Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Ten Minutes (Luke 2:22-40)

Edit: I must have hit send about the same time as Brian; his comments for 12/21 appear below. This post is for the 12/28 readings.... [end edit]

It appears that the posters to this site (like me) are experiencing worship services full of cantatas and children's pageants, and therefore have little sermon preparation to do--and not much to post here. Therefore, I present to you some early thoughts for Sunday, December 28 ... the first Sunday after Christmas. What follows is the first draft of my sermon. The end isn't quite finished yet, and my goal is to preach this sermon in just ten minutes (the reason why will become clear as you read). So, this is still a work-in-progress.

It seems like the decorations have been up forever. They started appearing well over two months ago, at shopping malls and amusement parks. Then, some people in your neighborhood put up their decorations (not you of course), and it wasn't even Thanksgiving yet. And all of a sudden, you found yourself humming Christmas tunes.

By the day after Thanksgiving, you couldn't help it anymore. It was time for Christmas. You made your shopping list, you opened your own box (or, boxes) of decorations, you began untangling the lights. Christmas was still a month away--but it's so hard to wait, isn't it?

Then came the first Sunday of Advent. Advent is a season of preparation, anticipation, and waiting, but when it arrived, it seemed as if Christmas was already here. It sure seemed strange to be told to wait, watch, and prepare, when we'd already seen Santa Claus make his arrival at Herald Square, and greet children at our local mall. Clergy told their congregations that it was the season for singing Advent hymns, not Christmas carols, but few would listen to such nonsense... they wanted their Christmas now.

It's just so hard to wait. It's so hard to wait for Christmas.

Simeon and Anna had been waiting a very long time to see the birth of the messiah. When baby Jesus was about six weeks old, his parents--Mary and Joseph--brought him to the temple in Jerusalem, to dedicate him to the Lord. They were met there by Simeon and Anna, who, it seems, had been waiting nearly their whole lives for this moment. Anna in particular had been waiting--worshiping, fasting, and praying--for many, many years, waiting day and night. Waiting to see Jesus. Waiting to see Emmanuel, God-with-us, the Messiah.

How did they do it? How did they wait for so long? We can't even wait for Christmas. Heck, most of us can't even wait for the red light to turn green. We tap our fingers on the steering wheel, we fidget with the radio, we do whatever we can to make those unbearably long seconds until the light changes green pass by more quickly.

When Jesus began his ministry, some thirty years later, he knew that he had important work to do. He knew that God was calling him to bring good news to the poor, to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, and to proclaim the dawning of a new age, a new kingdom. With a "to-do" list like that, I'm sure he felt the urge to get started right away. But he didn't.

Instead, he went into the wilderness for forty days. And during those forty days, he was tempted to begin his ministry prematurely, to end his time of fasting early by transforming a stone into a loaf of bread. But he resisted this, and other temptations as well, and waited for the forty days to finish.

At other times throughout his ministry, Jesus waited. He waited on God in prayer. He prayed on a mountain, he prayed in the garden, he prayed at night; and much of that time in prayer, I believe, was time spent waiting. It was time spent listening for God.

Simeon and Anna, I believe, were unique individuals. Certainly God does not expect every follower of God to spend their whole lives waiting. However, a little bit of waiting would do most of us a whole lot of good.

One of the first things I did when I arrived here at Bixby Knolls Christian Church last spring was to ask you to spend ten minutes a day in prayer. It sounds like such a simple, easy request, and yet I know that it is not. I know, because I don't always succeed in taking ten minutes to pray, and I'm the pastor who made the suggestion!

In asking you to pray for ten minutes, I did not expect you to fill all those minutes with words. I did not expect you to start the timer at "Dear God," and then keep talking until, ten minutes later, you arrived at "Amen." I don't think that's how Jesus spent most of his time in prayer, and I don't think that's how we should be spending most of our time in prayer.

Some of the best prayer is sitting in silence with God, although I have to warn you: sitting in silence feels an awful lot like waiting.

If you find that you're too restless to sit, then go for a walk. Jesus went up a mountain, but you can just go around the block. Or do some activity that doesn't require too much concentration, to keep your hands busy as you pray. Some adults I know knit; some youth I know make friendship bracelets.

I often find that, for me, sermon-writing is a form of prayer. For that reason, I often write out my sermons the old-fashioned way, with a pencil and paper. I do eventually type them into the computer, but my typing speed is 80 words per minute, and it's just too hard to pray when you're flying along at 80 words per minute.

If you can find ten minutes a day to spend with God, to wait on God, then your life will be blessed. Of that, I have no doubt. And if a lot of us are able to spend ten minutes a day in prayer, then our church will be blessed.

It really does take some time to prepare ourselves to see the presence of God. Such things cannot be rushed. It takes time to see Jesus in our midst, to recognize the presence of Christ. Many rush through the Christmas season without ever seeing Jesus.

He's not just in the manger.

A Gift for All

By Brian Kirk

Luke 1: 26-38

There is so much one can say about this text. We could really get into a discussion over the possibility of a virgin birth, did or didn't Luke mistranslate texts from the Hebrew scriptures, but I don't really think these discussions resonate with people's hearts when it comes to the story of Mary and the visit of the angel. What always strikes me here is how radical this whole episode is -- radical in ways we might not recognize in the 21st century. This is particularly so when it comes to gender roles. Luke starts his gospel, as we might expect, with a story of a man, Zechariah. But we quickly discover that Zechariah, the doubter, will not be the hero of this story. Instead, Luke turns his attention to two female characters, Elizabeth and then Mary, both of whom are much more receptive to receiving the news of the angels and willing to play their part in the drama than is Zechariah. Oh, and don't blink or you'll miss Joseph's role in the story altogether.

These episodes set the tone for all of Luke's gospel. He's not arguing for women's liberation, of course, but rather is setting the stage for the way the gospel of Jesus will turn the current state of the world on it's head. In a partriarchal culture, God will change the world through two humble women. Later in Luke's gospel we will see this same role reversal happen as the good news is delivered first, not to the powerful, but to some lowly shepherds. Luke is the gospel writer who will tell us of women disciples, and will have a special place in his drama for the plight of the least of these, the outcast, the poor, and the outsider.

The mere fact that he centers the start of his story of Mary in Nazareth in Galilee is a reminder that this "king" will not be born to celebrity, but will come from humble origins: a small, backwoods village. Galilee was known as a place where Jews and Gentiles coexisted peacefully. Luke is reminding us early on that Jesus' mission will not be just to his own kind, but to all people -- the Jew, the Gentile, male, female, rich, poor, clean, unclean.

What are the implications here for critiquing the focus in so much of Christianity on "personal salvation?" The angel tells Mary that Jesus' kingdom "will have no end." How do we loosen our grasp on the Christ child long enough to realize that he has come for all humankind? That the peace, joy, hope, and love he brings isn't just for those who claim him by name, but for all God's children? That he comes to us not just individually, but communally, as people of faith?

I'm reminded of the story, told in so many cultures and faiths, of the way God's light became hidden inside all of us. In some versions of the story, it is sin that causes the light to fragment, with tiny pieces finding their way inside each human soul. In other versions of the story, God (the trickster) purposely hides the light so that we will go in search of it. The great challenge of life, then, is to discover that light of God within each person. Luke's Jesus nudges us in this direction, even from the start of the gospel, declaring that God works through the most unexpected people. That God's light will become enfleshed through the life of the peasant girl Mary. Perhaps the challenge of this story is to realize that, just as God's light is within all others, God's light is within us, too. And as Mary enfleshes that light in the birth of Jesus, we too are called to enflesh that light in the way we live and serve.