The Fullness of Time
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
December 31th, 2017
That was Paul’s Christmas story. That’s what Bill just read for us; it is the apostle Paul’s Christmas story. We don’t get a birth narrative from Paul. Paul is talking about the birth of Jesus in a different way. Paul is talking about that evolution of all of us, and that transition from childhood to adulthood, life in the Spirit.
Paul is talking about a relationship to God in terms of a changing relationship. And he puts it in terms of time and law. He says: our relationship with God has been about the law, and any time we’re obsessed with the law, that we are immature in our faith. And the question of a relationship with God through the law, is a question about keeping the law. And oh, they meant it. There are 630-odd prescriptions, things that you must do, or must avoid doing, to avoid God coming to get you. Because it’s just a matter of time until God is angry with you enough, that God is going to get you.
Gloria Estefan warned us that the rhythm is going to get you, the Old Testament, very much, about God is going to get you. You better shape up and obey the law or, oh, you are going to pay.
That’s the relationship we’re talking about when we talk about the law. It’s only a matter of time.
And the apostle Paul is saying: wait a minute. And he throws time on the table. And he says: time changes in this Christ event. He points out in the passage, that Christmas is all about time, in the fullness of time, when the time had fully come, God brought forth a son. God did something completely new, radically changed the relationship that people perceived with God. In the midst of a humdrum world, where hope was a scarcity, because, in the law-abiding world, the obsession-with-law-world, it is just a matter of time until the law comes to get you, and you will be hung out to dry, and you will be embarrassed. And what you did not want to happen, well, that’s exactly what’s going to happen.
Have you picked up the tracks given out by some of our colleagues, other churches, the tracks that tell you just a matter of time until God comes to get you? And that’s a mark of death, and that when you die, immediately, you will stand before the Lord, and it’s just a matter of time.
You went to worship, back in that day, mostly to find out how God was going to punish you, and to have hope that, maybe, possibly, you could keep the law in a strict enough fashion, that you might not suffer all of the punishment that, well, the less obedient, less strictly obedient, law-breakers, would receive.
And, of course, you could find comfort in that of: well, I might not be perfect, but at least I’m not like them.
Paul is saying that the Christ event gave time a new meaning. He’s trying to put words around this Christmas event. And the word that he uses, in Greek, is kairos, it’s special time, that’s what kairos means, a special time, a pregnant moment, filled with opportunity for redemption.
The question I want to invite us to ponder, the question of this passage, is what are you afraid of? A couple of folks in the congregation shared with me their stories about why Christmas is not your favorite time of year. And I have watched a few folk’s shoulder-shrug, and heads drop, and stories told about: well, we’re just not speaking anymore. Or, he died on Christmas day and so, this is a rough memory. Or, it was right before Christmas that I lost my job. And so, that kind of tension is within us. And so, I’m asking you: what are you afraid of?
Is it getting ill? Is it not having enough? Is it simply not having as much as you think your neighbors have? Are you afraid of being alone? Are you afraid of losing your friend group? Are you afraid of losing your kids? No longer being important? Being rejected… What is the fear? Because fear has a special power in us that we wish it didn’t. Fear has the power to drive us, and it wakes us.
How many of you remember being in college, or being in school, and that test that you know you didn’t study as much as you ought to have studied for? It woke you up about 4 o’clock in the morning, and you said: oh, no, I’m not going to do well because I’m not getting enough sleep. No, you’re not going to do well because you didn’t study. And now the consequence is, you’re afraid of failing. You know, what are you afraid of?
When we talk about law in the biblical text, we’re talking about fear. Fear that what we don’t want to have happen, well, that’s what’s going to happen. And we’re talking about fear in the Old Testament, and we’re talking about fear in the New Testament, being used to keep people in line.
I remember working in the credit department at the Dillard’s up at Scottsdale Fashion Square during college. I was in the credit department, and our department manager ran a fear-filled operation. In spite of the fact that we passed every audit with flying colours, and we met all expectations, and we never made mistakes in keeping the cash drawer straight.
She would list out stuff that she thought we did wrong, and she would lecture us about it, and it was miniscule stuff. And she talked about how we didn’t get it right, and how, if we were better employees, we would get it right. And how worthless the entire department was and how embarrassed she was by us. I was afraid to go to work.
