Monday, December 19, 2016

"What Do You See? What Do You Hear? - Sermon from December 11, 2016

Community UMC, Quincy
“What Do You See? What Do You Hear?”
Pastor Andrew Davis
December 11, 2016
Isaiah 35: 1-10
Matthew 11: 2-11

        Each time this time of year rolls around, it’s a feast for the senses.  All the smells, bells, sounds, tastes, and sights are in the air.  We see the beautiful lights on the houses and beautifully decorated trees in the windows, hear the songs of the season as radio stations have been playing nonstop Christmas music (even though it’s STILL Advent), bell ringing for The Salvation Army by volunteers (many from our church), and in a number of houses, smell the wonderful aromas of tasty things baking (or, just step into Midtown Coffee or Quincy Provisions and smell and see the tasty treats!).  Yes indeed, this is the time of year where the senses are fully engaged.  I can’t help but singing “do you see what I see?  Do you hear what I hear?”
        In our Advent study this past week on Matt Rawle’s The Redemption of Scrooge, we talked about Christmas past and one question that Matt asked is how do you know when it feels like the Christmas season for you?  I like to begin it the day after Thanksgiving by breaking out the CD’s, particularly Mannheim Steamroller and Trans-Siberian Orchestra, then stringing my lights in the front windows.  Or, the season also begins when the eggnog first appears in the dairy box at SavMore or Safeway.  Or it begins when we start seeing peppermint everything, just like Pumpkin spice everything in the Fall.  Or it feels like Christmas when the pageant rehearsals begin.  Once again, it is a time for the senses and in our texts this morning, we get a great dose of the senses of hearing and seeing.  Yet I still can’t help singing “do you see what I see, do you hear what I hear?” when looking at these texts, particularly our Gospel lesson. But it also begs the questions, what do you see?  What do you hear?  Seeing and hearing play a major part as we engage with our texts. 
        Last week in our Gospel lesson from Matthew, we encountered John the Baptist in chapter 3, as John is in the wilderness, crying out an early prophecy from Isaiah “prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,” in which John is reinforcing another prophecy in which “someone more powerful“ will arrive and will “baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire” (Matthew 3: 3, 11).  Well, fast forward to this week and we now find John in prison, starting to have doubts and wondering if the prophecy has really been fulfilled, or not.  Like Jesus, John also had disciples which he asks to inquire of Jesus by asking “are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Matthew 11: 3, NRSV).  This is definitely a far cry from when John was almost certain that there would be a messiah, or in the Greek, christos, or anointed one on the way, which many believed Jesus to be, based on his words and actions.[i] But now, John isn’t so certain when he asks his disciples to inquire of Jesus.  So, when asked by John’s disciples if he’s the messiah or not, Jesus’s response in verses 5 and 6 is that “the blind will receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.  And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me” (NRSV).  Hmm, seems like we also just heard something like this in our reading from Isaiah 35, in verses 5 and 6 (coincidentally):
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,
    and the ears of the deaf unstopped;
then the lame shall leap like a deer,
    and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.
        If we are seeing this and hearing this correctly, it sounds pretty sure that Jesus IS the messiah based on the prophecy, the one who was promised by what we see and what we hear.  It’s also the same things that John’s disciples see for themselves with their own eyes and hear when John more or less asks them what did you see?  What did you hear? 
        But even along our own faith journey, even in this time of Advent as we await the coming of the messiah once again and continue to wait, what do you see and what do you hear?  Where do you see and hear going on around us today?  A lot of it comes down to our perspectives and how we see and hear around us.  For John, he is now in prison, which we don’t know why until chapter 14, but John is hearing all about what Jesus is doing as he teaches, heals, and ministers to the crowd, much along what the people were waiting for that we hear about in Isaiah.  Yet John can’t see this happening for himself.  In Isaiah, we hear a prophecy about restoration of God’s people, returning to their land, and yearning for a savior.  Yet while while in prison, John begins to feel doubt because now he isn’t so sure that Jesus is the one who is more powerful to come that John was saying would happen in last week’s Gospel lesson.  However, being in prison changes John’s perspective, as Jesus shows “works of compassion” instead of baptizing by fire.[ii] Instead, “the story in its present context represents the beginning of doubt rather than the dawn of faith,” in which Advent is typically the dawn of faith when we wait, watch, and prepare our hearts for the new hope, joy, peace, and love that we can receive and give at Christmas.[iii] Yet, what is it that we want to see and hear? 
        I think that given the amount of uncertainty in our world and in our nation right now, there is a yearning for certainty among many, and at the same time, there are times where there may be doubt present.  At the same time, there are some, such as author Anne Lamott who and others who believe that the opposite of faith is actually certainty, not doubt.[iv]  This is a time of year in which we are literally in darkness with the shorter days and longer nights, but also because of situations in life that happen or with things that are happening around our nation and world, there is a deep yearning for certainty, which John is also desiring when he wants to know if Jesus is really the messiah or not.  He wants to see it with his own eyes and hear it with his own ears even though Jesus does offer affirmation of John for preparing the way.  Like we talked about in August when we seek the unseen, we are going by faith, not so much by sight.  And for John, he is not able to see the works that Jesus is doing as the messiah from being in prison.  However, John’s doubt and uncertainty may be because of the fact that Jesus is also not the conventional savior or messiah people that were expecting to see or hear from, based on John’s earlier claim of baptizing by fire in Matthew, chapter 3.  Maybe John’s doubt is because Jesus is showing acts of compassion and fulfilling the prophecy in Isaiah 35 of restoring sight to the blind, hearing to the deaf, speech to those who cannot speak, and giving encouragement to the poor.  Doesn’t really sound like baptizing by fire, now does it? 
It’s the actions that Jesus shows and the truths that Jesus speaks that we see and hear and perhaps today in 2016, a message and actions that we need to see and hear once again as we await Christmas Day, words of kindness or comfort and actions of compassion, much like the same actions that we saw and words we heard from Jesus.  Like backing up those words with our actions, it also takes listening carefully, as Jesus says “let anyone with ears listen!” (Matthew 11: 15, NRSV).  And it takes us really opening our eyes to see the world around us, see poverty where it happens, see those who are in need, and be compassionate and generous in our actions and listening.  And right now at this time of year, words and actions are even more important to be mindful of.  As I was preparing for today’s message, one of my friends and colleagues in Texas, Rev. Joseph Yoo had an excellent blog post on Ministry Matters, which I read regularly online and Joe regularly contributes to.  While this is a time of year for the senses, we also see and hear actions that can distract us from fully enjoying this time of year, especially when we get into the whole debacle over saying “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas,” often making accusatory statements about taking Christ out of Christmas.  However, Joe makes a very important point about words and actions when he says
it’s not really the job of Starbucks, JC Penney or Macy’s to spread Christmas cheer or the Christmas story.
They’re in business to make money — and to do everything they can to bring a lot of people into their stores. So they’re going to be as generic and as broadly appealing as possible.
Why would I expect JC Penney to spread the Christmas story to their shoppers? Why would I expect Starbucks to tell the story of Christ’s birth on their cups?
That’s not their job.
It’s ours, isn’t it?
Shouldn’t we hold ourselves accountable for putting “Christ” in Christmas rather than demanding that others do?[v]

