Sermon transcript for December 24, 2013
God at Our Doorstep
Christmas Eve—December 24, 2013
Belmont UMC--Ken Edwards, preaching
Audio - MP3
I have always told my children this story, a true story from my childhood. It was from a time when I was small child, and I lived with my family in a country farmhouse, way out on a gravel road in the southern part of Robertson County, here in Tennessee. The homes were few and far apart. These were simple houses, most of which had not been upgraded with things like modern plumbing, or central heating systems or even single line phone systems. Most of the houses had been wired for electricity after the establishment of TVA, which meant each room had one electrical outlet and a light bulb hanging from the ceiling in every room. Very few cars traveled our road and very few people knocked on our door.
My grandparents lived on a neighboring farm down the road. I recall sitting with them at their kitchen table eating good, hearty farm food, and if someone happened to drive down our road during meal time, their conversation would shift to wondering who that was or where they were going.
Grandmommy would say, “Who was that?”
Granddaddy would respond, “That was Mr. Smith’s old Plymouth. He must be going to the doctor again. Or maybe he went to get that part for his tractor; the thing was broken down all last week.” They would entertain us with these speculations.
On one Christmas Eve we were gathered in the living room of the farmhouse. There was the Christmas tree, a cedar cut on the farm and adorned with our simple ornaments. Coals burned in the fireplace to heat the room. My brother and I were too excited to go to sleep. Mom and Dad kept telling us to go to bed, but we could not settle down. When my boys were little and all excited, I would say, “They have happy legs!” On that evening we had a bad case of “happy legs.”
Mom said, “If you don’t go to sleep, Santa will not come.” Parents have been telling their children this for generations and it’s absolutely true. It’s been true for me for 61 Christmases now. But I could not overcome my excitement and my parents, usually very strict about such things, were cutting us a little slack. It was Christmas Eve after all.
Then there was a loud knock on the front door and the four of us went quickly to the door. I opened the door and in front of me stood Santa Claus. His huge size filled up the doorway and his hands were on his hips and he looked frustrated. He said, “Kenneth Edwards, why are you still awake? You know I cannot bring your gifts until you go to sleep.” Then he picked me up in his arms (I was terrified.) and he said, ‘I’m going to give you and your big brother one more chance. I’ll be back later but you better be asleep.”
He put me down and my brother and I ran like lightning up the stairs, into our beds, and pulled the quilts up over our heads, until we fell asleep.
Annie Dillard, in a short essay, recalls her own childhood experience with Christmas Eve. Her family had returned from dinner and settled into their celebration. There was a commotion at the front door. It opened and her mother exclaimed, “Look who’s here! Look who’s here!”
Annie Dillard wrote, “It was Santa Claus, whom I never wanted to meet.” He “stood in the doorway monstrous and bright” with “night over his shoulder, letting in all the cold air of the sky.” She ran upstairs and hid. Her parents encouraged and pleaded but she refused to come down. She was afraid of Santa. Santa was not to be seen, but he could see her and he knew whether she had been good or bad and she had been very bad (or so she thought.)
She was afraid of God, too. She reflects, “I misunderstood and let everyone down. God I’m sorry I ran from you and I’m still running . . . for you meant only love and I felt only fear and pain. . . So once in Israel love came to us incarnate, stood in the doorway between two worlds, and we were all afraid.” (“God in the Doorway,” Teaching a Stone to Talk)
My wife tells the children of a Christmas Eve when God came knocking on their door. She was a child and she lived with her family in a parsonage (her father was a pastor). One Christmas Eve they had just finished reading this passage from Luke 2:1-20, the story of Jesus’ birth, when someone knocked on their door. It was a young couple with a tiny baby. They were on their way home for Christmas when they ran out of money and out of luck. Her parents invited them in and fed them a simple meal of scrambled eggs and toast. The children went to their rooms and found toys to give to the baby. Her mother gave the couple some baby clothes that had belonged to the older children. Then her Dad took them to a gas station and filled their tank for the journey and then put them up in a motel room for the night.
My wife believes this was a visitation from God and through this visitation they understood the story they had read from the Bible. They understood how young Mary was and how troubling and fearful the journey to Bethlehem must have been. They felt Joseph’s and Mary’s sense of isolation and the strangeness of everything.
I love Christmas Eve; it’s one of my favorite days of the year, because it’s the night we remember again how God came and stood in the doorway between our two worlds and we do not have to be afraid. It does not matter what we’ve done or who we are; because all that matters is who God is and what God has done for us. We only have to open the door and allow God’s love to come into our lives. Tonight God is at our doorstep. Don’t be afraid. Open the door. Make room. Make room.
Sermon transcript for December 22, 2013
What Isaiah Saw—Emanuel
Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25
Belmont UMC—December 22, 2103
Ken Edwards, preaching
Audio - MP3
On this Fourth Sunday of Advent we conclude our theme, What Isaiah Saw, exploring the visions of Isaiah and where we hear God calling us in those visions.
Walter Brueggemann said that the Hebrew prophets tended to prophesy against the data, in other words the prophets spoke of things that were not happening in the present. We see war and violence, but Isaiah saw weapons of war turned into farming implements. We see abuse of power, but Isaiah saw predators and prey living peacefully together. (Woody Allen said, “The wolf will lie down with the lamb but the lamb won’t get much sleep.”) Isaiah spoke of streams in the desert places and blooming flowers among the parched earth. People heard these words and they took them as a sign of God’s hopeful future for us and for all of creation.