I had a neighbor that was… His dad was like that. And you could hear his dad bellow out the screen door of the back of the house, all the way out in the backyard, by the fencing up against the lumberyard, where his son and I were hiding behind the sandbox. Because he knew that we had failed to fulfill his expectations. We had no idea what they were; we just knew that we were bad. We were terrified too.
What are you afraid of? Do you still carry that [sighs] in your being? That overly critical tape still plays in your head? The question, what are you afraid of, is so prevalent in this text.
Paul is saying: you don’t have to be afraid anymore. This is an opportunity, he’s is saying, for us to change our habit. To stop doing the way we’ve been doing it; to find a new way; to see and to try something different; to change one habit.
The Christmas story, he is correct, we read of lives being changed, transformed, and we are invited to look at, and change the habits of our hearts. And to see our own lives through the lens of the Christmas story, that change happens. That it’s invited.
A young woman, a young maiden, Mary – no one listened to young woman. No one consulted young woman – that was her future, no use fighting. In the Christmas story, she’s invited to have a voice. To be believed about what happened to her.
A righteous man, Joseph, well-spoken in the community, he’s very interested in remaining righteous and well-spoken in the community. It’s a habit of his heart. He’s terrified of no longer being well-spoken. He’s invited to confront his habit and to see things through his heart, in a new way; to take a risk. It’s time.
Shepherds have worked in the fields… Oh, God, that is a dead-end job, if ever there was one. Their job is to watch sheep. You ever watch sheep? Oh, that’s an exciting time. Oh, nibbling that grass. Oh, pooping, that’s great. That’s about it. Follow the same boring routine, day in and day out, hoping for some good news like, maybe the master who owns the sheep is going to give you an extra shekel this time?
Most nights it’s: let’s bed down with some wine, let’s get drunk enough to be at peace with the dead-end job; to be at peace with wasting time. Wise men have come from afar. And, from the biblical account, it looks like it took them about two years to make the journey. They were searching. Two years searching for good news. They were lost in time.
People of the region had fallen into a habit as well, of going around shifting their allegiance to whatever power seemed to be leading in this moment. Swearing allegiance to whatever leader seemed to have power; whatever the latest, most exciting movement might be; being baptized into the most promised coming of the day.
Well, a little later on, the disciples of John, they’d fallen into this habit of waiting and complaining, and being baptized into the latest, greatest, leader, kind of, as a profession. And they’re going to come to Jesus, and they’re going to say: are you the one we’ve been waiting for? A question of time.
A question of fear too; please tell us we’re not wasting our time by talking to you. Should we stop waiting, are you the one? And if we stop waiting, what should we do with our time? And Jesus answers both of these questions. He says: the blind receive sight. The lame, walk. Those who have leprosy, are cured. The deaf can hear. The dead are raised. Good news comes to the poor. You decide if with what do I do with my time. You decide if I’m what you’ve been waiting for.
Our questions, whether they are about time or fear, these questions are really about authority; who will have final word when this is all over.
When I worked at Dillard’s, I was pretty sure that it was our department manager that would have final word in my annual evaluation. And, oh, I stepped up, tried to get better, tried to do what… I was very unhappy in that arrangement. Who’s going to have final word for you?
And has our use of time been productive because of who we believe will have final word? Or have we squandered our time and sworn many allegiances, in many different directions, and all sorts of ways, been baptized into many different beliefs?
Scattered and distracted, and blown about like leaves in the wind.
Paul is writing about who has last word. That’s his resolution. That’s his solution to fear. He says: God redeems us because God loves us. And what Christmas means to Paul is a fresh start.
Christmas means we don’t have to be the way we’ve been. We fall into those paths, you know, they become habits. It becomes a rut. We try to set ourselves free by obsessing about the laws, and the rules, and how we kept them, and trying to please the people who seem to be the enforcers of those laws and rules. We just dig ourselves deeper into the same old rut. We just dig ourselves deeper into a pit of fear.
Paul is saying we can have new beliefs, which create new practices. We forget that what’s Christ brings to us, an entirely new understanding of our relationship with God. We can take risks. We knew that when we were a kid. We’ve forgotten.