        Like Jesus coming along that way that John prepared in the wilderness then defying being a conventional messiah by showing acts of compassion and speaking the truth in love, and bringing good news to those that the rest of society tended to relegate to the margins, maybe that’s what we need to focus on as we make our way towards Christmas, showing these actions as the hands and feet of Christ in our world today, actions that people need to see from us and words that people need to hear from us as people of faith and followers of Christ.  As we talked about last week, we can prepare our hearts and minds for Christmas by repenting or turning around, pruning out the sins and baggage, and through these weeks of Advent and beyond, we see how we need to be the ones to share the story of this messiah, this anointed one who came to earth as our personal savior and savior of the world.  Can we be the ones to share good news wherever we go so that people can say they heard such when asked “what did you hear?” And can we be the ones to show actions of mercy and compassion, so that people can say they saw that when asked “what did you see?” That’s a part of the hope, joy, peace, and love that we can give and receive at Christmas as we prepare our hearts and minds.  It’s US who put Christ in Christmas.  And it is US and our actions and words that people will see and hear when asked “what did you see and hear?”
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  Amen. 

[i] Bible, Blue Letter. ‘Genesis Chapter 1 (KJV)’. 2016. Accessed December 7, 2016.
[ii] The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. VIII (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 266. 
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Name. ‘Faith, Doubt and Inspiration - Brené Brown’. February 9, 2011. Accessed December 8, 2016.
[v] Yoo, Joseph. ‘Is the War on Christmas over Yet?’. Accessed December 8, 2016.

Tuesday, December 6, 2016

December Adventures

The people who walked in darkness
Have seen a great light:
Those who lived in a land of deep darkness –
On them light has shined (Isaiah 9: 2, NRSV).

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God.  All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being.  What has come into being in him was life, and the light was the light of all people.  The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it (John 1: 1-5, NRSV). 