But the prophets also spoke of God coming to the people in ways that perplex them. Brueggemann also says that the strangest thing about the Bible is God, because God is one of a kind and that makes God hard to understand. The strangeness is this: God is with the people. God is for the people. God is not preoccupied with God’s own business but always seeks to be with us and for us—to be in covenant relationship with us. (The Bible Makes Sense, 60-61)
In our text today from Isaiah, King Ahaz is fearful because the allied forces of Aram and Ephraim are attempting to attack Jerusalem. God comes to King Ahaz and tells him to ask for a sign. It seems that the sign is intended to engender trust in God, but the King refuses to ask for a sign on supposedly noble reasons—so as to not test God. But God offers a sign anyway, as an expression of the faithfulness and grace of God.
What is the sign that God offers? The sign is a child. “Look the young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” (v. 14) I’m not sure this was the sign Ahaz wanted. He may have wanted the sign of chariots and artillery to defend the city from siege. What good is a child in the face of an enemy? But this child has a name Emanuel, which means “God with us!”
Emmanuel, God is with us! What did that mean for the people of scripture? What does that mean for us today?
Emmanuel means disruption! That might not be the sign we expect in this season we associate with joy, peace and light, but the reality is that this God who comes to be with us often creates some disruption at first. That was true for Ahaz and even truer for Joseph and Mary in the Matthew text. Matthew connects the birth of Jesus to what Isaiah saw hundreds of years earlier.
Matthew’s version of the birth narrative is rather matter of fact and he focuses on the name Emmanuel and effect of Emmanuel on Mary and Joseph. Mary is very young, probably a teenager. She is engaged to Joseph when she discovers that she is pregnant. In Luke’s version of the story Mary is told by an angel that she is “favored” by God. Mary may have been thinking, “Please, favor someone else.” But instead she asks one question, “How can this be?” There may have been other questions on her mind, “What will people say?” “Will Joseph still love me?” “Will they stone me to death for adultery?”
Joseph has a dilemma. When he discovers that Mary is having a baby he makes plans to dismiss her quietly, no embarrassment needed. But God has another plan and God comes to Joseph in a dream, God, the disrupter of plans, has other ideas.
I suspect Mary and Joseph had plans. They would get married, settle down, build a little house in the suburbs of Nazareth, live a simple, good life, but God has other plans.
Emmanuel is the great disrupter of our plans, the disrupter of the status quo, and or the disrupter of our ease with things as they are. Some of us who have been called to full time ministry have experienced Emmanuel as the great disrupter of our plans. During this holy season may we receive the gift of God with us as an occasion to yield our plans to God’s and recommit ourselves to a renewed faith in following God’s direction for us as individuals, as a church, and as a denomination.
Emmanuel means transformation! Because God is with us we can no longer be the same, as God comes among us and changes us. Bishop Will Willimon told the story of a parishioner who once confessed that he had interpreted and kept his marriage vows rather loosely, he had thought little about the past, and had not the slightest interest in the future. He had spent the first years of his marriage mainly on the road making money. “But one night,” he said, “I got turned around—the night I walked into a hospital room and held my little baby in my arms for the first time and realized that she was part of me even if she was better than I deserved. I said to my self, “You’re going to have to stop your foolishness and start living like somebody because she is somebody.”
This child that Isaiah saw, this child that came to Mary and Joseph, this Emmanuel summons something within us that causes us to change and to live toward God’s hope for us and for all of creation. It doesn’t mean we won’t be flawed and imperfect but it does mean that we know where we are going, and it means that it’s not about us but about God and God’s purposes. Emmanuel means transformation of our values. It means a transformed way of being in the world and a transformed way of seeing the world.
Emmanuel means vulnerability. The sign of a child represents hope, but a child represents vulnerability and dependency. This sign reminds us of our own vulnerability and fragility. Everything about us is vulnerable and fragile, even our hope. Do we really want a sign that reminds us of vulnerability? Wouldn’t we rather have a sign that points to strength and a sure future?
I have the honor of being the bearer of many of your stories, stories told in my office or in the hallway or in hospital rooms. I know your secret and you probably know mine. Our secret is this: we are not perfect and our worlds are not as idyllic as the picture on the front of our Christmas card suggests. We struggle, we falter, we grieve and we hurt. And the season of love and light causes some of our wounds to seem a little deeper and some of our sadness to be intensified. All the Christmas lights and Christmas cheer is not going to make that go away.
We have romanticized the birth of Jesus and the honest truth is that has not helped us very much. Barbara Brown Taylor imagines the birth of Jesus like this, “Joseph and Mary got a stall instead of a room, which was not as bad as sometimes make it out to be, but still, not an ideal situation. With luck they got a pitchfork and a wheelbarrow. We know they got a feed trough, because that was where they laid their treasure, and that was when the picture was taken—right then, while the star was still overhead and the angels were still singing in the rafters.
“But twenty minutes later, what? The hole in the heavens has closed up and the only music came from the bar at the inn. One of the cows stepped on a chicken and the resulting racket made the baby cry. As she leaned over to pick him up, Mary started crying too and when Joseph tried to comfort her she told him she wanted her mother. If she had just married a nice boy from Nazareth, she said, she would be back home where she belonged instead of competing with sheep for a place to sleep.”
“Then she said she was sorry and Joseph said not to think another thing about it. He meant it, too. They both hurt all over and there was nothing to eat and it was cold as the dickens, but you know what? God was still there, right in the middle of the picture. Peace was there, and joy, and love—not only in the best of times but also and especially in the worst of times. . .” (“Past Perfection,” pp. 23-24)
I suspect we need this Emmanuel who reminds us that God knows our stories and our secrets, too. We need this God who comes into our world to enter our very vulnerable and fragile lives and reminds us, “I am here with you. I know you. I love you.”