The beautiful message that Paul brings is: no matter how long we’ve lived with resignation, or cynicism, or despair, or unresolved fear that has since become anger that’s just below the surface, we can, in Christmas, choose hope. We can walk a new way. We can practice a new imitation of who has final word. We can walk in a new way. We can talk in a new way. We can be different than the world around us.
I think Paul must have meant something like that when we spoke of the kairos moment. The birth of Jesus offers each of us the opportunity to change. I think that’s very good news.
And I don’t think we anything that we need to be afraid of.
Searching for the Biblical Christmas, Somehow 8/8
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
December 24th, 2017
Psalms 124:1-2, Matthew 1:18-25
I don’t know if you know this, but I’m trying to set it up so that when I become a grandparent, here, pretty quick, I get to sneak with the kids. I have always been that bad kid at heart, and I refuse to relinquish that responsibility within the family. I do well when I’m being yelled at.
So, why is it that we do not hear from Joseph in scripture – at all? Not once. We hear about Joseph. We hear about the message he received. We hear about his concern to keep strict interpretation of the law, but not one word comes out of Joseph’s mouth to us.
I mean, he could give great parenting advice; how to raise a messiah. And not just a kid who thinks he is The Messiah. Joseph was the one who introduced Jesus to his Habudeem, when Jesus was a little bit older, the local religious club, of which Joseph would have been a member. The men of the community gathered after the day’s labor, after dinner, and they sit together in the evening, and they ponder deep thoughts and interpretations. And they arrive at a strict interpretation of scripture. Then they apply it to everyday living, mostly for other people.
Joseph would have taken Jesus to the Habudeem. Probably first to listen to the conversation and the debate among the men, and then, later, about the time Jesus became a young man, invited to carefully form an argument within the group, and maybe participate in some of the conversation. There is a time when 12-year-old Jesus become separated from his parents during Passover. We hear the story about how they’re looking, and how Jesus’ parents are upset. But we only hear words from Jesus. Once again, nothing from Joseph.
It occurs to me, that there’s something going on here, and I think it might be worth chasing out. And, I guess today’s sermon is for those men who have figured out that it’s not always important to talk. In fact, there have been a few times through the years, when I’ve performed marriages for men and women. The joke to myself was: well, I know why they got married. I know why he got married, so he’d never have to talk again.
There is an insight that comes in silence. There is an insight when you can hold your words. There is an authority that comes when you don’t say everything that comes into your head. And that’s not just for men, but we’re talking about Joseph today, and his silence.
But, here’s where I think this text goes. How long does it take for you to change your mind? When you have formed an opinion; when you have entered into the belief that you are right, you’ve been informed by tradition, and experience, and reason, and scripture, and you’ve been reinforced by observation. Or, maybe for you, you just entered into an opinion that’s uninformed and reinforced by your favorite talking head. But, the question remains, how long does it take for you to change your mind?
When you have formed an opinion that something is wrong, and you are in the right, how long does it take for you to change your mind? What we have on our hands today, is the fiancé of Mary, who is pregnant with Jesus. He is reluctant in the beginning. He is clear he is right; this woman is in the wrong. The rules are clear about what should happen to her. His first response as a man who practices his religion, and seeks to do what is right. What? Pregnant? That’s just… I can’t marry her. She should be stoned.
At what point do you suppose Joseph finally said: oh, right, yes, then, well, it’s all good. I’m on board, Mary. How long does it take you to change your mind?
I’m pondering this as we get going this morning, because Joseph is an outstanding scriptural example to most of us. We are reluctant to call important, what God wants. To believe. We are reluctant to act on what we understand God wants. To have faith.
We are well-intentioned, but we are reluctant to imitate the one we follow. We just have our way. And we don’t want it disturbed. And we’re pretty sure that we’re right. At least it’s familiar. And it’s going to take a long time for us to think about possibly, maybe, changing our mind.
What becomes fairly clear to me as I think about Joseph and what I see in him, and what I see in Mary and the Christmas story. Is that there is a theology, a way that we think about God, that has escaped most of the books you and I might have read.
