"Moving Beyond Tradition"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 21, 2003

Micah 5:2-5a; Hebrews 10:5-10

     Even though today is the fourth and final Sunday in Advent, I would like us to consider one of the themes we normally address during our celebration of Good Friday.  That theme is this:  Jesus came into the world to die on the cross for our sins -- a subject that is mentioned in our lesson today from the Book of Hebrews.  Was this the true purpose for Jesus' birth? If so, what guidance, what benefit has such thinking provided?   

     Back in the late 60s' I was in preparation for ministry at Wesley Seminary.  Because of this, I was "drafted" to teach Sunday School at Cheverly United Methodist Church. During one of our Advent lessons a very precocious young man startled me with a question that really challenged my thinking.  He asked a very honest question using vivid imagery. 

Dick, could you explain what kind of a God we are dealing with in this material? Let me see if I understand this correctly.  God sent His son into the world to be killed by a bunch of religious fanatics to show us how much He loves us. If any human Father did that, he would be tried and convicted for being criminally insane.  Explain this to me."   

     I had to admit that I could not explain it in a way that he would understand.

     When I consulted with a number of the faculty at the seminary, what they told me was akin to an intellectual treatise that would not be useful for young people. I asked in my New Testament class, "How did Jesus' death on the cross do anything for anyone?  Was the purpose of Jesus' birth to become a human sacrifice? If so, how did that work? After trying their patience, I remained unconvinced by their explanations.  I am sure many of them lit a candle when I graduated.  

     Many of us invest our energy in ideas that motivate and inspire us to rise above our frustrations, regrets and confusion.  We want our lives to be purpose driven. We want to experience meaning from the activities to which we give ourselves. We want clarity for the kind of thinking that will result in courage, character and integrity within our spirits.  The idea of a required human sacrifice may not do this for us.  

     On this last Sunday in Advent, let us consider this question:  What did Jesus accomplish by coming into our world?  Can we look at our world today and say that it has not changed appreciably since his coming?  We can review the history of Christian behavior through the centuries, whether during the Salem witch hunts, the murder of those who dared to translate the Scriptures into the common language, or the slaughter of 10,000 Protestants by fanatical Roman Catholics in the streets of Paris on St. Bartholomew's Day, and see that not much has changed.  What did Jesus create for humanity?  If we got it right, why all the conflict, bickering and bloodshed?

     Our lesson today begins with a dialogue between Jesus and God prior to his being born. The writer has Jesus affirming God's position regarding the primitive nature of sacrifice.  Jesus said to God, "You are not pleased with animals burned whole on the altar nor are you pleased with any sacrifice designed to take away sin." As we read this, the author appears to be very clear on separating any form of sacrifice from our being forgiven for our sinful attitudes and behavior. 

     After writing this, however, the author appears unable to escape his Hebrew heritage and admits that some form of sacrifice is necessary.  He writes, "So God did away with all the old sacrifices and put the sacrifice of Christ in their place.  We are all purified from sin by the offering that he made of his own body once and for all."  

     How may we understand this author when we are painfully aware that little has changed?  We know ourselves very well.  In spite of how wonderful we believe we are, there are moments when our words, attitudes and thoughts betray us and our shadow side becomes visible. 

     I had an interesting experience while being one of the ministers in Cheverly.  I was opening our children's nursery and adjusting the room temperature for an evening Lenten program.  As I was doing this I overheard a man talking on the telephone which was outside the church's kitchen.  He was speaking loudly to someone with whom he was not happy. I peeked around the corner but did not recognize the man.

     As I continued with my chores, I could not help hearing this man's attitude and his use of profanity.  From his conversation, I presumed that he was speaking to his son who must have become disobedient in some fashion. Finally, in angry disgust, the man slammed the phone down and left. 

     The service was about to begin so Lois and I seated ourselves in the sanctuary. The Worship Committee had secured an evangelist to conduct our Lenten series.  Upon being introduced, the speaker rose from the congregation and went into the pulpit area.  He was the man who had been talking to his son on the telephone.  His message gushed enthusiastically about Jesus and how his sacrifice on the cross had saved us from our sins.  I wondered why we preach these things when our message has little basis in the way we often choose to live.      

     When we study the teachings of Jesus, we do not find his sacrifice as a dominant theme.  There is no mention of his pending sacrificial death in the Sermon on the Mount for example.  Rather, Jesus spoke about who we could become when we follow him, when we choose to live in the Kingdom of God and when we choose to rise above the limitations imposed by our shadow selves. 

     From Jesus we learn how an unforgiving heart can erode our spirit and personality. We learn how smoldering anger toward those who have offended us can shape a very unpleasant destiny. We learn how our beliefs will either broaden our caring for others or narrow our perception of them through our unkind and frequently uninformed judgments.  By following him, we can see results. 

     Perhaps Jesus' purpose for being born was not to die on the cross, but rather to save us from our sins by teaching us a more enlightened, a more loving way to live.   He offered us choices. Jesus taught, "Blessed are those who . . . " and he completed each Beatitude with the result that would follow.  He taught us to love our enemies and he did so himself while dying on a cross. While near death he said in essence, "You have done your worst, but you cannot destroy my ability to love you.  Father forgive them, they know not what they do."  There was no disconnect between Jesus' words and his actions.  

     We can miss the meaning of Bethlehem and the essential message that was delivered when that baby became an adult. Complicated theology can do that.  Jesus' words reveal that God's love is so encompassing that all of us are embraced regardless of who we are or what we have done.  This gives meaning to God's infinite Grace.  What we create with our lives is our choice, but God never stops loving us.  This is the Good News!