As it happens each year, once Daylight Savings Time ends in early November, darkness comes quickly and earlier in the day.  I’m not really sure what to think when my house becomes dark around 3:00pm when the sun goes behind the mountain, but this is a part of the cycle that happens each year.  The darkness comes early, but after the Winter Solstice, the light gradually returns until we Spring forward once again in March.

It comes as no surprise that the season of Advent and Christmas are during the darkest time of the year.  The darkness is literal, but can also mean other things too.  Some may be in the darkness of the trials of life, the darkness of loss and grief, the darkness of hopelessness, the darkness of being overwhelmed.  The list goes on and on.  And sometimes, the Christmas/Holiday season is not always a happy time for everyone. 

Amidst the darkness that may be felt at this time of year, there is always new hope and new life that can be born and re-born in each of us.  But it also takes each of us to be the ones to bring hope and light to those who might find themselves in darkness.  And there are many ways which we can do that.  We can be the ones to brighten up someone’s day through our simple presence and listening ears.  We can be a beacon of hope to the lonely by extending invitations for dinner or to our gatherings.  We can be the ones to bring joy to families in our neighborhood who may be struggling.  We can be a comforting presence to those who are grieving.  And we can be the ones who can bring food to the hungry.  There are many ways to accomplish each, but this is one way the work of Christmas begins and can last throughout the entire year, not just December. 

I think of the words of Isaiah, “the people who walked in darkness have seen a great light” which was written during a dark time in Israel’s history during the Babylonian captivity that lasted around 70 years.  In their darkness, the people yearned for someone to come and save them, a messiah.  However, contrast that message with John 1 where the new light comes into the world, bringing about a new hope that darkness would not be able to overcome.  We need to be the ones who are the light in this world when times are dark, we need to be the ones who will bring the hope, peace, love, and joy that Christmas brings. 

Advent is a time to slow down from all of the hustle and bustle of the season, to reflect as we wait, watch, prepare, and anticipate.  For the people who were held captive in Israel, they waited and watched for signs of the messiah, the one who would free the people from their captivity.  But for each of us today, what holds us captive from living our lives to the fullest and lives that are pleasing to God?  What new hope and what new life needs to be born or re-born in you this Christmas?  And what can we do during this Advent to be the light of the world for others in our neighborhood and world as we await the new hope that Christmas brings to each of us? 

Peace & Blessings,

Pastor Andrew

Monday, December 5, 2016

Sermon, December 4, 2016: "What Are You Preparing For?"

Community UMC, Quincy
“An Advent Question: What Are You Preparing For?”
Pastor Andrew Davis
Isaiah 11: 1-10
Matthew 3: 1-12
December 4, 2016