It is not so strange that this theology has been missed because it’s centered not so much in intellectual argument that we can prove on page. You know, this theology, this way of thinking about God, is centered in the heart.
Notable theologians, like Barth, and Brunner, and Tillich, have missed it. Contemporary thinkers, like Roberts, and Cohen, Fiorenza, and Russell, have not been able to fully articulate this theology because they’re coming out of their head onto the page. And this is a theology of the heart. And the theology that I’m talking about on the day before Christmas, as I think about Joseph, and Mary, and Jesus, and shepherds coming out of the fields, and wise men coming from afar, is a peculiar theology you will never get words around, but I’m going to try. It is, of course, the theology of somehow.
I’m talking about the theology that goes where logic says it can’t. This is the theology, a way of thinking about God that makes us bold when we would prefer to be shy. It makes us optimistic and hopeful, when all rational thought and all evidence in front of us, says that we should be pessimistic. It stirs strength in us, when we are filled with physical weakness, and despair, and surrender.
This is the theology of somehow. It is the human in us that marvels at the relentless ebb and flow of nature. It’s what causes us to pause when we see a beautiful sunset interrupted by a rocket taking off. It causes us to smile when we glimpse rainbows. And it causes us to load the car, the truck, the camper, and the boat, and to drive hours to be in the forest, because the trees reach into us and pull out of us, a place, a way of being, breathing, that we can never find in the city.
It’s what causes us to become riveted to our television sets when we’re watching Nova or National Geographic. It is marveling at the world around us. If you’re like me, there’s a scientist in you, and you often ask: how? And the only answer that makes any sense, and yet seems to follow, and flow with, the ways of the universe; but, can defy the odds of numbers and math, and ration, and logic, and still happen, is the theology of somehow.
How is it that the eternity of an alarm clock never fails? The seasons roll in perfect order every time, how does that happen? I don’t know, but somehow. How is it that the dew-drops know to fall in the early morning? And thunder knows to announce the coming of the rain? I know, we are well-versed in meteorology, and we may be able to understand the scientific principles of thunder and lightning, but there’s still that question: how?
I suggest to you, that the best answer for those of us who are trying to learn how to live out our faith, rather than head to paper, or confined and equip, that we can articulate, is the silence of somehow.
The question how, is a very biblical question as well. Pharaoh’s army wanted to know how did this happen, when they found themselves over their heads in rushing waters. In which moments before, had been a dry and barren seabed. The city council of Jericho, wanted to know how the walls came tumbling down, just because the trumpet player hit a note. The 400 prophets of Baal, wanted to know how is it that fire danced out of the sky and consumed Mount Carmel’s alter, and most of the prophets of Baal. Nebuchadnezzar wanted to know how is it that three Hebrew boys, named Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego, walked out of the fiery furnace; not a hair singed.
When we hear that Isaiah declares God’s way: cease evil, learn good, seek justice, help the oppressed, justice for the orphan, and plead the case of the widow. We wonder: how? A woman named Mary, wanted to know: how? How can this be, she asked, when she unexpectedly came up pregnant out of wedlock and started having angel dreams. When this wife-to-be came you pregnant, and not by him, a man named Joseph wanted to know how he would ever be able to move forward in a faith obedient to God.
When Jesus walked on the water and told the winds to lie down; when he looked at the lightning and gave it the off-switch. When he spoke to the thunder and the air become quiet. The disciples wanted to know: how?
And one Sunday morning, in a tomb, the grave clothes were neatly folded, the stone had been rolled away, and no one was there, and the women asked: how? And the disciples gave the best answer: somehow.
You see, we come from a long line of intelligent people asking how, and my only response to you is: somehow. And that somehow is God’s somehow, that finds its way into our Christmas, when we ask all of those how questions. How are we going to get the house ready for all the people that are coming? You know the answer.
How are we going to get everybody seated around a table in a living this size? Well, you know the answer.
How am I going to tolerate my brother because he loves television programmes I hate? You know the answer. You’re going to keep your mouth shut.
