, when we insist on having our lives according to our own purposes with only a nod in God’s direction, we have ourselves for the messiah, but we cannot sustain the role, we must look for another.

Then, of course, we may be offended when God chooses his own unpredictable, obscure way of fulfilling his purposes and promises. We send delegations, hold conferences, pore over scripture asking, “Are you the One or must we await another?”

Jesus said, “Blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.” We may too quickly say, “Why, I don’t take offense at you, Lord!” Yet there have been times when we been offended, or at least dumbfounded, that God’s grace comes as a free gift to those who are unworthy of it, that God chose this means to bring us a Messiah.

I am particularly convicted when I read Jesus’ response to John’s question. When asked if he is or isn’t the Messiah, Jesus didn’t respond, “Why yes, I’m the Messiah, how can you think otherwise?” No, Jesus did not point to himself, never did, really. Instead he pointed to the effects of his presence among them. People healed, dead people raised, even poor folks receive a good-news message. Jesus’ movement through time left a wake, like a large ship moving through a small passage. Along the inland passage to Alaska, if you were to come out of the woods in time to see great waves lapping at the shore, you could deduce that a large cruiser would have just disappeared around the bend, leaving behind in its wake the stirred-up waters. This is apparently what it was like for those around Jesus. It may not have been comfortable, it may not have been what they expected, but they certainly knew he had been there once he had passed by!

Jesus the Healer, Jesus the Life-giver, Jesus the Good-news preacher, Jesus the Emmanuel, Jesus does not come to confirm our pre-formed expectations of a Messiah but to overturn them! You and I may have in mind what we want for our own healing and comfort, but a true Messiah comes bringing not what we want but what we need.

T.S. Elliot wrote, in The Four Quartets:

There is, it seems to us,
At best, only a limited value
In the knowledge derived from experience.
The knowledge imposes a pattern, and falsifies,
For the pattern is new every moment
And every moment is a new and shocking valuation of where we’ve been.

In the end, if we desire to make a name for ourselves — Clayton the Forgiving, Tammy the Comforter, Rachael the Courageous — we may do so only inasmuch as we are naming ourselves in deference to the One who carries the name above all names.

Is he the One, or must we wait for another? Only our lives of faith in response to his call can answer for us and for him.
1 Matthew 3:14.
2 William Muehl, All the Damned Angels, Pilgrim Press, 1972, p. 52.
3 Psalm 119:37.

Sunday, December 9, 2007

Pointing in a New Direction

Pointing in a New Direction

This sermon is also available in audio at:

© copyright 2007 Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
Matthew 3:1-12
Second Sunday of Advent: December 9, 2007

In recent years I have discovered that when I turn on a televised professional sports contest, it is more for background noise than because I am really interested. More often than not, I watch through closed eyelids. There are reasons for this. Players have no incentive to develop loyalty to any team in particular or their fans, and it is not unusual for players to play for three, four, even five different franchises during their short careers. What a shock it would be to hear of a player turning down the lure of millions of dollars from another team because of a desire to remain with their friends and teammates on their present team. Sometimes with conflicts between owners and players bringing things to a standstill, cheering for this or that professional sports franchise becomes about as inspiring and fun as cheering for, say, Microsoft over Citibank, or vice versa, how can anyone really care?

Even so, I confess there was one professional football game several years ago now that still stands out in high relief in my memory. It was not the Superbowl which, I admit, I can hardly remember at all from last year or any other. It was a playoff game between the Detroit Lions and the New York Jets. During the course of the game, one of the players was knocked unconscious on the field, and when the trainers reached him, they discovered he had stopped breathing.1 It turned out his neck was fractured. I remember his motionless body lying there in the midst of frantic activity by trainers and doctors as they labored to save his life and minimize his injuries.

Five, ten, fifteen minutes went by. Thousands of fans in the stands fell eerily silent. The announcers departed from their customarily manic sports-jargon blathering and began speaking with the hushed tones that I remember from television coverage the day President Kennedy was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery. The cameras focused repeatedly on the shocked faces of players, on groups of players kneeling in prayer, players from either team joining each other on their knees, players looking heavenward in tears, and on that motionless body on the field. An NFL game had suddenly and unexpectedly turned into a prayer service. The player did recover later, but it was touch and go for a very long while.

And of course the game itself was no longer the point. The TV coverage was no longer pointing to the game. Vince Lombardi, it turns out, was wrong, at least on that day. Winning is not the only thing. While no announcer named the name above all names, clearly that quarter hour in the midst of a game was now pointing in a different direction. Important as it had seemed to them when they started, all the players and fans there knew that something more important had taken precedence.

When John the Baptist came out of the desert preaching a message of repentance, he did not arrive in a vacuum. He came at a time when people were going through the motions of their lives, but theirs was an occupied country, they were a people without a prophet, a people who had lost track of something important. So John came, dressed in rough camel leather, eating a subsistence diet that the desert provided him. He came, he spoke, he challenged the people. It was unexpected, it was shocking, and apparently it was also riveting in its impact on them. Folks streamed out of the city up in the mountains, came down to the floor of the Jordan Valley to hear John and receive his baptism of repentance.