     Through the courtesy of a friend, I received an insightful story that may help us look at God's love more clearly. It is the story of what happened to a family who went to a restaurant one evening and encountered a very awkward circumstance. 

     The couple placed their little son, Erik, in a high chair.  Almost immediately Erik became very excited.  With his toothless grin he was giggling and wiggling with joy.  His mother discretely looked around to see what was stimulating Erik's behavior. Her eyes focused on a man sitting alone across the restaurant who had become very responsive to Erik's reactions.  Her assessment of him is most descriptive:

     The source of Erik's excitement was a man whose pants were baggy with a zipper at half-mast.  His toes poked through his well-worn shoes.  His shirt was dirty and his hair was uncombed and unwashed.  His whiskers were too short to be called a beard and his nose was so varicose it looked like a road map.  We were too far away to smell him, but I was sure he smelled. 

     The woman wrote how the man began to speak to their son in a loud voice,  "Hi there, baby! Hi there big boy!"  The husband and wife exchanged glances as the old man continued to make a nuisance of himself.  When the waitress brought their dinner, the man began shouting across the restaurant, "Do ya patty cake?  Do you know peek-a-boo?  Hey, look everyone, he knows peek-a-boo!" 

     No one in the restaurant thought the old man was funny. He was out of line and being obnoxious. He was obviously drunk and had become a source of embarrassment to everyone, including the management. She wrote, "We ate in silence while Erik continued to show off for the admiring skid-row bum, who continued to make comments throughout our meal.

     When they finished eating, the husband went to pay the bill as the mother picked up her son and prepared to leave.  She prayed, "Lord, just let me get out of here before he speaks to me or Erik."  In her own words, she describes what happened next. 

As I drew closer to the man, I turned my back trying to sidestep him and avoid any air he might be breathing.  As I did, Erik leaned over my arm, reaching with both arms in a baby's non-verbal "pick-me-up" request.  Before I could stop him, Erik had propelled himself from my arms into the man's. Suddenly a very old smelly man and a very young baby had become one as they expressed their love and kinship to each other.  


Erik in an act of total trust, love, and submission laid his tiny head upon the man's ragged shoulder. The man's eyes closed and I saw tears hovering beneath his lashes.  His aged hands full of grime, pain and hard labor cradled our baby's bottom and stroked his back.  No two beings have ever loved so deeply for so short a time. I stood awestruck.  The old man rocked and cradled Erik with his arms as his eyes opened. He looked straight into mine. He said in a firm, commanding voice, "You take care of this baby."  He pried Erik from his chest lovingly, longingly, as though he were in pain.  As I received our baby from the man he said, 'God bless you, ma'am, you have given me my greatest Christmas gift ever.'

     When she arrived at the car, her husband noticed that his wife was crying.  He said, "What happened in there?"  She told him and then she said,  

My God, my God, forgive me!  I have just witnessed Christ's love shown through the innocence of our tiny child who saw no sin, who made no judgment, who saw only another soul sitting across the restaurant from us.  I was a Christian who was blind, holding our child who was not.  I felt as though God were asking me, 'Are you willing to share your son for a moment when I shared mine for all eternity?'  The ragged old man, unwittingly had reminded me, 'To enter the Kingdom of God, we must become as little children.'

     Christian scholars and theologians have spent an exhaustive number of hours refining  theology so that we Christians could become clear on what it is we believe. They have not succeeded. We need to be reminded that correct beliefs and wonderfully constructed theology is meaningless if we cannot reflect the loving energy of little Erik.              

     We sense this when the Baptists criticize the United Methodists, when the Episcopalians explosively wrestle with the consecration of their first openly gay bishop or when the "Christian Right" appears to attack everything with which it does not agree as though it has been appointed to be the guardian of how God's spirit manifests among us.  We sense a disconnect when Christians judge the Jews and Muslims by the political posturing of a few.

     Jesus was born to teach us how to live by a spirit that radiates the very qualities of God in whose image we were created.  Some people try very hard to figure out what to believe instead of reaching out with both arms to embrace all people who need loving every bit as badly as that ragged old man in the restaurant.  

     As we slowly learn how to do this, we discover as a by-product that we have been saved from expressing attitudes and behavior that do not reflect love.  Developing this spirit is what humanity has looked forward to for centuries. This is why the message can so easily be missed.  We want God to save us through some act of grace as though we need do nothing. This was not Jesus' message. He told his listeners to assume responsibility for their lives and follow him.  Indeed, the Word of God became flesh and dwelt among us. This is why we celebrate the coming of Jesus into our world.


     Loving and always vigilant God, we thank you that we have walked through these four Sundays of Advent exploring the inexhaustible number of themes that come to us through the Scriptures.  How grateful we are for the testimonies from those who wrote thousands of years ago of what they believed about their relationship with you.   We are grateful that we can build on their thoughts as our lives and perceptions are enriched by what we experience of you. 

     All around us we sense the roller coaster quality of life.  Yet, in spite of our tragedies and joys, our misfortunes and priceless moments, our mistakes in judgment and our moments of great insight, your love of us continues moment by moment through it all.  Sometimes we pride ourselves in having "correct beliefs."  Sometimes we feel extremely guilty because of how shallow our faith appears to be.  Sometimes we do not tune in to your presence until our neediness forces us to our knees.  Most of us find it challenging to put into practice the love of which we so easily speak.  Yet your love of us continues moment by moment through it all. 

     Continue to come to each of us, O God.  Heal our minds.  May we learn that life is about giving, not getting; about kindness, not judgment; about nurturing, not perfection; about loving, not salvation.  Give us, O God, the opportunities to make your spirit visible everywhere.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .