SERMON FOR ADVENT FOUR 12/23/12
PREACHER MAN (written on 12/19/12)
One of my favorite songs begins: The preacher man says it's the end of time.
I received one of my most cherished gifts today--a t-shirt with "Preacher Man" on the back.
What does it mean to be a Preacher Man? What do I announce from week to week? Good news or just a bunch of downer-drab-millenial raptured hooey? Are they ever the same? Is the good news of the gospel ever that someday the world will end and we had better be ready?
What does it mean on 12/19/12 to say that it's the end of time or at the least Repent, God has come near? Somewhere in these sort of statements is the concept of Advent and Emmanuel. God has come near and things are not as they seem. A great change is upon us. If you are sleeping, wake the hell up and stand at attention.
Do I mean what I think Hank Williams Jr. intended? Should we all run to the gun store to form our own personal militia and defend ourselves? No, I just love the song, A Country Boy Can Survive, even if the lyrics scare me to death. It's true, I'd like to spit some beechnut in that dudes eye, I just don't because I am child of God and obedient to the God of PEACE.I don't endorse guns as an ongoing response to violence, though I sure do love the concept of self-reliance and personal accountability. For me these come through repentance not retribution. I just am sure that God means for our swords to be draped in ribbons of peace--useless for shedding blood. We must shower one another with the Word of God not bullets, even if it means that we will die in a violent world that absolutely hates, hates, hates PEACE.
Seeking the Word of God
Tom Skeritt plays the role of a Presbyterian Minister in a River Runs Through It, and he and his son, Norman, describes a teaching moment with these gems, a moment when the preacher is teaching his boys about the river, fishing, and all the rest:
Long ago rain fell on mud and became rock. Half a billion years ago. But even before that, beneath the rocks...are the words of God. Listen.
And if Paul and I listened very carefully all our lives...we might hear those words.
Keep in mind I sketched this out four days ago—context is everything. I guess if I were of a Mayan persuasion then I might think the world is ending in two days. Though to the Mayans credit, from what I have been reading, they seemed to know that the beginning of one calendar means the start of something new. This is not lost on me. With destruction comes the birth of something new and vice versa.
I do think, preach, and pray in some particularly apocalyptic flows this time of year where apocalyptic refers to a season of great prophecy and revelation. On the 25th day of December I am persuaded, as many of you are, to celebrate the birth of a KING—a king that never seems to be what the world would expect of a king. He's not the world's kind of king. He's God's kind of king.
Mary gets this apocalyptic perspective, when she sings that her soul is magnified as she belts out in Luke's first chapter. She rejoices, as do I. This King has called out the lowly and said, you who are low down and filthy and of no regard and prostrate and worthy of being stoned according to the law by your new fiancé, I choose you. You get THE KING for your womb. It's the end of time as you know it.
All parents know something apocalyptic comes with child birth. There is a BK and an AK. The choices we make and the reality we experience are apocalyptically, cataclysmically different Before Kids and After Kids. The world is revealed to us in a way, quite frankly, unimaginable previously. We try to prepare the way, but we don’t know what it is going to be like until we are waist deep in it and surviving all our dreams having come true. The world even smells different. And so it was different for Mary.
Work: Gift via Sin
The men’s group is reading in Genesis and I have found that all of Genesis, perhaps all of the Bible, point back to Creation and Fall in the first three chapters. We might gloss over Genesis 3:16, but what’s the point, if we listen carefully, we might hear the word of God under the rocks:
I will greatly increase your pangs, your toil, your work, in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.
Tough stuff. And true for all who have been there. What it means to be human is to work, to toil, and Mary was working hard to bear this child and Joseph was praying hard that everybody make it out alive. Humanity is offered WORK in labor, for food, to communicate, to relate to animals, but all have moments not just of toil and hardship, but of revelatory perfection. Look at Isaiah11:6—and what will happen and is happening as God’s Word comes true in the world. Not only does God's Word show signs of the redemption of our sinful ways, but right when we go astray God makes the necessary concessions so that we can go on as humanity. Work sometimes feels like a heavy burden, but it also a great gift that produces so much bounty.