John told them he was there among them as a sort of a signpost. He was, in a way, like the signpost on the freeway ramp that says in bold letters on a bright red background, “WRONG WAY.” If we see one of those signs facing us, we know we had better turn around immediately, that to continue in the present direction will bring catastrophe.

Matthew summed up John’s whole message in a sentence: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” He went on to call the synagogue leaders a bunch of poisonous snakes, saying things that would get most preachers fired, if not killed. But he was God’s man, a prophet, fearless.

Repent. It’s not a word we use much any more in our everyday conversation. We may say, “I’m sorry.” We hear a lot from people who are sorry. A whole school yard full of children gunned down by two other children, and they say they are sorry, as are parents or grandparents who leave potent weapons within such easy reach of children. People convicted of crimes that are heinous and those crimes that merely affect their approval ratings in the polls, from these we often hear those now familiar words, sometimes read in front of the courthouse for the benefit of TV cameras: “I’m sorry for whatever pain I have caused.” We hear it from carnivorous boxers, from tantrum-prone baseball, basketball, football, hockey players, from politicians, presidents, from celebrities.

There has been a lot of this, perhaps more than a lot, perhaps way too much. Public relations departments now have specialists who can counsel their clients on exactly the amount of time needed for the public psyche to become distracted. Turns out it is about a month. They give advice to their clients on the appropriate timing and content for that all-important date with the cameras where one can say “I’m sorry for the pain I have caused.”

I remember Garrison Keillor’s short story in the New Yorker magazine from a few years ago, the fictional first-person account of a person claiming to be “a professional Remorse Officer for the New York Department of Human Services.”2 His job? To find people who are doing bad things and tell them they should stop. Why does this strike me as funny? Could it be because we have had an epidemic of “I’m sorries” in our culture, but precious little real remorse, hardly any repentance, few people telling transgressors they should stop and turn their lives in a new direction?

The word repentance doesn’t mean to be sorry so much as it means to turn around, to face a new direction, to recognize that what we are doing now is taking us the wrong way and that we need to stop and turn another way. Repentance helps us focus our lives beyond our own plans, beyond our own maneuverings for whatever self-serving goals we may be pursuing.

Repentance is not a destination, it is a point of departure, a fresh start, a new vision, a new realm of possibilities opened by a God who never seems to tire of making all things new, and it happens just where before we thought there were only the closed doors of our own imagined and limited choices.

John says something really true about repentance when he addresses the religious authorities who also came out to the Jordan. He said, “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.”

Repentance is not merely a magical incantation of some words that will distract others from our transgressions, that will wipe away what we have done wrong so we can continue on with our lives as though nothing has happened. Repentance bears fruit of changed lives, repentance recognizes possibilities beyond those we had seen before we handed ourselves over to the man in the camel hair outfit on the river bank. Repentance doesn’t just accomplish today’s forgiveness, it has consequences into the future.

In the end, and this is the seasonal truth of all this, repentance makes us ready to receive the One who is coming, the One whose sandals John was not worthy to carry. Without repentance, we cannot face the Messiah. Without turning from those things which ever turn our lives inward, without this we cannot receive him. This is the reason for a season like Advent, arriving just before Christmas. It is meant to help us prepare, to repent/turn from those things that separate us from him so that when the day comes that we celebrate the arrival of Jesus, we may join in the festivities, we may see him when he comes, like shepherds and wise men, and not miss him, like Herod, hunkered down in our palaces, pointing to ourselves.

Probably most people today still recognize the name of Albert Schweitzer as the German physician who took his medical skills to a mission station in Africa for the major portion of his adult life, a sort of Mother Theresa of his generation. Fewer will remember that Schweitzer was also a trained theologian who wrote the hottest book in the theological world at the turn of the 20th century, The Quest for the Historical Jesus. Even fewer will know that he was an accomplished organist.

When he was a young theological student, Fred Craddock3 heard that Schweitzer was coming to Cleveland, Ohio to play a dedicatory concert on a new organ in a large church. Dr. Craddock is now a retired preaching professor, but at that time he was young, filled with himself, eager to show his stuff. He had written a critical paper about Schweitzer’s book, his professor had given him an “A.” He took a bus to Cleveland, and planted himself in the front row in the fellowship hall for the question and answer session after the concert. He was ready, loaded with a page of smart questions, prepared to put the aging old doctor on the spot.

But Dr. Schweitzer didn’t begin with, “Are there any questions?” He got up and said, “I thank you for your hospitality, for your gracious reception of me, but I have to go back to Lambarene in Africa. My people there are dying. They are sick and they are hungry. If any of you have in you the love of Jesus, come help me.” Dr. Craddock’s smarty-pants questions turned to ashes right there in his hands. His life was pointed in a new direction.

John the Baptist can appear at any time, pointing the way, calling us to repentance, challenging us to bear fruit worthy of repentance. It is the season we are in. I hope we are paying attention.

1 Rise and Walk: the Trial and Triumph of Dennis Byrd, by Dennis Byrd with Michael D'Orso. N.Y., N.Y.: HarperCollins, 1993.
2 “The Current Crisis in Remorse,” in We Are Still Married, by Garrison Keillor, Random House, 1992.
3 Thanks to Fred Craddock for sharing this story in “What We Did Not Know,” Journal for Preachers, Advent, 1998 p. 36.

