Who Is Coming this Christmas? December 15

Who Is Coming this Christmas?

Isaiah 35:1-10; Luke 1:47-55; Matthew 11:1-11

Rev. Catherine E. Schuyler

Catskill United Methodist Church; December 15, 2019

 

I have a Christmas tree in my office.  It’s not as big as this one here in the sanctuary, but it fits nicely on a little tray table with a creche at its foot.  The tree in my office is a strictly Biblical Christmas tree – no snowmen, no Santas, not even balls – just stars from Matthew’s gospel and angels and shepherds from Luke.  Mary and the baby show up, also.  But that’s it.  Our tree at home, however, is another story.  Although there are creches and lots of angels, there is also an Auburn tiger with a Santa hat, a magical fish with ruby red lips, a blue moose with green and pink sparkles, a number of dinosaurs, and a green bicycle. Among other things.

 

Dinosaurs, however, fond as I am of them, are not particularly Christmasy.  Nor, for that matter, are snowmen or moose or pinecones.  They are often cute, but they don't mean much when speaking of the incarnation.  Santa and his elves and reindeer can be traced to sincere celebrations of the incarnation, and Santa's focus on gift-giving stems originally from the gifts of the wise men in Matthew's gospel; I am not criticizing Santa – I like Santa – though he certainly has taken on more cultural than sacred meaning in modern celebrations.  My concern lies more in our surface celebration of Christmas by identifying it with all the things that make us feel warm and fuzzy, and shying away from the deeper challenge that the birth of Jesus puts before us.  We come to Christmas with excitement, knowing exactly what we want from it – time with family and friends whom we love, opportunities to share gifts and good food and drink with those same people, wonderful music, and a chance to add some festivity and red bows to our sometimes hum-drum lives.  At Christmas we may allow our hearts to hope for peace, and if we're really focused, we let the season open our hearts and our wallets to share with the needy.  But we are quick to set all this aside after the decorations come down.  I like all those things.  I think they are a gate to the path that leads to transformation.  But they are not the transformation itself, the life that Jesus brings us.  That life is solidly grounded on giving and forgiving, every day of the year, built on the foundation of the love of God, giver of life and of the Christ child, Emmanuel, God with us, all year long.

 

John the Baptist had expectations of what the Messiah would be like.  His passion was clear.  He saw the rot at the hearts of many who were living lives of lies, and he had the courage to call them out, to demand of them repentance, and to sincerely offer them a chance to turn their lives around, marked by his baptism, a cleansing of all that had gone before and a new way of going forward.  He was clear with himself and with the crowds that he was not the Messiah; he was the one called to prepare the way.  When he saw Jesus he recognized him as the One, the anointed, the one through whom God would transform the whole world.  John gets attention from all four gospel writers because he grasps Jesus' importance from the beginning.  But today's story from Matthew's gospel illustrates another aspect to John’s ministry.  John is in prison, in serious trouble.  We know that ultimately, he doesn't leave prison.  He is executed, his severed head presented to Herod’s wife at her daughter’s request.  But while he is there, he is worried.  He had ideas of what a Messiah would do, and all that he'd heard of Jesus so far was not what he'd expected.  He thought he'd had it right, but his style and Jesus' style were utterly different.  Could he have been wrong?  He sends his disciples to ask Jesus about this. (No, I don't know how he connected with his disciples from prison.  No US postal service, but some kind of reliable communication must have been available.) 

