"Could Love Really Be Invisible?"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - 12/13/1998
Luke 1:47-55; Matthew 11:2-11
Not far from them stood another couple who had probably been married for 200 years! The middle-aged woman was looking at this young couple as if their endearing attention to each other had transported her back in time. Her husband started talking to her until he realized she was not listening. She had been distracted by the activities of the couple. When he saw the broad smile on his wife's face and why she was smiling, he swung her around. Teasingly he put two fingers down his throat as if the touchy-feelie activities of the young couple nauseated him. She promptly gave him a warm, friendly elbow in the side as the two of them walked away to continue their shopping.
This entire drama took less time than I have just taken trying to recreate the scene with words. Most of us smile when we observe young couples who see only stars and sunshine in each other's eyes. Their love is so romantic, so sincere, so unspoiled and yet so untested. It was the older couple, however, that caught my attention. Their love for each other was not so visible. Yet the way they interacted spoke volumes.
The older couple probably had been through many challenging times together. Perhaps they had been with their children during moments when the youngsters were despairing over some issue that had upset them. Perhaps they had buried two or three pets who had been in the family longer than the children. Maybe they had been emotionally seasoned by the death of their parents, or by their support and loyalty to each other when companies merged and one or both of them lost their jobs. There is much about the quality of love that lacks visibility. If we have limited experience with love, we can easily miss seeing it.
As you may recall, last week we discussed John the Baptist who was preaching with thunder and lightening as he made his proclamations near the Jordan River. John was obviously not happy with his perception of how corrupt society had become. He spewed forth words of doom and gloom, challenging his listeners to turn away from their sins and wickedness. John got people's attention. Words that create fear always get people's attention.
Josephus, the Hebrew historian, wrote that until the arrival of John, the Baptizer, Israel had not heard the words of prophecy for nearly 400 years. John's words attracted many listeners as he announced the coming of one who would come after him. The problem for John was that he had no other pattern to focus his understanding of God other than the one of his heritage. There had been no God of grace, no God whose nature was unconditional love.
The familiar prophetic pattern, well understood by the Jews, was the God of the Covenant. In essence, if people lived faithfully God would remain faithful to them. If people became unfaithful to God's commandments, then God's justice would be swift and unrelenting. In last week's lesson John said it this way, ". . .every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown in the fire."
Notice how Jesus responded. He said, "Go back and tell John what you are hearing and seeing: the blind can see, the lame can walk, those who suffer from leprosy are made clean, the deaf hear, the dead are brought back to life, and the Good News is preached to the poor. How happy are those who have no doubts about me!"
Think about John's frustration when his disciples reported what Jesus had said. Where was the wrath? Where was the coming judgment? Where was the punishment for unrepentant sinners? John had been positive that God would send a Messiah who would baptize with fire and throw the axe to the root of sinner's lives. The God of grace was invisible to John.
The shame is that John was beheaded before he had time to understand that something new had come. Had John lived, he might still have missed understanding the shift in perception concerning the nature of God that Jesus revealed.
For example, how would John have understood a God who had sent a shepherd, a shepherd whose mission it was to seek those who had lost their way? How would John have understood a God who was coming to announce the Good News to the poor in spirit? And what was that Good News? The Good News was that God had come into our midst so that everyone could be released and healed of their desire to perceive without love.
Let me ask all of you a question. Have any of you ever seen this kind of love in our church family? Think about this before you answer. If you have seen it, describe it to me sometime. There is no doubt that people have sensed it. There is no doubt that most of us have seen the fruits of love's presence. But, the energy itself -- can any of you claim that you have actually seen it?
Jesus said, "Tell John what you are hearing and seeing." We could say the same thing to newcomers to our church. I am sure some people enter our church for the first time looking for something quite specific and they do not find it. They may not come back. They want the kind of God that John was announcing. They want to hear warnings of pending doom if people do not repent and mend their ways. They want a faith that has its basis in fear. Many people are not prepared to hear about a shepherd who brought a Kingdom for which human beings had no prior experience.
Jesus said, "Tell John what you are hearing and seeing." What do we see? I cannot tell you how many people came into my office this week and said, "What a mess!" I always responded, "Isn't it a good mess?" Some people came in, looked around, shook their heads and walked out. They never said a thing. They had heard rumors of the mess and came in to see for themselves. I told James, our custodian, that I would like to have my carpet vacuumed. He just looked at me and grinned. The office was so cluttered that very little carpet was visible.
All over the floor, on the chairs and sofa, on every available spot, there were wrapped packages for 300 children and teenagers. The clutter was all made possible because many of you took the time to shop for kids who would otherwise have had little this Christmas. Why no Christmas for these kids? Because one or both of their parents are in our county's Detention Center.
