Girdwood Chapel Sermon, December 4, 2016
Isaiah 11: 1-10
Psalm 72: 1-7, 18-19
Romans 15: 4-13
Matthew 3: 1-12
John 21: 15-19
You may have noticed I have a little stubble going on this Sunday. I realized as my sermon was coming together that I was going to have to make a confession that was going to require me to check in my man-card with the appropriate authorities, so I thought some facial hair would ease the pain of doing so, or at least make me look more manly in my admission of guilt. So, here it goes. I am a secret admirer of the holiday movies on the Hallmark Channel. I truly enjoy the simple plots and not-so-twisty and, often, cheesy twists. I love how the guy and the girl always find the love that you knew they would find two minutes after the movie began. I get sentimental about how the towns are decorated for Christmas and how there is always a Christmas pageant on the rocks, but it gets pulled through at the end. The movies are predictable, overly sappy, and downright cheesy. Or as I like to say, perfect.
The wonderful thing, the true thing, the human thing is that in each story the love is different. The love is real, but the way it is experienced and lived by the characters in the movies is unique to the individual plot. This shows the broadness of the definition of the word “love”. It shows why the word can be so hard to explain, yet at the same time so important to experience. In the Hallmark feel good sort of way, the movies subtly demonstrate that most of our actions, most of our reasons for accomplishing things is to achieve love of something or someone. But, they also reveal that we are in great need of protecting ourselves from pain and hurt. Self preservation is important. Therefore in giving our love we can be selfish or restricted.
If this is the case, if it is true that our love is mitigated in some ways, then is the love we are capable of complete? Is it actually love?
In our readings today, we have a progression of narratives that build upon one another in plot and scope. It is a lot like a movie with an ensemble cast that is spanning generations and love is certainly part of the theme.
Isaiah speaks of the root of Jesse. Jesse, if you remember was the father of David. Isaiah’s proclamation is that the branch that rises from the root of Jesse will know God intimately and will also fear God. Which in this case, most likely means reverence or respect for God. So healthy will this person’s reverence for God be that He will delight in it. God will be the focus of the life of this person who will rise up. In these words alone, we can see that this was not the normal focus for those receiving Isaiah’s words.
Because of this healthy relationship with God this person has, the relationships on earth will change. He will demonstrate true righteousness and unbiased love. His words of love will take down those who are wicked and use violence as their pathway to power. Then when the world understands and accepts these words, the life of peace will reign on earth. Wolf living with lambs, leopards and goats, calves and lions, cows and bears, children and snakes...all living in harmony.
These are not mere words and pointless examples. This not Bill Murray exclaiming the insanity of Dogs and Cats living together. This is a return to Eden. This is a life back in the garden with a God who loves us. Isaiah is stating that the curse will be broken and that life will return to God. Do you remember the curse? What is one of the results? The offspring of man will strike at the head of the serpent while the serpent strikes at the heels of the offspring. (Genesis 3: 14-15) God is not rising some ordinary ruler or messenger from the lineage of David. God is sending the one person that can restore the human life to its created state with God. Because of this, the world will know God once again and experience the love of God in a personal and relatable fashion just like Adam and Eve did in the garden of Eden. Now that is something to wait for! That is something to be in anticipation of!
The Ensemble Cast
If we were making a Christmas movie, it would certainly have an ensemble cast...
Our first couple is not even mentioned in our reading, but if we are telling a love story, then we cannot leave out Zechariah and Elizabeth. When you have time go back and read the story of Zechariah and Elizabeth in Luke, because there are a couple of things you should see for yourself. The first is that the angel of the Lord tells Zechariah not to be afraid and that his “prayers have been heard”. (Luke 1:13) This is important because Zechariah, upon hearing the result of his prayers will be in Elizabeth’s pregnancy, questions the feasibility of it because of the couple’s age. (Luke 1:18) Yet, it was Zechariah’s prayer that was being answered. See, in the society of that time the woman’s worth was attached to her ability to bear children. Zechariah cared so much for Elizabeth that even in their advanced ages he continued his prayer for her to have a child. He wanted her to be fulfilled in the way he knew would make her happy. (Luke 1: 25) The second thing I want you to take note of, is that after Zechariah regains his voice the first thing he does is begin praising God. (Luke 1: 64) After nine months of silence and while holding his son for the first time, his focus is on God.
John grows into quite the man. He might be considered the odd yet deeply wise town misfit. However, this misfit has no problem drawing people in with his strong determination about the coming judgment of God. He demands that people change their hearts and lives. They come to him in droves to do so, then to be baptized as an outward showing of this commitment. When the current religious leaders show up to take part in this transformative process he calls them “Children of snakes” (Matthew 3: 7). This shows John’s disdain for the current political and religious elite for their failure to keep the people with the appropriate focus on God and he classifies them with the evil, tempting, serpent in the Garden.