 

If I were Jesus, I might have taken offense at a question like the one proffered by John's disciples.  Are you the real thing, the one we were waiting for, or is there another? Unsaid is, 'cause you sure aren't what we thought you'd be.'  Jesus doesn't give in to offense.  He answers the question with reference to the Isaiah text we read earlier.  Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.    He refers John, through his disciples, back to a source they both respect, the prophet Isaiah -- Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. (Isaiah 35:5-6) – and claims this model as his own model of Messiah.  “I am changing the world, John,” he says.  “I am transforming people's lives and bringing wholeness, that they can begin to live in the truth you and I both know is at the heart of the life God offers us.”  When John's disciples leave with the Isaiah reference to bring to John, Jesus turns to the crowds and speaks glowingly of John and his ministry.  (Two people can have very different styles and yet still be preaching and living truth.  Wisdom there.)  Jesus then ends with the enigmatic twist that for all the truth John has spoken, he is no greater than anyone else in God's kingdom.  The kingdom is one of egalitarian love and respect.  And the role of those of us who would be part of that kingdom, even now, right here, is to heal the sick, care for the poor, and preach the good news of freedom, truth and love in all that we do.  All that we do.

 

Christmas is the celebration of the incarnation, the incredible story that God chooses to come among us as one of us, to share our lives, to speak truth to our hearts from one who is like us, and that in this coming, God's intention is to bring all the world, all the world, into the kingdom of God's love. This is good news of great joy! We are not called at Christmas to be like John, blinded to all that God is about by our own narrow expectations of Jesus' coming.  Jesus isn’t what we expect; he may not always be what we would like him to be; but we affirm together that he is our Lord and Savior, our Redeemer, the one in whom we see God.  As disciples of Jesus, we have chosen to follow him into the kingdom of life.  As we celebrate Christ's incarnation at this fabulous occasion of Christmas, let us open our hearts and minds and lives to the fullness of all that Jesus is about.  Do remember the homeless and hungry with a donation to Matthew 25 or UMCOR or the Heifer Project, but go further even than that.  Build a relationship with someone who lives a radically different life from yours; become a supporter of the Poor People’s Campaign, which seeks to give poor people a voice in this world where money speaks so loudly; listen to your nephew at Christmas dinner who cares deeply about climate change and give his words and his passion weight; claim a vision of this world as God sees it, as God dreams it, and own it as your own.  The beautiful words of Isaiah are ours to plant in our hearts, to replace the hopelessness our minds too often succumb to.  Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert…10And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.  

 Let hope claim you this Christmas, hope for goodness beyond time spent with family and friends, wonderful as that is, hope for a transformed world, a kingdom of God marked by love and truth and freedom.  And commit to live your life in that kingdom.  Amen.

Isaiah 35

35 The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus 2it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the majesty of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord, the majesty of our God. 3Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. 4Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, do not fear! Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.”

5Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; 6then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. For waters shall break forth in the wilderness, and streams in the desert; 7the burning sand shall become a pool, and the thirsty ground springs of water; the haunt of jackals shall become a swamp, the grass shall become reeds and rushes. 8A highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Holy Way; the unclean shall not travel on it, but it shall be for God’s people; no traveler, not even fools, shall go astray. 9No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast come up on it; they shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there. 10And the ransomed of the Lord shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.  

 

Luke 1:46b-55

 

My soul magnifies the Lord,

         and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,
48for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant.
Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed;
49for the Mighty One has done great things for me,

     and holy is his name.
50His mercy is for those who fear him

     from generation to generation.
51He has shown strength with his arm;
he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
52He has brought down the powerful from their thrones,
  and lifted up the lowly;
53he has filled the hungry with good things,
  and sent the rich away empty.
54He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, 55according to the promise he made to our ancestors,

     to Abraham and to his descendants forever.

 

 Matthew 11:2-11

2When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples 3and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” 4Jesus answered them, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: 5the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. 6And blessed is anyone who takes no offense at me.”

7As they went away, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John: “What did you go out into the wilderness to look at? A reed shaken by the wind? 8What then did you go out to see? Someone dressed in soft robes? Look, those who wear soft robes are in royal palaces. 9What then did you go out to see? A prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. 10This is the one about whom it is written, ‘See, I am sending my messenger ahead of you, who will prepare your way before you.’ 11Truly I tell you, among those born of women no one has arisen greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.