Saturday, December 1, 2007

Nobody Knows, But Some People Guess

Nobody Knows, But Some People Guess
A Communion Meditation

© Robert J. Elder, Pastor
Mountain View Presbyterian Church, Las Vegas, Nevada
Matthew 24:36-44
First Sunday of Advent: December 2, 2007

One of my favorite editorial cartoons of all time was drawn by Jules Feiffer back in the early 1970’s, a decade that more or less introduced our culture’s now well-developed devotion to self-absorption. In the first frame we see a young man and young woman seated at a table in a restaurant. The young man, earnest in his desire to begin communication with his new friend, utters a tentative and expressive “Me...” In the next frame, he begins to warm up to his subject, saying, “Me, me, me, me...” The young lady remains attentive, so by the third frame, the space is entirely filled with his words: “Me, me, me, me, me, me, me...” In the fourth frame, the young woman tries out her own tentative, “Me...”, to which the young man reacts with a gape-jawed “Yawn...!”

Our era in history is dominated by the sort of individualistic presumption which believes that if I can’t know it, it not only doesn’t matter, it probably doesn’t exist. This makes it exceptionally difficult for us to hear the opening line of our passage for today without difficulty: “...about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven nor the Son...”

What day? What hour? And if Jesus, the Son of Man, doesn’t know about it, what use is there in it for me?

This passage, and others like it, belong to a type of New Testament writing called “apocalyptic.” It simply refers to a time when God’s desire and goal for this world will be accomplished. It is a sort of declaration that a good future is coming which should have an impact on our lives in the present. If I believe that I will be giving a dinner party on Thursday, that future promise works on the present day in all my preparation: I call my friends, I purchase food for the party, I clean up the house, I set my stereo to play music that my friends will enjoy. All this I do because I believe that a future promise will become reality by Thursday, and so it affects my behavior today. I prepare for the consummation of the promised day.

Now, about the apocalyptic words concerning the future in the New Testament, there are two common responses.


There is no particular plan or purpose to the universe. The only thing real in the world is my experience of it. (Me, me, me, me, me...) I have heard this expressed even by pastors in a sort of oblique way when, as we may be sitting, having informal theological discussion on some difficult bit of scripture - you know the sort, the kind of thing that is difficult for modern ears to hear - someone will say, “But that does not fit with my experience of God.” I am always struck by comments which begin this way, because of the observation that if it is God we believe in, we are not called nor capable to make our experience of him the measure of God; instead, God will rather insistently be the measure of us. If his word is difficult for us to accommodate, we cannot claim that it is God who has erroneously taken the measure of us.


The future will not change from the present we know. Each day will come and go pretty much like the last, day by day, week by week. As in the days of Noah, when — though the biggest rainstorm of all time was brewing — the people continued as though their lives would go on forever, eating, drinking, marrying, giving in marriage. It’s easy to be fooled as we sit in this beautiful building which seems so substantial. It’s not crazy to assume that it will stand here for 100 years more. The Christmas lights we will struggle to untangle again this year are the same lights we put up last year and will likely be the very same lights we will be struggling to untangle again next year. Eating, drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, we walk from day to day as if nothing changes, the passage of time is more circular than linear, what goes around comes around. We live as though all the normal things of life will continue on indefinitely, as if there were no future in God’s plan with which we will have to reckon.

But when we go to the twentieth or fiftieth class reunion, does everyone look the same? Flattering comments to the contrary notwithstanding, we recognize that everyone does not. Who are we kidding? To live every day as if there will always be another tomorrow is to live the life of a fool. Yet it continues to be true that a minority of people die having made even a simple will. Life changes as we move along, nothing is a given, each sunrise represents another new statement of faith from the Creator. Life is not lived in circles, each day matters, and each unique day is irretrievably significant. What we do or fail to do in this day has import. If God has a plan for the universe, then God has a plan for this day, for this hour, for this moment in which we sit and listen to words about his plan.


Jesus says this to those who call themselves believers: Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. What is such watchfulness? It is remembering that we are not the measure of all things, it is a reminder that even if, as each day passes, it appears to us to be pretty much like the previous one and likely to be much like the one to come, every day is not the same, every opportunity to be a man or woman for God is an opportunity that will not come again, that what we do in this day and at this time matters, and it matters in an eternal way.

Jesus’ call to be ready is not meant to cause sleepless nights. It is meant to encourage watchful days where we search out ways to be his disciples in the world, the advance guard of a future that is surely coming. In church it is tempting to begin today to sing Christmas carols and pretend that the baby Jesus is on the way automatically, like clockwork, as they are doing over at the mall, as Noah’s neighbors might well have done had they been in our place. But we do not do that, because we celebrate the Lord’s Supper today not only as a reminiscence of a long-ago birthday, but as a statement of faith in the future which God is bringing to pass. We don’t know the day or the hour when the Lord will accomplish all he has in mind. We only know that this is the day and the hour when we may be part of God’s future, or part of a dying past. Therefore we must be ready.