"Why Expectations Often Blind Us"
Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - December 9, 2007
Isaiah 11:1-10; Matthew 3:1-12
This morning we have lighted the second candle on our Advent wreath, the candle that symbolizes the coming of Love. When I saw that the theme of love came during the second week of Advent, I grew hesitant to talk about it this early. Most of my sermons have the theme of love woven into them.
What is it about love that so many people do not understand? Perhaps it is our expectations of love that cause us to define what we experience. Perhaps it is our expectations of love that motivate many of our responses. In other words, love becomes what we want it to be rather than what it is.
We find the expectation of love defining the messages of the famous preacher in our lesson today. The Gospel writer goes into great detail in describing the message of John the Baptist as he charismatically admonished his listeners to turn away from their sins because the Kingdom of God was near.
His preaching was powerful and convincing. John's reputation spread throughout the province of Judea. Once people heard John's words, they confessed their sins and were baptized. John's expectation of what would happen when God's Kingdom came is what crafted his message. It was not love that was coming; the coming Kingdom would bring judgment. Those who refused to repent were going to be thrown into the fire.
When John discovered that Pharisees and Sadducees were among the crowd of listeners, he pronounced judgment on them, You snakes who told you that you could escape from the punishment God is going to send? Don't think that you can escape by claiming that Abraham is your ancestor. The ax is ready to cut down every tree that does not bear good fruit. Upon hearing these words, many of his listeners hurried into the Jordan to be baptized.
The Jewish historian, Josephus, wrote, Before the arrival of John, the Baptizer, the Word of God had not been heard in Israel for over 400 years. John told his listeners that he can only baptize with water, but the one coming after him will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. He will thresh out all the grain, John told them. He will gather the wheat into his barn and burn the chaff in the fire.
The message of John the Baptist was inspired by his understanding of God's nature. John had a passion for justice in this life. He was angered because King Herod had taken the wife of his brother Phillip and brought her to live with him in the royal palace. This public spectacle created an enormous outcry from the Jews who were horrified by such gross immorality.
What happened, historically, through the life and teachings of Jesus was just the opposite of John's message. John was right when he preached that the Kingdom of God was near, but it was not one of punishment, revenge and the destruction of sinners. The coming Kingdom was one where God's loving spirit would be revealed. John's expectations of God had blinded him. Jesus once said, AI assure you that John the Baptist is greater than anyone who has ever lived. BUT, the one who is least in the Kingdom of heaven is greater than John. (Matthew 11:11)
What we celebrate at Christmas is that God so loved the world that God gave humanity God's only son. What caused Jesus' disciples to radiate love was not fear, anxiety or the escape from punishment; it was their ability and skill to be at peace as they served God in a very different way from life lived in obedience to the Laws of Moses. Jesus challenged his listeners to rise above the values that govern the material world and to receive spiritual guidance from values that are timeless. We lighted the second candle on our wreath this morning in celebration of love because Jesus taught his listeners to understand the heart of God.
From time to time we experience people who radiate such love. Their lives inspire us to think differently about our understanding of this quality of spirit. Some of my experiences with such people are worth repeating because of how they have influenced my life. The next two stories describe the skills of people who had learned how to mirror what happened on that first Christmas morning when God's nature was revealed.
I had gone to visit a woman who had just had a second baby. As I approached the door, I heard some of the very audible exchange that was taking place inside the house between the mother and her 4-year old daughter. Little Candice was having an emotional meltdown because Mom had just set a boundary that had made the 4-year old very unhappy.
The front door opened and I was greeted with, Come in, Dick, Candice and I are just finishing up. Candice never broke her steely eye contact with her mother. There was no recognition of my having entered the house. Candice's hands were on her hips and her articulation was that of a verbally skilled 14-year old. She said, Mother, I just want you to know that I do not love you and furthermore, I never have. She whirled around and stomped upstairs to her bedroom and slammed the door. As she was leaving her mother responded, That's okay honey, dinner will still be at 6:00.
The reason that moment etched itself into my mind was my recognition that such a response was the same as God's gift to humanity. Jesus' birth was like God saying, At this stage of your awareness, you cannot recognize that I love you just as you are. I will send someone to lead you. I do have compassion for your ignorance, for your inability to understand my ways and for your difficulty in realizing the remarkable abilities I gave you at your birth. I will send someone to teach you about them. That mother's response to her 4-year old daughter communicated volumes about this quality of love.
The second story describes a couple that kept their loving spirit flowing away from them during one of life's most painful dramas. Their teenage son was killed in a car accident. The driver of the car in which he was riding had been impaired by alcohol. He had been traveling well beyond the speed limit. As is frequently the case, the driver walked away from the accident while his close friend died of massive internal injuries en route to the hospital.
Visiting a family under these circumstances is very challenging because there are no words that bring peace or even temporary relief to parents who have become overwhelmed with grief from such news. All anyone can do is be there to listen. The reason I often share this experience is because of how their understanding of God sustained them even during one of the darkest moments of their lives.