Of course, prior to John’s adult ministry, we are introduced to another couple. One that will be discussed in more detail in the coming weeks. But, Joseph and Mary must be mentioned as part of our love story. For the dimensions and layers of their relationship could fill volumes of books about love and sacrifice. For now, we will simply state that their marriage is rooted in their love of God and their personal sacrifice is demonstrated in their obedience to God and the love of their Son. It is this son, however, who grows into the man that Paul speaks of in our last reading. It is this Son, who demonstrates perfect love on earth. It is the Son, who conveyed the righteousness that Isaiah spoke of.
This Son of Mary and Joseph, this Son of God, Jesus lived the example that “we don’t live for ourselves and we don’t die for ourselves” (Romans 14: 7), instead we live and die for the Lord and whether we live or die we belong to the Lord. (Romans 14:8) So, when Paul speaks, he speaks with an altered focus. He speaks with a changed heart and an altered mission in life. His mission is about leading others to God. His mission is establishing this new life in the Garden by educating others in this new message. But, this is where the ironic twist comes into play. This is where we all look at our movie partners in amazement. For, we are no longer just talking about the Israelites or the Jews or the original keepers of the covenant with God. We are talking about all people. All inhabitants of the earth are now able to walk hand in hand with God. The idea of no biasness seeps across all ethnic and cultural bounds to where all people become one with the focused intent in life to glorify God with one voice. (Romans 15: 6) The last words we are left with are the words of Isaiah’s original prophecy slightly changed to show that Gentiles are in included in all nations.
God has not withheld His love from a single person.
Remember what we learned from the Hallmark movies though? We are selfish and guarded when it comes to love. Just because God has not withheld his love from us does not mean that we care to receive it and it certainly does not mean that we reciprocate. In some cases we are perfectly content keeping our relationship status “close, but not committed”. Some of us don’t even realize we are doing it. Take poor Peter for example.
He stated to Jesus, Himself, that he would following Him anywhere. Yet, when it came time to be identified as Jesus’ disciple and friend, Peter denied the relationship three times. Lucky for him he was given a chance, by Jesus to repent for his weakness. But, even that exchange has a certain twist in it. For, the story is very familiar to many of us, in that Jesus asks Peter three times if he loves Him. Each time Peter responds in the affirmative to Jesus. Depending on the commentary you read about this exchange there will be different insights about the dialogue. One, that I consider to be interesting is that Jesus asks the question the first two times with the word “agape” for love. While Peter responds with a different word for love, “fileo”. Some see no differences in these translations, but others see a slight, yet significant, difference. Agape is the active and open love of God, unconditional and righteous. While, fileo, is to have affection for, a deep caring and personal relationship. My question is, if there is no difference in the word choice than why does Jesus change his question the next time to use the word fileo instead of agape? My speculation is because Jesus knows his agape love is strong enough to hold the fileo love of Peter. Jesus’ full commitment and all-in love will be able to work with the fearful and guarded love of the human heart.
We are part of the ensemble cast. We are part of the group that has been included in this large and overwhelming gift of love. We are part of the ones who John spoke to that we must change our hearts and our lives to prepare for the coming of the Lord. We are the ones who Paul spoke to when he told us that our attitude must be like Christ Jesus’ and that we should Glorify God with a singular voice. We are also like Peter. Self-preservation can step up and stop us from being the person we can be, the person we were created to be.
I kind of left the last part about all these cheesy movies I like until now. You see, the movie always ends with a big unselfish gesture on the parts of all of those who are involved. All of the guards are dropped and caution is thrown to the wind in the hope that in doing so love will be found and a merry Christmas will be had by all. It is a moment where one allows oneself to be vulnerable and open in the return for empty space to be filled and for doubt and insecurity to be replaced by hope and love.
Think about that as you take part in our Sacrament of Communion today. Let it be a reminder to you that there is no twist here. There is no unrequited love. God has already made the grand gesture. When Mary looked down upon her child for the first time, she saw the face of God and the embodiment of pure and righteous love. That was just the beginning of God’s gesture for us. Are we ready to let our guards down and open ourselves up totally and completely to receive God’s love? Like Zechariah are we capable of putting our focus on God? Like John are we comfortable being unique in our creation and leading others to the love we have found? Like Paul are we capable of abandoning selfish understandings to bring multiple people together for the glory of God? If so, then we will fully know the actual love of God this Christmas.