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.

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