The couple invited me into their living room. They were terribly sad and visibly shaken. I gave each of them a hug. What I noticed immediately, however, was that there were no signs of anger, resentment or wondering about the nature of God who allows such horrible things to happen to young people.
During our conversation the wife said, Dick, we want you to know that John and I are happy that we had Josh for as long as we did. So many families have had cancer destroy the life of a child who has not yet reached his fifth birthday. During the 16 years we had him, Josh filled our lives with so many wonderful memories.
Love takes a much different form in these circumstances. They traded the why us? question for gratitude. They had learned to treasure their fabulous memories rather than focus on their young son's future being stolen from him because of alcohol and a lack of good judgment of an inexperienced driver.
Those parents refused to judge harshly one of life's painful chapters because no interpretation of their son's death could change the consequences of what happened. The assumption underlying their response was that God was present for them even during life's many tragic moments.
During the story of the first Christmas, the Gospel writers are silent about any hostile attitudes that could have easily come from Mary and Joseph as they made their way to Bethlehem very near Mary's due date. The couple appeared to transition from one circumstance to another without judgment.
Think about how freeing it would be for us if we could consistently allow our trust in God's presence to guide us rather than developing resentful attitudes when we encounter episodes in our lives that appear unfair. Mary and Joseph found that there was no room in the inn. They were told to give birth to their child in a filthy stable. They were guided to flee Bethlehem when word came that King Herod planned to kill all the male babies in the hopes of destroying the life of a future king.
When we examine the words found in Christmas carols, many of them celebrate the pageantry of Jesus' birth. Perhaps the hymn that best captured the essence of Jesus' coming is, O Little Town of Bethlehem by Phillips Brooks.
When we understand the coming of love, it has little to do with theology. Jesus' message was extremely powerful and right on point B, You can only enter the Kingdom of God when your consciousness is like that of a little child, when your consciousness is like that of a servant and when your consciousness is willing to let go of the things of this world. So God imparts to human hearts the blessing of his heaven. We can only experience love's power when we love ourselves.
In closing, I am going to read for you a section from Jesus' Sermon on the Mount. Most of us have never heard Jesus' words in this form. Jesus taught his listeners to have a different expectation of God's love. As a result, their changed attitudes about God gave them their sight. Listen to the words from Eugene Peterson's translation, The Message.
Has anyone by fussing in front of the mirror ever gotten taller by so much as an inch? All this time and money wasted on fashion B do you think it makes that much difference? Instead of looking at the fashions, walk out into the fields and look at the wildflowers. They never primp or shop, but have you ever seen color and design quite like what they have? The ten best-dressed men and women in the country look shabby alongside of them.
If God gives such attention to the appearance of wildflowers B most of which are never even seen by anyone B don't you think God will attend to you, take pride in you and do his best for you? What I am trying to do here is to get you to relax, to not be so preoccupied with getting so you can respond to God's giving. People who do not know God and the way God works fuss over these things, but you know both God and how God works. Steep yourselves in behaving as God does. Don't worry about missing out. You will find all your everyday human concerns have a way of working out in ways you cannot imagine. (Matthew 27-33)
Not only does God love each of us unconditionally, but we also have the potential to reflect that same love in every circumstance in which we find ourselves. When we understand this, we will see Gods love in every episode of our lives.
THE CONGREGATIONAL PRAYER
Thank you, God, for these moments of reflection. We recognize that many of us have become absorbed in our faith traditions, rituals and habits of belief. We rush to meet our self-imposed deadlines of shopping and mailed Christmas cards. Our desire becomes more focused on the perfect office party, the open house and the right gifts. How isolated these activities are from the road map you provided humanity. So often we define love through our neediness to be nurtured, cared for and saved from our perceived aloneness. How remarkable the thought is, that you sent Jesus to teach us how to become more like you. Heal our blindness that we might learn to give of ourselves to others as you do, than to expect anything in return. Amen.
THE PASTORAL PRAYER
Our lives are always full of things to do and places to go and yet, O God, we do not always remember what you taught us when you gave us the gift of Jesus Christ and all the signposts along the way that help us to live our days creatively. Our walk through Advent reminds us of our calling. Sometimes we do not remember that we can be extensions of your gift by being the embodiment of the Good News. We often misplace the insight that we are the only Body of Christ that some people may ever see.
People listening to our worries and fears may wonder where you are in the galaxy of our beliefs. Others who find us aloof and opinionated may not see any difference between us and those who trust only in themselves. Help us to remain conscious of the conclusions others form about our relationship with you by observing us and listening to what we say. Spare us from ever sending a message that hides your presence within us.
During Advent, help us to focus on giving the gift of our loving spirit. May our smiles speak volumes about how happy we are. May our words encourage and support those who are afraid of what tomorrow might bring. May gratitude and gracious acceptance of life communicate our trust in you. May we learn to outgrow our need for engaging in pettiness that can easily prevent the light we have from being seen. Help us to become for others that bridge that enables them to find you. We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, the Christ, who taught us to say when we pray . . .