I know. I know, the temptation at Christmas is to turn the conversation into a self-affirmation, and a self-flagellation, as you contemplate your personal sins, and you know, personally, Jesus came for you, and you want a reassurance that God loves you. But it’s not about you and your sin. It’s about God, and God’s somehow. You know about God’s somehow. Can I remind you what you already know? It is in the giving of a coat that we are warmed. It is in providing underwear, and pants, and shirts, and shoes, that we are clothed.
It is in helping to provide treatment to the ill that we are made well. It’s in making sure that those who need are fed, that we are filled. It’s in giving away, that we’re provided for. It’s in dealing fairly in areas of business, that we are justified. It’s in thinking of others, that we enter the consciousness of God.
Did you get that one? It’s in thinking of others, that we enter the consciousness of God. That’s a conundrum. How does that happen? How do any of these things happen? How does this strange transaction work? Somehow.
Somehow our cadence has to come from God: God Almighty; God the Author of somehow; God the Sustainer of somehow; God the Baker of somehow; God the Blooming Rose of somehow; God the Spirit of somehow; God the Eagle of somehow; God the Maker of somehow; God the Light of somehow; God the Brilliant Darkness of somehow; God the Teacher of somehow; God the Embodiment of somehow.
Christmas is the story of somehow. How long does it take you to change your mind? It doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter how long it takes you because we’re on God’s time. And the question is: how long is God going to work in you? How long is God going to work on you? As long as it takes.
And how’s that going to happen? You know.
Look Who Showed Up
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church, December 24th, 2017
So, have you found it yet? I mean, we all came looking. And some of you go there early enough; I would have figured you would have looked under the chairs. Maybe it’s there, or behind the piano? Or maybe over by the bell table. The meaning of Christmas, have you found it? It’s here. Shall we talk about it?
I think we should because that’s what I prepared. We’ve bought our up-in-the-air lives, here. We’ve come looking for insight into the meaning of Christmas; the meaning of Christmas. Maybe we need to listen to Mary and Joseph because, for the last nine months, at least, their lives have been up-in-the-air too. And maybe that’s where we begin looking for the meaning of Christmas. Don’t rush to resolution. Let things come.
The sure thing, the pending engagement followed by age-old traditions… yes, not so much. Disrupted, at best. Mary said she had an angelic visit. Do we believe what a woman says about her own sexuality? That’s an age-old question.
Joseph had a hard time believing what she said. The rules about what should happen to women, who turn up pregnant outside of marriage, were very clear. And they’re a lot clearer when it doesn’t affect someone you know; much easier to be absolute in your rightness when you have no skin in the game. It’s easy to be judgmental when you don’t know anybody that it’s affecting.
But then, Joseph has dreams of angels too. And his heart found a way. That’s always how it happens.
Well, today is the day, the wait is over. The preparations have been made. We know the carols, we know the readings, and we know the whole story so well we can tell it by heart: the star, the shepherds, the angel, the wise-men, the baby. Maybe that’s where we should look for the meaning of Christmas. About that baby… Glowing, right, a glowing baby. Kind of giving off light. Wrapped in incandescent flannel. Available from Abercrombie and Fitch. With a silk banner over his head that reads: joy to the world, peace on earth, good will toward men. That’s the biblical image, right? Well, no. No, it’s not.
Do yourself a favor, reach into that Christmas card Jesus that I just described, and pick up that baby. This is the one from the bible. Examine his little fingernails. Notice how his head is a little misshapen and kind of bruised from his entry into the world. Count his toes, ten. Scrape a fleck of cow manure off his little cheek and say to yourself as you look at his head, there in the crook of your arm: this is God in my presence. This is what God has decided to look like. Smell Mary’s breath or smell Mary’s milk on his breath. Feel the damp warmth coming through the layers of swaddling clothes. And say it again: this is God’s presence in my arms.
Perplexing, to witness God, Almighty God, among us, unable to turn over from His belly to His back without help; utterly dependent on the kindness of His creatures. Sure, sure, we know the story by heart, we do, we know it should have meaning, and so we have added meaning to it, by putting it on Christmas cards and reads. But, what child is this? And what is God’s message for us tonight?