        How’s that preparation coming for Christmas?  Have you got your tree up yet?  Nativity sets?  Lights?  Presents?  I think it’s pretty safe to say that it’s really beginning to look a lot like Christmas around town now that we’ve had Sparkle, which I was definitely excited about and eagerly anticipating!!  Once we get into that first week of December, the hustle and bustle of the holidays is in full force, but not quite high gear quite yet.  Give it another week, though.  I do have to say there is something special about small towns and the holidays, as it seems like it’s extra festive here and reminds me of something we would see from Currier and Ives, Norman Rockwell, Thomas Kinkade, and others who love to use sentimentality to grab our attention.  I think some of the commercials we’ve been seeing on TV since Thanksgiving also do a good job at that, or tug at the heartstrings.  Or like Thursday night, I think we are a little closer to prepared now that “A Charlie Brown Christmas” has been on ABC.  I feel like I’m a little closer to prepared now!
        But while we are maybe a little more ready to enjoy the Christmas season than we were last week, we are in the second Sunday of Advent this morning, continuing along our journey in the season of waiting, watching, and preparing our hearts for the new hope, joy, peace, and love that we receive and give at Christmas.  But as we engage with our texts this morning, what are we preparing for?  We see in Isaiah God’s peaceful kingdom and a new day when all of creation is at peace with one another with the joy of a child leading, but then in Matthew we encounter John the Baptist as the “voice who cries out in the wilderness,” repeating a prophecy found in Isaiah 40, “prepare the way of the Lord.”
        Last week, we had a couple of texts that dealt more with end-times, as it was more about the beginning with the end in mind.  Our reading from Isaiah almost reads more like what you would see in a Norman Rockwell or Thomas Kinkade painting, an idealized, sustaining image of what a peaceable world would look like, as the prophet is pointing at new life that is possible.  I think about pruning, which many of us need to do as winter approaches, in order to make space and prepare the bushes, shrubs, and trees for new growth to take place in the Spring.  But also seeing how animals that would ordinarily be part of another’s food chain, such as the lion and the lamb, or wolf and ox laying down together also strikes up a beautiful image, as “these verses articulate the deep and persistent human hope for justice and peace, and within the Christian church, this text expresses the promise of a Messiah who will establish peace on earth.”[i] When we ask what we are preparing for, we are preparing for the day when we can see justice and peace here on earth. But, we have a lot of work to do and that’s going to mean rolling up the sleeves to show how a peaceable kingdom that we hope to prepare for is possible. 
        But another way we work towards preparing our hearts to establishing a peaceable kingdom is to repent from our wrongdoings and our shortcomings before each other and before God.  We hear John the Baptist saying this in verses 2 and 3 of our Gospel lesson, as John says “repent, for the kingdom of Heaven has come near” and to “prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight,” in which John is quoting from Isaiah 40: 3 (NRSV).  Like preparing our yard for Spring by pruning our bushes, trees, and plants, we also prepare to take part in the sacrament of Holy Communion in a little while by having the opportunity to confess altogether our sins and shortcomings.  When we are willing to repent and make room in our hearts for God’s presence through the sacrament, we prepare our hearts for the amazing, wonderful gift of grace that is available for us to receive through taking part in the sacrament.  There are many instances where sin is sometimes swept under the rug for convenience, but sin also brings us down.  That’s why it’s necessary to repent and prepare our hearts for Christmas by unloading some of the baggage we may carrying with us that bring us down so that like receiving the grace available through Communion, we too can receive the hope, joy, peace, and love that Christmas can bring to us. 
        As I was preparing this morning’s message, I got a little laugh from my colleague, Rev. Dr. Dawn Chesser at Discipleship Ministries in Nashville.  In her preaching notes for today, Dawn describes John the Baptist as “a scary dude in a scary place.”[ii] Quite honestly, if I saw someone come screaming “repent for the Kingdom of heaven has come near,” and wearing an outfit of camel hair, I would probably be a little unsettled (Matt. 3: 2, NRSV).  Okay, I’d probably have some not so nice things to say, but during this time period and during the time that Isaiah is writing in, there was already enough happening in the world. John lives in the wilderness, but even amidst the scary appearance, people still listen and for them, “John first brought the Good News: A much more powerful one was coming” which foreshadows the new way and new kingdom that Jesus will ultimately teach about in his earthly ministry.[iii]
But as we wait, watch, and prepare for Christmas, we have this good news that we can take and share with others, and I think even more so today, we need to repent, but also prepare the way of the Lord once again.  Repent gets such a bad rap and it oftentimes gets associated with that message of hellfire and damnation, but as Professor Ron Allen points out, repent literally means to “turn around, or to have a dramatic change of mind and direction.”[iv] That’s one of the wonderful things about Advent, that we have this opportunity to turn things around.  This past week, several of us began our Advent Study, The Redemption of Scrooge by Rev. Matt Rawle based on Charles Dickens’ timeless classic, A Christmas Carol.  As I talked about in a sermon in September on Lazarus and the Rich Man from Luke’s Gospel, I talked about the story of Ebenezer Scrooge and how he was selfish, miserly, sad, lonely, and downright miserable with only his money as his companion.  Without giving too much away of the plot, Ebenezer Scrooge has the opportunity to repent, to turn himself around, and become a new person at Christmas. 
And perhaps that’s what we need to do as we prepare our hearts for Christmas and the arrival of Jesus once again, by turning around our lives where we need them to turn around in as we prepare the way of the Lord and prepare our hearts and minds for the hope, joy, peace, and love that Christmas can bring.  While this is typically a happy time, or supposed to be, some are still in the wilderness of grief and loss, but the good news is that despite all that happens around us, the discord, the conflict, the violence, we have a voice that still cries out from the wilderness to remind us that something more powerful is on its way and that a new day is still ahead.  That’s good news we can share as people of faith, that we have this opportunity to repent and receive God’s abundant grace, which we can also share with others.  We also have our work cut out for us if we are to ever see a peaceable world where the lion will lie down next to the lamb and not have the lamb for dinner, but it is possible, naïve and foolish as that may sound given the darkness of the world around us.  So as we continue along our journey in Advent, what are you preparing for as we continue moving towards Christmas? 
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, Amen. 

[i] The New Interpreter’s Bible Commentary, Vol. VI (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1995), 139. 
[ii] Ministries, Discipleship. ‘Second Sunday of Advent — Preaching Notes’. 2016. Accessed December 1, 2016.
[iii] Ibid.
[iv] Lewis, Karoline. ‘Commentary on Matthew 3: 1-12 by Ron Allen’. December 4, 2016. Accessed December 1, 2016.

"Sky - Dominion & Exploitation" from "Season of Creation," Sermon, September 16, 2018

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