Bitter to the Stomach
Even upon survival and thriving life, praise God, it was tough for Joseph and Mary to stomach—to even accept their baby born healthy into the world. It still is. Children cry and we are reminded their life means that some of the time they will suffer and we can’t stop all of it—sometimes we can’t stop any of it. It’s hard to get what you want. As recounted in Chariots of Fire, Harold Abrams finally wins the Olympic gold medal for the 100 meters, and after his triumph cowers into a corner unable to celebrate outwardly with his mates when his goal has been realized. His friend, Lindsey, protects the fragile victor and says to the well-meaning, Aubrey who wants to toast the victor with champagne, Old chap, one day soon, you are going to win, and it is pretty hard to take.
Maybe this is why I have such trouble during the Christmas season. Maybe it's not the light or lack thereof. Maybe it's not the consumerism. I don't have a particular problem with buying stuff and giving it to those whom we love and certainly not in the name of and on behalf of Jesus. Heck, I sell running stuff every day and am proud to do it. I am as consumerist as the next person and these goods and services when rightly ordered and administered are part of God's bounty.
I think every year, I struggle because it's pretty hard to take that year after year, God comes into the world in human form and wrecks my entire life by saving it. He enters the world just like I did in June of 1975 and just like you did in the month and year on the tip of your tongue. Of no particular consequence and without huge headlines, and then on the other hand, so earth shattering, volcano erupting, tsunami breaking that your world and those around you, some of whom might be in this room has never been the same since. God laid down his life right then and there, when you were born, and said to the whole world, all those living in that time and all the times before and after:
I come calling whenever any, ANY, of you are in need. I'm your parent, your sister, your brother, your best friend. I will defend you when no one else even cares or knows your hurts. You and I are fused together inseparably from now on and you will GIVE GLORY TO ME IN THE HIGHEST. All of your mountains are made low, and I've raised up the low places, and I've cut a river through the city and the tree that grows on its banks is watered perpetually.
Zechariah screams it from the mountaintop after his silence is broken, after his son is born, John, a preacher among preachers, the one who will show the way:
the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace.
And it's pretty hard to take.
One of my deepest Christmas memories is as a teenager, 16 or 17 years old and my family was leaving one church and finding another. We had been to the downtown church for Christmas Eve services, probably at 7:00pm, but I yearned for more, so I went alone to the midnight service at First Presbyterian Church of Maitland, Florida. In truth, it was a nothing special sort of church. Looking back, the preaching was not that great by homiletic standards, but that’s never stopped God from getting it done. The budget struggled. The place smelled musty and looked totally Florida, circa 1960, though it was 25 years later. Not much majestic and awesome and refined and godly was there. It was kind of like Bethlehem, I guess. I was baptized there in what I didn’t think was all that great of an event probably three years earlier, but what did I know. That day among other days had saved my life.
I always feel guilty when I feel heavy hearted this time of year, but it’s like leaving Durham Regional, when Jesus is born and all my dreams come true, and I have a savior, a redeemer, a God who is in my camp when the world does not know my heart—well, it’s pretty hard to take.
If you are filled with outward jubilation then praise God and sing it from the mountaintop and souls like me will catch your exuberance by the tail in our other-liness. And try to be easy on us. Don’t say we hate Christmas. That’s too flat a read of how we feel. We may seem burdened by the season, but just be patient with us, and let us celebrate in our own odd way. If you are like me, and perhaps I am a gross minority, but I know there are kindred spirit out there. If you are like me and it’s pretty hard to take that God has come near and made all our dreams come true, forgive yourself, go away from here silently, and wait upon the Lord, who time after time, day after day, year after year, will show you the way.
Scott’s right with what he put on the back of my shirt. I am a Preacher Man. And the path to preaching was not made plain for me in moments of athletic triumph, or a funny joke or having the upper hand in a debate. As extroverted as I might seem and in some ways truly am, I was set apart for this work more in the quiet nothing special worship at a Bethlehem-like church, a no-where sort of crossroads, where all of God’s work for the world is realized. Look for the nothing and the nowhere in your own life and don’t be surprised when God shows up and changes everything. As Mary says for her, and this day, for me, the mighty one has done great things to me, and holy is his name.