Well, the baby is, any baby is, in the best of worlds, evidence that a love affair has occurred. And that is certainly the case with this child. God has loved humanity since the moment She thought us up. But, the relationship has always kind of been a rocky one. In the beginning, God thought paradise would be enough. God gave us everything and hoped for the best but right away we wanted more, and we started blaming each other. And we wound up banished from the garden, ushered out by angels with flaming swords.
So, God said: all right, you need something a bit more concrete, let us make a covenant together, you and me, I will be your God, and you will be my people. You will be faithful to me; I will be faithful to you. But we weren’t.
We doubted God at every turn, and we protested that we did not know what God wanted from us. All right, God said, you need some guidance. Here’s ten commandments. It would please me for you to follow them. I will write them on rocks, so you do not lose them. And, by the way, they’re for your own good. If you keep these your life will be better.
But, we broke those commandments in more ways than one. And so, God took another step in our direction: let me simplify the covenant, God said. Love me in how you love your neighbor; just that. Don’t worry about the rocks. And I’m going to write this covenant on your heart, so it’s not hard to carry around.
But even that was not enough for us. We complained that it was too vague. And who is my neighbor, we wondered. And so, God narrowed it down and specified it to six specific things that God wanted from us, God’s way. Cease evil. Learn good. Seek justice. Help the oppressed. Seek justice for the orphan. And plead the case of the widow. Six things. We didn’t do well with those either. We complained that it cost something; got in the way of our power games and greed.
See, the history of our love affair with God, is the repeated story of our criticism of God and God’s forgiveness. And every time the distance between us, the distance we’ve put between us, has threatened to end the relationship, it is God who has stepped across the breach; taking on more and more of the burden of the relationship.
And tonight, through the Christ Child, God is saying: put the old covenant on hold. I have a new covenant in mind. I’m going to dwell among you as a servant. I’m going to demonstrate my way in your world. Do what I do.
And so, Isaiah says: to us a child is born. To us a son is given. And the government shall be on His shoulders. Government on His shoulders? Wait a minute, we’ve got to take a little detour, what does that mean? He’s simply bringing the new kingdom. He’s a new king, bringing a new kingdom. Not a kingdom of this world, with borders, and armies, and budgets. Any time that you practice God’s way, you’re living into the kingdom of God. It’s always there; it’s always pending when you live God’s way, those six things: cease evil; learn good; seek justice; help the oppressed; seek justice for the orphan; and plead the case of the widow. You’re leaning into God’s kingdom. That’s what that government talk means.
And He will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God. Everlasting Father. And it just occurred to me what that means. He’s the one, you want to sit on His lap and have Him hold you. And we will call Him the Prince of Peace.
God says: I am so crazy in love with you that I will come all the way to where you are. I will be flesh of your flesh. I will be bone of your bone. I will be people like you. I will show you my way. All you have to do is imitate me. I love you enough to become one of you. I love you to death.
Now, I hear this, I contemplate it for a while, and I can’t get past this response: have you met us? Do you understand how creative we are, how gifted we can be at being difficult; at finding an excuse? Have you met us? I mean, God is scandalous here. Where is God’s majesty? Where is God’s dignity? What makes God believe we’re going to respect God after He lays Himself bare and vulnerable like that – He’s shameless. Willing to reduce Himself to vulnerable in diapers, if it will help Him love… help us love Him, the way He loves us.
This is the mystery we came here to ponder as we search for Christmas and the meaning of Christmas; this mystery of an incarnation; the mystery of a God so in love with us, that He came to be one of us. We say: well, that’s silly. But we’re drawn here year after year. It’s something we know so well that we are apt to forget that we don’t understand it at all.
If we did, we’d probably behave a lot more like Megan, a five-year-old, who wound up her own telling of the Christmas story, by asking her listeners: and then the baby was borned. And do you know who he was? The baby was God, she whispered. And then she leaped into the air and she twirled around twice, and threw herself onto the couch. Which is, I think, the only proper response to the good news of God coming among us?
He could have come among us as some monstrous celestial being, or a mighty emperor, with magical powers. Or in some form clearly superior to ours; invulnerable to us. He would have been easier to recognize that way, and we could have kept our distance. But, God chose to come among us as a child, weighing about the same weight as a sack of flour; among simple peasant folk, too. God chose the lowest common denominator; left us no escape from His presence. That’s the message of the shepherds, they’re the lowest, and they’re the ones who are invited. Nobody is standing at the door to keep you out.
