This is the message I presented for the 3rd Sunday in Advent (December 12, 1999) at Walker Valley UMC. The Scriptures were Isaiah 61: 1 – 4, 8 – 11; 1 Thessalonians 5: 15 – 24; and John 1: 6 – 8, 19 – 28
This is probably the time of Christmas season that I like the best. The tree is up (when I have the chance, I like to put on the lights myself), the favorite family ornaments have been carefully unpacked and placed on the tree, and all the decorations have been hung about the house. And the presents have begun to arrive.
Now, some may think that I don’t like Christmas presents. In truth, I like presents. Over the past few years, I have found some enjoyment in getting what I feel that my daughters, grandchild, brothers, sister, mother, wife, and selected others might enjoy. But I will also admit that I am not crazy about Christmas shopping. I don’t like venturing out into the wilderness and madness of the mall at this time of year and I certainly don’t like the hype of buying that comes at this time. Now, how then do I solve that particular problem? Well, if I can, I think about what it is that I am buying all year round and if the opportunity presents itself to get a present for anyone on my list; I get it then and put it away.
But I like it when the presents start appearing under the tree. Because then you get to think about and guess what might be in the box. If you are like me, you take every opportunity to sneak over and pick up a present or two and shake it to see if it rattles (hoping, of course, that is not a broken piece of crystal) and to see how much it might weigh. And when you were little, you might have even tried to stay up all night long, hoping to catch a glimpse of Santa bringing in the bicycle or train set that you had asked him for. Try as I might, I never could catch him though.
Rattling and shaking the box may be a good description of what the priests and Levites are trying to do in the Gospel reading for today.
This is the testimony given by John when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, “Who are you?”
The problem for them was that they did not know whom John the Baptist was. Could it be that he was the Messiah? Or was he just another prophet coming to stir up the people?
He confessed and did not deny it, but confessed, “I am not the Messiah.” And they asked him, “What then? Are you Elijah?” He said, “I am not.” “Are you the prophet?” He answered, “No.” Then they said to him, “Who are you?”
The priests, Levites, and the Pharisees who sent them out to interrogate John were uncomfortable with John’s message of repentance and his challenge directly to them that they repent of their sins and prepare for the coming of the Messiah. They had grown comfortable living in a world defined by the law, even when the law was sometimes contradictory, and this “wild man of the wilderness” was challenging everything that they stood for. They had grown comfortable living in a box.
We all do that at one point or another in our lives. We want our lives to be neat and arranged, knowing what to expect each day. And we get extremely uncomfortable when someone does something to shake up that arrangement. We find it very nice to live in a box.
Living in a box, while safe and sometimes comfortable, can also be very confining. The limits placed by the “walls” of the box define what it is that you can and cannot do and that makes it very difficult to be creative or to see what can be done. Often times, we do not see the possibilities of things that we can do because of the walls the box has put around us. Where would we be today if the disciples, simple fisherman, had not seen their task as becoming “fishers of men?”
The challenges of the world today require that we see beyond what we define ourselves to be. And the very thought of that scares a lot of people. But my friends, the reason for our celebration of Christmas is the coming of the Lord and what He means to our lives.
Jesus’ ministry went beyond what the people, not just the leaders, thought at that time. When you look at his ministry, you see him saying, “Let the children come to me” at a time when children were considered more than just a nuisance and ignored. He had a ministry that included women at a time when they were less than second class citizens. He had a ministry that went out to the poor, the sick, the brokenhearted, and those members of society who were forgotten. As Isaiah proclaimed,
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me; he as sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and release to the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor, and the day of vengeance of our God; to comfort all those who mourn; to provide for those who mourn in Zion – to give them a garland instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning, the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
The message that John brought was to say that the time had come to review all that one had done and to repent and begin anew. This very thought of beginning anew, of tearing down the walls that provide us with security, is a scaring one. And it is a difficult one to accept. That, I think, is why Paul wrote the Thessalonians,
May the God of peace himself sanctify you entirely; and may your spirit and soul and body be kept sound and blameless at the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will do this.
Though John called for us to make straight the path, the journey of faith for us is neither straight nor does it always seem safe. It is those anxieties and fears that keep us in the box, in a life confined by rules and regulations that are often times contradictory. This was the world into which Christ came and which He sought to change.
God offers us not a refuge from life but the courage to live fully into self and life.
For I the Lord love justice, I hate robbery and wrongdoing; I will faithfully give them their recompense, and I will make an everlasting covenant with them. Their descendants shall be known among the nations, and their offspring among the peoples; all who see them shall acknowledge that they are a people whom the Lord has blessed. I will greatly rejoice in the Lord, my whole being shall exult in my God; for he has clothed me with the garments of salvation, he has covered me with the robe of righteousness, as a bridegroom decks himself with a garland, and as a bride adorns herself with her jewels. For as the earth brings forth its shoots, and as a garden causes what is sown in it to spring up, so the Lord God will cause righteousness and praise to spring up before all the nations.
Christ wants us to live outside the boundaries of the box that we place ourselves in. That is why the baptism by Christ was with the Spirit. Because in allowing the Holy Spirit to come into our lives, we gain that which we need to go beyond the walls of the box.
Today we celebrate Communion. It is a chance to bring Christ into your life. But it is also something else. Communion in the United Methodist Church is at an open table. We do not limit access to it to members of just this church or just this denomination. We do not prescreen those who seek to come forward. All we ask is that you come with an open heart, accepting in the Spirit.
So, I ask you today to give every thought you have to “what’s in the box you call your life?”