Is that what love looks like? No, that's what people do who have love inside of them. And when people were together on Friday laughing and wrapping hundreds of gifts surrounded by the sounds of Christmas music, is that what love looks like? Again, the answer is "no," but everyone there could feel its presence. One woman who was helping to wrap and who also works at the prison said, "These people have no idea what they are doing for these families." Last year she was there when the children received their stockings. She saw what happened.
Jesus said, "Go back and tell John what you are hearing and seeing." We could say, "Children are given hope. Youths have something to keep them warm as they wear their new sweatshirts. Older people have teddy bears to hold at a time in their lives when loving, authentic hugs from people have become increasingly rare. Many families are given a Christmas celebration with presents and a dinner by the United Methodist Women because of something no one can see."
A cynic could say, "At St. Matthew's the blind do not see, the lame do not walk, and the dead are not brought back to life." We have heard too many of your stories to believe that. Love is invisible. In its presence hearts have been encouraged, agnostic minds have started thinking again, and lethargic spirits have received new energy and hope. Emotionally and spiritually dead people have been brought back to life. Can any of you actually see what makes this happen? Jesus said, "Go back and tell John what you are hearing and seeing." What are we seeing?
Once a vile, bitter old man lived on the outskirts of a town. He was angry at God "for taking his wife," for allowing ill-health to take such an exacting toll on him, and for the unfriendly nature of everyone else in the world. He was most skilled at making hate visible.
Winter was coming and the old man had lost the strength to cut and split the many cords of wood required to heat his home during the winter. The senior high youth fellowship at one of the community's churches secretly decided to do something about that. They thought it would be neat to cut the wood themselves and sneak it on to his property between 2:00 - 4:00 a.m. on some designated morning. Such an activity inspired lots of young people, some who were not in the youth group.
The night came when their deed would be done. On Saturday the kids had secretly stacked the wood in an obscure area near the old man's property. At 2:00 a.m. Sunday morning they all appeared and silently began carrying the wood. No one remembered exactly what happened but near the end of their task there was a sneeze and there was noise from some dropped logs. Suddenly the porch light came on, the door was thrown open and there stood the old man with his double-barrel shot gun. All the kids froze in their places.
"Don't shoot," one of them said, "We were only trying to surprise you with wood without letting you know who did it." And one of the girls with a knot in her throat said, "Yeah, and it's free." There was a long silence as the old man scanned the neatly stacked cords of wood. Then he barked, "Go on. Get out of here! You should be in bed rather than scaring the wits out of an old man." The kids ran home knowing their adventure had been a success.
Soon it was Christmas Eve. The wintry winds sent a chill through everyone as they made their way to the church that night. Shortly after the service had begun the old man appeared and he sat in the back pew. Some of the kids spotted him and quietly spread the word, "The old man is here. He knows who we are! He has come to report us. We're dead!"
None of that was true. As he sat there listening to the hymns and words, tears streamed down his face. This had been his first Christmas Eve service in over twenty years. He did not know why he felt so differently. He did not know what had warmed his cold heart, nor did he understand why a bunch of young self-absorbed, rebellious teenagers would do something that would forever change his image of them. Now they had become angels of mercy. All that he experienced happened because of a healing spirit that had remained invisible.
As we continue our preparation for God's coming anew, remember that the Spirit that causes miracles is invisible. All we ever see are the results of that Spirit's presence. Thanks be to God for such an incredible gift.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
We come into the sanctuary this morning aware of our poverty in understanding. We see the patience of Mary and Joseph while knowing our own irritability when our desires are challenged. We see Mary and Joseph's acceptance of their circumstances while we know how demanding we are when justice and fairness appear absent in ours. We see Mary and Joseph trusting in your leading, while recalling how often we have celebrated when our desires have prevailed. How easy it is, O God, to see love in our people while we miss giving it away ourselves. Teach us how to reveal love's presence while among those who have defined themselves by the tyranny of little things. May we follow Christ and thus become that shaft of light. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Loving and every merciful God, how interesting that we have lighted the third candle this morning, the one representing love, and we find ourselves in a national dilemma of having to define and express love in the framework of our legal system.
This morning we pray for our first family. No matter where our feelings lie, no matter where matters of justice are positioned, no matter how tired we are as Americans of hearing about the issues swirling around them, allow the Clintons to feel your closeness and love. Help them to find times during this season when they can experience healing and peace.
Equally, we pray for the members of Congress. How challenging it must be to remember the words Jesus spoke to a crowd preparing to end the life of a woman found in the act of adultery, while also attempting to uphold the spirit of our Constitution. What a mixture of feeling we all have, O God, when we must make a similar decision in our lives. How do we mix the consequences resulting from the poor judgment of someone with our desire to be loving and merciful? As we all move through this event in our history, may we not just say, "This too shall pass." May we come away from having learned something of great spiritual value. Jesus came that we might have light, and we ask that light to shine on and heal our own brokenness as well. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus Christ, our Lord, who taught us to say when we pray. . .