I think that’s why it’s so important as we search for the meaning, as we find the meaning of Christmas. To be led to the real child. To ponder that what Mary and Joseph got, was not a Hallmark baby, but a belching, barfing, pooping, squalling, infant who kept them up nights for months; human among us.
Now twirl, and twist, and dive for the couch. Things that cannot be have come to pass this night. God has come among us as a child. Will you imitate Him? Will you follow Him? Will you let Him lead you? That, my friends, is the meaning of Christmas.
Searching for a Biblical Christmas – A New Life 7/8
Pastor Jonathan Arnpriester, Chandler United Methodist Church
December 17th, 2017
Matthew 1, 18:25
I don’t have words enough; I’m going to use the word, blessed. It’s a blessing that we have a choir who encompass and include in one group young teenagers all the way to senior adults whose primary task is to be a small group with one another and if you ask any of them how’s the choir they can tell you how each other are. But they also bring the word, and not just any word, and I am so grateful and I think we are blessed that they bring the Word. Because I’m going to tell you, I have a thing, I don’t like most Christmas music, most of it. It’s part of how I define hell.
We went out to put up the Christmas lights, and it was a lot of fun, you put the ladder on the house and somebody goes up the ladder and hangs lights and comes back down. And the neighbors across the road, they’re really nice people, they moved in a couple of years ago, we enjoy their company, they’re really great neighbors. But they came out to decorate their house at the same time and they brought a stereo system and they put on 99.9 KESZ, which has been blaring Christmas carols since, what now, the third week of October 24/7. And so, we tuned in and they turned it up, it seemed to be in a loop that played all of the Christmas songs that I don’t care for.
Home for the Holidays by the Carpenters, We Need a Little Christmas Now by the New Christi Minstrels, Burl Ives singing Holly Jolly Christmas, Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer by Gene Autrey, Santa Clause Coming To Town by Frank Sinatra, Winter Wonderland by Johnny Mathis, Rocking Around the Christmas Tree by Brenda Lee, Santa Baby by Eartha Kitt, Let it Snow, Let it Snow by Dean Martin, and Andy Williams rounded out the hour with, It’s The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. In this loop that played over and over, and it seemed like the longer it went on the louder it got and the more frustrated I got, and there’s marks against the house from where I put the ladder on it. It’s okay, anger management is going well, it’s all good.
That is Christmas if you are white, middle class, middle-aged, and it’s hell for any one stuck. That’s what hell is to me, is to be stuck in a situation you can’t get out of. But you’re here today perhaps because your soul longs for a deeper meaning to Christmas, and while you might enjoy the secular tunes for a while, you came here because you wanted to hear a word of depth, and our choir delivered. We’re in a series of sermons and we’ve been looking at the Old Testament preparations for Christmas, what had led to the birth of Jesus. What’s going on, what is the meaning of Christmas from the biblical perspective?
And we discovered that people and kings have the best intentions at first when they make their commitments but ego and greed and power and competition and thriving and wanting it better for our kids slips in. And there’s this other thing that happens, and it’s, kind of, inevitable, it seems folks just do this. There’s a re-writing of scripture where the focus shifts to belief and doctrine, as if God’s primary interest is in what you believe. And simultaneously what gets written out of scripture is the importance of how you act and what you do.
And it seems to be this repetitive cycle among nations, an inevitable descent in the biblical nation. We cannot save ourselves from this cycle is the message of scripture. Fortunately we’ve discovered at the same time that God takes an interest in human history and that God has become frustrated by humans acting in ways that are entirely human, which stands counter to God’s. Remember God’s way? Cease evil, learn good, seek justice, help oppressed, justice for the orphan and plead the case of the widow. Humans following human way are like sheep that have gone astray, each of us on your own path. There’s a cycle to this, it seems to repeat, and hell is being stuck and not being able to get out.
Fortunately God has now the intention of becoming invested; God is mounting an intervention by sending a servant to live out God’s way, a demonstration to humanity of living a way of life that can save us from our own make of destruction. And that, my friends, is the meaning of Christmas.
If you ask the Old Testament, God is sending a servant to demonstrate for us God’s way. And I know that you know this. You do understand, that’s nothing new, that this is the message of historic Christianity. It’s not the message of fundamentalist Christianity, nor is it the message of our cultural religion, they both have their own message that they’ve put into Christmas. But the biblical message, Old Testament, is that God is sending a servant to show us God’s way lived out. We’ve discovered as we explored the Old Testament, two thirds of the Old Testament, the major theme of the Old Testament.
There’s some words that we got defined for us, words that we thought we knew, like, belief. Do you believe in God? Well, believe, means what’s important to God becomes important to me, that’s what, believe in God, means. Faith, we learned, means acting on what we believe, even when it costs us something. And discipleship is simply our practice of imitating the one in whom we believe. And now today we’ve stumbled, we didn’t know it, but we stumbled across one more word, spirituality. It’s Joseph’s spirituality, it is the spirit of Christmas. The word for spirit in the Old Testament Hebrew is Ruach. It’s a word that presently is not Ruach but spirituality.
A lot of people use that word. It’s used so much and it’s been given so much meaning that it really doesn’t mean anything to us. But it sure did have a lot of meaning to Isaiah. In Hebrew, spirituality and to Isaiah, spirituality, rucha, meant breath, as in, where do you draw your breath. And Isaiah in the Old Testament Hebrew is recalling that creation story from Genesis, where God forms Adam from dust and breaths breathe into his nostrils, breaths into him the breath of life, and he became, Adam became a living soul. And so, spirituality, any time you use that word in the Old Testament, there’s an underlying question about, how do you live your life as a reflection of the one who gave that life to you?
Are you a living soul? That’s what gives Ezekiel and his reference to the valley of dry bones such power. The reference for Ezekiel is people who have lost their connection in how they live their life to the breath of life. They’ve lost that connection and they are on the verge of dust, they are dry. In the Old Testament there are a couple of metaphors or images that get attached to spirituality. Hebrew spirituality says that where you draw your breath will determine your path, your way, the way that you walk, the way that you act, the way that you talk. Your path must reflect your maker or you go without breath.
The Old Testament authors also recognize that drawing breath is just as important as drawing water, and without either of them you die. And so, water and breath become close, walking the path, and there are numerous references in the Old Testament to drying up. So the Old Testament means, the spirituality means: breath and breathing, and we have two images. Number one, the path that you follow, what you do, how you act, as a reflection of your relationship with the one who gave you breath; and the absolute necessity of breath, seen in our relationship with water, as a sign of life in us.
We will see these two metaphors, these two images in Jesus fairly quickly. Jesus will submit to the importance of water in his baptism, the part of the message, there is a statement that makes about where he draws his breath. This is Hebrew spirituality. And as to walking and the way, the path of life, Jesus says, follow me, I am the way. Our text today is about Joseph’s spirituality, Hebrew spirituality. It begins with Joseph receiving news he does not expect. And just to settle, God always gives us more than we can handle, always. There, I don’t know anybody that says, God never gives you more than handle, than you can handle, has no interaction with God.
Joseph’s spiritual understanding tells him that she, Mary, is in the wrong and that the proper path for him to follow is away from this woman and that child, albeit quietly because he’s decent. The angel then appears to Joseph and says, this is God’s way for you, this woman and this child, this is your breath, and this is your way, your path.
It’s Joseph’s call to action. Take this woman as your wife; raise the child as your own son. And it’s what Joseph will do. And now each of us must ponder our own spirituality, the spirit of Christmas. That way by which we are living souls, our path reflecting our relationship with the one who gave us breath, and each of us waiting for our next call to action. That, my friends, is the meaning of Christmas if you ask the New Testament.
And I think those two meanings of Christmas, the Old Testament about God who’s sending a servant to show us God’s way. And we are now waiting for God‘s call to action to come to us. I think the choir got it right. We make it into a song and we let it enter our head and it’s the right song and it proclaims the right gospel. I think the gospel is worth singing about (singing).
Silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given,
so God imparts to human hearts the blessings of his heaven.
No ear may hear his coming, but in this world of sin,
where meek souls will receive him still
the dear Christ enters in.